The Intentional Stance and Drama

by F.


“Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind And the Novel (The Theory and Interpretation of Narrative Series)” (Lisa Zunshine)

I’ve worked with a lot of software engineers and have been constantly surprised at how they often anthropomorphize software and hardware. I can recall overhearing a conversation in the office adjacent to mine at Microsoft, which went something like:

“Why did that program throw an exception?”
“It couldn’t talk to the driver.”
“Why not?”
“The driver was distracted.”
“By What?”
“By a call from some other routine.”
“What happened?”
“It got confused.”

I heard this kind of talk all the time—discussions of hardware getting sick, programs talking to one another, printers ignoring other peripherals. All examples of what Dan Dennett calls “the intentional stance:” the human propensity to talk about things it terms of beliefs and desires. For instance “My cat wants food.” Or, in the case of Windows machines, “My computer doesn’t want to boot.”

This tendency—to look at things from the intentional stance—underlies drama. Drama exists when “somebody wants something badly and is having trouble getting it,” as Frank Daniel says. Notice: somebody wants something. One can’t think about drama without using the intentional stance. Rocks and sponges don’t make good dramatic subject matter.

A slight variation on the intentional stance is the “theory of mind,” which generally holds that certain kinds of objects have minds, and those minds generate beliefs and desires. Examples of objects with minds include adult human beings and, at least in my list, cats, elephants, and whales. The theory of mind is more complex that the intentional stance.

Liza Zunshine, in Why We read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, tries to explain why we like to read stories with the theory of mind. But her attempt isn’t that illuminating.

Her first entirely unilluminating thesis is that we treat characters in stories just like we do people in real life—we ascribe to them beliefs, desires, intentions, and volitional actions. This is obvious and, as far as I can tell, uninteresting.

Another thesis she propounds is that is that we keep track of who said what to us in a story. So, for instance, we keep track of who the narrator is, and this allows us to enjoy the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator. Again, there is no new news here.

One observation she makes, though, struck me. She mentions two styles of storytelling—overpresenting and underpresenting. The arch overpresenter is Henry James, going on for page after page about what, say, Daisy Miller is thinking, while Daisy sits on a chair, doing absolutely nothing. The arch underpresenter is Hemingway, who describes scenes like a screenwriter does—visually—and lets us make the inferences about the characters mental states. So, if the character hits a wall, we think, “Oh, gosh. He’s mad.”

This is interesting because, to me, it explains why Henry James is boring: he doesn’t let the reader do enough work. He overdoes it. When I read James, I am constantly frustrated because (a) I pretty much get what the character is feeling, and (b) the excessive, additive descriptions don’t asymptote toward some perfectly lucid presentation of that mental state. They just become more noise.