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How Infants Know MindsReview - How Infants Know Minds
by Vasudevi Reddy
Harvard University Press, 2008
Review by R.A. Goodrich, Ph.D.
Feb 17th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 8)

The mixture of close observation and probing speculation that characterizes Vasudevi Reddy's eleven-chapter monograph, How Infants Know Minds, makes for compelling reading.  Overtly inspired by the work of Margaret Donaldson, Peter Hobson, and Colwyn Trevarthen since the 'seventies, Reddy aims to shatter a number of shibboleths largely unquestioned by researchers in the field of developmental cognitive psychology.  After briefly identifying her principal target, we shall then outline an initial set of contentions likely to figure in debates arising from Reddy's argument.  That, in turn, will lead us to conclude with some reservations of a conceptual and an historical kind.


Readers are immediately introduced to the abiding epistemological problem of how infants "come to understand people," how they can become "aware of others' minds," how they "perceive" them as "'persons,' as psychological beings" (1).  Without pausing to consider whether each expression of "how infants know minds" (to cite the title) is synonymous or not, Reddy aligns the problem to a pervasive yet disconcerting tendency. It is the tendency in the practices and theories of "a psychology which holds on, surreptitiously, to dualisms it claims to have discarded and, more openly, to methods of investigation...more appropriate to non-sentient subjects" (2).  Yet, she continues, perhaps the problem is a result of the misguided assumption of "thinking of the organism's capacities separately from the environment in which it functions" (3).  Returning the infant to its interactively human, familial context and allowing that affective interactions or exchanges between an infant and its caretaker(s) constitute an embodiment of minds is, Reddy believes, the means of resolving the puzzle of how one mind comes to know others non-inferentially:

engaging with other minds and becoming aware of them is an emotional process from start to finish (41).

In short, rather than presuming that minds develop in isolation, should we not begin with the premise that minds are "intrinsically connected" from the beginning by way of "emotional engagements" and not through the "belated consequences of a rationally constructed understanding"? (4)  Why?  Because if we adhere to the latter, we are condemned to construing or inferring the presence of other, seemingly inaccessible minds from the viewpoint of the detached spectator (or onlooker) rather than from the role of the engaged participant (7).

Chapter Two divides the spectator role in terms of first-person ["I"] and third-person ["he" or "she"] perspectives (7ff.).  Whereas the first-person perspective is committed to apprehending other minds by analogy with a privileged access to its own, the third-person perspective is committed to apprehending other minds by inference from observable behavior.  Interpreting one's own mind and interpreting another's behavior respectively are not only both open to doubt and uncertainty, but are also replete with unacknowledged presumptions when confronting how infants can develop any understanding of  others and the world at large.  Indeed, the very act of interpreting carries with it a cognitive sophistication beyond the seeming capacity of infants, one which implies a capacity to discriminate, to generalize, to abstract, to hypothesize the dualities of inner and outer experiences.

As an alternative, Reddy adopts a second-person ["you"] or participatory perspective which

rejects the "gap," the dualist assumption...which portrays other minds as opaque to perception, only speculatively accessible through various mechanisms of inference, modeling, or theorizing about behavior (26).

Instead, the second-person approach "sees minds as transparent, emotionally charged perception" in the immediacy of exchange (26).  Within such exchanges, those "particular" others whom we address or regard as "you," thereby "constituting--or creating--the minds that each comes to have or develop," are not simply those "merely providing information about each to the other" (27) and hence "pushing the person into the position of observer" (28).  Moreover, perception for Reddy "is not merely observation"; it is, phenomenologically speaking, "embedded in living and doing" (29).  Perception, she declares, "always involves proprioception"--perception of one's "internal world" or "experience of [one's] own bodily states and... [one's] affective and motivational state"--simultaneously with "exteroception...of the external world" including "what relevant others are doing, saying, or feeling" (29-30).  To that extent, experiential knowledge of persons for Reddy is primary; knowledge of minds as distinct from bodies attributable to persons--self and others--is a subsequent development.

          Methodologically, Reddy is well aware that her second-person approach threatens to subvert at least three or four generations of her discipline's adherence to experimental rigor, reliability, and replication.  Her "starting point" is her "observation of events" involving her own children in relation to herself and other family members, the "crucial" factor being "the personal relation with the the psychological aspects of the person who is known" (38-39).  Thereafter, she aims to "complement" "different kinds of data"--"experimental findings, more detached descriptions, and observations described from within engagement"--in an effort to move beyond the local, immediate, and ungeneralized (39).  In Reddy's words, there are a key set of questions her monograph attempts to answer:

But when and how does all the infant's psychological engagement with people happen?  ....When do they tell the difference between second-person and third-person interactions?  What do they in fact perceive of others' perceptions of them?  ....What is it about being noticed that is important? (39-40)

And it seeks answers in "what infants do with other persons, in direct engagement, whether in naturally occurring interactions or in experimental situations" by successively considering from the fourth chapter onwards "different phenomena that many think involve crucial aspects of people's minds--imitation, communication, attention, intention, humor, self-consciousness, knowledge, and deception" (40).


Beneath its occasionally conversational tone, How Infants Know Minds is a carefully crafted argument for locating antecedents of mental attributes in neonatal interactions from at least the age of two months onwards, an age before the onset of speaking and conceptualizing.  For example, Chapter Four on "neonatal imitation" as "the first demonstration of a psychological connection between self and other" (43) shifts from personal anecdote (which later chapters illustrate by Reddy's observational diary and recorded interviews) to examples of communicative imitation, from past Piagetian debates to the question in Cartesian guise, "is imitation 'behavioral' or is it in some sense 'mental?" (48).  This question, in turn, rationalizes the three remaining major sections of the chapter in which Reddy sifts through contemporary evidence, evaluating its limits with a view to shifting our way of construing imitative acts in terms of similarity towards conceptualizing them in terms of relevance and reciprocity.

Whilst Reddy is at pains to explain why the pervasive nature of emotion is not treated as a separate facet of infant development, nothing is explicitly said about the nature of knowledge other than it is promoted by "positive emotions" which supposedly make infants "more attentive and open to and able to integrate" things experienced (41).  So, how exactly is knowledge construed in How Infants Know Minds?  Declarative or propositional knowledge--knowing that such-and-such is the case--is precluded by virtue of the fact that Reddy is fundamentally dealing with the young, "long before conceptualizing" (121) in any coherent, let alone verbal, sense can be said to emerge.  Practical or procedural knowledge--knowing how to do such-and-such--the kind typically subject to practice or mastery of skills, processes, or activities (as distinct from speech acts) would seem at first to be a likely candidate here.  Yet even here, if the recent 2001 re-examination by Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson holds, different forms of "knowing how" appear to imply various manifestations of "knowing that" in so far as, say, infant Therese knows how to tease others if there is some means--"non-compliance" and "disruption" to take two considered at nine or ten months by Reddy (172ff.)--such that she knows that either means is a way for her to tease others. Nonetheless, we find Reddy contending, for example, "to communicate, we must already understand that others understand and what they understand" since communication "sets the ground for and reflects mind knowledge" (87 & 88).  Similarly, she claims that to "act implies knowing that there is a world out there in relation to, and different from, my body and my actions" (123).  And yet "knowing that" comprises the very facility just excluded from an infant's arsenal.

Should we look elsewhere, for instance, at "knowledge by acquaintance" associated with Bertrand Russell's efforts almost a century ago to account for a non-inferential, unmediated experiential encounter with the sensations of our five perceptual modalities, with the introspection of our desires, feelings, and thoughts, with memories of the latter two, and possibly with the very self said to be aware of and desiring things?  This appears at first glance to be compatible with Reddy's enlarged proprioceptive and exteroceptive view of perception (29-30) mentioned earlier.  However, before we rush to claim acquaintance as the kind of knowledge she is exploring in "the infant's developing awareness of different aspects of mentality" (41), we should note Russell himself adds to the four existential particularities listed that we also have acquaintance with abstract universals or general ideas, but not with physical objects or other minds or persons. Should Reddy stipulate that all she had in mind were the first four nominated by Russell, she would then face the accusation of having conflated knowledge by acquaintance with the notion of acquaintance or familiarity.

Consequently, can Reddy's position be retrieved by turning towards Michael Polanyi's appeal to "tacit knowing" first articulated in the late 'fifties, an appeal possibly more congenial to the "hermeneutic background" of shared meanings and intentions upheld by Reddy (59-60 & 88)?  However, as most readers would recall, Polanyi is not so much postulating another conception of knowledge as proposing that certain behavioral and cognitive processes operate without explicit or conscious awareness before or during their occurrence.  After all, the most that can be said about a neonate's first responses are that they function within "a tactile-kinaesthetic sense" (123). 


Reddy may well reject the foregoing discussion as mistakenly seeking clarity about an epistemological concept when all that matters is the psychological process of knowing--that is to say, learning.  Yet, even were we to grant such a counter-claim, readers may detect some seeming inconsistencies.  Whilst much contemporary research and debate over each major attribute of the mental is confronted chapter by chapter, later chapters dealing with self-conscious, intentional, humorous, and deceptive behavior draw increasingly from infants fast approaching the toddler stage and beyond.  Increasingly as a consequence, we are given excerpts from Reddy's observational diary and recorded interviews which feature one crucial factor that her accompanying commentary appears to ignore.  Interviewed mothers time and again incorporate and/or report utterances--their own and their child's--for example, normal children such as James, 8 months; Alice, 11 months (138); Vanessa, 8 months (195); Ben, 4 months (200-201); and "R," 2½ years (220-221); impaired children such as Maria, 3 years; Tommy, 4 years; Carl, 3 years (141); and Tony, 5 years (196-197).  Moreover, when probing an awareness of others' intentions, which Reddy characterizes as "perceived over a large physical distance with just words and tone of voice...serving to control the infant's own actions over time" (168), again the role of speech, here initially regulating the child's activities, is not pursued.  Rather, as in the case of reviewing the classical 1978 longitudinal study of peek-a-boo games by Ratner and Bruner, Reddy contends that "motherese" or caretaker speech and its transformations are "based entirely on the perceptions of the infant's emotional response at each point" (177).  So interpreted, we also seem to have shifted from her earlier Vygotskian realization that " things at the fringes of infants' abilities; they work in the zone of proximal development" (116).

Expressing the foregoing differently, the "second-person" exchanges by which "dyadic expansion" can take effect (81)--which Reddy depicts as a nascent form of "conversation," "dialogue," and "communication" in Chapter Five (66ff.)--curiously ignore not only how saturated they are with speech, but also the very functions and transformations served by parental speech.  Nowhere, it seems, has Reddy tested her framework against the rich exploration of emerging consciousness found in the work of earlier Europeans--an Edouard Claparède, an Aleksandr Luria, a Lev Vygotski--or later North Americans--a Norman Geschwind, a Katherine Nelson, an Israel Rosenfield.  What binds these writers is not an adherence to this or that psychological hypothesis nor to methodologies aligned or not with a second-person framework.  More germane to Vasudevi Reddy's enterprise is their realization, in the words of Geschwind's 1974 anthology on language and the brain, how

important confirmed scientific observations could almost be expunged from the knowledge of contemporary scientists....  The reasons for this phenomenon were fairly standard: neglect of work written in a foreign language, neglect of work done by someone in a different field, excessive reliance on the authority of certain towering individual figures.

© 2009 R.A. Goodrich

R.A. Goodrich teaches in the School of Communication & Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, co-edits the online refereed arts-practice journal, Double Dialogues, and currently co-ordinates with Maryrose Hall a pilot study of a number of children within the autistic spectrum of disorders.


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