Navigating the intentional world: stories, viewpoints, and social cognition

Navigating the intentional world: stories, viewpoints, and social cognition

Navigating the intentional world: stories, viewpoints, and social cognition

For a long time I have been interested in ‘small-scale’ phenomena of language and interaction (visible in single texts, sentences, or even words), as well as in the ‘largest-scale’ questions of our development and evolution as social and cultural beings. Mindreading (a.k.a. theory of mind) and the handling of viewpoints in language and narrative is an area where both scales meet. To start with a large-scale question: we humans spend most of our social time interacting in dyads, triads and small groups. Yet at the same time we live in mass societies. How do we do this? Obviously there are many answers to this question—I believe one is: by telling stories.

Why? Let me begin with an example from animal behaviour that provides an insightful contrast: Machiavellian scrub-jays. Nicki Clayton and others have shown that western scrub-jays are capable of a clever form of deception. They collect a bit of food and ‘hide’ it in plain sight of their peers. Knowing that they risk a raid, they stick around until the others are distracted or gone altogether. Then they quickly dig up their food stash and re-hide it elsewhere, so that potential raiders will look in the wrong place. Very clever indeed. Yet from observations it is known that not all western scrub-jays do this: such deception is limited to those individuals who have a history as a thief. In other words, scrub-jays seem to need a particular episode of their own personal history to be able to imagine how others would behave in a particular context—for them it takes a thief to know a thief.

For us humans this is clearly different. We can imagine scenarios far beyond our own life experience. To give just one example: in February 2013 a lethal incident took place in the house of South-African athlete Oscar Pistorius. Newspapers around the world headlined ‘Pistorius shooting: accident or murder?’ without spelling out the two contrasting scenarios in detail (especially in the first days; see Van Duijn 2016). Readers thus had to use their imagination to make ‘projections’ of what could have happened: either Pistorius thought there was a burglar in his house and felt threatened, or he was filled with rage, maybe out of jealousy, and intended to kill his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp when he pulled the trigger… The point is that almost any reader can clearly do such imagining without having had similar experiences in their own lives.

In psychology and the cognitive sciences it is customary to ascribe such ability to our mindreading/theory of mind capacity. This capacity is certainly relevant here on some level, but in my work I tend to draw attention to how much the ‘projection’ of such scenarios has in common with telling stories—no matter whether it is done silently in our minds or out loud in discourse. In part I build on the existing tradition of narrative practice (e.g. Gallagher & Hutto 2008), but my focus is different. I analyse how narrative language usage (or ‘the narrative mode’) delivers support to our understanding of other perspectives, thereby enabling us to deal with complex multiple-viewpoint situations.

A dominant view is that stories impose a cognitive load on readers by presenting multiple perspectives. For example, Lisa Zunshine argues that stories ranging from literary novels (such as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway) to ancient tales (such as Heliodorus’ Aithiopika) push the limits of readers’ mindreading capacity by confronting them with so-called higher-order-intentionality tasks (A wants B to think that C believes…etc.). I suggest, on the contrary, that the narrative mode alleviates the cognitive load posed by such tasks. As an example of this, using various strategies, the narrator of Mrs Dalloway gradually leads readers through a network of perspectives on the novel’s events. Such a network seems very complex when fitted into a single proposition (or when drawn in a diagram, for that matter), but it comes completely naturally when presented in a narrative. It is not easy to illustrate this with a brief example, and the reason for that is part of my point. However, consider the following passage:

Hugh produced his fountain pen; his silver fountain pen, which had done twenty years’ service, he said, unscrewing the cap. It was still in perfect order; he had shown it to the makers; there was no reason, they said, why it should ever wear out; which was somehow to Hugh’s credit, and to the credit of the sentiments which his pen expressed (so Richard Dalloway felt)...                                                                            (Woolf 1925; qtd. in Zunshine 2006; qtd. in Van Duijn & Sluiter, 2017)                                                                                              


Readers who have read the entire novel up to this point have gradually gathered a lot of background knowledge about Richard, Hugh, and Lady Bruton, which means that they are more sensitive to the subtleties of this passage. Nonetheless, an impression is given of how we first follow the narrator’s perspective on how Hugh begins to write, while he brags about his pen. Through this we learn about the views of the pen’s makers. By the end of the passage, the comment between parenthesis ‘so Richard Dalloway felt’ cues the reader to re-render part of what has just been said from Richard’s point of view (the reader has to do a double take, as it were). Then, as the passage continues beyond the point cited here, we switch to Lady Bruton’s perspective. Just as Clarissa Dalloway is wandering when the novel begins, the reader ‘wanders’ from one perspective to the other as the story unfolds.

In my PhD thesis I present linguistic and narratological analyses of various stretches of literary texts and news narratives, discussing how ‘expository strategies’ such as characterisation, focalisation, framing, episodic structuring, and redundancy work together to build a progressively complex network of viewpoints. This is what I above refer to as the ‘small scale’ of analysing sentences and words. Another example: put in a single proposition, readers or watchers of Shakespeare’s Othello have to understand that Iago intends that Cassio believes that Desdemona intends that Othello believes that Cassio wanted to preserve peace… (and much more; this is only after the second act!). That may sound impossibly opaque, yet we know that the play has been understood and appreciated by many different audiences for ages. In a paper together with Ineke Sluiter and Arie Verhagen (2015) we discuss in detail how Othello conveys such viewpoint complexity in a natural and graspable way.

To finish off with one more large-scale outlook: I would say that every child who learns to master the narrative mode is endowed with a powerful tool for navigating the ‘intentional world’. By this I mean the imaginary world of the inner lives of thousands of characters, either fictional or modelled on real-world people (as would be the case in most daily-life gossip stories). In that way, when we read, hear, or watch stories we gain experience with seeing the world though others’ eyes. And by becoming skilled users of the narrative mode (as we grow up in the midst of our culture’s local story tradition), we become productive storytellers, capable of generating new ‘intentional texture’, as it were—new stories which we use for thinking about and sharing with others what the world looks like from other perspectives. So in contrast with the scrub-jays, all we need for knowing a thief may be a thief’s story.

Max van Duijn, Leiden University

N.B. For a more fully argued and referenced version, see my doctoral thesis (2016), the paper I wrote with Ineke Sluiter and Arie Verhagen (2015), and a forthcoming article (2017)


Duijn, M.J. van, I. Sluiter, and A. Verhagen. (2015). ‘When narrative takes over: The representation of embedded mindstates in Shakespeare’s Othello. Language and Literature 24: (2): 148–166.

Duijn, M.J. van & I. Sluiter. (to appear). Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Processing perspective shifts in Mrs Dalloway.

Duijn, M. J. van. (2016). The Lazy Mindreader. A Humanities Perspective on Mindreading and Multiple-Order Intentionality, Leiden University, 2016

Clayton, N. and N. Emery. (2005). ‘Corvid Cognition’. Current Biology 15: 3: R80-81.

Gallagher, S. and D.D. Hutto. (2008). ‘Primary interaction and narrative practice.’ In: J. Zlatev, T. Racine (et al.) (eds.). The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity. Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 17–38.

Woolf, V. (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.

Zunshine, L. (2006). Why We Read Fiction. Theory of Mind and the novel. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.