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An Unintentional Stance?

A (Phenomenological) Critique of Dennetts Intentional Stance

Theory of Mental Content

Khristos Nizamis

(May 2013)

Dennett tells us that what he calls an intentional system is, by definition,
anything that [is] amenable to analysis by a certain tactic, which he calls the intentional

This is the tactic of interpreting an entity by adopting the presupposition that it is an
approximation of the ideal of an optimally designed (i.e. rational) self-regarding agent. (Dennett
1994, p. 239)

In adopting this stance, [n]o attempt is made to confirm or disconfirm this
presupposition: the stance is merely concerned with interpretations of the phenomena
a heuristic overlay, describing an inescapably idealized real pattern.

Like such abstracta as centres of gravity and parallelograms of force, the beliefs and desires
posited by the highest stance have no independent and concrete existence, and since this is the
case, there would be no deeper facts that could settle the issue if most improbably rival
intentional interpretations arose that did equally well at rationalizing the history of behaviour
of an entity. (Dennett 1994, p. 239)

Evaluating the plausibility of this theory poses an interesting philosophical
problem in itself. One could argue that the notion of plausibility always presupposes some
plausibility structure:
some paradigm within which, e.g., a theory can at once make

Another description of the same idea: The intentional stance is the strategy of prediction and explanation
that attributes beliefs, desires, and other intentional states to systems - living and nonliving - and predicts
future behavior from what it would be rational for an agent to do, given those beliefs and desires. Any system
whose performance can be thus predicted and explained is an intentional system, whatever its innards.
(Dennett 1988, p. 495)
Although I borrow this term from Berger & Luckmann 1991, I do not intend it solely or even primarily in a
sociological sense. I think the sociological concepts of plausibility structures and legitimation are amenable
to a thoroughly philosophical (and even phenomenological) overhaul or translation, and that the
philosophical (phenomenological) translation would be the logically fundamental one.
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sense and be sensibly tested for legitimacy, whether logically or empirically or both.
What is significant about Dennetts theory, I shall argue, is that, on the hand, it tells us why
it naturally should make sense to us (thanks to the intentional stance), while, on the other
hand, and in the same stroke, implicitly entailing that the theory can never be either
philosophically or scientifically legitimated. This consequence is not one that Dennett
intends, or seems to be explicitly aware of. To the contrary, he conceives of his project as a
peculiarly scientific philosophical effort.

I think that Dennetts theory is a philosophically serious and important theory, and
that is why it generates some philosophically serious and important problems. Three of
these are especially significant:

(1) The problem of the third-person perspective, and its relation to the first-person
(2) The problem of theoretical tautology
(3) The ontological problem (or the problem of ontological reduction)

In this present essay, I will constrain myself to a summary outline only of the second
problem; although some reference will inevitably also have to be made to the third one.
By the problem of theoretical tautology, I do not mean a matter merely of begging
the question. I take the criticism of circularity made both by Harman (1988, p. 515) and by
Lycan (1988, p. 519) in this sense of begging the question. Harman all too briefly reduces
Dennetts thesis to banal circularity; but this reduction is certainly based on an illicit
oversimplification of Dennetts arguments. Lycan also suspects a potential vicious
circularity, but is somewhat more sympathetic:

If beliefs are characterized in terms of what subjects ought to be believing, and desires are
characterized in terms of what subjects ought to be wanting, what is a belief or a desire in the
first place? Dennetts view is complex, and I am far from insisting that the apparent circularity
is real, vicious, and decisive; but I would like to hear exactly why it is not vicious. (Lycan 1988, p.

Dennett (1988, p. 543) replies that there should be no problem for what he calls his
rationalist method of belief attribution, if used by someone who already has a good idea
what beliefs and desires are; and he asserts that he has provided a sufficient account of
the principles governing attribution ... to break out of the circle. I think that Dennett can
reasonably defend himself on these grounds; but I do not think that this (somewhat

Thus, e.g., he writes: One must start somewhere, however, and my tactical choice is to begin with the
objective, materialistic, third-person world of the physical sciences, and see what can be made from that perspective
of the traditional (and deeply intuitive) notions of mind. ... In the end, since these are tactical choices, the
proof must be in the results... (Dennett 1988, p. 495; my emphasis)
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superficial) notion and criticism of circularity constitutes the deeper difficulty for his
By the problem of theoretical tautology, then, I mean the problem of the absence
of grounding for the theory. We could also call it the bootstrapping problem: the theory is
obliged, ex hypothesi, to hold itself up by its own shoelaces. Another relevant metaphor: it is
as though a hand wants to pull itself up with itself (so we could also describe this as the
problem of one hand clapping). In the end, though, it is precisely because Dennetts theory
tells us, in essence, that a hand cannot grab hold of itself in order pull itself up (i.e., it is an
(undesired) implication of Dennetts theory that intentionality cannot verify itself), that his
own theory is undermined: a theory cannot prove itself to be true, except tautologically. But
a tautological theory is surely not what Dennett is looking for.
Another way of posing this problem would be in terms of the possibility of
separating, at some fundamental level, the epistemic status of knowledge from that of
belief; for a number of reasons which in the final analysis boil down to the
indispensability of intentionality (be it derivative or original) for every kind of cognitive
act it seems implausible that such a separation could be meaningfully effected.

There are many loci in Dennetts arguments where this problem breaks the surface,
yet causes no evident waves to disturb the flow of his thought. Thus, e.g., he writes of

the unavoidability of the intentional stance with regard to oneself and ones fellow intelligent
beings. This unavoidability is itself interest relative; it is perfectly possible to adopt a physical
stance, for instance, with regard to an intelligent being, oneself included, but not to the
exclusion of maintaining at the same time an intentional stance with regard to oneself at a
minimum... (Dennett 1987, p. 27)

One way of expressing the relevance of this problem for Dennetts theory is that of Baker (1989), in terms of
intentional-stance-dependent and intentional-stance-independent features of physical systems; in other
words, to contrast Dennetts instrumentalism about the intentional with his realism about the physical
(1989, p. 306). I think Baker is right that Dennett cannot avoid some such distinction as long as he remains in
any sense a realist; i.e., a realist about anything at all, and especially a realist about physical systems in the
physical world. Another way of looking at the problem would be in terms of an analysis of factual knowledge
(within the classical textbook division of knowledge into (1) knowledge that, or factual knowledge; (b)
knowledge how, or practical knowledge; (c) knowledge by acquaintance). The classical definition of factual
knowledge is as justified true belief. One analytical representation of this definition is as follows (Flew 1983,
p. 194). There are three necessary and sufficient conditions of Xs knowledge that p: (i) p must be true; (ii) X
must believe that p; (iii) X must be in a position to know that p. For Dennett, p cannot be intrinsically or
determinately true (although it might be claimed that it can be evanescently true in some functional
circumstance; more on this claim later), because all propositions just as all meanings are abstracta in the
same sense as beliefs. For the same reason, the second condition, believing that p, is just a product of the
intentional stance; beliefs are also just abstracta; so, here we have one abstractum being about another
abstractum. Finally, we come to the problem of how X can be in a position to know that p (which I take to mean
to know that p is in fact true or to justify a belief in the truth of p). It is here that we encounter the problem
that is discussed in the main text, following.
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Another significant example:

I claim that the intentional stance provides a vantage point for discerning similarly useful
patterns. These patterns are objective they are there to be detected but from our point of
view they are not out there entirely independent of us, since they are patterns composed partly
of our own subjective reactions to what is out there... (Dennett 1987, p. 39)

Ultimately, we will be obliged to ask whether ex hypothesi Dennetts materialist realities
are not also necessarily abstracta; and if not, why not. Given Dennetts theory of
intentionality, on what basis could any intentional object be admitted as an illatum, rather
than an as abstractum (cf. Dennett 1987, p. 53)?

The tautology problem poses an entirely different kind of question from that of
whether or not there could be scientific evidence to either verify or falsify the theory.
Unless there is some (philosophically) plausible connection established, or at least
proposed, between the conceptual logic of a theory, and the domain of empirical evidence
to which it purports to refer, we have no way of interpreting (translating) the empirical
evidence as either affirming or denying the theory. In Dennetts theory, this problem is
raised to a higher magnitude by the fact that the possibility of this very principle (i.e., of
establishing a legitimate and reliable connection between theory and empirical reality) is
(inadvertently) denied. It is denied in two ways:

(1) through the problematisation of meaning: all intentionality is derivative, and so no
meaning is stable or reliable; its not only that have we no access to any grounding facts that
could guarantee our meanings; rather, there are no such grounding facts at all);

(2) through the problematisation of beliefs: the ontological status of beliefs is put in radical
question by Dennett through his detailed articulation of his intermediate or stance-dependent
realism (1988, pp. 496, 497). What this stance amounts to is the attempt to provide an account of
the ontology of beliefs (and ultimately, of all (folk psychological) mental content) that
demonstrates why beliefs are neither merely fictional non-entities (like banshees), nor robustly
real entities (like viruses) (Dennett 1991, p. 27). Perhaps, for Dennett, beliefs could be better
likened to mirages and rainbows: there is some real physical basis for their occurrence, but their
occurrence depends upon the presence of a subjective observer. It would be wrong to say of a

Dretske (1988, p. 511) touches upon this problem, picking up on the passage I have just cited: Dretske calls it
an opaque reference, suggesting that it is not quite in accordance with Dennetts official view (to borrow
a phrase of Baker 1989) about real patterns. But Dretske doesnt cut anywhere near deeply enough.
Nevertheless, he poses the basic form of the challenge: why is Dennett a realist about some things (treating
them as illata, posited theoretical entities), such as electricity; but only a semi-realist about others
(treating them as abstracta, calculation-bound entities or logical constructs, like centres of gravity and the
equator), like beliefs and desires? As Dretske nicely puts it, Dennett doesnt ... have a uniform stance on
stances (1988, p. 511) Baker (1989, pp. 312-314) sees cognate difficulties with the status of stances.
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rainbow that there is simply nothing there at all: the rainbow cannot occur unless there are
water droplets and sunlight and an observer in the right position. On the other hand, it would
also be wrong to say that the rainbow exists independently of the observer, in the way that the
water droplets and sunlight do. On this account, we could say that what Dennett wants to do is
to show how the rainbow (beliefs) depends upon a particular pattern of physical facts (the real
patterns he describes, e.g., in Dennett 1991), and a particular position (the intentional stance) of
an observer (the subject of experience).

Note that, if we comb carefully through Dennetts writings, we can fairly readily
find clear and ample evidence of how Dennett is thinking about the relationships between
concepts of meaning, belief, and propositions (all of which are necessary for the
construction of theories). It is quite clear that they are all infected with the same kind of
fundamental indeterminacy and derivativeness that he explicitly ascribes to
And so too, therefore, must all theories be, including Dennetts own.
Therefore, the only way that Dennetts theory can support itself is purely
tautologically: if the theory is true, then it is true precisely because it is true. No other
grounding basis for the possible truth of the theory is available; and even if it were
available, the theory itself could not avail itself of the evidence, because it asserts that all
beliefs and meanings (in a word, intentionality) and therefore, all theories are, by their
very nature, without ultimate foundation.

This result in many ways resembles what we might call Humes mild and
intermediate sort of scepticism, or his sceptical stance.
In other words, there is no deeper

This brings us directly to the ontological problem: specifically, to the problem of the status of, and relations
holding between, differing ontological regions (or different ontological scales and different ontological kinds
or categories). This is a very subtle and very complex problem, and is fundamental to the mind-body problem
itself. It is precisely what is in question, here; and precisely why, e.g., Dretske (1988, p. 511) can argue that
beliefs are real, whereas Dennett can argue that, while they are not unreal, it is saying too much to say that
they are robustly and fundamentally real, and proposes, instead, to explain why they are only mildly and
intermediately real. As he puts it: a mild and intermediate sort of realism is a positively attractive position
(Dennett 1991, p. 29).
Thus, e.g., he states: Propositions are abstract objects, but they are more like dollars than numbers. There are
no real, natural, universal units of either economic value or semantic information. (Dennett 1988, p. 500)
This perhaps more-than-analogical equation of economic value and semantic information is deeply
problematic and questionable.
This would include both what Dennett calls linguistically infected beliefs (opinions) and animal beliefs
(1988, p. 500). Dennett says: The illusions of Realism [about beliefs] are engendered ... by a misplaced
concentration on verbalized beliefs, or what I call (in a special technical sense) opinions. (1988, p. 498) But
would this not also necessarily include Dennetts own verbalized beliefs, which are the elements out of which
he puts together his theory?
Grayling (1995, p. 527) summarises the relevant idea well: Humes conclusions are far from sceptical. He
argues that human nature is so constituted that we cannot help but believe in such fundamental matters as
causality, the reliability of inductive reasoning, and the existence both of selves and of an external world.
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basis for our commitments other than the fact that we happen to have them, and cannot help
having them. Prima facie, this view might seem to accord well with Dennetts deep
commitment to the theories of biological evolution and natural selection: presumably, in
the last analysis, the fact that we have the commitments we do have is neither more nor
less than the result of natural selection over the long course of the biological evolution of
our species. But there is, in fact, a deeper problem here: if our commitments (i.e., beliefs)
are ultimately groundless (in a strictly and formally epistemological sense; and this means
specifically, semantically groundless), then how can we claim to explain their existence
scientifically, on the basis of the theories of evolution and natural selection (i.e., on the
basis of certain rationally ordered constellations of meanings, propositions, and beliefs)?
In other words, the deeper problem here has two parts: the problem of the
epistemological status of theories; and the problem of the status of our ontological
assumptions concerning physical reality. For this reason, while Dennett is right to suggest
that science and metaphysics are different pathways, he is quite wrong to assume that they
therefore can, and do, and indeed must, function independently of one another (or, more to
the point for Dennett, that science can, and does, and must do so) (Dennett 1991, pp. 28-29).
Moreover, the metaphysical problems that science, as a practice, can conveniently ignore,
nevertheless do and must come back to confront it, once its epistemological status is cross-
examined. The reason why is that, if we want to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that
the kind of theoretical knowledge that science produces is in some basic sense true (as
distinct from practical know-how knowledge, which may be useful, but for which a
fundamental description in terms of truth is irrelevant
), then we must be in a position to
correlate the sense (meanings) of our theories with the ontological domains to which they
refer and which they purport to describe and explain. But how exactly this is to be
accomplished is precisely a fundamental problem (and, a fortiori, it is not a scientific
And Dennetts theory, in principle, entails the denial of such a possibility (in
fact, it entails the denial even of the meaningfulness of such a possibility).

What he is indeed sceptical about and this is quite a different matter is the claim of rationalist philosophy
to give proofs of the truth or falsity of these commitments.
Ryle, e.g., rejected the notion that practical knowledge can be reduced to knowledge of truths as an
intellectualist legend (cf. Ryle 1968, pp. 29-30). Dennett points out that the intellectualist myth that Ryle
attacked strongly resembles the current cognitivist program, and says that cognitivists have been right to
shrug off much of Ryles celebrated attack as misguided (Dennett 1988, p. 500). But, he goes on to assert that
Ryle offered a central criticism that has not been properly appreciated: Ryle saw that at bottom all cognition
(all knowledge, belief, thinking, inference, etc.) had to be grounded in varieties of know-how that are only
tacit present not in virtue of any explicitly represented rules. (1988, p. 500) It makes sense that Dennett
would emphasise this point: it fits with his functionalist perspective. But, if all cognition is to be grounded in
varieties of tacit know-how, then this would suggest that the question of truth would again be irrelevant at
that deeper, functional level of cognitive systems.
It should be evident that there is a serious problem with any (radically empiricist or metaphysical realist)
claim that the (real) items of our ontology are simply and purely given, pre-theoretically, and that we have
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It is therefore not surprising that Dennett approvingly adopts the expression
meaning rationalism from Millikan (1984), who, he says, sets out to topple it from its
traditional pedestal. Dennett describes meaning rationalism as the intuition that lies
behind the belief in original intentionality, and writes:

Something has to give. Either you must abandon meaning rationalism the idea that you are
unlike the fledgling cuckoo [which acts instinctively, but with no inkling of the meaning of its
activity] not only in having access, but also in having privileged access to your meanings or
you must abandon the naturalism that insists that you are, after all, just a product of natural
selection, whose intentionality is thus derivative and hence potentially indeterminate. (Dennett
1987, p. 313)

The expression, potentially indeterminate, is a sugared pill: for, what Dennett really
means (although, strictu sensu, by Dennetts own theory, neither he nor we can know what
he really means) is that intentionality is derivative and hence fundamentally indeterminate,
and whatever determinateness it can ever lay claim to is only ever a matter of specific
evolutionary circumstance: in one environment, Dennetts (1987, pp. 290ff) two-bitsers
inner physical state means a US quarter, but in another, it means a Panaman balboa, and
there is nothing more fundamental about how or what it means anything at all, other than
these functional, contextual relations.
I note, and would agree with, Dennetts assertion that the fact that there is no fact
of the matter to ground beliefs and meanings in physical systems is not a surrender to
relativism or subjectivism, but in a very different sense and for very different reasons
from his; indeed, in a sense and for reasons quite contrary to his.
He argues that when and
why there is no fact of the matter is itself a matter of objective fact (Dennett 1987, pp. 28-
29). But I think that there is a fundamental problem in Dennetts claim (or, I could say, his
belief) that, on his view, we should be capable of establishing a (philosophically or
scientifically) valid distinction between the absence of ground for matters of fact in the
case of intentionality, and the alleged objective fact of that absence itself. The point is that
I do not think it is possible for Dennett to arrive at objective facts independently of

some kind of direct or even indirect access to things as they are in themselves that is non-theoretical, i.e.,
pure of any meaning or belief experienced by us. In other words, it is not true that we can verify our theories
by comparing them against the items of ontology, as though we had access to the latter as they are in
themselves, independently of our consciousness of them. This is not a denial of realism per se, but it is a
rejection of metaphysical realism, and also of scientific realism inasmuch as the latter concept presupposes a
metaphysical relevance for science; a relevance which, as I have been suggesting in my arguments, cannot
sensibly be assigned to science as a practice; but nor can it be assigned to science as theoretical knowledge
without presupposing that science itself has already established the epistemological basis of its claims to
truth vis--vis the empirical realm to which it refers (i.e., vis--vis its realist ontology).
For me, to say that beliefs and meanings cannot be grounded in physical systems is, to put it succinctly, to
say that materialism is false.
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intentionality (but I do not deny that it is possible to arrive at objective facts by means of
intentionality but this possibility does not sit well with Dennetts theory). Or, to put it
another way, Dennetts belief that the intentional stance can be meaningfully and
legitimately distinguished from the design stance and the physical stance is mistaken. I
would argue that all stances including Dennetts intentional stance, if it existed, and his
design and physical stances must necessarily and without exception be grounded in

There is an ever-evolving machine, with an ever-evolving function, in an ever-
evolving context: this seems to be Dennetts great truth. But how can the machine (in this
case, Dennetts brain) ascertain the truth of its self-description, its self-theorisation? Any
such theorisation must be undercut and undermined by its own principle (i.e., that all
meaning is derivative and indeterminate); or, at best, one might suppose, that it is true
only in terms of a specific proper function that it fulfils within a particular context at a
particular time and place in the course of evolution. But this would be a category mistake:
machines and their functions surely cannot be ascribed truth values (we usually suppose
that only propositions can). So, it would seem that, at best, we can only say that the theory
successfully fulfils a current proper function (rather than asserts a current truth). But
what function could a theory fulfil (especially a philosophical theory about what our minds
are and how they work), if that function cannot be the assertion of a fundamental truth?
And on what basis could we measure its success? That of our survival? But surely our
species has managed to survive thus far, and could no doubt continue to survive, without
such a theory? At this point, perhaps we would have no further recourse than to use our
imaginations, and to invent a story; preferably, one supposes given the dispositions that
natural selection has presumably left us with the story that pleases us most.

I dont think this is an argument that would only make sense to a phenomenologist: Baker touches upon this
same problem, but without conceiving of it or analysing in quite this way, and therefore without following
through its consequences, when she recognises that the attempt to render physical and intentional
explanations compatible leads ... to a kind of metaphysical dilemma (Baker 1989, p. 312), which plays out as a
conflict between Dennetts instrumentalism and intentionalism. But she does, in her conclusion, note
cryptically: Although not emphasized here, the wildness of the consequences of the theory should not be
overlooked. (Ibid., p. 315)
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