Folk Psychology

April 10, 2008

Here’s some info on Folk Psychology, as it will come up with something I’ll be writing on later.

Folk Psychology (sometimes called naïve psychology, common sense psychology or vernacular psychology) is the set of background assumptions, socially-conditioned prejudices and convictions that are implicit in our everyday descriptions of others’ behavior and in our ascriptions of their mental states.

It includes concepts such as belief (“he thinks that Peter is wise”), desire (“she wants that piece of cake”), fear (“Alex is afraid of snakes”) and hope (“she hopes that he is on time today”). Such ascriptions are collectively known as propositional attitude ascriptions.


Folk theories, i.e. theories that are based on common, everyday experiences, but not subjected to rigorous experimental techniques, may underlie many of our actions. For instance, a fairly sophisticated folk physics (the theory of the behavior of middle-sized, common objects, such as tables, chairs and bowling balls) is essential to our everyday interactions with the surrounding environment.

Just think of all the assumptions you make about the clothing you are currently wearing, for example, that it is not going to melt, that it stays at a certain temperature range in standard conditions, that it will not protect you from bullets and so on. Similarly, folk psychology is considered the basis for many of our social actions and judgments about the psychology of others. It encompasses all of the assumptions we make about the correlations between people’s behavior, mental states, and surrounding conditions.


Many philosophers, under the influence of Wittgenstein and Sellars, have denied that the alleged theoretical entities posited by folk psychology (“beliefs”, “desires”, etc.) have any causal status. According to the theory-theory, a typical causal or counterfactual generalization (or law) of folk psychology would be characterized schematically as follows:

If X wants that Y, and believes that Z is necessary for Y, then X will do Z.

If, as the Wittgensteinian claims, propositional attitudes are not causes, then this would turn out to be meaningless. However, it is not clear on this analysis what properties such mental states do have, if not that of causality.

In the view of Daniel Dennett, X wants that Y and believes that Z is necessary for Y just in case it can be predictively attributed these beliefs and desires. He maintains this even if it is a simple animal, such as a frog, or a non-living object, such as a robot. In this, he declines to identify beliefs or desires with specific natural kinds. Thus, our folk-psychological talk about beliefs and desires is essential and frequently true, but does not concern entities in the brain.

edited from Wikipedia.

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