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Metarepresentation (completed)

The metarepresentation sub-project will extend research on the human capacity to construct and process metarepresentations (e.g. thoughts about thoughts, utterances or norms) carried out in the first phase of CSMN.

Our hypothesis is that there are several evolved metarepresentational mechanisms involved in communication, persuasion and the emergence of social norms.


In the first phase of the project, we have been assessing experimental, developmental, pathological, and cross-cultural evidence with a bearing on this hypothesis. In the next phase, we will continue research in these three areas, focusing on the following themes:

  • Communication. Our hypothesis is that comprehension of overt communicative acts involves not merely a general capacity to attribute intentions to agents, but a dedicated mechanism for the attribution of specifically communicative intentions (Sperber & Wilson 2002). We will continue to assess theoretical and empirical evidence relevant to this hypothesis, focusing on (a) the role of spontaneous inference in comprehension, (b) the relation between spontaneous inference and reflective reasoning in comprehension, (c) the development and breakdown of communicative abilities, and (d) the role of imagery and emotion in communication and comprehension (Carston 2010).
  • Epistemic vigilance and reasoning. In a programmatic article published in Mind & Language in 2010, we argued that the massive dependence of humans on communicated information creates a vulnerability to misinformation which is addressed by several mechanisms for epistemic vigilance. We will carry out empirical research on two kinds of epistemic vigilance mechanism, directed at either the source of information (who to believe) or the content of information (what to believe). In particular, we will explore the hypothesis that human reflective inference (or ‘reasoning’ in the traditional sense) is best understood in relation to epistemic vigilance. For the receiver of information, checking its logical and evidential coherence (both internally and in the context of previous beliefs) is a fundamental way of exercising epistemic vigilance. For the communicator, trying to persuade a vigilant audience by explicitly displaying coherence relationships between premises that the audience already believes and novel communicated conclusions is an argumentative use of reasoning for persuasion that we regard as the main function of reasoning. We will test this hypothesis by revisiting the well known biases of human reasoning and seeing to what extent they are features of this argumentative function rather than flaws in the reasoning mechanisms. (This sub-project takes a complementary perspective to some of the issues addressed in sub-project A.)
  • Social norms. Much recent work on morality suggests that the main role of explicit social norms is not so much to guide action (which is mostly based on emotions and intuitions) but to pass judgment on the actions of others and to justify one’s own actions. In other words, social norms play a major role – arguably their main role – in argumentation. The use of norms in such contexts relies on the ability to metarepresent them. From an ontological point of view, norms stand apart from other representations (in particular mental representations) that humans routinely metarepresent. We will investigate to what extent their use in thought and argumentation involves a distinct mechanism, rather than relying on meta-psychological, pragmatic and argumentative mechanisms, which are also metarepresentational?
Published Jan. 20, 2012 3:08 PM - Last modified Feb. 27, 2019 10:15 AM


Deirdre Wilson
Phone: +44 (0) 207 679 4021