The assumption of universality in Natural Pedagogy and early Mindreading System

Gergely and Csibra argue that natural pedagogy has been selected during hominid evolution to ensure 1) fast and efficient acquisition and intergenerational transfer of cultural knowledge, and 2) overcoming the hard social environmental conditions of «cognitive opacity» for human cultural forms.

Pedagogical cues work as an “interpretation switch”, signalling to the infant that she is being taught and receiving relevant information. In this way, ostensive communication allows infants to shape their inferential processes about epistemic information along two reasoning pathways (or biases): one is directed towards the object categorisation, and the other towards the adults and social context. The first inferential pathway is named «assumption of generalizability», whereas the second pathway is termed «assumption of universality» (Gergely et al. 2007, p. 141). Through the latter, infants consider the epistemic information they acquire as it was shared with other members of the community, i.e., as being already known by everyone.

The universality assumption can be expressed by the following sentence: «If someone knows something, everyone knows it» (Csibra-Gergely 2006, p. 273). In other words, such an assumption triggers the bias whereby whatever infants learn is taken by them to be already known by everyone.

I deem the universality assumption to be crucial for the efficacy of transmission and above all for the maintenance of cultural knowledge under the form of conventions and common ground beliefs across generations. Such implication of natural pedagogy theory would represent a fundamental strategy for cultural transmission to optimize the reinforcement of the social practices, beliefs, and values of communities.

From a representational point of view, the knowledge content assimilated pedagogically is ascribed to others by infants without any commitment to a simulationist mentalization (according to which action simulation permits action understanding). On the contrary, pedagogical learning deals with an object-centred perspective that ignores (or rules out) the teacher’s mental state. Such an assumption implies that an individual behaviour manifested pedagogically as personal dispositional property would be learned by infants and children as an epistemic status (or as a knowledge content) that extends beyond the episodic situation in which it has been manifested to be relevantly ascribed to other members of one’s social group.

I suggest that such bias is permitted and guaranteed by an early mindreading system already in place between 7 and 10 months of age and employed in other kinds of social interactions. I argue that, in order to learn and reuse the knowing-how information for navigating the social world, infants are equipped with belief ascription abilities.

I defend a supposedly propositional nature of belief ascription in infanthood, and I believe that this should ground the universality of assumption. Such an assumption arises in the wake of intellectualism, according to which knowing how to perform an action is intended as a knowledge state with propositional content, i.e. «the state of knowing a proposition about how to perform that action under a practical mode of presentation» (Pavese 2019, p. 803; Stanley –Williamson 2016). Practical representations should be intended as procedural. Procedures are synonymous of primitive rules which are represented as instructions. Procedural representations can then be depicted in prescriptive terms, but they are not necessarily perceptual. Practical mode of presentations might, therefore, constitute a «third way of representing the world, alongside perceptual representations and conceptual representations» (Pavese 2019, p. 792). This a further theoretical perspective that sits comfortably with the view supporting an innate complex representational system able to take into account different sorts of representations as well as different perspectives.

In a few words, infants can hold other’s mental states through representational formats, whose contents involve location, identity, and absence of objects that ceased to exist. Some fundamental features of belief states are, therefore, shared with the adult notion of belief, without implying a well-formed and mature mindreading system to be present at birth. This early form of mindreading serves social learning practises and it is closely connected with the natural pedagogy system, whose grounding elements seem to be involved in several communicative contexts. The cooperation and the enrichment of other systems make mindreading increasingly more sophisticated throughout childhood. The consequent enrichment of mindreading overshadows, little by little, the learning procedures typical of natural pedagogy, which is activated only in certain relational and communicative contexts during the childhood age.


  1. Hi Emiliano, thanks for blogging. This is a very fascinating topic!

    It’s not clear to me why does one need to appeal to belief ascription in childhood, if there is “an object-centred perspective that ignores (or rules out) the teacher’s mental state”. To ascribe beliefs one usually meta-represents the other’s representational state (this is arguably the minimal notion of mindreading stemming from Bennett’s, Dennett’s and Harman’s critiques of the Primack and Woodruff paper). Here, however, no such meta-representation is needed as what is ascribed is a first order representation to both the child and the teacher.

    I’m not sure whether appealing to pragmatic representations, as opposed to perceptual and conceptual representations helps to solve this worry, because meta-representation seems to be needed to ascribe any kind of mental representations to others in an act of mindreading, be it a perceptual, a procedural, or a conceptual representation. (But maybe you’ll talk about pragmatic representations more in future posts to explain how mindreading works for them).

    Thank you in advance for your reply!

  2. Thank you Joulia for your comment!
    I prefer to talk about pragmatic representations as different ones rather than “opposed” to perceptual and conceptual representations.
    In the book, I argue that the early form of mindreading starts from the infant capacity of “taking into account others’ perspective”. This is the first step. Then, infants are able to reason about what the others see in a shared context. This competence enables young children to cooperate with others in helping tasks, for example. Furthermore, this competence makes infants build expectations about the world. This is quite evident in false-belief tasks. However, in a pedagogical context, the bias of assumption of universality occurs and two things happen. On the one hand, the bias uses the “taking into account others’ perspective” skill; on the other hand, the infant assumes that what she knows is already known by the others, and she reasons (i.e. builds expectations) and behaves in virtue of this inference, which infant will correct, little by little.

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