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

1. The history of the concept of intentionality

The term ‘intentionality’ derives from the medieval Latin intentio. Literally, this means a tension or stretching, but it is used by scholastic philosophers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a technical term for a concept. This technical term was a translation of two Arabic terms: ma’ qul, Al-Farabi’s translation of the Greek noema; and ma’ na, Avicenna’s term for what is before the mind in thought (see al-Farabi §3; Ibn Sina §3). In this context, the terms noema, ma’ qul, ma’ na and intentio can be considered broadly synonymous: they are all intended as terms for concepts, notions or whatever it is which is before the mind in thought (see Knudsen 1982). Scholars translate intentio into English as ’intention’ – but it should be borne in mind throughout that this is not meant to have the connotations of the everyday notion of intention.

Medieval logicians followed al-Farabi in distinguishing between first and second intentions. First intentions are concepts which concern things outside the mind, ordinary objects and features of objects. Second intentions are concepts which concern other intentions. So, for example, the concept horse is a first intention since it is concerned with horses, but the concept species is a second intention, since it is concerned with first intentions like the intention horse (because of the nominalism prevalent at the time, the distinction between the concept/intention horse and the property of being a horse is not always clearly made). Many of the medieval philosophers, including Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, followed Avicenna in holding that second intentions were the subject matter of logic (see Logic, medieval §4).

Some of these philosophers developed detailed theories about how intentions were connected to the things they concerned – what we would now call theories of intentionality. One of the most influential theories was that of Aquinas, whose starting point was Aristotle’s theory of thought and perception. According to Aristotle, in thought and perception the mind takes on the form of the thing perceived, without receiving its matter. When I think about or perceive a horse, my mind receives the form of horse (see Sorabji 1991; see Aristotle §18). Aquinas developed Aristotle’s view. When I think about a horse, the form of horse exists in my mind. But the form has a different kind of existence in my mind than it does in a real horse. In a real horse, the form of horse has esse naturale or existence in nature; but in my thought of a horse, the form of horse has esse intentionale or intentional existence (see Anscombe and Geach 1961; Kenny 1984). The heart of Aquinas’ view is that what makes my thought of an X a thought of an X is the very same thing which makes an X an X: the occurrence of the form of X. The difference is the way in which the form occurs (see Aquinas §11).

These scholastic terms largely disappeared from use during the Renaissance and the modern period. Empiricist and rationalist philosophers were of course concerned with the nature of thought and how it relates to its objects, but their discussions were not cast in the terminology of intentionality. The terminology was revived in 1874 by Franz Brentano, in his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. In a well-known passage, Brentano claimed that:

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the scholastics of the Middle Ages referred to as the intentional (and also mental) inexistence of the object, and what we, although with not quite unambiguous expressions, would call relation to a content, direction upon an object (which is not here to be understood as a reality) or immanent objectivity.

(Brentano [1874] 1973: 88)

A few clarifications of this passage are needed. First, Brentano is not particularly concerned to distinguish between a mental state’s (or as he called it, a mental act’s) relation to a content and its relation to an object – although as we shall see in §2, later writers find a related distinction useful. And second, intentional inexistence does not itself mean that the objects of thought need not exist – although as we shall see, this is a relatively uncontroversial feature of intentionality. What inexistence means is rather that one thing – the object of thought – exists in another, as the object of the mental state itself (see Bell 1990, ch. 1).

Brentano’s account of intentionality was developed by his student Edmund Husserl, who reintroduced the Greek term noema (plural: noemata) for that which accounts for the directedness of mental states. Noemata are neither part of the thinking subject’s mind nor the objects thought about, but abstract structures that facilitate the intentional relation between subject and object. So noemata are not the objects on which intentional states are directed, but it is in virtue of being related to a noema that any intentional state is directed on an object at all. In this respect the concept of a noema resembles Frege’s concept of sense: senses are not what our words are about, but it is in virtue of expressing a sense that words are about things at all (see Frege, G. §3). In other respects, however, senses and noemata differ – for instance, noemata, unlike Frege’s senses, can be individuated in terms of perceptual experiences (see Dreyfus 1984). The point of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction was to provide an account of the structure of noemata (see Phenomenology, epistemic issues in).

A striking claim of Brentano’s is that intentionality is what distinguishes mental from physical phenomena:

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.

(Brentano [1874] 1973: 88)

However, it is important to stress that by ’physical phenomena’, Brentano does not mean physical objects. Phenomena are what are given to the mind, and Brentano does not believe that physical objects are given to the mind (see Brentano [1874] 1973: 77–78). The distinction he is making is among the data of consciousness, not among entities in the world: among these data, mental phenomena are those which exhibit intentionality, and physical phenomena are those which do not.

However, in analytic philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, Brentano’s distinction came to be interpreted as a distinction between entities in the world. This was chiefly because of this period’s prevailing realism. An important figure in this revival of interest in Brentano’s notion of intentionality was R.M. Chisholm. In chapter 11 of Perceiving (1957), Chisholm argued against the behaviourism that was popular at the time by showing that it is not possible to give a behaviouristic account of, for example, belief, since in order to say how belief leads to behaviour one has to mention other intentional states (such as desires) whose connections with behaviour must themselves be specified in terms of belief and other intentional states (see Behaviourism, analytic). This suggests that we should postulate an irreducible category of intentional mental entities: reductive physicalism must be false. However, the argument can be taken in another way, as W.V. Quine argued: if we assume reductive physicalism, we can take the irreducibility of intentionality to demonstrate the ‘baselessness of intentional idioms and the emptiness of a science of intention’ (Quine 1960: 221). Work on intentionality in the analytic tradition in the 1980s and 1990s has attempted to resolve this dilemma. For example, Fodor (1987), Dretske (1980) and others have attempted to reconcile physicalism with the existence of intentionality by explaining it in non-intentional terms.

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

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