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Mentalism is a general term for scientific approaches to various phenomena that try to study the properties of the human mind, rather than just their directly observable manifestations. In linguistics, mentalism is associated both with generative linguistics and with more modern approaches that go under the heading of cognitive linguistics. Mentalist linguists try to describe the mental patterns of language (or the internalized grammars) that underlie linguistic behaviour.

Term properties

Scholars who espouse mentalism are called mentalists.


The term was originally used for the old view that the mind is a non-physical entity controlling but distinct from the body, especially at the beginning of the 20th century (e.g. in Leonard Bloomfield's writings). At that time, it was opposed to mechanism (or physicalism). Later the view that in linguistics is associated with Bloomfield came to be known as behaviourism, and the term mentalism came to acquire its modern meaning.

  • "The mentalistic theory, which is by far the older, and still prevails both in the popular view and among men of science, supposes that the variability of human conduct is due to the interference of some non-physical factor, a spirit or will or mind...that is present in every human being. This spirit, according to the mentalistic view, is entirely different from material things and accordingly follows some other kind of causation or perhaps none at all." (Bloomfield 1933:32)


Derived from the adjective mental. First attested in English in 1895 (OED).


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