Sellars and the Origin of the Theory of Folk Psychology

In Saving Belief, Lynne Rudder-Baker takes to task one of the two central doctrines within reductionist/eliminativist (RE) philosophies of mind: the doctrine of folk-psychology as an empirical theory. This doctrine, put simply, states that what traditional philosophers take to be the very ‘stuff’ of the mind – propositional attitudes, for example – is a kind of empirical theory and framework used in every-day, common-sense interaction and prediction of behaviour. Paul Churchland defines it thus:

‘Folk psychology’ denotes the prescientific, common-sense conceptual framework that all normally socialized humans deploy in order to comprehend, predict, explain and manipulate the behaviour of humans and the higher animals…the term involves the deliberate implication that there is something theory-like about the commonsense understanding…the implication is that the relevant framework is speculative, systematic, and corrigible, that it embodies generalized information, and that it permits explanation and prediction in the fashion of any theoretical framework.  (A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, p. 308)

Key here is Churchland’s definition of folk-psychology (FP) as prescientific, because within this definition the second of the two central doctrines is hinted at. Once it is recognized that folk-psychology is an empirical theory that attempts to predict behaviour, say, in a systematic way, then the stage is set for to be judged true or false, and the proponent of RE  proposes to do precisely that. As an empirical theory, FP must be judged as any other empirical theory: within the realm of laws. Baker notes:

Churchland likewise regards the common-sense conception as an empirical theory up for grabs. His most potent argument is that the common-sense conception rests upon particular empirical generalizations, which may be readily abandoned. He argues that just as terms like ‘acceleration’ derive their meanings from their places in a network of lawlike statements, so too, terms like ‘believes’ derive their meaning from their places in a network of lawlike statements, in which case empirical falsification would discredit belief. (Saving Belief, p. 126)

Unsurprisingly, FP, judged by the light of the RE, is a theory judged false. In fact, not only is it false, it has no hope of being integrated into the various sciences, and since coherence with what we know is crucial for a credibility of any given theory, the prospect is grim for its viability.

Churchland cites by way of genealogy Wilfrid Sellars’s seminal paper Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, specifically Sellars’s tale of our Rylean ancestors, as the first instance of someone describing the common-sense picture (what Sellars might call the manifest image) as a kind of explanatory theory, and bases a substantial amount of his argument on his interpretation of Sellars’s tale and the subsequent development of its central idea – which, in a nutshell, can be roughly defined as a conceptual-role semantics. Churchland explicitly credits Sellars’s hero Jones with positing the existence of thoughts as theoretical concepts, and yet Sellars himself was more nuanced on this matter. deVries and Triplett note that:

…Sellars explicitly rejects the line of thought employed by eliminativists like Rorty and Churchland. They assert that “folk psychology,” the framework we all employ for predicting the behavior of organisms in terms of their inner, psychological states and that Jones is about to develop, really is a theory, and a bad theory at that. It should therefore, say the eliminativists, suffer the fate of all bad theories and should be replaced by a better theory, presumably to come from the further development of neuroscience. Via such scientific development, we will discover that there are no beliefs and no sensations, just as there is no phlogiston. Rorty, Churchland and others clearly took their inspiration from Sellars, but the disciples have taken the parable too literally. (Knowledge, Mind and the Given, p. 134)

Perhaps, however, we would do well to step back for a moment and see just what it is that Sellars takes a theory to be, since at first glance there appears to be a good deal of support for the RE. Sellars argues that things such as thoughts and ‘inner episodes’ are in fact postulated in order to explain observable phenomena or behaviour. This is closely tied to his (in)famous distinction between the ‘manifest’ and ‘scientific’ (M/S) image, and the RE interpretation of this distinction is that it’s not so much of a distinction as a contrast or opposition, one in which the scientific image must (and will) win out. It is crucial to note, however, that Sellars himself opposes this kind of reading of the M/S image.  If the manifest image can be roughly correlated with the ‘common sense’ view that people have of the world, then the scientific image is the revision of the manifest image via theory construction and postulation to explain observable phenomena. Key here is the status of the scientific image as a revision. The scientific image grows out of, as it were, the manifest image in a natural and organic way, but ultimately the scientific image has a kind of primacy that the manifest image doesn’t have.

At any rate: what does Sellars actually think a theory is?

Informally, to construct a theory is, in its most developed or sophisticated form, to postulate a domain of entities which behave in certain ways set down by the fundamental principles of the theory, and to correlate — perhaps, in a certain sense to identify — complexes of these theoretical entities with certain non-theoretical objects or situations; that is to say, with objects or situations which are either matters of observable fact or, in principle at least, describable in observational terms. (Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, §51)

Now, positing theoretical or non-observable entities is in itself unproblematic. This is simply saving the phenomena. But if we posit, our hero Jones does, thoughts and various other inner episodes, in order to explain the phenomena, isn’t that precisely the same thing that the RE do, which is what we are seeking to avoid? According to Sellars, the answer is no. Sellars’s answer here is quite subtle and is easy to misunderstand, because in point of fact, Sellars doesn’t actually argue that thoughts and inner episodes are theoretical concepts, but rather that they are like theoretical concepts. It is important to note that Sellars does not think that the concepts of the mental, such as thoughts and private inner episodes, were developed out of a scientific research programme:

There is room for Sellars to maintain that our mental state concepts differ from theoretical concepts as such precisely in that our mental state concepts are not abandonable in the way purely theoretical concepts are. For Sellars can argue that theoretical concepts are developed and employed within science – an activity of language/concept revision structured in accordance with fairly explicit norms and carried out by rational beings. But the concepts of mentality were neither developed  in the context of strict scientific inquiry (though their development bears important analogies to that scientific process), nor could they be reasonably abandoned within the context of ongoing scientific discovery. (Knowledge, Mind and the Given, p. 135)

This, together with Sellars’s commitment to the continuity of the development of scientific theories with our common-sense understanding of the world, casts a doubtful light on the interpretation of Sellars as a proto-eliminativist. While Sellars does seek to show the possibility of a non-cartesian theory of mind, he does not and does not even desire to eliminate mental concepts. Rather, he seeks to revise them that does justice to the status of human beings as interacting, inter-subjective, social and rational animals (this is a topic for another post, however).

2 thoughts on “Sellars and the Origin of the Theory of Folk Psychology

  1. PeterJ September 27, 2016 / 7:50 am

    A good example folk-science.


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