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Intentionality as the Mark of the Mental

  • Tim Crane


‘It is of the very nature of consciousness to be intentional’ said Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘and a consciousness that ceases to be a consciousness of something would ipso facto cease to exist.’ Sartre here endorses the central doctrine of Husserl's phenomenology, itself inspired by a famous idea of Brentano's: that intentionality, the mind's ‘direction upon its objects’, is what is distinctive of mental phenomena. Brentano's originality does not lie in pointing out the existence of intentionality, or in inventing the terminology, which derives from scholastic discussions of concepts or intentiones. Rather, his originality consists in his claim that the concept of intentionality marks out the subject matter of psychology: the mental. His view was that intentionality ‘is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon manifests anything like it.’ This is Brentano's thesis that intentionality is the mark of the mental.



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1 The Psychology of the Imagination (London: Routledge, 1995; originally published 1940) p. 211.

2 For the origins of the concept of intentionality, see Knudsen, Christian, ‘Intentions and Impositions’, in The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, ed. Kenny, A. et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Victor Caston, ‘Aristotle on the Problem of Intentionality’, forth coming. For a general survey, and further bibliography, see Crane, Tim, ‘Intentionality’, forthcoming in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Craig, E. J. (London: Routledge, 1998).

3 Brentano, F., Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (London: Routledge, 1995; originally published 1874), p. 89.

4 Searle, John R., Intentionality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 1.

5 A representative example of this position is McGinn, Colin, The Character of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), chapter 1.

6 Louise Antony, ‘What It's Like to Smell a Gardenia’, The Times Literary Supplement 4897 (7 02 1997), p. 25. See also Dretske, Fred, Naturalizing the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), p. 28.

7 For examples of this kind of approach, see Dretske, Fred, Knowledge and the Flow of Information (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981); B.EnÇ, ‘Intentional States of Mechanical Devices’, Mind 91 (1982).

8 For a helpful attempt to relate Brentano's concerns to current debates, see Dermot, Moran, ‘Brentano's Thesis’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 70 (1996).

9 See (for example) Davies, Martin, ‘Philosophy of Mind’, in Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject, ed. Grayling, A. C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Searle, Intentionality, p. 1; Fodor, Jerry, Psychosemantics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), chapter 4.

10 McGinn, Character of Mind, p. 8.

11 For examples of this common misunderstanding of Brentano, see Dennett, Daniel C., Content and Consciousness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 21; Tye, Michael, Ten Problems of Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995) pp. 94–5. A useful account of Brentano's views is contained in chapter 1 of Bell's, DavidHusserl (London: Routledge, 1990). For the scholastic views to which Brentano is alluding, see Knudsen, , ‘Intentions’, and Marenbon, John, Later Medieval Philosophy (1150–1350): An Introduction (London: Routledge 1987), chapter 8.

12 Brentano, Psychology, p. 88.

13 Ibid.

14 This is the essence of Brentano's response to Sir William Hamilton's view that in sensation ‘there is nothing but what is subjectively subjective; there is no object different from the self’; see Brentano, Psychology, p. 90.

15 Here I am taking as ‘intentionalist’ two kinds of theory of perception: the theory which holds that perception is the direction of the mind upon mental objects, and the theory which treats perception as a kind of propositional attitude, akin to belief. My usage involves a broader sense of ‘intentional’ than is sometimes adopted in discussions of the intentionality of perception, where it is restricted to theories of the latter kind: see, for instance, the useful discussion in Martin, M. G. F., ‘Perceptual Content’, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, ed. Guttenplan, S. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

16 See, for example, Sydney Shoemaker, ‘Qualities and Qualia: What's in the Mind?’ in his The First-Person Perspective and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

17 See Harman, Gilbert, ‘The Intrinsic Character of Experience’, in Philosophical Perspectives 4: Action Theory and Philosophy of Mind, ed. Tomberlin, J. (Ascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1990); and Tye, Michael, ‘Visual Qualia and Visual Content’, in The Contents of Experience, ed. Crane, Tim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

18 Those who approach questions of ontology via questions of logical form might say that just as we can argue for the existence of propositions, the objects of belief, by analysing the logical form of valid inferences involving belief-sentences, so we can argue for the existence of pains, the objects of pain-states, by looking at the valid inferences which are made with statements concerning pain. For example: X has a pain in his foot; therefore there is something X has in his foot. The plausibility of these arguments is, in my view, relatively superficial, for the reasons given in note 21 below.

19 A notable exception is Jackson, Frank, Perception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). However, Jackson no longer holds these views.

20 See Mackie, J. L., Ethics (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), chapter 1.

21 As Michael Martin says: ‘at best [these cases] demonstrate the gap between having a feeling and making a judgement about it’. See M. G. F. Martin, ‘Bodily Sensations’, forthcoming in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Craig. Nor are the inferences involving statements about sensations uncontroversial; for although we might be happy with the inference from ‘X has a pain in his foot’ to ‘There is something which X has in his foot’, the inference from ‘X has a pain; Y has a pain; therefore there is something which X and Y both have’ is clearly invalid if the something is supposed to be a particular object, and irrelevant to the present issue if it is supposed to be a property.

22 See Armstrong, D. M., A Materialist Theory of the Mind (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968); Martin, M. G. F., ‘Bodily Awareness: a Sense of Ownership’, in The Body and the Self, ed. Bermúdez, J. L., Eilan, N. and Marcel, A. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995); and his ‘Sense Modalities and Spatial Properties’, in Spatial Representation, ed. Brewer, B., Eilan, N. and McCarthy, R. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

23 Note that an advantage of this view is that it can give a univocal account of both the bodily sensations which are naturally identified interms of what they are of - warmth, cold, pressure etc. - and those which are not, like pains and so on. This version of the thesis that bodily sensations are intentional should be contrasted with Tye's view that pains give one non-conceptual representations of damage to one's body: see Tye, Ten Problems, chapter 4. Tye's view is, however, consistent with the view defended here. Pains may have many levels of representational content; my concern in this paper is with the uncontroversial phenomenological content they appear to have.

24 See Shoemaker, ‘Qualities and Qualia’, pp. 108–13, where he discusses the inverted qualia speculation.

25 Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (London: Methuen 1971; originally published 1939), pp. 68–9. For an illuminating introduction, see McCulloch, Gregory, Using Sartre (London: Routledge, 1994), chapter 2.

26 Sartre, Sketch, p. 57.

27 Ibid., p. 81.

28 Of course, this is not the only way for an intentionalist to account for emotion. Compare Tye's views: Tye, Ten Problems, chapter 4.

29 For a representative of recent discussions, see Tye, Ten Problems, pp. 94–6.

30 For instance: ‘all consciousness, as Husserl has shown, is consciousness of something’ Being and Nothingness (London: Methuen, 1958; first published 1943, p. xxvii). Compare Searle: ‘It is characteristic of Intentional states, as I use the notion, that there is a distinction between the state and what the state is directed at or about or of.’ (Searle, Intentionality, p. 2); for a different way of formulating the same kind of point, see Levinas, E., ‘Beyond Intentionality’, in Philosophy in France Today, ed. Montefiore, A. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 106.

31 This fact gives rise to one of the main problems of intentionality. For an excellent presentation of this problem, see Dummett, Michael, Origins of Analytical Philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1993), pp. 35–6. See also Caston, ‘Aristotle’. Brentano came to appreciate the importance of this point when he wrote the appendix to his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. There he says that ‘If someone thinks of something, the one who is thinking must certainly exist, but the object of his thinking need not exist at all.’ He goes on to observe that ‘we might doubt whether we are dealing with something relational here, and not, rather, with something somewhat similar to something relational in a certain respect, which might therefore better be called “quasi-relational”‘ (p. 272). Sometimes it is supposed (see Dennett, Content, and Tye, Ten Problems) that Brentano was concerned with the question of non-existence even before he wrote the Appendix to his Psychology. It is true that in a famous passage, Brentano says that the object of thought ‘should not be understood as a reality’ (p. 88); but by this he is just reminding his readers that he is talking about ‘phenomena’ or ‘appearances’, not about the ‘underlying reality’. In this sense, the physical phenomena with which he contrasts mental phenomena ‘should not be considered a reality’ either. Compare, for example, the following passage: ‘the phenomena of light, sound, heat, spatial location and locomotion which [ the natural scientist ] studies are not things which really and truly exist. They are signs of something real, which through its causal activity, produces presentations of them. They are not however, an adequate representation of this reality… We have no experience of that which truly exists, in and of itself, and that which we do experience is not true.’ (Brentano, Psychology, p. 19).

32 Searle, John R., The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), p. 155.

33 Only in this respect, since it is not quite correct to say that a phantom limb pain is an illusory pain — the pain certainly exists, one just perceives it as having a location which it does not (indeed, in the circumstances, cannot) have. An analogy would be perhaps with some device which made it seem to you as if sounds were coming from one direction when they were in fact coming from the opposite direction (as when a ventriloquist ‘throws ’ his voice).

34 For a clear-headed (but in my view mistaken) statement of this policy, see Dennett, Content pp. 27–9. Even Searle, Intentionality, who admits that much intentionality cannot be expressed in terms of whole propositions (pp. 6–7), seems to commit himself implicitly to the opposite in his analysis of intentional states by analogy with his account of speech acts (p. 26). The tendency is still pervasive: see, for instance, the definition of ‘intentionality’ given in Lyons, William, Approaches to Intentionality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 12.

35 Dennett, Content, p. 21. The point derives from Quine: see Word and Object (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960), p. 221. See also the opening pages of Field, Hartry, ‘Mental Representation’, in Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology vol. II, ed. Block, Ned (London: Methuen, 1980). Obviously, if one thinks of intentionality as a property of sentences (as Quine and Dennett do), Dennett's quoted remark makes more sense than it would do otherwise. I quote it here because the idea that Brentano's thesis presents a problem for physicalism has survived the waning of the popularity of the linguistic criterion of intentionality.

36 See Chisholm, Roderick, Perceiving (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1957), chapter 12, and Quine, Word and Object, esp. the section on ‘The Double Standard’. Note especially the following passage: ‘the Scholastic word “intentional” was revived by Brentano in connection with the verbs of propositional attitude and related verbs… e.g. ‘hunt’, ‘want’ etc. The division between such idioms and the normally tractable ones is notable. We saw how it divides referential from non-referential occurrences of terms. ’

37 Chisholm, Perceiving, p. 170.

38 Dennett, Content, p. 23. Compare Searle, Intentionality, pp. 22–5, who takes the correct view of this matter, as I see it. See also Kneale, William, ‘Intentionality and Intensionality’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 42 (1968).

39 A good example of this general approach is EnÇ, ‘Intentional States’; see also Martin, C. B. and Pfeifer, Karl, ‘Intentionality and the Non- PsychologicalPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research 46 (1986), and Place, U. T., ‘Intentionality as the Mark of the Dispositional; Dialectica 50 (1996).

40 For the idea of intentionality as a phenomenological notion, see McCulloch, Gregory, ‘The Very Idea of the Phenomenological’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 93 (19921993); and ‘Intentionality and Interpretation’, this volume; Malpas, J. E., in Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), section 4.2, gives an interesting reading of intentionality as a phenomenological notion, drawing on the Heideggerian notion of a ‘horizon’. For a survey of various ways in which the idea of intentionality can be applied beyond the central cases, see Davies, Martin, ‘Consciousness and the Varieties of Aboutness’, in Philosophy of Psychology: Debates on Psychological Explanation, ed. Cynthia, and Macdonald, Graham (Oxford: Blackwell 1995).

41 For the contrast between the phenomenal and the intentional, see, for example, Shoemaker, Sydney, The First-Person Perspective and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 112, 138.

42 McGinn, Colin, ‘Consciousness and Content,’ in The Problem of Consciousness and Other Essays (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 24. See also his later remark that ‘subjective features lie quite outside the proper domain of the theory of content’ (p. 33).

43 Quoted by Davies, ‘Consciousness’, p. 358.

44 Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), p. 22.

45 See Searle, Rediscovery; for his view of the unconscious, see pp. 155–56. A similar view is taken by Strawson, Galen in Mental Reality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995): ‘the only distinctively mental phenomena are the phenomena of conscious experience’ (p. xi).

46 For some different approaches to the same idea, compare M. G. F. Martin, ‘Setting Things Before the Mind’, this volume; and Gregory McCulloch, ‘Intentionality and Interpretation’, this volume. My remarks in this last section are highly speculative, and raise many issues which demand further elaboration. One question is whether the suggested ‘unification’ of the phenomena of mind by the concept of intentionality can be achieved within the weak intentionalist picture I defend here. For if one allows that the existence of non-intentional phenomenal properties (qualia) is compatible with the intentionality of all mental states, then it appears as if a question can be raised for weak intentionalism which recapitulates the question I am raising for the McGinn/Rorty picture. More needs to be said about non-intentional properties in order to assess the force of this question. Here I am indebted to participants in the discussion at the Royal Institute of Philosophy meeting, and especially to Paul Boghossian.

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  • Tim Crane


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