Ian Hacking’s critique of the Theory-of-Mind-deficit theory of autism

[This post is the eleventh in our series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September. You can go to the Thinking in Action 10 pack, which links to the first 10 posts in the series; and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays, for the most part. The post below concerns talks by Ian Hacking and Victoria McGeer on theory of mind and autism at the conference.]


Theory of Mind and its deficit:

“Theory of Mind” (ToM) is a philosophical interpretation of a certain kind of cognitive psychology. The idea is based on what has been called folk psychology. This describes our ordinary understanding of each others’ behavior as analogous to a scientific psychological theory. Each individual’s own folk ToM hypothesizes that other people have unobservable (to the observer) intentions, beliefs, and desires. These hypothesized mental states are seen as analogous to theoretical conjectures in science. On this notion, we begin in childhood to construct a theory of mind about other people, and we elaborate that theory as we develop and mature. An underlying assumption is the double-edged notion that A) human behavior is based on (perhaps caused by) internal, language-like inferential structures in the brain (e.g. beliefs and desires), and B) we hypothesize (in our ToM) that other humans have the same kind of language-like structures that we ourselves use in reasoning about the world.

cartoon illustration of Theory of Mind; you hypothesize the cartoon character's innards

Beginning of a cartoon illustration of Theory of Mind; you hypothesize the cartoon character's innards

[To observe ToM for the above cartoon click here. Watch right away -- on some browsers it only runs once. Your "theory" is about why the cartoon character is going downtown.]

ToM-deficit as a theory of autism:

Psychologists Simon Baron-Cohen, Uta Frith and others built a theory of autism based on the ToM notion of cognitive psychology. People on the autistic spectrum often have difficulties interpreting the behavior of neurotypicals. For example, autistic children fail at certain “pretend” tasks at a later age than neurotypical children (especially tasks involving deception). These difficulties are said to be caused by a failure in the autistic children’s ToM process, which autistic children learn at a later stage than neurotypical people, and possibly never learn at all.

Hacking’s alternative:

Hacking rejects ToM in general, not only in the ToM-deficit theory of autism. He replaces it with a Wittgensteinian Form-of-Life (FoL) theory of language and social knowledge. On this view, language and social interaction is a norm-based practice, and such practices cannot be analyzed in terms of internal, language-like “theories” about the domain governed by the norms. Practices cannot be reduced to theories; you cannot learn to rollerskate by reading a book. The ToM notion that we infer people’s intentions based their behavior is a mistake (says Hacking); we intuitively and directly see people’s intentions. He callse these intuitive “seeings” of mentality are “Köhler phenomena” (after the Gestalt psychologist who, Hacking says, inspired Wittgenstein). The intuitive skills of neurotypicals are falsely described by ToM, and so autistics are falsely described as having a deficit of ToM.

Autistic Narratives:

Hacking proposes that the autistic narratives may actually contribute be constituting (rather than merely describing) the nature of autistic experience. This is especially true of reports of pre-linguistic experience that many autism narratives report — experience that which occurred before the autistic individuals (who wrote the narratives) had achieved linguistic communication. This final claim relates to Hacking’s earlier studies of fugue states and multiple personality conditions. These psychological conditions were, in part, constituted by the ways in which people decided to describe them. This is Hacking’s version of social constructionism, which avoids some of the epistemological relativism that accompanies other versions of constructionism. Continue reading