The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


In their search for "the" ultimate definition of what is the mind, for the one property that differentiates the mind from anything else, a recurring popular candidate has been what philosophers call “intentionality” (from the Latin “intendo”, which means “to point at”). "Intentionality", or in-existence, of an object is a concept originally introduced by the medieval Scholastics. Their "intentionality" bears no relationship whatsoever to the modern English word "intentional". Their intentionality is the property of referring to something else.

Mental states have the (apparently) unique property of referring to something else. For example, we are afraid “of” something, we believe “in” something, we know something. Intentionality is the property of being “about” something. "Fearing", "knowing", "believing" are intentional states. If no other natural phenomena exhibit intentionality, then intentionality could be assumed to be the feature that differentiates the mind from the rest of natural phenomena.

All this was summarized in 1874 by the Austrian philosopher Franz Brentano in his influential "thesis": all mental phenomena are intentional; no physical phenomenon is intentional; therefore mental phenomena cannot be reduced to physical phenomena; intentionality is what sets apart mental and physical systems.

Brentano noted that every mental phenomenon includes something as an object within itself, although the way it is included is not always the same (in love something is loved, in hate something is hated, and so forth). "This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena." Every thought we have is about something: we love, we hate, we believe in, we fear that, we hope that... something.

Intentionality comes in different "flavors", also known as "propositional attitudes", and later philosophers focused on four basic ones (belief, desire, hope, know).

Brentano's disciple Alexius Meinong (in his 1904 "theory of objects") even went as far as to state that mental states must have their own existence apart from the physical world. My belief in something is realized by a mental state of something that exists although in a different form than the one in which physical objects exist.

What Brentano said was that all mental states are "representations" of objects. What Meinong said was that those representations exist apart from the objects they represent.

Neither Brentano nor Meinong explained how these "representations" are generated and what they are made of.

There can be many consequences stemming from the theory that the mental is intentional. Brentano's conclusion from his thesis was dualism: the mental and the physical are different substances, and intentionality helps us to discriminate them and study the mental.

More than half a century later (in 1960) the US mathematician and philosopher Willard Quine reached a different conclusion: that intentionality is meaningless, because it does not relate to anything physical. Jerry Fodor believes that the mental is intentional, but it can be reduced to the physical. Daniel Dennett thinks that intentionality is simply a "stance", one of the many we can adopt in studying a system. And not everybody agrees that the intentional can only be mental: the US philosopher Fred Dretske has studied it as a general property of systems. Any device that carries information exhibits some degree of intentionality.

Intentionality and consciousness are the key features of the mind. What is the relationship between them?  John Searle says that everything that is intentional is either conscious or potentially conscious. Intentionality would then be an "enabling" feature of consciousness. A system would be intentional before it could be conscious. Still, what makes an intentional feature conscious? Why is intentionality a prerequisite to consciousness?


Back to the beginning of the chapter "Mind and Matter" | Back to the index of all chapters