Intentionality bleg

by John Holbo on October 6, 2006

This is an abstruse bleg. (Move along, move along, if you aren’t likely to want to talk about technical philosophy stuff.) Here is a bit from the entry on ‘intentionality’ in the Stanford Encycopedia of Philosophy: “Whether intensionality is indeed the defining criterion of intentionality, one can certainly question Brentano’s thesis that only mental phenomena exhibit intentionality by noticing that some non-mental things exhibit something very much like Brentano’s intentional inexistence, namely sentences of natural languages. Sentences of natural languages have meaning and by virtue of having meaning, they can be, just like states of mind, directed towards things other than themselves, some of which need not exist in space and time. Sentences of natural languages, however, are non-mental things.”

What I’m wondering about is: who has considered that abstract objects – like sets – and natural kinds – like gold – might turn out to exhibit intentionality? (Obviously only those who believe in sets and natural kinds need worry about this.) Why? Well, because sets are ‘about’ their members. And, possibly, their members might fail to exist (but the sets would still be about them.) Also, gold. On externalist accounts, the meaning of sentences like ‘this is gold’ (pointing to a nugget) may be a function of the essence of the natural kind gold. If sentences scrape their content right off the world, and if content is intentional, then the world is intentional. (I’m omitting the details. The basic point is: externalists think that semantic/representational content ‘comes from the world’, in some sense.) Needless to say, when asked to give a paradigm case of something that exhibits intentionality, no one has ever held up a lump of gold. And philosophers like Quine – who believe in sets – may be eliminativists about intentionality. Anyway, I’m just wondering about the fact that, when called to list non-mental things that might exhibit intentionality, the author lists sentences but not abstract objects and natural kinds.

Why am I worrying about this? Mostly because ‘intentionality’ seems to get defined, on the one hand, in terms of qualities that tie it to the mental – to consciousness and phenomenology, directed attention. On the other hand, sometimes it just means ‘content’, ‘aboutness’, which is quite abstract. Universals, types. Intentionality may be the mark of the mental, but it also seems like the mark of the general. I’ve never really delved into the literature on intentionality, so this question on my part may be quite naive or ill-formulated, for which I apologize in advance. (That is, if it turns out I live in a possible world in which my question is naive, I will have apologized by the time you point out the need to. So I won’t then have to apologize, despite the need to do so. By stipulation.)

THIS POST HAS BEEN A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY INTENTIONALITY BROADCASTING NETWORK. In the event of an actual emergency about intentionality, you would have been instructed as to what research to do on the author’s behalf. We now return you to your previously scheduled Battlestar Galactica post in progress.



Brendan 10.07.06 at 5:41 am

This isn’t an allusion to Dennett’s ‘The Intensional Stance’ is it? An essay which, like all good hypocrites, I have never read but which I reserve the right to ridicule. Anyway my understanding is that Dennett thinks that if we think something manifests intensionality it does. Or something. Anyway back to Battlestar Galactica.


Mike J. 10.07.06 at 8:25 am

This isn’t an answer to your question, but Anscombe talks about archers’ bows and the etymology of intention (‘having been stretched at’ or something like that) in the beginning of ‘The Intentionality of Sensation.”

I don’t think sets and natural kinds are great examples of intentionality. For one thing, they don’t exhibit ‘intentional inexistence’ (except, conceivably, the empty set) and they can’t miss their mark.


eweininger 10.07.06 at 8:27 am

I don’t even play a philosopher on TV (though if anyone is casting for a monotheistic cyborg philosopher, I’m off for a couple of weeks in January), but doesn’t the whole issue evaporate if one recognizes the Husserlian distinction between the act of reference (noesis, as I recall) and the vehicle of reference (noema)–the former being “mental” while the latter is “ideal” (sense, or “content,” if you will), with intentionality presupposing both?

Others have made similar distinctions, no?


John Emerson 10.07.06 at 8:51 am

Michel Meyer says that all so-called propositions are really answers to questions, which are either explicit (problematological) or implicit (apodictic) and that meaning emerges only in dialogue and depends on response (which can problematize the apodictic). So your whole problematology is wrong here.

“Aren’t likely to want to talk about technical philosophy stuff”: not stern enough to keep me away.


kid bitzer 10.07.06 at 8:57 am

“Well, because sets are ‘about’ their members. And, possibly, their members might fail to exist (but the sets would still be about them.)”

I don’t get this. Sets are no more robust than their members; if a member does not exist, the set ipso facto does not exist. (And a fortiori does not exist in such a way that it could be ‘about’ anything.)


lillemask 10.07.06 at 9:24 am

Kid, certainly a set can have zero members, no? Don’t you believe in “the set of everything that doesn’s exist”?


lillemask 10.07.06 at 9:24 am

or doesn’t, even.


david 10.07.06 at 9:44 am

I’m not sure I’d say that sets are ‘about’ their members. Isn’t set membership just supposed to be conceptually primitive, like the successor relation between numbers? Also, I don’t know if this speaks to what you meant by “And, possibly, their members might fail to exist (but the sets would still be about them.)”, but I don’t see how there could be a set of Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy–or, at least, not one which is distinct from the empty set.

Also, despite the suggestive turns of phrase that you cite, I don’t know that internalists are really committed to saying that a lump of gold exhibits intentionality. Even if the content of my belief that gold is yellow is in part determined by facts about gold, that doesn’t mean that the gold itself exhibits intentionality. Or am I missing something?


John Holbo 10.07.06 at 11:00 am

Thanks for the comments. Quick late-night response: it isn’t that anyone is forced to say that sets ‘exhibit intentionality’ or that gold does. It’s just that it’s not clear to me why – given that you believe in intentionality – you would deny it to these other things. On what grounds, exactly? (Yes, someone could say that set membership is primitive. But why not just say that it’s a primitive intentional relation? Is there a reason to say that, or not?) I’m not so much concerned with pinning unexpected consequences on anyone as curious what people have said about where they draw the intentionality line.


Tim 10.07.06 at 11:14 am

Re: sets. Whatever you think the set-member relation is, exactly, I don’t see offhand any more reason to think it’s ‘intentional,’ or that a set is somehow ‘about’ its member, than to think a car is ‘about’ its steering wheel. So I’m curious as to why you’d think that one needs to have any special grounds to justify *denying* intentionality to sets.


Tim 10.07.06 at 11:17 am

To forestall a potential misunderstanding: I don’t think the set-member relationship is the same as the object-constituent relationship, just that they seem to be on a par as far as intentionality is concerned.


P.D. 10.07.06 at 11:21 am

I do not see how sets could be intentional. Informally, a set is not about its members– it merely contains them.

Formally, the extension of a set determines its identity conditions. So the set containing all of the true contradictions just is the empty set.

Perhaps the intentionality you think might be in sets and kinds is just linguistic: The cardinality of the set containing all extant monkeys does not depend on the world– rather, which set is picked out by the phrase “all extant monkeys” depends on the world.


ben wolfson 10.07.06 at 11:40 am

Man, sentences ain’t got no noema.


Daniel 10.07.06 at 11:47 am

Well, because sets are ‘about’ their members

Constructive sets are about their members. If you believe in the axiom of choice then there are loads of sets with no specific membership criterion. I personally don’t believe in the axiom of choice, but I wouldn’t want anything important in mental philosophy to depend on such a point of set theory.


ben wolfson 10.07.06 at 12:08 pm

Having thought about it for about 30 seconds, I am confused as to why anyone would think that sentences abstracted from any interpreter at all would be about something, and, if they are about things (and if that’s all it takes to be intentional), then wouldn’t an awful lot of ordinary physical objects be intentional? Not just gold and sets, but road signs, little piles of rocks serving as trail markers, measuring tape, and god knows what else.


Charlie Whitaker 10.07.06 at 3:00 pm

I would have thought that a good test for ‘intentionality’ is whether or not representation is intrinsic to the thing that’s suspected of intentionality: does it represent something to itself?

‘Aboutness’ seems too vague to me.


Dan 10.07.06 at 3:06 pm

> …if they are about things (and if that’s all it takes to be intentional), then wouldn’t an awful lot of ordinary physical objects be intentional? Not just gold and sets, but road signs, little piles of rocks serving as trail markers, measuring tape, and god knows what else.

Wasn’t that kind of the point of Holbo’s question?


Steve LaBonne 10.07.06 at 4:42 pm

If a thoroughly amateur comment is allowed- doesn’t Searle’s concept of derived intentionality relieve us from the conundra involving inanimate objects (or abstracted sentences)?


B. 10.07.06 at 5:37 pm

If I undestand your point correctly, a couple articles you might want to check out (if you haven’t already) are the Dennet article that Brendan mentioned (which I would give a slightly more favorable gloss on, but that’s the ballpark), as well as “Why Paramecia Don’t Have Mental Representations” by Fodor.

As to your examples, I think other cases have much more intuitive pull. I just don’t think sets are “about” their members — they simply have members. (Aside: I can understand a set of entities that don’t exist as a set of possible objects or a set of fictional objects. Still no problem for intentionality. And I’m not quite sure how the axiom of choice bears on this; membership is a primitive, even if there’s no criterion for membership). Same for gold. Nonetheless, I do find it more compelling that sentences, paintings, and so on all have intentionality, but then again, those probably aren’t the kinds of cases you’re really looking for. See also Putnam’s ant making (?) a representation of Churchill.


John Holbo 10.07.06 at 8:47 pm

Quick point about derived intentionality. One reason to mention sets and gold is that there the derivation is moving in the opposite direction. Intentionality in the mind is BEING derived from an abstract object or putative natural kind. Normally ‘derived intentionality’ means it STARTED in the mind, whence it migrated to sentences and artifacts and such.

I think maybe I shouldn’t have picked the set example. It was maybe a bit too extreme. But I was toying with Searle’s criterion of intentionality – ‘satisfaction’. There are directions of fit, and fitting relations. (Isn’t that right?) This seems to fit the case of sets, plausibly. The number 2 satisfies the conditions of fitting into the set of all even numbers. (Not that we need to take Searle’s word for it about ‘fitting’/’satisfaction’ being the right terms for getting at the relation. But my point was that possible terms you might pick could open up a surprisingly broad field – broader than you might have, er, intended.)


John Holbo 10.07.06 at 8:52 pm

John Emerson, you Michel Meyer’s case ‘all propositions are answers to questions’ seems like an example of life imitating Wittgenstein’s little thought-experiments. Namely, he says: of course you could say that the form of every proposition is a question plus a ‘yes’ answer. (Not that Meyer necessarily has no reason for saying it, mind you. I’m just struck that Wittgenstein anticipated this and dismissed it as a plausible folly of the philosophy of language.)


Daniel 10.08.06 at 6:55 am

There are directions of fit, and fitting relations. (Isn’t that right?)

I am pretty sure that this train of thought is going to lead you into some very specific and controversial positions in philosophy of mathematics.


John Emerson 10.08.06 at 8:11 am

I think that people should read Meyer’s “Rhetoric, Logic, and Reason”. “From Logic to Rhetoric” is actually specifically a critique of analytic philosophy and might be more interesting to the audience here.

Meyer was familiar with Wittgenstein so presumably his work is in some way a response to Wittgenstein in that respect. I know that Wittgenstein rejected propositionalism in ethics, but W’s ethical thinking seems to have been a lurid mass of intense confusion.

Meyer is neither a “COntinental” nor and “analytic” philosopher (neither a Harlem Globetrotter nor a Washington General), so no one reads him. It’s so bad that I am the internet’s chied Michel Meyer resource, which is a darn shame because my reading of him is pretty tendentious.


Tim 10.08.06 at 8:24 am

There are directions of fit, and fitting relations. (Isn’t that right?) This seems to fit the case of sets, plausibly. The number 2 satisfies the conditions of fitting into the set of all even numbers.

I don’t think so. The identity-condition of sets is usually thought to be extensional, not intensional: same members, same set. You can specify which set you’re interested in by picking out its members through some description, but the same set can be picked out via multiple descriptions, and for many sets, you’d just have to ennumerate its members.

So I’d say you might have a case to make for the relationship between the number two and the predicate ‘is an even number,’ but not for the relationship between the number two and the set that contains [2, 4, 6… etc.]


Daniel 10.08.06 at 9:33 am

and for many sets, you’d just have to ennumerate its members

And for lots of infinite sets of this kind, you have to either assert the set’s existence despite the fact that you can neither set out a membership criterion nor enumerate the members, or get along without the Axiom of Choice.


Protagoras 10.08.06 at 9:44 am

I’m extremely fond of Ruth Millikan’s work on the intentionality of both language and mind. She doesn’t discuss intentionality and mathematics that I recall, but her discussion of the intentionality of sentences may be relevant to your concerns here. Her theory is essentially that evolutionary notions of teleology can be applied to human minds and human language (hardly a unique thought, but her discussion is vastly more detailed than most).


Pablo Stafforini 10.08.06 at 10:30 am

Intentionality may be the mark of the mental, but it also seems like the mark of the general.

You may want to check U.T. Place’s ‘Intentionality as the Mark of the Dispositional’, Dialectica 50 (1996), pp. 91-120, and his debate with Mumford in The Philosophical Quarterly 195 (1999).


Brian 10.08.06 at 8:35 pm

I know this is sort of talking past the various points being made here, but I hope we’re not relying on Searle for our thoughts on intention! Searle lost his purchase on the matter when he tried to argue with Derrida over whether you need intention in order to have meaning. (That is, “meaning” as significance, not “meaning” as just another word for intention).

Take the following scenario. Let’s say I have a computer program that randomly assembles words together in a series. Every day I walk into my favorite coffee shop and post a product of this computer program on the bulletin board. It’s usually nonsense: “cat mortage glisten,” or ” porky might friend,” etc. But let’s say that one day my computer spits out the phrase “charity never fails.” I go post that in the coffee shop; and then some new costomers come in, read that sentence posted on the bulletin board—and it fills them with hope and gladness. “Charity never fails!” How true! The phrase is clearly meaningful to these people, and it changes their lives. It strikes them as a very profound and meaningful truth.

Now: are we going to say that they’re wrong? That the phrase is actually “meaningless” simply because there was no “intention” that produced the sentence? It is clearly ridiculous to say that the exact same sentence suddenly does have significance if we change the scenario to say that I wrote the phrase myself and then posted it on the bulletin board.

Clearly, meaning or significance only exists as an effect of iteration. It is pointless to worry about some pre-iterative “intent” when you’re studying how language works for exactly the same reason that it is pointless to worry about whether the universe was created by a supernatural God when you’re studying how nature works.

Although… I understand that some might be interested in “intent” beyond the question of how language works… but it’s difficult to know how to go about that project when, it seems to me, even those interested in pure “cognition” frequently track “intent” by measuring it against some utterance that would verify its existence… and I wrong about this..?


tom hurka 10.08.06 at 9:58 pm

I agree with other commenters that the sets example is stretching it, but my former colleague C. B. Martin published an article in the mid-1980s (I think) that argued that causal dispositions like fragility have the characteristics of intentionality even though they aren’t mental. They are directed to something, in fragility’s case the breaking of the glass or whatever, and can exist even though that thing never exists, e.g. glass can be fragile even though the event of its breaking never occurs, say because nothing is ever thrown at it. That seems to me a better non-linguistic example (or candidate example) of non-mental intentionality than anything to do with sets or gold or whatever.


tim 10.09.06 at 10:44 am

Re: tom hurka’s suggestion in #29.

David Armstrong makes a similar remark near the beginning of his A Materialist Theory of the Mind, that e.g., poison is in a way intentional, since it ‘points toward’ death.

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