Kristin Andrews, "Do Apes Read Minds?: Toward a New Folk Psychology" (MIT Press, 2012)


The ability to figure out the mental lives of others - what they want, what they believe, what they know -- is basic to our relationships. Sherlock Holmes exemplified this ability by accurately simulating the thought processes of suspects in order to solve mysterious crimes. But folk psychology is not restricted to genius detectives. We all use it: to predict what a friend will feel when we cancel a date, to explain why a child in a playground is crying, to deceive someone else by saying less than the whole story. Its very ubiquity explains why it is called folk psychology.

But how in fact does folk psychology work? On standard views in philosophy and psychology, folk psychology just is the practice of ascribing or attributing beliefs and desires to people for explaining and predicting their behavior. A folk psychologist is someone who has this "theory of mind". In her new book, Do Apes Read Minds?: Toward a New Folk Psychology (MIT Press, 2012), Kristin Andrews, associate professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, argues that the standard view is far too narrow a construal of what's going on. It leaves out a wide variety of other mechanisms we use to understand the mental lives of others, and a wide variety of other reasons we have for engaging in this social competence. Moreover, what's necessary to be a folk psychologist is not a sophisticated metacognitive ability for ascribing beliefs, but an ability to sort the world into agents and non-agents - an ability that greatly expands the class of creatures that can be folk psychologists. Andrews draws on empirical work in psychology and ethology, including her own field work observing wild primates, to critique the standard view and ground her alternative pluralistic view.

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Carrie Figdor

Carrie Figdor is professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa.

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