Tyler Burge claims in a recent high-profile publication that none of the existing evidence for mental-state attribution by children prior to the age of four or five really supports such a conclusion; and he makes this claim, not just for beliefs, but for mental states of all sorts. In its place, he offers an explanatory framework according to which infants and young children attribute mere information-registering states and teleologically-characterized motivational states, which are said to lack the defining properties of the mental. I argue that Burge’s claims are poorly motivated and irrelevant to the goals of developmental psychology.
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All references to Burge are to this paper unless otherwise noted.
It is generic because it contains our adult mentalistic action-explanation scheme as a special case, or species. The two schemes can be structurally identical, but only the mentalizing one employs a (full-blown or mentalistic) notion of representation, Burge thinks.
For a review of the many and varied ways in which infants and young children can display sensitivity to the mental states of others—albeit not representing them as mental, if Burge is correct—see Baillargeon et al. (2016). For a review, more specifically, of the many ways in which infants and toddlers can display sensitivity to the false beliefs of others—albeit not representing them as beliefs, if Burge is right—see Scott and Baillargeon (2017). Note that Burge himself doesn’t challenge the reliability of these data, and says nothing about alleged problems of replication. His challenge is to their interpretation. I will return to this point in footnote #9. For discussion of the data collected with somewhat older children, see Wellman (2014).
Although the necessity described here is a disjunction, in fact almost all of Burge’s focus in the paper is on the representation clause. This is because the developmental data mostly concern representational states like perceptions and beliefs. I will follow him in this.
Even those who defend representationalism about the mind in general, for example (Tye 1995, 2000; Seager and Bourget 2007)—and who thus claim that all mental states (including moods and bodily feelings) are representational ones—do so not as part of a conceptual analysis of the concept mental, nor as part of an explication of the folk conception of the mind. Rather, they advance their claim as part of their naturalizing project, attempting to reductively explain phenomenal consciousness in representational and functional terms.
Seen in this light, it isn’t clear that phenomenal consciousness would figure in the folk-definition of mentality at all. For it is a term of philosophical art. The distinction between phenomenal (or “what-it-is-like”) mental states and others is pretty much invisible from the perspective of common-sense psychology. Agents can be conscious as opposed to asleep, of course; and likewise the folk make use of the notion of an agent being conscious of some thing or event, meaning that the agent perceives it. But neither of these is the same as phenomenal consciousness, which is thought by philosophers to be an introspectively-accessible—and especially puzzling—property that some mental states possess.
Note that although common sense is mentioned here, it plays no further role in Burge’s argument. Or rather, the role that is does play is to provide a contrast with the sorts of representations that he thinks are the signature of true mentality. For example, on p.414 he writes: “As far as current evidence has shown, an infant’s representation is like the common-sense attribution of generic agency to a snail in being silent about whether the agent has a mind.”
In the course of building their models of aboutness philosophers often employ concepts like possible world, or even proposition, that the folk may lack. But this is, arguably, to enable a rigorous treatment of people’s intuitions when employing ordinary concepts like meaning and sameness of meaning.
Although there are now well over 30 studies that provide evidence of false-belief understanding in infants and young children, using a variety of materials and methods, and coming out of a number of different labs (Scott and Baillargeon 2017), there have recently been some failures to replicate individual findings (for examples: Dörrenberg et al. 2018; Kammermeier and Paulus 2018). But Baillargeon et al. (2018) point out the methodological weaknesses of many of these attempted replications, while also acknowledging that some methods (specifically anticipatory looking) might not be reliable. And in the meantime, new studies both replicating and extending previous findings continue to be published (Király et al. 2018). Moreover, Burge himself doesn’t challenge the reliability of the data; his challenge is to its interpretation, and that is my own primary focus here too.
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I am grateful to Pierre Jacob, Evan Westra, and two anonymous referees for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.
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