Rationality and Higher-Order Intentionality
Millar (Alan)
Source: Walsh - Naturalism, Evolution and the Mind
Paper - Abstract

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Philosophers Index Abstract

  1. It is widely accepted that creatures who have propositional attitudes must in some sense be rational and that their actions should admit of rationalizing explanations.
  2. This article works with the idea that rationality is linked to the capacity to believe and act for reasons. It is argued, against prevailing views, that we can make clear sense of what it is to believe or act for a reason only in the case of creatures who are capable of higher-order intentionality.
  3. It is further argued that intention and autobiographical memory, which are central to human propositional attitude psychology, implicate higher-order intentionality.

Editor’s Abstract1
  1. Alan Millar proposes, for reasons somewhat similar to those invoked by "Papineau (David) - The Evolution of Means-End Reasoning", that among animals only humans possess propositional attitudes. Millar draws a connection between the possession of higher-order intentionality, the capacity to act for reasons, and the possession of propositional attitudes. The connection is that only rational agents are capable of entertaining propositional attitudes. Only individuals capable of deliberative thinking are rational agents. And only individuals endowed with higher-order intentionality can be deliberative thinkers. He argues for this position by establishing first that if one has propositional attitudes one must, to some degree, satisfy certain requirements on rationality, for example that one by and large avoids inconsistency in one's beliefs, that one avoids acquiring new beliefs without reason and that one is prepared to perform actions which are necessary for the fulfilment of one's goals. The question is whether evaluative rationality of this sort is beyond the ken of non-human animals.
  2. It is an appealing idea that to be a rational animal is to be the type of thing that is capable of believing or acting for a reason. Believing or acting for a reason, in turn, requires deliberative thinking, the capacity to consider whether a given consideration is a reason or to be motivated by it because it is a reason. Non-human animals, generally lack this capacity for deliberative thinking.
  3. It may appear that an animal capable of only first-order intentionality is capable of deliberative thinking. Many animals clearly have goals and are prepared to do what is necessary to bring these goals about. These dispositions conform to the requirements of rationality. But merely conforming to the requirements of rationality is not sufficient for deliberative thinking. Acting in accordance with the requirements of rationality is not the same as acting because you recognize that rationality requires you to do so. Millar makes this distinction vivid by contrasting two conceptions of acting (or believing) for a reason.
    1. According to one, the Motivation Principle, to act (or believe) for a reason one must have some motivating reason to act or believe in this way and believe that this motivating reason is a normative (good) reason. This conception of acting (believing) for a reason clearly requires higher-order intentionality.
    2. Millar contrasts this notion of having a reason with another he calls the Mental State theory, according to which for an individual to perform action y or to believe p for a reason it must act or believe because it has some other intentional state q such that q constitutes a normative reason to perform y or to believe p. This conception of acting or believing for a reason requires no higher-order thought. It does not require that the putative agent takes the normative reason as a normative reason.
    There are a number of deficiencies of the mental state theory as an account of acting (or believing) for a reason, not least of which is its inability to account for an agent's acting for a reason when those reasons are bad ones. The upshot is that '[r]ationalizing explanation, and the notion of believing for a reason, make tolerably clear sense only in relation to a psychological economy such that the subject can misjudge the normative force of a consideration.' (p. 192) This capacity, in turn, requires higher-order intentionality. Millar's conclusion, then, is that the possession of genuine propositional attitude psychology, constrained as it is by rationality, requires higher-order intentionality.
  4. Millar further bolsters the claim that genuine propositional attitude psychology requires higher-order intentionality by considering two fundamental categories of propositional attitudes: intention and autobiographical memory.
    1. An intention to y, Millar argues, is only motivating if the agent believes that she has the intention to y.
    2. Similar considerations apply for recalling in memory. Recalling some past experience is not merely believing that you had the experience, but having the experience presented to you as something you recall.
    Intention and memory are, arguably, required for propositional attitude psychology and if they are second-order intentionality is too. Millar concludes that animals that lack higher-order intentionality may well have intentional states, but they do not possess full-blown propositional attitude psychology.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Taken from "Walsh (Denis) - Naturalism, Evolution and Mind: Editor's Introduction".


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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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