I am reading this paper that makes references to "first-order dispositions" and "second-order dispositions" constantly, and I do not know what they really mean:

Joachim Horvath, Understanding as a Source of Justification, Mind, Volume 129, Issue 514, April 2020, Pages 509–534, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzz083

I would be grateful if someone could explain it to me.

Thanks in advance!

  • Which paper are we talking about here? I suspect it is one discussing Dennett, but in any case, it would be helpful to reference the textual basis of your question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 5, 2020 at 8:10
  • @PhilipKlöcking Ah sorry I should have provided that. It is a paper in the Mind journal, called "Understanding as a source of justification" by Horvath. It is a response to Williamson's challenge that understanding cannot be a source of justification since two experts may have complete understanding of what is at hand but still disagree Nov 5, 2020 at 8:19
  • It uses the standard meaning of "second order", second order dispositions are dispositions to have certain first order dispositions.
    – Conifold
    Nov 5, 2020 at 8:37
  • @Conifold so the second order dispositions are grounding the first order dispositions? Could you please give an example of second order disposition grounding the first order disposition like that? Nov 5, 2020 at 8:38
  • Magnetic is a first order disposition (of metals), and magnetizable is a second order disposition.
    – Conifold
    Nov 5, 2020 at 8:47

2 Answers 2


I would like to base this answer on Baßler's analysis of Dennett's arguments about qualia being misidentified dispositions since he is on spot as far as descriptions and definitions go (see Baßler, David H. (2015): Qualia explained away: A Commentary on Daniel C. Dennett, in: T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds). Open MIND: 10(C). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group. doi: 10.15502/9783958570542 ).

First, let us be clear what "first-order dispositions" are:

These are behavioural dispositions, e.g. "the disposition to cuddle a baby" (p. 3). They depend upon the perception of certain properties of an object. I flee when I see a predator, produce saliva when I smell a delicious meal, etc. Generally, they are the classical stimulus-response model of behaviourism: There is a stimulus and there are dispositions to respond to that stimulus with a behaviour (I think I have read somewhere that there are not more than six different responses possible to a given, distinct stimulus at that neuronal level - most of the times though, this is a direct stimulus-response relation). Baßler calls this basic premise "our Bayesian brains" (p. 6).

To get a first grip on what a second-order disposition may be, consider the following, related description:

Intentional systems can be further categorized by looking at the content of their beliefs,e.g., a second-order intentional system is an intentional system that has beliefs and/or desires about beliefs and/or desires, that is, it is itself able to take an intentional stance towards objects (Dennett 1987, p. 243). A first-order intentional system has (or can be described as having) beliefs and desires; a second-order intentional system can ascribe beliefs to others and itself. If something is a second-order intentional system it harbors beliefs such as “Peggy believes that there’s cheese in the fridge”. (p. 6)

The same can be said for dispositions: I can have the disposition to become insecure because I perceive/ascribe a disposition in another person to be aggressive, for example. Or I can have the disposition of grabbing the last piece of cake although I haven't finished the one in front of me because of the disposition of my sibling to eat faster than I do and claim it for themselves as soon as they have finished.

This is not limited to the perception or ascription of dispositions in/to others, though. I can regulate my own behaviour in the same way. For example, I could have the disposition to breathe calmly three times because I perceive the disposition of me becoming aggressive (or fearsome) in a situation like the one I am currently in.

In other words: Second-order dispositions are behavioural dispositions to react in a certain way to (first-order) dispositions that are relevant to my behaviour in a given situation. Instead of directly acting upon my first-order dispositions, there can be other, overlying dispositions that are deemed more important in a given situation:

As noted in Dennett (2010), self-monitoring, in the sense of monitoring of our dispositions, values, etc., isn’t needed unless one needs to communicate and to hide and share specific information about oneself at will. (p.4, bolded mine)

In the end, it comes down to an attempt to describe our ability not to act directly upon general behavioural dispositions. This is not exclusive to humans. Ravens can do this as well (see Thomas Bugnyar and Bernd Heinrich (2005: Ravens, Corvus corax, differentiate between knowledgeable and ignorant competitors, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 272, 1641-1646 doi: 10.1098/rspb.2005.314 )

In this paper, they had the following design: One raven observes where the food is hidden and others join later. Now, the others eventually find out that wherever this raven flies to it finds food there. So the strongest starts to go there and claim the spot for itself. The twist comes when they allowed a raven who knows this to observe the hiding of the food: it fooled the strong raven by flying to a wrong place first before they go to the place they know the food is stored at. In other words: The raven hides its own disposition (of directly flying to the food and eat) because it knows about the other raven's disposition to claim the food for itself then: There emerges a second-order disposition to fly to a place where there actually is no food first so that they can get rid of the other raven, acting on dispositions that are based on other dispositions instead of acting on dispositions that are based directly on perceptions.


Short Answer

Much in the way a predicate about predicates is a second-order predicate, a second-order disposition is a disposition involving dispositions. This is an instance of what might be called 'conceptual self-reference' or 'recursive thinking'.

Long Answer

Let's make sure we have a good understanding of the term 'disposition' to help us disambiguate. A good place to start is SEP: Dispositions. From there:

A glass has certain dispositions, for example the disposition to shatter when struck. But what is this disposition? It seems on the one hand to be a perfectly real property, a genuine respect of similarity common to glasses, china cups, and anything else fragile. Yet on the other hand, the glass’s disposition seems mysterious, ‘ethereal’ (as Goodman (1954) put it) in a way that, say, its size and shape are not. For its disposition, it seems, has to do only with its possibly shattering in certain conditions. In general, it seems that nothing about the actual behaviour of an object is ever necessary for it to have the dispositions it has. Many objects differ from one another with respect to their dispositions in virtue of their merely possible behaviours, and this is a mysterious way for objects to differ.

So, in less technical language, a disposition is a tendency of something to do something generally under general conditions. This of course is very broad! Concretely, the disposition of a glass (the something) to shatter (to do something) when dropped (general condition) is a disposition.

Objects are dispositionally simple because they tend to have more reliable outcomes in the same general conditions. Think about a trial of dropping a glass 1,000 times. How likely is it to shatter? It's not deterministically forgone because if the physics aren't right or there are exceptions to the general condition, the glass won't break. For instance, perhaps a pillow falls from the couch at the moment the glass is about to strike tile and it is spared, or perhaps the borosilicate composition is such that it is shatter-resistant.

Most common objects are reliably dispositional. Dropping fragile objects onto hard surfaces leads to the same ends. But there is a class of entities that are much less amenable to such dispositional analysis: agents (SEP: Agency).

In very general terms, an agent is a being with the capacity to act, and ‘agency’ denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity. The philosophy of action provides us with a standard conception and a standard theory of action. The former construes action in terms of intentionality, the latter explains the intentionality of action in terms of causation by the agent’s mental states and events.

Simply put, an agent possesses a degree of SEP: intentionality which is generally understood that it can be "about" things around it, that it is aware of dispositions including intentionality of other agents. Thus, when one agent has dispositional awareness of another agent's dispositions, we have the second-order disposition.

Let's examine a game like poker where agents compete against each other with randomized cards with game-theoretic means to achieve the goal of winning. While your opponent may know the rules and even the probabilistic frequency of the cards, one element involved in poker is the ability to bluff. This where is meta-dispositional thinking comes in handy.

For example, you know your opponent isn't good at lying and has "tells". For weeks, you may be able to "read" your opponent, and you repeatedly win the game. But after reading a book on tells and lying, she suddenly understands privately the mistakes she has been making. Now, she might, in her bid to win (both), understand that you have the disposition of betting as if she isn't good at lying and has tells. She may now cleverly PRETEND she is no longer good at lying and use her tells consciously to win. This is her new disposition about your dispositions. A second-order disposition (or third-order if her disposition is about your disposition about her dispositions, and so on.)

Of course, the understanding of meta-dispositional thinking is critically important from a game-theoretic perspective. National security is based on the use of intelligence and counterintelligence. Allowing one of your intelligence assets in the field who is compromised to continue operating as a backchannel to the enemy may be more useful as a channel for introducing disinformation directly to their handler. Note, that this relies on a second-order disposition. The handler may be working from and acting on the dispositions of the compromised asset. Thus a handler's dispositions are derived from the dispositions of the double-agent, and your dispositions are second-order relative to the presumed dispositions of the double-agent's handler.

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