views updated May 29 2018


The term "intentionality" was used by Jeremy Bentham to distinguish between actions that are intentional and those that are not. It was reintroduced by Edmund Husserl in connection with certain doctrines set forth in Franz Brentano's Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt (1874). The word is now used primarily in this second sense.

Brentano wrote:

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (and also mental) inexistence of an object, and what we would call, although not in entirely unambiguous terms, the reference to a content, a direction upon an object (by which we are not to understand a reality ), or an immanent objectivity. Each one includes something as an object within itself, although not always in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love [something is] loved, in hate [something] is hated, in desire something is desired, etc.

This intentional inexistence is exclusively characteristic of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon manifests anything similar. Consequently, we can define mental phenomena by saying that they are such phenomena as include an object intentionally within themselves. (Op. cit., Vol. I, Book II, Ch. 1)

This passage contains two different theses: one, an ontological thesis about the nature of certain objects of thought and of other psychological attitudes; the other, a psychological thesis, implying that reference to an object is what distinguishes the mental or psychological from the physical. These two theses are the subject matter of the present article. It should be noted, however, that "intentionality" is also used in connection with certain other related theses of phenomenology and existentialism.

Intentional Inexistence

The problem that gave rise to the ontological thesis of intentional inexistence may be suggested by asking what is involved in having thoughts, beliefs, desires, purposes, or other intentional attitudes, which are directed upon objects that do not exist. There is a distinction between a man who is thinking about a unicorn and a man who is thinking about nothing; in the former case, the man is intentionally related to an object, but in the latter case he is not. What, then, is the status of this object? It cannot be an actual unicorn, since there are no unicorns. According to the doctrine of intentional inexistence, the object of the thought about a unicorn is a unicorn, but a unicorn with a mode of being (intentional inexistence, immanent objectivity, or existence in the understanding) that is short of actuality but more than nothingness and that, according to most versions of the doctrine, lasts for just the length of time that the unicorn is thought about.

early theories

St. Anselm's ontological argument was thus based upon the assumption that, if God is thought about, he thereby "exists in the understanding." Anselm then proceeded to contrast the perfections of that which "exists in the understanding alone" with that which "exists in reality." Peter Aureol and William of Ockham contrasted the intentional existence of the objects of thought with the subjective existence of the thoughts themselves. The term "objective existence," referring to the existence of something as an object of thought, was used by medieval philosophers and by René Descartes as a synonym for "intentional existence"; Descartes thus contrasted the formal, or subjective, existence of actual objects with the objective existence in the mind of objects that are merely thought about. The terms objective and subjective, in these uses, had connotations quite different from those that they have now; that which was said to have objective existence (for instance, a unicorn as an object of thought), unlike that which had subjective existence (the idea of a unicorn, for instance), need not exist in fact.

Advantage of the doctrine

The doctrine of intentional existence, or, as Brentano called it, intentional inexistence, had at least the advantage of providing a literal interpretation for the dictum that truth consists in a kind of correspondence between mind and thing: an affirmative judgment is true if the properties of the intentional object are the same as those of the actual object. The very statement of this advantage, however, betrays the fact that the judgment is directed, not upon the intentional object, but upon the actual object, in which case, as Pierre Gassendi pointed out, the intentional object would seem to be superfluous.

Intentional reference

The difficulty of the apparent superfluity of the intentional object may be traced, in part, to the fact that the phenomenon of intentionality has two sides. Our intentional attitudes may be directed upon objects that do not exist (Diogenes looked for an honest man), but they may also be directed upon objects that do exist (there is a certain dishonest man whom the police happen to be looking for). The object of the latter quest, obviously, is not a thing having only immanent or intentional existence. But this is also true, as Brentano was later to point out, of the object of the former quest: Diogenes was not looking for an immanent object (for, if the doctrine of intentional inexistence were true, he already had one in his mind); he was looking for an actual, existing honest man, despite the fact that, as we may suppose, no such man exists. Thus, Brentano said, "If we think about a horse, the object of our contemplation is a horse and not a contemplated horse."

In the expression of the ontological thesis of intentionality, "intentional" may be said to refer to a mode of being within the mind; but in the expression of the psychological thesis of intentionality, "intentional" is used to describe the direction upon objects that may exist outside the mind. It is not inaccurate to say that intentional entities were posited in the attempt to account for intentional reference, but precisely because they were intentional, the attempt did not succeed. Husserl said, in the fifth of his Logische Untersuchungen, that the objects of our intentional experiences are never immanentnever intentional objectsbut are always transcendent.

brentano's later views

Thus, for various reasons Brentano abandoned the ontological part of his doctrine of intentionality. In his later writings, he said that "unicorn" in the sentence "John is thinking about a unicorn" has no referential function; a contemplated unicorn is not a type of unicorn. "Unicorn," in such sentences, is used syncate-gorematically to contribute to the description of the person who is said to have a unicorn as the object of his thought. But this conclusion seems to leave us with our problem. The statement "John is thinking about a unicorn" does not describe John as a unicorn; how, then, does "unicorn" serve to contribute to his description?

The ontological problem, therefore, may be said to survive in the question, "How are we using 'unicorn' in 'John believes that there are unicorns'?" There is a temptation to say that the use of "unicorn" in such sentences has no connection at all with the use it would have in "There are unicorns." That this would be false, however, may be seen by noting that "John believes that there are unicorns" and "All of John's beliefs are true" together imply "There are unicorns." Thus, Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked:

One may have the feeling that in the sentence "I expect he is coming" one is using the words "he is coming" in a different sense from the one they have in the assertion "He is coming." But if it were so, how could I say that my expectation had been fulfilled? If I wanted to explain the words "he" and "is coming," say by means of ostensive definitions, the same definitions of these words would go for both sentences. (Philosophical Investigations, p. 130e)

carnap's theory

In the Logical Syntax of Language (London, 1937), Rudolf Carnap suggested that linguistic entities are the objects of our intentional attitudes. "Charles thinks (asserts, believes, wonders about) A," he said, might be translated as "Charles thinks 'A.'" Taken literally, this suggestion would imply, falsely, that a man who wonders whether there are unicorns is a man who wonders whether there is the word unicorns.

inscriptional theory

A closely related view has been developed by W. V. Quine and Israel Scheffler. These authors, however, instead of saying that our intentional attitudes have linguistic entities as their objects, suggest instead that certain sentences, which relate people to words or to other linguistic entities, might be used to perform all of the functions of intentional sentences; if this view were adequate, the problem of the status of the intentional object might be avoided. Thus, "John believes-true a Socrates-is-mortal inscription" may be interpreted as a sentence affirming a certain relation to hold between John and a linguistic entity or "inscription," but a relation that is true only under the conditions under which "John believes that Socrates is mortal" is true; hence, if we use the former sentence instead of the latter, we relate John only to inscriptions.

However, it may be held (1) that the plausibility of this approach depends upon the assumption that there are certain semantic sentences (for instance, "The German sentence 'Sokrates ist sterblich ' means that Socrates is mortal") that are true of certain inscriptions and (2) that these semantic sentences are abbreviations for intentional sentences that leave us with our original problem (for instance, "German-speaking people use 'Sokrates ist sterblich ' to express and convey the belief that Socrates is mortal").

This inscriptional approach, moreover, fails to distinguish between such sentences as "Someone is looking for a horse" and "There is a horse that someone is looking for"; these two types of sentence, as noted above, reflect the two different sides of the phenomenon of intentionality. It has been suggested that sentences of the latter sort may be illegitimate, on the ground that they quantify, in effect, into contexts that are referentially opaque, in a sense explained below. To say that such intentional sentences are illegitimate is to imply that the mind is incapable of referring to objects that exist and, hence, that we cannot "get outside the circle of our own ideas."

response theory

There have been still other approaches to the problem of the intentional object. Some of the American New Realists proposed, behavioristically, that to think about a unicorn might merely be to "put one's unicorn responses in readiness." The thinker, instead of relating himself to unicorns, disposes himself to behave in just those ways in which he would behave if there were unicorns. Other psychological attitudes were treated analogously. It would seem, however, that "unicorn responses" cannot be adequately specified except by reference to beliefs and desires that are directed upon unicorns, since the ways in which a man would respond to a unicorn would be, in part, a function of what he otherwise perceives, desires, and believes. More recent revivals of the specific-response theory seem to be subject to similar difficulties.

church's view

Alonzo Church, in his Introduction to Mathematical Logic (Princeton, NJ, 1956), proposed that the sentence "Schliemann sought the site of Troy" asserts that a certain relation holds between Schliemann and the concept of the site of Troy; Church said, negatively, that the relation is "not quite like that of having sought," but he did not say more positively what it is. This view suggests a return to the medieval doctrine, at least to the extent of viewing the objects of our intentional attitudes as beings of reason.

analogical theory

Thomas Aquinas seems to have held that "unicorn," in such sentences as "John is thinking about a unicorn," is used analogically (De Potentia 7c; Summa Theologiae 1, 13, 10). There is ground for questioning whether the doctrine of analogical predication is itself sufficiently illuminating to throw light upon the problem of intentionality, but the fact that we can understand the use of "unicorn" and cannot say just what function the word there performs may, on the other hand, throw some light upon the doctrine.

The most plausible defense of the doctrine of intentional inexistence, therefore, would seem to be that this doctrine, unlike most of its alternatives, does provide us with a straightforward account of the use of "unicorn" in "John is thinking about a unicorn": The word is being used simply to designate a unicorn.

Psychological Thesis of Intentionality

According to Brentano's second thesis, intentionality is peculiar to psychological phenomena and thus provides a criterion by means of which the mental may be distinguished from the nonmental. The problem for the proponent of this second thesis is not so much that of showing that mental phenomena are intentional as it is that of showing that physical phenomena are not intentional. Some now believe that the thesis can be defended by reference to the language we use in describing psychological phenomenathat the sentences we must use in describing psychological phenomena have certain logical properties that are not shared by any of the sentences we must use in describing nonpsychological phenomena, and that these properties are correctly called intentional. If this view is true, then the basic thesis of physicalism and the unity of science is false. Can we find, then, a logical criterion of the intentional, one that we may then use to distinguish the mental from the physical?

unsatisfactory criteria of intentionality

It has been suggested that failure of existential generalization yields a logical criterion of the intentional. The intentional "John is thinking about a horse," unlike the nonintentional "John is riding on a horse," does not imply that there are horses. However, existential generalization also fails in application to some of the terms in the following statements that describe physical phenomena: "New Zealand is devoid of unicorns," "That lady resembles a mermaid," and "The dam is high enough to prevent any future floods."

Nonextensional occurrence has also been proposed as a possible criterion of the intentional. A phrase, p, may be said to occur nonextensionally in a sentence, s, provided that the result of replacing p in s by any phrase having the same truth value as p will be a sentence having the same truth value as s. Thus, "Johnson is Kennedy's successor" may replace "Socrates was a philosopher" in "Either Socrates was a god or Socrates was a philosopher," without altering the truth value of the whole, whereas similar replacement is not possible in "Plato believed that Socrates was a philosopher." Nonextensional occurrence, however, is not peculiar to sentences that are intentional; compare "It is necessarily true that if Socrates was a member of the class of philosophers, then Socrates was a philosopher."

Referential opacity has also been proposed as a criterion of the intentional. The occurrence of a substantival expression in a sentence, s (for instance, "Truman's successor" in "Joe Martin believed that Dewey would be Truman's successor"), is referentially opaque if its replacement in s by another substantival expression (such as "Eisenhower") designating the same individual may result in a sentence having a truth value different from that of s. However, referential opacity is not peculiar to the intentional; we may assert "It is necessarily true that if Dewey was Truman's successor, then Dewey was Truman's successor," but not "It is necessarily true that if Dewey was Truman's successor, then Dewey was Eisenhower."

satisfactory criteria

The failure of nonextensional occurrence and referential opacity has led some to believe that there are no logical characteristics peculiar to intentional statements. However, there are other criteria that do seem to be satisfied only by intentional statements. We may mention two.

Let us refine upon ordinary English in the following way: instead of writing propositional clauses as "that" clauses, we will eliminate the "that" and put the remainder of the clause in parentheses; for example, instead of writing "John believes that there are men," we will write "John believes (there are men)." A simple sentence prefix may be said to be an expression that contains no proper part that is logically equivalent to a sentence or to a sentence function and that is such that the result of prefixing it to a sentence in parentheses is another sentence. We may say that a simple sentence prefix, M, is intentional if, for every sentence p, M (p ) is logically contingent. Thus, "it is impossible" is not intentional, since when prefixed to "(some squares are circles)," it yields a sentence that is necessary and therefore not contingent; "it is right" is not intentional since, when prefixed to "(there is not anything of which it can be truly said that it is right)," it yields a sentence that is contradictory and therefore not logically contingent.

However, every sentence, whether it is itself contingent or not, is such that the result of thus prefixing it by "John believes" is contingent. Similar observations apply to "John questions," "John desires," and to other prefixes referring to intentional attitudes. Thus, we might say that the psychological differs from the nonpsychological in this respect: an adequate description of the psychological requires the use of intentional prefixes.

It may also be argued that some intentional prefixes (for instance, "John believes") are such that the possible ways of inserting them into a universally quantified sentence (for instance, into "For every x, x is material") and into the corresponding existentially quantified sentence ("There exists an x such that x is material") yield four statements ("John believes that, for every x, x is material"; "For every x, John believes that x is material"; "John believes that there exists an x such that x is material"; and "There exists an x such that John believes that x is material") that are logically related in ways in which no corresponding sentences with nonintentional prefixes are related. Thus, it may be said of the four sentences just cited: Neither the first nor the third implies any of the others; the second implies all but the first; the fourth implies the third but does not imply either the first or the second; and there is no nonintentional prefix that will yield four sentences that are similarly related. This contention, to the extent that it applies to "John believes," is based upon the assumptions that in believing a thing to have certain properties, one thereby believes that the thing exists; that one may believe falsely, of some nonuniversal set of things (some set comprising less than everything there is), that it comprises everything there is; and that one may believe falsely, of a universal set of things, that it does not comprise everything there is.

There are other psychological sentencesfor instance, "He is in pain" and "He is thinking about Jupiter"that may not satisfy the above criteria of intentionality. The first of these sentences, however, might be said to be intentional if, as some believe, one cannot be in pain if one is not aware that one is in pain; or if one does not believe that one is in pain; or if, at any one instant, one does not remember the pain of previous instants; and analogously for the second quoted sentence. Another possible view, however, is to say that intentionality is at least a sufficient if not a necessary condition of the psychological.

See also Anselm, St.; Bentham, Jeremy; Brentano, Franz; Carnap, Rudolf; Church, Alonzo; Existentialism; Gassendi, Pierre; Husserl, Edmund; Language and Thought; Meaning; New Realism; Nonexistent Object, Nonbeing; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Peter Aureol; Phenomenology; Philosophy of Mind; Physicalism; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Reference; Thomas Aquinas, St.; William of Ockham; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


Brentano, Franz. "The Distinction between Mental and Physical Phenomena." Translated by D. B. Terrell, in Realism and the Background of Phenomenology, edited by R. M. Chisholm, 3961. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960. Translation of part of Vol. I, Book II, Ch. 1 of Brentano's Psychologie.

Brentano, Franz. Kategorienlehre. Leipzig: F. Meiner, 1933.

Brentano, Franz. Psychologic vom empirischen Standpunkt. Vienna, 1874; 3rd ed., Leipzig, 1925.

Chisholm, R. M. "Notes on the Logic of Believing." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 24 (1963): 195201.

Chisholm, R. M. Perceiving: A Philosophical Study. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1957.

Hayen, André. L'intentionnel selon saint Thomas, 2nd ed. Paris, 1954.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Halle, Germany: Niemeyer, 1913. Translated by W. R. Boyce Gibson as Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. New York: Macmillan, 1931.

Husserl, Edmund. Logische Untersuchungen, 4th ed. Halle, Germany, 1928.

Quine, W. V. "Quantifiers and Propositional Attitudes." Journal of Philosophy 53 (1956): 177187.

Quine, W. V. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1960.

Scheffler, Israel. The Anatomy of Inquiry. New York: Knopf, 1963.

Sellars, Wilfrid, and R. M. Chisholm. "Intentionality and the Mental." In Concepts, Theories, and the Mind-Body Problem, edited by H. Feigl, M. Scriven, and G. Maxwell, 507539. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958.

Spiegelberg, Herbert. "Der Begriff der Intentionalität in der Scholastik, bei Brentano, und bei Husserl." Philosophische Hefte 5 (1936): 7591.

Roderick M. Chisholm (1967)


views updated Jun 11 2018


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 H2O 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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Brentano, Franz Clemens. Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt. Leipzig: Dunker and Humblot, 1874. Published in English as Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. Excerpted in Chalmers, 2002.

Burge, T. "Individualism and the Mental." In Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Vol. 4. Edited by P. French, T. Uehling, and H. Wettstein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. Reprinted in Rosenthal, 1991.

Chalmers, David J. The Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Chisholm, R. Perceiving: A Philosophical Study. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1957. Excerpted in Chalmers, 2002, and Rosenthal, 1991.

, ed. Realism and the Background of Phenomenology. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960.

Chisholm, R., and W. Sellars. "Intentionality and the Mental." In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 2. Edited by H. Feigl, M. Scriven, and G. Maxwell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958.

Crane, Tim. The Mechanical Mind: A Philosophical Introduction to Minds, Machines, and Mental Representation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2003.

Dreyfus, Hubert, ed., in collaboration with Harrison Hall. Husserl, Intentionality, and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982.

Husserl, Edmund. Logische Untersuchungen. 2 vols. Halle: Max Niemayer, 1900. Published in English as Logical Investigations. Translated by J. N. Findlay. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Putnam, Hilary. "The Meaning of 'Meaning.'" In Mind, Language, and Reality. Vol. 2 of Philosophical Papers. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Excerpted in Chalmers, 2002.

O'Connor, Timothy, and David Robb, eds. Philosophy of Mind: Contemporary Readings. London: Routledge, 2003.

Rosenthal, David M., ed. The Nature of Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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Searle, John R. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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John R. Searle


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A term, modern in coinage but medieval in inspiration, used by Franz brentano to designate what he took to be the distinctive feature of mental, as contrasted with physical, phenomenathe feature, namely, of being of or about an object. An idea, for example, would not be an idea unless it were an idea of something. And the same goes, Brentano thought, not merely for concepts, images, sensations, etc., but also for feelings and emotions, hopes, fears, desires, etc. Although intentionality is thus comparatively recent as a technical term in philosophy, its manifest derivation is from the ancient scholastic term intentio. Indeed, the sense of both terms is suggested by their etymology, which refers to something that by its very nature tends toward, or is aimed at, something else. As St. thomas aquinas defines it: "intention, as the name itself indicates, means to tend toward something" (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 12.1).

So understood, there is no reason why intentionality should not be manifested in any number of different contexts or domains: in that of ethics, insofar as moral agents intend or mean to do what they do; in that of logic or epistemology, insofar as images and concepts are necessarily always images and concepts of something, and statements, propositions and arguments are always about something; and despite Brentano, even in the physical realm, insofar as active potencies in things may be considered as tendencies toward something, or the causes of things as tending toward their effects.

The ordinary, as contrasted with the technical, use of intention is confined almost exclusively to ethical contexts. "Sir, hell is paved with good intentions!" Dr. Johnson remarked. And somewhat more technically, St. Thomas seems to understand an intention as any conscious aiming at a goal or an end (confer, ST 1a2ae, 12).

Avicenna and the Scholastics. In its less common logical use, the term intentio became current in scholastic philosophy after the translation of the works of avicen na into Latin (see Kneale, 229230; Spiegelberg, "Begriff," 77). aristotle in both the De anima and the De interpretatione had sought to explain cognition in terms of the reception of forms into the soul. Such formsas, for example, the form of yellow or that of horseonce they were received into the soul, could then function as meanings or notions of yellow or of horse. The form in the soul, that is to say, was simply a meaning or a cognition or an intention of the same form in reality. Indeed, it was Avicenna's Arabic term for such meanings and intentions that came to be tendered in Latin as intentio.

A further development, again traceable to Avicenna, was the distinction between first and second intentions. For even supposing that the forms received in the soul, for example, yellow and horse, are, as forms, indistinguishable from the forms of yellow or of horse as existing in things in the real world, still the conditions and circumstances of their existence in the soul are different from what they are in reality. As a concept in the mind, yellow can be a predicate of a proposition, a species of a genus, a universal, a middle term of a syllogism, etc.; but as it exists in particular things, yellow is certainly not a predicate or a middle term or a species of a genus or even a universal (though this last exclusion was hotly and variously debated between nominalists and realists).

Moreover, it was considerations of just this sort that provided the scholastics with the means for distinguishing logic from other disciplines. For in sciences other than logic the concern is presumably with the natures and characters of things in the real world. Hence the intentions used in these sciences will be intentions such as yellow and horse, which signify or intend yellow and horse as real properties of real things. In logic, on the other hand, the concern is not with understanding the real world, but rather with understanding the logical means and instruments of such understanding. Hence the intentions used in logic will not be intentions of such things as yellow and horse, but rather intentions of intentions, or second intentionsthat is, such intentions as yellow and horse, insofar as these function as subjects or predicates, as genera or species, as terms in a syllogism and generally as logical devices employed in acts of knowing. (For a comparison and contrast of this medieval conception of logic in terms of second intentions with the modern conception of logic in terms of so-called logical forms and formal truths, see Veatch).

However, it is not just the logician who concerns himself with forms in the soul; in addition, the very fact that such forms come to be or exist in the soul means that they become proper objects of investigation for both psy chology and what, in modern philosophy, has come to be known as epistemology. Thus, for example, when the form yellow is received in a physical or material object, the object itself becomes yellow; however, when such a form is received intentionally in the soul, the soul does not become yellow. What, then, is the status and condition of such a form as it exists intentionally?

Thomas Aquinas. According to St. Thomas, such an intentionally received form is an intelligible species, in that through it the real form is rendered, as it were, perspicuous (see species, intentional). So also, the form that is intentionally received may be considered to be a similitudo of the real form existing in the world. At the same time, this Thomistic doctrine of the likeness of the form in the soul to the form in the real world must not be construed in the manner of the various copy theories of modern epistemology.

For one thing, even if the form in the soul be a similitudo, or copy, of the form in reality, still, in the act of cognition, the human being does not first come to know the copy (the form in the soul) and then somehow infer the original (the form in reality). Rather it is through the intentionally received form, as a similitudo or an intentio of the real form, that the latter comes to be known. As St. Thomas put it, the likeness or the intelligible species in the intellect is the id quo, not the id quod, of knowledge (ST 1a, 85.2).

For another thing, St. Thomas, at least in one of his earlier works, the De ente et essentia, worked out an account of forms or essences of things according to which the form in the soul, in at least one fundamental respect (namely, formally or essentially, though not numerically), is the very form that is in things. This is possible, St. Thomas holds, because a form or an essence, or that in virtue of which things are what they are, is in and of itself neither universal and so a product of abstraction (as it is when it is a species or an intention in the intellect) nor particular and individual (as it is when existing in many different individual things in the real world). Consequently, when one says, "Peter is a man," Peter is certainly an individual, and the predicate concept "man" is certainly a universal. Yet in saying that what Peter is is a man, one is not saying that he is a universal. True, one uses the universal concept of intention in the intellect in order to know what Peter is; but what one thus comes to know him to be is not anything universal.

And so likewise, in saying of Peter just what he, the individual, is, one does not thereby restrict his human nature or essence, or what he is, to Peter alone. On the contrary, it is still through and only through a universal predicate conceptthat is, through an intention or likeness or species in the soul, which is nonetheless universalthat one comes to know what Peter, the individual, is. In other words, in saying that what Peter is, is a man, one no more turns human nature into an individual than he turns Peter into a universal.

And all this is made possible by the fact that what Peter is, and more generally the forms or essences through which things are what they are, are in themselves neither universal nor particular, neither one nor many. So it is that the same form, which happens to be a universal intention or likeness or species of man in the mind, can come to be recognized as being the very form or essence of Peter in the real world, as being what the individual Peter is, in short.

Ockham. It is hardly surprising that both before and after St. Thomas, and in both scholastic and modern philosophy, the very puzzling notion of the form in the soul, of the form as an intentio or similitudo or species of the real form, should have occasioned no little discussion. william of ockham, for example, seems to have moved from an earlier position in which he regarded forms existing intentionally in the soul as in some sense fictive or "objective" beings, to a position in which he repudiated all such purely intentional beings, or beings that exist as mere objects before the mind and that function simply as means through which real forms come to be known. Instead, his final doctrine seems to have been that the psychological act of understanding itself suffices for a direct and immediate signifying or intending of the real forms in things (see Boehner, 146147).

Brentano, Meinong, and Husserl. In contrast, in modern times and with respect to much the same issue, Brentano seems to have taken a stand that could be interpreted as almost the opposite of that of Ockham. Impressed as all modern thinkers have been by epistemological problems, Brentanoif one were to formulate his position not in his own, but in scholastic, termsinsists that there are intentions in the soul and that all intentions are necessarily intentions of objects. But such objects of intentions, considered as such, are not the real forms of things, but only forms in the mind. Or, put in another way, every intention has an object, but considered simply as an object of an intention, such an object does not have to be anything extramental. Accordingly, Brentano can speak of "the intentional (and also mental) inexistence (Inexistenz ) of an object (Gegenstand ), and what we could call, although in not entirely unambiguous terms, the reference to a content, a direction upon an object (by which we are not to understand a reality in this case), or an immanent objectivity" (Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt; see Chisholm, 50).

This same stress upon the merely objective being of intentions is found in both A. Meinong and E. husserl. Meinong, indeed, proliferates a vast realm of such objects of intention, peopling it with golden mountains, round squares, et al. And Husserl, in order to bring his method of phenomenological description properly to bear on the objects of intentions, insists that one must, as he puts it, simply "bracket" the question of the existence or nonexistence of such objects in the real world. Nevertheless, with Husserl there does seem to be a marked shift in emphasis from what one finds in Brentano. Rather than with the object of intention and the peculiar kind of existence or "inexistence" that such objects have, Husserl occupied himself more with intentional acts and with how such acts do not merely aim at their objects, but actually bring about the construction and constitution of their objects (see Spiegelberg, "Begriff," 8132, 8789).

Comparisons. But how are these more modern views regarding intentionality to be compared with St. Thomas's? Clearly, a comparison with Husserl is rendered difficult, if not impossible, to the extent that Husserl tends to regard intentional acts of the mind, such as thinking and perceiving, as actually constituting and building up their objects. Such a way of conceiving intentionality is so radically at variance with St. Thomas's basic realism, and is so thoroughly Kantian and post-Kantian in its inspiration, that one can scarcely imagine how St. Thomas might make rejoinder of it, short of a rebuttal of the entire Critique of Pure Reason.

On the other hand, with Brentano, one might imagine that, from St. Thomas's point of view, he is to be commended for insisting that in knowledge there is something on the order of a form actually present in the soul. Yet, at the same time, St. Thomas would surely insist that by making this received form the actual object of the intentio, Brentano and his followers had in effect confused the id quo of intentional reference with the id quod.

To be sure, St. Thomas seems not to have concerned himself particularly with the sort of epistemological consideration that is paramount with thinkers such as Brentano and Meinong. This is the consideration that the mere fact that one has intentions, and that intentions must and do have objects, does not as such give any warrant for inferring that such objects of intentions are either the same as, or similar to, objects existing in the real world. Nevertheless, St. Thomas's comparative indifference to this sort of epistemological problem may not have been a result of mere inadvertence. Instead, it needs always to be remembered that for him such things as forms or natures or essences are not, as such, either universal or particular, either mental or physical, either immanent or transcendent. Hence why suppose that, such forms or essences being upon occasion objects of intentions, they may therefore be no more than "immanent objects" and may possibly enjoy no more than an "intentional inexistence"? To suppose this would surely be, from St. Thomas's point of view, to create a problem where no problem exists. For on his account, a nature or form, even when it is a received form, does not have what the phenomenologists would call immanence attaching to it as an essential feature. But if the form be not essentially immanent, then the problem of its transcendence is not a problem, or at least is not the same problem as it was for Brentano and Meinong.

See Also: knowledge; knowledge, process of; knowledge, theories of; immateriality.

Bibliography: h. b. veatch, Intentional Logic (New Haven 1952). w. and m. kneale, The Development of Logic (Oxford 1962), ch. IV, sec. 3. p. boehner, Collected Articles on Ockham, ed., e. m. buytaert (St. Bonaventure, N.Y. 1958). e. a. moody, The Logic of William of Ockham (New York 1935). h. spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement, 2 v. (The Hague 1960); "Der Begriff der Intentionalität in der Scholastik, bei Brentano und bei Husserl," Philosophische Hefte, ed., m. beck, 5 v. (Berlin 192836) 5:7291. Realism and the Background of Phenomenology, ed., r. m. chisholm, (Glentoe, Ill. 1961).

[h. b. veatch]


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Intentionality (Intentionalität): see PHENOMENOLOGY.

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