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Social Cognition

Reading Group - A.A. 2016-2017 - I-II Semester

Title: Social Cognition

Convener: Dr. Anika Fiebich

Contact: anikafiebich@gmail.com

Description: In this reading group, we will read literature on social understanding, i.e. theories of how we understand other people's minds and behaviours and what the cognitive processes are that underlie such understanding. In particular, we will discuss Tadeusz Zawidski's novel account of social cognition that he has proposed recently in his book "Mindshaping" and that challenges the traditional theories in various ways. Before starting with reading that book, we will have a couple of introductory sessions to the contemporary debate of social understanding.

In this novel account of distinctively human social cognition, Tadeusz Zawidzki argues that the key distinction between human and nonhuman social cognition consists in our complex, diverse, and flexible capacities to shape each other's minds in ways that make them easier to interpret. Zawidzki proposes that such "mindshaping" -- which takes the form of capacities and practices such as sophisticated imitation, pedagogy, conformity to norms, and narrative self-constitution -- is the most important component of human social cognition. Without it, he argues, none of the other components of what he terms the "human sociocognitive syndrome," including sophisticated language, cooperation, and sophisticated "mindreading," would be possible.

Challenging the dominant view that sophisticated mindreading -- especially propositional attitude attribution -- is the key evolutionary innovation behind distinctively human social cognition, Zawidzki contends that the capacity to attribute such mental states depends on the evolution of mindshaping practices. Propositional attitude attribution, he argues, is likely to be unreliable unless most of us are shaped to have similar kinds of propositional attitudes in similar circumstances. Motivations to mindshape, selected to make sophisticated cooperation possible, combine with low-level mindreading abilities that we share with nonhuman species to make it easier for humans to interpret and anticipate each other's behavior. Eventually, this led, in human prehistory, to the capacity to attribute full-blown propositional attitudes accurately -- a capacity that is parasitic, in phylogeny and today, on prior capacities to shape minds. Bringing together findings from developmental psychology, comparative psychology, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy of psychology, Zawidzki offers a strikingly original framework for understanding human social cognition.

There are two main camps in the debate on social cognition: Theory Theory (TT) and Simulation Theory (ST). According to TT, we understand other minds by emplyoing a folk psychological theory containing laws about how mental states interrelate and motivate agents to act. ST, in contrast, claims that we put ourselves imaginatively 'into the shoes' of another person and simulate the thoughts and feelings we would experience in his or her situation. Both camps share the assumption that mental states are 'hidden' and not directly observable - this assumption has been challenged by phenomenlogical approaches to social cognition. 

There will be introductory sessions in which we discuss literature on TT, ST and phenomenological alternatives before the christmas holidays. This is useful to fully understand the innovative and challenging assumptions that Zawidski makes in that debate. After the holidays, we will start reading Zawidski's book, either fully or mostly. At the end, we will discuss pluralist theories of social understanding as another alternative to the traditional theories that argue that rather than there being a default procedure of social understanding (e.g., theory, or simulation), social understanding in everyday life relies on a variety of processes and procedures, dependent on cognitive effort and context. 

The reading group will meet bi-weekly for 2 full hours. Once the group is ready, a doodle calendar will be made to find a date for all interested people. If you would like to join the group, please email anika.fiebich@unimi.it

11 November 2016
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