Folk Psychology and the Biological Basis of Intersubjectivity  pp. 211-234

Folk Psychology and the Biological Basis of Intersubjectivity

By Matthew Ratcliffe

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The Usual Story

Recent philosophical discussions of lntersubjectivity generally start by stating or assuming that our ability to understand and interact with others is enabled by a ‘folk psychology’ or ‘theory of mind’. Folk psychology is characterized as the ability to attribute intentional states, such as beliefs and desires, to others, in order to predict and explain their behaviour. Many authors claim that this ability is not merely one amongst many constituents of interpersonal understanding but an underlying core that enables social life. For example, Churchland states that folk psychology ‘embodies our baseline understanding’ of others (1996, p. 3). Currie and Sterelny similarly assert that ‘our basic grip on the social world depends on our being able to see our fellows as motivated by beliefs and desires we sometimes share and sometimes do not’ (2000, p. 143). And, as Frith and Happe put it, ‘this ability appears to be a prerequisite for normal social interaction: in everyday life we make sense of each other's behaviour by appeal to a belief-desire psychology’ (1999, p. 2).

As there is general consensus concerning what folk psychology is, the focus of recent debates has been on how it is accomplished. ‘Theory-theorists’ claim that the term ‘theory of mind’ should be taken literally. Attribution of intentional states is enabled by a largely tacit, systematically organized body of knowledge concerning intentional states and their relations. ‘Simulation-theorists’, in contrast, maintain that our understanding of others depends upon a practical ability as opposed to an organized body of knowledge.