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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience


In this chapter I will try to ground the claim, both theoretically and empirically, that false-belief reasoning requires a sophisticated command of syntax. One of the oldest philosophical questions asks whether one can have thinking without language, and if so, what are its limits? In the domain of theory of mind this question achieves new significance. Is this what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom? Is this what language is good for? And not just words, but syntax? The first section of this chapter grapples with the fundamental issue of the contribution language makes, if any, to the formation of concepts. A tentative distinction will be drawn between concepts that require no language and concepts that are formed with the help of language. In that latter case, the question arises about whether language is strictly necessary, or just helpful in the normal course of development. The second section of the paper considers phenomena under theory of mind, and asks how the categories and distinctions formed there connect to language. A brief review of the theoretical discussions of the connections of language and certain theory of mind developments is undertaken, and then a specific alternative proposal is examined. The third section is a summary of the empirical data related to the role of language, specifically syntax, in false-belief reasoning. Data are reviewed from the course of development in preschool children, and also from the delayed acquisition seen in deaf children who are learning oral language. The fourth section of the paper points to some interesting new results in language acquisition, inspired and motivated by the work on theory of mind in child development. In this section, the focus of interest is the changes that become possible in language itself as a function of the child's ability to take on different speaker perspectives. Finally, the implications of this framework for children with autism are discussed.

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Peer reviewed accepted manuscript for book chapter in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding other minds: Perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience (p. 83–123). Oxford University Press.

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