Thinking about Past Minds: Cognitive Science as Philosophy of Historiography

Journal of the Philosophy of History 17 (2):219-242 (2023)
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Abstract

This paper outlines the case for a future research program that uses the tools of experimental cognitive science to investigate questions that traditionally fall under the remit of the philosophy of historiography. The central idea is this – the epistemic profile of historians’ representations of the past is largely an empirical matter, determined in no small part by the cognitive processes that produce these representations. However, as the philosophy of historiography is not presently equipped to investigate such cognitive questions, legitimate concerns about evidential quality go largely overlooked. The case of mental state representation provides an excellent illustration of this. Representations of past mental states – the thoughts and fears and knowledge and desires of past agents – play much the same evidential role in historiography as in everyday life, serving in the causal explanation of agents’ behaviors and supporting normative evaluation of those behaviors. However, we have good reason to suspect that the theory of mind processes that support these representations may be more susceptible to error when deployed in the context of historiography than under everyday conditions. This raises worries about the quality of evidence that theory of mind can provide historiography, worries which require experimental cognitive science to properly address.

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Adam Michael Bricker
University of Turku

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