Are the Folk Natural Ryleans?7 min read

Folk psychology and the belief-desire accounting system has been formative in cognitive science because of the claim, mainly put forth by philosophers, that it forms the fundamental framework via which everybody (philosopher and non-philosopher alike) understands human action as meaningful. Both proponents of some version of the argument for the ineliminable character of the folk psychological vocabulary (Davidson, 1963; Fodor, 1987), and critics that cannot wait for its elimination by a mature neuroscience as an outmoded theory (Churchland, 1981) accept the basic premise; namely, that when it comes to action understanding, folk psychology is preferred by the folk. The job of philosophy is to systematize and lay bare the “theoretical” structure of the folk system (to save it or disparage it).

In a fascinating new article forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology, Devin Sanchez Curry, tries to challenge this crucial bit of philosophical common wisdom, which he refers to as “Davidson’s Dogma” (Sanchez Curry acknowledges that this might not be exegetically strictly true of Davidson’s writings, although it is true in terms of third-party reception and influence). In particular, Sanchez Curry hones in on the claim that the folk use a “theory” of causation to account for action using beliefs: Essentially the idea that beliefs are inner causes (the cogs in the internal machinery) that produce action when they interact with other beliefs and desires. This is the subject of a previous post.

Sanchez Curry, rather than staying at the purely exegetical or conceptual analysis level,  turns to the empirical literature in psychology on lay belief attribution to shed light on this issue. There he notes something surprising. There’s little empirical evidence that the folk resort to a belief-desire vocabulary or to a theory of these as inner causes (cogs and wheels in the internal machinery) of action. Going through the literature on the development and functioning of “mindreading” abilities, Sanchez Curry shows that the primary conclusion of this line of work is that the explicit attribution of representational (e.g. “pictures in the head”) versions of belief is the exception, not the rule.

Instead, the literature has converged (like many other subfields in social and cognitive psychology) on a dual systems/process view, in which the bulk of everyday mindreading is done by high capacity, high-efficiency automatic systems that do not traffic in the explicit language of representations. Instead, these systems are attuned to routine behavioral dispositions of others and engage in the job of inference and filling-in of other people’s behavior patterns by drawing on well-honed schemata trained by the pervasive experience of watching conspecifics make their way through the world. Explicit representational belief attribution practices emerge when the routine System I process encounter trouble and require either observers or other people to “justify” what they have done using a more explicit accounting.

As Sanchez Curry notes, the evidence here is consistent with the idea (which I alluded to in a previous post) that persons may be “natural Ryleans” but that the Rylean (dispositional) action-accounting system is so routinized as to not have the flashy linguistic bells and whistles of the folk psychological one. This creates the illusion that there’s only one accounting system (the belief-desire one), when in fact there are two, it is just that the one that does most of the work is nondeclarative (Lizardo, 2017), while the declarative one gets most of the attention, even though it’s actually the “emergency” action-accounting system, not the everyday workhorse.

As Sanchez Curry also notes, evidence provided by “new wave” (post-Heider) attribution theorists show that the explicit (and actual) folk psychological accounting system even when activated, seldom posits beliefs as “inner causes” of behavior. Instead, when people enter the folk-psychological mode to explain puzzling behavior that cannot be handled by System I practical mindreading, they look for reasons, not causes. These reasons are holistic, situational, and even “institutional” (in the sociological sense). There are “justifications” that will make the action meaningful while saving the rationality of the actor, given the context. They seldom refer to internal machineries or producing causes. We look for justifications to establish blame, to “make sense” (e.g. “explain”) or “save face” not to establish the inner wellsprings of action. So even in this case the folk are natural Ryleans and focus on the observables of the situation and not the inner wellsprings. This means, that the “theory” of folk psychology is a purely iatrogenic construction of a philosophical discourse on action that plays little role in the actual attributional practices of the folk: Folk psychology in the Davidsonian/Fodorian sense turns out to be the specialized construction of an expert community.

One advantage of this account is that it solves what I previously referred to as the “frame problem” faced by all “pictures in the head” as causal drivers of action. The problem is that the observer has to pick one of a myriad of possible pictures as the “primary” cause for the action. But there is no way to make this selection in a non-arbitrary way if we are stuck with the “inner cause” conception. In the Rylean conception, the “reason” we attribute will depend on the pragmatics and goals of the reason request. Are we seeking to establish blame? Make sense of a puzzle? Save the agent’s face? Make it seem like they are devious?

These arguments have several important implications. The most important one is that mostly, nobody is imputing little world pictures to other people to explain their action, empathize, or even predict or make inferences as to what they will do next. Dedicated, highly trained automatic systems do the job when people are behaving in “predictable” ways. No representations required there (Hutto, 2004). When this action-tracking system fails, we resort to more explicit action accountings, but more accurately we resort to the placing of strange or puzzling action in a less puzzling context. Even here, this is less about getting at occult or inner well-springs than of trying to construct a “reason” why somebody might have acted this way that makes the action less puzzling.


Churchland, P. M. (1981). Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes. The Journal of Philosophy, 78(2), 67–90.

Davidson, D. (1963). Actions, Reasons, and Causes. The Journal of Philosophy, 60(23), 685–700.

Fodor, J. A. (1987). Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. MIT Press.

Hutto, D. D. (2004). The Limits of Spectatorial Folk Psychology. Mind and Language, 19(5), 548–573.

Lizardo, O. (2017). Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes. American Sociological Review, 0003122416675175.


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