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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 6, Number 2 (June 2008) : 233--260
Narrative Theory and the Intentional Stance

David Herman
Rubric A: Narrative as a Way of Thinking

Drawing on treatments of the problem of intentionality in fields encompassed by the umbrella discipline of cognitive science, including language theory, psychology, and the philosophy of mind, this paper explores issues underlying recent debates about the role of intentions in narrative contexts. To avoid entering the debate on the terms set by anti-intentionalists, my analysis shifts the focus away from questions about the boundary for legitimate ascriptions of communicative intention, the tipping-point where those ascriptions become illicit projections of readerly intuitions onto an imagined authorial consciousness. Instead, I propose a two-part strategy for examining how storytelling practices are bound up with inferences about intention. The first part uses Hemingway’s 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants” to argue that narrative interpretation requires adopting the heuristic strategy that Daniel Dennett has characterized as “the intentional stance.” In other words, it makes sense to assume that stories like Hemingway’s are told for particular reasons, in the service of communicative goals about which interpreters are justified in framing at least provisional hypotheses. This first part of my analysis is tantamount to grounding stories in intentional systems. The second part, which draws on work on folk psychology (and research in the philosophy of mind more generally), describes narrative as a means by which humans learn to take up the intentional stance in the first place, and later practice using it in the safe zone afforded by storyworlds. This part of my analysis involves grounding intentional systems in stories. Here I argue that narrative constitutes in its own right a discipline for reading for intentions, a primordial basis for making the ascriptions of intentionality that lie at the heart of folk psychology, or everyday reasoning concerning one’s own and others' minds.
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