Philosophy of Mind

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Review of Dennett “The Intentional Stance”

The Intentional Stance by Daniel C. Dennett

Having been a huge fan of Dennett for a couple of years, through his talks, interviews, debates, articles and papers (all of those mostly on the topic of religion but some on philosophy), I’m actually a loss to explain why this is the first time I’ve read one of his books, especially since I’ve been aware for a while now, since reading “Quining Qualia” and “True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why It Works”, that he’s such a brilliant and entertaining (while always on topic, rational and extremely analytical) writer. Both Breaking The Spell (the only one of the canonical four “new atheist” books by the four horsemen that I have yet to read) and Consciousness Explained have stood in the bookshelf for a while now, and I recently purchased two more works from the Dennettian literary outpourings for use in writing my bachelor’s thesis in philosophy, which brings us to the current work (the other one was Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, a book I chose not to read at the moment after realizing it was not central to my thesis).

I had, as mentioned previously, already read Dennett’s paper “True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why It Works” and used this for a previous essay in which I turned Dennett’s seemingly instrumentalistic, yet inescapably (at least in the broadest sense of the word) Realistic (philosophical Realism that is, a qualification I tried to convey by capitalizing the word, but nevertheless felt the need to clarify) understanding of Intentionality against John Searle’s more simplistically (or at least, directly) Realistic version to see what this made of Searle’s argument, in his “Minds, brains, and programs“, against the possibility of what he dubs “strong AI”. This paper, “True Believers”, is included among several other of Dennett’s papers in the present volume. Also present are shorter chapters with reflections after each chapter containing a previously published paper, as well as two concluding chapters with (for this book, though not for us at the present moment as this book is now quite old) new material. All in all, this gives the reader a comprehensive understanding of Intentionality a la Dennett, how we, according to Dennett, use the hypothesis of other beings having Intentional states by way of the Intentional strategy, what the successful use of this strategy tells us, and how we are to understand some of the nitty-gritty details of the whole subject including the ontological status of Intentional states and the connections with evolutionary processes.

As one works ones way through the book, one finds a clear progression of thoughts leading to greater and greater maturity in insight into particular potential problems and details that needs clarification. In “True Believers” Dennett somewhat superficially proclaims that the strategy does work and works precisely for those artifacts (Intentional systems, humans being the prime example) where Intentionality is a pattern otherwise missed as opposed to those artifacts where the strategy could be utilized without thereby revealing a pattern otherwise missed, without really clarifying the difference between the two; but further on in the book, in discussing the Intentional strategy as a proposal for ethologists observing the social behavior of vervet monkeys (in chapter 7: ‘Intentional Systems in Cognitive Ethology: The “Panglossian Paradigm” Defended’), he lays out some suggestions for actually evaluating the success of the strategy in ways that are supposed to show what “level” of Intentionality the artifact under investigation actually has which could be used as a way of distinguishing between “true” cases of Intentionality as opposed to “false” ones. The distinction seems a bit fluid or even ill-founded at times, seeing as how Dennett denies the existence (in chapter 8: “Evolution, Error, and Intentionality”) of the kind of Intentionality championed by other philosophers: what he calls intrinsic intentionality, which seems to cause problems: is intentionality a real, “intrinsic”, phenomenon or is it not? Dennett’s view seems to be that while it is a perfectly objective fact that the Intentional strategy works for describing and predicting the behavior of certain artifacts (Intentional systems), Intentionality is not found “intrinsically” inside these artifacts but rather in the patterns exhibited by their behavior, and yet, he’s no simple behaviorist! His position is at times rather hard to pin down, but I still suspect his treatment of the phenomenon of Intentionality is the most sensible one (at least among the ones I’ve so far encountered): Intentionality seems to be something perfectly “real”, which seems to follow simply from the “no miracles” argument applicable to any instrumentalistically successful strategy, but since there seems to be little reason to think that “beliefs” or any other “meanings” are intrinsic properties of minds (here Dennett seems to argue for a more general thesis that what is “really there” at the bottom is merely syntactic whereas any semantic properties belong in the exhibited behavior of the phenomenon in question, perhaps I’m reading too much into Dennett here but he certainly seems to be arguing along these lines when, in chapter 9: “Fast Thinking”, he argues against Searle’s previously mentioned views on strong AI) we need to view the Reality of Intentionality as a pattern exhibited by Intentional systems.

Dennett’s arguments are subtle and fascinating, and always supported by lots of references to empirical research. One of the most refreshing things about Dennett is that he shows a deep understanding of the need for relating philosophical speculation and analysis to scientific findings, which is more than can be said, at least most of the time, for John Searle, a critique I will definitely touch upon again when reviewing Searle’s Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (which I’m currently reading) as soon as I’m finished with it.