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Can intentionality be naturalized?


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can intentionality be naturalized?
Date: 20th September 2011

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 10 September, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, 'Can intentionality be satisfactorily explained in naturalistic terms?'

My immediate reaction to your essay was, frankly, a bit negative. Not because I am aware that you have said anything wrong. On the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that my objections to the way you have surveyed the field of philosophical approaches to intentionality by analytic philosophers is as much an objection to the direction that debates have taken in recent years. I don't feel in the least bit gripped by the various competing 'positions', whether constructive or sceptical, as you have presented them.

You have deeply immersed yourself in this topic, as is evident from your bibliography as well as from the issues raised, or more often just alluded to, in your essay. Do you feel gripped by the problem of whether intentionality can be naturalised? Do you care?

Let's start with the question (as always). In this case, it seems on a first reading that the examiner is offering you an invitation to survey the field, as you have done, and make a judicious decision about which theory comes closest to giving an acceptable account. But you only have an hour to do this. How can anyone possibly do an adequate survey, given such tight constraints?!

As you know, on principle I don't look at examiner's reports, so you will have to check what I say against the examiners' account of what they were looking for. It seems to me that the question is intended in a foundational sense. What the examiners want, primarily, is an account of the problem which gives rise to all these different theories, as well as an account of the conditions for the acceptability of a solution.

The primary analytical cut I would make would be between different senses (or different levels of ambition) of 'explanation'. Apart from the very last paragraph -- where you offer an answer which I would tend to favour, of levels of explanation which are irreducible to one another combined with a supervenience thesis (although you don't state this explicitly) -- your working assumption seems to be that an explanation of intentionality would be a form of reduction of intentional idioms and explanations to naturalised science.

However, there is another sense of 'explanation' where what we are looking for is, in Kantian terms, an account for the 'conditions for the possibility of' the intentional.

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant seeks an account of the conditions for the possibility of experience. The work of Wittgenstein, both early and late, can be described in analogous terms as an investigation into the conditions for the possibility of semantic meaning. (Wittgenstein doesn't address the question of intentionality as such: in the Tractatus, 'psychological' or 'epistemological' considerations are deemed simply irrelevant, while in the Investigations intentionality is assumed as the irreducible bedrock of 'forms of life'.) What would be an analogous inquiry into the conditions for the possibility of intentionality?

One promising lead, alluded to in your essay, concerns the relation between teleology and intentionality. The importance of Darwin's theory of evolution in the history of science is that it laid the groundwork for scientific naturalism. There was an explanatory lacuna which previously could only be filled by some kind of purposeful entity, a Creator. Evolution removed that lacuna. Dennett, in his very first book 'Content and Consciousness' (RKP 1969) offered a brilliantly original update on Darwin. The ability to support content is explained by a two-stage evolutionary process. There is the natural evolution of the human brain. However, the brain itself undergoes an internal process analogous to evolution, whereby competing functional structures are selected on the basis of their suitability for producing appropriate behaviour.

Of course, this can be taken in a reductivist way (as Dennett has indeed done). But it would be perfectly possible to be a connectionist, rejecting any idea that there is a Turing-style 'program' for the human brain, accepting that Dennett's account offers no route to the reduction of the intentional to the non-intentional. It merely explains how the intentional could have arisen in the first place. There is *room* for the intentional in the natural world. If there weren't, that really would be a kind of disaster, analogous to the discovery that Darwinian evolution was itself fatally flawed.

Nevertheless, I have residual doubts. The bottom line that connects all the different theories of intentionality, as you have presented them, is that the intentional is a form of relation. The intentional is not to be found in a special kind of 'object' (say, Cartesian mental events) but rather in functional relations between objects, which are themselves part of the natural world. ('Functional' as I have used it here would include 'functionalism' so-called as one of the candidate theories.)

The one thing that this doesn't explain is the fact that I have intentional states. This is the problem Nagel saw. All the theories necessarily stop short at explaining how it is that GK has intentional states. But I am GK. This is a non-relational fact, an absolute fact. A metaphysical fact, maybe? -- I don't know the answer to that question. It's a conundrum. It probably wouldn't be too good an idea to wave this in front of the examiners, as you are unlikely to get a favourable response, but I have to state my position just for the record.

All the best,