Folk Psychology

In recent years, folk psychology has become a topic of debate not just among philosophers, but among developmental psychologists and primatologists as well. Yet there are two different things that "folk psychology" has come to mean, and they are not always distinguished: (1) commonsense psychology that explains human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires, intentions, expectations, preferences, hopes, fears, and so on; (2) an interpretation of such everyday explanations as part of a folk theory, comprising a network of generalizations employing concepts like belief,desire, and so on. The second definition -- suggested by Sellars (1963) and dubbed "theory-theory" by Morton (1980) -- is a philosophical account of the first.

Folk psychology(1) concerns the conceptual framework of explanations of human behavior: If the explanatory framework of folk psychology(1) is correct, then "because Nan wants the baby to sleep," which employs the concept of wanting, may be a good (partial) explanation of Nan's turning the TV off. Folk psychology(2) concerns how folk psychological(1) explanations are to be interpreted: If folk psychology(2) is correct, then "because Nan wants the baby to sleep" is an hypothesis that Nan had an internal (brain) state of wanting the baby to sleep and that state caused Nan to turn the TV off.

Although the expression folk psychology came to prominence as a term for theory-theory, that is, folk psychology(2), it is now used more generally to refer to commonsense psychology, that is, folk psychology(1). This largely unnoticed broadening of the term has made for confusion in the literature. Folk psychology (in one or the other sense, or sometimes equivocally) has been the focus of two debates.

The first is the so-called use issue: What are people doing when they explain behavior in terms of beliefs, desires, and so on? Some philosophers (Goldman 1993; Gordon 1986) argue that folk psychology, in sense (1) is a matter of simulation. Putting it less precisely than either Goldman or Gordon would, to use commonsense psychology is to exercise a skill; to attribute a belief is to project oneself into the situation of the believer. The dominant view, however, is that users of concepts like believing, desiring, intending -- folk psychology(1) -- are deploying a theory -- folk psychology(2). To attribute a belief is to make an hypothesis about the internal state of the putative believer. Some psychologists (e.g., Astington, Harris, and Olson 1988) as well as philosophers simply assume the theory theory interpretation, and some, though not all, fail to distinguish between folk psychology(1) and folk psychology(2).

The second is the so-called status issue. To what extent is the commonsense belief/desire framework correct? The "status" issue has turned on this question: To what extent will science vindicate (in some relevant sense) commonsense psychology? The question of scientific vindication arises when commonsense psychology is understood as folk psychology(2). On one side are intentional realists like Fodor (1987) and Dretske (1987), who argue that science will vindicate the conceptual framework of commonsense psychology. On the other side are proponents of ELIMINATIVE MATERIALISM like Churchland (1981) and Stich (1983), who argue that as an empirical theory, commonsense psychology is susceptible to replacement by a better theory with radically different conceptual resources (but see Stich 1996 for a revised view). Just as other folk theories (e.g., FOLK BIOLOGY) have been overthrown by scientific theories, we should be prepared for the overthrow of folk psychology by a scientific theory -- scientific psychology or neuroscience. Eliminative materialists make the empirical prediction that science very probably will not vindicate the framework of commonsense psychology.

The question of scientific vindication, however, does not by itself decide the "status" issue. To see this, consider an argument for eliminative materialism (EM):

(a)     Folk psychology will not be vindicated by a physicalistic theory (scientific psychology or neuroscience).

(b)     Folk psychology is correct if and only if it is vindicated (in some relevant sense) by a physicalistic theory.


(c)     Folk psychology is incorrect.

Premise (b), which plays an essential role in the argument, has largely been neglected (but see Baker 1995; Horgan and Graham 1991). If premise (b) refers to folk psychology(2), then premise (b) is plausible; but then the conclusion would establish only that commonsense psychology interpreted as a theory is incorrect. However, if premise (b) refers to folk psychology(1), then premise (b) is very probably false. If folk psychology is not a putative scientific theory in the first place, then there is no reason to think that a physicalistic theory will reveal it to be incorrect. (Similarly, if cooking, say, is not a scientific theory in the first place, then we need not fear that chemistry will reveal that you cannot really bake a cake.) So, the most that (EM) could show would be that if the theory-theory is the correct philosophical account of folk psychology(1), then folk psychology is a false theory. (EM) would not establish the incorrectness of commonsense psychology on other philosophical accounts (as, say, understood in terms of Aristotle's account of the practical syllogism).

Other positions on the "status" issue include these: commonsense psychology -- folk psychology(1) -- will be partly confirmed and partly disconfirmed by scientific psychology (von Eckardt 1994, 1997); commonsense psychology is so robust that we should affirm its physical basis regardless of the course of scientific psychology (Heil 1992); commonsense psychology is causal, and hence, though attributions of attitudes are interpretive and normative, explanations of behavior in terms of attitudes are backed by strict laws (Davidson 1980); commonsense psychology is useless as science, but remains useful in everyday life (Dennett 1987; Wilkes 1991). Still others (Baker 1995; Horgan and Graham 1991) take the legitimacy of commonsense psychology to be borne out in everyday cognitive practice -- regardless of the outcome of scientific psychology or neuroscience.

See also

Additional links

-- Lynne Rudder Baker


Astington, J. W., P. L. Harris, and D. R. Olson, Eds. (1988). Developing Theories of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Baker, L. R. (1995). Explaining Attitudes: A Practical Approach to the Mind. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Churchland, P. M. (1981). Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. Journal of Philosophy 78:67-90.

Churchland, P. M. (1989). Eliminative materialism and the propositional attitudes. In A Neurocomputational Perspective: The Nature of Mind and the Structure of Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dretske, F. (1987). Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fodor, J. A. (1987). Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldman, A. I. (1993). The Psychology of Folk Psychology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16:15-28.

Gordon, R. M. (1986). Folk Psychology as Simulation. Mind and Language 1:158-171.

Heil, J. (1992). The Nature of True Minds. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Horgan, T., and G. Graham. (1991). In defense of southern fundamentalism. Philosophical Studies 62:107-134.

Morton, A. (1980). Frames of Mind: Constraints on the Commonsense Conception of the Mental. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sellars, W. (1963). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. In Science, Perception and Reality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Stich, S. P. (1983). From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case Against Belief. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stich, S. P. (1996). Deconstructing the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

von Eckardt, B. (1994). Folk psychology and scientific psychology. In S. Guttenplan, Ed., A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 300-307.

von Eckardt, B. (1997). The empirical naivete of the current philosophical conception of folk psychology. In M. Carrier and P. K. Machamer, Eds., Mindscapes: Philosophy, Science, and the Mind. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 23-51.

Wilkes, K. V. (1991). The relationship between scientific psychology and common-sense psychology. Synthese 89:15-39.

Further Readings

Baker, L. R. (1988). Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Burge, T. (1979). Individualism and the mental. Studies in Metaphysics: Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 4. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Churchland, P. S. (1988). Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1978). Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology. Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books.

Fodor, J. A. (1990). A Theory of Content and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldman, A. (1989). Interpretation psychologized. Mind and Language 4:161-185.

Graham, G. L., and T. Horgan. (1988). How to be realistic about folk psychology. Philosophical Psychology 1:69-81.

Greenwood, J. D. (1991). The Future of Folk Psychology: Intentionality and Cognitive Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horgan, T., and J. Woodward. (1985). Folk psychology is here to stay. Philosophical Review 94:197-225.

Kitcher, P. (1984). In defense of intentional psychology. Journal of Philosophy 71:89-106.

Lewis, D. (1972). Psychophysical and theoretical identifications. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 50:249-258.

Premack, D., and G. Woodruff. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1:515-526.

Putnam, H. (1988). Representation and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ramsey, W., S. Stich, and J. Garon. (1990). Connectionism, eliminativism, and the future of folk psychology. In J. E. Tomberliin, Ed., Action Theory and Philosophy of Mind -- Philosophical Perspectives 4. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson.

Searle, J. (1980). Minds, brains and programs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3:417-424.

Wellman, H. (1990). The Child's Theory of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press .