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14 Teleology and Causal Understanding in Children’s Theory of Mind Josef Perner and Johannes Roessler In “The Emergence of Thought,” Donald Davidson argues that while we have no difficulty in describing, on the one hand, mindless nature and, on the other, mature adult psychology, “what we lack is a way of describing what is in between.” He claims that there is a deep and “perhaps insuperable problem in giving a full description of the emergence of thought”; and he expresses relief at not working “in the field of developmental psychology” (Davidson 2001, 128). In this chapter we argue that Davidson was right about the depth and difficulty of the problems involved in describing the emergence of thought. But we think Davidson was unduly pessimistic about the prospect of making progress, empirical and philosophical , with these problems. Indeed we hope to show that describing the emergence of thought may help to shed light on the nature of thought. We should make it clear immediately that our concern here will not be with Davidson’s completely general problem, the “conceptual difficulty” he sees with the very idea of attributing beliefs and other propositional attitudes to immature thinkers. For the purposes of this chapter, we simply assume that such attributions can be literally correct. We will be concerned with a much more specific issue: the question of how young children understand intentional action. The problem is akin to Davidson’s, though, in that it involves a “conceptual difficulty.” According to current philosophical orthodoxy, to understand what it is to act intentionally one has to be able to find actions intelligible in terms of the agent’s reason for acting, the agent’s purpose in doing what he or she does. Call this the Reason claim, or R. Current orthodoxy also holds that reasons for action are provided, or constituted, by suitable pairs of beliefs and desires. Call this the Belief-Desire claim, or BD. (The classical source for both R and BD is Davidson’s [1963] paper “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.”) Put together, R and BD suggest that to see people as acting intentionally you have to think of them as acting on the basis of what they believe: understanding 200 J. Perner and J. Roessler intentional action requires a grasp of the explanatory role of beliefs. There is a large body of evidence to suggest that 2- and 3-year-olds do not satisfy this condition. On the other hand, there is also convincing evidence that 2- and 3-year-olds do have some grasp of what it is to act intentionally. Hence the “conceptual difficulty”: the hypothesis that children have some understanding of intentional action enjoys empirical support, yet it is hard to see how it can be sustained, given that children apparently lack a basic conceptual prerequisite for such understanding. In what follows we develop and defend the following diagnosis. What is to blame for our “conceptual difficulty” is a dogma of contemporary philosophy of mind, that reason-giving explanations of actions are explanations in terms of beliefs and desires. The suggestion we will pursue is that young children find actions intelligible in terms of reasons that are not conceived as mental states at all—but that can nevertheless intelligibly be taken to provide causal explanations. We’ll call this the teleological account of children’s conception of intentional action. We argue that the teleological account is of more than developmental interest. Its genealogy of commonsense psychology has an important bearing on the nature of the adult conception of intentional action. For, as Wittgenstein remarked: “the thing about progress is, it tends to look more momentous than it really is.”1 1 The Puzzle What evidence is there to suggest that young children have some understanding of intentional action? Some psychologists maintain that even toward the end of the first year, as infants begin to engage in joint attention interactions with others, they perceive and understand others’ actions as goal-directed (Tomasello 1999). Others have argued that such understanding manifests itself in 18-month-olds’ more sophisticated capacities for imitation of intended actions (Meltzoff 1995). Here we will focus on evidence provided by (slightly older) children’s performance on classical false-belief tasks. The question put to children in such tasks is what the protagonist in some story will do next. For example: Suppose Maxi’s mother transferred the chocolate Maxi put into the green kitchen cupboard to the blue cupboard while he is out playing. Maxi, feeling peckish...


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