Vol 7, Issue 3, August 2020

Folk Physics in the Twenty-first Century: Understanding Tooling as Embodied


Fragaszy, D. M., & Mangalam, M. (2020). Folks physics in the twenty-first century: Understanding tooling as embodied. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 7(3), 457-473. doi: https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


Povinelli’s (2000) studies with chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) reported in “Folk Physics for Apes” were firmly grounded in a Cartesian view of knowledge, which posits that humans use abstract concepts such as force, gravity, and shape to reason causally about events and plan our actions (with tools in the case of Folk Physics for Apes). Povinelli set out to examine if chimpanzees, like humans, used causal concepts to solve mechanical problems, as the Cartesian view predicts. However, Povinelli’s findings uniformly challenged his expectations. Povinelli’s book stimulated research and contributed to the development of alternate understandings of how animals (including humans) use tools. We summarize one alternative approach, Ecological psychology, elucidate how predictions drawn from this approach, explain (post hoc) the findings presented in Folk Physics for Apes, and suggest directions for continuing work on this topic from an Ecological approach. Ecological psychology posits direct perception and requires analysis of the animal-task-environment system, thus providing a distinct alternative to the Cartesian approach. Twenty years on, Povinelli’s elegant exposition in Folk Physics for Apes of the Cartesian view of how animals use tools, and his efforts to explain the findings of his experiments in this framework, still stimulate those who study animal behavior and cognition from different theoretical perspectives.


Ecological psychology, affordance, perception, spatial relation, Cartesian dualism