A chapter out of my thesis: Searle’s Intentionality

Searle’s Intentionality


Searle begins with the idea that “the philosophy of language is a branch of the philosophy of mind.”[1]  This makes the philosophy of mind somehow precursor to the philosophy of language, certainly an interesting idea, though one probably not shared by the early positivists.  Implicit in this view then is the idea that basic linguistic concepts like “…reference, meaning, statement, etc., can be analyzed in terms of even more fundamental psychological notions such as belief, intention, and desire.”[2] In effect then, a theory of linguistic acts is supervenient on a theory of Intentionality.  The question that Searle essentially wants to address is:


…If meaning is to be analyzed in terms of intentions, then one wants to know what an intension is….more generally, what is the character of Intentionality, directedness, or aboutness which some psychological states…have, but which some other psychological states…do not have?[3]


Searle thinks that there is a theory of Intentionality implicit in a theory of speech acts.  For Searle the relevant connection here is that “…any speech act with a propositional content is an expression of the Intentional state specified in its sincerity condition.”[4] Searle’s use of “sincerity condition” indicates his theories linguistic influence, despite his claim that language supervenes on mind.[5]   In linguistics the notion is defined thus: “a sincerity condition is the psychological state of the speaker concerning the propositional content of an illocutionary act.”[6] Table 1.3 shows the sorts of implications Searle draws from the central idea that any speech act containing a propositional content (I wonder just what a speech act would look like that didn’t have propositional content…?) expressions an intentional state that is specified in that state’s sincerity condition.


Figure 1.3: isomorphism between speech acts/intentional states

Structural isomorphism

Illocutionary force/propositional content: type of state/representative content

Direction of fit between words/world: direction of fit between mental state/world

Universality of conditions of satisfaction between speech act and intentional state

Organization Chart



Some explanation is required.  Searle’s theory calls for a structural isomorphism between speech acts and intentional states.  The three boxes represent the three main implications Searle draws from his main idea stipulated above.  The first implication is that there is “an exact analogue” between, on the one hand, illocutionary force/propositional content and, on the other hand, the type of intentional state and that state’s representative content (i.e. what is represented in a particular intentional state).  The second implication is that the relationship between a direction of fit between words and what the words denote in the world has a direct analogue in the direction of fit between mental states and what the mental states are directed towards in the world.  The third implication is that the notion of a “condition(s) of satisfaction” is applicable to both speech acts and intentional states, assuming both have a “direction of fit”.[7]  These three implications can be essentially taken to mean that “…for a very large class of cases, any speech act that has a propositional content, direction of fit, and conditions of satisfaction will be an expression of a psychological state with the same propositional content, the same direction of fit, and the same conditions of satisfaction.”[8]

            So speech acts are representatives of their corresponding conditions of satisfaction, just like intentional states are representatives of their corresponding conditions of satisfaction.  In this way, speech acts are structurally isomorphic with respect to intentional states, provided they have the same relative direction of fit relation. Searle’s method is then to look at the structure of the psychological state via the structure of the speech act: the structure of the latter informs the structure of the former.

            Of course this methodological insight seems inconsistent with Searle’s claim that the philosophy of language is merely a branch of the philosophy of mind, since that would seem to imply that one ought to study the more fundamental (the mind) in order to get a grasp of linguistic expressions like speech acts.  Searle attempts to sidestep this difficulty by arguing that the notions with which intentional states are explained (e.g. conditions of satisfaction, direction of fit and propositional content) are intrinsically intentional to begin with.  I suppose he means here that these notions are representational, and the key to understanding intentional states is via the concept of representation.  Thus Searle exclaims he is, in a sense, remaining consistent to his idea that the philosophy of language is a branch of the philosophy of mind in perhaps the same sense that logic is a branch of epistemology. 

            Searle proposes that rather than reducing intentional characteristics of linguistic expressions, a sufficient account should embrace them as somehow elementary (i.e. as basic notions that do not require further explanation).  This is similar in a sense to Dretske’s theory that intentionality in the sense that intentionality is not an explanandum (although significantly distinct in other ways, such as Searle’s idea that intentionality really is a human trait and not something that could be simulated artificially).

On the other hand, Searle’s embracing of intentionality as essentially basic is generally opposed to Chisholm’s efforts, which may be described as attempting to find the logical features of intentional expressions via non-intentional language. Searle would respond to Chisholm’s efforts in the following way: we don’t have to resolve the dilemma of the fact that we can’t seem to explain psychological phenomena non-intentionally (i.e. without recourse to mental or psychological predicates that expression intentional states), we simply take the intentionality of language as a starting point and study the structure of intentional states by way of examining the structure of corresponding (intentional) linguistic acts, such as speech acts.[9] 

Another significant departure from the linguistic or logical characterization of intentionality is Searle’s divorce from the notion of intensionality as the mark of intentionality in language:


One of the mistakes that is endemic to linguistic analysis is the confusion between features of the reports of a phenomenon and features of the phenomenon being reported, and one common instance of this is the constant confusion between intensionality and intentionality.[10] 


If the criterion for intensionality denotes failure to comply with the token tests for extensionality (e.g. existential inference and Leibniz’s law) “…then there is nothing inherently intensional [my italics] about beliefs and desires.”[11] 

To review the first test of extensionality, Leibniz’s law (in one form) can be interpreted as the principle which states that any two (or more) statements that denote the same object are identical in meaning and truth value. As Frege showed, intentional statements are difficult to give standards of identification in terms of reference since they do not require existent objects (intentional inexistence) and their mode of presentation (i.e. their sense) affects how one “understands” their referents (e.g. morning star vs. evening star).  This implication simply echoes the opacity constraint. 

With respect to the second test of extensionality, in simple predicate logic, universal statements of the form “All A are B” are not existential in the sense that their truth does not guarantee the existence of the objects with which they are concerned.  In contrast, particular or existential statements of the form “This a is a b” are existential in the sense that from their truth one can validly infer that there exists an individual that is the referent of the proposition.  Thus if intentionality is characterized in language as those kinds of statements that fail existential inference (for instance) then statements of the form “S believes that p” do not guarantee the existence of individuals that are referents of the proposition in question.  This implication simply echoes intentional inexistence.

It is for this reasons that many theorists have characterized intentionality via the notion of intensionality (i.e. the opposite of extensionality).  Searle opposes this line of thought since “…from the fact that statements that report beliefs and desires are intensional it simply does not follow that the beliefs and desire reported are intensional.”[12]  This is a curious position so it requires delicate assessment.  Searle illustrates a way to avoid this problematic line of thought by starting with the observation that the statement “Reagan lives in the White House” is obviously extensional.  In contrast, the statement “Ralph believes that Reagan lives in the White House” is “…an intensional statement, but if you look at the belief reported by that statement and not at the statement that reports it, you see immediately that the belief is extensional on both criteria [that is, with respect to the fact that it satisfies the standard tests for extensionality].”[13] 

The reason that Ralph’s belief is extensional is that it may or may not be true in virtue of its conditions of satisfaction.  Ralph’s belief obtains if its content corresponds to “…a unique x such that x= Reagan and a unique y such that y = the White House, and anything identical with x lives in anything identical with y.”[14] Accordingly then, a proposition that reports a belief is intensional but the belief being reported is extensional.  This is certainly a departure from logical accounts I described in the previous sections, as it dissolves opacity as a constraint on any theory of intentionality. 

Similar to both the logical and the functional/teleological accounts, Searle retains the stamp of intentional content as fundamentally representational: “Statements and beliefs are representations; their conditions of satisfaction are matters of how things are in the world.”[15]  However, he distinguishes the logical properties of “ground-floor representations” with “second-order representations”.  Ground-floor or first-order representations are statements that have intensional content in the sense that they are representations of the world for the individual who utters/thinks them while second-order representations are sentences that represent the intentional content of the individual who utters/thinks them.  The former are truth-preserving in the sense that they pass the standard tests for extensionality: their intentional content is thus not intensional, but extensional; the latter, being representations of representations, are intensional in the sense that their meaning cannot be preserved in normal substitution conditions.  The distinction is between “statements and beliefs” and “statements and beliefs about statements and beliefs”.  Bill’s belief that Reagan is in the White House is verifiable and extensional, while a proposition with the content of p: ‘Bill believes that Reagan is in the White House’ is opaque and thus intensional; “…[it] require[s] rather that the representational content of the first-order representation, and only that content, be preserved in its representation [the objects of the first-order representation, that is, what the intentional content of Bill’s belief represents as being the case, is irrelevant]”.[16] The conditions of satisfaction for my belief (not the sentence that expresses my belief) that I use MS Word is logically different from the conditions of satisfaction for Smith’s belief that I use MS Word. The latter is a representation of the intentional content of my belief, it is intensional and is essentially Fregean in that the meaning of Smith’s belief that I use MS Word can be changed if, for instance, “MS Word” was substituted with “a computer program manufactured by Microsoft” since the intentional content of my belief may or may not have actually represented “a computer program manufactured by Microsoft” for the simple reason that I can use “MS Word” without knowing that Microsoft manufactures that particular program.[17]

One last important feature of Searle’s theory remains: intentional causation.  Searle’s position creates a place for intentionality to do causal work.  This is significant since Brentano’s notion of intentional inexistence seems to cast doubt on the prospect of folk-psychological states being causally related to the objects they present; at the least, Brentano’s description of intentionality seems to make mental states (in a sense) epiphenomenal (at least for instances in which the intentional state is directed towards an ideal entity).  Certainly it is consistent with the naturalistic accounts of intentionality offered by Millikan and Dretske in the sense that those accounts, like Searle’s, characterize intentional content in terms of the causal relations that obtain between an organism’s intentional state that p and the object of that state.  Unlike Millikan’s biosemantic theory, Searle does not color this sort of causality in terms of evolution and biological teleology. 

Searle maintains that both perceptual experiences and intentional actions are causal in the sense that their conditions of satisfaction are self-referential; that is, it is not just the case that “…the concept of causation enters into the description of the visual experience, but that the experience of causation enters in the visual experience itself.”[18] I suppose this means something like the following: in order for a particular visual experience to be satisfied in the sense that what it represents as object corresponds to the world, its conditions of satisfaction must denote the visual experience that has those particular conditions of satisfaction.  This goes a step beyond the typical logical approach, which characterizes the intentional content of perceptual states in terms of what the content represents to the one experiencing that state: e.g. N’s visual experience of his professor picking up a piece of chalk consists in the conjunction of “that man, N’s professor” and “the property of picking up a piece of chalk”.  Searle adds to this analysis the idea that those conditions of satisfaction (in this case, the man and the property being represented to N) “…make reference to the very visual experience whose conditions of satisfaction they are.”[19]  Thus the conditions of satisfaction not only determine the intentional relation that must obtain between a thinker and his representation(s), the conditions of satisfaction also denote the very experience identified with that (those) particular representation(s).[20]

Searle’s strategy is interesting in that it seems to compliment certain features of both the linguistic level as well as the functional level while simultaneously rejecting ideas central to their respective analyses of what counts as intentional content.  This complex recombination of the two levels of explanation naturally suggests itself as a place to begin a Wittgensteinian critique: in important respects it is sort of a hybrid functional-linguistic account.  However,  before I can use Wittgenstein’s later philosophy as a sort of litmus test for the sort of logical atomism and/or representational bent central to theories of mental content, it is necessary to (re)invoke the broader philosophical landscape that Wittgenstein’s ‘language-game’ method(s) occupy. 

[1] From here on out I’ll refer to John Searle’s “Intentionality and Method” as (John Searle, Intentionality and Method, page number.  Also, it should be noted that later on Searle opposes the association between intentional (representational) content and intensions/intensionality (at least with respect to one level of representational content)  John Searle, Intentionality and Method 720

[2] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 720

[3] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 720

[4] John Searle, Intentionality and Method 720

[5] Here I simply mean to reiterate Searle’s notion that the philosophy of language is a branch of the philosophy of mind.  Thus, the philosophy of language answers to the philosophy of mind in the same sense that logic answers to epistemology. 

[6] See Searle, John, and Daniel Vanderveken. 1985.Foundations of illocutionary logic. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University

[7] There are two senses to the notion of direction of fit, but I think it’s clear that Searle uses both forms.  From the Wikipedia entry on “direction of fit”: “The technical term direction-of-fit is used to describe the distinctions that are offered by two related sets of opposing terms:

  • The more general set of mind-to-world (i.e., mind-to-fit-world, not from-mind-to-world) vs. world-to-mind (i.e., world-to-fit-mind) used by philosophers of mind, and
  • The narrower, more specific set, word-to-world (i.e., word-to-fit-world) vs. world-to-word (i.e., world-to-fit-word) used by advocates of speech act theory.”


[8] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 721

[9] This is all implicit in several of the remarks Searle makes in proposing his theory.  For instance, “Our aim is not to reduce intentionalistic notions to something non-intentionalistic, but to provide a general account of intentional states in terms of a small number of intentionalistic primitives.  If the account is sufficiently general and if the amount of data it can accommodate is rich enough, then the analysis may be illuminating, though ‘circular’.” John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 722

[10] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 723

[11] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 723

[12] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 723

[13] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 723

[14] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 724

[15] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 726

[16] Searle, Intentionality and Method, 726-727

[17]An alternative way to think about the distinction between representations and representations of representations is to think of them in terms of the difference between the sort of intentionality in sense-perception (like the visual experience of a tree) and the sort of intentionality of purely cognitive states (like reflecting on the different ways to use the verb ‘to know’).  This way of understanding it is consistent with Searle’s exemplification of the distinction: examples of first-order representations include the intentional content of a visual experience whereas examples of second-order representations include the intentional content of thinking about another’s belief.  For more see John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 727-729

[18] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 727-728

[19] John Searle, Intentionality and Method, 728

[20] Searle applies the same sort of treatment to intentional actions like the intentional raising of one’s arm.  He explains that “My intention in action will be satisfied if and only if my arm goes up and my intention in action causes it to go up…thus: intention in action (my arm goes up and that my arm goes up is caused by this intention in action).” It should be noted that this sort of thinking about the relationship between an intention and carrying out that intention is not prevalent to the same extent that it used to be.  It is mostly considered an empirical fact that it is not the intention to raise one’s arm that causes the behavior but is rather what cognitive scientists call “pre-attentive focal processing”.  Several experiments show that the decision to raise one’s arm is achieved at a pre-conscious level, or at least is indicated as such given the electrical fluctuations measured by an EKG 200-400ms prior to one’s awareness of the decision to raise his arm.  See Velmans and Libet for more detail.


One thought on “A chapter out of my thesis: Searle’s Intentionality

  1. Greetings,
    I am just writing a thesis about theological use of speech-act theory, however I am very interested in Wittgensteinian critique of Searles theory of intentionality. Would you be so kind and share with me the dissertation or some more chapters? Thanks for any answer.

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