Folk Psychology Revisited: The Methodological Problem and the Autonomy of Psychology

Daniel F. Hartner


'Folk psychology' is a term that refers to the way that ordinary people think and talk about minds. But over roughly the last four decades the term has come to be used in rather different ways by philosophers and psychologists engaged in technical projects in analytic philosophy of mind and empirical psychology, many of which are only indirectly related to the question of how ordinary people actually think about minds. The result is a sometimes puzzling body of academic literature, cobbled together loosely under that single heading, that contains a number of terminological inconsistencies, the clarification of which seems to reveal conceptual problems. This paper is an attempt to approach folk psychology more directly, to clarify the phenomenon of interest, and to examine the methods used to investigate it. Having identified some conceptual problems in the literature, I argue that those problems have occluded a particular methodological confound involved in the study of folk psychology, one associated with psychological language, that may well be intractable. Rather than attempt to solve that methodological problem, then, I suggest that we use the opportunity to rethink the relationship between folk psychology and its scientific counterpart. A careful look at the study of folk psychology may prove surprisingly helpful for clarifying the nature of psychological science and addressing the contentious question of its status as a potentially autonomous special science.


folk psychology; methodology; theory of mind; mindreading; autonomy of psychology; theory-theory

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Online ISSN: 1736-5899 | Print ISSN: 2228-110X