Defining “Intentionality”

I’m working on my second draft of Key Terms in Philosophy of Mind, a book under contract with Continuum Books. From time to time I’ll be posting draft entries on Brain Hammer, especially for controversial or especially difficult to arrive at definitions. (See also my Philosophy of Mind MetaResource.) Here’s “intentionality”:

intentionality, the directedness of the mind upon its objects; the aboutness of mental states that are about something; the possession, by mental states, of CONTENT; the relating or quasi-relating, of a mental state such as a BELIEF or a DESIRE toward its INTENTIONAL OBJECT. Some controversy surrounds the question of whether non-mental entities such as words and pictures may have intentionality and, if so, whether non-mental instances of intentionality are derivative phenomena, with the only instances of non-derivative, original intentionality being mental instances. The remainder of this entry will focus on the intentionality of mental states.
The philosophical notion of intentionality originates primarily from the medieval era and was introduced into contemporary philosophical discussions via the work of FRANZ BRENTANO. Brentano held intentionality to be the mark of the mental and to pose a permanent obstacle to PHYSICALISM or MATERIALISM. One especially problematic feature of intentionality, the feature that makes it especially difficult to regard it as a physical phenomenon, is the INEXISTENCE of intentional objects. One way of highlighting the problem of intentional inexistence is via the contemplation of the following inconsistent triad concerning an intentional state such as a THOUGHT.
(1) To have a thought about something is to bear a relation to a thing that is thereby thought about.
(2) One can bear relations only to things that exist.
(3) One can have thoughts about things that do not exist.
Each of the three items in this triad is independently plausible, but taken together it is clear that they cannot all be true. Different philosophers have held varying positions about intentionality that involve rejecting one or more of the items in the inconsistent triad.
One key feature of intentionality (with a ‘t’) is its relation to intensionality (with an ‘s’). This may be brought out with respect to item (3) in the inconsistent triad: Another way of highlighting the intensionality of intentional states is in terms of DE DICTO belief: John may believe that Mark Twain had a mustache and believe that Samuel Clemmons did not have a mustache even though “Mark Twain” and “Samuel Clemmons” are names for one and the same person.
Another key feature of intentionality is that intentional mental states may be characterized in terms of their DIRECTION OF FIT. For example, a belief is supposed to be true of aspects of the world, but a desire is not supposed to conform to the way the world is. Instead, the world has to be a certain way in order for the desire to be satisfied.
One sort of question that arises is whether all mental states have intentionality. Another sort of sort of question that arises is whether the mental properties of states include only their intentionality. Call these the “all” and “only” questions, respectively. Regarding the “all” question, philosophers have wondered whether intentionality is a property of mental states other than the paradigmatically intentional examples of belief, desire, PERCEPTION, and INTENTION. To what degree, if at all, does intentionality attach, for instance, to states of EMOTION or SENSATION? Regarding the “only” question, philosophers have wondered whether phenomenal characteristics or QUALIA should be regarded as mental properties that are distinct from intentionality. One sort of position to hold with respect to both the “all” and the “only” question, is to hold that, for instance, a sensation of PAIN has no intentionality, it doesn’t, for example, represent any part of the world as being any particular way and that the mental properties of this state are exhausted by qualia such as phenomenal intensity and negative valence. An opposing position, such as that held by some adherents of FIRST-ORDER REPRESENTATIONALISM, is that a sensation of pain does have intentionality, that the intentional object of a sensation of pain is some part of the body, and that the sensation represents the tissue in that body part as being disturbed or damaged. Thus, on such a view, a sensation of pain has a direction of fit similar to a belief or a state of perception. See also CONTENT, THEORIES OF.

4 Responses to “Defining “Intentionality””

  1. Chase Wrenn says:


    This will be a disappointingly thin comment.

    The entry looks good to me, but I think Mark Twain’s alter ego was Samuel Clemens, not Samuel Clemmons.


  2. Pete Mandik says:

    I give you Clemmons, and you make no Clemmon-ade? Sheesh.

    But seriously, folks: Thanks for the fix!

  3. Peter says:

    It looks good to me too.

    Would it be helpful to say something about meaning?

    Is it worth mentioning Aquinas specifically?

  4. Pete Mandik says:

    Thanks for the note, Peter. I think those are points worth considering.