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Timmerman, P.

Author: Peter Timmerman

Graduation Year: 2008 (Research master)

Department: Theoretical Philosophy

Master's Thesis:

Embodied Social Cognition



How do we understand each other? In philosophy and developmental psychology there are at present two dominant answers. One  holds that we understand each other by theorizing (theory theory), the other that we do so by simulating the other’s mind (simulation theory). Embodied cognition, I argue in this thesis, provides a promising alternative. Embodied cognition sees cognition first and foremost as an ability that has evolved in order to enable an organism to cope better with its environment, not as a capacity to solve abstract problems. Similarly, it suggests that social cognition is first and foremost an ability to interact with others, rather than to reason about others. 

Whereas theory theory and simulation theory both characterize social cognition as a highly intellectual and reflective enterprise, an embodied approach points out that we usually understand others without any effort or thought. Whereas the traditional accounts frame our understanding of others in terms of explaining and predicting, an embodied approach suggests these activities do not play a key role in our normal interactions with others. In interacting with others we usually immediately perceive what the other is doing, intending or feeling, rather than that we infer mental states on the basis of observations. Theory theory and simulation theory both suppose that minds are hidden behind behaviour, but from an embodied perspective this doesn’t seem right. 

Embodied cognition thus construes social cognition as a more basic, sensorimotor and interactive faculty than the traditional approaches do. But it also has implications for the way in which we explain the advanced social cognitive activities on which theory theory and simulation theory focus. Reasoning about others is, just like reasoning in general, rooted in the tuning of basic responses to a real world that enables an organism to sense, act, and survive. Relying on the basic capacities that enable a perceptual understanding of others and our sensorimotor engagement with the world, we gradually develop, in interaction with others and cultural ‘tools’ like natural language, the ability to reason about others. Social cognition is embodied, not only in its basic, but also in its more advanced forms.


Last modified:01 November 2013 2.50 p.m.