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Intentionality is that feature of many mental states by which they are directed at or about or of objects and states of affairs in the world. So, for example, if I have a belief, it must be a belief that such and such is the case. If I have a desire, it must be the desire that such and such should be the case. If I have an intention, it must be the intention that I do something. Intentionality is a technical term not to be confused with the ordinary English words intend and intentional. Intending in the sense of intending to do something is just one kind of intentionality, along with hunger, thirst, belief, desire, fear, hope, pride, shame, love, hate, perception, memory, and so on.

Intentionality and Its History

The concept of "intentionality" in this modern sense was reintroduced into philosophy by Franz Brentano (1874), who took the notion from the medieval scholastics. Brentano used the German expression Intentionalität, derived from the medieval Latin intentio, which meant what we nowadays call an intension or concept and which comes from the classical Latin tendere, meaning to aim at something. Brentano thought that intentionality was "the mark of the mental," and because he thought that intentionality could not be reduced to anything physical, dualism seemed to follow; a world of intentional phenomena, the mind, is distinct from the world of physical phenomena.

Edmund Husserl (1900), a student of Brentano and the inventor of phenomenology, made the investigation of intentionality his main philosophical project. Husserl's method was to suspend the assumption that there is a real world on the other side of our mental acts (this suspension he called the époche, or phenomenological reduction) and examine the structure of and thus the intentionality of the acts themselves (this structure he called the noema, plural noemata ). In Anglo-American philosophy, the topic of intentionality was introduced in large part by Roderick Chisholm (1957). Chisholm was influenced by Brentano and attempted to produce a linguistic criterion of intentionality. In addition to his writings on the subject, he edited a collection of works by Brentano, Husserl, and others (Chisholm, 1960) and conducted a lengthy published correspondence on the topic with Wilfrid Sellars (Chisholm and Sellars, 1958).

Two Mistaken Theories of Intentionality

In his early work, Brentano thought that every intentional state must have an intentional object. If, for example, I believe that the mail carrier arrives at 11 a.m., then it seems that the object of my belief is the mail carrier. But what is the intentional object when a child believes that Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve? There is no such person as Santa Claus, so what is the child's belief directed at? Brentano thought that to provide an intentional object in such cases, we have to postulate it inside the intentional state itself. Brentano called this mode of existence "intentional inexistence." This is an error. The statement, "Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve" has a meaning but does not thereby succeed in referring to Santa Claus because there is no such thing to refer to; and likewise the belief that Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve has an intentional content but does not have an intentional object. Brentano was confusing intentional content with intentional object. By definition every intentional state has an intentional content but not every intentional state has an intentional object. An intentional state has an intentional object only if something fits or satisfies the intentional content.

A second error is to suppose that there is some essential connection between intentionality with a "t" and intensionality with an "s." Intensionality with an "s" is a property of sentences by which they fail certain tests for extensionality. The most famous test is called "Leibnitz's law" or the "substitutability of identicals." If two expressions refer to the same object, then one can be substituted for the other, without loss or change of truth value. Thus, if a equals b, and a has property F, then b has property F. But for some sentences about intentional states, this law does not hold. So, for example:

1. Sam believes that Caesar crossed the Rubicon; and

2. Caesar is identical with Mark Anthony's best friend;

do not imply that:

3. Sam believes that Mark Anthony's best friend crossed the Rubicon;

because Sam might not know or might disbelieve that Caesar is Mark Anthony's best friend. The sentence about the intentional state is intensional with an "s" but it does not follow from this that the state itself is intensional with an "s." Chisholm and others have tried to make the intensionality of sentences about intentional states into a criterion of intentionality and thus make intentionality seem to be a linguistic phenomenon. But the effort failed. There are intensional sentences that do not report intentionality and reports of intentionality that are not intensional. For example, 4 is intensional but not about intentionality:

4. Necessarily, 9 is greater than 7;

5. The number of planets equals 9.

But it does not follow that:

6. Necessarily the number of planets is greater than 7.

Sentence 7 is about intentionality but is not intensional.

7. Sam saw the Eiffel Tower; and

8. The Eiffel Tower is the tallest iron structure in Paris.

do imply:

9. Sam saw the tallest iron structure in Paris;

even if Sam does not know the truth of 8.

If intensionality is not a sure test for intentionality, what then is the relation between them? Sam's belief that Caesar crossed the Rubicon represents the state of affairs that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. But the report of Sam's belief does not represent that state of affairs; rather it reports what is going on in Sam's head. The report is a representation of a representation. So the truth of the report requires that the way that Sam represents Caesar be truly reported, and hence substitution fails, for the substitution of a different representation may not truly report what is in Sam's head (Searle, 1983).

The Relation of Intentionality to Consciousness

Every intentional state is mental, but not every conscious mental state is intentional. For example, one may have feelings of anxiety that do not have any intentional content. One is not anxious about any particular thing; one just has a general undirected feeling of anxiety. Such a state is conscious and therefore mental without being intentional. If Brentano was wrong that intentionality is the mark of the mental, this leads to the larger question: What exactly is the relation between intentionality and consciousness? The answer is that there is a very heavy overlap but the two are not coextensive. At any given point in my life, many of my intentional states are unconscious. For example, I can believe that in 2004 George W. Bush was president even when I am not thinking about it or when I am asleep. And many of my conscious states are not intentional, as, for example, the undirected anxiety that I mentioned above.

There does, however, seem to be a close connection between intentionality and consciousness in the following respect: Whenever someone has an intentional state that is unconscious, as when one is sound asleep, we understand it as that particular intentional state only in virtue of the fact that it is the kind of thing that can become conscious. A person might be unable to bring intentionality to consciousness because of being asleep or because of brain damage or repression, for example; but our understanding of an intentional state as a mental state is dependent on our being able to conceive of that state as occurring in consciousness.

The Irreducibility of Intentionality

For philosophers who reject dualism, intentionality, like consciousness, has always been an embarrassment. How is it possible in a purely physical world, in a world composed of physical particles in fields of force, that there could be such a thing as mental aboutness or directedness? Many philosophers think it is impossible, and they have made various efforts to reduce intentionality to some materialist basis or to eliminate it altogether. Hence in the behaviorist period in the philosophy of mind, many philosophers (e.g., Ryle, 1949) felt that having a state of belief or desire was simply a matter of being disposed to behave in certain ways under certain stimulus conditions. Later on, functionalist theories of mind (e.g., Armstrong, 1993) tried to analyze intentional states in terms of causal relations to input stimuli and external behavior. A more recent variation on functionalism is to try to identify intentional states with computational states. The idea of computationalism is that the brain is a digital computer and the intentional states are just states of the computer program (Crane, 2003).

All of these efforts fail because they try to reduce intentionality to something else. But it is not something else. I believe the way to avoid dualism while recognizing the reality and irreducibility of intentionality is to recognize that intentionality is a biological phenomenon like growth or photo-synthesis or digestion. If we ask the question in the abstract: How can an animal have a belief about some distant object? that may seem like an extremely difficult question, but if we ask the more directly biological question: How is it possible for an animal to see anything or to feel hungry or thirsty or frightened? then it does not seem so difficult. We can build more sophisticated forms of intentionality, such as belief and desire and imagination, on the more biological basic forms such as perception and intentional action.

The Structure of Intentionality

Four concepts are essential for understanding the structure and functioning of intentionality (Searle, 1983). First, the distinction between intentional content and psychological mode; second, the notion of direction of fit; third, the notions of conditions of satisfaction; and fourth, the holistic network of intentionality.

The distinction between intentional content and psychological mode.

Every intentional state consists of an intentional content in a certain psychological mode. You can see this clearly by keeping intentional content constant while varying the mode. Thus, I can believe that you will leave the room, wish that you will leave the room, and wonder whether you will leave the room. In each case the state consists of a propositional content, which we will represent by the variable p, in a certain psychological mode, which we will represent with an M. The structure, then, of these intentional states is M(p). Because the contents of these intentional states are entire propositions, they are sometimes called, following Bertrand Russell, "propositional attitudes." Not all intentional states have an entire proposition as their content, as one might simply admire George Washington, or love Sally Smith. Here the intentionality is directed at an object, but it does not have a whole propositional content. Its form is not M(p) but M(n).

Direction of fit.

The propositional content of the intentional state will relate to reality in different ways depending on the mode in which that content is presented. Thus beliefs, like statements, are supposed to be true, and they are true in virtue of the fact that they accurately represent some state of affairs in the world. They have what we can call the mind-to-world direction of fit, or responsibility of fitting. Desires and intentions, on the other hand, are not designed to represent how things are in fact but how we would like them to be or how we intend to make them be. Such intentional states have the world-to-mind direction of fit or the world-to-mind responsibility for fitting. Some intentional states take the preexisting fit for granted. Thus, for example, if I am sorry that I offended you or I am glad for your good fortune, in each case I take for granted the truth of the proposition that I offended you or that you have had good fortune, and I have an attitude about the state of affairs represented.

Conditions of satisfaction.

Where the intentional state does have a direction of fit, such as belief, desire, perception, or intention, we can say that the intentional state is a representation of its conditions of satisfaction. Just as the belief will be satisfied if and only if it is true, so the desire will be satisfied if and only if it is fulfilled, and the intention will be satisfied if and only if it is carried out.

The network of intentionality.

Intentional states do not come to us in isolated atoms but as part of a holistic network of intentionality. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of the emotions. In order, for example, that someone be angry at another person, he or she must have a set of beliefs and desires. He or she will typically believe the other person has done some harm, will desire that the harm had not been done, will desire to harm, or express disapproval of the person at whom he or she is angry, and so on. Intentional states do not come to us individually and do not function in an atomistic form, but rather one has one intentional state only in relation to other intentional states. This holistic network is essential even for the functioning of simple beliefs.

So, for example, one can believe that in 2004 George W. Bush was president of the United States only if one has a rather large number of other beliefs. One must believe at least a certain number of things such as that the United States is a republic, that it elects presidents, that its president serves for a certain number of years, that presidents have certain powers and responsibilities, and so on. One way to describe this feature is to say that any intentional state functions, it determines its conditions of satisfaction, only in relation to a network of other intentional states. Most philosophers today accept some form of holism as opposed to atomism. A controversial extension of holism is the view that the whole network functions only against a background of taken-for-granted abilities and presuppositions that are not themselves intentional (Searle, 1983).

The Determination of Intentional Content

Parallel to the question of how intentionality is possible at all is the question: How is it possible that intentional states have the particular content that they do? What makes my belief that in 2004 George W. Bush was president about George W. Bush, for example, and not about his brother, Jeb, or his father, George H. W. Bush, also named "George Bush," or about anything else?

There are two common answers to this in contemporary philosophy: a traditional answer called internalism, according to which the contents of the head are sufficient to fix intentional content; and a relatively recent answer (from the 1970s) called externalism, according to which the contents of the head are not sufficient. Some outside causal (Putnam, 1975) or social (Burge, 1979) relations not represented in the heads of intentional agents are also essential. The argument for externalism is always that two agents might have the same thing in their head and yet have different intentional contents. For example two agents might have the same thing in their heads associated with the word water, but if one agent had a causal history originating with H 2O and the other had a history originating in some different but perceptually similar chemical, they would have different contents associated with the word even though the brains states were identical.

The reply given to this by the internalists is that in such cases the intentional content is determined indexically by indicating relations to the head or heads in question. By water, each person means the type of substance that he is familiar with or that his community has baptized as water. The situation is exactly like identical twins, each of whom thinks, "I am hungry." The contents in their heads may be of exactly the same type, but they determine different intentional contents, because the same indexical expression "I" refers to different people. It refers to whoever utters or thinks it. On this view there is nothing external about indexical intentional content. Type identical intentional contents may have different conditions of satisfaction because of internal indexical content. The dispute between externalism and internalism is very much alive.

Intentional Causation

Explanations of human behavior rely essentially on the causal functioning of intentionality. When we say "Jones voted for the Republicans because he wanted lower taxes and believed the Republican candidate would produce lower taxes," we are giving a causal explanation in terms of the intentionality of desire and belief. This form of causal explanation is important not only in practical affairs but also in theoretical accounts of human behavior in the social sciences such as sociology, political science, and economics.

Such disciplines necessarily use an intentionalistic explanatory apparatus that is in several ways quite different from that of the natural sciences. First, in explanations appealing to intentional causation, the intentional content in the explanation must match the intentional content that is actually functioning causally in the mind of the agent. So the explanation, Jones "wanted lower taxes" must match Jones's desire: "I want lower taxes," and this content functions causally. This is quite unlike physics, where the content of the explanation reports a cause, such as gravity, but the content as content does not function causally. Second, explanations using intentional causation are subject to constraints of rationality in a way that physical forces are not. And third, typical intentionalistic explanations allow for free will in a way that is unlike explanations in classical physics. When I say the ball fell because of the force of gravity, the explanation is deterministic in the sense that given the forces acting on it, there is no other way the ball could have behaved. But if I say Jones voted for the Republicans because he wanted lower taxes, the explanation is not deterministic in form. It does not imply that Jones could not have acted otherwise in that situation.

Intentionality, along with consciousness, is the main problem in contemporary philosophy of mind, and under the name information processing, it is the main topic of cognitive science.

See also Causation ; Consciousness ; Philosophy .


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John R. Searle

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Intentionality (Intentionalität): see PHENOMENOLOGY.

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