Revised SEP entry: Folk Psychology as a Theory

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has just published a substantially revised version of the entry on “Folk Psychology as a Theory,” written by Ian Ravenscroft (Flinders University). To access the entry, please click here. Below is the introduction, followed by links to the various sections of the entry.

Folk Psychology as a Theory

First published Mon Sep 22, 1997; substantive revision Thu Aug 12, 2010

The concept of folk psychology has played a significant role in philosophy of mind and cognitive science over the last half century. However, even a cursory examination of the literature reveals that there are at least three distinct senses in which the term “folk psychology” is used. (1) Sometimes “folk psychology” is used to refer to a particular set of cognitive capacities which include—but are not exhausted by—the capacities to predict and explain behavior. (2) The term “folk psychology” is also used to refer to a theory of behavior represented in the brain. According to many philosophers and cognitive scientists, the set of cognitive capacities identified above are underpinned by folk psychology in this second sense. (3) The final sense of “folk psychology” is closely associated with the work of David Lewis. On this view, folk psychology is a psychological theory constituted by the platitudes about the mind ordinary people are inclined to endorse.

To reduce terminological ambiguity, throughout this entry the term “mindreading” will be used to refer to that set of cognitive capacities which include (but is not exhausted by) the capacities to predict and explain behavior. “Folk psychology” will be used only in the second and third senses identified above. When separate names are required to avoid confusion, the second sense of “folk psychology” will be called the mindreading approach to folk psychology and the third sense theplatitude approach to folk psychology. This terminology is due to Stich & Nichols 2003. In an earlier publication, Stephen Stich and I called the mindreading sense of folk psychology the internal sense, and the platitude sense the external sense (Stich & Ravenscroft 1994). However, the current labels are more informative.

It’s not clear who introduced the term “folk psychology” into the philosophy of mind. It gained wide usage during the 1980s and is rarely used outside philosophy. The phrase “commonsense psychology” is sometimes used by philosophers synonymously with “folk psychology”, although the former term seems to be dying out. Psychologists rarely use “folk psychology”, preferring the phrase “theory of mind” (or sometimes “naïve psychology”). Just as there is ambiguity in the use of “folk psychology”, “theory of mind” is used to refer both to mindreading and to the theory hypothesized to underpin mindreading.

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