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Folk psychology (sometimes called naive psychology or common sense 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 spiders") and hope ("she hopes that he is on time today"). Such ascriptions are collectively known as propositional attitude ascriptions.
The question whether folk psychology can, or should, be considered a fully developed psychological theory has been the subject of intense debate. Eliminative materialists, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland, insist that "folk psychology" is a full-blown theory which makes generalizations ("laws") over a broad range of events, organizes mental events taxonomically, has empirical consequences which are subject to verification or falsification, and makes predictions about the future. This position is called the theory-theory, since it is a theory about the existence of a theory. This idea has been criticized on a number of grounds. First, 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 Dennet, propositional attitudes are simply dispositions to behave in certain ways. Dennett believes that beliefs and such things are abstract ideas which we use to explain and predict the behavior of all sorts of organisms and even non-living objects such as computers. They are a set of indispensable tools which cannot be reduced to the explanations of cognitive science and are certainly not replaceable by other theoretical posits.
Others claim that what we actually do when we attempt to mentally describe and explain other's behavior is simulate the behavior and the mental states of the other person within our own mind. Hence folk psychology is not, on this view, a theory, but a set of simulations which we carry around with us.
Those who accept that folk psychology is indeed a theory but reject eliminativism, suggest that since humans naturally hold a folk psychology, then it must have been developed over time through empirical observations into a useful and successful tool for predicting the behavior of other humans and animals.
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.
Folk physics has been, to a large extent, discredited and shown to be thoroughly inadequate in providing robust explanations of various physical phenomena. This, of course, raises the question of how folk psychology would fare in this respect and this matter is a subject of lively debate in the philosophy of mind.
Philosophers take various attitudes toward the possibility of vindicating / extending folk psychology by allowing its theoretical terms (e.g. 'belief' 'desire' etc.) to play a role in serious scientific theorizing.
Among the advocates of such a possibility, Jerry Fodor is surely the most famous (for a defense of this view see his 1987 book "Psychosemantics"). The other extreme is exemplified by eliminative materialists, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland and Stephen Stich. Although Stich no longer considers himself an eliminativist, his book, "From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case Against Belief" generated much attention for eliminative materialism.
Daniel Dennett's instrumentalist theory is, for some, a middle ground, as he concedes some aspects of eliminativism (arguing that folk psychology concepts can not be reduced to biology) whilst still seeing the value of folk psychological concepts as successful everyday strategies.
- National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for College Teachers seminar June 14 to July 16, 1999.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
- Social Interaction Dynamics Wikies:Psicología popular
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