DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V019-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

3. Intentionality as the mark of the mental

Thus, the notion of intensionality cannot provide a purely logical or semantic criterion of intentionality. We should be content with the psychological criterion: intentionality is the directedness of the mind upon something. As I remarked earlier, Brentano thought that intentionality was the mark of the mental: all and only mental phenomena exhibit intentionality. In discussing this claim – often called Brentano’s thesis – I shall follow analytic philosophers in ignoring Brentano’s own quasi-idealistic use of the term ’phenomenon’. Brentano’s thesis shall be taken as a thesis about the distinction between mental and physical entities in the world.

Is Brentano’s thesis true? We can divide this question into two sub-questions: (1) Do all mental states exhibit intentionality? (2) Do only mental states exhibit intentionality?

(1) It is natural at first sight to think that there are many kinds of mental state which do not have any intentionality. For instance, there are states like undirected anxiety, depression and elation (see Searle 1983: 2). On what are these states directed? Well, I can be anxious without being anxious about anything in particular – but this anxiety is at least directed at myself. Other popular examples of supposedly non-intentional mental states are sensations like pain. But while it may be true that pains are not propositional attitudes – if propositional attitudes are states reportable by sentences of the form ’X ϕs that p’, where ϕis a psychological verb – this does not mean that pains are not directed on anything. I could have two pains, one in each hand, which felt exactly the same, except that one felt to be in my right hand, and the other felt to be in my left hand. This is a difference in intentionality – in what the mental state is directed on – so it is not true that pains exhibit no intentionality (see Bodily sensations §2).

However, there are properties of pains which do seem to be wholly non-intentional, such as the naggingness of a toothache (see Qualia). And these properties seem to be essential to pains. This shows that the distinction we need is between those mental states whose whole nature is exhausted by their intentionality, and those whose whole nature is not. Pains are in the latter category, since they seem to have essential non-intentional properties: there are elements of pains which are not exhausted by whatever intentionality those pains may have.

(2) So much, then, for the idea that all mental states exhibit intentionality. But is intentionality only exhibited by mental states? That is: is it true that if something exhibits intentionality, then that thing is a mind? Are minds the only things in the world that have intentionality?

To hold that minds are not the only things that have intentionality, we need an example of something that has intentionality but does not have a mind. This may seem easy. Take books: books contains sentences which have meaning and are therefore directed at things other than themselves. But books do not have minds.

The natural reply to this is to say that the book’s sentences do not have intentionality in themselves – they do not have what some call ’original’ intentionality – but only because they are interpreted by the readers and writer of the book. The intentionality of the book’s sentences is derived from the original intentionality of the states of mind of the author and reader who interpret those sentences (for this distinction, see Haugeland 1990).

So we can reframe our question as follows: can anything other than minds exhibit original intentionality? One problem with this question is that if we encountered something that exhibited original intentionality, it is hard to see how it could be a further question whether that thing had a mind. The notion of intentionality is so closely bound up with mentality that it is hard to conceive of a genuine case of original intentionality that is not also a case of mentality. If, for example, we could establish that computers were capable of original intentionality, it would be natural to describe this as a case where a computer has a mind.

However, there is an interesting way in which original intentionality and mentality could come apart. Some philosophers want to locate the basis of intentionality among certain non-mental causal patterns in nature. So on this view, there would be a sense in which original intentionality is manifested by things other than minds. This is the hope of those philosophers who attempt to reduce the intentional to the non-intentional: the hope summed up by Jerry Fodor’s quip that ‘if aboutness is real, it must really be something else’ (Fodor 1987: 97).

These philosophers are in effect trying to steer a course between the two horns of the dilemma presented by the passage from Quine’s Word and Object quoted in §1: you can respond to the ChisholmBrentano thesis of the irreducibility of intentionality either by accepting an autonomous theory of intentionality and rejecting physicalism, or by denying the reality of intentionality. There are those who are eliminative materialists and who deny the reality of intentionality (see Eliminativism), and there are those who are prepared to accept intentionality as an unanalysed, primitive phenomenon. But the orthodox line among late twentieth-century analytic philosophers is to reconcile the existence of intentionality with a physicalist (or naturalist) world view. This reconciliation normally takes the form of a theory of content: a specification in non-intentional terms of the conditions under which an intentional state has the intentional content it does, or concerns the object(s) it does. A common style of theory of content spells out these conditions in terms of hypothesized law-like causal relations between intentional states and their objects. The model here is the simple kind of representation or meaning found in nature: the sense in which clouds mean rain, and smoke means fire (see Dretske 1980). Causal theories of content hope to explain how the intentionality of mental states is underpinned by simple regularities like these. These theories have had great difficulty accounting for misrepresentation and the normative elements of mental states, and it is this problem that has received most attention in contemporary discussions of intentionality (see Semantics, informational; Semantics, teleological).

Citing this article:
Crane, Tim. Intentionality as the mark of the mental. Intentionality, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V019-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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