Propositional attitude psychology as an ideal type

Topoi 11 (1):5-26 (1992)
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This paper critiques the view, widely held by philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists, that psychological explanation is a matter of ascribing propositional attitudes (such as beliefs and desires) towards language-like propositions in the mind, and that cognitive mental states consist in intentional attitudes towards propositions of a linguistic quasi-linguistic nature. On this view, thought is structured very much like a language. Denial that propositional attitude psychology is an adequate account of mind is therefore, on this view, is tantamount to eliminative materialism, the denial that human beings are thinking beings. I dispute this on the basis of recent work in cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Mental models theory, on which thought is better understood as nonpropositional intentional psychology, accords better with the evidence and offers an alternative view to propositional attitude psychology -- one that means that the denial that that is propositional is not eliminative. However, I argue that propositional attitude psychology is a useful idealization, as classical mechanics is of relativity theory, strictly but not radically false, and useful for prediction and indeed, as long as its idealized character is born in mind, for explanation of behavior.

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Justin Schwartz
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (PhD)


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