Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Intentional Stance

An intentional stance refers to the treating of a system as if it has intentions, irrespective of whether it does (Dennett, 1987). By treating a system as if it is a rational agent one is able to predict the system's behaviour. First, one ascribes beliefs to the system as those the system ought to have given its abilities, history and context. Then one attributes desires to the system as those the system ought to have given its survival needs and means of fulfilling them. One can then predict the system's behaviour as that a rational system would undertake to further its goals given its beliefs. Dennett argues for three main reasons for taking an intentional stance. First, it fits well with our understandings of the processes of natural selection and evolution in complex environments. Second, it has been shown to be an accurate method of predicting behaviour. Third, it is consistent with our folk psychology of behaviour. Modern approaches to explaining how we might have a "theory of mind" of others -- in particular, so-called theory theory (Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997; Gopnik & Wellman, 1992)-- provide examples of using the intentional stance to generate theories of cognitive processing.


  1. Dennett, D.C. (1987). The Intentional Stance Cambridge MA, MIT Press
  2. Gopnik, A. & Meltzoff, A. (1997): Words, Thoughts and Theories (Cambridge MA: MIT Press).
  3. Gopnik, A. & Wellman, H. (1992): "Why the Child's Theory of Mind Really is a Theory. Mind and Language 7: 145-71.

(Revised February 2010)