Elementary mind minding, enactivist-style

Daniel Hutto

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The core claim of this paper is that mind minding of the sort required for the simplest and most pervasive forms of joint attentional activity is best understood and explained in non-representational, enactivist terms. In what follows I will attempt to convince the reader of its truth in three steps.
The first step, section two, clarifies the target explanandum. Joint attentional activity comes in a variety of forms. Undeniably some require quite sophisticated mind minding capacities. There is no doubt that in many cases it would not be possible to attend to other minds if we did not bring our full-fledged folk psychological skills to bear. But it is far from obvious that all, or even the most common, forms of joint attention require this. For example, the ways in which pre-verbal infants initially begin to triangulate and engage with adults around the time of their first birthday arguably do not. This seems equally true of the ways in which adult humans jointly attend to, and engage with, other minds in many cases of on-line, fast and efficient social interaction. If so, joint attentional activity of a sort involving folk psychological skills will need to be explained by mention of abilities that are additional to and distinct from those of the sort of focal interest in this paper. A brief consideration of different instances of joint attention enables us to isolate the target phenomenon of interest – i.e. elementary forms of mind minding. With reference to the fast growing literature relating to this topic, the main explanatory options worth considering are distinguished and an unwelcome and unwarranted tendency to foreclose on these options on a priori grounds is revealed.
The second step, section three, is wholly descriptive. It highlights the core features of a Radically Enactivist proposal about elementary mind minding, revealing it to be at least a possible explanans. Its distinctive feature is its thorough-going non-representationalism. Yet it can be difficult for those attracted to standard cognitivist offerings even to understand what is being proposed by enactivists, I adopt a special method for setting out my stall. It will be shown how a Radical Enactivist account of elementary mind minding is coherently derived by abandoning three representationalist commitments of existing cognitivist models of what might explain basic mind minding. The rejected commitments are expressed in stronger and weaker ways by Full and more Minimal Theories of Mind. Apart from serving perspicuously to articulate the main features of the Radical Enactivist alternative, this maneuver has the virtue of showing precisely where the latter sits in the logical geography of existing and developing options – i.e. as a sort of non-representationalist limit case. Nevertheless, the main aim of this exercise is to establish only that the Radical Enactivist position is an intelligible, live option. It cannot be dismissed out of hand precisely because it can be understood as making certain well-motivated adjustments to existing cognitivist proposals.
The final step is to consider the comparative virtues of the contending proposals; section four. The exercise is to decide which of the possible explanations is best. Various evidential appeals and theoretical considerations that might aid us in this choice are reviewed. The conclusion is that the scales would be tipped in favour of the Radical Enactivist option, decisively, if it should turn out that there is (1) no reason to believe that basic forms of mentality are representational (in a semantically contentful way) and (2) if no good theory is likely to explain how they could be so. But, rather than attempting to prove these claims here or to show that no future theory ever could provide the relevant account, I suggest that the existing attempts to provide a theory of content provide the basis for a non-representationalist account of the relevant capacities described in section three. To see this we must adjust our ambitions appropriately. Our best naturalistic theories of content may well fail in their stated aims but it is plausible that they do provide us with a viable non-contentful theory of basic mentality. And this is all that we need for understanding basic forms of intentional (with a ‘t’) mentality and what it takes to attend to basic cases of mind minding.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJoint attention
Subtitle of host publicationNew developments in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience
EditorsAxel Seemann
Place of PublicationCambridge, MA
PublisherMIT Press
ISBN (Print)978-0-262-01682-7
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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