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Intentionality is a philosophical concept defined as "the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs". [1] The idea fell out of discussion with the end of the medieval scholastic period, but in recent times was resurrected by Franz Brentano and later adopted by Edmund Husserl. Today, intentionality is a live concern among philosophers of mind and language. [2] The earliest theory of intentionality is associated with St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, and with his tenets distinguishing between objects that exist in the understanding and objects that exist in reality. [3]



The concept of intentionality was reintroduced in 19th-century contemporary philosophy by Franz Brentano (a German philosopher and psychologist who is generally regarded as the founder of act psychology, also called intentionalism) [4] in his work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874). Brentano described intentionality as a characteristic of all acts of consciousness that are thus "psychical" or "mental" phenomena, by which they may be set apart from "physical" or "natural" phenomena.

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We could, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.

Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, edited by Linda L. McAlister (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 88–89.

Brentano coined the expression "intentional inexistence" to indicate the peculiar ontological status of the contents of mental phenomena. According to some interpreters the "in-" of "in-existence" is to be read as locative, i.e. as indicating that "an intended object ... exists in or has in-existence, existing not externally but in the psychological state" (Jacquette 2004, p. 102), while others are more cautious, stating: "It is not clear whether in 1874 this ... was intended to carry any ontological commitment" (Chrudzimski and Smith 2004, p. 205).

A major problem within discourse on intentionality is that participants often fail to make explicit whether or not they use the term to imply concepts such as agency or desire, i.e. whether it involves teleology. Dennett (see below) explicitly invokes teleological concepts in the "intentional stance". However, most philosophers use "intentionality" to mean something with no teleological import. Thus, a thought of a chair can be about a chair without any implication of an intention or even a belief relating to the chair. For philosophers of language, what is meant by intentionality is largely an issue of how symbols can have meaning. This lack of clarity may underpin some of the differences of view indicated below.

To bear out further the diversity of sentiment evoked from the notion of intentionality, Husserl followed on Brentano, and gave the concept of intentionality more widespread attention, both in continental and analytic philosophy. [5] In contrast to Brentano's view, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre ( Being and Nothingness ) identified intentionality with consciousness, stating that the two were indistinguishable. [6] German philosopher Martin Heidegger ( Being and Time ), defined intentionality as "care" (Sorge), a sentient condition where an individual's existence, facticity, and being in the world identifies their ontological significance, in contrast to that which is merely ontic ("thinghood"). [7]

Other 20th-century philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle and A.J. Ayer were critical of Husserl's concept of intentionality and his many layers of consciousness. [8] Ryle insisted that perceiving is not a process, [9] and Ayer that describing one's knowledge is not to describe mental processes. [10] The effect of these positions is that consciousness is so fully intentional that the mental act has been emptied of all content, and that the idea of pure consciousness is that it is nothing. [11] (Sartre also referred to "consciousness" as "nothing"). [12]

Platonist Roderick Chisholm has revived the Brentano thesis through linguistic analysis, distinguishing two parts to Brentano's concept, the ontological aspect and the psychological aspect. [13] Chisholm's writings have attempted to summarize the suitable and unsuitable criteria of the concept since the Scholastics, arriving at a criterion of intentionality identified by the two aspects of Brentano's thesis and defined by the logical properties that distinguish language describing psychological phenomena from language describing non-psychological phenomena. [14] Chisholm's criteria for the intentional use of sentences are: existence independence, truth-value indifference, and referential opacity. [15]

In current artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind, intentionality is sometimes linked with questions of semantic inference, with both skeptical and supportive adherents. [16] John Searle argued for this position with the Chinese room thought experiment, according to which no syntactic operations that occurred in a computer would provide it with semantic content. [17] Others are more skeptical of the human ability to make such an assertion, arguing that the kind of intentionality that emerges from self-organizing networks of automata will always be undecidable because it will never be possible to make our subjective introspective experience of intentionality and decision making coincide with our objective observation of the behavior of a self-organizing machine. [18]

Dennett's taxonomy of current theories about intentionality

Daniel Dennett offers a taxonomy of the current theories about intentionality in Chapter 10 of his book The Intentional Stance . Most, if not all, current theories on intentionality accept Brentano's thesis of the irreducibility of intentional idiom. From this thesis the following positions emerge:

Roderick Chisholm (1956), G.E.M. Anscombe (1957), Peter Geach (1957), and Charles Taylor (1964) all adhere to the former position, namely that intentional idiom is problematic and cannot be integrated with the natural sciences. Members of this category also maintain realism in regard to intentional objects, which may imply some kind of dualism (though this is debatable).

The latter position, which maintains the unity of intentionality with the natural sciences, is further divided into three standpoints:

Proponents of the eliminative materialism, understand intentional idiom, such as "belief", "desire", and the like, to be replaceable either with behavioristic language (e.g. Quine) or with the language of neuroscience (e.g. Churchland).

Holders of realism argue that there is a deeper fact of the matter to both translation and belief attribution. In other words, manuals for translating one language into another cannot be set up in different yet behaviorally identical ways and ontologically there are intentional objects. Famously, Fodor has attempted to ground such realist claims about intentionality in a language of thought. Dennett comments on this issue, Fodor "attempt[s] to make these irreducible realities acceptable to the physical sciences by grounding them (somehow) in the 'syntax' of a system of physically realized mental representations" (Dennett 1987, 345).

Those who adhere to the so-called Quinean double standard (namely that ontologically there is nothing intentional, but that the language of intentionality is indispensable), accept Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of radical translation and its implications, while the other positions so far mentioned do not. As Quine puts it, indeterminacy of radical translation is the thesis that "manuals for translating one language into another can be set up in divergent ways, all compatible with the totality of speech dispositions, yet incompatible with one another" (Quine 1960, 27). Quine (1960) and Wilfrid Sellars (1958) both comment on this intermediary position. One such implication would be that there is, in principle, no deeper fact of the matter that could settle two interpretative strategies on what belief to attribute to a physical system. In other words, the behavior (including speech dispositions) of any physical system, in theory, could be interpreted by two different predictive strategies and both would be equally warranted in their belief attribution. This category can be seen to be a medial position between the realists and the eliminativists since it attempts to blend attributes of both into a theory of intentionality. Dennett, for example, argues in True Believers (1981) that intentional idiom (or "folk psychology") is a predictive strategy and if such a strategy successfully and voluminously predicts the actions of a physical system, then that physical system can be said to have those beliefs attributed to it. Dennett calls this predictive strategy the intentional stance.

They are further divided into two theses:

Advocates of the former, the Normative Principle, argue that attributions of intentional idioms to physical systems should be the propositional attitudes that the physical system ought to have in those circumstances (Dennett 1987, 342). However, exponents of this view are still further divided into those who make an Assumption of Rationality and those who adhere to the Principle of Charity. Dennett (1969, 1971, 1975), Cherniak (1981, 1986), and the more recent work of Putnam (1983) recommend the Assumption of Rationality, which unsurprisingly assumes that the physical system in question is rational. Donald Davidson (1967, 1973, 1974, 1985) and Lewis (1974) defend the Principle of Charity.

The latter is advocated by Grandy (1973) and Stich (1980, 1981, 1983, 1984), who maintain that attributions of intentional idioms to any physical system (e.g. humans, artifacts, non-human animals, etc.) should be the propositional attitude (e.g. "belief", "desire", etc.) that one would suppose one would have in the same circumstances (Dennett 1987, 343).

Basic intentionality types according to Le Morvan

Working on the intentionality of vision, belief, and knowledge, Pierre Le Morvan (2005) [19] has distinguished between three basic kinds of intentionality that he dubs "transparent", "translucent", and "opaque" respectively. The threefold distinction may be explained as follows. Let's call the "intendum" what an intentional state is about, and the "intender" the subject who is in the intentional state. An intentional state is transparent if it satisfies the following two conditions: (i) it is genuinely relational in that it entails the existence of not just the intender but the intendum as well, and (ii) substitutivity of identicals applies to the intendum (i.e. if the intentional state is about a, and a = b, then the intentional state is about b as well). An intentional state is translucent if it satisfies (i) but not (ii). An intentional state is opaque if it satisfies neither (i) nor (ii).

Mental states without intentionality

The claim that all mental states are intentional is called intentionalism, the contrary being anti-intentionalism.

Some anti-intentionalism, such as that of Ned Block, is based on the argument that phenomenal conscious experience or qualia is also a vital component of consciousness, and that it is not intentional. (The latter claim is itself disputed by Michael Tye.) [20]

Another form of anti-intentionalism associated with John Searle regards phenomenality itself as the "mark of the mental" and sidelines intentionality. [21]

A further form argues that some unusual states of consciousness are non-intentional, although an individual might live a lifetime without experiencing them. Robert K.C. Forman argues that some of the unusual states of consciousness typical of mystical experience are pure consciousness events in which awareness exists, but has no object, is not awareness "of" anything.

Intentionality and self-consciousness

Several authors have attempted to construct philosophical models describing how intentionality relates to the human capacity to be self-conscious. Cedric Evans contributed greatly to the discussion with his "The Subject of Self-Consciousness" in 1970. He centered his model on the idea that executive attention need not be propositional in form. [22]

See also

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Edmund Husserl German philosopher, known as the father of phenomenology

Edmund Gustav Albrecht Husserl was a German philosopher who established the school of phenomenology. In his early work, he elaborated critiques of historicism and of psychologism in logic based on analyses of intentionality. In his mature work, he sought to develop a systematic foundational science based on the so-called phenomenological reduction. Arguing that transcendental consciousness sets the limits of all possible knowledge, Husserl redefined phenomenology as a transcendental-idealist philosophy. Husserl's thought profoundly influenced the landscape of 20th-century philosophy, and he remains a notable figure in contemporary philosophy and beyond.

Metaphysics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century AD editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Materialism is a form of philosophical monism that holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions. According to philosophical materialism, mind and consciousness are by-products or epiphenomena of material processes, without which they cannot exist. This concept directly contrasts with idealism, where mind and consciousness are first-order realities to which matter is subject and material interactions are secondary.

Mind Combination of cognitive faculties that provide consciousness, thinking, reasoning, perception and judgement

The mind is the set of thinking faculties including cognitive aspects such as consciousness, imagination, perception, thinking, judgement, language and memory, as well as noncognitive aspects such as emotion. Under the scientific physicalist interpretation, the mind is housed at least in part in the brain. The primary competitors to the physicalist interpretations of the mind are idealism, substance dualism, and types of property dualism, and by some lights eliminative materialism and anomalous monism. There is a lengthy tradition in philosophy, religion, psychology, and cognitive science about what constitutes a mind and what are its distinguishing properties.

Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent within a system, as opposed to that which is only imaginary. The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence. In physical terms, reality is the totality of a system, known and unknown. Philosophical questions about the nature of reality or existence or being are considered under the rubric of ontology, which is a major branch of metaphysics in the Western philosophical tradition. Ontological questions also feature in diverse branches of philosophy, including the philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophical logic. These include questions about whether only physical objects are real, whether reality is fundamentally immaterial, whether hypothetical unobservable entities posited by scientific theories exist, whether God exists, whether numbers and other abstract objects exist, and whether possible worlds exist.

Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Göttingen and Munich in Germany. It then spread to France, the United States, and elsewhere, often in contexts far removed from Husserl's early work.

Franz Brentano Austrian philosopher

Franz Clemens Honoratus Hermann Brentano was an influential German philosopher, psychologist, and priest whose work strongly influenced not only students Edmund Husserl, Sigmund Freud, Tomáš Masaryk, Rudolf Steiner, Alexius Meinong, Carl Stumpf, Anton Marty, Kazimierz Twardowski, and Christian von Ehrenfels, but many others whose work would follow and make use of his original ideas and concepts.

Eliminative materialism Philosophical view that states-of-mind as commonly understood do not exist

Eliminative materialism is the claim that people's common-sense understanding of the mind is false and that certain classes of mental states that most people believe in do not exist. It is a materialist position in the philosophy of mind. Some supporters of eliminativism argue that no coherent neural basis will be found for many everyday psychological concepts such as belief or desire, since they are poorly defined. Rather, they argue that psychological concepts of behaviour and experience should be judged by how well they reduce to the biological level. Other versions entail the non-existence of conscious mental states such as pain and visual perceptions.

Alexius Meinong Austrian philosopher

Alexius Meinong, Ritter von Handschuchsheim was an Italian philosopher, a realist known for his unique ontology. He also made contributions to philosophy of mind and theory of value.

Roderick Milton Chisholm was an American philosopher known for his work on epistemology, metaphysics, free will, value theory, and the philosophy of perception.

The School of Brentano was a group of philosophers and psychologists who studied with Franz Brentano and were essentially influenced by him. While it was never a school in the traditional sense, Brentano tried to maintain some cohesion in the school. However, two of his most famous students, Alexius Meinong and Edmund Husserl, ultimately moved radically beyond his theories.

20th-century philosophy Philosophy-related events during the 20th century

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In metaphysics, realism about a given object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. In philosophical terms, these objects are ontologically independent of someone's conceptual scheme, perceptions, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc.

The intentional stance is a term coined by philosopher Daniel Dennett for the level of abstraction in which we view the behavior of an entity in terms of mental properties. It is part of a theory of mental content proposed by Dennett, which provides the underpinnings of his later works on free will, consciousness, folk psychology, and evolution.

Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.

Jaegwon Kim was a Korean-American philosopher who was an emeritus professor at Brown University, but who also taught at several other leading American universities. He is best known for his work on mental causation, the mind-body problem and the metaphysics of supervenience and events. Key themes in his work include: a rejection of Cartesian metaphysics, the limitations of strict psychophysical identity, supervenience, and the individuation of events. Kim's work on these and other contemporary metaphysical and epistemological issues is well represented by the papers collected in Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays (1993).

<i>The Journal of Philosophy</i> Academic journal

The Journal of Philosophy is a monthly peer-reviewed academic journal on philosophy, founded in 1904 at Columbia University. Its stated purpose is "To publish philosophical articles of current interest and encourage the interchange of ideas, especially the exploration of the borderline between philosophy and other disciplines." Subscriptions and online access are managed by the Philosophy Documentation Center.

Philosophy of mind Branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of the mind

Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the ontology and nature of the mind and its relationship with the body. The mind–body problem is a paradigmatic issue in philosophy of mind, although a number of other issues are addressed, such as the hard problem of consciousness and the nature of particular mental states. Aspects of the mind that are studied include mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness, the ontology of the mind, the nature of thought, and the relationship of the mind to the body.


Reism or concretism is a view that only concrete material things exist. It is a philosophical theory associated with Tadeusz Kotarbiński who proposed that it involves both the proper view about the kinds of objects that exist and the literal way of speaking about things. It is based on the ontology of Stanislaw Lesniewski, specifically, his "calculus of names". This theory, which is also referred to as somatism and pansomatism, has been interpreted as an analogue of defended classic physicalism.

According to Franz Brentano, intentionality refers to the "aboutness of mental states that cannot be a physical relation between a mental state and what it is about because in a physical relation each of the relata must exist whereas the objects of mental states might not."


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