Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Intentional systems in cognitive ethology: The “Panglossian paradigm” defended

Daniel C. Dennetta1

a1 Department of Philosophy, Tufts University, Medford, Mass. 02155


Ethologists and others studying animal behavior in a “cognitive” spirit are in need of a descriptive language and method that are neither anachronistically bound by behaviorist scruples nor prematurely committed to particular “information-processing models.” Just such an interim descriptive method can be found in intentional system theory. The use of intentional system theory is illustrated with the case of the apparently communicative behavior of vervet monkeys. A way of using the theory to generate data - including usable, testable “anecdotal” data - is sketched. The underlying assumptions of this approach can be seen to ally it directly with “adaptationist” theorizing in evolutionary biology, which has recently come under attack from Stephen Gould and Richard Lewontin, who castigate it as the “Panglossian paradigm.” Their arguments, which are strongly analogous to B. F, Skinner's arguments against “mentalism,” point to certain pitfalls that attend the careless exercise of such “Panglossian” thinking (and rival varieties of thinking as well), but do not constitute a fundamental objection to either adaptationist theorizing or its cousin, intentional system theory.