What is it about?

Very young children understand simple expressions. Later they learn to attribute or ascribe understanding to themselves and others. This later achievement, it is argued, is a product of learning to use the word"understand" to ascribe understanding to others, that is, it attribute a mental state to others. Ascribing understanding to oneself, self-ascription, is introspection, the subjective awareness of one's own mental state.

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Why is it important?

What is novel about this approach is that it examines understanding less as a developmental cognitive competence than as a matter of learning a word drawn from the adult vocabulary. Ascribing understanding to oneself or others is a decision, a judgment, justifiable by evidence and reason, for which the ascrober is responsible. Learning to ascribe, it is argued, is the route to knowledge of other minds as well as to a consciousness of one's own mental states.


This line of research grows out of the study of children's theory of mind but puts a new emphasis on the role of the adult language in the formation of concepts of mind and the subjective awareness of one's own mind.

David R. Olson
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

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This page is a summary of: Ascribing understanding to ourselves and others., American Psychologist, November 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/amp0001244.
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