Lying and Pretending

A post by Neil Van Leeuwen

 Neil Van Leeuwen was World Junior Tambourine Champion at the age of three. And he is also Associate Professor of Philosophy and Neuroscience at Georgia State University. Two out of three sentences in this bio are true!

Neil Van Leeuwen was World Junior Tambourine Champion at the age of three. And he is also Associate Professor of Philosophy and Neuroscience at Georgia State University. Two out of three sentences in this bio are true!

What’s the relation between lying and pretending?

More broadly, what’s the relation between deception of any sort (verbal or otherwise) and the pretend play humans engage in from about 18 months onward?

If you explore the philosophical literatures on deception and on pretense (“pretense” in this context meaning pretend play), you might conclude there’s not an interesting relation to be found. Most philosophical literature that explores pretending makes no effort to shed light on deception. And most philosophical literature on deception and lying is little concerned with pretend play.

There are exceptions, of course. Sartre’s examples of bad faith exhibit self-deception, and the characters’ actions in his examples have a make-believe quality: Sartre’s waiter is playing the part of a stylized, make-believe waiter. More recently, Tamar Gendler has proposed that self-deception just is a form of pretense. And I’ve posited an action category of semi-pretense, which is neither straightforward, plain action nor full-on pretending (consider the graduate student who adopts the communicative mannerisms of his or her advisor). My idea was that the psychological structures that typically guide pretend play, such as mental imagery, can be operative even when the agent doesn’t intend to pretend and has no awareness that this is what’s going on.

So three of us are gripped by the idea that deceiving oneself often involves some form of pretending. But I don’t know of any philosophers who have deliberately explored connections between pretend play and deception of others. I hope that I’m just ignorant here and that someone can fill me in on literature I’ve overlooked. But even if I am just ignorant of the relevant literature, the connections in question are at least badly underexplored.

So this blog is programmatic, designed to encourage people to explore the connections that are underexplored.

Consider five examples (to make them work, imagine we’re in the 1950s).

First, two kids on the playground pretend to be traveling vacuum cleaner salesmen, going from child to child ‘selling’ their imaginary products.

Second, two adults on stage play the parts of traveling vacuum cleaner salesmen, enacting speeches, gestures, and overtures to other actors that such salesmen might make in real life.

Third, two adult conmen go from door to door, pretending (note the word) to be vacuum cleaner salesmen, but they are really just casing the joints with the intent of robbing them later.

Fourth, two jokesters at a wedding go around telling the other guests that their profession is door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales and regaling them with stories of life on the road.

Fifth, two real traveling vacuum cleaner salesmen go door to door trying to sell vacuum cleaners; before each stop, they brush up on their script, in which one presents himself as the simple, trustworthy type and the other presents himself as the technical expert.

*          *          *

The first three examples, considered by themselves, might let us hope that pretense for play and pretense for deception can be considered separately: the first two are pretense for play and the third is deception, on such a view. But the fourth example shows that one single act—like saying, “I’m Bud, and I sell vacuum cleaners!”—can be simultaneously pretense for play and pretense for deception, since the person who says it is playing with his partner but deceiving the other wedding guests. And the fifth example suggests that regular actions can be infused with a pretense quality that is not clearly deceptive and not clearly not deceptive either.*

It would be astonishing if the psychological structures that support everyday pretending and everyday deception were completely disparate. Considerations of parsimony already suggest that they shouldn’t be entirely disparate in examples one through three. But examples four and five render such separation even more implausible: since both examples involve some play and some deception in each single act, a theory that completely separates the psychological structures behind each respective form of action would have to say that each individual action in those examples has a double etiology, with the play and the deceptive psychological structures each making their own separate contributions yet issuing in the same token act. At least for me, such a position strains credulity.

Where do we go from here? The long-term hope is for a theory that can explain both forms of pretending and that makes clear the overlap in psychological structures that characteristically generate them—as well as the features that make them different. Of course, I can’t give such a theory in the few words remaining in this blog (and because I don’t yet have such a theory, at least in full…). All these considerations, however, do put us in a position to formulate two conditions of adequacy on theories of pretense (meaning, again in this context, pretend play), such that if a given theory does not satisfy these conditions, we know that those responsible for the theory at the very least have more work to do.

We can simply call our adequacy conditions PACs, for pretense adequacy conditions (we could just as well come up with analogous conditions for deception):

PAC 1: any theory of pretend play should describe some psychological processes that are also plausibly involved in the generation of deceptive action.

PAC 2: any theory of pretend play should also highlight some feature that marks the pretense for play aspects of pretend action as distinct from the pretense for deception aspects.

In simple terms, these conditions say that theories of pretending should say in what ways pretend play and deception overlap and in what ways they’re different.

I don’t know of any theory of pretense that’s been proposed in the recent philosophical literature on imagination that convincingly satisfies both conditions. Frankly, I think positions I’ve taken so far satisfy PAC 1 but not PAC 2. But I do think some theories propose resources that move us in the right direction; for example, Eric Funkhouser and Shannon Spaulding’s theory of imaginative scripts could probably be developed in a way that satisfies both conditions.

All that said, I don’t mean to be discouraging in saying that no theory so far satisfies both conditions—quite the opposite. Rather, in pointing out that the answers haven’t yet been found, I hope to encourage philosophers interested in imagination to go on searching.


*Erving Goffman’s well-known work in sociology, The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life, is of course the locus classicus for this kind of example.