Category: Philosophy of Language

Intentional Inexistence, Intentional Objects, and the "Relational Nature of Singular Thoughts"

A discussion of intentionality, at least in philosophy, usually involves a reference to the work of Franz Brentano or Edmund Husserl and an accompanying description indicating that it is a philosophical term that signifies the ‘aboutness’ or "directedness" of mental states like thinking,

wishing, remembering et cetera. Of course that captures some of what "intentionality" means in philosophy and in more common discourse. The problem with the standard description is that it seems to lend significance to thoughts, and the significance of language/meaning is either merely implicit or in some sense irrelevant. Additionally, it informs a particular epistemology and metaphysics that treats linguistic acts as mere expressions of thought. Suffice it to say that the absence of the import of language and/or meaning is manifest, I think, in Brentano’s own description of intentionality in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint:

"Every mental phenomena is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction toward an object (which is not to be understand as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not do so in the same way. In presentation, something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on.[1]"

"This intentional inexistence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We can, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.[2]"

Brentano’s description above, and it is taken to be the starting point for contemporary discussions of intentionality, stresses the ontological dualism between mental and physical things. Brentano tells us that what separates mental phenomena from physical phenomena is that mental phenomena are marked by intentionality. In order for a thing to be mental it has to have intentionality: it must be able to refer to something with the bizarre difficulty that the referent need not exist. This, in a nutshell, is intentional inexistence. It merely holds that a thought about p does not require that p’s referent indeed exists. After all, people have thoughts about unicorns and unicorns don’t exist. If this all seems intuitive, it largely is. However, the reason why it is has to do, as I will later explicate, more to do with linguistic convention than with ‘how mental phenomena really are’.

The second standard of Brentano’s description above is that it yields the idea that it is, in a sense, logically impossible to have a thought simpliciter: that is, whatever else a thought is, it must be a thought of something. One is reminded here of Plato’s Theaetetus in which Socrates and the young Theaetetus are struggling with the notion of false belief: how can one think falsely (if false belief is defined as thinking that which is not) given that one’s thought that p necessitates that something is thought? The relevant point is that Brentano’s characterization echoes the (somewhat) Platonic idea that one cannot have a thought without indicating or being aware of what the thought states is the case, what it represents, what it is about, or what it is in relation to. If one is thinking, one must be thinking of something, and that something is somehow related to the thinker.[3] This second standard can be termed as the relational nature of intentionality.

Third, intentional acts are directed upon things that are not sufficiently specified by the language one uses to describe those acts. Thus if someone describes her occurent–that is, current mental state of— fear of bats in virtue of the fact that she is aware of a bat and is trembling, then it is not the case that the description is sufficient for the content of her intentional state; in effect, the descriptions "S is presently fearful of bats" and "S is aware of a bat and is trembling" are not necessarily equivalent statements since there could be other things present in S’s mind that are not described by the predicate "is fearful" , not to mention the fact that "awareness of a bat and trembling" may occur independent of "being afraid". As Grant Gillett explains, "…those things [that a mental predicate is meant to represent] are in general not adequately specified for the purpose of mental descriptions by mentioning the objects concerned."[4]

Husserl, like Brentano, posits that consciousness is essentially intentional. But where Brentano turns to cognitive significance in his characterization of intentionality in terms of the sort of mental states that have intentional content, Husserl turns to meaning:

"Every intentional experience, thanks to its noetic phase, is noetic, it is its essential nature to harbour in itself a ‘meaning’ of some sort, it may be many meanings.[5]"

I am not certain if ‘meaning’ is used in the sense of ‘meaning to act or behave a certain way’ or if he is referring to the activity of language and the linguistic expression of intentional contents in some psychological states. That said, it is not inconsistent with either Brentano or Husserl’s description, I think, to consider the underspecified nature of linguistic expressions taken to name intentional contents.

Psychological explanations then call for an elucidation of the underspecified mental predicate: to express the meaning of experiences of cognitive significance, a theory of intentionality must elucidate how it is that a particular mental state is realized.

When these standards are put together they inform the following sort of argument (numbered 1-4):

1. If S believes that p, then it doesn’t follow that what p refers to actually exists. (intentional inexistence)

2. Q: In order for S to believe that p it must be that p represents or is about something which is related to something outside the thought or belief itself. (relational nature of intentionality) S’s belief that p must be a belief about something (i.e. the belief must have content).

3. For any relation to obtain, the objects in the relation must both exist; i.e. it’s senseless to hold that A is related to B if it is the case that A or B does not exist.

4. In order for S to believe to that p, where p need not refer to any existent object and "the belief that p" logically necessitates that p be about something, then the content of S’s belief must denote an intentional object. Thus, intentional acts or states are those that express contents that refer to some sort of object (intentional object) that may not really exist.

The conclusion that there must exist intentional objects raises a metaphysical problem: what is an intentional object and in what sense do they exist? On the one hand, it is a principle of all intentional acts (thoughts, beliefs, desires, et cetera) that what is presented as object need not actually exist. On the other hand, something must exist in order for a belief to exist, for if a belief exists it must follow that it is a belief about something (unless Socrates isn’t taken seriously). The existence of intentional objects raises a third realm of existence and seems like an ad hoc conclusion to resolve (otherwise) major metaphysical flaws. That said, the sort of metaphysical and epistemological work that this kind of characterization of intentionality yields is something to avoid, given recent developments in the philosophy of language and (to some extent) in the philosophy of mind.

Introducing intentionality in this (rather) characteristic way is, as I have hinted above, problematic. The reason I want to steer away from this sort of talk is that it masks the essential role of language in determining the intentionality of a thought, belief, proposition, expression, et cetera.

Moreover, that intentionality is described here as "the mark of the mental" is indicative of a dualistic metaphysics, one that presupposes an ontological distinction between "what is mental" and "what is physical." When I say that contemporary discussions of intentionality are not interested in this sort of dualism (although depending on what one means by dualism, certainly it could be argued that in a sense another sort of dualism exists), I mean that (in general) analytic and post-analytic accounts of intentionality either do not ascribe an ontological level to that sort of mental phenomena or are mostly reductive such that intentionality belongs to the physical. Nevertheless, it is a fact that must be appreciated: contemporary discussions of intentionality are not voiced in the interest of carving out the proper object of psychological inquiry. Brentano’s use of the term is indicative of the motivation to establish psychology as a scientific discourse in some sense analogous to physics. The same does not hold true today (though there is, in some instances, the want to treat intentionality systematically according to its logical properties in language, so there is some reverence of science) and this constitutes the second reason why my discussion of intentionality will steer clear of the traditional ontological obstacles described above.[6]

Current work on intentionality in various philosophical circles can be assessed according to levels of explanation. What I mean by that is that the various hallmarks of intentionality, what it conditions and how it is conditioned, are related to the level of analysis in which it is assessed. That’s not to say that there is no interplay between, for instance, a teleological or causal explanation of intentionality, like one offered by Ruth Millikan, and the logical explanation offered by Roderick Chisholm. But treating these levels as somewhat autonomous has the distinct advantage of making clear the sorts of problems philosophers encounter when talking about mental representations, the capacity of the mind to be directed towards something outside of it, and the individuation of meaning. After having introduced the more or less traditional (metaphysical) construction of intentionality, I will now turn to a level-of-analysis approach in which the network of problems associated with intentionality is given proper theoretical context. The levels and the questions appropriate to them might look something like this:

Logical/Linguistic: what are the logical features of intentionality that structure their expression in linguistic acts?

Teleological/Functional: what sort of causality is involved in the intentional relation (‘internal representations’ vs. ‘what the representations are representative of’) and what is its function within a naturalistic metaphysics?

After sufficiently presenting each level of explanation via the philosophers that characterize them, I’m going to turn to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language in an effort to assess the scope and value of these efforts in general. Here I will use particular examples of language-games involving the meaning of psychological ascriptions and compare them to some of the more recent work involving intentionality.[7] What I will show in using Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is that these efforts dissociate the actual contexts of use of philosophically-heavy terms like to know, to remember, to represent and thus cannot, properly said, speak to or about intentionality and all its related phenomena. Wittgenstein’s attention to the social nature of meaning in general serves as catalyst for the conclusion regarding intentionality that I submit: intentionality is social to the extent that it is senseless to theorize about it in the sort of mind-object and/or subject-object relation it is typically characterized in.

[1] See Franz Brentano. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. 1874: 88-89

[2] See Franz Brentano. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, 1874: 88-89

[3] Brentano describes the relational nature of intentionality as an implication of the idea that "what is characteristic of every mental activity is…the reference to something as object. In this respect, every mental activity seems to be something relational."

[4] For a useful description of Husserl’s understanding of mental contents and objects see Gillett, 333. Grant Gillett. Husserl, Wittgenstein and the Snark: Intentionality and Social Naturalism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 57, No. 2. (Jun., 1997) pp. 331-349

[5] Edmond Husserl. Ideas (1962) p. 237

[6] At this point I also want to note that while I am aware of the proximity of Husserl’s phenomenological tradition in the development of the notion of intentionality, I am going to steer clear of it as well. However that trajectory influenced the "linguistic turn" turn in philosophy and the emphasis on linguistically realized normative aspects of intentionality is certainly very interesting, it is a topic quite outside the scope of this project.

[7] If it’s not already clear, most of the contemporary work I review here can be characterized as theories of mental content (or theories of intentional content). The move from the philosophical inquiring into intentionality to ‘intentional content’ reflects the practices of positivist and post-positivist accounts of meaning and language. ‘Intentional content’ more or less becomes ‘that which is specified by an ascription of a folk-psychological state’.


Lehrer’s Epistemic Justification and the Appropriateness of Acceptance


Presented in April 2007 at the Goucher College Philosophy Conference (VERITAS) w/keynote speaker John Carvalho, Villanova University

Abstract: In this paper I treat Keith Lehrer’s characterization of knowledge and epistemic justification as presented “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence.” (1999) In doing so, I delineate the appropriateness of Lehrer’s notion of the ‘personal acceptance system’ and advance cases in which one would not require the kind of justificatory mechanism Lehrer ascribes but nevertheless be quick to ascribe knowledge to. At a more general level, this paper attempts to refine certain presumptions and delineations characteristic in epistemology and philosophy of mind so as to arrive at a more complete and provocative conception of certain mental (intentional) phenomena.

Keith Lehrer, in “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence”[1] develops a coherence theory of justification so that the following objectives can be met: (a) setup replies to some traditional skeptical arguments, (b) admit fallibilism in knowledge, and (c) orient the constitution of knowledge around “an adequate match between coherence and truth.”[2] Justification, according to Lehrer, is the key to epistemic responsibility: the avoidance of error and the pursuit of knowledge. However, Lehrer’s theory seems to disallow that some of the things we purport to know need not be processed through some system consisting of states of acceptance. I shall proceed to articulate this assertion through recent work on the philosophy of mind, especially by Searle and Chalmers, as well as through recourse to the distinction between sense and reference. Specifically, Lehrer’s theory of coherence fails to acknowledge the distinction of the ‘psychological conception of mind’ and the ‘phenomenal conception of mind’, which ultimately renders his theory incomplete in an important sense.[3] According to Searle,[4] failure to grasp this distinction correspondingly means a failure to grasp the experiential nature of a belief, which he maintains is necessary for something to be called a belief in the first place. The ‘phenomenal mind’ is conceived of as conscious experience, and “of a mental state as a consciously experienced mental state.” Quite distinctly, the ‘psychological mind’ is concerned with the mind insofar as it is relevant to, produces, causes, or may be affected by human behavior. It will be demonstrated that Lehrer’s epistemology, as articulated in this article, fails to explain this important distinction of mind, one that we should not be so quick to dismiss.

As distinct from my central criticism noted above, I must indicate that throughout my examination of Lehrer’s theory I will partake in a degree of chiding. At various points throughout this essay, I find considerable dilemmas which I must bring to the fore at the time they are approached in the analysis. As these criticisms do not collectively join into one category which I may set aside and treat later, I must acknowledge them as they occur. However, these immediate criticisms depart from what is centrally at stake. After a synopsis of the relevant parts of Lehrer’s theory, I will propose just what I mean by this in more profound and specific ways.

Lehrer begins by positing that coherence produces justification, not truth, but that an adequate matching of the two yields knowledge. Thus, it is clear that Lehrer will not partake in defining knowledge per se, but rather will invoke a conception of knowledge via recourse to the relationship between justification (of a coherence theory) and truth. He then proposes (albeit somewhat confusedly), “Knowledge is based on what we accept as true and on the truth of what we accept.”[5] He further clarifies that it is not sufficient that we accept a true proposition for knowledge, because our reasons, or the way in which we arrive at a true proposition, may be irrational, unwarranted, or perhaps accidental. Acceptance in this respect differs from belief: “acceptance is [different] from belief in [that it constitutes] a positive evaluation of belief at a metamental level of evaluation.”[6] This “metamental level of evaluation” implies to me that the evaluation and subsequent rejection or acceptance of a belief requires conscious awareness, so that we may examine and judge a particular belief, whereas our entertainment of something may be relegated to both the conscious and the unconscious mind; that is, we may entertain something we are completely aware of, or we may entertain something we are completely unaware of. Justification, according to Lehrer, is the method by which accepted beliefs may be converted to knowledge.

Justification is “the place where the sceptic dwells,” according to Lehrer. I find reason to fault this attribution. Justification is something certainly relevant to skepticism, but it is not primary to its condition. Rather, “the sceptic dwells” in conceivability. Whereas there may be several conditions one must satisfy for one to be justified in believing something, that it is conceivable in the first place requires only that its entertainment be epistemically possible. What is epistemic possibility? The answer: namely, anything that is not immediately contradictory in conception. The Cartesian dream argument, which says that we cannot be sure of our ability to distinguish the waking world from the dreaming world, is a position contingent on the fact that to entertain as much does not involve contradiction. With this in mind, it seems evident that, at the very least, metaphysical skepticism resides in conceivability. While it is true that “The sceptic raises objections to what we accept, whether it concerns tables, persons, galaxies or neutrinos,”[7] it is clearer that these objections reside in conceivability, and thus affect justification. Lehrer acknowledges only the latter.

Lehrer, in response to the objections of “the sceptic,” proposes that he can only appeal to what he accepts, and what he accepts is that which is more reasonable. Lehrer may see it this way, but I am not so sure others do. When S accepts a particular belief p, does he do so because he has more reasons for accepting it compared to those for not accepting it? If so, then acceptance of belief is merely a quantitative act. If not, then Lehrer forgets something important. Is it not the case that S sometimes accepts a particular belief p not because S has more reasons for acceptance, but rather because the reasons S has for acceptance, while perhaps comparatively fewer, are nonetheless better reasons for S. S may accept the particular belief that it rained yesterday merely because when he woke up and looked out the window he saw rain marks on the driveway. Suppose that that is the only reason why S accepts such a belief. Suppose too that S looked at the and read that yesterday’s forecast, which indicated a 0% chance of rain, and suppose too that S talked with a local friend who said that yesterday they had gone swimming all day and all night, and that it was beautiful outside. In this instance, S has more reasons to reject the belief that it rained yesterday, but for S, perhaps these reasons are simply not as good as the fact that when S woke up he saw water marks on the driveway.

Then again, perhaps I am reading too much into all of this. Perhaps that, because Lehrer is only referring to what he accepts, then it is unwarranted that I attack his own view of what he accepts. However, I am not entirely too sure of this position, either. It is at least conceivable and at most probable that people, myself included, go about accepting beliefs merely because they feel that the reasons they have for accepting these beliefs are simply better than the alternatives, which may be greater in number. I am now playing the role of the “sceptic”, and it does not seem Lehrer can adequately respond to my position, so we seem to be at a divergence that lacks simple resolution.

I move now to Lehrer’s discussion of the nature of coherence and of the acceptance system. Personal justification is coherence with one’s personal acceptance system, which itself is made up states of acceptance. Lehrer’s response to the skeptic’s objections of what he accepts instantiates these general terms: first, Lehrer reasons that it is more reasonable to believe there is a chair than it is to believe that there may not, or is not a chair. This has to do with personal acceptance. Now, according to Lehrer, if this particular case of acceptance coheres with his personal acceptance system, then Lehrer is justified in accepting this belief over the skeptical alternative. Okay, so the definition of personal justification is coherence with one’s personal acceptance system. Lehrer intelligibly but insubstantially claims that the personal acceptance system is a system consisting of states of acceptance, that is, cases which instantiate the general form of “I accept that p.” “Thus, the acceptance system does not consist of the thing accepted, namely, p, but instead my acceptance of it, of p.”[8] If acceptance is at a metamental level, then what level is the acceptance system at? Lehrer does not explicitly provide an answer, but seeing as how the acceptance system is constructed from states of particular acceptances, it is reasonable to infer that it is at a ‘meta-metalevel’. And what exactly does this level tell us about an epistemic situation? I pose the question only because I do not know. Lehrer’s hierarchical method brings the reader so high he is liable to forget from where he came. This is another one of my gripes.

At last, Lehrer posits that if his acceptance coheres with (the peculiar) acceptance system, and thus achieves justification, the last condition for knowledge is undefeated justification. He posits,

“Justification defeated by error is useless to convert anything into knowledge. If, however, what I accept to meet the skeptical objections is true, then my justification is undefeated by error. Undefeated justification of something I accept is what is required for the conversion of knowledge. It exhibits the need match of coherence and truth.”[9]

So whereas justification requires only coherence of states of acceptance, undefeated justification requires that there be no proposition which contradicts the justification of the set of coherently-linked accepted beliefs. Lehrer posits that the link between a coherent acceptance system and undefeated justification exhibits the match of coherence and truth. I suppose this makes some sense: whereas S’s personal justification is somewhat subjective and does not necessitate that what he is personally justified in is true, if his justification is undefeated then it would be reasonable to say that his personal justification is something he can claim to know, as well. So it is here that Lehrer moves from subjective or personal justification to an objective justification, one that provides the match to truth. Lehrer goes on to qualify this match, but seeing as how he fails to bring up the notion of t-acceptances and the ‘ultrasystem’ later on, it seems trivial to the basic course of his paper. Thus, I will not treat it but simply move past it.

According to Lehrer, his theory allows him to solve all problems of knowledge. I suppose that would include the isolation argument, seeing as how that is an objection to his theory of knowledge. According to this objection, given that personal justification and the acceptance system are inherently subjective notions (i.e., Lehrer’s acceptance system is probably wholly distinct from S’s acceptance system), then it is possible that any acceptance system could be systemically erroneous. Lehrer acknowledges this:

“…but the recognition of fallibilism, which says, in effect, our most fully justified acceptances may be false, reveals that the problem is a problem for any theory of knowledge and is not specific to the coherence theory…so every theory of knowledge, not simply the coherence theory, must face the isolation argument.”[10]

Lehrer’s answer to the isolation argument comes in the first-person singular form, so I suppose such is consistent with the basic nature of his theory. Lehrer maintains that every specific thing he accepts, that is, every state of acceptance, goes towards the undefeated justification that he is not isolated from reality, that he is not deceived, and that his faculties “are connected with reality and are not fallacious.”[11] Lehrer’s response does not presuppose truth, but it personally defeats the isolation argument because the justification of the above is instantiated in every state of acceptance that has to do with something about reality, so Lehrer says. It goes towards undefeated justification, which is, at the least, in the vicinity of truth. I have now finished what is immediately relevant to the proper articulation of the central pursuit of this paper: to see primarily why and how some types of knowledge claims are not at all handled by his theory but that nevertheless should be treated in any complete theory of knowledge and philosophy of mind.

Something immediately wrong with Lehrer’s response is the claim that “it is part and parcel of any justification that I have for any specific thing that I accept about the world that I am not isolated from the world and that my evidence about the world is not deceptive.”[12] Without qualification, this response seems entirely too inclusive. What exactly constitutes an acceptance about the world? There are clear-cut instances (e.g. the proposition “The thing in front of me is presented as a tree to me so it is a tree.”), but this generality says nothing certain, I think, about propositions like “I am aware of the way in which my perception of a tree is presented to my conscious mind .” In cases such as these, the subject is predicating conscious awareness of awareness about a tree; if S accepts this, would this instantiate the justification for a conclusion against skeptical arguments? Lehrer may say yes, because perhaps he would think too that ‘consciousness’ is something based on reality, or created from reality, and I suppose reality in this sense denotes objective reality, though he never explicitly states so (at the least I think it is reasonable to assume as much given his notion of truth). But the direct object pronoun in this assertion, namely the awareness of a certain experience of consciousness, does not purport the existence of something in ‘objective reality’, but rather something global about subjective consciousness. In cases such as these, it would prove difficult, I think, for Lehrer to explain this proposition in terms of its instantiation of a more general justification pertaining to the ontological independence of objective reality, even if he would maintain that the proposition is only possible because of objective reality (which is something I think he would maintain).

More importantly, I do not think it necessary that such a judgment go through some personal acceptance system. If I say I am aware of the way in which a tree is presented in this state of consciousness, such implies that I am positing a distinct, specific, and phenomenal experience instantiating what may be called a second-order phenomenal judgment.[13] Second-order phenomenal judgments are judgments one makes about conscious experiences, not necessarily about sense-datum. It is immediately evident to me that I am phenomenally aware of things in this way and not that way, that the world is presented to my conscious mind in discrete ways; further, this is not something I at all need to justify through some acceptance system I am conscious of…the whole endeavor seems useless, for if one were to claim that it was possible that I am actually phenomenally conscious in another way, I would respond that he does not understand the notion of phenomenal consciousness, and tell him to go look it up in a philosophy of mind dictionary. As distinct from empirical experience, which is reproducible and subject to more objective methods which function to verify (and thus justify) empirical claims, phenomenal consciousness is irreproducible but undeniable; I may linguistically present the fact that in instance A I saw a tree, and that now, in instance B, I see the same tree. However, my conscious mind was different in A compared to B, because the phenomenal presentation of the tree, from A to B, is probably distinct enough for me to notice so long as I attend to, say, the leafs of the tree instead of the bark, in instance B. If I were to form a comparative proposition denoting the phenomenal distinction between A and B, I should not have to go through some acceptance system that coheres with my acceptance of this comparison, which purports that, although I maintain both experiences denote the same object (in the empirical sense), it is not the case that they both were present in my mind in the same way. Language may be ill-equipped to make clear exactly how the two were different, but suppose I say that the senses of A and B were different, because they were presented differently, yet they both denote the same object (the tree); this perhaps would go towards the claim that, within my conscious experiences, two events can denote the same object but present distinctly. To go back to Lehrer, I may say that each case is “part and parcel of any justification that I have for any specific thing that I accept about the world,” only with respect to object denotation, and not at all with the phenomenal content of each assertion. But according to Lehrer, I could not claim to know that my phenomenal experience was different from A to B, because the content is not essential to the state of acceptance. If I cannot instantiate this claim in a state of acceptance, then I cannot, on Lehrer’s account, proceed to undefeated justification and then finally to knowledge. Clearly though, I would want to maintain that I know both A and B may denote the same object, and yet in fact were phenomenally distinct to my mind!

That Lehrer’s theory should fail to make these distinctions reflects his supposition that justification must occur in mental states. Not all knowledge, with the above example in mind, requires justification with appeal to states of acceptances of the form ‘I accept that-p.’ In phenomenal cases such as those characterized above, the general rule can be described via the following: S phenomenally knows p if and only if S is aware of the distinct way in which the object of p is present in his mind at T2 as distinct from another proposition entertained at another time T1, which S thinks denoted the same object, but which S was phenomenally aware of in a different way. Furthermore, I add the following qualification: if S phenomenally knows p, then S need not justify that-p. This qualification is in respect to the notion that knowledge about phenomenal judgments is immediate in the sense that we cannot but help to know immediately that, despite our linguistic denotation of a given object, the sense of the object may be completely distinguishable based on how we attend to it. Propositions that purport distinctions of this kind do not require justification, for they simply are, within the confines of our conscious mind.

It is necessary that I am phenomenally aware in this and not that way about something because it is not possible that I could be phenomenally aware in a different way. Phenomenal awareness, according to Chalmers, Searle, and others,[14] is accessible in only the way in which it is present in the subject. Evidently, the way in which I am conscious of something is contingent on what features I attenuate. The way in which I am aware of my awareness of a tree could be altered if I switched attenuation from the bark of the tree to the color of the tree. Attention instantiates change in the focus of the features of a given object, and while there may be a host of features which would tell someone they are looking at a tree, we can only be aware of a very limited number of these features at once. Thus, if we wish to appreciate and be aware of subtle differences in object perception, we are required to alter our attenuation of which features to delineate. The way which we are conscious changes in response to these attention-shifts, though surely we intend and think it reasonable that our judgments are denoting the same entity. We are knowledgeable of the former, but not the latter. Lehrer’s account of justification, which requires states of acceptance, misses accessible consciousness, and appropriates knowledge claims only insofar as a proposition may be susceptible to states of acceptance which are not concerned with the contents of a given belief but rather that the belief is acceptable.

I would not find reason to fault Lehrer’s account had the essay been published earlier. However, seeing as how such warranted speculation was in circulation at the time in which Lehrer’s piece was published (1999), and taking into account the ‘naturalized epistemology’ attitude of Quine and others following him, I think it reasonable to criticize Lehrer’s on just these grounds. An epistemological theory which fails to account for the most cognitively direct and inevitable attitudes leaves much to be desired as an explanatory device for how we may arrive at justification, and further what may be properly called knowledge.

[1] Lehrer, Keith. “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence,” Philosophical Perspectives, 33:13, 131-139, 1999

[2] Lehrer, 131

[3] Chalmers, David. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press: 1996. Chalmers introduces this distinction in chapter 1 of his book on consciousness.

[4] Searle, J.R. “Consciousness, Explanatory Inversion, and cognitive science,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13:585-642

[5] Lehrer, 131

[6] Lehrer, 131

[7] Lehrer, 131

[8] Lehrer, 132

[9] Lehrer, 132-133

[10] Lehrer, 134

[11] Lehrer, 134

[12] Lehrer, 134

[13] David Chalmers introduces this term in his book The Conscious Mind: in Search of a Fundamental Theory. The sense I am evoking of it here is similar if not equal to the sense of it in Chalmers’ works. Second-order phenomenal judgments are judgments pertaining to the awareness of the way in which the perception of something is distinct in the moment of its presentation. These experiences are not reproducible in the empirical sense, because the qualia involved are not the same.

[14] Again, the work of David Chalmers acknowledges the distinction of phenomenal v. psychological consciousness. Psychological consciousness has to do with the objects of perception, mostly, whereas phenomenal consciousness has to do with the way in which we are conscious of something, the way a judgment is presented in our minds, or perhaps judgments we form about general concepts. I think it is reasonable to claim that we know both forms of consciousness, and can form propositions about them, so I include them here to indicate the limitations of Lehrer’s account.

The Duty of Genius

“We say that someone has the eye of a painter or the ear of a musician but anyone lacking these qualities hardly suffers from a kind of blindness or deafness.”

“We say that someone doesn’t have a musical ear, and aspect-blindness is (in a way) comparable to this inability to hear.”

These are quoted from Ray Monk’s great biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius. Apparently Wittgenstein uttered them in conversation with his friend, Drury, a psychologist.

The emergence of an old problem: if there’s a problem with a reductio, what do you call it?

I’ve been attempting to finish a midterm in one of my classes before July 4th rolls around.  I was delighted tonight to realize that my opinion of one of the arguments I was to assess was to argue against the effectiveness of what I took to be a reductio ad absurdum.

I remember first learning what a reductio was while reading one of Plato’s dialogues.  I can’t remember exactly which one, probably The Theaetetus.  In any event, I came to the familiar question of how exactly to name my opposition to this particualr reductio.  Since a reductio ad absurdum is deductively invalid by definition, I could say “and this is inconsistent because…” The function of the argument WAS to be invalid and thus not sound.

I can’t discuss the specifics, but needless to say, it was entertaining to see a familiar problem arise in a quite distinct context or discourse.

Here are a few legitimate sources of information on reductio ad absurdum’s:

A reductio ad absurdum argument reported by Aristotle suggests that the atomists argued from the assumption that, if a magnitude is infinitely divisible, nothing prevents it actually having been divided at every point. The atomist then asks what would remain: if the answer is some extended particles, such as dust, then the hypothesized division has not yet been completed. If the answer is nothing or points, then the question is how an extended magnitude could be composed from what does not have extension

Husserl on Expression and Meaning

Husserl on Expression and Meaning

Content as object, content as fulfilling sense, and content as sense or meaning simpliciter

“Relational talk of “intimation,” “meaning” and “object” belongs essentially to every expression. Every expression intimates something, means something and names or otherwise designates something. In each case, talk of “expression” is equivocal. As said above, relation to an actually given objective correlate, which fulfills the meaning-intention, is not essential to an expression. If this last important case is also taken into consideration, we note that there are two things that can be said to be expressed in the realized relation to the object. We have, on the one hand, the object itself and the object as meant in this or that manner. On the other hand, and more properly, we have the object’s ideal correlate in the acts of meaning-fulfillment which constitute it, the fulfilling sense. Wherever the meaning-intention is fulfilled in a corresponding intuition, i.e a given object, there the object is constituted as one “given” in certain acts, and, to the extent that our expression really measures up to the intuitive idea, as given in the same manner in which the expression means it.”

This is a difficult passage to grasp. Here Husserl refers to three basic features of an expression. He says that every expression either

  1. intimates something, and here I take that to mean “intends” something in the sense of “being directed towards”
  2. means something (I have no clue what Husserl means here. My educated guess is that “meaning” here means “is representative of” or “has known significance” or “is a sign of”
  3. designates something. Here I think Husserl’s use of “designate” is roughly the same as Frege’s notion of reference. An expression “expresses” via its denotation of an object

In my opinion this section closely resembles Brentano’s description of intentionality as intentional inexistence. Note Husserl’s description of the “meaning-intention” condition, although he does not that satisfaction of that condition isn’t necessary. Apparently an expression can mean something independent from its “relation to a content”.

An (attempt) at explaining my thesis (and/or its motivation)

A (relatively) brief explanation of my senior thesis:

The general topic of my thesis is intentionality. The standard way to introduce intentionality is to describe it in much the same way Franz Brentano did: it is a term that more or less stands for the ‘aboutness’ of folk-psychological states like remembering, perceiving, thinking, wishing, intending, et cetera. Brentano’s use of the term was ontologically motivated in the sense that it justified the proper object of investigation for empirical psychology: here “the mental” was precisely that which admitted of ‘intentional inexistence’. I’ll introduce Brentano’s characterization of intentionality since he is often remarked as the starting point for contemporary discussions, but then head in another (more recent) direction.

My senior thesis is comprised of two essential parts: one part is an account of various contemporary efforts to explain the philosophical sense of intentionality; the other part is an application of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language in respect of this issue. By ‘contemporary efforts’ I mean efforts which might fall under an analytic and/or post-analytic label (not that I think that label is particularly healthy). In particular, these efforts could be said to fall under contemporary philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. In retelling the ways in which intentionality has been explained in these schools, I will posit two distinct levels of explanation: a logical or linguistic level, and a functional/teleological level.

The logical or linguistic level of explanation is comprised by thinkers like Roderick Chisholm and Saul Kripke. Here I’ll deal with Chisholm’s efforts to bracket off intentional propositions as those with representational content, opacity, and intentional inexistence (this latter term he borrows from Franz Brentano’s description of intentionality as the mark of the mental in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint). I’ll also account for Kripke’s fracturing of the Fregean notion of sense (as distinct from reference) and its relation to the possibility of semantic analysis of a posteriori necessity. I’ll include an explanation of intension and the developments which lead to the contemporary method in post-analytic philosophy of mind called two-dimensional semantics. At this logical or linguistic level of explanation, it’s clear that intentionality is structured as a distinctly syntactical phenomenon. Properly speaking, the gist of this section is to point out that intentionality is conditioned at this level via the notion of intension. I may also include Putnam’s earlier work regarding intentionality and meaning in his Twin-Earth experiments and the externalist motives they indicated. It is here that the logical or linguistic level connects to or motivates the functional/teleological level: what starts as an essentially logical assessment of “mental predicates” yields an externalist prescription regarding the determination of meaning and the sense in which intentional phenomena are individuated or determined from “outside the head.”

The functional/teleological level of explanation is comprised by thinkers like Ruth Millikan, Fred Dretske’s, and Daniel Dennett. I’ll review Millkian’s theory of biosemantics, which may be essentially understood as an attempt to widen the scope of intentionality to include not just the human mind, but all biological entities, in some sense. Dretske’s naturalistic conception of intentionality predicates intentional states to instruments. He argues that because our instruments have a certain capacity to represent certain kinds of things, there is no reason why intentionality must be thought of as distinctly ‘mental’. Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance advocates a sense in which representational content exists in artificially intelligent systems. Again, there is nothing distinctly human or mental about intentionality: having intentional content comes to adopting strategies for dealing with nature’s obstacles. These three together can be taken to indicate a sort of scientism in some analytic and post-analytic accounts: intentionality is primarily cognitive, not uniquely psychological, thus our philosophical explanations of intentionality need to be made consistent with empirical claims we make about biological and cognitive function. If intentionality yields representational content, it does so for a reason: evolution. At this level of explanation, teleology trumps syntax/language.

The final piece of my thesis, and the most important (in the sense that it contains a proper ‘thesis’ and not a mere account) is an application of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language. I will use particular examples of language-games that indicate quite a different role philosophy should take in assessing intentionality; most of these examples occur throughout Philosophical Grammar, The Philosophical Investigations, and The Blue and Brown Books. Wittgensteins’ diagnosis is that philosophers are continuously deceived by language, but this deception is the result of bracketing off and defining intentionality absent the social contexts in which the ascription of folk-psychological states occur. Both the linguistic and the functional levels of explanation are possible only if the meaning of a proposition or utterance is conceived as “what the proposition is a picture of.” Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is a rebuttal of “the picture theory of meaning”. I’ll show that Wittgenstein’s successful critique of that theory is enough to cast doubt on the efforts described in the previous sections.

According to Wittgenstein, when philosophers describe rather than explain, when we look at language before us and keep in mind that the sense of a proposition is how it is explained according to its use in a social context, we see that making metaphysical and/or epistemological constraints on the notion of intentionality and “how something comes to represent something else” is at best limited and almost certainly unable to explain all the various sorts of language-games that intentional phenomena (like representation, mental content, et cetera) manifest within. The descriptive approach that Wittgenstein advocates yields the sense in which philosophy is undertaken therapeutically, to dissolve the sense of mystery that typifies experiences and separates our analysis of them from the social context that determines their meaning.

An additional (but somewhat secondary) motive of this part is to show how many contemporary specialists in intentionality (like John Searle, Daniel Dennett, et cetera) end up reducing the import of Wittgenstein’s method in using him to develop and justify their own theories. Many of these theorists do little in the way of providing a context for the passages they take as justification for the theories they advocate. My application of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy directly to these accounts will clear up systematic misunderstandings that (I think) are somewhat dangerous in the portrait of Wittgenstein they yield.

After showing how the above efforts fail and why they do (given my interpretation of Wittgenstein’s efforts in the aforementioned works) I will draw conclusions regarding the direction philosophical inquiry could take in attending to meaning and representation, including a discussion of the dissolution of various debates in the philosophy of mind and language relating to intentionality (in particular externalism vs. internalism, the boundaries of the individual with respect to representational content, and the relationship between conscious awareness and intentionality in the cognitive sciences/philosophy of mind). I argue that if one takes seriously the notion that the use of a concept in a social context determines its meaning, then a philosophical treatment of intentionality must specify the social context and describe (not formalize and/or define) the meaning of intentional acts as determined by its use in that social context. This will limit the scope or applicability of theories of intentionality and create more precise and grounded accounts.

Wittgenstein: aspect-blindness

“We say that someone has the eye of a painter or the ear of a musician but anyone lacking these qualities hardly suffers from a kind of blindness or deafness.”

“We say that someone doesn’t have a musical ear, and aspect-blindness is (in a way) comparable to this inability to hear.”

These are quoted from Ray Monk’s great biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius.  Apparently Wittgenstein uttered them in conversation with his friend, Drury, a psychologist.

Possible evidence for the linguistic relativity hypothesis

I’ve been researching–or attempting to research–any academic work that’s been done on semantic representation (i.e. intensions/extensions) AND linguistic relativity.  My search so far has proved unsuccessful.

Oppositely, I’ve found a wealth of information concerning the empirical justification for linguistic relativity. offers an informative review of the issues concerning linguistic relativity, but mostly from the standpoint of social psychology.

That said, I find this evidence particularly favorable for linguistic relativity:

One of the most telling tests was one that dealt with the duplication of lines on a piece of paper. Gordon drew single and multiple lines on a piece of paper and asked the Pirahã members to copy those lines. For one, two, and three lines, the Pirahã had no difficulty completing the task. As the number of lines increased, the discrepancy between the number of lines and number of copied lines also increased. For instance, many only reproduced three lines when shown four (Holden).

Of course, in order to justify the strongest version of the hypothesis, the researchers (Holden, and I’m not sure who else) would have to show that the task itself was completely non-linguistic.  Surely we think of simple copying tasks as non-linguistic, but the description above is obviously a summary and therefore incomplete.

Nevertheless, interesting evidence.

‘Language as representational’ on my mind

Is language representational?  The question might be more carefully phrased as, need all languages be representational languages?

That question has been on my mind a lot.  Wittgenstein’s theories (if you can call them that) regarding language are close to my own, in some important ways.  Having said that, it’s hard to really say what Wittgenstein thought regarding just how, or when, language ought to be considered as a representational system.  I’ll leave that issue aside since my primary concern in this post is only to introduce what I take to be a very insightful presentation on the matters as I see them.

The author of the Nedcricology blog introduces the problems of representationalism in a very simple but intriguing way.

I. The representational interpretation of language:

In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein claims that all expressions susceptible to the ascription of truth or falsity are propositions. Propositions share the same structure and logic as states of affairs, hence their suitability for one another. Wittgenstein encourages thinking of a proposition as a picture, that we can just as easily communicate in pictoral form – and, of course, events lend themselves to being captured in picutres. Propositions represent various possible states of affairs, and true propositions represent actual states of affairs. We can accurately represent in propositional form whatever actually occurs. And added to that is Wittgenstein’s famous dictum: Whatever can be said, can be said clearly.

A few problems pop up:
a) We don’t always need “clear” pictures; not all pictures are representational or portraits – what about abstract expressionism?

b) Thinking of propositions as pictures does not entail that all meaningful sentences are pictures – what about flipping someone the bird?

c) Besides, how do propositions “match up” with states of affairs anyway?

These three problems suggest that the representational interpretation of language is either somewhat narrow or just downright incorrect. First of all, to capture someone, we (well at least I) don’t merely take portraits of them. I take a variety of pictures, and in fact sometimes even encourage them to take a few of their own pictures with my camera so I can see things from their point of view. Second, many of the ways in which we communicate involve little to no “representation,” such as when I say, “I gotta go!” and run towards the toilet. And finally, whatever connections there are between our more “representational” propositions and the world, they are not metaphysically necessary but are conventionally (and humanely, I might add!) important.

I take the third problem as the most pressing for theorists who support the idea, or rather can’t help but to presume it, that meaningful expressions necessary represent the thing(s) or states of affairs, or objects, they are ‘about’.  On the one hand, it is said that any p is true if it accurately represents the R which it is about; on the other hand, if p represents R, in virtue of what does the ‘representing’ obtain? Is it the relation of p and R, or is it it some property of one or the other only, such that it might be said that p inherently is able to represent R or R-type things?

How about propositions about mathematical entities.  ‘I think it’s a number.’ In what sense does my thought make ‘it’–the thing I am thinking of–a number or in what sense does my thought represent it as a number?  Doesn’t a number represent itself as itself without my thinking about it?  Or is its identity as a number contingent on a thought to express it as such?

Do we learn to use language representationally such that its function as a representional system is somehow more basic to its other possible functions–for instance, as ‘capable of emotive expression’ or ‘as a metaphoric system’ ?  To see how how misplaced this idea is, consider the following exchange:

Billy pointed his finger at the apple and said it look rotten.


Billy: <points finger at the apple> It’s rotten!


Billy says, as he points his finger at the apple, “That’s rotten”

Do all three expressions refer equally to the same state of affairs and if so, just what is that state?  On some level, it might appear that yes, the three expression do equally refer to the same state of affairs–namely, the state of affairs containing the individual Billy, who points to a particular apple and exclaims that it is rotten.

Then again it isn’t clear, is it, that in each case, the order of events is always the same.  For instance, in the third expression, the simultaneity of Billy’s act of saying and his act of pointing is emphasized whereas the matter isn’t completely settled in the first instance.  Does that mean that the first expression is comparatively lacking in descriptive value?

Perhaps the first expression is uttered in a different circumstance than the second.  The second looks as it if it belongs in a play, or in some sort of written dialogue.  The third looks more appropriate to a novel.  The first looks hard to place.  But then maybe they each represent different states of affairs, but if that’s the case, then how could we justifiably say that they mean more or less the same thing?

In any event, please do check out the post on the nedricology blog since it presents the case against ‘language as representational’ in a simple but sophisticated way.