On Philosophy

August 18, 2006

Intentionality and Perspective

Filed under: Intentionality — Peter @ 1:22 am

Earlier I argued that considering both the first and third person perspectives could give us insight into what knowledge is and why disagreements about its nature arise. Here I apply that same technique to intentionality (the way our thoughts are about or directed at things in the external world), and, as was the case with knowledge, it seems that the third person perspective may be misleading us.

It seems to me that much of our talk about about-ness or directedness is prompted by the third person approach to the mind. We hear other peoples’ reports of their thoughts and observe their actions, and from these we deduce that the content of their thoughts corresponds to objects in the external world (this is a rather obvious deduction). For example, if a person says “I see a tree” clearly they are reporting their experience to us, specifically that they are being presented with a visual sensation which either prompts, or is intertwined with, their concept of tree. We can also observe that there really is a tree before them, and thus we conclude that their experience is about or directed at the real tree, and furthermore that there is an intentional relation between the content of that experience (the concept of tree) and real trees.

However, when we turn to our first person experience of consciousness we cannot find this intentional relation. Certainly trees are the content of some of my thoughts. Sometimes I see trees directly, sometimes I imagine them, and sometimes I think of them only in abstraction. In none of these cases does the connection between the content of my thoughts and real trees present itself to me. Thinking of some imaginary plant that has never existed feels the same as the experience of thinking about trees, excluding of course the difference in content. From this we can conclude that since we aren’t aware of the intentional relation directly it isn’t part of consciousness (see here).

Admittedly the intentional relation might still be part of the unconscious, somehow acting as a framework for thoughts. I will dismiss this possibility for now, since we don’t know enough about how the unconscious mind works to make well founded judgments for or against the possibility of the intentional relation being part of it. As far as I can tell there is no reason that such a connection must be part of the unconscious mind, no explanations of experience or behavior require it, and thus I set it aside, by Occam’s razor. However, even if we exclude the intentional relation from being part of the mind, we are not prevented from putting forward the theory that concepts or content or meaning (whatever word appeals to you most) are derived from experience, and that without experience they would be meaningless (a very Humean point). In other words denying that a connection between thoughts and the real objects they are about is part of the mind does not imply that the mind is somehow divorced from the external world.

But certainly our third person perspective, which affirms the existence of an intentional relation, can’t be completely wrong. Indeed there is something right about it; the only mistake being made is the assumption that the intentional relation is part of the mind. It makes perfect sense to understand the intentional relation as a description of what the mind is doing. This is a distinction we make often in everyday life, but admittedly the mind is a complicated thing, so it is easy to get confused. For example we describe the moon as orbiting the earth, and here it should be obvious that the connection with the earth is simply a way of describing what the moon is doing, not part of the moon. The moon would be completely unchanged if the earth was replaced by some other object with the same mass. Likewise the mind would be completely unchanged if the objects it is “directed at” suddenly vanished, at least until their absence was noticed through perception. If the rest of the world were to disappear when I closed my eyes there is no reason to believe that a thought when my eyes were closed would be any different from the same thought when my eyes were open.

If this is true, that intentionality is simply a description of the mind encouraged by a third person perspective, what role does it have in the philosophy of mind? None whatsoever. It is true that how concepts come into being and their impact on how we act and perceive the world is certainly relevant, and if this is what you mean by intentionality then yes, it does have a role to play. However the intentional relation, as viewed as a connection between individual thoughts and the objects they are directed at, has no place in the philosophy of mind (but is rather important to the philosophy of language).


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