ARED Workshop 2:
Rational agency, reflection and the varieties of metacognition

23 & 24 May 2023

Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.

If you are interested in attending please contact us via email:

One of the central questions in philosophical discussions on rational agency is what it takes to respond to reasons for belief and action. Some maintain that the capacity to critically assess one’s reasons is necessary, while others suggest that mere sensitivity to reasons is sufficient. Philosophers thus envisage two notions of rational agency: a reflective one seemingly limited to cognitively developed humans, and an unreflective one that may be within the reach of young children and non-human animals. The relation between the two is beginning to be explored. The empirical debate on metacognition offers a structural analogy with the distinction between object-level cognition and the metacognition involved in thoughts about other thoughts and ascriptions of mental states. Growing interest in so-called “procedural” metacognition is, at least in part, driven by the ambition to bridge the gap between the two.

In its second workshop, ARED continues to promote the dialogue between the philosophical and empirical study of the mind and rationality by bringing together researchers from different disciplines who are working on the broad themes of rational agency, reflection and metacognition.

Invited speakers

Lieke Asma

(Munich School of Philosophy)

Celeste Kidd

(University of California, Berkeley)

Cathal O’Madagain

(Universite Mohammed VI Polytechnique)

Hannes Rakoczy

(Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

Hanna Schleihauf

(Utrecht University | University of California, Berkeley | DPZ, Göttingen)

Eva Schmidt

(TU Dortmund University)

Preston Stovall

(University of Hradec Králové)

Past events

ARED Workshop 1: Epistemic agency and rational belief-revision

The first ARED workshop will focus on epistemic agency and rational belief-revision broadly construed​.

In the interest of fostering interdisciplinary exchange, speakers will endeavour to pitch their presentation in a way that is accessible to non-specialists.

17-19 January 2022

2pm – 7pm (GMT)

This workshop will be held in a hybrid format at the University of Stirling and on Zoom.


Monday January 17: starting time 1:50 pm GMT (2:50 pm CET, 5:50 am PST, 8:50 am EST)

1:50 – 2:00 Welcome

2:00 – 3:20 Agnes Kovacs (CEU): Flexible update and revision of others’ mental states in early development

3:40 – 5:00 Josef Perner (Salzburg): Mental Files Join Teleology

5:20 – 7:00 Hannah Ginsborg (Berkeley): Non-rational agency in concept-acquisition and language-learning

Tuesday January 18: starting time 3:40 pm GMT (4:40pm CET, 7:40am PST, 10:40am EST) 

3:40 – 5:00 Kirsten Blakey, Giacomo Melis, Eva Rafetseder & Zsófia Virányi (Stirling): In search of reflective thinking in non-linguistic agents

5:20 – 7:00 Matthew Boyle (Chicago): Reflection and rationality

Wednesday January 19: starting time 2pm GMT (3pm CET, 6am PST, 9am EST)

2:00 – 3:20 Ludwig Huber (Messerli, Vienna): The concept of seeing in dogs

3:40 – 5:00 Christoph Völter (Messerli, Vienna):  Do nonhuman animals seek explanations?

5:20 – 7:00 Hilary Kornblith (Amherst): Doubts about epistemic agency


Matthew Boyle
University of Chicago

Reflection and Rationality

The topic of this paper will be reflection: the activity by which (I claim) we can move from an implicit, non-conceptualized awareness of aspects of our own mental state to an explicit, conceptual recognition of these aspects.  My aim will be, first, to raise and address some puzzles about the nature of this activity, and then to consider its relation to our rationality, understood as our general capacity to consider propositional questions and assess the grounds for different answers to them.  A venerable philosophical tradition sees a close connection between our capacity for reflection and our general rationality.  But why should our capacity to reflect on our own mental states make a difference to the general character of our cognition, rather than just enabling us to think about a special topic, namely our own mental states?  I’ll argue that, in order to understand the link between rationality and reflection, we must first appreciate that reflection is capable, not just of providing us with information about our first-order mental states, but of transforming these first-order states themselves.

Hannah Ginsborg
University of California, Berkeley

Non-rational agency in concept-acquisition and language-learning

Drawing on findings in developmental psychology, I identify a distinctive kind of agency which is manifested in the sorting activities and early language use of human children.  The exercise of this agency is manifested in the child’s recognition of her behavior as normatively governed, where this recognition is primitive in the sense that it does not depend on her grasping reasons for her behavior.  I suggest that epistemic agency, understood as requiring the capacity to appreciate reasons for one’s beliefs, depends on this more primitive form of agency.  The appreciation of reasons for belief, at least in paradigmatic cases, presupposes the possession of concepts and, relatedly, the capacity to use words with determinate meanings.  But these in turn, I argue, depend on the primitive recognition of normativity in one’s sorting behavior and use of words.   

Ludwig Huber
Messerli Research Institute, Vienna

The concept of seeing in dogs

A particularly interesting question within the larger framework of Theory of Mind is whether non-human animals can acquire or form the concept of “seeing”. More specifically, it remains an open question whether any non-human animal can attribute the concept “seeing” without relying on behavioural cues. In this talk I will present studies showing that dogs perform successfully in several tasks related to this ability. Starting with gaze detection, gaze following into distant space and geometrical gaze following I will then discuss the ability to decide about the visual access of others. Surprisingly, dogs have been outstanding in solving many of these tasks instantly and reliably across a large number of variations, including stealing in the dark and guesser/knower tasks. Still, the question remains if subjects had to integrate observable features from the others’ current or past behaviors, and might have based their decisions solely on their own rather than the others’ perspective. Recently we confronted dogs with a change of location task in which subjects have to decide where to go after witnessing a misleading suggestion by an informant who held either a true or false belief about the location of food. Although responding differently than great apes, dogs made this distinction, suggesting that they decided about what others have or have not seen, rather than what they themselves have seen. Taken together, it is difficult to explain these findings on the basis of the acquisition of associative rules rather than a concept of “seeing” and perspective taking. I will therefore suggest that dogs possess the perceptual precursors (or ‘secondary representations’) to mind-reading and discuss why they might have them.

Hilary Kornblith
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Doubts about epistemic agency

The notion of epistemic agency has come to play a very large role in contemporary work in epistemology.  I myself, however, have some real doubts about whether there is any such thing.  Some defend the existence of epistemic agency on the basis of phenomenological considerations, but I argue here that closer attention to the phenomenology of belief acquisition does not support any such claim to agency.  Others defend appeals to epistemic agency in order to defend the normativity of epistemology, but I argue that all the normativity which epistemology needs requires no help from epistemic agency.  Still others appeal to epistemic agency to make sense of the phenomenon of doxastic deliberation, but we can make better sense of such deliberation, I argue, without any appeal to epistemic agency.  It is not at all clear, as I argue here, that there is such a thing as epistemic agency.

Josef Perner
University of Salzburg

Mental Files Join Teleology

I’ll give an outline of teleology as the basis of our folk psychology; an alternative to theory of mind (theory theory) and simulation as model of how we explain and predict behaviour. Teleology assumes that we act for objective reasons as public facts. The mind plays no role except to account for error cases (e.g., false belief), where subjective reasons play a role. Then teleology needs to be applied within the agent’s subjective perspective. Recanati (2012) suggested that perspectives can be captured in mental files theory by vicarious files. Regular files are the subject’s own representations of particulars (objects). They track their referent over time to collect information. Vicarious files are indexed to another person and are used vicariously for the other person’s regular file of the same referent. They are used like regular files but subject to specified conditions of storing and later using information. I illustrate how this can account for mistaken actions when the files implement teleology but not a theory of mind or simulation.

Kirsten Blakey & Giacomo Melis
(Eva Rafetseder & Zsófia Virányi)
University of Stirling

In search of reflective thinking in non-linguistic agents: an outline of interdisciplinary work in progress

In theorizing about epistemic rationality and agency, it is common to distinguish between reflective and unreflective responsiveness to reasons or evidence. It is also common to associate the reflective notion to the capacity of answering requests of reasons for one’s beliefs, and to the ability to formulate thoughts about other thoughts. Many have individuated the roots of epistemic agency in reflective responsiveness to evidence and have endorsed a view in which only subjects with developed linguistic skills and who are capable of explicit metacognition may properly be described as epistemic—or, more broadly, rational—agents. In the first part of the presentation, we explore an alternative framework whereby the root of epistemic agency resides in belief-revision and management, while a basic form of reflective thinking is already at work in the capacity to respond to a specific type of counterevidence: undermining defeaters suggesting that the evidence is misleading. In our picture, subjects unable to formulate thoughts about other thoughts or answer questions may be capable of reflective thinking. Having outlined the framework, in the second part of the presentation we illustrate the structure of an experiment aimed at testing whether pre-verbal children, dogs, and pigs may be able to respond to the type of counterevidence mentioned.

Christoph Völter
Messerli Research Institute, Vienna

Do nonhuman animals seek explanations?

Human children have been famously characterized as “scientists in the crib” because they actively seek information about the world to fill gaps in their knowledge (Gopnik et al., 1999). What about nonhuman animals? In this talk, I will present comparative cognitive research, mostly with nonhuman great apes, focusing on the question whether they can draw causal inferences, monitor their own knowledge states and seek information to actively fill gaps in their knowledge. Even though there is some evidence for these abilities, I will argue that more research is needed to conclusively answer the question whether we share the drive to seek explanations about the world with other species.

Ágnes Kovacs
Central European University

Flexible update and revision of others’ mental states in early development

Human behavior is guided by a set of mental states that we assume must form a coherent system. For instance, two agents can hold mutually incompatible beliefs or goals, but a single agent is unlikely to do so. However, an agent can unexpectedly change her mind (first aiming for “p” and then for “not-p”) or revise her beliefs given new evidence, requiring the observer to flexibly update these attributed mental states. First, we will present evidence that coherence is intuitively used to set the boundaries between other minds already in infancy. Second, we will present studies targeting flexible third person belief update and revision in infants, children and adults.

Theme by the University of Stirling

Scroll back to the top