Category Archives: institutional experience

Use, possession, ownership. An ongoing conversation with P. Kanngiesser

Recently Patricia Kanngiesser sent me a copy of the intro to her doctoral thesis, “Biological and Developmental Origins of Ownership Concepts.” I really enjoyed reading it. It’s extremely well written and well argued. She provides a number of new insights on the development of ownership with great clarity. It’s just brilliant.

One of the important topics Patricia addresses is the conceptual distinction between possession and property. She argues that, while possession presupposes physical proximity between possessors and their things, ownership holds even in the owner’s absence. Possession requires the simultaneous presence of owners and their objects, ownership does not.

Based on this distinction and on extant research on ownership in animals and humans (children and adults), she claims that animals show only possession-related behavior that is crucially dependent on an animal being in physical proximity to a thing. In other words, ownership is absent in animals; animals display rudimentary precursors of ownership-related behaviors only.

“While animals show attachment to things such as territories, food, and mates, evidence for recognizing possession and respecting others’ possessions irrespective of factors such as dominance rank or competitive advantages is sparse. Apart from one rare example of respect for possession of females in baboons, most respect for possession seems to derive from the fact that possessors manage to avoid dominant rivals (e.g. by carrying possession away). Finally, universal social rules regarding ownership are absent from animal societies. While attachment to things could form a biological basis for ownership-related behaviors in humans, an ownership concept that encompasses recognition and respect of ownership as well as a complex web of social rules is probably the unique product of a human socio-cultural environment.” (Patricia Kanngiesser, doctoral thesis).

Up to here I summarized Patricia’s position, and I agree with her. Now, it must be noted that even animal possession is not a two-term relationship (between an individual agent and a thing) but always presupposes a social context. There are possession conflicts because there are individuals competing for objects and for recognition, or for “prestige” as Philippe Rochat would say. PK notes that “about 75% of young children’s conflicts with peers revolve around the possession of objects” and that “21-month-olds often view a toy as more attractive after another child has named or touched it” (Hay & Ross, 1982). Objects become desirable because they are desired by other children; once a child children obtains an object, she wants to be recognized as possessor by other children; she now has exclusive access to the object and can exclude other children. As PK writes, “it is thus conceivable that conflicts concerning the possession of objects are also driven by social motives such as establishing social relationships and exerting social influence.” This, again, suggests not a dual relationship agent-object but at least a triadic relationship agent-object-agent.

Furthermore, PK also notes that “prior possession presents an advantage in conflicts over objects”, a finding corroborated many times both with young children and with some animal species. Now, if current possessors tend to win possession conflicts, it’s because other agents can identify them as possessors. Which again suggests not a dual relation agent-object but a triadic relation where other agents can identify possessors and interact with them accordingly. In this incipient relationship between a non-possessor and a possessor, even if “universal rules” are still absent (as PK argues), there is something like a proto-rule at work: perhaps for strategic reasons that can be modeled in terms of game theory (costs of trying to take an object from a possessor are high), perhaps for efficiency reasons (groups are more stable when possessors are not attacked and conflicts are minimized), current possession is respected, which might be a precursor of institutional or conventional rules such as the prior possession rule (which establishes that prior possession is a justification for ownership).

Therefore, I stick with my position that you need to discriminate three different categories:

– Use: dual relationship between an agent and an object (food, toy, instrument, etc.)

– Possession: triadic relationship agent-object-agent that requires one agent (called the possessor) physically controlling the object, while the other agent is excluded from this relationship. In this scenario, some proto-rules start to play out.

– Ownership: a relationship between agent and object that is not based in physical control but in normative rules (“universal” rules, as PK calls them). The title of owner gives the owner privileged access to the object and, in general, a number of rights and duties.


Pinker on moral realism

I’ve recently read an old opinion piece by Steven Pinker (

It’s a brilliant article. It summarizes current trends on the scientific study of morality. As I frequently do, I will focus on a tiny aspect of his argument.

In addition to a review of the intellectual landscape in this domain, towards the end Pinker integrates different recent findings and prevalent theories into the theoretical position of “moral realism”. By this expression, he means that morality is not just the result of a number of arbitrary conventions or contingent historical traditions. There are, rather, objective and universal reasons why fundamental moral rules are universally valid. There are moral truths just as there are mathematical truths. Let me quote him:

“This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.”

So, just as Stan Dehaene talks about a “number sense”, Pinker talks about a “moral sense”. Just as there is a mathematical reality and mathematical facts, there is a moral reality and moral facts.

According to Pinker, moral realism is supported by two arguments:

1) Zero-sum games are games in which one party has to lose in order for the other to win. In nonzero-sum games, by way of contrast, win-win solutions are possible. Now, in many everyday situations, agents are better off when they act in a generous (as opposed to selfish) way. Thus, these everyday situations can be analyzed (in terms of game theory) as “nonzero-sum games.” His words: “You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys.”

Pinker does not explain this first argument clearly, but he seems to imply that societies respond to a number of constraints by developing norms and structures (such as reciprocity or mutual respect). A group or social organization that enforces the rules of reciprocity, mutual respect, authority, etc., is probably more stable, and it’s in a position to deliver more good to a greater number of members, as compared with a group that does not enforce those standards. This is not a new theory. It is already postulated by Plato (a defender of both mathematical realism and moral realism) in the Republic. It is also advanced, with different nuances, by more recent authors such as Hegel, Piaget, Quine, and others.

Now, in what sense might concepts like “just” or “moral” be real? Only in the sense of being a kind of “pattern” or “form” that regulates human interaction (they are “ideal realities”, not physical realities). Where might such patterns, such ideal realities, come from? They grow out of natural evolution and cultural history; they develop in human experience, relationships, “praxis” (as a Marxist would say). But if “moral truths” emerge from (are conditional on) natural and cultural history, and history is woven by the actions of free humans, can we still say that there is a universal, binding, “true morality”? Is such a “true” form of justice or morality valid for any possible individual or any possible society? At this point, everything gets blurry and fuzzy. My opinion is that, yes, there is one true universal morality, but that it is true in the context of our specific world history. So, ultimately, moral truths are not absolute (nothing is absolute unless you believe in god), but conditional on human nature, human history and human culture. They are real and universal within this context.

I quote Pinker again: “The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.”

“Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the interchangeability of perspectives — keeps reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance.”

“Morality, then, is still something larger than our inherited moral sense.”

This second aspect, that one might call “generalized reciprocity”, simply consists in recognizing that others have the same rights that we demand for ourselves. This may have a cost in the short term (I cannot rape your daughter or loot your farm) but it will pay off in the long run (I feel that my land and my family are safer, which is a higher good). In our market-penetrated, contractual society, this reciprocal consideration takes the form of an ability to adopt, in everyday discourse, the point of view of others, overcoming our limited perspective and progressively approaching an inter-subjective or trans-subjective point of view. But, against Pinker, I don’t think that this is a different point than the previous one; it is rather a facet of it. Human societies have developed, throughout history, a more complex, democratic, and in some ways egalitarian structure; at the same time, markets have become central institutions of modern societies. Argument 1 is: societies have evolved internal structures that respond to certain constraints. From there, one can derive argument 2: such societies have tended to make generalized reciprocity both a relational pattern and a moral ideal.

Ernest Gellner on science and society

Text #18: Gellner, E. (1984). The scientific status of the social sciences. International Social Science Journal, 36, 567-586.

This is a well-written and sharp article which touches upon several connected themes. For example: reasons for the current prestige of science; relations between social and natural sciences; role of science in modern society; economic impact of scientific activities; descriptive and normative uses of epistemology; whether the social sciences are scientific, and in what sense; what should happen for the social sciences to achieve an undisputable scientific status. And many others that I will not discuss.

I will only refer to one of the topics Gellner discusses: the social nature of science. Gellner distinguishes between different degrees of “sociologization” of science:

  • Philosophical epistemologies assume that science can be a one-person enterprise. Inductivism and logical positivism fall in this category. “The practitioner of this approach works in terms of some kind of model of discovery or of the acquisition of knowledge, where the elements in that model are items drawn from individual activities, such as having ideas, experiences, setting up experiments, relating the lessons of experience or the results of experiments to generalizations based on the initial ideas, and so forth. An extreme individualistic theory of science would be one that offered a theory and a demarcation of science without ever going beyond the bounds of a model constructed in this way. Such a theory might concede or even stress that, in fact, scientists are very numerous and that they habitually co-operate and communicate with each other. But it would treat this as somehow contingent and inessential. A Robinson Crusoe could, for such a theory, practise science. Given resources, longevity, ingenuity and ability, no achievement of science as we know it would, “in principle”, be beyond his powers. Those who hold theories of this kind are not debarred from admitting that, in fact, criticism, testing and corroboration are, generally speaking, social activities, and that they depend for their effectiveness on a mathematical, technological and institutional infrastructure, which is far beyond the power of any individual to establish; but they are, I suppose, committed to holding that whether or not a social environment makes these preconditions available is, as it were, an external condition of science, but not in any essential way part of it.”
    I think many current cognitivist and developmental psychologists who view knowledge acquisition as an individual skill or activity also fall in Gellner’s description (think Gopnik).
  • First-degree sociologization of science: society constitutes an essential precondition for the existence of science, but only society as such, and not necessarily this or that kind of society. Think Émile Durkheim here.
  • A second degree of the sociologizing of the theory of science involves insisting not merely on the presence of a society, but of a special kind of society. Popper’s theory of science seems to be of this kind: society is not enough, science requires the “critical spirit”. Closed societies cannot engender science but an “open society” can do so. An open society is one in which men subject each other’s views to criticism, and which either possesses institutional underpinning for such a practice, or at least lacks the institutional means for inhibiting it. Science is the kind of institution that is not at the mercy of the virtues or vices of persons. Public testing by a diversified and uncontrollable community of scientists ensures the ultimate elimination of faulty ideas, however dogmatic and irrational their individual adherents may be. In this version, science and its advancement clearly does depend on the institutional underpinning of this public and plural testing.
    Thomas Kuhn also sociologizes science to the second degree. For him, the crucial difference between science-capable and science-incapable societies is the absence or presence of a paradigm. Kuhn, however, does not seem to distinguish between scientific and unscientific paradigms. For Popper, the only science capable society is one endowed with institutional guarantees of the possibility or even the encouragement of criticism; for Kuhn, science is made possible only by the presence of social conceptual control sufficiently tight to impose a paradigm on its member’s at most times. Paradigms are binding only by social pressure, which thus makes science possible. Unless the deep questions are arbitrarily prejudged, science cannot proceed.
  • Gellner’s position is that, to define science, one needs to sociologize the philosophy of science to the third degree. This means considering the features and activities of society that do not pertain to their cognitive activities alone. (There is something strange in Gellner’s argument here, because Popper’s and Kuhn’s theories, as described by Gellner, seem to include non-cognitive, i.e. institutional aspects of social life). In order to clarify his point, Gellner describes three crucial stages of human history:
    1. Societies that practice hunting and food gathering. He doesn’t talk about knowledge in these societies, but we know these are societies that organize their wisdom in myths (folk tales, oral traditions, etc.)
    2. Societies oriented towards food production, mainly agriculture and pastoralism. These societies are literate and are governed by a centralized political class. Recorded knowledge in such societies is used for administrative records, notably those connected with taxation; for communication along a political and religious hierarchy; and as parts of ritual and for the codification of religious doctrine. Conservation of the written truth is the central concern here, rather than its expansion.
    3. Societies based on production, which is linked to growing scientific knowledge. Here he includes all modern and post-modern societies: the continuously growing technology they engender is immeasurably superior to, and qualitatively distinct from, the practical skills of the craftsmen of agrarian society. In this society, the question is no longer “what is truth, wisdom or genuine knowledge?” Rather, science is seen as the key to expand and optimize the productive processes of society. A society endowed with a powerful and continuously growing technology lives by innovation, and its occupational role structure is perpetually in flux. Science in such societies is trans-social, trans-cultural, explicit, formalized and abstract knowledge.

If you have read my other posts in this blog, you already know what my position about this topic is. While I endorse a third-degree sociologization of science, I follow in this respect authors like Hegel, J-P Vernant and J. Samaja, who emphasize the relation between the social structure of society and the production of knowledge. Gellner, by way of contrast, thinks that theories of historical stages in terms of social organization do not work. The way he makes science depend on productive processes (on the economic features of society) seems more traditionally Marxist (which is ironic, given that he’s usually recognized as an anti-Marxist).

Perret-Clermont on knowledge-oriented argumentation

Paper #2

We continue with another article by Perret-Clermont and her collaborators, in this case: Perret-Clermont, A. N., Breux, S., Greco, S., & Miserez Caperos, C. (2014): Children and knowledge-oriented argumentation. Some notes for future research. In Language, reason and education. Studies in honor of Eddo Rigotti. Bern: Peter Lang.

The authors of this paper claim that classical studies of children’s argumentation over-emphasize the internal, cognitive aspect of argumentation while underestimating the role of the social context. Psychological research tends to neglect the interpersonal and institutional context in which psychological processes such as argumentation take place.

Of course, as it is obvious for the followers of this blog, I agree with the previous claims. I believe, however, that the authors should offer a clarification of what they understand by “institutions” (they don’t define the term in the paper). They seem to refer to social organizations such as school, family or research team. They seem to be concerned especially with school context, because they suggest it should be possible to design pedagogical interventions that are informed by the theory of argumentation (i.e., create more democratic schools in which students exchange reasoning and opinions freely).

I prefer to give the term “institution” a broader meaning (based on Searle’s theory, as I’ve explained elsewhere). This broader use involves treating “promises”, “ownership”, “barter” and other social practices as “institutions” and thus allows us to see institutionally-rooted argumentation everywhere in the daily life of children (not only in school while engaged in learning activities).

One interesting distinction the authors draw (although not explicitly enough) is that between competitive or adversarial argumentation and knowledge-oriented argumentation. You can find examples of the former in arenas such as politics and litigation. Competitive argumentation aims at proving one party right and the other wrong for whatever means; it’s about destroying the other’s arguments while making one’s own point of view triumph. In this scenario, one never doubts one’s own point of view (the position one wants to defend is a fixed premise). In other words: in competitive or adversarial argumentation there’s no win-win situation; for one party to win the other must lose (zero-sum result). This might involve, in some cases, launching psychological warfare aimed at undermining the other party self-confidence or destroying her emotionally.

Knowledge-oriented argumentation, by way of contrast, is not concerned with defending a fixed position. Rather, it’s about collaborating with others in order to discover something. In knowledge-oriented argumentation, we all work as a team in order to explore all possible points of view about a given topic. Thus children as well as adults have moving standpoints when they are engaged in knowledge-oriented argumentation.

I’m still thinking about these different dimensions of argumentation. One can either compete or collaborate with one’s interlocutor. Competition can play out rationally (one plays by the rules and respects the adversary) or brutally (one wants to win whatever it takes). Collaboration can also play out rationally (we explore all possible points of view and reasons together) or irrationally (we don’t want to diverge from the rest of the group so we just assent to whatever reasons they present while suppressing our own point of view).

Bertrand Russell on the analogy between truth and justice

The following quote belongs to the penultimate paragraph of Bertrand Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy”:

The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

This is one more beautiful example of the point I’ve made over and over again, and that you can find, expressed in different ways, in such varied authors such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Jean Piaget, Charles Peirce, Jean-Pierre Vernant and many others: that there is a fundamental analogy between truth and justice; and that this analogy does not merely consist in a formal similarity between both concepts, but stems from a common, deeper source: the struggle for justice in the realm of the practical affairs of mankind has evolved into the search for truth in the theoretical realm.

I’m sorry

My son is an adorable and smart kid. I have talked about him in this blog, especially to provide illustrations of developmental milestones. But, in order to put his achievements in context, it’s necessary to mention that he’s developmentally delayed. That is, he’s 4 years 1 month old now, and he’s mastering certain behaviors that are typical of 2- and 3-year-olds.

For example, he has recently learned how to say “I’m sorry.” There are several ways to perform this speech act (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) in Spanish; he uses “lo siento” instead of “perdón”, the latter being more common here in Argentina. I guess he picked up “lo siento” from TV shows such as Caillou or Go Diego Go, that are dubbed in Mexico or Spain.

The speech act of apologizing is a very peculiar and interesting one. It involves a) the recognition that one has done something wrong (something morally bad, or perhaps neglectful or careless), as well as b) the request that the person one is interacting with forgives (gives up feelings of anger and decides not to punish) this behavior. It also implies that the person apologizing is committed to avoid such wrongdoing in the future. There’s a whole conception of responsibility implicit in this apparently simple speech act.

As I have argued elsewhere, I support the Piagetian idea that action precedes thought (Piaget, 1976), which on the level of speech acts translates as: rhetorical moves precede explicit concepts. In other words, my son apologizes because he senses he can get certain pragmatic results by using this speech act. He performs the speech act pretty well, with the right tone in his voice and a cute expression on his face. So he convinces me and I capitulate: “ok, ok, but don’t do that again”.

Yet it’s easy to see he’s not mastered the rules of apology. For example, he tells me “I’m going to wash my hands”, and so I reply, “ok, but please be careful not to make a mess with the water,” and then he says “I am sorry”. Or, when he’s intentionally kicking a chair, I tell him “don’t do that again” and he says “I’m sorry” but continues kicking the chair just as before. So he’s contradicting two felicity conditions of the speech act of apologizing: in the former example he’s not committed the wrongdoing yet; in the latter, he’s not committed to avoid doing it again in the future.

To sum up: my son is pragmatically effective but he’s still not conceptually clear about what “I’m sorry” means. He doesn’t get responsibility, pardon, commitment, etc. Conceptual clarity about the meaning of apologies will arrive later, as a result of reflection on this interaction with the world, favored by social instruction, social representations and symbolic interaction in general.


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.2307/3326622

Piaget, J. (1976). The grasp of consciousness (S. Wedgwood, Trans.). Cambridge Massachusettes Harvard University PressOriginal Work Published 1974.

Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (p. 203). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from



Dialogue of the deaf

Dialogue of the deaf

I had a stimulating discussion with a neuroscientist the other day. I tried to explain to her that my interest in children’s cognitive development is linked to my interest in epistemology, that is, to what I refer to in this blog as the normativity of thought.

For example, I argue that researchers who try to explain children’s knowledge of math from a nativist point of view, can only explain the starting point of cognitive development. The starting point is innate mathematical knowledge, which is mostly implicit, and basically consists in an ability to identify the numerosity of collections of objects found in the outside world. In other words: researchers have shown that animals (humans included) have the innate ability to assess the size of a collection of perceived objects (for example, they can notice that a collection of 15 pebbles is greater than a collection of 10 pebbles). They can also discriminate among exact quantities, but only when dealing with small sets (two, three, and perhaps four objects). Also, some animals and human babies can perform elementary arithmetic operations on small sets (adding two plus one, subtracting one from two, etc.) I am referring here to studies by Dehaene (2011), Izard, Sann, Spelke, & Streri (2009), Spelke (2011), and many others.

This basic capacity is certainly different from fully-fledged “human math.” The latter involves, at the very least, the symbolic representation of exact numbers larger than three. We (humans) can represent an exact number by saying its name (“nine”), or by using a gesture that stands for the number in question (depending on the culture, this might be done by touching a part of one’s body, showing a number of fingers, etc. – see Saxe ( 1991) and also And, of course, we can write down a sign that represents the number (for example, with using the Arabic numeral “9”).

Scholars agree on the fact that advanced math is explicit and symbolic, and that it builds on (and uses similar brain areas to) its precursor, innate math. Once they operate on the symbolic level, humans can do things like: performing operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and others), demonstrating mathematical propositions, proving that one particular solution to a mathematical problem is the correct one, etc. To sum up: our symbolic capacities allow us to re-describe our intuitive approach to math on a precise, normative, epistemic level.

Now, here’s when it gets tricky. I argue that the application of algorithms on the symbolic level is not merely mechanical. Humans are not computers applying rules from a rule book, one after the other (like Searle in his Chinese room). Rather, as Dehaene (2011) argues, numbers mean something for us. “Nine” means nine of something (anything). “Nine plus one” means performing the action of adding one more unit to the set of nine units. There is a core of meaning in innate math; and this core is expanded and refined in our more advanced, symbolic math.

When executing mathematical operations (either in a purely mental fashion, or supported by objects) one gets a feeling of satisfaction when one arrives to a right (fair, correct, just) result. Notice the normative language we apply here (fair, correct, right, true, just). We actually experience something similar to a sense of justice when both sides of an equation are equal, or when we arrive to a result that is necessarily correct. (Note to myself: talk to Mariano S. We might perhaps do brain fMRIs and study if the areas of the brain that get activated by the “sense of justice” in legal situations, also light up when the “sense of justice” is reached by finding the right responses in math. If a similar region gets activated, that might suggest that there is a normative aspect to math that corresponds to the normative aspect of morality).

For me, then, the million dollar question is: how do humans go from the implicit, non-symbolic, automatic level to the explicit, symbolic, intentional and normative level? What is involved in this transition? What kind of biological processes, social experiences and individual constructions are necessary to achieve the “higher,” explicit level? (These are interesting questions both for the field of math and for the field of morality). And my hypothesis is that this transition necessarily demands the intervention of a particular type of social experience, namely, the experience of the normative world of social exchanges and rules of ownership (I’ve talked a little about such reckless hypotheses in other posts of this blog).

Now, when I try to explain all this to the neuroscientist, I lose her. She doesn’t follow me. For her, human knowledge is the sum of a) innate knowledge and b) learning from the environment. Learning is the process by which our brain acquires new information from the world, information that was not pre-wired, that didn’t came ready to use “out of the box.” Whether such learning involves a direct exposure to certain stimuli that represent contents (a school teacher teaching math to his or her students) or a more indirect process of exposure to social interactions is not an interesting question for her. It doesn’t change her basic view according to which there are two things, and two things only: innate knowledge and acquired knowledge. What we know is the result of combining the two. And this is the case both for humans and for other animals. Period.

Something similar happens when I talk to her about the difference between “cold processing” and “hot processing.” We were discussing the research I am conducting right now. I interview children about ownership and stealing. In my interview design, children watch a movie where one character steals a bar of chocolate from another, and eats it. The interviewer then asks the child a series of questions aimed at understanding her reasoning about ownership and theft. Now, the movie presents a third person situation. This means that the child might be interested in the movie, but he or she is not really affected by it. Children reason about what they see in the movie, and sometimes they seem to say what they think it’s the appropriate thing to say, echoing adults’ discourse. Because, after all, the movie is fiction, not the real world.

I believe that normativity emerges not from absorbing social information that comes from external events (watching movies, attending to teachers’ explanations) but from children’s real immersion in first person, real world, conflictive situations. When a child is fighting against another for the possession of a toy, there are cries and sometimes there even is physical violence. These encounters end up in different ways; sometimes children work out a rule for sharing the scarce resource, sometimes they just fight, and sometimes an adult intervenes and adjudicates in the conflict. The child’s reactions during these events is not dictated by cold reasoning but by deeper impulses. It is in these situations where we should look for the emergence of our basic normative categories, such as reciprocity (both social and logical, or “reversibility”), ownership (or the relationship between substance and its “properties”), quantity (used to implement equity and equality), etc.

But, again, my biologist friend does not feel that the distinction between the impulsive, intense, hot reactions we experience when involved in real conflicts and the kind of third person reasoning that is triggered by movies and artificial stimuli is an important one. In both cases, she argues, it’s the same cognitive system that is at work. What we think about third person characters is probably similar to how we reason about ourselves (thanks to our capacity for empathy, our mirror-neurons, etc.)

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong here.


Dehaene, S. (2011). The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Revised and Updated Edition. The number sense How the mind creates mathematics rev and updated ed (p. 352). Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved from

Izard, V., Sann, C., Spelke, E. S., & Streri, A. (2009). Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106(25), 10382–10385.

Saxe, G. B. (1991). Culture and Cognitive Development: Studies in Mathematical Understanding. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Spelke, E. S. (2011). Quinian bootstrapping or Fodorian combination? Core and constructed knowledge of number. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(3), 149–150.