Intersubjective engagements without theory of mind: a cross-species comparison



Publication Details

Hutto, D. (2013). Intersubjective engagements without theory of mind: a cross-species comparison. In A. Lanjouw and R. Corbey (Eds.), Apes and Humans: Rethinking the Species Interface (pp. 126-140). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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ISBN: 9781107032606


Although I feel for the plight of the great apes and other animals, my interest in the topic of this chapter is an outcome of curiosity-driven research that began with a quite different focus. My work on the nature of basic cognition and social cognition has its historical roots in questions and puzzles about beliefs, and related phenomena, such as whether involuntary believing is possible, and how self-deception is possible. Puzzles of this kind were the topic of my MPhil thesis. I was happily working on such questions in St Andrews, UK when I happened to attend a talk by Professor George Graham, a visiting fellow from the USA. He brought news of a new trend in academic thinking from across the water that questioned the very existence of beliefs – and threatened the very future of our everyday ways of making sense of another. Suddenly, I felt pressured to move from working on puzzles about belief to defending the very existence of beliefs. From that moment on, my research agenda was set. It inspired empirically informed philosophical investigations into the nature of animal minds (including ours) and how they interact with one another. This chapter is one of the fruits of those investigations.

In naturalistic settings, great apes exhibit impressive social intelligence. Despite this,experimental findings are equivocal about the extent to which they are aware of other minds.At the high level, there is only negative evidence that chimpanzees and orangutansunderstand the concept of belief, even when simplified non-verbal versions of the ‘locationchange’ false belief test are used (Call & Tomasello, 1999). More remarkably, even theevidence that they are aware of simpler mental states – such as seeing – is equivocal and‘decidedly mixed’ (Call & Tomasello 2005, p. 61). At best, there appear to be signaturelimits to simian capacities in this regard. In addition, there exists a range of proposals aboutwhat lies behind their particular form of social intelligence. Within the cognitivist camp,these range from positing a Naïve, Weak, or Minimal Theory of Mind (Bogdan 2009,Tomasello, Call and Hare 2003, Apperly and Butterfill 2009); Perceptual Mindreading(Bermúdez 2009); an Early Mindreading System (Nichols and Stich 2003); or a Theory of Behaviour (Povinelli and Vonk 2004).

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