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Volume 14, 2000

Folk Psychology, Mental Concepts and the Ascription of Attitudes

Robert M. Gordon
Pages 102-114

Sellars’s Ryleans Revisited

It is often said that the simulation vs. theory debate must be resolved empirically. But part of the needed empirical work, perhaps the decisive part, is “armchair” testing against philosophical touchstones such as intentionality, opacity, and Moore’s paradox. I will assay Sellars' myth of “our Rylean ancestors,” frequently cited as the prototypical “theory” theory. Sellars’ laudable aim was to show how “privileged access” could be preserved without making first person ascriptions of mental predicates incorrigible or dependent on “immediate experience.” He attempted this by portraying these ascriptions as essentially theoretical: We are so conditioned that, when situational and behavioral evidence indicates certain theoretical states and episodes, we make the corresponding self-ascriptions, without having to consider the evidence. Sellars’ approach fails, however, because self-reports are actually coordinated only with verbal behavior – typically, the outward-looking “expression” of a state in the non-mental ‘Rylean’ language. (Such coordination is illustrated, in the case of belief ascription, by Moore’s paradox, and more generally, by what I call “ascent routines.”) Thus our self-reports could not be a product of theory-based training – nor directly theory-based, as some psychologists suggest. Given this coordination, the only way to achieve Sellars’ aim – without sacrificing nivocality – is to suppose ascriptions to others to be “third person self-ascriptions” based on the other’s situation and behavior, as the simulation theory maintains. Sensitive to nonverbal as well as verbal behavior, they prevail over first person ascriptions. This leads to a certain conception of people: peepholes through which the world reappears, possibly transformed.

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