Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind & Narrative

I came across a book with a bit of a different perspective. It is Folk Psychological Narratives by Daniel D. Hutto. I’ve only skimmed sections of it, but it looks like a promising explanation of the human mind.

The basic issue is with folk psychology and theory of mind. To explain simply, theory of mind is about mind-reading, understanding how others think and what motivates their behavior. There are many that see it as an inborn ability of humans, going back to early evolution when the species became distinct.

Hutto, however, sees this as problematic. The details aren’t that important for my purposes at the moment, but suffice it to say that he thinks this view of theory of mind fails to take account of all the evidence. According to him, it is neither sufficient nor necessary.

He speculates that earliest human culture didn’t require a theory of mind. Even basic cultural products, from tools to language, accordingly didn’t require this ability. What allowed folk psychology to develop supposedly was the emergence of narrative thinking. Humans began telling stories and they became increasingly complex.

The book is rather technical in some areas. Hutto isn’t trying to develop an airtight theory. His purpose is more about challenging standard thinking on these issues and so to offer new directions of thought. It seems promising, from what little I can understand at the moment.

What seemed important to me is that he is overturning the idea that mental ability precedes all else. Instead, he sees the understanding of human nature as being a cultural product, built from other cultural developments. I sense a resonance with other previous views, from Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism to Karl Marx’s species-being, although he mentions neither.

I’ll need to read the book in more detail to suss out these potential links. It’s helpful that others have already considered Hutto’s ideas in a larger context, specifically in relation to Jaynes.

* * *

The Contingency of Mind
Situating Jaynes in the Changing Landscape of Contemporary
Philosophy of Mind
by Jan Sleutels

Looking back on the intellectual landscape of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it makes perfect sense that Julian Jaynes was considered a maverick. There was simply no place for his historical approach to consciousness (Jaynes 1976). His theory was rejected on apriori grounds as conceptually incoherent, biologically impossible, and probably also morally suspect (cf. Sleutels 2006).

Today the situation is quite different, however. In the late 1990s the landscape started to shift towards a view of the mind as being contingent upon a variety of external factors. The so-called EEE approach (Embodied, Embedded, Enacted Cognition) drew attention to the ecological and cultural context of psychological competencies, while varieties of the Extended Mind hypothesis pointed up the importance of external tools (including language technologies) for the developmentof cognitive skills (Clark 2008). Critics of evolutionary psychology are questioning the presumption of psychological continuity that goes with essentialism (Sleutels 2013), while philosophers such as Hutto (2008) argue that our current self-understanding as thinking, conscious agents (our ‘folk psychology’) is contingent on socio-cultural practices.

In this paper I will situate Jaynes’s view of the origin of modern consciousness in the newly emerged landscape. I review some of the most pertinent developments in the philosophy of mind, including work in cognitive archaeology (Malafouris2008) and so-called ‘radically enactivist’ theories of mind (Hutto and Myin 2013).
I conclude by proposing a general argument for the contingency of mind that underscores the importance of Jaynes for future research.

Consciousness, Plasticity, and Connectomics:
The Role of Intersubjectivity in Human Cognition
by Micah Allen & Gary Williams

These “zombie” skills suggest that our cognitive system can automatically carry out intentions without the need for meta-conscious oversight, while also demonstrating the subtle dynamics of embedding “top” reflective intentions within active practice. The point is not that automobile drivers are asleep while they drive. Rather, the driver often steers automatically while his or her reflectively conscious mind is ruminating on something else. Thus, their prior and ongoing reflective intentions structure and guide their experience of driving. Similarly, we can see how intersubjective, prereflective elements structure the reflective observation of and interaction with a tool (as in Heidegger), or in Husserl’s famous comparison of the first experiences of a Scandic anthropologist in Greenland and those of a naïve tourist. We literally “see intentions” and “experience thoughts” and these explanada are intimately interwoven within one another.

Furthermore, prereflective reactivity is subjective, and through development and interaction comes to be structured by the cultural–linguistic constructs such as the self, the mind, and other folk psychological narratives (Hutto, 2008). We argue that the conceptual categorization afforded by self-reflective folk psychological narratives greatly enhance our capacity for self-reflective action within an internal “mind-space.” We thus agree with accounts of language as a form of highly evolved tool use or extended cognition (Tylen et al., 2010).


3 thoughts on “Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind & Narrative


    In order to better frame the tension between Block and Jaynes on this issue, I want to follow Jan Sleutels (2006) in positing that a central question in regards to the social construction of consciousness is determining the extent to which “cultural zombies” are plausible. By a cultural zombie, I mean a human being endowed with a different sort of “mind”, still in possession of a complex culture, capable of advanced behavioral reactivity and ritual practice, but profoundly lacking in conscious introspection, executive control, and the ability to explicitly reason and articulate about intentional actions. Jaynes called the cultural zombie a “bicameral mind”.22 To interact with something as a bicameral mind is to react to it without explicitly realizing that you have done so and without the ability to reason about why you did so. With bicamerality, there is no metacognitive awareness, no executive monitoring or autobiographical memory, and no experience of an introspectable “mind-space”23 through which narratization of behavioral possibilities occurs. Bicameral perception and action is quintessentially pragmatic-externalist reactivity. Block finds it intuitively obvious that cultural zombies are conceptually implausible. But as Sleutels rightly points out, “Uncritical rehearsal of intuitions is the shortest route to parochialism.”

    • I should point out one thing. As far as I know, Jaynes never argued that ancient people were zombies. They had awareness, could perceive the world, and think in complex ways. They simply lacked individuated and interiorized self-consciousness, based on an metaphorically imagined internal space where a self would reside. Bicameral people had an external self that was more social in nature, but it wasn’t zombie-like. I doubt Jaynes would have ever described it that way.

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