The Debate about Folk Psychology

Essay 2016 9 Pages

Philosophy - Philosophy of the Present


Content – The Debate about Folk Psychology

1. Introduction

2. Eliminativism about folk psychology

3. In defence of folk psychology

4. Folk psychology and mental representations

5. Summary

6. Literature

1. Introduction

Folk psychology is often simply addressed as a rough-known set of concepts, generalisations and rules of thumb we all standardly use to explain and predict human behaviour (Churchland 1988, p. 299). It is also often referred as common sense psychology since the term “folk” seems to be depictive and unscientific as in “folk physics” or “folk biology” which seem to characterize a more simplistic and superfluous version of the “real” sciences (Churchland 1998 and Ravenscroft 2008, p. 1).

It is not really clear, who introduced the term but it gained wide usage in the 1980s. Despite being referred to as “folk psychology” or “common sense psychology” it is also addressed as “naïve psychology”, again with the intention, that it is no real scientific view on human behaviour. But it seems widely accepted that it involves the following cognitive capacities (Ravenscroft 2008):

1. To predict human behaviour in certain circumstances
2. To attribute mental states to other human beings
3. To explain the behaviour of humans in terms of them possessing mental states

Wilfrid Sellars suggested to understand folk psychology as an interpretation of a theory that explains human behaviour as an interpretation of such everyday explanations as part of a folk theory comprising a network of generalizations employing concepts such as for example belief and desire (Sellars 1963).

Although we also tend to predict, attribute and explain the behaviour of animals, it is still unclear if they have the very same capacities and are also able to read the minds of their conspecifics. The research in this field is quite focussed on humans, perhaps also to avoid anthropomorphism (Ravenscroft 2008).

Therefore, folk psychology obviously has propositional attitudes that can be compared. It also has propositional modularity: Mental States may be individuated in terms of the very propositions that provide their content. The idea of folk psychology also implies that there are causally productive internal states, distinct states of an organism causing certain behaviours. (Bechtel 1990)

There are at least three distinct senses of the term “folk psychology” (Ravenscroft 2008):

1. Folk psychology refers to particular set of cognitive capacities, already mentioned above
2. Folk psychology can also be understood as a theory of behaviour represented in the brain. The set of cognitive capacities identified above, including a certain kind of “mindreading”, are underpinned by folk psychology.
3. According to David Lewis, folk psychology may also be a psychological theory constituted by the platitudes about the mind and its processes, ordinary people are inclined to endorse.

The idea of folk psychology seems to be claiming for scientific grounding to be true (Bechtel 1990). But with that certain problems, such as the very basic question of folk psychology as a real science and theory arise, which shall be inquired in the following sections.

2. Eliminativism about folk psychology

Contemporary eliminative materialism, which denies the existence of specific types of mental states, is a relatively new theory. Paul Feyerabend was one of the first who endorsed the idea that this common-sense psychology might turn out to be radically false and that its non-physical features may never be able to be integrated in almost any material theory about the mind and brain. Thus any form of physicalism would entail that there are no mental processes or states as understood by common sense (Feyerabend 1963).

There is a certain tension in most writings that deal with the elimination of folk psychology. The first scenario proposes that certain mental concepts will turn out to be empty because they use mental state terms referring to nothing that actually exists like for example the historical cases were it turned out where it turned out that some things did not exist after further inquiry such as demons or phlogiston. The second approach suggests that a conceptual framework of neurosciences will someday be able to replace the common sense framework we now use. In the second scenario it would be possible that mental states really do exist but what the designate turn out to be brain states that would be described more accurately using the terminology of the relevant sciences (Ramsey 2013). Terms like beliefs and desires, which are the backbone of folk psychology are considered non-scientific and rather mystic (Stich/Ravenscroft 1993)

One of the hardest critics of folk psychology are Paul and Patricia Churchland. Paul Churchland states:

“[…] that our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both the principles and the ontology of that theory will eventually be displaced rather than smoothly reduced, by completed neuroscience.” (Churchland 1981, p. 67.)

According to Paul Churchland one key element of eliminative materialism is that in history a lot of entities have been used and still are being used to explain certain phenomena that with further inquiry turn out to not exist at all. His main claim is that there are no mental states in the sense of folk psychology at all and therefore no relation between mental states and physical brain processes exists. Since only physical processes do actually exist, folk psychology as a theory refers to nothing and therefore can be eliminated. Some background ideas are:



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
784 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Ruhr-University of Bochum – Institut für Philosophie
Mental Representations Eliminativsm Eliminativsmus Materialism Materialismus Folk Psychology




Title: The Debate about Folk Psychology