Warning: Explicit Content

I just noticed this over at Online Papers in Philosophy: Dan Dennett’s “The Evolution of ‘Why?’ - Essay on Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit“.


We both learned a lesson from Wilfrid Sellars that still hasn’t sunk in with many of our colleagues.   I quote, not for the first time, what I consider to be the pithiest expression of it in Sellars:

My solution is that “. . . .’means’ - - -” is the core of a unique mode of discourse which is as distinct from the description and explanation of empirical fact, as is the language of prescription and justification. (Chisholm and Sellars, 1958, p527Bdiscussed briefly by
me in 1987, p[341)

The ineliminable,  foundational normativity of all talk of meaning or intentionality was first insisted upon by Sellars, and Brandom’s version of the reason for this is comprehensive and detailed.  Brandom chooses to adopt my “intentional stance” way of characterizing this unique mode of discourse,   since the evaluative or normative presuppositions can be readily seen to be built right into the rules of that game.  He then draws a distinction between simple intentional systems (what I call first-order intentional systems, entities whose behavior is readily interpretable by ascribing beliefs, desires and other intentional states to them) and interpreting intentional systems (what I call higher-order intentional systems, capable of ascribing intentional states to others and to themselves).   Now which kind comes first?

4 Responses to “Warning: Explicit Content”

  1. Matt Davidson says:

    Hey Pete,

    What happened to Brentano? The whole “primacy of the intentional” Chisholm got from him (and Chisholm not only didn’t hide this, but he wrote books on Brentano). And Brentano probably got it from Suarez or someone, who probably got it from Aristotle, who lived in the house that Jack built. I mean, Dennett doesn’t take intentionality to be a real phenomenon, of course; and Brentano most certainly does. But why is Sellars taken to be the father of this notion by Dennett? What am I missing? (Btw, if you could cc me in your explanation, that’d be nifty.)



  2. Tad says:

    Matt -

    Did those other folks appreciate the normativity of the intentional? Sellars says that the irreducibility of mind to body, or at least intentionality to the physical, is equivalent to the irreducibility of ‘ought’ to ‘is’. Whether or not this is true, this strikes me as interestingly new and controversial. The advance is proposing that two separate mysteries are actually just one. Actually, Brandom traces this innovation to Kant.

  3. “Dennett doesn’t take intentionality to be a real phenomenon,”

    What are your conditions of adequacy on something counting as a “real phenomenon”?

    He thinks it’s a real as a center of gravity: the intentionality is there with or without an interpreter, but its particular content can’t be articulated outside of some interpretative practice (just as the center of gravity is there, but without a physical theory in which it plays a role, positing it is explanatorily idle).

  4. An interesting essay — very glad to learn of it via your site. Somewhat surprised to find so much agreement from Dennett.

    What baffles me is why Dennett thinks anything about the sub-personal implementing machinery inside the head fills any gap left unfilled in Brandom’s constitutive account. Brandom’s theory explicitly purports to say “what the trick consists in”, not how it’s done. Dennett understands that fine, yet can’t help trying to get out his favorite design stance story anyway.

    I wonder if he just can’t quite get his head around the idea that what’s inside the head could be constitutively irrelevant to a philosophical account of conceptual content. But on a social behaviorist account like Brandom’s works, it does come out that so-called cognitive science just fills in implementation details but is otherwise of no philosophical relevance: the account would apply just as correctly to folks whose heads are entirely empty, as long as they have the right behavioral capacities.