Agent tracking: a psycho-historical theory of the identification of living and social agents

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To explain agent-identification behaviours, universalist theories in the biological and cognitive sciences have posited mental mechanisms thought to be universal to all humans, such as agent detection and face recognition mechanisms. These universalist theories have paid little attention to how particular sociocultural or historical contexts interact with the psychobiological processes of agent-identification. In contrast to universalist theories, contextualist theories appeal to particular historical and sociocultural contexts for explaining agent-identification. Contextualist theories tend to adopt idiographic methods aimed at recording the heterogeneity of human behaviours across history, space, and cultures. Defenders of the universalist approach tend to criticise idiographic methods because such methods can lead to relativism or may lack generality. To overcome explanatory limitations of proposals that adopt either universalist or contextualist approaches in isolation, I propose a philosophical model that integrates contributions from both traditions: the psycho-historical theory of agent-identification. This theory investigates how the tracking processes that humans use for identifying agents interact with the unique socio-historical contexts that support agent-identification practices. In integrating hypotheses about the history of agents with psychological and epistemological principles regarding agent-identification, the theory can generate novel hypotheses regarding the distinction between recognition-based, heuristic-based, and explanation-based agent-identification.

Original languageEnglish
Article number9447
Pages (from-to)359-382
Number of pages24
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2015
Externally publishedYes


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