Indian “folk thinking” about mind

A query for the blog members and community from Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad: “Is there any research that people are aware of on folk thinking about mind in India? It is quite striking, I suppose, that we are all so familiar with and embedded in the philosophical thinking of that question with regard to Indian traditions, but not on this.”

Does anyone have any suggestions?

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

15 thoughts on “Indian “folk thinking” about mind

  1. I’m not sure if this fits what you are asking for, Ram, but (as I mentioned privately), the early experimental philosophy coming out of Rutgers and centered on Gettier cases targeted members of the first-generation Indian American community in central New Jersey.

  2. Depends what you mean by folk thinking. There is city folk that are pretty westernized with a good mix of western and Indian views, most of them educated. Then there are towns that are more traditional, and villages that are very religious and traditional living straight out of ancient texts like they were scientific manuals. Then there are the tribals who have their own beliefs that are an animistic hindu mix. I wonder how you would define ‘folk thinking’ in an Indian environment where there are still people living by traditional teachings, and plowing their fields with oxen that they treat like they have been treating for the last thousand plus years (painting their horns on certain lunar festivals, etc.). Then there is the upper class Indian, educated in college with a British curriculum living as international citizens.

    • Yes, to clarify: ‘folk thinking’ is a technical term to contrast with professional philosophical/psychological thinking. So Hollywood films count and politicians’ speeches in Parliament count. So there is no distinction between urban and rural. But it would be interesting to see what ‘westernisation’ has done to how people talk in ordinary terms about once would once have been terms in Indian languages, like ‘manas’ but might now be read through modern western assumptions about ‘mind’.

    • “Folk thinking” is a short hand in academic philosophy for non-specialist, non-academic views about certain topics; roughly akin to the way that laukika is used in texts like nyAyasUtra 1.1.25 to mean commonplace, non-specialist attitudes about things.

      EDIT: I think that Ram and I were writing our responses to Freedom Cole at the same time.

      • One of the issues that comes with the concept of folk-thinking or folk psychology is that it is a term used in western scientific materialist culture looking down at other cultures. All Indian philosophy is considered folk psychology.

        I was just working on an article on how most of the famous western psychologists and theorists were influenced by Indian writings and came across this that may be helpful for you:

        For an example of how modern psychology was influenced by Indian thought- look at the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure (who taught Greek and Sanskrit). He is said to have invented the idea of the word, its conception and the object it refers to… which is credited with bringing in the age of modernity. ‘His’ ideas created the school of structuralism and influenced Piaget. Almost all schools of modern psych are influenced by Indian thought, or the popular discussion that they were creating in the 1800’s in Germany.

  3. Delighted to know that you are interested in pursuing this. Truly a fascinating philosophical issue, and I would be very excited to hear any further thoughts you had on it.

    The main result coming out of work on this issue in experimental philosophy is the striking degree to which the intuitions of American and Indian people turn out to be the *same*. As Matthew correctly notes, some work from around 15 years ago suggested that there might be systematic differences in intuitions in epistemology, but all subsequent studies have generated results pointing in the opposite direction.

    A really nice recent paper on the striking degree to which people of different cultures have similar intuitions in epistemology actually just came out in Nous:

    • thank you for the link, Joshua (I could not read the article yet, since it is not downloadable, but I will get a copy of it soon). I would be surprised if these results could be confirmed in the case of cross-cultural philosophy of mind. I might be wrong, but I would imagine (traditional, non-Westernised) Indian people to have a different understanding of what counts as one’s “intellect”. At least, this is the impression one gets while reading Sanskrit texts while they are causally referring to it (anything more focused would no longer count as “folk thinking”), since they seem to refer to the intellect as a function (‘buddhi’ translates both ‘intellect’ and ‘idea’) more than as a thinking organ which is the seat of consciousness. More in general, I wonder whether there is anything like folk thinking about X apart from simplified versions of the dominant views about the same topic.

  4. Following up on something Elisa said, What would count as data for non-philosophical folk conceptions of mind in the premodern traditions? While texts like the Mahabharata are folk-y, they sure have a lot of theory packed in.

    To sharpen something else Elisa said (and which Ram has addressed in depth in his own work), it does seem that one tendency in some Indian thinkers that diverges from mainstream Western philosophers is the (largely Samkhya) contention that the conceptions of self as a locus of awareness and as a seat of rationality can be separated, with a non-self mental apparatus doing the latter work. But how far this permeates the folk level is unclear.

  5. Hi Elisa and Matthew,

    Thanks for all these further thoughts on this issue!

    First off, if you are interested in reading that paper, there is a free copy up at:

    The more interesting point here is that there might be systematic differences between these cultures in the way people understand the mind and the self. This is definitely a great suggestion. In our existing work on the topic, my coauthors and I were interested in the tendency, observed within Western cultures, to think that people have a ‘true self’ that is drawing them to behave in ways that are morally good. For that one effect, we find no cross-cultural difference but instead a striking tendency whereby Indian participants respond in exactly the same way that Western participants do. (This follows the general tendency, found in so much recent experimental philosophy, to show that intuitions are strikingly robust across demographic differences.)

    But of course, the suggestion you are making here is a very different one, and it would be absolutely wonderful to try following up on it empirically and checking to see whether people’s intuitions actually do differ on that dimension.

    • Thank you for the link, Joshua, and for your additional and interesting remarks. I now read the relevant paper and found an interesting confirmation of what I would have imagined to be the case (is it a case of confirmation bias? Please tell me if you interpret the data differently), namely:
      “Indian participants were significantly less likely to deny knowledge for Knowledge 1 than the three other samples for the two Gettier cases” (p. 15 of Gettier across Cultures).
      In other words, Indian respondents (although recruited in contemporary India, and although the test took place in a university setting) tend to be more likely to conform to the classical Indian absence of distinction between cognition and true cognition (as in the doctrine of svataḥ prāmāṇya, but see also Sibajiban Bhattacharya’s work on Gaṅgeśa and Navya Nyāya on the superfluity of justification as a criterion for truth).

        • Hi Elisa and Matthew,

          These ideas are definitely really helpful — and very welcome contributions to the discussion — but I would actually urge caution here.

          In any given dataset, there are bound to be differences between samples from different populations (just as the result of random chance). In previous research, experimental philosophers sometimes leaped to the conclusion that these effects represented genuine cross-cultural differences, but this has turned out to be a pretty disastrous approach. Subsequent studies followed up by just trying to precisely replicate the original studies and check for the same effect. In almost all cases, these effects did not replicate.

          My favorite discussion of these issues is the paper by Minsun Kim and Yuan Yuan:

          They find that of all the cases in which people tried to replicate a purported demographic effect in experimental philosophy, a full 85% (!) failed to replicate.

  6. Great discussion Joshua, Elisa, and Matthew. I am in India now working on X-phi for philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics. I think there are going to be some interesting diverging intuitions in these areas. But they are going to come from switching the direction of questioning. We typically ask a question in X-phi by looking at western analytic issues about, say knowledge or moral responsibility, such as the Getteir Intuition or the Frankfurt Intuition, we hardly ever look at a discussion from, for example, Indian philosophy and then ask what would Europeans or Americans think about the same topic. I think we will find that by looking at Jain epistemology, discussions of Dharma in Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as discussions of the nature of mind in Vedanta, that there are intuitions amongst the folk in India that diverge about moral responsibility, the completeness conditions for knowledge, and the location of mental states. I hope to present some of this research in Japan at the Ethno-Episetmology Conference in June. I know there are important methodological issues that have been raised. But I also think that some of the research brings to light sufficiently coherent data to think about. But the main shift in focus, to reiterate, that I think is important, is that we need to not look at analytic philosophy intuitions and cases and then export them to other populations only. Rather, we need to export intuitions and cases and examples from non-western philosophy and see what the folk think the west.

    Looking forward to more discussion.

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