The second person approach: implications for a realistic phenomenology of social cognition

Document Type : Original Article


Department of Philosophy, University of Turin


This paper analyses social cognition by considering the analytic philosophy of mind, neurophenomenology and social neuroscience. Many social neuroscientists rely unconsciously on different philosophical answers to the question "how do we understand each other?". Consequently, we will compare the principal philosophical and experimental approaches to social cognition that have been proposed so far and join them in an integrationist account by taking into consideration the direct embeddedness of social interactors.

First, the "theory theory" (T.T.) affirms that mindreading consists in inferring the other's mental state by observing his behaviour from a third-person perspective. A neural network called the "mentalizing system" (M.E.N.S.) underlies mindreading activities.

Second, the Simulation Theory (S.T.) assumes that social cognition involves simulating the mental states of the other. The neural substrate for the simulatory activities is the "mirror neurons system" (i.e., M.N.S.). Both TT and S.T. are fastened to the "observer paradigm" since the experimental set-ups involve detecting the brain's activity of a participant observing or simulating someone else's movement, and intersubjective dynamics are not at play.

Finally, the 2nd person approach invites to consider the other as the one who is directly intervening on our perception and is responsible for the meaning we assign to his mental states (cf. Schillbach et al., 2013). Consequently, Schilbach et al. (2013) have established an experimental setting that is "minimalist and naturalistic" because it focuses on basic kinds of embedded interactions such as mutual gaze.

This paper argues that the philosophical theories underlying those approaches do not conflict with each other, but they highlight different moments of social interaction in real life. Indeed, their neural substrates partially overlap. Hence, we want to establish in which order these three moments of social interaction occur. We hold that a realistic phenomenology must consider second-person interactions as the beginning of a realistic phenomenology.


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