Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stone and Moran on Anscombe's Intention

Tonight Martin Stone and Richard Moran presented a paper titled "Anscombe on the Expression of Intention" to the University of Chicago Mind Workshop. They argued that Anscombe's trinity of intentions (expression of intention for the future, intentional act, further/teleological intention in acting) basically all boil down to one common concept of intention. I found the paper a bit hard to follow and their co-presentation just seemed to make things more confusing than they already were. However since this served as my introduction to action theory, I'm not sure where the culpability lies.

One part in the beginning of Stone's part of the presentation struck me as particularly confusing and problematic. This point involved accepting at face value Anscombe's stipulation that while animals can have intentions, they cannot express them. She writes:

Intention appears to be something that we can express, but which brutes (which, e.g., do not give orders) can have, though lacking any distinct expression of intention. For a cat's movements in stalking a bird are hardly to be called an expression of intention. One might as well call a car's stalling the expression of its being about to stop. (Intention, 5)

Anscombe's target in this quote is Wittgenstein, particularly his statement: "What is the natural expression of an intention? -- Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape" (PI, 647).

Now, what does Wittgenstein take to be the expression of the intention when the cat stalks the bird? Is it the way that the cat acts while stalking the bird (i.e. some observable phenomenon that gives us evidence of a bird-stalking intention in the cat? Or is it the mere fact that it is stalking, i.e. moving slowly and with fixed eyes around the bird before striking?

The way in which Anscombe attempts to dismiss both of these possible readings of Wittgenstein is to maintain that an expression of intention must be linguistic (where even "certain bodily movements with a conventional meaning" count as linguistic). Since cats can't talk, they can't express intentions.

For the moment let's accept her linguistic account of the expression of an intention. In this case, then, we must rely on a spoken report to give us evidence of an intention. Now I ask: Can this expression only be given by the person doing the intending or can we give an expression of someone else's intention without them having said anything?

If the former, then how are we to know that hearing S say "I intend P" gives us sufficient evidence to know that S intends P? What if it turned out that S was actually just a parrot that was taught to say "I intend to fly southward" before ever flying southward? Or if S is a sufficiently complex human-like robot that has been programmed to repeat a recording of "I intend to make tea" prior to every occurrence of its performing the function of making tea? In these cases how could we know that S's seeming utterance of "I intend P" is not an actual expression of an intention and that in the case of the robot there is no intention at all (I take it that inanimate objects are incapable of having intentions--along with beliefs and desires). It seems as though something's giving an "expression-of-intention-like-utterance" cannot be used as a criterion for the ability to give expression to its utterance (or as evidence for its actually having intended anything).

If the latter and there can be third-person expressions of utterances, then what are we to use as our criterion for deciding whether or not the person either has an intention to P or is intentionally P-ing or is P-ing with some intention in mind? If we can do this on the basis of our observations, then there seems to be little problem in expressing the intentions of the bird and we might be led to accord the robot an intention. But if the observational phenomena will be sufficiently similar between the human acting with an intention and the robot performing intention-like actions, and in the latter there is not actually an intention, then the observation of some intention-like actions will be insufficient for us to give a third-person expression of intention.

So it turns out that neither S's utterance of an intention P nor our observing of intention-like behavior in S's performance of P is sufficient for a bona-fide expression of S's intention.

Now, note that if we accept either of our interpretations of Wittgenstein's example of the natural expression of an intention along with Anscombe's stipulation that expressions of intention must be linguistic, we run into the same problem as in Anscombe's case--S can't actually speak of its intention to P and our observing intention-like behavior in P will be insufficient for us to give a third-person expression of S's intention to P.

Seems like a sticky situation--Anscombe's position seems untenable and Wittgenstein's position would commit us to criteria that would lead us to attribute intentions and expressions of intentions to both the talking parrot and the robot--since both would be performing intention-like behavior that "naturally" expresses an intention, i.e. the observable phenomena.

I'm sure someone out there has written on this topic. Hopefully I'll come across some better accounts in my future excursions into action theory. For now Moran and Stone have piqued my interest but left me unsatisfied.


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