Do neonates display innate self-awareness? Why neonatal imitation fails to provide sufficient grounds for innate self-and other-awareness

Philosophical Psychology 19 (2):221-238 (2006)
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Until the 1970s, models of early infancy tended to depict the young child as internally preoccupied and incapable of processing visual-tactile data from the external world. Meltzoff and Moore's groundbreaking studies of neonatal imitation disprove this characterization of early life: They suggest that the infant is cognizant of its external environment and is able to control its own body. Taking up these experiments, theorists argue that neonatal imitation provides an empirical justification for the existence of an innate ability to engage in social communication. Since later imitation is taken as a benchmark for self- and other-awareness, theorists claim that a proto- or primitive self must exist in the infant. This paper takes up the issue of whether or not neonatal imitation does provide us with a ground to argue against developmental accounts that consider self-awareness to be a later acquisition. I argue that the enthusiasm over neonatal imitation is premature. Psychological studies that claim to prove neonatal imitation do not provide sufficient grounds for dismissing alternate philosophical and psychological theories about the self as being a post-birth "event" rather than an intrinsic condition. Therefore, I argue that there is no compelling reason to suppose that we come to the world with a primitive sense of self- or other-awareness.



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Talia Welsh
University of Tennessee, Chattanooga