Tag: intentionality

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.

Response to de Villiers’ Language for Thought: Coming to Understand False Belief

The following is a short response I wrote to de Villiers and de Villiers’ Language for Thought: Coming to Understand False Belief. (de Villiers, J.G., and P. A. de Villiers. Language for Thought: coming to understand False Beliefs. Chapter prepared for Whither Whorf? (in press)) You can view a version of it here, although I’m not sure it is the final version.


de Villiers and de Villiers, in Language for Thought, articulate the view that language is prerequisite to thought and not merely an effect of it. They focus exclusively on the issue of false belief and our ability to reason and form explanations about them. Specifically, the acquisition of language is a necessary condition for the ability to describe not the content of false beliefs (others’ false beliefs).


De Villiers and de Villiers offset their hypothesis that language is prerequisite for thought with the following dilemma: any appropriate experimental design results in either triviality or incoherence, depending on the criterion for acceptable results and/or the encouraging of participants (children, in this case) to use intentional language capable of describing false beliefs. (351) To resolve this tension, de Villieres and de Villiers propose two solutions:


1) Select tasks that do not require the explicit use of “linguistic complements”—the propositional content of an intentional expression—and thus accept responses that fail to denote ‘what about the belief is false’.

2) (a). Select tasks that require very little regarding the understanding of linguistic complements, so in effect children would merely be required to imitate (i.e. “repeat”)—and not grasp–the false intensional expressions they hear. (b) Inquire as to whether children have “mastered complements with nonmental verbs, such as verbs of communication that require precisely the same complement structures syntactically and semantically as mental verbs, but with none of the reference to invisible mental events.” (352)


I want to focus on the latter half of the second proposed solution. The authors seem to imply a sort of dualism concerning mental predicates such that so-called folk psychological states—i.e., intensional verbs—necessarily denote a state with content that cannot be confirmed in an empirical sense; hence de Villiers and de Villiers use of “invisible mental events”. This is the hallmark of 20th century theories of mental content-intentional states like to believe, to think, to remember, and to wish, are understood as states having objects that do not refer to anything physical and/or confirmable; at least not in the sense that “The ball is front of the desk” is.


Without getting into the matter of how best to think about the meaning of such expressions, it should be acknowledged that anyone, let alone children, need not be using intensional verbs in such a Cartesian way (‘Cartesian’ because such verbs are taken to denote mental, ‘invisible’ things). In many circumstances one might be disposed to say that his or her use of the predicate ‘to think that’ ought not be thought of as denoting a mental state but rather as merely ‘directing the audiences’ attention’. Here the meaning of intensional verbs becomes less mysterious and more socially embedded. Thus, the use of intensional verbs might be merely for emphasizing what follows the intentional verb. Compare “I think that the Patriots are too good” with “The Patriots are too good”: with regard to syntax alone, the latter expression would not fall under de Villiers and de Villiers’ notion of complement structures since it lacks an intensional verb conjoined with a corresponding ‘mental’ or representational content. In a room of crowded people, someone who uses ‘I think’ or ‘I wish’ might be more realistically be thought of as an attention-grabber. I suppose the use of intensional verbs might be looked at in both ways simultaneously, and certainly I don’t think that the two are incompatible.


That said, if it’s the case that, on many occasions, an individual might not use intensional verbs in the strict sense that the authors require in order to resolve the alleged dilemma, then they need to rethink just how pressing the tension is in the first place.


Note: After reviewing this rather hasty response, I need to qualify my critique, to an extent. Yes, the description of intensional predicates as ‘invisible’ sounds or seems to imply a sort of Cartesian dualism-the fact is, the authors do not require a separate ontological category of “mental substance”, so its not entirely (that is, ontologically) dualistic.

Philosophical Grammar, comment 98: intention/intentionality

98 The intention seems to interpret, to give the final interpretation.

Imagine an ‘abstract’ sign-language translated into an unambiguous picture-language.  Here there seem to be no further possibilities of interpretation. -We might say we didn’t enter into the sign-language but did enter into the painted picture.  Examples: picture, cinema, dream.

When the sign becomes the picture, it is an intention.

Here the meaning of a sign (that is not an intention) must include: ‘capable of additional interpretation’ but ‘significant’ and/or ‘noticeable’, such as a kind of marker or demarcation.  Something that can be described but that cannot or is not (presently, for instance) fully describable in the sense that its description, where possible, does not contain what is essential to it’s essential function (for a community of speakers, playing certain language game(s)), for instance.

We have the idea that the sign is translatable, just as we have the idea that one language may be translated into another.  They both stem from the deception that the meaning of a word is what is common to all its expressions, uses, referants, et cetera.