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Wolfgang Prinz is a distinguished cognitive psychologist who has done groundbreaking experimental and theoretical work on the relation between action perception and action production. He is the father of the so-called common coding theory, according to which actions are subpersonally represented in terms of their perceptual effects, so that representations of perceived events (with a mind-to-world direction of fit) and representations of goals (with a world-to-mind direction of fit) share a common "code". The positing of such a cognitive architecture can elegantly explain various interference effects between the perception and production of action (e.g., that it is easier to perform an action that is congruent with an action that one has just observed someone else perform than to perform an action that is incongruent with the observed action) as well as unconscious mimicry effects (the way people tend to automatically adopt gestures and entrain to the rhythmic movements of social partners).
A common code could arguably also provide the foundation for social understanding. So-called "mirror neurons"--that is, neurons that fire both when an agent perceives someone performing an action (such as grasping a piece of food) and when the agent performs that type of action herself--may be the neural basis for this common code. While the discovery of mirror neurons is often linked to the simulation theory of social understanding, according to which we understand the actions of others by putting ourselves in the other's shoes and then exploit our understanding of our own agency to understand the other, Prinz argues for the reverse view in Open Minds: The Social Making of Agency and Intentionality. On this view, we begin with an understanding of others' agency, and only later gain a similar understanding of our own agency through observing how others respond to what we do. In fact, Prinz argues that we become full-blown intentional agents only after we have performed this "introjection". Prior to that (in both ontogeny and phylogeny), we are merely animate agents who respond to features and events in our current environment (possibly in very flexible and adaptive ways). Goal-directed representations such as intentions first only exist as part of our scheme for explaining and predicting the behavior of others. Later, the thought is, they are appropriated as representations of goals that drive our own behavior.
Over the course of 275 pages, Prinz argues for some striking claims regarding the relation between action perception and action production, social cognition, the self and communication. In the first part of the book--"Minds"--Prinz situates his basic assumptions and approach within a theoretical landscape painted with broad brushstrokes. He characterizes his view as constructivist and collectivist: the architecture of the mind is not the outcome of a natural process of maturation, but is constructed through social interaction and communication. Our shared beliefs about how our minds work (our "folk psychology") actually make our minds work accordingly. In the second part--"Mirrors"--the author introduces the reader to common coding, work on mirror neurons, and the notion of what he calls "mirror games". Prinz uses this term loosely to denote any kind of social interaction in which one individual--the mirroring individual--performs an action in response to another's action--the action of the target individual--and this action is perceived by the target as a replication or a complement to the target's own action. Such mirror games can include both mere embodied actions and acts of symbolic communication. In the book's third part--"Volition", which is arguably the book's core--we find Prinz's constructivist and collectivist theory of intentional agency. Here he outlines a way in which our cognitive architecture could come to implement top-down control of action--control that is not merely response to environmental stimuli but control guided by goal-directed representations--as a result of first merely successfully interpreting the behavior of others as the result of such top-down action control. Finally, in the book's fourth and final part--"Cognition"--Prinz extends the story about intentional agency from the third part to the emergence of the self, and the role of language in shaping cognition and action.
All this is a very large and ambitious scope considering the book's length, and I do not have space to engage with many of the ideas that Prinz presents. I will therefore present the main idea in the third part of the book, and then make some general remarks about the book as a whole. What Prinz is trying to do in the third part is, in broad terms, to sketch how top-down control of one's own action may emerge from interpretation of other's agency in terms of top-down control. The idea is that prior to socialization and enculturation, an individual's behavior is entirely driven by bottom-up control processes, where behavior is the outcome of an interpretation of the current local situation. When the situation includes others' actions, this interpretation will--for us human beings at least--typically rely on a scheme for explaining and predicting action in terms of plans and intentions. If a young child interprets the behavior of an adult (who, of course, has already been socialized and enculturated) according to this scheme, the interpretation will often be correct and enhance the child's power to explain predict and control the adult's behavior. Since the actions of others, such as the adult caregiver, will often be responses to a certain interpretation of one's own action, social interaction will, if I understand Prinz correctly, push one to take up the stance that one takes toward others to one's own actions. Once this step has been taken, so that one understands and predicts one's own actions in terms of intentions, it becomes possible for one's action-production system to appropriate these representations so that they come to actually generate one's behavior in a top-down manner. According to Prinz, it is the perception of the actions of individuals who engage with us in contingent social interaction (who "mirrors" us, in Prinz's extended sense of the term) that enables us to perceive our own behavior as actions guided by beliefs, desires and intentions, and this ultimately transforms our cognitive architecture to fit how we perceive that we appear to be in the eyes of others. This is certainly a fascinating proposal but I wish Prinz had spent more time explaining how the last part of this story is supposed to unfold, that is, how the representations of intentions that allow us predict and explain our own behavior gets co-opted by our action-production system so that they can implement choices and decisions. I could sort of see how such a transition is possible given a common code between perception and action, but Prinz does not have that much to say about it (but see e.g. pp. 153 and 161).
What Prinz focuses on is showing how this kind of proposal is possible, but he makes remarkably little effort in trying to show that the story should also be taken to be actual (he calls it a "hypothetical scenario"). This is true not only of the scenario in the third part, but is characteristic of much of the book (such as the fourth part, in which Prinz proposes a similar scenario aimed to explain the emergence of the self through self-attribution of mental acts and traits that are first attributed to others). In light of Prinz impressive career as an empirical researcher in cognitive and experimental psychology, this came as a surprise to me. While there are many references to empirical studies and results, these are typically relegated to the footnotes, and experimental work is not discussed in any detail. In other words, this is a work of theoretical cognitive psychology and speculative but empirically minded philosophy. If you are looking for an accessible presentation of Prinz's empirical work, you will not find it in this book.
This does not mean that there isn't empirical work that support's Prinz's theories and hypothesis, but Prinz doesn't offer much help for the reader to connect the theoretical and empirical dots. This may at least give one the impression that the author's theoretical constructions are floating free, without much empirical grounding. Furthermore, Prinz only rarely engages with alternative theories and approaches. In the end, I think this makes it difficult to see why one should prefer Prinz's radical view to more conservative alternatives (such as, for example, simulation theory concerning the relation between understanding oneself and understanding others). While the overarching social constructivist narrative of Open Minds is suggestive, interesting and grand in scope, I did not feel that the book offered me convincing reasons for its veracity. The focus is on exposition rather than theoretical argument or empirical support. I therefore suspect that the book is unlikely to convince anyone who does not already accept its main ideas or is familiar with the literature on which Prinz relies. But whether or not one is convinced by the grand synthesis, Open Minds is an intriguing read that contains stimulating ideas concerning the nature of the mind. The many footnotes and the extensive list of references will also be helpful for those who want to further explore any of the wide range of topics that Prinz touches on in the book.
© 2013 Olle Blomberg
Olle Blomberg is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at University of Edinburgh (UK) and a freelance journalist. He is interested in the philosophy of social and cognitive science, the philosophy of technology, as well as science and technology journalism. For information about his freelance writing, see http://www.olleblomberg.com/english.html. Information about his Ph.D. research can found on his University of Edinburgh web page [http://www.philosophy.ed.ac.uk/postgraduate/students/phd/OlleBlomberg.html]