Theories of Pretense

Ori Friedman and Alan Leslie, in their Cognition article “The conceptual underpinnings of pretense: Pretending is not ‘behaving-as-if’” (2007), argue against what they call behaviorist theories of pretense. As they characterize the debate, theories of pretense fall into the following two families:

Metarepresentational Theories: What is central to pretense is mentalistic: treating pretense as such through the possession and deployment of the concept PRETEND. (Leslie is the primary proponent of this view.)

Behaviorist Theories: What is central to pretense is behavioral: behaving “as-if” a scenario obtains–or rather, behaving in a way that would be appropriate if that scenario obtains. (On Friedman and Leslie’s characterization, pretty much everyone else–such as Perner, Lillard, Nichols and Stich, Harris, and Rakoczy–defends some kind of behaviorist theory.)

One central point in they make the paper is this: without making room for the concept PRETEND in their theories, behaviorists cannot adequately explain how children are able to recognize pretense as such. Here is how they put this central point on page 115:

But more importantly, the above makes clear what game the Behavioral theory perforce finds itself playing: namely, trying to get the child to think that someone is pretending without actually thinking pretend as such. If the Behavioral theory is to measure up to the phenomena of early human pretending, its success will depend on finding an exact conceptual paraphrase of PRETEND without using that concept. Moreover, the paraphrase must be strictly behavioral. … Propositional attitude concepts are the heart and soul of ‘theory of mind’ and utterly foreign to and rejected by behaviorism (Fodor, 1981; Ryle, 1949). ‘Pretend’ is just the name of a specific attitude.

In response, I have two small worries and a major one:

1. Equivocation on Behaviorism: There seems to be an equivocation between the so-called “behaviorist” theories of pretense (a name given by Friedman and Leslie themselves) and earlier general behaviorist theories of mind. The functionalist theory that Nichols and Stich defend, for example, clearly do not reject propositional attitudes or propositional attitude concepts.

2. Relationship between Concepts and Attitudes: There seems to be a strange assumption about the relationship between concepts and propositional attitudes. Behaviorist theories can happily concede that pretend is the name of a specific attitude, and that even young children have this attitude, and still claim that children do not have the concept PRETEND. In other words, if all the phenomena related to pretense can be explained by a psychology including the pretense attitude, behaviorist theories do not in addition need to posit possession of the concept PRETEND. Friedman and Leslie, however, appear to assume that one cannot have the attitude without the concept, and that just seems bizarre.

3. Implications of Concept Possession: As far as I understand it, usually behaviorists say that it’s some other psychological process that underlies the recognition of pretense. We recognize pretense through behavioral cues, which can be instinctual, conventional, or somewhere in between. “Thinking about pretense as such” is an ambiguous phrase, but it seems to me that a child who does recognize behavioral indicators of pretense is thinking about pretense as such, even if she does not possess, and is thus not applying, the concept PRETEND. Compare: it seems that even without possessing the concept of CONTRASTIVE FOCUS REDUPLICATION, I can use this kind of syntactic construction and recognize that others are doing so. In particular, when I am recognizing others’ use of contrastic focus reduplication, there is an important sense that I am thinking about it as such: I am attending to the phenomenon the concept refers to. The general point is that the best theoretical explanation of a phenomenon may not be the same as how subjects involved would conceptualize it.

To tackle this point from a different perspective, consider animal playfighting. Researchers have observed animals such as rats, canids, and primates use behavioral cues to indicate when they are playfighting rather than genuinely fighting. Are we to attribute the possession and deployment of the concept PRETEND to rats, canids, and primates?

Perhaps the answer is ‘yes’, but now we really have to question what Leslie and collegues mean by possessing and deploying concepts. Friedman and Leslie, on page 120, clarify that they do not mean anything particularly “heavy-duty” and deny many implications I think we naturally associate with possessing and deploying concepts. They write,

To be clear, we do not believe that children’s possession of this concept implies that they know much about this or other mental states. In particular, it does not imply that they theorize about mental representation or that they theorize that pretense is an ‘internal, subjective, mentally depictive state’, as some have supposed (e.g., Hickling, Wellman, & Gottfried, 1997). Nor does it require that children can report that pretenders ‘are thinking’ and what they are ‘thinking about’ while pretending (e.g., Rosen, Schwebel, & Singer, 1997). What it does mean is that they are able, within performance limits (Bosco et al., 2006), to engage in, recognize, share with others, and reason about, simple pretend episodes.

It is non-heavy-duty, to say the least, to claim that to possess the concept PRETEND is just to be able to engage in, recognize, share with others, and reason about simple pretend episodes. (In fact, one might comment that this is a pretty behavioral description of what it is to possess the concept PRETEND.) But these abilities are precisely what theories of pretense are trying to explain! If this is what it is to possess the concept PRETEND, then of course–by definition alone–no behaviorist theories of pretense can explain how children can recognize pretense without possessing the concept PRETEND. By artificially taking away intuitive implications of what it is to possess and deploy concepts, Friedman and Leslie also seriously rob the force from their central point against behaviorist theories of pretense.

In the end, I am unconvinced by Friedman and Leslie. To be sure, behaviorist theories of pretense have some legitimate problems, which Friedman and Leslie also raise. However, it seems to me that metarepresentationalist theories have a more pressing problem: developing an adequate notion of what it is to possess and deploy the concept PRETEND.


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