Intentionality is Dead

After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave–a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead: but given the way of men there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.–And we–we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.
~F. N.

If want to study the mind, we believed that we needed to understand intentionality:

Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. —SEP

However intentionality is nowhere to be found. Intentionality is supposed to give us everything, it is the power of the mind, but in giving us everything, it itself is nothing.

These are the cases:

  1. Intentionality is the mark of all mental states.
  2. Intentionality is the mark of some mental states.

If intentionality exists in every mental activities, it’s then on par with ‘It’s raining or it’s not raining,’ and just as vacuous: any and every mental activity would be intentional implying that ‘mental activity’ = ‘intentional activity’. It is a distinction without a difference.

On the other hand allow for some mental things being intentional and other mental things not being intentional, i.e. the intentional is a subset of some greater mental activity. Then we’ve conceded that we aren’t asking about what we are or how we do what we do, but labeling a subset. I’m all for getting things labeled correctly, but we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Intentionality is dead. Whatever use we have gotten out of it in the past we should be thankful for but it is time to move on.

Long live Commitment

I stated in my metaphysics that conscious things make commitments. We are committed to doing certain things at certain times and other things at other time because of other commitments we have made. If we are committed to remembering someone’s birthday, then we take steps to ensure that we know what time of year that person was born. If these steps include some power of the mind ‘to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs,’ so be it, but all these things are secondary to the commitment initially made.

Some may call foul at this point: The objection to intentionality above applies to commitment and hence I am not practicing what I preach. If everything is a commitment then commitment is just as vacuous a concept as intentionality was accused of being.

Yes commitment is fundamental and hence may appear vacuous to some, but commitment comes with an internal structure that intentionality lacks. Intentionality is a power of the mind. Powers lack any internal structure: they act without having a more fundamental thing causing them to act, else that thing would be the power.

Say I am committed to my friends’ happiness and because of this commitment I send them cards on holidays. Commitments allow for structured derivative commitments, e.g. being committed to my friends’ happiness means I am committed to sending out letters and a commitment to sending out letters means a commitment to remembering and recording addresses. This food chain of commitments that is created, where the smaller commitments become part of bigger commitments which are part of even bigger commitments (with all sorts of interrelations between chains), gives us plenty of relations to investigate. Therefore it is true that analyzing a single commitment alone will get you no nowhere (e.g. analyzing a commitment to recording addresses) but analyzing groups of commitments will be far from vacuous.

Understanding ourselves and how we do what we do requires us to have a perspective on commitment, which I’ve discussed in briefly in my metaphysics. As meager an analysis as I am currently able to provide, it is still more than I felt we had before. Commitments determine our perspectives on certain situations and our perspectives likewise determine our commitments. Through analysis of our commitments and our perspective on things, we can understand how and why we do what we do. I don’t mean this to be a merely theoretical point but a practical one as well: we try to accomplish different things for specific reasons and when asked, we are able to give those reasons. Sometimes we have to preface our explanations with a description of how we perceived the situation to justify actions that seem unreasonable in hindsight, but this is all part of how we actually do and explain things.

6 thoughts on “Intentionality is Dead

  1. Hi Noah, I find ‘intentionality’ a difficult word, why not ‘aboutness’? Beliefs are about their subject-matter, so beliefs have aboutness. But often feelings, for example, are not about anything, and conversely word-tokens are about their word-meanings; this ‘Noah’ is about you, all by itself, much as the sky was blue before eyes evolved. Still, that is derivative on some minds existing… Perhaps ‘intentionality’ was so important because it seemed a likely joint at which to carve up mind reductionistically. Can you say the same for commitment? Are planets committed to the Sun? Is my computer committed to this keyboard? (Despite my writing style, I like this new pov on the problem btw)

  2. I find ‘aboutness’ just as bad if not worse than intentionality because it is a neologism designed to sound like it means something but does no more than intentionality. Intentionality is defined in terms of the word ‘about’ anyway (the power of the mind to be about things) and using ‘aboutness’ instead of intentionality (Aboutness is the power of the mind to be about things) reveals exactly how little is gained by using the word.

  3. Nogre:

    Aboutness/Intentionality would be the mental capacity to represent objects and states of affairs. One need not reiterate the word ‘about’ in the definition of aboutness.


    Sound post.

  4. Switching to ‘representation’ doesn’t do it for me because it solves none of the other problems I initially wrote about. ‘Capacity’ = ‘Power’, and ‘To Represent’ = ‘To Be About’. I’m sure someone can think up some technical differences, but I haven’t found any significant ones.

    I specifically dislike aboutness because it seems like a word cooked up to make it sound like we know we are talking about.

  5. Hmm. Well, I don’t understand exactly what the problem is. You write as though intentionality should have some sort of moral component. But if we just take intentionality to be that class of mental phenomena of intending, thinking, seeing, fearing, etc., there should be no beef.

    And regarding your initial post, not all mental phenomena are intentional: anxiety, for example, ‘fear in the face of nothing,’ is precisely the emotion it is because it is nonintentional.

  6. I agree that my response – the idea of commitment – may be seen as having a moral component, but this is not my specific problem with intentionality. My problem is that I don’t think we benefit from the concept, word, or anything else about intentionality, or if we have, then the benefit is long past.

    As for regarding all or some mental phenomena as intentional, I think this is a major problem either way: if all mental phenomena are intentional, then it is trivial; if only some mental phenomena are intentional, then it admittedly misses important aspects of the mental landscape.

    It is a good point that intentionality lacks a moral aspect to it. The only way to connect intentionality to morality would be in some ad hoc manner, and this makes it look like our mental landscape has two distinct spheres: the intentional and the moral. By using commitment I believe that we can achieve everything that intentionality did (by using the internal structure of commitment) and have some sort of a foundation for ethics as well. Two birds with one stone.

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