Social Understanding in Fictional Contexts and the Question of Error Detection

Avant, Vol. XII, No. 1,
published under license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Joanna Klara Teske orcid-id
John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin

Arkadiusz Gut orcid-id
Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń

Received 29 December 2020; accepted 24 April 2021; published 16 September 2021.
Download full text

Abstract: The paper examines the possibility of using three theories of mindreading (social understanding) – Theory Theory, Simulation Theory and Interaction Theory – and, more precisely, the cognitive mechanisms each of them postulates to account for the reader’s understanding of fictional characters as well as their real authors. Interaction Theory, which explains social cognition in terms of direct, situated, both bodily and minded interactions of agents, might seem irrelevant in the situation from which one agent is, strictly speaking, absent and the other agent’s body does not seem involved. Yet the paper suggests that the interaction might take the form of the reader’s simulated, both minded and bodily, one-sided (pseudo)interaction with characters, possibly as one of the characters, and artefact-mediated inter-action with the real author. The paper suggests further that each theory can account for some error-detection mechanism which might help the reader to differentiate between correct and incorrect ascriptions of characters’ mental states and/or predictions of their next action and/or vicarious anticipations of the reader’s interactions with characters, thus improving the reader’s mindreading skills (social understanding). All these ideas are illustrated with analyses of the hypothetical reader’s mindreading response to passages taken from three works of fiction representing different conventions (mimetic and anti-mimetic, under- and over-representing mental experience, featuring many and few social interactions).

Keywords: social cognition; social understanding; narrative fiction; error detection; interaction theory


Apperly, I. A., Carroll, D. J., Samson, D., Humphreys, G. W., Qureshi, A., & Moffitt, G. (2010). Why are There Limits on Theory of Mind Use? Evidence from Adults’ Ability to Follow Instructions from an Ignorant Speaker. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63(6), 1201-1217.
Bickhard, M. H. (2009). The Interactivist Model. Synthese, 166(3), 547-591.
Bickhard, M. H. (2013). The Social Ontology of Persons. In J. I. M. Carpendale & U. Muller (Eds.), Social Interaction and the Development of Knowledge (pp. 111-132). New York: Psychology Press.
Birch, S. A. J., & Bloom, P. (2007). The Curse of Knowledge in Reasoning About False Beliefs. Psychological Science, 18(5), 382-386.
De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. A. (2007). Participatory Sense-Making: An Enactive Approach to Social Cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(4), 485-507.
De Jaegher, H., Di Paolo, E. A., & Gallagher, S. (2010). Can Social Interaction Constitute Social Cognition? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(10), 441-447.
Di Paolo, E. A., Cuffari, E. C., & De Jaegher, H. (2018). Linguistic Bodies. The Continuity Between Life and Language. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Dutton, D. (2009). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fiebich, A., Gallagher, S., & Hutto, D. (2017). Pluralism, Interaction and the Ontogeny of Social Cognition. In J. Kiverstein (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the Social Mind (pp. 208-221). London: Routledge.
Froese, T., & Gallagher, S. (2012). Getting Interaction theory (IT) Together Integrating Developmental, Phenomenological, Enactive, and Dynamical Approaches to Social Interaction. Interaction Studies, 13(3), 436-468.
Gallagher, S. (2001). The Practice of Mind: Theory, Simulation or Primary Interaction? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(5-6), 83-108.
Gallagher, S. (2008a). Direct Perception in the Intersubjective Context. Consciousness and Cognition, 17(2), 535-543.
Gallagher, S. (2008b). Intersubjectivity in Perception. Continental Philosophy Review, 41(2), 163-178.
Gallagher, S. (2012). Empathy, Simulation, and Narrative. Science in Context, 25(9), 355-381.
Gallagher, S. (2012). In Defense of Phenomenological Approaches to Social Cognition: Interacting with the Critics. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 3(2), 187-212.
Gallagher, S. (2014). An Education in Narratives. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 46(6), 600-609.
Gallagher, S., & Hutto, D. (2008). Primary interaction and narrative practice. In J. Zlatev, T. Racine, C. Sinha & E. Itkonen (Eds.), The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity (pp. 17-38). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Gallagher, S., & Varga, S. (2014). Social Constraints on the Direct Perception of Emotions and Intentions. Topoi, 33(1), 185-199.
Gallagher, S., & Zahavi, Z. (2008). The Phenomenological Mind: An Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science. New York: Routledge.
Gallese, V., & Goldman, A. (1998). Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mindreading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2(12), 493-501.
Goldman, A. I. (2013). Joint Ventures Mindreading. Mirroring and Embodied Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goldman, A. I. (2006). Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience of Mindreading. New York: Oxford University Press.
Goldman, A. I., & Sripada, C. S. (2005). Simulationist Models of Face-Based Emotion Recognition. Cognition, 94(3), 193-213.
Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1996). Words, Thoughts, and Theories. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Gopnik, A., & Wellman, H. M. (1995). Why the Child’s Theory of Mind Really is a Theory. In M. Davies & T. Stone (eds.), Folk Psychology (pp. 232-258). Oxford: Blackwell.
Gopnik, A., & Wellman, H. M. (2012). Reconstructing Constructivism: Causal Models, Bayesian Learning Mechanisms, and the Theory Theory. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6), 1085-1108.
Greene, G. (1981). Twenty-One Stories. London: Penguin.
Herman, D. (2011). Introduction In D. Herman (Ed.), The Emergence of Mind: Representations of Consciousness in Narrative Discourse in English (pp. 1-40). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Herman, D. (2011). 1880-1945: Re-Minding Modernism. In D. Herman (Ed.), The Emergence of Mind: Representations of Consciousness in Narrative Discourse in English (pp. 243-272). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Hutto, D. D. (2007a). Narrative and Understanding Persons. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 60(5), 1-16.
Hutto, D. D. (2007b). Folk Psychology Without Theory or Simulation. In D. D. Hutto and M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Reassessed (pp. 115-135). Dordrecht: Springer.
Hutto, D. D. (2008). Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding Reasons. Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press.
Hutto, D. D., & Myin, E. (2017). Evolving Enactivism: Basic Minds Meet Content. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Keysar, B., Lin, S., & Barr, D. J. (2003). Limits on Theory of Mind Use in Adults. Cognition, 89(1), 25-41.
Lin, S., Keysar, B., & Epley, N. (2010). Reflexively Mindblind: Using Theory of Mind to Interpret Behavior Requires Effortful Attention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(3), 551-556.
Metzinger, T. (2014). First-Order Embodiment, Second-Order Embodiment, Third-Order Embodiment: From Spatiotemporal Self-location to Minimal Selfhood. In R. Shapiro (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Embodied Cognition (pp. 272-286). New York: Routledge.
Mitchell, P., Robinson, E. J., Isaacs, J. E., & Nye, R. M. (1996). Contamination in Reasoning about False Belief: An Instance of Realist Bias in Adults but Not Children. Cognition, 59(1), 1-21.
Newen, A. (2015). Understanding Others: The Person Model Theory. In T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds.), Open MIND (pp. 1-28). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group.
Nichols, Sh., & Stich, P. S. (2003). Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretence, Self-Awareness, and Understanding Other Minds. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Oatley, K. (2016). Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(8), 618-628.
O’Neill, P. (1994). Fictions of Discourse: Reading Narrative Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Palmer, A. (2004). Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Quadt, L. (2015). Multiplicity Needs Coherence – Towards a Unifying Framework for Social Understanding. In T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds.), Open MIND (pp. 1-18). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group.
Ratcliffe, M. (2006). ‘Folk psychology’ is not Folk Psychology. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 5(1), 31-52.
Rembowska-Płuciennik, M. (2018). Enacting Embodied Events in Narrative Processing. Tekstualia, 1(4) 145-157.
Rushdie, S. (1982). Yorick. Encounter. September, 3-8.
Schӧnherr, J., & Westra, E. (2019). Beyond ‘Interaction’: How to Understand Social Effects on Social Cognition. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 70(1), 27-52.
Stich, S., Nichols, S. (1992). Folk Psychology: Simulation or Tacit Theory? Mind and Language, 7(1-2), 35-71.
Teske, J. K., & Gut, A. (2021). The Reader’s Mindreading of Realist, Modernist, and Postmodern Fiction: A Comparative Study. Narrative, 29(1), 47-70.
Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Wellman, H. M. (2014). Making Minds: How Theory of Mind Develops. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Woolf, V. (1923). Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street. Dial, 75(1), 20-27.
Zahavi, D. (2001). Beyond Empathy: Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(5-7), 151-167.
Zunshine, L. (2006). Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State University.

Comments are closed.