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Intentions and IntentionalityReview - Intentions and Intentionality
Foundations of Social Cognition
by Bertram F. Malle, Louis J. Moses, and Dare A. Baldwin (editors)
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Marcel Scheele
Jan 8th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 2)

This book is about human intentionality and the recognition of intentionality in fellow human beings considered as fundamental constituents of social cognition. Social cognition consists of (but is not limited to) such capacities as acting intentionally towards fellow human beings and recognising intentional states in others. This recognitional capacity is quite special, because the only data we have is the outward behaviour of other people. Strictly seen, behaviour --seen as physical activity-- is not intentional -- seen as internal (mental) states -- as such, and one might doubt that we can justifiedly infer intentionality from behaviour; a doubt that is exemplified by the behaviourist line of research in psychology.

In order to recognise intentions in fellow humans, their behaviour is somehow interpreted in terms of a folk or common sense psychology. This psychology contains intentionalist language. Behaviour of others is also interpreted analogously to 'your own' behaviour, which at least seems intentional (or so introspection reveals). The precise way in which this folk psychology and ascriptions of intentionality can be understood is one of the central questions of this book. The folk psychology underlying the way others are interpreted is something that is acquired when growing up, so a legitimate and typical type of investigation in this field is into the acquisition of the notion of 'intentionality' by children.

The first part of the book -- a collection of essays -- is about the mentioned (folk) notion of intentionality. The second part of the book is about the detection of intentions. This notion of intentionality is also used for the explanation of behaviour by agents. Couching behaviour in terms of intentions often lets us understand the reasons and causes of action. These types of explanations are discussed in part three of the book.

       There is another way to interpret the notion of 'social cognition' in this area, namely in the research into 'coordinated social interaction', as the editors call it (p. 1). Intentions, individual and collective, play a role in this process of coordination; in a factual sense, as well as in a normative sense (by way of social evaluation of behaviour). This latter approach to the role of intentionality in social cognition is explored in the fourth and final part of the book.

 

Intentions and intentionality is a product of cooperation between scholars with more traditional philosopher's concerns and scholars with empirical concerns. Cooperation between scholars with such different approaches to the subject matter is welcome. Philosophy and 'the sciences' are too often antagonistic. This makes the book a rich source of research and of potential interest to both philosophers and (social) scientists. The writing is clear and does not require too much background -- a lot of which is given in the excellent introductory chapter -- which makes it a good read for the layperson as well.

       The book seen as a whole is an effort to advance the topic generally. Of course not as much as a monograph could do, but the editors and contributors have clearly done an effort. A weakness of the book can be traced back to the origins of it. It is the result of a couple of conferences on this topic in the second half of the 1990's, without just being proceedings of them. Many chapters are a bit too exploratory and hard conclusions are shunned. Discussions between the authors -- which should have taken place at those conferences -- might have been reflected more in the final contributions. For instance, the definition of (folk) intentionality, which plays an important role in the book, is repeated in several chapters, but in different versions, with little reference to each others notions and/or arguments concerning those differences.

 

The first two parts of the book contain the most interesting material, because they advance the topics under discussion and integrate several lines of research -- especially concerning the conceptual analysis of intentionality combined with empirical research on detecting intentions (mainly with regard to child development). The latter parts, although not without interest, do less to advance the topics beyond what is already known. As said, in the first parts the notion of intentionality is developed from a folk psychological point of view on the one hand and a (child) developmental point of view on the other hand. I will briefly discuss two contributions in the book on these topics. These contributions can be seen as exemplary for the particular discussions in the book and they show in what direction those discussions are headed.

 

In chapter 2, B.F. Malle and J. Knobe give an interesting definition of the folk notion of intentionality. Although this does not provide a complete notion of 'intention' it is the right direction of research, I think, because it provides in essence, an operational definition. The way they go about is by contrasting it with the folk notion of desire and they investigate in what sense intentions have a different function in discourse and perception. This functional way of defining those notions opens the way for some experiments they carried out; mainly by contrasting the use of these notions of intention and desire.

Intentions as well as desires confer a pro-attitude, but intentions have definite action content -- this part of the definition is thus couched in terms of propositional attitudes. Intentions and desires play different roles in reasoning as well. Whereas desires typically are used as inputs into reasoning, intentions are typical outputs of reasoning. Finally, intentions show a high degree of commitment (for instance shown by the reaction to observing someone intending to x and not doing x, which is seen as irrational), whereas desires do not involve a specific level of commitment (in the foregoing example replacing 'intending' with 'desiring' does not usually result in the verdict of irrationality.)

       As said, the authors not only try to give a plausible conceptual analysis of intentionality, they also try to find empirical evidence for this notion -- interesting is the contrast with chapter 1 where a purely conceptual analysis is undertaken; this analysis is at some points more sophisticated, but also somewhat too scholastic to my taste. The authors test their hypotheses mainly by analysing terminology of people. The authors hypothesise, for instance, that concluding sentences in action reasoning will contain 'intention-verbs' (intend, plan, decide) rather than 'desire-verbs' (want, hope, need). This opens the possibility for testing, because one can have subjects make sentence completion tests giving choices between intention-words and desire-words. Another example concerns the suggestion that the model implies that one can desire someone else's actions, but cannot intend their actions. This hypothesis was tested by doing similar experiments.

       The results of the experiments are roughly in favour of the model the authors suggest, which justifies the conclusion that the author's hypothesis is useful as a point of departure for a folk-theory of intentionality.

       One remark is in order, concerning the status of this research. The completion-tests are roughly in favour of the model, that is to say, significantly high percentages of participants act as is predicted. But what does that mean for the concept under investigation? Is the concept a folk-concept and does the statistical nature of the result show that the concept is a statistical concept (i.e. a concept with clear prototypes and a large degree of less-clear boundary cases or cases with family resemblances) rather than a traditional concept (i.e. a concept that is definable in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions)? But is such a concept well defined enough for scientific research?

An alternative interpretation of these experiments can be that the empirical results confirm the author's hypothesis, which in turn shows the deviant responses wrong. But in what sense are those responses wrong? Was the situation-assessment by the test-person mistaken or did the test-subjects make a linguistic error? Whatever the answer may be, the status of the hypothesis and its confirmation is unclear, although the route of investigation is promising.

 

The most insightful article on the development in children of their concept of intention is Chapter 6: 'Developing Intentional understandings' (Wellman and Phillips). Their definition of intentionality is roughly in line with what was said earlier, but with different emphasis: '(…) an intentional construal of persons in terms of (1) desires or goals that are (2) internal psychological states that underlie and are separate from overt movement or from objective features of the world, and that (3) connect with other mental states and experiences.' (p. 127).

       The research on understanding intentions was done with 2 to 5 year old children and generated some interesting conclusions (and, for non-experimental psychologists, a interesting view on psychological methodology in this field -- for this, also see chapter 7). A conclusion of a preliminary research shows that, amongst others, 'Young children's judgments and explanations, thus, straightforwardly suggest that they see people in internal-state, intentional terms.' (p. 133).

       But the authors see well enough that positive evidence is not sufficient. About false positives they say the following: 'However, young children's intentional understandings cannot be fully understood without also examining their judgments and explanations of nonintentional behavior.' (p. 133)

       Interesting, and I think important, is the way in which infants advance to this stage. There are several phases, having to do with the way in which ascriptions of intentionality are false negative and false positive (the age at which these boundaries are crossed differ). This genesis of the notion of intentionality in children (showing that it is not an all or nothing affair) in turn gives insight into the underlying psychological structure of the folk notion of intentionality and may be helpful in determining different properties of intentionality in general.

Two features of the notion the authors discuss are the aspects of 'object directedness' and 'action connectedness' (but there are more). These aspects point at the question whether infants infer intentionality in a scene enacted before them from the material goal of the action or from different features of the scene. Because the very young infants cannot speak and have little expressive power it is interesting to see how the researchers deal with the reactions of the infants to the scenes used in the research.

       Although the general conclusion is no real surprise: 'yes, there is a (non-discursive) notion of intentionality at an early age in children, but this is not (yet) the full notion that adults have'; the true value of this kind of research lies in the different indicators that children use (and react to) in ascriptions of intentionality -- i.e. such as the attention towards object- and action-directedness. These possibly show the way to understanding the relevant (and essential) parts from which the (adult) notion is built. Those parts being hard to perceive by analysing an adult human, precisely because that notion is so rich and complex and fuzzy.

 

In conclusion I would say that the book is a good read for any philosopher interested in intentionality and wishes to have his or her analytical intuitions sharpened by empirical research. The experimental psychologist can benefit from the work for the reverse reason. As a truly independent advance on a separate field, it leaves some wanting, but it can be a start and inspiration for more research.

 

© 2004 Marcel Scheele

 

Marcel Scheele is a philosopher. He received his masters degree in the Philosophy of Mind at Leiden University (Netherlands). His thesis was on the functionalist theory of mind. Currently he is doing Ph.D. research at the Delft University of Technology on the philosophy of technology. The research concerns the nature of technical artefacts. It is especially concerned with the way in which the purely physical-technical conception of technology can be joined to the conception of the user --the latter being both informed functionally and social or culturally. The main areas of inquiry to this effect are the notion of function, social ontology, collective intentionality, and meaning. He also still works on questions in the field of philosophy of mind.


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