Sunday, August 14, 2005

Intentional Communication

Foreword: 'Intentionality' means something quite different in philosopher-speak than it does in common English usage. 'Intentional' mental states are ones that are about something else. Beliefs, desires, etc., are all directed at things. That's what I mean by 'intentional' in this context. (But note that I use the word 'intend' in its usual sense.) Second-order intentional states are ones that are about (or directed at) some other intentional state. So if I have a belief about what you're thinking (about), then my belief is a second-order intentional state. Similarly, third-order intentional states are about second-order ones, and so forth. Now, I want to explain why genuine communication requires at least third-order intentionality.

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.

Note that genuine communication is thus sufficiently complex to allow for deception. Deception occurs when the utterer intends his audience to mistake what he truly intends. If my brother is choosing between two slices of cake, with the larger on the right, I might say "the one on the left sure looks good," intending for my brother to falsely believe that I want the left slice (thus tempting him to choose it himself).

Full deception, so defined, requires at least three orders (count and see). More simple trickery can be obtained with merely second-order intentions though, e.g. if I intend for you to believe something false about the world.

Where am I going with all this? Well, I think it's quite interesting in itself. But also, it could potentially help us to ascribe intentional states to animals -- e.g. if we observed deceptive behaviour in animals (of a sufficient complexity to rule out simple stimulus-response explanations).

One final note: second-order intentionality requires one to have a theory of mind. You can't really intend to implant false beliefs unless you have the concept of 'belief' to begin with. And it's pretty controversial whether any non-human animals have a theory of mind. So skeptics are going to be even more reluctant to ascribe full-blown communicative or deceptive intentions to animals. Ah well, interesting stuff nonetheless.

Update: a further thought: it seems like there's something a bit more humble about the higher-order intentions of genuine communication. Suppose I want to inform you that it's raining outside. A second-order description might say that I intend for you to believe that it's raining outside. But I could achieve this through coercively brainwashing you, for example. Genuine communication doesn't allow for such brainwashing -- that's not what it's about. When I say to you: "It's raining outside," I rather intend for you to recognize that I believe it's raining outside, or something like that. It's more indirect, and it's up to you to do with the information what you will. Once you've recognized my communicative purposes, my job is done -- I don't have any further desire to force you to accept the information. Brainwashing you wouldn't achieve my goals here at all.


  1. I think even the most confirmed skeptic must have at least a provisional theory of mind for dealing with all these percepts, whether or not they represent actual other minds. Otherwise they would just be catatonic. It makes just as much sense to talk about intentionality (thanks for defining it, by the way) in a provisional theory of mind as in one that is believed to be true. And, perhaps counterintuitively, I think it might be easier for a skeptic to allow the possibility that animals may have some sort of rudimentary theory of mind capable of at least second order intentionality. After all, is it really that much less plausible than that all these percepts that look like other people talking to me really represent other minds?

    But don't mind me. So many philosophers squirm in such amusingly uncomfortable ways in the presence of any skeptical argument that it's hard to refrain from playing devil's advocate whenever skepticism comes up.

    But this intentionality business is interesting. If I understand correctly, it seems like falling for a deceptive statement would require confusion of intentionality levels. Instead of "he intends for me to understand that he believes X" (3rd level), I must think "he believes X" (1st level) to be deceived. (Or, if you prefer, I might think "I understand that he believes X" (2nd) instead of "I think that he intends me to understand that he believes X" (4th level?). I don't think this changes anything, though.) If I forget the difference in intentionality levels, I am forgetting that my decision on whether or not to believe X myself is based on whether or not I trust "him", who I have neglected to name, and thus making that choice by default. Ack, wait, now I (the actual me writing this) am getting confused about levels; the hypothetical "I" above is concerned with whether or not to believe that "he" believes X, not with whether or not to believe X "my"self. Help!

    I wonder what, if anything, can be concluded in this model about communication errors, where Alice means to convey X but Bob understands her to be trying to say Y. Is this strictly a fourth-order phenomenon?

  2. Yeah, that sounds fourth-order to me. Though, as with deception/trickery, it might be possible to come up with a weaker second-order variant, e.g. Alice intends X, but Bob interprets her as instead intending Y. But that isn't full-blown communication (as defined in the main post), so yeah, I think you're right that full-blown miscommunication would involve four orders of intentionality.

    I'm also intrigued by your analysis of "falling for a deceptive statement". (I add that I would describe it in terms of 2nd and 4th levels, but as you note this makes no great difference.)

    I'm not sure if it's a "confusion" as such, or merely an inference that happened to misfire in the present case. That is, on the general assumption of truthfulness (without which we cannot communicate), one can infer from "he intends for me to understand that he believes X" to "he believes X". We are usually happy to co-operate with the communicative intentions of others -- and just as well, or life would be very difficult! Sometimes that leaves us open to exploitation through 'deception'. But since it's usually a pretty reliable inference, I'd be reluctant to tar it as "confusion".

    Having said that, I do agree with the following:
    "If I forget the difference in intentionality levels, I am forgetting that my decision on whether or not to believe X myself is based on whether or not I trust him... thus making that choice by default."

  3. Good thoughts. Abstraction is useful, as is quantifying it. I would have thought that after the third level of abstraction though, you wouldn't need to go any further. You'd have "orders of intentionality" rather than "degrees of intentionality".

    For example, I don't think that things like guessing the true meaning of someone else's statements requires a whole new level of intentionality - it's another kind of abstraction.

    I realise you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you understood that what you heard is not what I meant. ;)

    That, for example, is about as convoluted as it gets, but I still think it involved only third-degree intentionality. There's nothing in there about *third-degree-ness*, only a degree of debate about third degree concepts.



  4. "perhaps "intentionality" is supposed to be a catch-all term for the directedness of all things mental. Is it?"

    Yes, I think so (except some philosophers claim that qualia are not 'about' anything else, so would exclude them). Not just mental states though, also linguistic entities, pictures, and any other form of representation, where one thing stands as a 'sign' for or about something else.

    Intriguing point about beliefs etc. not being determinate 'events'. I'll have to think more about what implications (if any) that would have here.

  5. Sirs & Mesdames,
    Compared to your stratospheric understanding of frightfully complex matters, my quest is simple: How might/does intentionality relate to communication as in sign language--American Sign Language, for example--but NOT spoken language. Memory seems to call back a smidgen of college philosophy that showed that the act of waving consisted of the physical act---sending a recognizable sign---PLUS intentionality, which we discern rather naturally.

    In production on a documentary film re deaf signing, we would be SO thankful for any (uncomplicated, please(!)) comment on this issue.

    Best wishes/Press on/Peace & Blessings.

  6. Sorry, I can't think of how sign language would differ from any other language in this respect.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.