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Intentional stance

Page history last edited by Victoria Yupangco 13 years, 2 months ago

Intentional Stance


Dennett’s intentional stance presents his (non-mentalistic) answer to the problem of intentionality. Dennett proposes that there are multiple ways of understanding the world, and specifically that there are at least 3 different stances that one can take with respect to entities in the world:  the physical stance, the design stance and the intentional stance. 


  • The physical stance describes things at the level of physics; for instance an object's movements is described by examining the various forces being exerted upon it. 
  • The design stance uses descriptions of functions of objects/entities and the design of said functions as its main focus providing explanatory force; it basically treats the entities as though an agent had designed them. 
  • The intentional stance attributes Rationality and intentionality to the entity in question, and predicts and explains behaviour based on these attributions. 


Taking something to be intentional involves attributing to the entity states which are “about the world such as beliefs and desires.  The strategy one should use in choosing which stance to adopt with respect to a particular entity is entirely based on the utility of the resulting explanation/predictions.  The value of taking any one of these stances is determined both by the entity in question and by the circumstances of the interpretation.


Taking the computer as an example, one might explain its behaviour by any of the three stances; according to the physical stance, the computer’s behaviour results from electrical impulses in the circuitry of its various components.  Explaining something this way involves an extremely complicated set of electrical impulses within the computer and although it can be done it will be of little explanatory value.  The design stance can also be used:  explanations are given in terms of the various methods of the programming language used for the program in which the clicking is occurring will result in a much better (simpler, more reliable) explanation and prediction of the computer’s behaviour than the analogous physical stance explanation.  The intentional stance is also available:  take a computerized chess game.  The computer’s behaviour could be explained in intentional terms:  the computer wants to win and knows which moves are available to the human player, and so will try to minimize the good moves available to the human player while maximizing its chances of winning (assuming that the algorithm used to program it is of high quality and is well implemented).  So in this case, the intentional stance provides more predictive and explanatory power than either the physical or design stances, so under Dennett’s view, it would be best to use it as opposed to one of the other stances. 


Furthermore, it is important to note that under Dennett’s proposal, there is no principled difference between entities with intentionality and those without; the only thing that really matters in terms of the application of the intentional stance to an entity is how useful the resulting explanations and predictions are.



See also:



Folk Psychology

Rationality in Interpretation

Phenomenology and interpretation




- Isabelle Jodouin, University of Toronto

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