False-belief understanding and the phenomenological critics of folk psychology

Journal of Consciousness Studies 15 (12):33-56 (2008)
The dominant account of human social understanding is that we possess a 'folk psychology', that we understand and can interact with other people because we appreciate their mental states. Recently, however, philosophers from the phenomenological tradition have called into question the scope of the folk psychological account and argued for the importance of 'online', non-mentalistic forms of social understanding. In this paper I critically evaluate the arguments of these phenomenological critics, arguing that folk psychology plays a larger role in human social understanding than the critics suggest. First, I use standard false-belief tasks to spell out the commitments of the folk psychological picture. Next, I explicate the critics' account in terms of Michael Wheeler's distinction between online and offline intelligence. I then demonstrate the challenge that false-belief understanding -- a paradigm case of mental state understanding -- poses to the critics' online, non- mentalistic account. Recent research on false-belief understanding illustrates that mental state understanding comes in both online and offline forms. This challenges the critics' claim that our online social understanding does not require folk psychology.
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