The concept of intentionality has been defined and developed throughout the history of philosophy in a variety of ways. The term originates from the scholastic notion of intentio, which was commonly used in medieval philosophy and theology. In modern philosophy the term regained force primarily through the work of Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl. Today, it continues to be an important issue in both analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.
In a broad sense, intentionality can be defined as the "aboutness" or "directedness" of one's mental states or acts. It is the referential character of these states or acts insofar as they intend or refer to something. That is, if mental states or acts are to have content, they must be about something. For instance, whenever one thinks, one always thinks about something. Likewise, whenever one hopes, believes, or denies, one always hopes, believes, or denies something, that is, in reference to some objective thing or content. So one can hope that it will snow today or one can believe that it will not snow today; in both cases one's thoughts have a certain content. Even when the content is not necessarily “real,” it remains to a certain extent, objective. For instance, when one thinks of Santa Claus, one is thinking of or referring to something, even if that something is not real. The concept of intentionality, then, concerns itself with this question of reference. Or, to put it as some theories do, intentionality concerns the relation between the content or object of thought (what it is about) and the act or subjectivity of thinking. The problem of intentionality, then, is primarily a problem concerning a relation.
Insofar as people think about things that are not real (as in not really out there in the external world), the concept of intentionality does not present too much of a problem. Whenever people dream, for example, they dream of or about something. The content of a dream is not considered to be real but based rather on the act of dreaming. In this case, the act of dreaming takes priority and so the dream content is founded upon a subjective act of dreaming. Here the object is based or founded upon the subject.
But this becomes murkier when people say they know things about the real world. There is argument as to whether people can know, with certainty, about something real. One cannot touch atoms, but they are still considered real—yet to know this seems impossible. This revolves around the problem of intentionality in the sense of the relation between the subjective knower and the object which is known. How a particular philosopher understands this relation is what determines his or her particular theory of intentionality.
The term, "intentionality" originates from the Scholastic term intentio and was used frequently by medieval philosophers and theologians (most notably St. Thomas Aquinas). As a concept, intentio is commonly considered to have been translated from the Arabic term ma’na coming from the Aristotelian Arabic commentators, primarily Averroes and Avicenna. The use of the Latin term, however, goes further back to the thought of St. Augustine, in the fourth century. In terms of the problem of knowing as outlined above, Augustine thought that human knowledge of external things is based on three things: The external object (corpus), the seeing (visio), and that which connects the object and the seeing (intentio). Here it can be seen, then, that intentio is considered the link or connection between the object and the subject. Moreover, some scholars think intentio as a concept derives from the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle because their philosophies contain theories of knowledge on how to explain the relation between subjective knower and the objective known. In any case, following the late medieval period, intentionality as both a concept and a problem was ignored and it did not receive attention again until the late nineteenth century, in the work of Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl.
In his work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (Psychologie vom Empirischen Standpunkte) Brentano defined intentionality as one characteristic of "psychical phenomena," by which they could be distinguished from "physical phenomena." In doing this, he used such phrases as the "relatedness to a content," the "direction towards an object," or the "immanent objectivity." Every psychical or mental phenomenon, every psychological act, has a content and is directed at an object (the intentional object). Every belief, desire, or thought has an object of which it is about. Brentano often used the expression "intentional inexistence" to indicate the status of the objects of thought in the mind. Whereas the tree has a real existence outside, in the external world, the tree also has an intentional "inexistence" within the mind. The property of being intentional, of having an intentional object, was the key feature to distinguish psychical phenomena and physical phenomena, because physical phenomena lacked intentionality altogether.
Although Husserl agreed with Brentano’s notion of "intentional inexistence," he thought Brentano’s account was too psychological. Instead, Husserl introduced a phenomenology in which the relation between subject and object became even more prominent. Rather than thinking of knowledge of things primarily in terms of the subject knowing (which is what psychology does) or the “real object” known (which is what empirical science does), Husserl argued that one should think of the subject and object as two poles within the relation of experience. For this reason, one should reflect first upon his various experiences as he experiences them. In doing this, one can discern from inside the experience itself what comes from the object (noema) and what comes from the subject (noetic act). This "inside of all our experience" is what Husserl called the “immanence of consciousness.”
Twentieth century analytic philosophers, such as Gilbert Ryle and Alfred Ayer, have been critical of Husserl's concept of intentionality and his many layers of consciousness. Ryle insisted that perceiving itself is not a process and so it should not be described as such. Likewise, Ayer argued that describing one's knowledge is not to describe mental processes. Moreover, Platonist Roderick Chisholm has revived Brentano’s thesis through linguistic analysis, distinguishing two parts to Brentano's concept: The ontological aspect and the psychological aspect. By focusing on the way people use language, Chisholm attempts to locate the criteria for a legitimate concept of intentionality. In doing this, he distinguished language describing psychological phenomena from language describing non-psychological phenomena. Chisholm's criteria for the intentional use of sentences are: Existence independence, truth-value indifference, and referential opacity.
In continental circles, the phenomenology of Husserl was often reinterpreted in an existential manner. For example, in Being and Nothingness, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, like Husserl, identified intentionality with consciousness, stating that they were indistinguishable from one another. Sartre, however, interpreted intentionality in a more creative manner, arguing that the being of the external world is essentially meaningless and so people must create meaning from out of the “nothingness” of consciousness. German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time, radicalized intentionality as "care" or “concern” (Sorge). For Heidegger, prior to the relation of rational consciousness to things (the relation between knowing subject and known object) there is a more fundamental “relation,” which he called Dasein or Being-in-the-World. This is a more practical and effective mode of comprehension in which people are related or comported to things in the world as being-along-side-of people. Humanity's fundamental comprehension of other beings is disclosed not through reason, but through moods. Heidegger’s philosophy offers the most radical notion of intentionality because the entire relation of subject and object is inverted into the Being-in-the-World of Dasein. The “immanence of consciousness” of Husserl is translated as the immanence of all meaning in-the-World.
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