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Perceiving Mental States

by Stephen A. Butterfill


How could we come to know that another is angry about an insult or happy about an outcome? Some philosophers have defended the hypothesis that knowledge of others' anger or joy is sometimes perceptual (e.g. Smith, 2010, 2015; McNeill, 2012a,b). In this talk I consider two challenges to this hypothesis. The first challenge is to identify evidence in favour of it, or at least to explain what evidence could bear on the hypothesis. Perhaps this challenge can be met by considering categorical perception of expressions of emotion, for which there is some evidence. The second challenge is to specify a model of anger and other mental states which captures how these mental states appear to the perceivers. This is a hard challenge to meet because available models arguably render mental states imperceptible. In the last part of the talk I propose an alternative way in which knowledge of others' mental states could be acquired, one that hinges on interaction rather than perception. Reflection on what is involved in sharing a smile suggests that one route to knowledge of others’ mental states might involve interacting with them.