Understanding Other People (Or Not)

I am attending a conference this week, indeed I am there now, so this is the nearest I’ve got yet to whatever Live Blogging is. It’s about renaissance literature and ‘theory of mind’. It’s a rich topic and a great line-up, and I may report further. For now, though, I will mention something I noticed recently.
      Via the Human Mind Project website (https://humanmind.ac.uk/) I reached an interesting and related debate filmed by the Institute of Art and Ideas. The debate brings together a literary scholar (Robert Eaglestone), a philosopher (Anita Avramides), and a psychologist (Nicholas Humphrey), and the topic is our knowledge of other minds. Eaglestone piles in counter-intuitively, saying that literature is about not understanding other minds — indeed, we have literature because we don’t understand other minds — and likewise we have ethics and politics and conversations because we don’t know what other people are thinking.
      Nicholas Humphrey says the opposite: we have to give credit to the impressive ‘heuristic tools’ our minds exercise in their efforts to know what others are thinking. Anita Avramides also wants to give credit to our social thinking, warning against solipsistic introspection, and proposing that we should start our study of the human with behaviour and interaction, rather than with the interior world. They are divided by the different things that could be meant by ‘understanding’ others, ‘knowing’ others, and the things we do with people’s minds that aren’t knowing them. They have different ideas as to what should be the threshold for deciding that it’s worth calling it ‘knowledge’.
      I enjoyed this IAI debate too: ‘The Edge of Reason‘. Another case where the interaction between different intellectual perspectives outweighs the problem of terms: it’s not always clear they are talking about the same thing, but that’s how some of the thought-provoking suggestions arise.

* Joel Robbins, ‘On Not Knowing Other Minds: Confession, Intention, and Linguistic Exchange in a Papua New Guinea Community’, Anthropological Quarterly, 81 (2008), 421-429.

This is one of the items on the conference reading list, and I found it intriguing. Many of the observations made in cognitive science are implicitly or explicitly species-level: it is taken for granted sometimes that findings in a population of university students in the USA or Finland or wherever apply to all of us. Anthropologists have a different expectation and a different focus for their attention.
      Robbins tells us that in some cultures it is widely agreed that knowing other minds is impossible. Among Melanesians this is related to speech: it is a commentary on the inability of language to convey innermost thoughts. He is arguing partly against those who say that even cultures full of ‘opacity statements’ are making assumptions about speakers’ intentions. Robbins says that in non-Western cultures intentions may be far from crucial to the meaning of speech. For example, there is a correlation between an insistence on opacity, and a lack of (or great difference in) concepts of lying, or thanking, where intentions and meaning are most entwined.
      A large part of the article is based on an absolutely fascinating discussion of the consequences when people brought up in an ‘opacity’ environment convert to Christianity, and thus find themselves in a culture where sincerity is often at issue. I don’t think this turns back necessarily or directly on the idea that mind-reading capacities are universally human, but it’s an interesting angle on a whole range of issues.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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