Does original intentionality exist?

“Intentionality” is a philosophical term for “aboutness”. A movie review is about a movie, and the sentence “Trump is a narcissist” is about Trump. Your thoughts concerning today’s breakfast are about today’s breakfast. Each of these is about something else, so each exhibits intentionality.

How do these things acquire their aboutness? “Trump is a narcissist” isn’t inherently about the man who bears the name “Donald Trump”.  Had Trump’s family retained their Germanic surname, Drumpf, then “Trump is a narcissist” would no longer be about the man we call “the Donald”. The intentionality of the sentence is derivative; that is, it derives from the pre-existing convention of referring to a particular man as “Donald Trump”.

Where does the buck stop?  If A derives its intentionality from B, and B derives its intentionality from C, it would seem that we must reach a point at D or E or later in the sequence where the regress ends and the intentionality is intrinsic, or original.  What is that point?

For many philosophers, that point comes when we cross the line between the non-mental and the mental.  For them, thoughts have original/intrinsic intentionality, while spoken or written sentences do not.

My own belief is that original intentionality doesn’t exist, but I’ll leave my argument for the comment thread.  I know that others here do accept the existence of original intentionality, so the discussion should be lively.

54 thoughts on “Does original intentionality exist?

  1. walto:
    I didn’t think the “derives” in the OP was intended to be causal.

    Sure. and I agree with your points.

    I was addressing the later discussion of naturalizing intentionality, which is where the fun/action is, I think.

    The focus on the distinction of derives/original seems mostly to be a Dennett bugaboo. He says there is no magic “original”, that human or agent intentionality is a pattern we pick out by taking the intentional stance, and that the design stance explaining that pattern is based on evolution as “designer” (ie teleonomy). He punts to Millikan for the details of how that would work.

    I think naturalizing is where the action is. I also think KN (and others) make sense to separate intentionality of language users from intentionality of sentient animals, at least at the start of the analysis.

    Assuming Millikan can be made to work, I am OK with that approach for naturalizing sentient animal intentionality. But that is a big assumption currently. (She has a separate approach for language but it does not seem to get as much attention).

    There is the separate question of how language gets meaning. From social intentionality (a la Brandom, and I would guess also from Quine, in a much less worked out way)? Or is in based somehow on individual mental states or intentions (goals), a la Grice. Or some combination of individual and social (Putnam’s vector view?).

    Then there is the question of which should come first in explanations.

    These are the questions that keep me up nights.

    Well, maybe that it is an exaggeration, but I definitely can say I find them interesting.

  2. BruceS: Is there any sense in which calibration can fail? Can an engineer give wrong answers?

    The engineer can give wrong answers, because there is an external standard. If there is no external standard, then there cannot be wrong answers.

    A purely internal calibration can result in a system that works well or that works poorly. That’s a pragmatic criterion rather than a true/false (or right/wrong) criterion.

  3. BruceS: Sure. and I agree with your points.

    I was addressing the later discussion of naturalizing intentionality, which is where the fun/action is, I think.

    I should have made clear that I was commenting on keiths’ argument against original intentionality, not your comment. I’m glad you agree with me!

  4. Just a quick note, since I actually have a lot to do this weekend.

    Walto is right: on standard usage, the contrast between “original” and “derived” intentionality is whether the meaning of an utterance or symbol is derived from something else that has meaning. The contrast does not imply that original intentionality is ontologically fundamental, or that it doesn’t have some causal explanation for either it is implemented or in how it came into existence.

    How we cash out the cognitive neuroscience for the implementation of intentionality, or the evolutionary trajectory for how it came into existence, has no bearing on whether intentionality is original or derived, or even any bearing on whether or not we should accept the original/derived distinction in the first place.

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