Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Two Problems of Intentionality

To understand the metaphysics of the mind/body relationship we have to see that there is not one metaphysical problem, there are several (and this also requires us to recognize that "mind" is a heterogenous concept, referring to several different things at once). The problem of phenomenal "properties" requires, I think, a metaphysical solution that is completely different from how we address the problem of intentional "properties" (ultimately I don't think there are any mental properties, hence the scare quotes). Intentionality itself breaks down further into two distinct metaphysical problems.
The first problem is the problem of meaning, that is, the question of how a physical thing can mean anything, be a symbol, refer to something else. There is a keyboard, a mouse, two pads of paper and a cellphone on the desk in front of me (in class I usually hold up my piece of chalk, Luddite that I am). None of them means anything. Physical objects don't mean anything: that's not a property that they have. Books don't mean anything either: readers of natural languages look at the printed marks (letters, words, sentences) on the pages and attribute meanings to them via conventional rules understood by readers of the language. But it has appeared to many over the centuries that mental states do genuinely have this intentional property of meaning, or referring to, something other than themselves. Think of a rhinocerous, the story goes: now your mental state is about a rhinocerous (the little picture in your mind's eye is a picture of a rhinocerous). But wait: if we opened up your head and poked around in there, we wouldn't find any little picture (or word). We'd just find brains, neurons, biomush of one sort or another, with some electrochemical humming and buzzing going on. Brains (human bodies) are just physical things, like pieces of chalk and notepads, and those sorts of things don't mean anything. But mental states do. That's the first problem of intentionality. (Teaser: yes, I have solutions to propose to these metaphysical problems, but just now I'm just trying to get more clear on sorting them out).
The other problem of intentionality doesn't get as much attention, although it is the main problem according to Plato, and it is key to understanding Descartes, Chomsky and Davidson among others. That is the problem that we often see picked out in our contemporary literature with the phrase "the rationality assumption." When we predicate intentional states to persons we not only attribute mental contents to them (that's the first problem again), but we also (must) make an assumption that they are possessed of some minimal degree of rationality: our attribution of such-and-such beliefs and such-and-such desires is only useful in predicting and explaining behavior if the subject connects these contents through a system of logical relations. He believes that the drinking fountain is down the hall, he desires a drink of water: these two intentional states only link up assuming he has a minimal capacity for reason. And this appears metaphysically puzzling as there do not appear to be any logical relations between (after all, contingent) physical states, including brain states. Thus Davidson argues that there can be no psychophysical laws linking any given brain state to any given intentional state, Plato argues that the capacity for logic possessed by rational beings frees them from the determinations of physical laws, and Chomsky argues that the ability to formalize mathematics and logic represents a radical break between rational beings and non-linguistic beings whose behaviors can be explained using learning models (behaviorism) and adaptationist explanations (evolutionary psychology). In fact all rationalists develop some variation on this theme.
As I said, I do have metaphysical solutions to offer to these problems, but right now I have to go home to play with my three-year-old and to bake a quiche with the chicken left over from last night. Subscribe!


  1. I look forward to your continued thoughts on this. I tend to agree with you on part 1, however this, "Brains (human bodies) are just physical things, like pieces of chalk and notepads, and those sorts of things don't mean anything. But mental states do." has me a bit duped.

    You're separating mental states from the things that cause the mental states; so we have the classic mind/body duality. I understand the separation, however we're talking (I think) about the immaterial portion. What I'm hearing is that what has meaning is the part which has no form. Sure enough I suppose.

    When [then] does the object of inquiry which has no meaning become a mental state, where is the separation? How can the meaning be [only] in the immaterial when it's made of the material?

    I think it was Steven Pinker (Book; "How the Mind Works")who gave the analogy of a large group of people (say in a city in China) who are unwittingly playing out a neurological state for anger. Can it then be said that there is state of anger looming over the city? Even though all the people are themselves happy?

    I'm really just curious about your continued thoughts on this - my questions are merely rhetorical.

  2. Yes, thoughtful questions that help me because I'm working on my exposition of the problem. Here I am just trying to state the (alleged) problem, that (supposedly) "meaning" is a property (linguistics:semantics::philosophy of mind:intentionality) that is not a physical property. And bodies, understood/described as bodies, have physical properties only. End of being cute about it: my view (influenced by Wittgenstein and others) is that there cannot be symbols (things with meaning) "in the head." That is, I am a kind of eliminativist about mental content. PS any number of my earlier posts also lay out some of these arguments. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I'm doing a series of my own on the problems of intentionality. The most recent post is called "Against Intentionality". You can have a look at

  4. Anderson, I'm not sure that I follow your sweeping generalization that seems to put Davidson (who is a non-representationalist epistemist) with Plato, but you might enjoy this 10 minute Davidsonian defeat of skepticism, if only for its virtuoso performance in explanation:

  5. Virginia Ramos

    I do agree with the professor that there are two problems with intentionality, meaning and reason. I think both are inherent to human nature and not, actually, in the brain. (But that is a different matter). I like to discuss the part of Davidson’s argument. As it is ingrained in all of us psychology students, cause is no the same as correlation. As Davidson says “there can be no psychophysical laws linking any given brain state to any given intentional state.” This can be seen when, even though we have some sophisticated neuro-imaging techniques available we still can not link brain activity in certain areas of the brain to a specific behavior. But scientists or metal health professionals can say that it may be correlated with a certain behavior. We rationalize our desires and our actions to fulfill that desire but we do not “know” that there is a linear (causal) relation between the action and the reason to take it.