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Language and folk-psychology

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on April 8, 2008 at 5:21:33 pm

Language and Folk Psychology

In the attribution of propositional attitudes (beliefs, intentions, desires) to other human beings in an effort to interpret and predict behaviour, we  assumption the rationality of others.  The fact that someone even attributes these attitudes to another creature rests on that assumption.  

Only rational creatures are capable of possessing propositional attitudes.  It is easy to contend that snails do not have any form of propositional attitudes, and are thus non-rational, but what about dogs and chimpanzees? Donald Davidson tackled this issue by providing an example of how a dog could possibly hold such a belief as a cat (whom the dog was chasing) going up the oak tree.  The dog could not possibly have beliefs about the cat going up the “oak tree” because there was no way a dog could have a set of beliefs pertaining to what a tree would be like, much less one of the oak variety.  To have a valid belief system, the necessary dependence between beliefs must exist.  In other words, in the case of the dog example, the dog must have an idea of what a tree is to make sense of an oak tree.  The dog needs to have an idea of what the direction “up” is to have the capability of believing that the cat went “up” that oak tree.  A single phrase such as “I believe the cat went up the oak tree” might be a simple clause, but it contains multiple sets of beliefs that are dependent on other beliefs.  Unfortunately, there is no way to make concrete what beliefs the dog has, even worse, if the dog actually has them.  It was finally suggested by Davidson that in order for a creature to have a working system of beliefs where the dependence of beliefs to other beliefs does not present a problem, the creature must have a language.  To have a system of propositional attitudes requires a language.  Since Folk Psychology involved the attribution of these systems, and that the rationality assumption is in place, both the agent and the observer must have language.

Daniel Hutto delves further into this symbiosis as he supports sententialists (the idea that thought is linguistic). Hutto specifically supports the sententialist position with regard to the claim that propositional attitude-based reasoning and its representation is conducted using the public vehicles of natural language.  Modes of reasoning (as employed in Folk Psychology) based on inferences are made possible by the structures provided by linguistic symbols.  The symbolisms and compositional semantics that language provides are what makes inferential and logical thinking (activities that are very much involved in propositional attitude attribution) even possible.

See also:


  • Attribution Theory
  • Folk-Psychology in Non-human Animals


  • Davidson, D. (1982). Rational animals. Dialectica, 36(4), 317-327
  • Hutto, D. (2007). Folk Psychology without Theory or Simulation. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed (pp. 115-135). Dordrecht: Springer.


- P. Carlo Tadiosa, University of Toronto


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