Agent tracking: a psycho-historical theory of the identification of living and social agents
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.
To introduce the issue of the tracking and identification of human agents, I examine the ability of an agent (“a tracker”) to track a human person (“a target”) and distinguish this target from other individuals: The ability to perform person identification. First, I discuss influential mechanistic models of the perceptual recognition of human faces and people (the face-recognition program). Such models propose detailed hypotheses about the parts and activities of the mental mechanisms that control the perceptual recognition of persons. However, models based on perceptual recognition are incomplete theories of person identification because they do not explain several identification behaviors that are fundamental to human social interactions (e.g., identifying unobservable persons and imposters). Furthermore, recognition-based models tend to appeal to the controversial concept of the “identity” of a person without explaining what determines personal identity and persistence. To overcome these limitations, I propose to integrate the face-recognition program into a broader causal-historical theory of identification. The causal-historical theory of identification complements models focused on perceptual recognition because it can account for the types of non-perceptual identification overlooked by the face-recognition program. Moreover, it can decompose the identification behaviors into tracking processes that succeed or fail to be sensitive to causal characteristics of a target. I illustrate these advantages with a discussion of the difference between the tracking of a person understood as either a causally continuous biological organism (organism-based tracking) or a psychologically continuous mind (psychological tracking). Finally, I argue that the causal-historical theory provides a theoretical framework for investigating the tracking of relations between a target and its contextual and historical attributes, such as a target's possessions.
This article compares the ability to track individuals lacking mental states with the ability to track intentional agents. It explains why reference to individuals raises the problem of explaining how cognitive agents track unique individuals and in what sense reference is based on procedures of perceptual-motor and epistemic tracking. We suggest applying the notion of singular-files from theories in perception and semantics to the problem of tracking intentional agents. In order to elucidate the nature of agent-files, three views of the relation between object- and agent-tracking are distinguished: the Independence, Deflationary and Organism-Dependence Views. The correct view is argued to be the latter, which states that perceptual and epistemic tracking of a unique human organism requires tracking both its spatio-temporal object-properties and its agent-properties.