With this post, I continue my blog series on the ontology of knowledge.
What kind of thing is intentionality?
For one, I don’t see how it could be a relation. If it were, then any time I have a thought about something, even Pegasus, Pegasus would have to pop into existence, lest there not be a relation. So, most philosophers realize intentionality is a property of “mental states,” whatever those end up being ontologically (so as to not beg any questions here). Fred Dretske & Michael Tye, e.g., two naturalists, realize this is so.
But, as a property of things like thoughts, beliefs, & experiences (at least of those kinds that are used to make observations), what kinds of features do intentional states have?
First, here’s a quality they DON’T have: there is NOT a necessary connection between thoughts, beliefs, or experiences of an object and the object itself. A mental act’s mere “ofness” is not sufficient, for we can think about many things, including possible states of affairs, without them having to obtain in reality (e.g., Pegasus; if my glasses are on my desk at home (and they aren’t); etc.). The latter case parallels those in scientific testing, where we form a hypothesis and test for its accuracy.
Conversely, the existence of an object does not entail that there would be any thoughts or experiences of it. Their connection, therefore, is NOT existential, thereby undermining causal chain accounts, such as those proposed by Tye, in which intentionality just is causal correlation between an external, real object and our “mental” states which are “of” this object under optimal conditions. For him, mental states are just a way of describing brain states.
Positively, there are at least three key, even essential, features of intentional states:
- They are particularized. Consider my thought about tonight’s dinner, or my experience of being seated in Starbuck’s. What they are of is not generic or undifferentiated. In each case, their intentionality is directed “toward” some intended “object.”
- These mental states necessarily have intentionality. It does not seem we could have a thought, belief, or an experience in making an observation that lacks it.
- They also seem to be intrinsic, or essential, to each mental state. My thought about tonight’s dinner could not be about anything else and still be the thought it is. I could observe a gas’s behavior, but that experience could not have been of my being seated. So, how do we best explain these three essential features of intentional states?