On what I think you think they think

15 min. read (or watch the video)

A. Oehler, CASCA 21 (Guelph) Talk

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on many of our fieldwork plans over the past year. I too had great plans for data collection in Russia in 2021. I even had the funding secured. Then Covid hit, I switched institutions, and consequently lost all my funding. What I bring to you today is thus best described by the words of mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1849:180): “Let it not be said that I have said nothing new. The arrangement of the material is new.” I will be going back to material I first collected in 2013, but which I never really had the time to think about much. The following vignette on wolves from my Siberian fieldwork (Oehler 2020:150-151), was for me the impetus for organizing this panel on “Reading Others” with Nicolas Rasiulis:

“One autumn morning I noticed two adult wolf tracks running side by side. Both tracks were fresh, as it had snowed only an hour earlier. The couple were headed in the same direction as me, and so I followed their tracks until they approached an isolated winter cabin perched on a steep stretch of river bank. Judging by the lights, the family were home. Around the cabin they were keeping a few sheep, and cattle were walking about. Several of them were leisurely scratching away for forage. The cabin itself was surrounded by uneven, sparsely wooded, hilly terrain. Whenever the trail I had been following encountered a small rise in the ground, the tracks would depart from it to run a diversion, only to return to the trail behind the rise. At first I did not understand these maneuvers.

The cabin was now within rifle shot distance, and I was surprised that the wolves had ventured so close to human habitation in broad daylight. Curious to know what these wolves might have seen, I crouched down in their tracks. My eyes were now level with the height at which I suspected theirs had been. On my knees with my head lowered, I could no longer see the cabin. My body was now hidden from [the] sight of someone who could have been looking from the north-facing window of the cabin. Had I followed the wolves’ tracks in this ducking position all the way from the dense forest, I would have reached the cabin without once being exposed to the eyes of someone peering through the window.”

I visited the same household two months later in the depth of winter, and I was told that wolves had recently been there at night. They had taken two sheep from inside their pen. This was quite a daring feat, I was assured, since the winter pen is located directly below the kitchen window. Judging by the wolves’ tracks in the morning, the sheep had been heaved over the fence, down the slope, and into the forest. It was a rare thing that wolves would enter a pen and carry whole carcasses over a fence as tall as this one, the householders said.

Looking back to my previous observations of the wolf tracks I had followed around the cabin, it seemed plausible the attack had been carried out by members of the same pack. Their earlier visits had afforded them an intimate knowledge of the terrain, and they had clearly established a path based on what they anticipated could be seen from the cabin’s windows. They had empathetically circumnavigated the human gaze.”

A few years ago, at the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth Conference at the University of Exeter, where I first presented this vignette, anthropologist Anna Tsing came up to me. I remember her being excited about these wolves, telling me how she was hoping to see this work move forward. And of course this got me all riled up. It has been some time since then, time filled for me with work on multispecies rhythm analysis, and on critical conceptions of care. But I see our panel here as an ideal opportunity to take up anew the ideas first expressed at Exeter, albeit in new format, and to the inclusion of multiple species from across the northern hemisphere.

I had initially used the term ‘empathetic evasion’ to describe what I thought (and still think) to exist with these wolves. But when I brought these ideas back to my peers at the University of Aberdeen, the immediate response was something along the lines of: “Well, that sounds an awful lot like the theory of mind stuff from a few years ago.” This “theory of mind stuff” was clearly not well received in social anthropology, particularly due to its … [determinist?] commitments anchored so firmly in much of psychology. So what was I to do? For a while I felt discouraged, and while working on the book “Beyond Wild and Tame,” I firmly committed to writing only about what people think on the intentions of other animals — never about what non-human animals themselves might be thinking.

I think, as anthropologists this disclaimer keeps us safe from the sharp critiques of social and natural scientists alike, many of whom seem to be on a ‘witch hunt’ for scholars dabbling with anthropomorphism. Yet, it seemed to me, what thinkers like Anna Tsing have been interested in is not so much what people think animals are thinking. Instead, there seems to be a growing interest in the research potential of more daring work. Work that would be truly interspecific, and in which the participant observer discovers new things about the intermingling of human with other minds by way of somatic (or body immersive) participation in triangular spaces constituting the bodies of other species and their physical and mental affordances in shared landscapes.

So, can we deepen our understanding of the kinds of non-verbal interspecies communication that can be witnessed in the world, both historically and presently? So much of non-linguistic communication relies on employing one’s own senses to read the intentions expressed by other bodies, actions, and the trails left behind by their intentional or unintentional doings. Knowing about the goings on in others’ minds seems inescapable. Yet, it serves us well to first define what we mean by mind, and briefly to review what has led to social anthropology’s critical stance regarding theory of mind, before laying out what might be useful directions for emerging anthropological inquiry into animal-human communication and collaboration.

Psychologists Chris and Uta Frith explain theory of mind in a few accessible lines in Current Biology.

“Maxi eats half his chocolate bar and puts the rest away in the kitchen cupboard. Then he goes out to play in the sun. Meanwhile Maxi’s mother comes into the kitchen, opens the cupboard and sees the chocolate bar. She puts it in the fridge. When Maxi comes back into the kitchen, where will he look for his chocolate bar? The answer to this question will seem obvious. First, Maxi doesn’t know that his mother has moved the chocolate. Second, Maxi still believes, falsely, that his chocolate is in the cupboard. That is why he looks in the cupboard. If this is how you answered the question then you have a ‘theory of mind’. We naturally explain people’s behavior on the basis of their minds: their knowledge, their beliefs and their desires, and we know that when there is a conflict between belief and reality it is the persons’ belief, not the reality that will determine their behavior. Explaining behavior in this way is called ‘having a theory of mind’ or ‘having an intentional stance’” (Frith and Frith 2005:644).

So theory of mind is about recognizing that someone else’s point of view is different from our own, known as ‘mentalizing’ or ‘mind reading’ (Allen 2003), which allows us to influence their behaviour by affecting their beliefs. As a friend, I can warn the other about what they don’t know. As an enemy, I can use their lack of knowledge to bring them down, known as ‘tactical deception’ (McNally and Jackson 2013). Hunters often use this method of mentalization— that is, they empathize with their prey, known also as ‘simulation theory’ (Gallese and Goldman 1998). Elsewhere I have referred to mentalization in dogs and humans as “perspectival sharing” (Oehler 2018).

Anthropologists have taken issue with psychologists who attribute theory of mind to a ‘neurotypical’ developmental trajectory in humans — humans here primarily being “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD)” (Irvine 2018:142). How universal is this neurotypical development of a theory of mind in people? Should we add theory of mind to our constantly expanding and contracting list of markers that supposedly set us apart as humans from other animals? What about the humanity and cognitive variation of those of us who are on the autism spectrum, and who initially or largely do without mentalization (see Ochs and Solomon 2010)? And equally important: Can we expect mind reading to play itself out in the same ways across different cultural contexts?

The Urapmin of Papua New Guinea seem to be committed to an “opacity of mind” (Robbins 2008)? Many believe “people’s minds are private places,” and they avoid assumptions about an other’s mental state in their communication (Robbins 2008:426). Similar hesitancy about the expression of other beings’ interiority (or subjectivity) is found in Indigenous North America and Eurasia. Many Cree hunters of northwestern Ontario prefer not to make projections of the mental states of prey animals. In the words of elder Oliver Hill, “I don’t know what is going on in Iain’s [interviewer] mind, so we have to think of the caribou in that way. I have seen scientists put collars on animals to track their movements but we don’t actually know why they are moving about” (quoted in Miller and Davidson-Hunt 2013:n.p.). In my own work with Soiots, the skill to read individual intentions in an animal’s physical actions always seemed to be a matter of retrospective reflection, not of forward projection (Oehler 2020;159). Respect is often paired with the notion that it is potentially dangerous to make claims about others.

This takes us to question of what is the mind (porous, bounded, shared)? Is it knowable at all (and to whom)? Is theory of mind approached differently from place to place? Ten years ago (in 2011), cognitive anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann brought together a group of 30 scholars to discuss differing ethnographic models of the mind (Luhrmann 2011, 2012). They settled on six main variants (Irvine 2018;143): the Euro-American secular mind which is separate from world, the Euro-American supernaturalist mind in which energies can cross over between mind and world, the Melanesian opaque mind, the Central American language-truth model in which words reflect the world rather than hidden intentions, Thai and other mind-control theories in which others’ intentions can influence one’s own mind, and Amazonian perspectivism in which one’s interiority is dependent upon one’s relations. Taken together, does this ‘anthropological theory of mind,’ deny the proposed universality of ‘psychology’s theory of mind?’

Inspired by Rita Astuti (2015), I maintain that ethnographic observations such as those provided by Luhrmann’s colleagues do not negate the potential usefulness of an overarching theory of mind concept in anthropology. Astuti does not find “entirely plausible, at least in its extreme form” some psychologists’ argument (e.g. Scholl and Leslie 1999) that, “whatever explicit folk theory about the mind people have, it is going to make no difference to their mind-reading abilities,” because how we reason about the mind can affect how we operate our minds (Astuti 2011:n.p.). But, at the same time, she holds on to the differentiation between “conscious reflection about the mind,” or what she calls “Explicit Theories of Theory of Mind,” and actual “mindreading that happens largely outside conscious reflection” (Astuti 2011:n.p.).

In other words, she posits that even if people subscribe to the doctrine of “opaque minds,” they may still unconsciously read another person’s mind. In this view, divergent ideas about the mind and universal abilities of the mind are not mutually exclusive. I will close now by returning to the wolves of Oka, and by challenging us to open up our practices to a more radical approach to studying mutual interspecies becoming. I am not advocating any of us anthropomorphize the other-than-humans in our studies. I am asking: What can we do to better study our shared experiences? How can we observe and record not only what people believe about their interactions with animals, but also what interactive experiences look, smell, and feel like when bodies come together? As multispecies ethnographers, we have a unique vantage point from which to contribute to ethology, psychology, sociology, and other disciplines.

Some useful directions for new anthropological inquiry into animal-human communication and collaboration that I can foresee are:

1. Attention to how cosmological and cultural ideas about the mind converse with more ethological observations of step-by-step animal-human interaction, including observations of what may be theory of mind in non-humans.

2. More space for experimental immersive fieldwork in which we employ the somatic positions of various actants for thicker descriptions of interspecies perspectival sharing and for multi sensory distributions of mind.

3. A new focus on the potential for humans to de-emphasize theory of mind, including formal logic, and to study ways of engaging non-human animals on alternative cognitive and somatic terms, perhaps such as the ones put forth by nonhuman philosophy (e.g. Maoilearca 2015).

Some of these approaches have already, to varying degree, been taken up in the research and methodology of several of the presenters in this panel. It is my hope that the discussions emerging out of these meetings, will further flesh out a trajectory for the ethnographic study of perspectival sharing in humans and other animals.


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By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.