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by Bertram F. Malle, Louis J. Moses and Dare A. Baldwin
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Adam Kovach, Ph.D. on Jul 18th 2002

Intentions and Intentionality

The volume brings together eighteen articles by participants in an interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Oregon in 1998. Most of the essays are by social psychologists and cognitive-developmental psychologists. A few are by philosophers, and one is by a legal scholar. Several of the essays show that there is an active dialogue between psychologists interested in conceptual distinctions drawn by philosophers and philosophers interested in experimental data. Cross-fertilization between the social and cognitive-developmental work appears to be at the beginning stage. The editors' goal is "to integrate current knowledge" on the topic of intentions and intentionality. The book succeeds at this by giving snap shots of current research, from which a constructive reader can put together an interesting but incomplete panorama.

Intentions are a particular kind of mental state involving a purpose, plan or decision, which potentially motivates action. Intentionality is a feature of actions, their being intentional. As the editors of this volume remind us, intentions and intentionality "permeate human social life" so much that we can easily overlook the obvious fact that our understanding of intention is a prerequisite to many other social skills. We can no longer overlook it once this volume makes us aware that children only gradually acquire the ability to recognize intentional behavior and to attribute intentions to others, and that these complex and poorly understood abilities may be uniquely human. Because this is a volume about social cognition, there are only hints here for those interested in what intentions and intentionality really are. The focus is how on we think about intentions and intentional actions, and how we come to think about them.

The book is organized by topic into four sections. The articles in Part I. "Desires, Intentions and Intentionality" are about how intention and related concepts are defined in a "folk theory" (a prescientific understanding) of the mind. Those in Part II. "Detecting Intentions and Intentionality" are about how we perceive human action and detect underlying intentions and motives. Eleven of the essays, including most of the best, are in these first two sections. Since over half of them are by developmentalists, the acquisition of the concepts and perceptual capacities is a main theme. The smaller Parts III. and IV. are, respectively, about commonsense explanations of intentional behavior, and the relationship between intentions and people's assessments of responsibility for actions.

Understanding intention appears to be a complicated cognitive achievement. According to Bertram Malle and Joshua Knobe, competent adults recognize five conditions as necessary for an action to be intentional: The person who acts must (1) desire some outcome, (2) believe the action will lead to that outcome, (3) intend to do the action, (4) have the skill to do the action (so the action doesn't succeed due to mere luck) and (5) be aware that he is fulfilling his intention in acting. Most of the authors in the volume maintain that an adult ability to attribute intentions to others involves quite sophisticated thinking about people as having minds capable of representing goals and environments.

Long before children give a sign of having sophisticated conceptions like these, however, they respond differently to intentional behavior than they do to mere motion, and they begin to discern people's motives. By 12-18 months, a child can distinguish reaching for an object from other hand motions, follow pointing, track the object of a person's attention by following their gaze, recognize people's preferences, recognize when a person fails to achieve a goal, distinguish between a completed action that fulfills an intention and one that is incomplete, complete another person's failed attempt, and begin to use the word 'want'. By 3 years, a child can describe what a person is "trying to do," but the ability to distinguish what a person wants to do from what they intend to do, and to say whether or not something was done "on purpose" seems not to emerge until the late preschool years, and the ability to blame or approve of a person for a motive and not just for the outcome of their action doesn't emerge until even later.

The question arises how the early capacities to detect intentional actions are related to the slowly emerging adult ability to think about and talk about people's intentions, desires and other mental states. Should we think of these as distinct abilities, perhaps based on separate cognitive mechanisms, or as a single developing competence or body of knowledge, a child's theory of mind?  Are these abilities acquired or innate? Several of the authors darkly suggest that the early perceptual capacities are stepping stones on the path to acquiring mature concepts of intention and intentionality, which leads to the question, what exactly is it that allows the child to take the steps? How do the perceptual capacities trigger or support the emerging competence? Since research is at an early stage, we can have only speculative answers to these questions. One interesting lead is Andrew Meltzoff's revival of the classic proposal that mental concepts are acquired by introspection and attributed to others on the basis of inference by analogy. In action, infants have the capacity to know their intentions first hand. Meltzoff presents evidence that they also have the innate ability to recognize equivalences between their own actions and the perceived actions of others. Together these are the prerequisites for inferring by analogy that the intentional behavior of others  "like me" depends on the occurrence of mental states like the child's own.

Some of the best essays in the volume challenge the perspective presented so far. For example, one may wonder if the developmental target has been set right. Al Mele's carefully argued paper gives counter-examples to Malle and Knobe's five-condition account of the concept of intentionality. This raises the possibility that this concept may be simpler than Malle and Knobe claim. The most interesting challenge comes in the paper by Daniel Povinelli, who for more than a decade has studied the chimpanzee's art of social cognition. Povinelli has come to the conclusion that while great apes are capable of sophisticated reasoning about the behavior of others, they do not think of others as having mental states. If they do not attribute mental states, how are chimps so adept at perceiving and predicting purposive actions?  Povinelli hypothesizes that the human capacity to attribute mental states is an evolutionarily recent development, while apes rely on evolutionarily more ancient systems for producing and responding to complex behaviors. If this is true, we may expect that the old and new systems coexist in human minds. It follows that we should be cautious about chalking up human infants' skill at detecting intentional action to an emerging adult understanding of intention. Like the chimps, infants may rely on ancient systems that emerge in development separately from the ability to reason about mental states.

This book surveys an interrelated body of work by researchers, many of whom are in constructive dialogue. The data are interesting, and the nascent theory stimulates further thought. Its publication is a sign that intention is back as a topic of empirical psychological research after decades of neglect. The book will appeal mostly to specialists, although there is nothing particularly technical or difficult about it that might deter the interested lay reader. A collection of articles that opens our eyes to how much we more we might learn about a subject matter that "permeates human life" is welcome. These articles do that for the topic of intention. Even better, they suggest many directions in which to look if we want to learn more.


© 2002 Adam Kovach


Adam Kovach is a visiting assistant professor of Philosophy at Haverford College.