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Intentionality: order, order!

I have been reading, of late, some articles that have invoked the concept of intentionality and its orders. More specifically, this has been with respect to Social Brian hypothesis of Robin Dunbar, whereby he claims that humans evolved intelligence to be able to cope with your in-laws (and other social members of one’s groups). Leaving asides the main premise of the social brain hypothesis, which I find convincing to an extent, he also claims that monkeys have only first order intentionality, while apes have second order and humans are able to function at about fifth order of intentionality, with some like Shakespeare being able to work on the sixth order. To quote at length form the ‘beginner’s guide to intentionality’:

Computers can be said to know things because their memories contain information; however, it seems unlikely that they know that they know these things, in that we have no evidence that they can reflect on their states of ‘‘mind.’’ In the jargon of the philosophy of mind, computers are zero-order intentional machines. Intentionality is the term that philosophers of mind use to refer to the state of having a state of mind (knowing, believing, thinking, wanting, understanding, intending, etc).

Most vertebrates are probably capable of reflecting on their states of mind, at least in some crude sense: they know that they know. Organisms of this kind are first-order intentional. By extension, second-order intentional organisms know that someone else knows something, and third-order intentional organisms know that someone else knows that someone else knows something. In principle, the sequence can be extended reflexively indefinitely, although, in practice, humans rarely engage in more than fourth-order intentionality in everyday life and probably face an upper limit at sixth-order (‘‘Peter knows that Jane believes that Mark thinks that Paula wants Jake to suppose that Amelia intends to do something’’).

A minimum of fourth-order intentionality is required for literature that goes beyond the merely narrative (‘‘the writer wants the reader to believe that character A thinks that character B intends to do something’’). Similar abilities may be required for science, since doing science requires us to ask whether the world can be other than it is (a second-order problem at the very least) and then ask someone else to do the same (an additional order of intentionality).

I find the above definitions (and other I have found on the web), slightly problematic, so I’ll attempt my own synthesis on the matter:

  1. Zeroth order or No intentionality: Having knowledge but no ‘awareness ‘ of knowledge. Mere representation of information, but no meta awareness of that representation. Computers and machines , and even simple life forms like bacteria etc, may have this (no) intentionality, wherein they have ‘facts’ about the world, but no beliefs, desires etc.
  2. First Order Intentionality: Awareness of knowledge that is distinct from mere knowledge. A belief system. Knowing that something you know may be incorrect from the actual world scenario. You know what you know and you know what you don’t know. Meta cognition. Beliefs, desires etc. Important thing to note is that only ‘I know’ is covered in this definition. A limited ‘You know as I know’ may be covered at this order as one may be aware of other people as being intentional agents , but whose beliefs are congruent with one’s own! ‘You know something that may be different from what I know’ is not possible yet. Most mammals including rats and monkeys are at this level. Awareness ta this level may be that others too have facts of world at their disposal.
  3. Second order intentionality: Awareness of a belief-system that is distinct from the belief system itself. A Theory of Mind. You know that someone else may know things differently from both as they are and as you think they are. Awareness that others have a mind or a belief-system. Ability to keep two different belief systems in the mind- one of your own and the other of another third person. Apes and children age 4 demonstrate this level and order of intentionality. They have a theory of mind as to the fact that others have beliefs and that these are after all beliefs and can be false too. Awareness that others have beliefs, but still no awareness that they have a ToM too!
  4. Third order intentionality: Awareness of a ToM that is distinct from the ToM itself. A communicative intent. Joint attention. Language. symbol grounding. Knowing that someone else may have different views regarding what you yourself believe and thus it is important to communicate your internal intentions, beliefs , desires etc to others so that there is common ground on which communication and speech acts can proceed. this also enables grounds for lies and deceptions in the sense that one can deliberately lead someone to believe what one oneself does not believe. As per this source , communication requires third order of intentionality. To quote:
  5. Suppose my little brother intends for me to jump. He might (and sometimes does) achieve this by sneaking up behind me and yelling “Boo!”. But that’s not communication, in the fullest sense of the word. It would be quite a different sort of action were he to instead request of me, “please jump.” (I don’t think he’d find that nearly so fun, for one thing.) Such a speech-act would show not only that he intends me to jump, but also that he intends for me to recognize that he wants me to jump.

    Purposive communication requires an intentional state of at least third-order complexity. The speaker wants his audience to recognize what the speaker intends by his utterance. Put another way, you don’t just communicate ‘X’, you rather communicate, “I am trying to convey ‘X'”. (This is the difference between discreetly insulting someone, or making it clear to him that you want him to know you’re insulting him.) Anything less would fail to qualify as ‘communication’, in the fullest sense of the word.

  6. Fourth-order Intentionality: Awareness of a communicative act that is distinct from the communicative act itself: A narrative or story telling/ story understanding capability. An ability to weave experiences into a running narrative such that it incorporates different communicative acts or ‘scenes’. An understanding of ‘roles’ that one is playing that give shape to all the communicative acts one participate sin and the narrative one weaves for oneself. A limited awareness that others are also communicative agents , but not a full awareness , that like oneself, they are also acting a script/ playing a role/ having a running narrative using which they interpret events. It is important to emphasize that story telling requires one to visit a new world in which the protagonist is separate, but also one is in a state of willful suspension of disbelief and thus one feels along-with the protagonist, but still retains one’s own narrative: separate, and quite distinct, form the story-teller’s narrative. Story-telling, and story understanding and the interpreter module of humans that gives rise to stream of consciousness to me are the hallmarks of fourth order of intentionality and most of us juts stop there. One may mistakenly believe that there is only one role / narrative and that everybody shares the same narrative.
  7. Fifth order intentionality: Awareness of roles and narratives that are distinct from the role or narrative. An organizing system of religion/ myths using which one interprets stories. Awareness that others too have their own narratives and are playing a script/ performing their roles. Awareness that one’s role/ stance / understanding of world can be radically different from someone having the same experiences but using a different interpretation. A culture . A worldview. It is instructive to note that Dunbar considers that religion and story telling are higher level intentional activities.

I’ll leave things as they are for now as this fits nicely with my obsession with 5 + 3 stage developmental process. Higher orders of intentionality may exist, but probably we humans are not yet evolved to appreciate their subtleties/ find practical examples.

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Posted by on September 5, 2008.

Categories: compartative psychology, development, intentionality, language, religion

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This blog is an effort of Sandeep Gautam (sandygautam on most social web services) to learn, and at the same time document his journey, and share his knowledge, of psychology and neurosciences, with like-minded folks – a rider is in place at this point: He used to be primarily a software professional (a computer science […]
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