In my mind - pun intended - a/the theory of mind refers to some proposed solution to the mind body problem, e.g. Cartesian Dualism is a theory of mind, Functionalism is a theory of mind, etc...

This paper by the Facebook AI Research group seems to be using the term "theory of mind" in a different and more specific way:

Theory of mind, i.e., the ability to reason about intents and beliefs of agents is an important task in artificial intelligence and central to resolving ambiguous references in natural language dialogue.

Is this highly specific meaning for the term "theory of mind" established among philosophy of mind researchers, or are they just abusing language (especially since what they are describing seems to have more to do with psychology than with philosophy of mind)?

  • 1
    it's a psychological term.
    – user38026
    Jan 21, 2020 at 4:27
  • 3
    sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/theory-of-mind The term ‘theory of mind’ was coined by US psychologist David Premack in a famous article (Premack and Woodruff 1978) reporting experiments carried out on the chimpanzee, Sarah.
    – user38026
    Jan 21, 2020 at 4:28
  • 3
    This is the standard use of the term in cognitive science, e.g. IEP spells it out as "the branch of cognitive science that investigates how we ascribe mental states to other persons and how we use the states to explain and predict the actions of those other persons". In other words, it is an operational theory of how folk psychology works, not a philosophical theory of the mental. IEP adds that the term is inappropriate because it seems to reify the mental from the start, but then mathematicians have theories that seem to assume platonism too.
    – Conifold
    Jan 21, 2020 at 4:45
  • Interesting... I'd never thought of the term theory of mind referring to the mind-body-problem, even though I encountered this problem years before this modern term for the old thinking about The Other.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 21, 2020 at 21:43
  • 1
    @PhilipKlöcking I am an AI / Machine Learning person by training, so philosophy of mind is the center of the universe. Everything else is part of Wittgenstein's ladder. Jan 21, 2020 at 22:38

1 Answer 1


Theory of Mind is a concept in developmental psychology, in which a baby or toddler realizes that objects can have a point of view, intentions, and plans. It is generally discussed as a "theory of other minds", as the toddler makes the inference from their own mind operation to conclude that active objects in its world also have minds.

Theory of Mind is therefore not an ANSWER to the mind-body problem, but a fundamental precondition to recognizing that there IS a mind-body problem.

In the context of AI, AI researchers have discovered that simple algorithmic and neural net processes, while useful for some tasks, end up failing when applied to complex intentional behavior, such as dealing with humans. This is, presumably, why humans evolutionarily developed a theory of mind ourselves -- to work better than algorithms alone. However, theory of mind programming, in which one creates a toy model of the inputs and intentions of objects or communication parties, and then uses this toy model to interpret and predict actions -- is immensely complex. And apparently, per the abstract of this paper, the test databases to see if a programmer gets better results with a theory of mind or not -- are not challenging enough, so theory of mind isn't needed to deal with them, even if it is needed in the real world. I don't think this paper has much of philosophical interest.

What IS of some philosophical interest, is that several of the philosophy of mind schools basically advocate to ignore theory of mind. This would include behaviorism, eliminative reductionism, and functionalism. And if AI researchers find that THEY need to account for "theory of mind" to actually do AI well, then these meta-theories that deny that mind plays a significant role in the universe -- are pretty decisively refuted.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .