Psychologists and philosophers differ in their approaches, even when they deal with the same phenomena. Broadly speaking, psychologists usually focus on behavioral differences and the underlying cognitive and emotional mechanisms, while philosophers tend to concentrate on conceptual and normative issues. When it comes to social cognition, the picture is sometimes a bit more complicated, partly due to an intensive cooperation between philosophers and psychologists. Still, psychologists typically investigate the relevant mechanisms with experimental methodologies, while philosophers try to find out, for example, whether social cognition creates a specific sort of knowledge—a second-person perspective that is systematically different from the third-person perspective of the world and our own first-person knowledge about ourselves.
The idea that an intersubjective epistemic perspective has to be added to the subjective first-person and the objective third-person perspective is by no means new. The basic idea can already be traced back to the beginning of the last century in the work of Heidegger (1927/1975
) and Mead (1925
). More recent versions that use the metaphor of a “second-person perspective” can be found in Varela and Shear (1999
); Bohman (2000
); Davidson (2004
); Habermas (2004
); and Reddy (2008
), for an overview see Lindemann (2006
The idea has gained momentum in recent years with the advance of social neuroscience. Research in this area has resulted in an increasing demand for a clarification as to what kind of knowledge understanding other minds is, how this knowledge is acquired, and whether or not it can be separated from other kinds of knowledge acquisition.
This requires a closer investigation of how the notion of the “second-person” is currently utilized in the literature. Varela and Shear (1999
) as well as Petitmengin (2006
) introduced the term for an interview method by which subjective first-person experiences are gathered as “data” with the help of another “second” person. This approach, especially its underlying idea of the physical presence of a second-person, may have influenced other fields like developmental psychology (Reddy, 2008
) and neuroscience (Schilbach, 2010
; Schilbach et al., 2010a
; Wilms et al., 2010
). Still, there is unclear usage of a number of similar terms. For example, the confusing use of similar terms such as “second-person account,” “second-person engagements,” “second-person experiences” (Schilbach et al., in press
), and “second-person perspective” demonstrate a lack of a common language. Here we will focus on the concept of second-person perspective, as it seems to be essential in social cognition.
One crucial question in defining second-person perspective is whether social interaction with a verbatim second-person plays a decisive role. This seems, for example, to be Schilbach's (2010
) view. He postulates, “social cognition is fundamentally different when an individual is actively and directly interacting with others. In such cases, an individual adopts a “second-person perspective” in which interaction with the other can be thought of as essential or even constitutive for social cognition, rather than merely observing others and relying on a “first- (or third-) person grasp” of their mental states
.” (p. 1).
Wilms et al. (2010
) use the term “online interaction” instead of “online social cognition.” Assumingly, what they wish to express is social cognition which is in place during real-life interaction. Moreover, they use this as a synonym for second-person perspective taking: “‘Online’ interaction crucially involves […] establishing reciprocal relations where actions feed directly into the communication loop […]. This has been referred to as adopting a “second-person-perspective” […] which can be taken to suggest that awareness of mental states results from being psychologically engaged with someone and being an active participant of reciprocal interaction thereby establishing a subject-subject (“Me-You”) rather than a subject-object (“Me-She/He”) relationship.”
Others (De Jaegher et al., 2010
) define social cognition without any reference to the second-person perspective. Although stressing the relevance of a comparatively strong version of interaction for the development of social cognition, De Jaegher et al. (2010
) concede that social cognition may occur in the absence of interaction, e.g., in remote observation of social scenes.
With these observations in mind, we can start to characterize social cognition as the acquisition of knowledge2
about other persons' mental states, i.e., their beliefs, desires, and intentions and also insight about the meaning of their utterings. It would follow that social cognition includes at least two essential features that should be accounted for with any definition. First, social cognition is a means of knowledge acquisition
. We suggest that this aspect can be specified by referring to the distinction between the second-person perspective, on the one hand, and the first- and third-person perspective on the other. Second, social cognition occurs in social contexts
. One way to specify this aspect is to ask whether or not the subjects involved interact, i.e., whether they are engaged in online or offline social cognition. Taking interaction as a reciprocal pattern of action and reaction3
between at least two agents affecting each other, we assume that knowledge about other persons can be acquired without interacting with them, for example, when one reads a letter or watches a movie describing another person's mental states. Consequently, we argue that second-person perspective taking can happen without direct interaction and that this perspective is, therefore, not synonymous with being engaged in interaction or online social cognition. Rather, treating interaction and perspective taking as two different aspects of social cognition results in a much more differentiated and suitable view.
Perspectives, in a nutshell, are ways of acquiring knowledge (for more details see Pauen, 2012
). Perspectival distinctions answer questions like: (1) “What
is this knowledge about?” and (2) “How
do we acquire this knowledge?” First-person perspective taking provides self-knowledge. So, reflecting on the questions posed above, first-person knowledge (1) is about the subject's own mental states and (2) is acquired directly via those very mental states that are directly accessible only for the subject him or herself. It can, thus be characterized as subjective because it is acquired by and is about the subject's own mental states (Pauen, 2010
). Third-person knowledge, by contrast, (1) is about all kinds of objective (and mostly external) facts, both scientific and non-scientific and (2) it is acquired by all kinds of objective evidence that is accessible to everyone, among them external observation and scientific methods. As a consequence, the third-person perspective can be characterized as “objective.”
But why is it necessary to add a second-person perspective to the first- and third-person perspective to begin with? In order to see this, imagine that you are locating a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. In this endeavor the third-person perspective is helpful because the eatery has a definite location in space that can be assessed by consulting a map. By contrast, you apply the first-person perspective when you wonder whether it is worth stopping for a pretzel to slake your hunger before completing the journey: Are you really that hungry? But when you reach your destination a quarter of an hour late because of this detour, and being full yourself, you need to find out how your companion feels. Is she still hungry? Is she angry because you are late? Or would she like to go to another place? In assessing our companion's state the first-person perspective provides no information because, unless they also stopped for dinner, their mental state is different to our own. Likewise, the third-person perspective cannot be of assistance because there are no objective facts upon which to assess the person's thoughts and feelings.
Thus, our capacity to infer our companions feelings is a paradigmatic case of social cognition which is set apart both from third- and first-person perspective taking by at least two distinctive features. First, unlike first-person perspective taking, it is not about one's own mental states. Second, unlike the third-person perspective, it is not just about facts. Rather, social cognition is a question regarding another person's mental states; i.e., it is about what our companion thinks, what she feels, and what her intentions are.
But how does social cognition relate to our capacity to acquire knowledge? Social cognition is neither about pure objective data as in third-person perspective taking, nor is it the application of our subjective mental states, as in first-person perspective taking. Instead, social cognition is a means of knowledge acquisition that involves a combination of both. Just as in first-person perspective taking, we draw on our own feelings and experiences during social cognition in order to access the other
person's feelings and experiences. Likewise, social cognition is like third-person perspective taking when we draw on our general background knowledge as well as on the person's behavior, gestures, and facial play to understand why they are acting as they are. It is clear that knowledge that we gain by taking the second-person perspective is neither purely objective nor subjective; it is intersubjective
because it requires that we understand the other as
a person with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences4
. In other words, the second-person perspective is set apart from the first- and the third-person perspective both in terms of its relation to (1) knowledge content and (2) knowledge acquisition (Pauen, 2012
Note, first, that only first- and second-person perspective taking are restricted regarding their objects; third-person perspective taking is not. As a consequence, you can take the third-person perspective regarding your own or another person's pain experience, for example by drawing on objective fMRI data or skin-conductance measures. Second, as already indicated above, the present notion of second-person perspective taking does not require interaction—even though interaction certainly plays an important role in the ontogenetic and phylogenetic development of social cognition in general and second-person perspective taking more specifically. Still, interaction is not an epistemic feature itself. That is why epistemic access might be completely identical, regardless of whether or not there is interaction. In order to see this, think about someone who tries to figure out whether another person is angry and does so by taking the other person's perspective. This can happen if one is interacting with someone who is (1) physically present, (2) the person can be seen in a movie, or (3) is a character in a novel. Epistemic access to the other person's thoughts and feelings might be identical in all three of these cases. What differs here are non-epistemic features; for example that the other person reacts in the first case but does not in the second and the third cases. Conversely, interactions can take place without second-person perspective taking, for example if the epistemic subject interacts with another person for whom only objective information is available. Given that second-person perspective taking (like first- and third-person perspective taking) is an epistemic feature, these differences do not matter for an assessment of the perspective that an individual adopts during the interaction, even if such issues are of great importance in other respects. For this reason, we suggest that differences regarding interaction should be denoted by the distinction between offline and online social cognition and not by perspectival distinctions. This is in line with similar considerations by Mead, Habermas, and Bohman who understand second-person perspective taking—either implicitly or explicitly—as a way of interpreting others, regardless of whether or not they are present.