The Intentional Stance and its Role in Political Discourse | Opinion

Is it true that we cannot understand one another?

It certainly appears that way when considering the startling promptness with which hyperpartisanship has come to dominate American culture in recent years. Yet, given that the causes of this concerning trend, independent of the widespread inability of conservatives and progressives to speak honestly with one another, are genuinely seldom, what other than the inability to understand opposing opinions is getting in the way of progress in American political discourse? The answer rests in a term that Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the "intentional stance." The intentional stance is the near-universal human ability to adopt a neutral attitude when receiving and interpreting the testimony of others on their own experiences. Sadly, too many Americans (especially on the right) seem incapable of this in political discourse, which is ultimately the root of hyperpartisanship's recent acceleration.

One popular idea in philosophy that has seeped into political discourse recently is that the human ability to understand other minds is utterly hopeless. New York University philosopher David Chalmers, for instance, suggests that undetectable quality inversion (where green for me is red for you, and vice-versa) could be real because other minds are unknowable to us. Of course, there are excellent reasons found in cognitive science and empirical psychology for not believing this to be true, but I digress. The political counterpart to such reasoning can be found when considering the problem of race in America, which is artfully and infamously caricatured by the rapper Joyner Lucas' song "I'm Not Racist."

Apart from this caricature, however, the general inability of conservatives and liberals—among endless other political sub-groups who belong to both sides in varying intensities—to understand one another is strikingly documented in a recent YouGov-associated survey by researchers at More in Common, called "The Perception Gap." One particularly startling and illuminating fact related to this gap is that only 24 percent of Republicans are willing to attribute the positive character trait of honesty to Democrats. In contrast, only 26 percent of Democrats are eager to attribute honesty to Republicans. Similarly, 89 percent of Democrats are willing to broadly attribute racism to Republicans, and 88 percent attribute being brainwashed to Republicans, whereas 71 percent of Republicans attribute racism to Democrats, and 86 percent call them brainwashed.

Political extremism warranting such claims is nowhere near as widespread as Twitter makes it appear. For example, when polled, only 8 percent of Americans identify as progressive activist types and 6 percent as far-right conservatives. Likewise, the general assumption both ways, is that roughly 55 percent of Democrats and Republicans are representative of the most extreme forms of liberalism and conservatism, when in reality it's more like 33 percent. As researchers conclude, "Americans are less divided than they have come to believe." One major cause of hyperpartisan in American culture, therefore, is a genuine en masse inability to understand our neighbors.

We cannot live another's life, and we cannot experience the unique contents of one's experiences, so it is true to say that a direct understanding of one's experiences is not possible. This does not mean, however, that valuable insight into such matters is utterly impossible. Insight into experiences that are not directly accessible to us—because they reside in the heads of others, to put it crudely and with gross inaccurateness—requires us to adopt Dennett's intentional stance toward others.

The intentional stance is distinct from compassion, and for the purposes of subverting hyperpartisanship, can aid our compassion, better suiting it for the job. Unaided, compassion might even be counterproductive to this end, as it is demonstrably prone to the drawbacks of proximity-bias.

Group of American flags
The sun sets behind a group of American flags. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

The proximity-biases of compassion, to put it bluntly, denote the fact that humans are cognitively incapable of extending their compassion too far beyond friends and family. Most people are, quite literally, too spatio-temporally far away from us for our compassion to affect them positively. It is easier for humans to feel the pain from their next-door neighbor whose house has just been broken into than a family whose experience was identical, but worlds away.

In American political discourse, compassion is next to useless. Democrats largely live in coastal bubbles, whereas Republicans reside largely in Southern or Midwestern bubbles. Compassion requires exposure, which Americans are surely not getting and will not be getting any time soon. Compassion needs the aid of reason, which can be found in Dennett's intentional stance.

The intentional stance has the additional element of emotional neutrality for the listener and the active attribution of rationality from the listener to the person describing their experience, who is also given the final authoritative word on such experiences according to the intentional stance.

For political discourse to proceed with success—instead of its current state of escalating degradation—American citizens of all political backgrounds must adopt the intentional stance in the context of politics. It is in our capacity to embrace the intentional stance in other contexts, such as with friends and family, so why not also with one's neighbors?

Unfortunately, many simply refuse to take the intentional stance but instead adopt positions that are, on the one hand, transparently self-pitying, and on the other, designed to deflect any suggestions to participate in rational dialogue. It is increasingly common in modern America for citizens to attach the entirety of their identity with demographic designations like race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disabilities, and the like. It is even more common for such demographic titles to either actually or imaginatively come under attack—in ways often instigated by the media—thus placing the identity of millions under attack—whether actual or perceived—as well. In a defensive maneuver against such attacks, the intentional stance is withheld because understanding others is beside the point when you are under the impression that they are the enemy.

However, this is not an evenly matched refusal, and the results of not listening are not evenly egregious. For example, conservatives are much less willing to hear out liberals than contrariwise, and attacks on conservatives are more likely to be imaginary, such as the great replacement theory. In contrast, the attacks liberals are generally worried about on vulnerable demographic groups are real. And while maybe the liberal refusal to listen has made campus culture increasingly annoying, the conservative rejection of the intentional stance has stripped women of the constitutional right to an abortion.

While we should all listen—and, more importantly, adopt the intentional stance—conservatives have much more work to do in this respect than liberals. The response "all lives matter" to "Black lives matter," for example, is so transparently indicative of this that one rightly wonders whether this failure to take the intentional stance is deliberate.

Daniel Lehewych has an MA in philosophy from the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, cognitive science, and the philosophy of mind. In addition to contributing to Newsweek, Daniel is a contributing writer for Big Think and Allwork.Space.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.