by Neil Rickert

Some of the readers of this blog are of a scientific inclination, and are probably confused, or even troubled, by my mention of “intentional objects” in my last post.  I am not a real philosopher (except in the broad sense that everybody is a philosopher), so I have some understanding of why readers might be troubled by the terminology of intentionality.

In this post, I will attempt to clear up some of the possible confusion.  That’s not all that easy to do, but I shall try.

What is intentionality?

The first thing to understand is that “intentionality” is a philosopher’s term and a philosopher’s concept.  It is not a scientific term.  To me, it seems unlikely that scientists, by themselves, would have come up with the term.  They would be using different ways of discussing the issues where philosophers use the term “intentionality.”

The upshot of this, is that “intentionality” should not be part of the terminology in a scientific theory of human cognition.  Unfortunately, philosophers dominate cognitive science, so we are more-or-less forced to use their terminology even when it is not our own preference.  However we should, at least, attempt to give a scientific account of “intentionality” so that we can connect the discussions of cognitive science with those of other areas of science.  And I shall be attempting to do that in future posts.  It would be hard to cover all of that in one post.

From its name, one might think that “intentionality” has something to do with human intentions.  And it does, but not directly.  The word “intentionality” is sometimes defined as aboutness, as the ability of our words to be about something.  Maybe that helps a little, but “aboutness” is not a word that is in ordinary use, so it doesn’t help all that much.

Intentionality is not so much a property of words, as it is a capability of people.  We are able to use language to refer to things in the world.  It isn’t that the word itself is about something; it is that we use the word is such a way as for it to be about something.

Take the example of the STOP sign that I mentioned in my last post.  There, I said that the STOP sign is an intentional object rather than a material object.  It is an intentional object, partly because it is something that we can refer to in our discussion.  But more importantly, when we refer to it, we are usually not talking about the sign in terms of the material molecules that make it up.  We are normally talking about it in terms of its role as an indicator on how we should behave when driving through an intersection with STOP signs.

Presumably there are factories that manufacture STOP signs.  And when the people in those factories are talking about the signs, they probably are talking about them as material objects that they are manufacturing.  But when we talk about them as traffic signs, rather than material objects, then it is their role as symbols that we are referring to.

You can see how this is related to intentions.  The workers at the stop sign factory are concerned about the manufacturing process, and for that the material contents matter.  So they intend their discussion to be about the material contents.  However the driver (who might even work at that factory) is concerned mainly with the sign as a symbol that dictates particular driving behavior.  So the intentions of the driver, when referring to the STOP sign, are different from the intentions of the factory worker.


There’s a way to avoid talk of intentionality.  And that is to instead talk of behavior.  What makes the STOP sign a symbol, is the way that we behave with respect to that sign.  If we think behaviorally, we can demystify a lot of the intentionality talk.  I consider myself to be primarily a behaviorist.  That is, when thinking about issues related to human cognition, I try to connect them to behavior (broadly understood).

Unfortunately, cognitive science is dominated by philosophers, and the language of cognitive science is dominated by the language of cognitivism.  So most of the literature is cognitivist.  And public discussion of cognitive science usually has to be done in cognitivist terms.  So while I consider myself a behaviorist, I have to translate behaviorist ideas into cognitivist form in order to discuss them.

The upshot of this is that I have little choice but to use the language of intentionality.  However,  some future posts will attempt to connect that to behavior.

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