Monday, March 16, 2009

Intentionality and the Object of Moral Perception: Ricoeur's Challenge

Ricoeur tantalizingly challenges the Husserlian (and common sense) notion that the intentional object remains the same throughout various intentional acts. Consider, for example, the following: “that person with the heavy bags needs a seat” vs. “that person is standing with heavy bags.” On the common view, the intentional object, “the person standing with heavy bags,” is the same in both cases. This view, that the intentional object is given an identity through an act of understanding, is central to standard accounts of moral perception and is an important point for philosophy of mind and agency.

To work out the common view, let me take a version of the standard account from Angela Smith, who takes moral perception to be a case of “seeing under an aspect” (I do not mean to imply that this is Smith's own view; she suggests that it may be mistaken in the paragraph that follows):
A morally insensitive person may, in a literal perceptual sense, “see” exactly the same thing as a morally sensitive person—for example, that a person is standing on a crowded subway with two very full grocery bags. What differs is that the morally sensitive person sees this person as uncomfortable and in need of a place to sit down, while the morally insensitive person does not. (1, 259)

This point is taken to be independent of the further point about moral perception that a morally sensitive agent is more likely to notice features of her surroundings that call for a moral response (perceptual salience). Here, the issue is rather of how, or under what aspect, the morally sensitive or insensitive person perceives a situation provided that both have already noticed it. And this view—that intentional objects are somehow basic particular units of meaning that, already constituted, can enter into various intentional acts—has some obvious support: If, for example, I am to want to have chicken soup for dinner, then “having chicken soup for dinner” or something of the sort must have a meaning independently of my particular act of wanting it; after all, the very same object must be able to play a role in my epistemic judgments, or else I would never know how to satisfy my desires.

This is the sort of view Ricoeur has in mind. He calls on us to consider the following infinitive proposition: “I am to go on a trip.” This grammatical form

Is a neutral signification which could be incorporated in acts of different quality. It will occur some day that “I shall go on a trip”: here the meaning is at the same time called and held in suspension by its hypothetical modifier. In a decision the meaning is inserted into a positing of existence which is not stated but is affirmed as depending on me… (2, 43)

So what is the common meaning in these intentional acts? Ricoeur rejects the idea that the common meaning is given by a founding act of understanding, which allows it to enter into other intentional acts such as willing, hoping, predicting, etc. Nor “is it a primitive judgment of existence modified afterwards as a wish or a decision” (44).

Ricoeur's own view is that,
this meaning is distinguished only by abstraction from the concrete act of stating, wishing, ordering, or deciding… This proposition is not a judgment about that which I state, hope, command, or will, but a convergent product of abstraction, formed in the context of a reflection on acts and their objects (43-44)
Thus, the intentional object of a wish is not identical to the intentional object of the understanding; the identity of the two objects is not primary, but is established through a later act of abstraction. Similarly, the perception of a person standing with heavy bags will not be identical to the perception of a person with heavy bags in need of a seat: these intentional acts have a different quality, and are filled by different objects. (Ricoeur makes a similar point in “Methods and Tasks of a Phenomenology of the Will,” published in (3), though in similarly vague terms and also without any clear analysis of the implications. If anyone is familiar with further sources, please let me know.)

One way of bringing this out is by going back to the distinction I mentioned above, between seeing something under an aspect and noticing it at all. We can, of course, make this distinction in abstraction, but it is not at all clear that we can draw any fine line. For one thing, to take the example Smith uses, it seems a fact about the situation that the person with heavy bags needs a seat. So the morally sensitive observer is not adding something of his own to the situation; rather, he is simply seeing the situation for what it is. That the person with heavy bags needs a seat is part and parcel of the perceived situation, and it is a feature of the situation that the morally insensitive person simply does not notice. Similarly, an even less sensitive person might fail to notice that the bags are heavy, or might fail to notice a person standing with them at all. “Seeing under an aspect” is easily distinguishable from perceptual salience only if we assume that the “aspect” under which a perception might be seen is something added by the agent’s subjective attitudes, in opposition to what is objectively there to be perceived. But if we accept a moral realist picture, the “aspect” is really there, to be noticed by any sensitive observer in the way that the person with bags is really there.

So why does this matter? For one, if Ricoeur is right, we have to reexamine the standard classification of cognitive and conative acts in terms of directions of fit. For another, it suggests that valuation is integral to perception rather than projected on it, perhaps as some secondary quality. Of course the account would—to pose any serious challenge—still require a serious work-up of how a secondary act of abstraction, through which sameness of meaning is determined, could serve to unite our various judgments (say, judgments about what we want and judgments about how to get it; or judgments about moral responsibility and judgments about moral desirability). In any case, I suspect there is a way to pull off such an analysis by working out exactly how second-order acts govern first-order acts.

PS. What looks like a blue jay just pooped on my copy of Smith's paper. A spirited philosophical debate at last!


(1) Angela Smith, “Responsibility for Attitudes,” Ethics 115 (January 2005): 236-271

(2) Paul Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1966.

(3) Paul Ricoeur, Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology. Chicago: Northwestern, 2007.


  1. Hey Rom, great it happens, I'm in the middle of reading Brentano so I'd thought I'd put his two pfennigs in:

    The correlate to Husserl's intentional object in Brentano is the presentation: here's his argument for why presentations are 'fundamental' or 'founding':
    He acknowledges that in any complex psychical act, all three levels of presentation, judgment and desire are involved. Nonetheless, presentations are foundational (I'll leave aside for the moment what that might mean--but clearly it cannot mean temporal priority--all three are there at once in any complex psychical act, but nonetheless presentations are foundational). Here are his reasons:
    1) it is the simplest, while judgment and desire always include a presentation within them.
    2) it is the most universal, because it is the foundation.
    3) We can imagine a being who has no capacity for judgment or desire, but still has the capacity for presentation, but not the other way around.

    The first two are pretty obviously question begging. But I'm not so sure about the third. If it's true that we cannot conceive of a valuing without some presentation/judgment, but can conceive of a presentation/judgment without a valuing, then it does seem as if there is some sense to the claim that presentations/judgments are foundational.

    If I am understanding Riceour (and you) correctly, then the claim is that despite superficial similarities, these are in fact wholly in kind different acts. Or more bluntly: the whole founding/founded distinction should be abandoned.

    But I think that all that would be needed to maintain its validity is the observation that, in a desiring (eg. I desire a hamburger) there is something (the hamburger) that I recognize could also be the object of a judgment, or a perception. Or is Ricoeur denying even this: that a desired hamburger and an affirmed hamburger and a perceived hamburger are, in fact, three in kind different objects? If so, that seems wrong to me.

    Or is Riceour arguing that while there is of course a sense in which the desired/affirmed/perceived hamburger are the same hamburger, this is not because act-qualities are second order attitudes towards the primary, first-order hamburger perception--rather, this 'hamburger as such' is itself the second-order abstraction from the first-order, in kind different acts?

    Here's how I imagine Husserl/Brentano would respond to that: we should distinguish the ordo cognoscendi from the order essendi. In the order essendi, the hamburger in itself is primary, just because the notion of a perception, judgment, or believe that is not about something is incomprehensible--these acts are dependent upon the hamburger, whereas the perceived hamburger it self (as intentional object, I should add) is not dependent upon act-qualities like judgment and desire. But THAT the hamburger is the foundational, independent moment, in the ordo cognoscendi, is something that is evident after a second order reflection upon those acts.

    (A final note: I don't think that Husserl or Brentano at least would be happy with the first order, second order talk, because it's not the case that valuings take judgments as their objects, just as judgments don't take perceptions as their objects; the founding/founded relation is different than the first order/second order relation, so far as I can tell....)....

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for the comments. The issue that the hamburger must be foundational because it is what the different perceptions, judgments, beliefs, etc are about is the argument I point to in my post. And I am not at all sure what Ricoeur's response is. But let me try...

    Let me offer a way of dealing with Brentano's third point, though, and this will no doubt be familiar to you: "The human being's response is, if you like, indistinguishable from the cat's response qua response to an affordance describable in those terms [as movement through the only opening in the room, for example]. But it does not follow that the human being's response cannot be unlike the cat's response in being the human being's rationality at work." (McDowell, "What Myth?", 343)

    That is: the fact that a human and a cat may display identical behavior in certain circumstances does not provide evidence that they have the same underlying conceptual structures. So why should we think that beings with and beings without capacity for judgments have the same capacity for presentation? That is, why should we assume this short of sticking to a naive realist premise?

    I don't think Ricoeur is trying to eliminate the whole founding/founded distinction. But are you suggesting that objects--conceived in some strong realist sense as having a definite existence apart from the capacities used to apprehend them--are taken to be the foundation? Ricoeur seems to urge that we take the acts and their objects--not the objects conceived independently of acts--as founding.

    Anyway, I take Ricoeur's point to go along the lines of your second suggestion: that the hamburger is first given in discrete acts, and unified into a single hamburger through a further act of abstraction.

    About the ordo essendi/cognoscendi point: In one act, I take a hamburger as to-be-eaten. In another, I take it as to-be-ordered. In yet another, I take it as to-be-analyzed-for-percentage-of-rat-parts-per-pound. How do we decide WHICH of these hamburger takings/presentations is the "founding" one? Why should we take the hamburger as having a "founding" presentation that can be identified with the content of any particular kind of intentional act? (You know the Husserl better than I do; Ricoeur's criticism is that Husserl privileges understanding over other kinds of intentional acts as giving us the "founding" object. But why isn't this arbitrary?) Once you consider this, it seems pretty clear that the "founding" presentation is not some independent hamburger presentation that can be present in different kinds of intentional acts, but rather that the intentional acts present us with a multiplicity that we can unify through an abstract--and empty--presentation of "whatever all these acts have in common as object".

    Incidentally, back to Brentano's number 3: A hungry dog perceived the hamburger as to-be-eaten. It has no other presentation of the burger. So Brentano's argument does not seem to rest on the idea that there must be some founding presentation since humans and other animals must have the same presentation. So what is his point? That the founding presentation is given in the perceptual act of an ideal value-less but perceiving being? Why should this be founding?

  3. I just saw this linked from philosopher's carnival, and couldn't resist mentioning that a very similar debate has unfolded in cognitive science between functionalists and connectionists. I happened to teach the relevant passages just yesterday, so it's fresh in my mind. See:

    and search for "coffee." Assuming the Husserl / Ricouer interpretation is correct, Husserl seems to line up with the functionalists here (which would make Dreyfus happy!), and Ricouer seems to line up with the connectionists. The basic dialectic is as follows. Functionalists, represented by Fodor and Pylyshyn, say that mental representations have a constituent structure and compositional semantics, so that "bags" means the same thing in various contexts. But Smolensky, representing the connectionists, points out that this isn't necessarily the case, using his coffee example: "“Surely… we would get quite a different representation of ‘coffee’ if we examined the difference between ‘can with coffee’ and ‘can without coffee’ or ‘tree with coffee’ and ‘tree without coffee’; or ‘man with coffee’ and ‘man without coffee.’" F&P respond that in order to be able to make simple inferences, terms must have the same meaning in the various statements making up an argument.