Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Are Mental States Intrinsically Intentional?

Discussing the problem of reference in his book on Husserl and Frege, Michael Dummett complains that for Husserl “the intentionality of mental acts was so axiomatic…that he perceived no necessity to demonstrate it in particular cases.” (Origins of Analytic Philosophy, Chapter 6, p55). Thus, whereas Frege developed a sophisticated if flawed theory of saturation in order to account for the meaningfulness of partial or incomplete expressions, Husserl--taking it for granted that any meaningful expression intrinsically enjoyed objective reference--failed even to problematize the issue. Since every thought, including partial thoughts, is intentional, and all intentional states have directness or reference (Bedeutung), there is no need to account for the specific reference of partial acts.

Dummett’s right. Husserl did take it for granted that mental acts are intrinsically and primitively intentional. I’m not going to argue here over whatever implications this might have for a Husserlian theory of reference (although Dummett is wrong that Husserl never saw this as a problem). I would like instead to consider the more fundamental gripe: can we assume that mental states are intrinsically intentional?

On the one hand, it seems obvious that we should. For what would it mean to speak about a belief, or perception, or desire that ignored what that belief, perception or desire were about. If we cannot think of what a belief, perception or desire would be like without it being about something—without it being intentional—then this is probably a good indication that mental states like beliefs, desires and perceptions are intrinsically (even ‘axiomatically’) intentional.

On the other hand, as Putnam points out, there’s a strong whiff of magical thinking somewhere in here. In that great Intro article of lore, “Brains in a Vat,” Putnam asks, suppose that the tracks of an ant happen to spell out WINSTON CHURCHILL, would this mark mean Winston Churchill? Certainly not by itself. But if marks and noises do not meaning anything ‘in themselves,’ what could it be, other than some magical mystery property, about thoughts (or brain states) such that they are intrinsically representational, ie intentional?

Putnam’s answer we know is that no mental state as such is intrinsically representational; there is no way to determine what a state represents simply from of features intrinsic to that state. The famous Twin Earth Gedankenexperiment is directed at precisely this point. What matters rather is how that state stands vis-à-vis its environment, and specifically, the causal lineage of that state in terms of its environment.

McDowell I think has an interesting response to this, one which, if plausible, lends support to Husserl. In “Putnam on Mind and Meaning,” McDowell argues that Putnam is led to deny an intrinsic intentionality to mental states because he sticks to a false dilemma regarding the following two claims: a) to know what a mental state means (represents) is wholly a matter of knowing about the subject’s mind; and b) that meaning determines extension. Since, as the Twin Earth Gedankenexperiment shows, two subject’s can be qualitatively indistinguishable by what we know from (a) but differ according to (b), Putnam thinks that we are forced to abandon (a) if we want to retain (b).

However, this is only because of Putnam’s unstated commitment to a psychologically “narrow” interpretation of (a), that is, the idea that a mental state...
“must in itself consist in the presence in the mind of an item with an intrinsic nature characterizable independently of considering what it represents.”
Now, as McDowell emphasizes, this surely is a phenomenologically inaccurate rendering of what it means to be in a particular mental state. For it simply is not the case that, when I reflect upon the contents of my mental states all I find are sense-data, images, soundings or sensations. When I reflect, for instance, on the sound of dripping water, it requires a quite radical phenomenological conversion to consider that state simply as a sound, and not as the representing of dripping water.

McDowell's riposte to Putnam's false dilemma is to point out that the latter unjustifiably analogizes the representational powers of symbols (etchings and soundings) with the representational powers of mental states. Surely symbols do obtain their representational powers via surrogation, which is why we can describe them without reference to what they are about. But we cannot similarly do so with mental states as such, because they do enjoy their representational powers not by surrogation but intrinsically.

I think that the lesson to draw from these comments is that for too long the burden of proof has been placed upon those who, like Husserl and McDowell, want us to assume from the start that mental states are intrinsically intentional. The burden must be the other way around. If we both find it difficult if not impossible to understand clearly what a mental state might be without reference to what that state represents, and if in order to do so we must adopt a position that is quite phenomenologically artificial and, to be frank, inaccurate, then surely the problem ought to be placed upon those who insist that this is the natural place to begin. In other words, while the idea that mental states are intrinsically intentional might seem just to be an assumption, it is one I think we are still pressed to maintain until a better reason is given for dropping it, and that better reason is still wanting.

In a following post I'll try to apply some brief lessons this insight have on the issue of the seeming incompatibility of externalism and self-knowledge.


  1. Hi Michael,

    beliefs, desires and perceptions are, of course, the "good" examples for someone who wants to argue for the intrinsic intentionality of mental states. The "bad" examples are those mental states which do not even seem to be intentional states at all - like tickles and itches. But maybe someone like Husserl would be happy to restrict his thesis to those mental states that are uncontroversially intentional and only claim of these states that they have their intentionality intrinsically!
    Another interesting question would be if McDowell's reply also works against Burge's social externalism and against Putnam's elm/beech example (where Putnam claims that he can have thoughts about elms and beeches although he really cannot tell them apart, that is, although the intentional content of his elm/beech-concepts - insofar as it is cognitively accessible to him - seriously underdetermines the extension of these concepts).

  2. Hey Joachim!

    This has come up before, so I guess I'll try to write a specific post addressing the matter. Husserl does restrict his thesis on the intrinsic intentionality of mental states to those states which takes objects. In other words, consciousness and intentionality are not co-extensive for Husserl, pace Brentano. This is why Husserl prefers always to speak of intentionality pertaining to mental ACTS rather than STATES.

    And here is McDowell's response to Putnam's Elm/Beech example: The lesson Putnam and others draw from the Elm/Beech Gedankenexperiment is that there is some common, fundamental psychological element common to the nonexpert's mental state and his Döppelganger. The semantic content of that state then differs according to which enviornment the subject happens to be embedded. This reading is premised on the assumption--so McDowell argues--that the mental state itself can be individuated concisely without respect to its enviornment, and that it's semantic content is thus a feature that supervenes upon this psychological according to the found enviornment. McDowell claims that that there is no good reason to see things this way (to separate the narrow psychological content from the wide semantic content). We can just as well understand that the psychological state itself is 'wide,' and that the 'common' element supervenes on this wide content. Why would we want to think this? One reason would be phenomenological: when I am visualizing the Linden trees that were below my apartment in Berlin, it would be quite weird to argue that those trees themselves are incidental or extraneous to the images I have in my mind before me. I repeat some of this in my following post; maybe it will be better clarified there.