Mind in the World

A Brief Introduction to Searle's Concept of Intentionality


By Jan Regner SJ


1. Reintroducing Intentionality into Philosophy

2. Searle's Ontology of Mind

    2.1 Default Positions and Biological Naturalism

    2.2 Consciousness, Causality and Intentionality

    2.3 The Intentionality of Perception

    2.4 Discussion on Searle's Position: The Chinese Room

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography


As the title of my article can indicate, the primary aim of this "brief introduction" is the concept of intentionality of one of the world's leading philosophers - John R. Searle. Searle is known for his severe criticism of the dominant traditions in the study of mind, both materialist and dualist, and we may also recall his familiar argument called "the Chinese Room" against theories of "artificial intelligence."

The concept of intentionality was founded when philosophers attempted to describe and solve the philosophical problem of specific "quasi-relations" between consciousness and objects and the direction of our mind or language to the real world. I am referring to situations in which we say for instance: "A thinks about p", "B maintains that q", "X asks question if y" and so on.

"Intentionality" is a technical philosophical term which means being directed at, about or of objects. This term has a long history in philosophy. It is generally considered that the concept of intentionality was originally used by scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages, and then it was reintroduced into European philosophy by the Austrian philosopher Franz Brentano (1833-1917). Brentano is very often regarded as the creator of the concept of intentionality. Today we know that Aristotle formulated explicitly the problem of intentionality and also made a solution to it a requirement for any adequate concept of mind. But it is clear that Brentano did not believe he was original at all.

But anyway, I intend to mention Brentano's concept in passing because seems to be indispensable to understand Searle's thoughts. Then, I will introduce Searle's "default positions", his conception of mind, consciousness, causality, perception and the relationship between these and his concept of intentionality. Finally, I will adumbrate a discussion on Searle's position in the philosophy of mind concerning his argument called "the Chinese Room".

1. Reintroducing Intentionality into Philosophy

The importance of Brentano's thought for the concept of intentionality seems to be largely in his attempt to find a clear line of demarcation between the mental and the physical. As Brentano notices we do not possess a strict criterion for distinguishing the mental and the physical. Nevertheless, he realizes we possess an intuitive or prephilosophical distinction between them. He says that the aim is to clarify the meaning of two terms "physical phenomena" and "mental phenomena." He believes all the data of our consciousness are divided into two great classes: that of the mental, and that of the physical phenomena.

To understand the demarcation between the mental and the physical let us take the following examples: If A hears a sound x, or sees a coloured object y, there are two different things we have to distinguish: (1) the sound x, or the coloured object y and (2) hearing the sound x, or seeing the coloured object y. Brentano asserts that all the "states of imagination" are mental phenomena: "hearing a sound", "seeing a coloured object", "feeling warmth or cold", "thinking of a general concept" etc. And so every judgment, recollection, expectation, inference, conviction, opinion, emotion, act of will, or intention is a mental phenomenon. According to this classification, these examples are contrasted by Brentano with the physical phenomena: sounds, figures, landscapes, colours, warmth, cold, odour, images which appear in the imagination and so on. Brentano realizes that all physical phenomena have extension and spatial location. The opposite, however, is true of mental phenomena: thinking, willing, and the like appear without extension and spatial location.

The concept of intentionality is a central point of Brentano's ontology of mind. He reintroduces intentionality into philosophy saying that mental phenomena are characterized by "the intentional inexistence of an object", "reference to a content", "immanent objectivity" or as it is generally called, "direction toward an object". By the "inexistence of an object" he probably means that the object of our thought or perception may not actually exist independently of that thought or perception. He draws our attention to the fact that the "object" is not to understood here as meaning a "thing" because it is possible that the "object" does not exist. For example we could think about a dragon with three heads, even though the object of our imagination is not a part of the real physical world.

A presentation has a privileged place in this theory. It is understood here as an act of consciousness, a nominal Intentional reference. Every presentation has its object. Brentano uses a kind of tautology saying that the object of presentation is simply the presented object, nothing more, but that which is presented is independent of things which actually exist.

2. Searle's Ontology of Mind

2.1 Default Positions and Biological Naturalism

Intentionality is seen by Brentano as "directedness" of mental phenomena towards an object. Now, let us return to Searle's concept and take a shot at understanding his philosophy of mind. Before we turn our attention to his concept of intentionality, we need to adumbrate his "default positions". By default positions he understands the views we hold prereflectively so that any departure from them requires a conscious effort and a convincing argument. He calls them the Background of our thought and language. Here there are some of them: There is a real world existing independently of us ("external realism"). We have direct perceptual access to the world through our senses. Words in our language typically have a reasonably clear meaning. Our statements are typically true or false depending on whether they correspond to how things are. Causation is a real relation among objects and events in the world.

Searle is not satisfied with the mental-physical demarcation in the present dualist and materialist analyses of the mind-body problem. By dualism we here understand the view that man consists of the material body and an immaterial element (soul); and a person's mind is not reducible to his body. In contrast, materialists assert that a person's mind is a part of his material body and that we can investigate it using scientific methods, especially those of neurobiology.

Searle believes neither dualism, nor materialism have a chance of being right, and the fact that we continue to pose and try to answer these questions in the antiquated vocabulary of "mental" and "physical", "mind" and "body", should be a tip-off that we are making some fundamental conceptual mistake in our formulating the questions and the answers. Every dualist conception makes the status and existence of consciousness utterly mysterious and materialism in each its variety seems to be completely false because it ends up denying the existence of consciousness and thus denying the existence of the phenomenon that gives rise to the question in the first place. Searle devises a new solution of this problem: we have to reject the obsolete terminology and accept the assertion that mind is a part of nature, and thus it is a biological phenomenon. He called this view "biological naturalism."

2.2 Consciousness, Causality and Intentionality

The primary and most essential feature of any mind is consciousness. By consciousness Searle means "those states of sentience or awareness that typically begin when we wake up in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until we fall asleep again. Other ways in which consciousness can cease is if we die, go into a coma, or otherwise become unconscious."

This definition could arouse our dissatisfaction and valid objections. We still could ask: But, what exactly does "consciousness" mean? Searle answers that it is a biological process occurring in the brain. Thanks to the efforts of natural sciences we know all of consciousness states are caused by cerebral processes. But now, we have another problem: How brain processes could cause consciousness or how brain processes do in fact cause consciousness. Searle does not try to answer such questions. He believes that this "mystery" must be explained by neurobiologists, because consciousness is a biological phenomenon. It is caused by lower-level processes in our brain. Thus, conscious processes are simply biological (neuronal) processes. Searle admits that consciousness is certainly still special among biological phenomena. That is why, he maintains that it comprises high-level processes realized in the structure of the brain.

Consciousness comes in huge number of forms and varieties, but what essential, in all its forms, is its inner, qualitative, and subjective nature. It has therefore a first-person ontology, and that is why, it cannot be reduced to third person phenomena, and so cannot be "material".That is why we can talk about the irreducibility of consciousness.

Obviously, consciousness and mental acts are essentially connected with intentionality. According to Searle "Intentionality is that feature of the mind by which mental states are directed at, or are about or of, or refer to, or aim at, states of affairs in the world. It is a peculiar feature in that the object need not actually exist in order to be represented by our Intentional state." Searle realizes that a conscious state, such as an intention or a desire, functions by representing the sort of event that it is caused by. This kind of mental causation is called "Intentional causation." Conscious beings have a fascinating property: to represent objects and states of affairs in the world and to act on the basis of those representations.

Intentionality as a product of evolution is the primary role of the mind; it causes our relations in certain ways to the environment, and especially to other people. As we could see Searle believes that there is an essential connection: we only can understand Intentionality in terms of consciousness.

Now, let us ask what exactly is the relation between consciousness and Intentionality. Searle believes that not all conscious states are Intentional, and not all Intentional states are conscious. Therefore, cerebral states which are nonconscious can be understood as mental states only to the extent that we understand them as capable of giving rise to conscious states. When we are totally unconscious - Searle maintains - the only actually existing facts then and there are facts involving states of our brain that are describable in purely neurobiological terms. Then he asks what fact about those states makes them my unconscious belief. He answers that the only fact which could make them into a mental state is that they are capable of causing that state in a conscious form. Searle points out that causality is generally regarded as a natural relation between events in the world. Intentionality is here considered as a biological phenomenon. We have already talked about the relation between causality and intentionality.

Now, let us say several words about Intentional causation. It is Searle's belief that "volitive" states (an action) and "cognitive" states (such as, for example, perception) are causally self-referential. Therefore, if I really see an object, then it must not only be the case that I have a visual experience whose conditions of satisfaction are that there is the object there, but the fact that there is the object there must cause the visual experience that has those conditions of satisfaction.

Next terms that are important for the understanding of Searle's concept of Intentionality are the "Background" and the "Network." If we have an intentional state, we also have to have a set of capacities, abilities, tendencies, habits, dispositions, taken-for-granted presuppositions and so on. Searle calls this set of "nonrepresentational" mental capacities "Background." According to him all of our Intentional states only determine their condition of satisfaction against a Background of know-how that enables me to cope with the world and our capacity for rational though and behaviour is for most part a Background capacity. Part of the Background is common to all cultures. Such universal phenomena Searle calls "deep Background." In contrast, the features of Background that cultures vary, he calls "local cultural practices," but he simultaneously admits that there is no sharp dividing line between deep. Background and local cultural practices. What is important in this concept is that Intentionality does not function as a separate mental capacity. Intentional states function the way they do only given a presupposed set of Background capacities, but the Background itself is pre-intentional.

Intentional states do not function autonomously in isolation. Each of them requires for its functioning a "Network" of other Intentional states. Only in this relationship their conditions of satisfaction are determined. Searle believes that the Network is a part of the Background.

2.3 The Intentionality of Perception

Searle defines perception saying that it is an Intentional and causal transaction between mind and the world; the direction of fit is mind-to-world, the direction of causation is words-to-mind. He proceeds from the conviction that how our seeing of any object works can be described by physical optics and neurophysiology. But, he is interested in the question how it works conceptually. What exactly are the elements that make up the truth conditions of sentences of the form "X sees y" where X is a perceiver and y is an object? Searle introduces the problem using this example: "When I see a car, or anything else for that matter, I have a certain sort of visual experience. In the visual perception of the car I don't see the visual experience, I see the car; but in seeing the car I have a visual experience, and the visual experience is an experience of the car, in a sense of 'of' we will need to explain."

As we can note, author draw our attention to the fact that visual experiences are not themselves visual objects; they are not objects of our perception, and thus it does not make sense to ascribe to the visual experience the properties of the object which the visual experience is of.

Next, he is distinguishing between experience and perception; the thing is that the notion of perception involves the notion of succeeding in a way that the notion of experience does not. Finally, he is opening the problem of Intentionality of perception using the expression of experience of. As he realizes the "of" of "experience of" is in short the "of" of Intentionality.

Searle's claims that the visual experience is as much directed at or of objects and states of affairs in the world as any of the paradigm Intentional states. His argument for this conclusion is that the visual experience has conditions of satisfaction in exactly the same sense that such Intentional states as beliefs or desires have conditions of satisfaction. The Intentional content of the visual experience determines its conditions of satisfaction.

As Searle points out we can state several important similarities between the Intentionality of visual perception and, for example, belief or other Intentional states. The content of the visual experience, like the content of the belief, is always equivalent to a whole proposition. Visual experience is never simply of an object but rather it must always be connected with the feeling that such and such is the case. It is clear that the content of the visual experience does not just make reference to an object.

Searle believes that whenever it is true to say that X sees y it must be true that X sees that such and such is the case. He is satisfied that there is an important difference between "I see that" and "X sees that y." First-person statements are intensional-with-an-s with respect to the possibility of substitution whereas third-person statements are extensional. Searle describes this situation saying that when in third-person reports of seeing we use the "sees that" form we are committed to reporting the content of the perception, how it seemed to the perceiver, in a way that we are not committed to reporting the content by the use of a simple noun phrase as direct object of "see".

Now, we have to turn our attention to the following two facts: (1) Visual perception, like belief, always has the mind-to-world direction of fit. (2) Visual experiences, similarly as beliefs or desires, are characteristically identified and described in terms of their Intentional content. Thus, as Searle realizes, there is no way to give a complete description of my belief without saying what it is a belief that and similarly there is no way to describe my visual experience without saying what it is an experience of. Therefore, there are perceptual experiences which have Intentionality and mind-to-world direction of fit. Their Intentional content is propositional in form and the properties which are specified by it are not in general literally properties of the perceptual experiences. We could understand that there are some analogies between visual experiences and such Intentional states as belief or desires. Searle believes that we could call such forms of Intentionality as beliefs and desires "representations", but we should recognize that there is no special ontology carried by the notion of representation.

As Searle points out, not only is the visual experience a conscious mental event, but it is related to its conditions of satisfaction in ways which are quite different from such Intentional states as beliefs and desires. We can see that visual experiences have some special features, and that is why Searle proposes to describe them as "presentations". Explaining this he claims that they do not just represent the state of affairs perceived. When satisfied, it gives us direct access to it, and in that sense it is a presentation of that state of affairs. Presentations are then a special subclass of representations.

2.4 Discussion on Searle's Position: The Chinese Room

Searle's thoughts caused repeatedly passionate discussion and severe criticism. Because of introductive character of this article, I intend to mention just one example: a discussion on Searle's famous "Chinese room."

In 1980, Searle published his article "Minds, Brains and Programs" in the Journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences where introduced this argument against strong "artificial intelligence" (AI) called the "Chinese room". According to representatives of strong AI ("computationalism") it is possible for an appropriately programmed computer to mimic any human mental state. So the computer might be considered to understand, to be conscious and thing like a man. In this way computational programs could be used to explain and to help understand human mental states. This hypothesis is called "computational-representational understanding of mind" (CRUM).

Searle refuses this hypothesis saying that mental states are representations of objects in the world, and so they are intentional. But it is not possible for a computer to have intentional states and that is why the computer analogy cannot be used to explain how does human mind work.

Heil introduces his argument as follows: "Searle's argument is based on a widely discussed thought experiment. Imagine, he says, that you are seated in a cramped windowless room. At your feet is a large basket of plastic Chinese characters, although you have no idea that this is what they are. You are ignorant of Chinese, and for all you can tell the items in the basket might be plastic decorations of an abstract design: squiggles. Periodically, through a slot in the wall, you receive a batch of Chinese characters. Although these mean nothing to you, you are equipped with a manual that tells you that, when particular sequences of plastic squiggles come through the slot, you are to pass out other sequences from your supply in the basket."

The person in the room simply takes each card, looks it up on his list of instructions, and pushes an answer card out. He can not understand Chinese because his responding is purely mechanical. According to Searle, also computers do not understand what they are doing and saying because their action is mechanical.

A second argument against theories of artificial intelligence, put forward by Searle, is briefly introduced by Chalmers as follows:

1. A computer program is syntactic.
2. Syntax is not sufficient for semantics.
3. Minds have semantics.
4. Therefore, implementing a program is insufficient for a mind.

It is clear that this argument is connected with the concept of intentionality, but it can also be taken as an argument about consciousness. According to Chalmers, any sense of "syntax" in which implementations are syntactic, however, loses touch with the sense in which it is plausible that syntax is not sufficient for semantics. Chalmers says that we can parody Searle's argument as fellows:

1. Recipes are syntactic.
2. Syntax is not sufficient for crumbliness.
3. Cakes are crumbly
4. Therefore, implementing a recipe is insufficient for a cake.
Chalmers concludes that the argument does not distinguish between recipes which are syntactic objects, and implementations of recipes, which are full-bodied physical systems in the real world.

3. Conclusion

As we could see, Brentanian conception of intentionality was the starting point of Searle's philosophical research. Intentionality is seen as a phenomenon taking place in the majority of mental states here. Searle characterizes intentionality as that feature of the mind by which it is directed at or about or of objects or states of affairs in the world. Also according to Brentano mental phenomena are directed towards objects. As we can see in this point both these conceptions are alike.

But, there is also an essential difference between these two concepts. Namely, the main theme in Brentano's one is the mental-physical demarcation which leads its author to a kind of dualism. In contrast, Searle rejects such terms as the "mental" and the "physical" saying that it is antiquated vocabulary that stays on the ground of such conceptions of mind as materialism or dualism. He is satisfied that every materialist and dualist system is mistaken: Dualism because it makes the status and existence of consciousness utterly mysterious and materialism because it ends up denying the existence of consciousness and thus denying the existence of the phenomenon that gives rise to the question in the first place.

Searle sees our mind as a part of nature and Intentionality is simply the primary role of the mind causing our relations in certain ways to the environment, and especially to other people. He is a positivist: Consciousness is understood here as a high-level biological process realized in the structure of our brain. It has a "first-person ontology," and that is why, it cannot be reduced to "third person phenomena." Even though he admits that consciousness is still special among biological phenomena and that it "cannot be material" he believes that just such sciences as neurobiology can explain the "mystery of consciousness."

Searle's concept of intentionality of perception is remarkable and his terminology is impressive. According to the author of the concept perception is an Intentional and causal transaction between mind and the world. The direction of fit is mind-to-world, the direction of causation is words-to-mind. Using a play on words he presents the role of visual experience and the intentionality of perception saying that the "of" of "experience of" is in short the "of" of Intentionality. According to him there are perceptual experiences which have Intentionality and mind-to-world direction of fit. Seeing that there are some analogies between visual experiences and such Intentional states as belief or desires, we can answer the question: what disanalogies are there between them? Searle believes that we could call such forms of Intentionality as beliefs and desires "representations."

Obviously, the Searle is not the sole contemporary philosopher interested in intentionality, but by his philosophical research began one of the most important "researcher of intentionality." Anyway, some theorists of philosophy had a serious problem where he should be placed in the philosophy of mind. Several thought that he is a materialist others believed that he is a representative of "property dualism." Searle sees his solution of the mind-body problem as "biological naturalism." I have to admit that his arguments still did not really convince me that there is any essential difference between so-called "biological naturalism" and materialist monism. We can notice that he is kinder to his own views then to those of others. Nevertheless, I am sure that the analyses of the American philosopher are worth of our attention. Searle's philosophical research provoke any concentrated reader to thought.


4. Bibliography

1. Brentano, Franz. Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt. Vol. 1-2, Leipzig: Verlag von Felix Meiner, 1924-25.

2. Brentano, Franz. Wahrheit und Evidenz. Leipzig, 1930.

3. Caston, Victor. Aristotle and the Problem of Intentionality. In: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LVIII, June 1998.

4. Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

5. Heil, John. Philosophy of Mind, London and New York, 1998.

6. Priest, Stephen. Theories of the Mind. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

7. Searle, John R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

8. Searle, John R. Expression and Meaning: An Essays in the Theory of Speech Acts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

9. Searle, John R. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

10. Searle, John R. Minds, Brains and Science, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

11. Searle, John R. Intentionality. In: A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, ed. Samuel Guttenplan. Oxford, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1995.

12. Searle, John R. The Mystery of Consciousness, New York: New York Review Books, 1997.

13. Searle, John R. The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.

14. Searle, John R. Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1998.