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Folk Psychology





Folk Psychology is the commonsense framework we use for understanding other people. It originates from the common fact that people use a specific mentalistic language to refer to other people’s minds, thus composing a framework under which we can understand others. Folk Psychology is considered to be  a folk non-scientific theory of the mind. It is used in our everyday interpretations. It is not thought to be created through rigorous experimentation but rather through our attempt to generate some explanation of everyday behaviors of others. Folk psychology use a specific mentalistic language, where the inner worlds of other people are described as composed of beliefs and desires. Thus to use to folk psychological framework is to explain some other’s behavior by attributing beliefs and desires to them.



It was the insight of both Dennett (1971) and Davidson (1982), that to take a folk psychological stance towards someone else involve attributing rationality to this person. For Davidson, we use belief-desire attribution when we find that someone has met a rationality criteria. Davidson  defines language as the rationality criterion because it allows access to the concept of objective truth. Dennett argues that rationality judgments are pragmatic, and done when it is useful for the judger in order to usefully explain or predict other agents. Dennett calls this taking an intentional stance towards an object.



Within the Folk psychological framework there are two main schools of thought on how our folk psychology is implemented, the Theory-Theory(TT) and Simulation Theory(ST). TT supporters such as Gopnik &Wellman (1992) argue that folk psychology is a framework that is constructed in the same way as a theory. Gopnik & Wellman argue that developmental patterns in children's understanding of others as parallel the development of a scientific theory. Thus folk psychology for the TT is a framework constructed in the same way as a scientific framework. Simulation theorist argue that folk psychology is a process of empathic simulation. Gallese & Goldman (1998) argue that a special type of neuron called MIRROR NEURONS, which are involved in both perception of an action and generation of the same action are strong evidence that humans are running a simulation of others in order to explain and interpret behavior.


Some philosophers and psychologists have disputed the traditional account of folk psychology (i.e. belief-desire attribution for prediction/explanation), regarding either its content, while others have taken quarrel with its function. While beliefs and desires are a good place to start, Andrews (2007) argues in her Pluralistic approach to Folk-psychology that they cannot account for all of our judgments about others. Instead Andrews argues that we also must make use of Personality traits to complement our beliefs and desires. Goldie (2007) argues in the same pluralistic vein as Andrews that belief desire explanations are not sufficient explanations of behavior and if we are to gain these we must appeal to character traits, moods, emotions, narrative, and motive. The function of folk psychology has been disputed, for instance, by Knobe, who claims that folk-psychology is essentially involved in moral judgments. Knobe suggested that intentionality attribution migh be sensible to the moral nature of the action; morally wrong actions are more likely to be considered intentional than morally acceptable ones. 


Gallagher (2007) argues against a conceptual-knowledge level folk psychology and instead argues toward an embodied account of social cognition, grounded in sensori-motor skills. Gallagher argues that sensory motor resonance such as mirror neurons allow us some degree of perceptual access to others intentions. As such we come to perceive others intentions as we develop our social-cognitive competence.



See also









  • Andrews, K. (2007). It’s in your nature: a pluralistic folk psychology. Synthese.
  • Davidson, D. (1982). Rational animals. Dialectica, 36(4), 317-327.
  • Dennett, D. C. (1971). Intentional Systems. The Journal of Philosophy, 68(4), 87-106.
  • Gallagher, S. (2007). Logical and Phenomenological Arguments against Simulation Theory. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed (pp. 63-78). Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Gallese, V., & Goldman, A. (1998). Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2(12), 493-501.
  • Gopnik, A., & Wellman, H. M. (1992). Why the Child's Theory of Mind Really Is a Theory. Mind & Language, 7(1-2), 145-171
  • Goldie, P. (2007). There Are Reasons and Reasons. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed (pp. 103-114). Dordrecht: Springer



- Keenan Masterson, University of Toronto

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