Dennett’s Ark

P.N. Johnson-Laird

  • The Intentional Stance by Daniel Dennett
    MIT, 388 pp, £22.50, January 1988, ISBN 0 262 04093 X

When the single-celled organism paramecium bumps into an obstacle, it reverses the power beat of its cilia, backs away, and swims off in a different direction. How natural to suppose that this animalcule forms a representation of the world, determines that it is obstructed, and decides to set another course. When ‘Washoe’, the celebrated chimpanzee who was taught the American Sign Language for the deaf and dumb, saw a duck for the first time, she made the signs for water and bird. How natural to suppose that she knows how to use language creatively. When Mrs Thatcher tells us that making money is no sin, how natural to suppose that she knows what she is talking about. In all of these cases, we treat other living beings much as we treat our next-door neighbours (most of the time): we assume that they are rational agents with beliefs, desires, and mental representations of the world. We adopt what Dan Dennett, the distinguished American philosopher of mind, refers to as the ‘intentional stance’ towards them. His latest collection of papers is a series of ruminations on quite what we are doing.

At the core of our stance is the assumption that mental states exhibit intentionality. When philosophers talk about intentionality, however, they do not mean the capacity for deliberate purposeful action. They hark back instead to a distinction revived by the 19th-century Austrian philosopher, Franz Brentano: ideas, beliefs, and the other contents of the mind, are about things. Because boulders, trees and the furniture of the physical world lack this property of intentionality – they are not about anything – there appears to be an irreducible gulf between matter and mind. The concept of intentionality thus descends from Cartesian Dualism, and, like Dualism, it divides contemporary theorists into two main camps.

On the one hand, the Behaviourists and ‘eliminative materialists’ such as Paul and Patricia Churchland propose to throw intentionality out along with other alleged myths of folk psychology. They believe there are no beliefs. Or, as Dennett more tactfully remarks: ‘the theory they, um, espouse or champion has no room in its ontology for beliefs.’ On the other hand, the mentalists – philosophers such as Dretske and Fodor, and cognitive scientists from Craik to Marr – hold to the reality of representations and beliefs. They assume that there is a physical world in space and time, and that mental processes enable human beings to perceive that world, to have beliefs and feelings, and to be aware of themselves. These assumptions can be challenged, but, as William James observed, their discussion is called metaphysics and lies outside the scope of science. Unlike James, cognitive scientists aim to give a thoroughgoing computational account of how the brain constructs and uses representations of the world.

One can adopt, of course, other possible stances towards the intentional stance. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a view about it that does not have a current adherent. Thus, perched precariously between eliminativists and mentalists is Dan Dennett, and, not surprisingly, the bulk of the essays in the book are devoted to expounding, extending, and defending his position.

We adopt, he says, a ‘physical stance’ towards the weather: we treat it as obeying the laws of physics. We adopt a ‘design stance’ towards a computer: we treat it as an object designed to fulfill certain functions. These attitudes enable us to predict at least some aspects of the behaviour of the weather and of computers. The same aim of prediction leads us to adopt the intentional stance: we treat an organism – sometimes, he says, even a machine such as a thermostat – as having beliefs relevant to its goals and as being rational. We adopt the intentional stance all the time, because it works: it enables us to make the right predictions, and none of the other stances would work so well. Sceptics may (and do) deny this fact, but here is a small-scale demonstration of how the intentional stance appears to be built into our modes of understanding.

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