Knowledge and Representation of Human Beings

by Albert Newen

How do we understand other human beings? For decades we had an intense debate between Theory-Theory and Simulation-Theory which stands in the background of the presentation. The most important progress during the last few years was made by Goldman’s recent detailed presentation of his Simulation Theory (Goldman 2006) and by Gallagher (2008) who argues for a revival of the phenomenological thesis that we directly perceive mental states of others. The aim of the presentation is to criticize both proposals and argue for a new theoretical approach to account for our understanding of other minds: the person model theory.

I suggest that we develop ‘person models’ of ourselves, of other individuals and of groups of persons. These person models are constructed on the basis of perceiving human beings and their activities. The person models are the basis for the registration and evaluation of persons having mental as well as physical properties. Since there are two ways of understanding other minds (non-conceptual and conceptual mindreading), we propose that there are two kinds of person models: Very early in life we develop non-conceptual person schemata: A person schema is a system of sensory-motor abilities and basic mental dispositions related to one human being while the schema functions without awareness and is realized by (relatively) modular information processes. Step by step we also develop person images: A person image is a system of consciously registered mental and physical dispositions as well as situational experiences (like perceptions, emotions, attitudes, etc.) related to one human being. Person models are created for other people but also for myself. A person schema is sufficient to allow newborn babies to distinguish persons from inanimate objects, manifested in neonate imitation, which is also sufficient for seven month old babies to separate persons from animals (Pauen 2000). Furthermore, we notice a non-conceptual understanding of other minds by unconsciously registering someone’s position of her head as signalling sympathy. Those registrations are part of a situational person schema which influences our interaction even though we are not consciously aware of these features. On the basis of such non-conceptual person schemata, young children learn to develop conceptual person images. These are models of individual subjects which may include names, descriptions, stories and whole biographies involving both mental and physical dispositions as well as manifestations. Person images are essentially developed not only by observations but also by telling, exchanging and creating stories (or ‘narratives’).

Person schemata are closely related with basic perceptual processes. Therefore, I adopt Gallagher’s view that we can sometimes just directly perceive mental phenomena, but take it to be true only for basic mental phenomena. Person images presuppose higher-order cognitive processes including conceptual and propositional representations, underlying a conscious evaluation of the observations. Here our background knowledge plays an important role. It can be shown in detail that this view does not run into the problems of the alternative views. Furthermore, on the basis of this framework I can especially investigate the question of top-down influences on basic person perception: How do person images influence situational person schemata?

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