Inference or familiarity? The embodied roots of social cognition

Massimiliano L. Cappuccio

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1 Citation (Scopus)


I consider two distinct deflationary theories in social cognition that aim to explain action understanding without demanding meta-representational or mindreading processes: the first one is the 'teleological stance hypothesis' (TSH), claiming that we infer the intended goal of a certain observed action based on the mere perception of its effects and of its situational constraints; I decided to dub the second one 'the embodied familiarity hypothesis' (EFH) to comprise all the theories claiming that we recognize the intended goal of a certain action based on the perceptual or motoric expertise developed within the sensorimotor contingencies associated to that action's context. TSH's main requirement is that the observer could ascribe efficiency, and therefore rationality, to the observed agent's movement, while EFH's main requirement is that the observer were somehow exposed to the perceptual or motoric details of the observed agent's action. I argue that EFH describes a more primitive and fundamental form of action understanding, i.e. one that is necessarily presupposed by TSH: in fact, while recognizing efficiency is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for detecting goal-relatedness, some kind of perceptual or motoric familiarity with the details of the observed action's context is always necessary for any ascription of efficiency, and therefore of rationality, to the observed agent. I conclude that, while TSH might certainly be effective in describing certain rational forms of action understanding, it implicitly requires EFH to be true, as its inferential system would be groundless without an assumed familiar background of embodied expertise.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)253-272
Number of pages20
JournalSynthesis Philosophica
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Direct matching hypothesis
  • Intentional stance
  • Mirror neurons
  • Rationality
  • Social cognition
  • Teleological stance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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