On Philosophy

July 15, 2006

More on Intentionality

Filed under: Intentionality — Peter @ 12:01 am

Today I am just refining a couple points relating to the discussion of intentionality presented last time. It might be best to read that first if you haven’t already.

1: About-ness

Assuming that we now accept that there is no such thing as the traditional concept of intentionality how can we explain the idea that our thoughts are sometimes about objects external to us? It’s pretty obvious that about-ness, taken as a relation between thoughts and external objects, doesn’t influence our thinking (for example consider the classic example of the person who thinks the morning star and the evening star are two separate objects, his thoughts about them have different content and meaning (to him), but they are really about the same thing). That doesn’t necessarily mean that about-ness isn’t convenient to talk about in some cases. Here is a definition of about-ness that fits with the discussion of intentionality I previously presented: a thought is about something (X) if the thought is related to a mental model that was created, at least in part, by causal interaction with X, and that causes the subject to identify an object X that he or she perceives as such. I am not sure how the concept of about-ness could actually be useful to us philosophically, but at least we don’t have to discard it altogether.

2: Models of Kinds

If you accept my account of mental models / concepts you may be wondering how we should describe a mental model when it is “about” a classification or kind of thing instead of a particular object. I would argue however that the correct way to think about mental models is that they all determine a classification of things, some of which just happen to have a single member. (A bit on how this can be formalized: here.) I would more fully describe a mental model as being made up of a collection of weighted properties, which may either pick out a single object or a class of objects depending on the particular properties and weights involved. I say that a collection of weighted properties makes up a mental model because of the way people actually seem to classify the objects they encounter, namely that there is no one property that is all-important in determining what kind of object something is, and that some properties are more important in making this determination than others. If you don’t think this is a reasonable description of mental models consider the following: you have a mental model of your friend Bob, which obviously is a mental model of a single object and not of a kind or classification. However one day Bob is put through a duplicator, creating two indistinguishable Bobs, each of which is equally the original. Now you are in a situation where your mental model should lead you to identify both individuals as Bob, and thus it seems that somehow your mental model of what was once solely an individual has become a mental model of a class of people (containing two members currently). Because it is unreasonable to suppose that somehow the act of duplicating Bob reaches out to alter your mental model of him, we must accept that your mental model of Bob was really about this class of people all along, and it was simply a fact of nature that there was only one member of it, not an inherent property of the mental model.

3: About Kinds

Of course I now must mention how we can define a thought as being about a kind of thing, since the definition of “about” given above only applied to single objects. The redefinition is fairly straightforward: a thought is about something (X) if the thought is related to a mental model that was created, at least in part, by causal interaction with objects that can be described as X, and that the mental model in question causes the subject to identify object of type X as such when perceived. Of course this in turn partly hinges on the ability of a description to be considered a cause (see here).

Also: The blog hit 10,000 page views today, which seems like a large number.



  1. Intentionality as a term refers to the obvious fact that we don’t just think, but we think about something, we don’t just love, hate, observe, and so on… but we llove, hate, observe something.
    That something doesn’t have to exist, or be real. In fact we can think that something is not existing (e.g. I can say or think that Santa doesn’t exist), or we can think that something is not real (e.g. “That is not real tiger, it is just a man in suit”).
    So, intentionality is not a theory of causal or acausal relations between what we are thinking of, and that thing. The term “intentionality” is atheoretical, phenomenological notion which just registers and formalizes a fact that our intentional acts (thinking, observing, loving, wondering, affirming, denying and so on), are always about some things.
    So, I don’t think what you are attacking is intentionality or aboutness per se, but specific theories of intentionality.

    Comment by Tanasije Gjorgoski — July 15, 2006 @ 2:06 am

  2. Of course I have to attack specific theories of intentionality, what else could I attack? However they are the generally accepted theories of intentionality. Of course if you accept that intentionality is only an “atheoretical, phenomenological notion” then it can’t be useful in any possible theory, since it couldn’t have a real effect on the world (and thus on mental states / content). If you want to make intentionality do any work (such as provide meaning / content for thoughts), which many philosophers do, especially externalists, some direct realists, ect, then you must say that it is “real” realation, has causal power, and so on. This is the view of intentionality that I argue is inconsistant.

    Comment by Peter — July 15, 2006 @ 3:57 am

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