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The title of Vasudevi Reddy’s fascinating How Infants Know Minds (2010) contains her thesis. Infants don’t act by mere reflex, and they don’t respond only to physical stimuli or other bodies. Infants know other minds

The University of Portsmouth psychologist began to formulate her thesis while watching her own children. She was shocked to realize “they could understand me and others as persons.” Far from acting out of brute instinct, her children “were teasing, joking, playing with our expectations and attitudes and interests, being shy, and showing off long before they were able to speak.” Her infant children weren’t behaving, but acting.

Reddy’s observations didn’t fit the psychological orthodoxy. The famed Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget thought infant imitation impossible, since mimicry requires an aptitude for grasping similarities between self and other that is too complex for infants. Besides, he argued, imitation of specific actions requires specific learning. Newborns haven’t studied themselves in mirrors: How can they know how to mirror an adult’s actions? 

Yet they do imitate. A mother sticks out her tongue at her baby, and he sticks his tongue back at her. Everyone does this, but it arouses far less wonder than it should. How does an infant know he has a tongue? When did he discover his tongue is in the same quadrant of his face as his mother’s? She intends to be imitated; somehow the infant discerns and reacts to her intentions. Tongue protrusion isn’t “mere” imitation. Infants sometimes delay imitation, suggesting a protrusion can be a provocation to interaction. When mom sticks out her tongue, her child knows she’s playing a game. The child soon learns how to start the game, too.

That “mere” that inevitably modifies “imitation” is an unfortunate heritage of evolutionary biology. Following the lead of earlier explorers, Darwin said savages are keen mimics, dependent on a low, primitive form of social interaction. Reddy dismisses this as demeaning nonsense. Imitation is, after all, common in the most sophisticated modes of communication. It enables strangers to make “contact in the absence of any common language” by establishing “common ground on which both interactants can stand.” Even among the “civilized,” imitation is “a psychological door through which one is immediately led into a world of intentional relations with another person.” 

Even before birth, infants act with purpose. Ultrasound scans of fifteen-week-old infants in utero “have revealed at least fifteen different well-coordinated non-reflexive movement patterns, including independent finger movements, rapid and slow mouth opening, hand movements, repetitive contacting of mouth with fingers.” It’s “indisputable,” Reddy concludes, that infants act with intention and are motivated as much “by curiosity and interest” as they are “driven by physiological needs.” 

Why has this been missed? Reddy faults dualistic assumptions embedded in psychology, whether cognitivist or behaviorist. Psychologists typically reject mind-body dualism, yet when she began talking about infants knowing other minds, her colleagues warned her to “mind the gap”—the gap between mind and mind. If there is such a gap, there needs to be a bridge to cross it. But what if there is no gap? What if intentions, aims, and purposes aren’t concealed deeply within bodies but communicated through bodies? What if intentions and mental states can be perceived? What if minds were never disconnected in the first place, but linked by a network of pre-built bridges? What if minds are minds precisely through their interaction with one another (cue Martin Buber)? Psychologists say they reject Cartesian dualism, but their warnings to “mind the gap” indicate that Descartes shadows their discipline. The principle of parsimony, Reddy suggests, should lead psychology “to reject the dualism of separating the perception of the body from the perception of the mind” as vigorously as it rejects mind-body dualism.

Infancy has been marginal to modern thought. From Hobbes to Rawls, the parties in social contract theories are full-formed men, and the implied subject of modern epistemology is the mature, often male, knower. In many churches, you can’t become a member until you’re capable of making an articulated, adult decision to follow Jesus. Freud put the infant back at the center of the human sciences, but the Freudian infant is a bundle of drives—hardly a knower at all, much less a knower of other minds. When they take note of infants at all, modern thinkers have treated them as aliens or defective humans. Reddy demonstrates the opposite. It turns out babies are a lot like the rest of us.

Reddy’s own conclusions focus on the practice of child psychology. If she’s right, infants are best understood not from a first-person or third-person perspective, but in a second-person mode (cue Buber again). If psychology is second-person, the best approach isn’t detached observation or experiment, but engagement. A child psychologist learns things from playing with children that she can’t learn by watching them play with each other. “Suffer the little children to come to me” isn’t a piece of pious sentiment, but a starting point for scientific discovery.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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