What Difference Does Intentionality Make for our “Fashionable Philosophies”?

January 13, 2011
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In the latest issue of Philosophia Christi (Winter 2010), Biola University’s R. Scott Smith has a unique article that challenges some underlying assumptions about intentionality and knowledge of what is real.

In the opening paragraphs of the article, Smith writes:

Intentionality is widely understood to be the “ofness” or “aboutness” of mental states. Metaphysically, however, there a number of views about what it is. For example, the token identity physicalist Michael Tye understands it as causal covariation under optimal conditions, whereas for J. P. Moreland, it is an abstract universal. Indeed, a range of views have been suggested along a number of lines, such as: (a) it is a property, a relation, or some other thing; (b) it is reducible to the physical, or not; and (c) it is real, or not.

My suspicion is that intentionality is needed for us to have knowledge of reality (that is, propositional knowledge), for whatever intentionality turns out to be, it seems that beliefs (not to mention concepts), being mental states, have it. While philosophers debate the precise formulation of the necessary conditions for knowledge, they seem agreed that it does include beliefs, which thereby include intentionality. My concern in this essay will be to show that much rises or falls in many of our contemporary, popular philosophies, whether among Christians or others. Specifically, I will try to show that intentionality has an essence and it seems best understood to be an abstract universal. This will allow me to show that other metaphysical treatments (or uses) of intentionality by several currently popular philosophies, such as naturalism, physicalism, postmodern epistemology, and moderate nominalism, land us in constructivism, such that we cannot know reality; we end up constructing it in some way or other.

To approach this issue, I will use Daniel Dennett and his treatment of intentionality as a crucial test case. From that study, I will extend my findings to the other aforementioned views. I will try to show not only how intentionality is an abstract universal but also how we use it to know reality directly. Then I will apply my findings to raise a potential implication for externalism in epistemology.

R. Scott Smith’s article can be read in its entirety by subscribing to Philosophia Christi or by purchasing the Winter 2010 issue.