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What Makes Human Cognition Unique? From Individual to Shared to Collective Intentionality

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It is widely believed that what distinguishes the social cognition of humans from that of other animals is the belief–desire psychology of four–year–old children and adults (so–called theory of mind). We argue here that this is actually the second ontogenetic step in uniquely human social cognition. The first step is one year old children's understanding of persons as intentional agents, which enables skills of cultural learning and shared intentionality. This initial step is ‘the real thing’ in the sense that it enables young children to participate in cultural activities using shared, perspectival symbols with a conventional/normative/reflective dimension—for example, linguistic communication and pretend play—thus inaugurating children's understanding of things mental. Understanding beliefs and participating in collective intentionality at four years of age—enabling the comprehension of such things as money and marriage—results from several years of engagement with other persons in perspective–shifting and reflective discourse containing propositional attitude constructions.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

Publication date: 01 April 2003

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