The Folk Psychological Spiral: Explanation, Regulation, and Language

Southern Journal of Philosophy 53 (S1):50-67 (2015)
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The view that folk psychology is primarily mindreading beliefs and desires has come under challenge in recent years. I have argued that we also understand others in terms of individual properties such as personality traits and generalizations from past behavior, and in terms of group properties such as stereotypes and social norms (Andrews 2012). Others have also argued that propositional attitude attribution isn’t necessary for predicting others’ behavior, because this can be done in terms of taking Dennett’s Intentional Stance (Zawidzki 2013), appealing to social structures (Maibom 2007), shared norms (McGeer 2007) or via solution based heuristics for reaching equilibrium between social partners (Morton 2003). But it isn’t only prediction that can be done without thinking about what others think; we can explain and understand people in terms of their personality traits, habitual behaviors, and social practices as well. The decentering of propositional attitude attributions goes hand in hand with a move away from taking folk psychology to be primarily a predictive device. While experiments examining folk psychological abilities in children, infants, and other species still rest on asking subjects to predict behavior, theoretical investigations as to the evolutionary function of folk psychology have stressed the role of explanation (Andrews 2012) and regulative functions (McGeer 2007, Zawidzki 2013, Fenici 2011). In this paper I argue that an explanatory role for folk psychology is also a regulative role, and that language is not required for these regulative functions. I will start by drawing out the relationship between prediction, explanation, and regulation of behavior according to both mindreading approaches to folk psychology and the pluralistic account I defend. I will argue that social cognition does not take the form of causal reasoning so much as it does normative reasoning, and will introduce the folk psychological spiral. Then I will examine the cognitive resources necessary for participating in the folk psychological spiral, and I will argue that these cognitive resources can be had without language. There is preliminary evidence that some other species understand one another through a normative lens that, through looping effects, creates expectations that community members strive to live up to.
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