Understanding human action: integrating meanings, mechanisms, causes, and contexts

In Repko Allen, Szostak Rick & Newell William (eds.), Interdisciplinary Research: Case Studies of Integrative Understandings of Complex Problems. Sage Publications. pp. 201-235 (2011)
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Humans are capable of understanding an incredible variety of actions performed by other humans. Even though these range from primary biological actions, like eating and fleeing, to acts in parliament or in poetry, humans generally can make sense of each other’s actions. Understanding other people’s actions is called action understanding, and it can transcend differences in race, gender, culture, age, and social and historical circumstances. Action understanding is the cognitive ability to make sense of another person’s action by integrating perceptual information about the behavior with knowledge about the immediate and sociocultural contexts of the action and with one’s own experience. Scholars are increasingly dissatisfied with monodisciplinary approaches to understanding human action. Such one-sidedness can rest upon various motives. For example, “hermeneutic interpretations” of action understanding tend to emphasize historical and cultural influences while overlooking that ultimately such influences depend upon individual cognitive processes. This has provoked criticism of the corresponding assumption that humans are born as a “blank slate” and that culture is solely responsible for all cognitive contents. However, such critique in turn easily slides into an overemphasis on the biology of human nature and a denial of sociocultural influences on cognition (Pinker, 2003). Fortunately, recent interdisciplinary endeavors have shown that an interdisciplinary approach is preferable when investigating complex functions like action understanding. The purpose of this chapter is to propose a “mechanism-based explanation” of action understanding that will provide a theoretical framework for integrating various and often conflicting disciplinary insights.

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Machiel Keestra
University of Amsterdam


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