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Phenomenology and folk-psychology

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Phenomenology and Folk Psychology


Phenomenological theories of folk psychology constitute an important counterpoint to more widely accepted accounts, such as the Theory-Theoryand Simulation Theory. Such an approach is endorsed by Gallagher (2001), Hutto (2004), and Ratcliffe (2006). Taking their lead from Heidegger, these philosophers regard our primary mode of interaction with others as essentially ‘pragmatic’, rather than ‘conceptual’ and ‘mentalistic’ (Gallagher, 2001).  Traditionally, philosophers of mind have conceived folk psychology as a kind of abstract knowledge or simulation routine whose function is to help an agent explain and predict the behaviour of another.  A further shared assumption behind such standard accounts is that an agent comes to understand and expect the behaviour of another agent by attributing hidden, abstract intentional states (e.g., beliefs and desires).  Phenomenological theorists, departing from these common assumptions, propose that the majority of human interpretation and interaction are “embodied practises—practises that are emotional, sensory motor, perceptual and non-conceptual” in nature (Gallagher, 2001, p.81). These are best understood as a set of pragmatic skills or coping strategies, which are fundamentally linked with the nature of our EMBODIMENT. These embodied skills are said to facilitate an “evaluative comprehension” rather than an abstract explanation of the other person’s behaviour (Gallagher, 2001, p.96). This is a way of saying that our understanding of the other is essentially enactive and pragmatic, characterized by “action, involvement, and interaction based on environmental and contextual factors”, rather than detached and speculative (Gallagher, 2001, p. 94).




It is important to observe that phenomenological theories of folk psychology do not deny the fact that humans sometimes explain and predict each other by appealing to representational states like ‘belief’ and ‘desire’.  Instead, they claim that these detached speculations regarding the hidden causes of another’s behaviour are actually highly specialized abilities that are only rarely deployed.  We only appeal to these abstract explanations when our more immediate, non-inferential, and non-conceptual strategiesbreak down.  Thus, imputations of and reflections on the inner representational states of another person are exceptions to the rule of everyday social competence, rather than its dominant strategy.   According to these theorists, the most basic and pervasive mode of interpretation occurs pre-theoretically at the level of primary intersubjectivity. Given the appropriate social and pragmatic contexts, one simply perceives the meanings and intentions directly expressed by the other person’s bodily movements and responds appropriately (Gallagher, 2007).  Moreover, according to Hutto, even when we do appeal to concepts like belief and desire to understand a person’s behaviour, it is not typically in the speculative and detached, third-person manner suggested by the Theory Theoryand Simulation Theory.  Much more common is to engage in a second-person Narrative with the individual whose behaviour one wants to understand.  Such belief-desire narratives occur in a dialogical context aimed at evaluative understanding, rather than in the speculative context aimed at prediction and explanation.


See Also:






  • Gallagher, S. (2001). The Practise of Mind: Theory, Simulation or Interaction? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2001 83-108
  • Gallagher, S. (2007) Logical and Phenomenological Arguments against Simulation Theory. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed (pp.115-135). Dordecht: Springer.
  • Hutto, D. (2004) The Limits of Spectatorial Folk Psychology. Mind & Language, 19:5, 548-573.
  • Hutto, D. (2007) Folk Psychology without Theory or Simulation. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed (pp.115-135). Dordecht: Springer.
  • Ratcliffe, M. (2006) ‘Folk Psychology’ is not Folk Psychology. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 2006. 5: 31-52



- Aaron Henry, University of Toronto

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