8.   Concept of Mind and Early Development

By Paul Vanderveen

January 14, 1998

Copyright ©1999 by Paul Vanderveen

Nick Bruijn (September 28) asks a couple questions about the early stages of cognitive development leading to the formation of the concept of mind.

Does it matter at all whether, chronologically speaking, the first hint of awareness was of one's own or of others mental processes? And would that have any implications for the validity of one's concept later on when it has reached a more sophisticated level?
These questions differ from the question of whether one conceptualizes one's own mind or others' minds first. Asking whether it is one's own mind first or others' minds poses a false alternative, as one must grasp an element of similarity between oneself and others to reach the concept of mind. Mr. Bruijn asks rather about an earlier stage of development.

We should discuss early development cautiously. Research shows that many people, even adults, find it difficult to take the "conceptual perspective" of someone who knows less than they do (see, e.g., Marjorie Taylor, "Conceptual Perspective Taking," Child Development 59, 1988). Some people attempt to describe the beliefs of children simply in terms of adult concepts, including concepts which children lack. We need to be careful in particular, when discussing what we know to be "mental processes," not to assume that children also know them as mental processes. Speaking without qualification about the early development of awareness of "mental processes" is thus potentially misleading. A child first conceptualizes seeing, wanting, remembering, thinking, guessing, dreaming and so forth, not "mental processes." Our considering them mental processes (or processes of consciousness) comes from our more developed perspective.

A child's experiences of these processes provide him or her with considerable data to integrate, but so do his or her daily interactions with other people. As instances are abundant, I see no reason to rule out the possibility that, in some cases, a child's first glimmer of conceptual awareness of a type of action might occur while he or she attends to other people and what they are doing and saying, not him or herself. Who is to say that a girl's "first hint" of grasping the meaning of remembering, for instance, didn't occur while her parents spoke to her about their "remembering" something which they had seen before but which, as she can tell, they cannot see now?

It also seems possible for a child to get her "first hint" of awareness of remembering while she attends to the similarity between two or more instances of just her own remembering. Suppose, for instance, that she remembers where something is on a couple occasions which her mother notices and points out to her. (This is not the same situation as with the concept of mind, where one cannot have a glimmer of the similarity between "two or more units" introspectively, because one has only one mind.)

To fully reach a concept, however, one must learn to recognize instances whenever one encounters them. Children begin recognizing instances of thinking, remembering and so forth early in life, both with respect to themselves and others (e.g., see I. Bretherton and M. Beeghly, "Talking about Internal States," Developmental Psychology 18, 1982). Recognizing a particular experience as of a certain kind involves a judgment about its similarity to other experiences of that kind, so errors are possible (David Kelley, Evidence of the Senses, p. 220). Children commonly accept instruction and correction in this realm, and even adults, who vary widely in their competence, may sometimes accept "corrections from outsiders" about what they are experiencing (J. L. Austin, "Other Minds," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1946).

While one ordinarily integrates data about self and others even on this lower conceptual level, I see no reason to maintain that such an integration must always figure in the "first hint" of awareness in every case. It might occur, or a child might focus just on others or just on him or herself, in some cases, when getting a first glimmer of conceptual awareness. In short, Mr. Bruijn is right that it doesn't matter.

As for his second question, a lot passes between the "first hint" of awareness of thinking, remembering and other similar actions ("mental processes," as some of us know them) and learning what minds are. For instance, insofar as children differentially evaluate people's actions (including speech), considering others' contexts in interpreting what and how they think, remember, feel and so forth, in ways that vary from their own, they may be regarded as having the concept of mind implicitly. Even young children begin to develop implicit knowledge of minds in this sense, and they become increasingly able, especially while interacting with others, to articulate subtleties in this arena. Explicit conceptual knowledge of minds, however, still eludes them. As it eludes them, it also once eluded us--and we must be careful, while tracing our concepts back to the facts of reality, to keep this in mind and differentiate the various conceptual tasks.

Nick Bruijn also requested elaboration of my suggestion that it "can be somewhat disabling" to believe that one formed the concept of mind introspectively, and I elaborated next.

  1.  Forming the Concept of Mind
  2.  Basing the Concept of Mind on Reality
  3.  Proper Names and Concepts
  4.  The Concept of Mind and Certain Symmetries
  5.  Concluding Remarks about Forming the Concept of Mind
  6.  Recognizing Minds
  7.  The Problem of "Other" Minds
  8.  Concept of Mind and Early Development
  9.  Retaining the Concept of Mind    < Next
10.  Ayn Rand and Other Minds
11.  Perceiving Other Minds Directly?
12.  Preconceptually Apprehending Other Minds?
13.  Inferences about Other Minds
14.  The Units of the Concept of Mind

Article:  Formation of the Concept of Mind