Action Understanding in Infancy: Do Infant Interpreters Attribute Enduring Mental States or Track Relational Properties of Transient Bouts of Behavior?
We address recent interpretations of infant performance on spontaneous false belief tasks. According to most views, these experiments show that human infants attribute mental states from a very young age. Focusing on one of the most clearly worked out, minimalist versions of this idea, Butterfill and Apperly's (2013) "minimal theory of mind" framework, we defend an alternative characterization: the minimal theory of rational agency. On this view, rather than conceiving of social situations in terms of states of an enduring mental substance animating agents, infant interpreters parse observed bouts of behavior and their contexts into goals, rational means to those goals, and available information. In other words, the social ontology of infant interpreters consists in goal-directed, (mis- or un-) informed bouts of behavior, by non-enduring agents, rather than agents animated by states of enduring, unobservable minds. We discuss a number of experiments that support this interpretation of infant socio-cognitive competence.
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