Not a single story about intersubjectivity

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of a single story (see also the video below).[i] If all you ever heard about Africa concerned poverty, want and misery, how could you imagine there to be creative, witty, educated and self-assured Africans with something to say? Perhaps it would even be hard to imagine that Africa is not a country but a continent, with enormous diversity inside it, reflected in its landscapes, its people and peoples, its cultures, its foods, its heritages and customs, its governments.

“The danger of stereotypes is not that they are not true but that they are incomplete,” says Adichie. Her talk is life-inspiring, and her message reminds us to keep being curious about the phenomena we encounter, to never stop wondering about the people we meet.

The message Vasu Reddy conveys in her book How Infants Know Minds (Harvard University Press, 2008) stands out like that, and I have no doubt that it will keep doing so. Her story is non-traditional, it is refreshing, written with conviction, to be read with delight, and it is needed. In the same way that Adichie makes us aware of a different story about Africa, Reddy turns on its head the conventional tale of the machinery behind early childhood sociality.

Our social capacities, at least if we believe most of current cognitive science and developmental psychology today, come from our behaving much like scientists when we encounter others. Upon meeting someone, on this account, we analyse their outward behaviour. This is the only thing to go on, since intentions and emotions are deemed invisible, internal and fixed. Notwithstanding this, intentions and emotions are considered the holy grail of understanding another. We, apparently, take what we perceive of another’s behaviour, then check inside ourselves with the help of our theory-of-mind or simulation mechanism to draw conclusions about their inner life. Eventually we may act upon these conclusions with some outward behaviour of our own. On such a view, infants are not social yet. They couldn’t be, because they do not have the sophisticated mechanisms needed for being social, like those supposedly underlying inferencing or simulating.

Not so for Reddy. She opens our eyes to the dangers of the prevalence of individualism, mind-body dualism and closet behaviourism in studies of infant social capacities, and indeed in social cognition across the lifespan. In its stead, she places engagement. Reddy prefers to talk about intersubjectivity rather than of social cognition. Intersubjectivity is “the engagement between subjectivities” (p. 23). The word conjures up three unorthodox emphases: on the subject, on the inter-, and on experience. Reddy is convinced that infants know minds, and that they do so by engaging with them.

Her appeal for a second-person, engaged, intersubjective science of the social life of infants makes for an interesting possibility to deal with the problems of the hidden and the inner.[ii] “Whenever others are perceived . . . especially within engagement,” she says, “there is an emotional link between people. This link cannot but be part of that which is known. Within engagement, I know you in a way that I do not know you when I am merely watching you” (p. 30). Engaging with someone is knowing them in a certain way. Engaging with someone is also constituting that person. The one you engage with is a specific person, not a general other. Thus, the problematic hidden and inner dissolve in favour of a co-constitution of minds in a mutual encounter. This makes all the difference when it comes to understanding children’s developing sociality.

As a case in point, let us take a look at Reddy’s account of imitation. She suggests that in order to understand how infants imitate, we have to first ask the question of why they do so. Reddy urges us not to let the similarity between the acts blind us to the context in which neonates imitate, namely in heavily communicative settings. Infants, in Reddy’s eyes, imitate as part of engagement and communication. Thus, they respond to an other in the first place. The emphasis therefore should be not on similarity, but on relevance.

As to the question of how infants imitate, Reddy refers to recent mirror neuron research, though not with enough criticism in my view. She wants to abolish the idea of a gap between mind and behaviour and between self and other, but I am not convinced by simply laying down a bridge in the brain – and I don’t think she really is either. If her own story is drawn to its logical conclusions, it can never happen only through neuronal matching. Instead, interpersonal engagement itself must be crucial to the phenomenon of neonate imitation.

“What we need,” she says, “is a theory of self-other relevance. Relevance as a concept demands an explanation of meaningfulness and appropriateness rather than just similarity, and in doing so, immediately opens the door to explanations that ask and answer questions of motivation” (p. 59). Here is where Reddy can perhaps align herself with a school of thought that she does not explicitly acknowledge here, but which, in my view, comes closest to her ideas. This is enaction, with its view on cognition as sense-making, i.e. as an activity deeply grounded in the needs, history and organisation of the cogniser,[iii] and its emphasis on investigating the interaction between cogniser and world, in which both co-constitute each other, especially in social situations.[iv]

Any scientific story, but especially a non-mainstream one, needs to convince, and a decisive element in whether it can do so is its methodology. How do you go about testing the hypotheses generated by the shift in perspective that Reddy stands for? About the non-conventional methods that are needed she herself asks: “Can psychology develop an experimental method that comes from within the knowledge it gains in engagement with its participants?” (p. 36). This is a question for which enaction may prove a helpful companion in finding an answer, since it emphasises experience as both part of the phenomena and of the toolkit of cognitive science.[v]

Reddy tells the story of engagement in infancy through situations of laughing together, of teasing, of imitation, of experiencing attention, of feeling self-conscious, of communicative deception. She examines and argues for these phenomena by a combination of experiment, qualitative methods, and reasoned argumentation. But a sense remains that the quest for the right method is still on.

Another decisive element is definition. The book is full of engagement, but there is no definition of it, and this is a pity. As a reader, you are given a feel for engagement, but no definition as such. Reddy circumscribes an area, and probes what happens inside it. The absence of a strict definition – or of the perfect methodology – at this point may not be such a big problem. Sometimes the openness and curiosity that accompany exploration are the best way to make progress. But the hope is that this eventually leads to proposals for defining engagement. A definition would be particularly helpful for making this area of research also tangible, verifiable, falsifiable for those investigators who are critical of what Reddy proposes. They, I imagine, may be more quickly convinced by more concrete and clear terms for approaching the phenomenon head-on. This should, at least in principle, be independent of whether one initially agrees with the overall stance or not, in order to serve for testing hypotheses. Not that Reddy doesn’t propose and test hypotheses, she certainly does, but they are not yet framed in such a way that the topic can be approached easily by others who are not primarily of her opinion about what the phenomena are. Reddy breaks into a new domain, with new problems and new phenomena to study, and a definition and/or operationalisation would serve the cause of the engagement-idea.

Perhaps though, that is part of Reddy’s message: Can you define in such a way a concept that involves the scientist herself?

To argue for her ideas, Reddy uses a mixture of anecdote, argumentation, criticism, and experimental findings. This in itself gives internal diversity to the story she has to tell. But not only in the way it is written and the work is done is this story multiple; it also is manifold in its message. It opens up new ways of questioning and researching sociality, some already started by Reddy and her colleagues, and some out there to be grasped and done. So even if from a certain point of view Reddy’s is also a single story, it manages at the same time to convey and open up a multitude.

A more subtle analogy with Adichie’s appeal is that Reddy calls for seeing infants as not in some way impoverished adults, just like Africans should not be seen as impoverished humans. Infants are as social as Africans are human. And for both, development may best get to work with a level of un-underestimated capability.

Finally, Reddy is aware that she is telling a different story. More even, she makes a point of doing so. Like Adichie’s story, Reddy’s also has a meta-message. And it is not that far away from Adichie’s in spirit. Where Adichie says that we should take care to open up and view people, places and events from a number of different perspectives in order to get the richest possible understanding, Reddy strives against academic detachment in the study of sociality, and for a participative, open approach to interactions in science – and in life in general.

Reference: De Jaegher, H. (2009) “Not a single story about intersubjectivity. Review of Vasu Reddy’s How Infants Know Minds.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 17(1-2), 240-244

Hanne De Jaegher, Dept. of Psychiatry, University of Heidelberg

[i] Chimamanda Adichie, The danger of a single story, talk on, accessed 24 October 2009.

[ii] Torrance, S. (2009). Contesting the concept of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16(5), 111-126.

[iii] Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (6th ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind: Harvard University Press

[iv] Thompson, E. (2001). Empathy and Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(5-7), 1-32; De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. (2007). Participatory Sense-Making: An enactive approach to social cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(4), 485-507.

[v] Thompson 2001, op. cit.; Di Paolo, E., Rohde, M., & De Jaegher, H. (Forthcoming). Horizons for the enactive mind: Values, social interaction, and play. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne & E. Di Paolo (Eds.), Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.