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Rationality in Interpretation

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Rationality in Interpretation






Rational agents judge and interpret others in order to gain knowledge and experience; through the acts of judgment, rational agents are able to abstract wisdom and unique experience according to each individual’s background. For many philosophers, interpreting an action pre-supposes that the interpreted agent is rational. This interpretation allows rational agents to predict and explain other rational agents’ behaviour according to their beliefs, desires, and functionality. Through this interpretation, rational agents are able communicate with each other. With the interpretation of rationality, Davidson and Dennett take on two different approaches. Davidson suggests on emphasizing the justification of rationality, that is, when it is justified to see someone as a rational agent. Dennett, on the other hand, takes a different approach and emphasizes on the usefulness of the rationality. That is, he states that it does not matter whether the agent is truly “rational”, as long as they function like a rational agent, then they can be considered as rational.


In determining rationality, it is important to look at the physical elements and the mental elements of the being. The physical elements are the actions, and the mental elements are the beliefs and desires. According to Davidson, only those who are capable of having meta-desires can be considered rational beings. That is, only those who are able to understand first-order beliefs and desires, and are able to have higher-order beliefs and desires about the first-order beliefs and desires are rational. There are four steps that Davidson follows in determining one’s rationality. First, to be a rational animal is to have propositional attitudes (beliefs and desires). The attribution of propositional attitudes is existent only if you have goals and desire to achieve those goals. Second, a rational agent must be able to logically and systematically organize propositional attitudes. Sometimes this implies the ability to share beliefs or engage in beliefs. Third, the agent must be able to determine the truth-value and also the accuracy in one’s propositional attitudes. This ability allows one to develop meta-beliefs and meta-desires which are essential in determining one’s rationality. Fourth, in order to rationalize actions and attributes of propositional attitudes, and in order to process the concept in the last step, the subject must have linguistic abilities. Without the ability to communicate, we cannot understand or interpret what other beings’ beliefs and desires are, and therefore lack common knowledge.



According to Dennett, there are three methods that allow us to predict and explain one’s behaviour. First, the design stance deals with the designs of the system, i.e. the software. One is able to predict the system’s response based on the knowledge one has of its design. Second, the physical stance deals with the function of the system, i.e. the hardware. One is able to predict the system’s response based on the physical state of the system. This stance also allows us to determine the physical malfunction of the system. As for the third stance, the intentional stance, by viewing the system as an intentional system, one can predict its behaviour with the information with regards to one’s intentionality; i.e. with respect to the knowledge of one’s beliefs and desires, we can predict and explain their actions.






Davidson, Donald. Rational Animals. Dialectica, Vol. 36, No. 4. (1982), pp. 317-327.

Dennett, D. C. Intentional Systems. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 4. (Feb. 25, 1971), pp. 87-106.


- Katherine Wang, University of Toronto


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