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The Myth of Mindreading

Date given: Friday, 11th February 2022

Handout for all of The Myth of Mindreading as pdf. (This has the same content as the web version you are reading here.)


This is a talk at the Communicative Mind Virtual Workshop organized by Richard Moore’s Communicative Mind group at the University of Warwick.


The myth is that we as researchers can rely on a shared understanding of what we are talking about when we talk about intentional action or about mental states like knowledge, intention, desire, anger, surprise and the like. This is a myth of mindreading because on any standard view, the most sophisticated forms of everyday mindreading involve attributing these mental states. In this talk I will argue that the myth is untrue. I also will explore how recognizing that we lack a shared understanding could changing the way we study mindreading.

The myth of mindreading is a practical problem facing developmental, comparative and philosophical theories of mindreading. As will be illustrated, when researchers appear to disagree about understanding knowledge or intention (for example), there seems to be no way of determining whether they are making incompatible claims about a single notion of knowledge or intention, or whether they are making compatible claims about different notions.

How can work around our lack of a shared understanding of intentional action, knowledge, and the rest? We should first renounce folk psychology. Taking inspiration from available operationalizations, we should then borrow or construct a variety of incommensurable (and false) theories about minds and actions. Using these theories to anchor our understanding will enable us to apply the method of signature limits to generate testable predictions about what mindreaders understand of minds and actions.


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