What is Intentionality?
Many mental states are 'about' something, objects or events in the world. For examples, I might have belief about Paris, a desire for chocolate, be angry at the government, or intend to go to the pub. In all these cases, my state of mind is 'directed' towards an 'object', the thing I'm thinking about (Paris, choclate, the government, going to the pub). This idea of 'directedness' is known as 'Intentionality', from the Latin Inendere, meaning 'to aim at'. It is the same root as the word 'intention', but Intentionality is not about intentions (to mark the difference, Searle capitalises 'Intentionality'). If I have an intention, I am 'aiming at' doing something. With Intentionality, it is the thought or mental states which 'aim at' its objects, what it is about, and no 'doing' needs to be involved. As the examples show, beliefs, desires, emotions all have Intentionality; they are all 'Intentional mental states'.
An Intentional mental state is a mental state with Intentional content. So what is it?
Whenever we think of, have a belief about, or desire something, we always conceive of it in a certain way, under a particular description. For example, in Sophocles’ famous play Oedipus Rex, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. He doesn’t want to do this; in fact, he leaves the town where he grew up so he wouldn’t. But he doesn’t know that the people he thinks are his parents aren’t. On his journey, he meets an old man in the road who gets in his way. Oedipus becomes very angry, and kills the old man. In fact, the man was his father, Laius. Oedipus was angry at the old man, but he didn’t think of the old man as his father. Another example (from Searle): do you believe that atmospherically formed crystals in hexagonal form reflect all wavelengths of visible light? Unsure? Well, do you believe that snow is white? It’s the same question, but you’ve probably never thought of snowing being white in the terms of atmospherically formed crystals in hexagonal form reflecting all wavelengths of visible light!
So Intentional states represent the world in particular and partial ways. It’s like seeing something from a particular aspect; you can see it, but not all of it. What Intentional states represent – Paris, the government, Laius, snow – is called the ‘Intentional object’. The way they represent that object we can call the ‘aspectual shape’ of the object. The Intentional object + the aspectual shape comprise the Intentional content.
We can have different mental states with the same Intentional content if we take different ‘attitudes’ to that content. For example, I can believe I’m arriving late; I can want to be arriving late; I can fear I’m arriving late; I can be pleased I’m arriving late. An Intentional state, then, comprises a particular ‘attitude’ or ‘mode’ towards a particular Intentional content. So Searle states ‘every Intentional state consists of a representative content in a certain psychological mode’ (Intentionality, 11).
A central philosophical issue about Intentionality is what Intentional objects are. Intuitively, we would say that when I’m thinking about my car, for instance, I’m thinking about a real object, viz. my car. But there are two difficulties with this way of understanding Intentional objects in general. First, we can think about things that don’t exist, such as unicorns or a mountain made of gold. The Intentional objects in these cases are unicorns and golden mountains; but they don’t exist. So am I thinking about nothing? Well, it’s wrong to say I’m thinking about nothing, because I’m thinking about unicorns and golden mountains! It is tempting to think that an Intentional object can ‘exist’ – in my thought at least – even when nothing real exists. This suggests that Intentional objects are somehow ‘interposed’ between us and the world.
A second difficulty, which derives from aspectual shape, supports this suggestion. Any Intentional object is thought of under a certain aspect; if the Intentional object corresponds to a real object, it is nevertheless different because the Intentional object is only a partial representation. Here’s two variations of the problem:
Example 1: you probably believe that Cliff Richard is a singer, but you might not believe that Harry Webb is a singer. Yet Cliff Richard is Harry Webb. So in a way, my belief is about Cliff Richard as Cliff Richard, not Cliff Richard as Harry Webb; my belief is not about Cliff Richard, the person, or surely it would be about Harry Webb as well. A similar difficulty faced Oedipus when he met Laius.
Example 2: when I want a cup of tea, I make one. But is the cup of tea I make the same cup of tea that I wanted? I could have made a different cup of tea, e.g. with a little less milk, or in a different cup. The cup of tea I wanted didn’t have determinate characteristics – any old cup of tea, within limits, will do, and I’ll get what I want. But any cup of tea I make is completely determinate – but how can an indeterminate thing be the same as a determinate thing?
Both these difficulties make it tempting to say that Intentional objects are somehow ‘mental’ objects; they aren’t the same as real things existing outside our thoughts about them. But this suggestion is equally puzzling. First, are we to say that unicorns really exist, in our thoughts? Is existing in thought any kind of existence at all? Second, our thoughts come ‘between’ us and the world, so that, in fact, I never think about the world itself! And given that we each of our own thoughts, even when we are thinking about the ‘same thing’, such as this argument, we aren’t. Notice that it is one thing to say we each have different perspectives or opinions on the same thing; it is quite another to say we aren’t talking about the same thing at all.
And this can’t be right. We shouldn’t think of aspectual shape as making Intentional objects a separate sort of ‘thing’. It is much more intuitive to say that when I am thinking about my car, the fact that in my thought, my car has aspectual shape doesn’t mean it is not my car I am thinking about. I am – just under a certain aspect. Aspectual shape is a ‘how’ not a ‘what’.
We can use this to solve the second problem above. First, this makes it clear that I can think about Cliff Richard, the person; but the way I think of him is important in what I believe. Second, there is an important and obvious way in which we ‘get what we want’. I can think of ‘a cup of tea’ indeterminately (the phrase itself is indeterminate!); this indeterminacy is part of the aspectual shape of the cup of tea in my thoughts. The cup of tea I make can be what I wanted more or less; more, if I make it just how I like it, less, if I don’t. The cup of tea made will be still be a cup of tea, and can be desired as such. After all, my desire for a cup of tea becomes my desire for that cup of tea when the cup of tea is made.
This still leaves the problem of Intentional objects that don’t exist. John Searle is forthright about the matter, and goes for realism: ‘an Intentional object is just an object like any other; it has no peculiar ontological status at all’ (16). If no real object satisfies the Intentional content, then that mental state has no Intentional object. It has Intentional content without an Intentional object. From the point of view of the state, of course it is about something; but from the point of view of the facts, there is nothing it is about.
This is problematic in a number of ways. First, it conflicts with Searle’s own definition of Intentionality, which is that property of mental states whereby they are about objects and states of affairs in the world. If there is no Intentional object, why does he say these states are Intentional at all? Second, we defined Intentional content as an Intentional object under an aspect; if there is no Intentional object, on this definition, there can’t be any Intentional content. Third, there are many Intentional objects that we don’t want to say are fictional, like unicorns, but whose ‘existence’ is peculiar, e.g. laws of nature or mental states themselves. These aren’t ‘objects like any other’.
Tim Crane (Elements of Mind, Ch. 1) argues that the way to solve the problem is to realize that we went wrong at the very beginning. We started off saying that when I think about my car, it is my car, the physical object, that I think about. This is right so far: when thinking about something that does exist, the Intentional object is that-thing-as-thought-about. But we went wrong in trying to use this idea to talk about Intentional objects in general, and wondering about non-existent Intentional objects.
The problem is with the word ‘object’. We assumed that Intentional objects are ‘things’. When a physical thing is an Intentional object, this isn’t a problem. But as soon as something non-physical, or something that doesn’t exist, is an Intentional object, then we are confused. But Intentional objects, in general, aren’t things at all. They are ‘objects’ only in a ‘schematic’ sense. The word ‘object’ here is just picking up on the idea of Intentionality, of directedness and focus.
To understand this, consider an analogous case, ‘direct objects’ in grammar. In the sentence, ‘John gave the book to Mary’, the direct object is the book. We can ask ‘what did John give to Mary?’, and provide an answer. But the fact that the book is the direct object doesn’t entitle us to wonder whether the book really exists! It doesn’t even ‘exist’ in the sentence (this is no kind of existence). That the book is the direct object is just a matter of the role ‘the book’ plays in the sentence. A direct object is not an object in the ‘thing’ sense, and many direct objects are not things (e.g. ‘John gave his love to Mary’).
Intentional objects are similar. The word ‘object’ doesn’t mean ‘thing’; instead, it picks out that which is the focus of the thought, that onto which the thought is directed. Thought has a ‘schema’, says Crane, like sentences have a grammar. In that schema, the Intentional object is simply whatever plays the role of being the focus of the thought (in many cases, it is the answer to the question ‘What are you thinking about?’). When Intentional objects are things, such as my car, that is because the particular Intentional object is a thing. A thing (my car) is playing the role of being the focus of my thought. The ‘thinginess’ of the Intentional object in this case comes from the particular thing I’m thinking about, not from being an Intentional object. Once we understand this, the puzzle about what sort of ‘thing’ a non-existent Intentional object is just disappears.