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Dennett's ascriptivism

Philosophy : Philosophy of Mind

Daniel Dennett advocated an approach that seems similar to Davidson's, in that they both attempt to resolve the problem of reductionism within the materialist tradition, and that they both disagree with Fodor. Unlike Davidson, however, Dennett advocates an extremely weak, or liberal, interpretation of intelligence, ascribing it to almost anything that we usually ascribe beliefs and desires to, even if those may appear to be linguistic, e.g. metaphors.

Dennett's intentional stance

Dennett says that to be defined as intelligent, i.e. to have a mind, it must simply be useful for us to regard it as having a mind. So where in language we refer to things as though they act upon beliefs and desires, we should consider them to have minds, since it is useful in explaining their and our behaviour that way. For example, if a cat believes that some chicken is a good meal and it is hungry then the cat will eat the chicken. It is useful to ascribe a mind to the cat, and regardless of whether or not we think that cat might actually have the physical and mental faculties to process such mental states, we should consider it intelligent.

This instrumental kind of intentionality, according to which we understand minds by their relation to the things they have beliefs and desires about, has some far reaching consequences that Dennett is quite comfortable with. It means, for example, that we must consider plants to have minds, since it is useful for us to talk of a tree growing roots because it believes that water can be found at greater depths and wants water to grow. Similarly, a printer has a mind since, when the "Low ink light flashes", it believes the printer is running low on ink and wants you to know. One would say in response that here we speak metaphorically, imposing a set of antrocentrist linguistic concepts upon our surrounding world to make it more understandable. But Dennett disagrees, and insists that ascriptions of minds to all of these things is no more metaphorical than it is to ascribe beliefs and desires to human beings.

Dennett's ascriptivism lies somewhere in between two opposing positions:

"in the head realism" says that brains may be analogous to common man-made computational devices, e.g. audio cassettes aren't normally understandable, but given the correct hardware they are.