Wittgenstein and Tomasello on understanding intentions

  • Florian Franken Figueiredo
Keywords: Wittgenstein, Tomasello, Understanding, Intention, Language acquisition


Developmental psychologists have argued for the view that understanding one’s own intentions and the intentions of others consists in the performance of a psychological mechanism and moreover that the ability to understand intentions depends on the ontogenetic development of this mechanism. In this paper, I refer to Michael Tomasello as the most notable proponent of this view and present arguments against it. I argue that understanding intentions results from social agreement in practice rather than from psychological processes transpiring in the minds of intentional agents. In my defence, I will appeal to the later Wittgenstein, who expounds the view I proffer here. First, I shall expose the key differences in each of their views, particularly in terms of how the ability to understand intentions is related to language acquisition. In the second section, I employ an argument from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations to reject the claim that children in their first year of life develop an understanding of intentions ontogenetically. Finally, in the third section I argue that the understanding of an intention requires the ability to form an intention autonomously. In the process of forming an intention, the child creates its own understanding, namely one that is socially accepted if it is in agreement with established usage, customs, and institutions as part of everyday practice. On the basis of this view, I suggest that understanding intentions depends on the agreement of behaviour in certain practical contexts rather than as the accordance of mental states with a psychological mechanism.


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How to Cite
Figueiredo, F. F. (1) “Wittgenstein and Tomasello on understanding intentions”, Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio, 12(2). Available at: http://www.rifl.unical.it/index.php/rifl/article/view/504 (Accessed: 29June2022).