Words about Young Minds: The Concepts of Theory, Representation, and Belief in Philosophy and Developmental Psychology
Eric Schwitzgebel

Dissertation, Department of Philosophy, U.C. Berkeley, 1997

Committee: Elisabeth Lloyd, John Searle, and Alison Gopnik

In this dissertation, I examine three philosophically important concepts that play a foundational role in developmental psychology: theory, representation, and belief.  I describe different ways in which the concepts have been understood and present reasons why a developmental psychologist, or a philosopher attuned to cognitive development, should prefer one understanding of these concepts over another.

I take up the concept of theories with an eye to recent debate in psychology over whether the cognitive development of young children can fruitfully be characterized as involving theory change.  I examine the debate in philosophy of science between the “syntactic” and “semantic” views of theories, but set it aside: it is implausible to regard children as employing the sophisticated formal structures required by these accounts.  I propose, instead, a novel account of theories intended to capture what scientific theories and everyday theories have in common.  I connect theories with the emergence and resolution of explanation-seeking curiosity, and I argue that if developmental psychologists want convincingly to defend the view that young children have theories, they must look for the patterns of affect and arousal associated with such curiosity.

I begin my discussion of the concept of representation by distinguishing between two very different conceptions of representation at work in the philosophical literature.  On the first, “contentive” conception (found, for example, in Searle and Fodor), something is a representation, roughly, just in case it has “propositional content”; on the second, “indicative” conception (found, for example, in Dretske), representations must not only have content but must also have the function of indicating something about the world.  I argue that both philosophers and psychologists have tended to conflate these two conceptions, and I examine the serious consequences of this conflation for the developmental literature on the child’s understanding of mind.  I suggest some empirical research that looks promising once this conceptual tangle is straightened out.

More than half of the dissertation addresses the concept of belief.  I provide detailed objections to Donald Davidson’s claim that creatures without language, including human infants, cannot have beliefs, and I argue that the interests of both philosophers of mind and developmental psychologists are best served by a dispositional account of belief — that is, an account of belief on which to have a belief is simply to be disposed to do, say, and feel what informed common sense regards as appropriate to that belief.  Dispositional accounts of belief are not new, but mine has a twist that saves it from the standard objections to such accounts: I appeal not merely to dispositions to behave, but also to dispositions to have certain kinds of subjective experiences.  I argue that a dispositional account of belief offers a satisfying resolution to several problems in philosophy and developmental psychology, including those raised by Putnam’s Twin Earth case, Kripke’s puzzle about belief, the phenomenon of self-deception, and conflicting data from child psychology on the development of the object concept and the child’s understanding of false beliefs.

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