Solving the Riddle of Intentionality

  • Jeffrey Foss


The problem of intentionality provides another way of looking at the riddle of consciousness, namely in relation to meaning. Consciousness has meaning. Most of the things studied by physical science do not have meaning. A stone is just a stone, a star merely a star. They are just what they are, complete in themselves. But consciousness is not complete in itself, because it is about things other than itself. It is not just what it is, but what it means as well. It points beyond itself to the world around it. If this is a mystery, we are fortunate inasmuch as it is a very familiar mystery. To take an example close to hand, this book is not just an object, complete in itself. If it were submitted to a complete analysis according to the best methods of physical science, yielding a model of the book accurate down to the tiniest detail, this analysis would leave something out: its meaning. The words you see are not mere patterns of ink on a page. They point beyond themselves to the things they are about. Likewise, the science of consciousness would leave something out if its model of consciousness did not include its meaning.


Motor Cortex Somatosensory Cortex Scientific Model Sensory Cortex Intentional Object 
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Notes to Chapter 7

  1. [1]
    Brentano went on to say, “This intentional inexistence is exclusively characteristic of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon manifests anything similar. Consequently we can define mental phenomena by saying that they are such phenomena as include an object intentionally within themselves” (Chisholm 1967, p. 201). Clearly Brentano has only original intentionality in mind (see text following note). While I accept that all mental phenomena have intentionality, I will reject the converse, that all intentionality is mental. I will also very briefly argue that physical phenomena do manifest intentionality. These points have little bearing on the argument at hand, however.Google Scholar
  2. [2]
    Stich and Laurence (1996) argue, correctly, as I see it, that the importance of the naturalization of intentionality has been grossly overestimated. “It may, of course, be perfectly reasonable to adopt one or another account of what it would be like to naturalize the intentional, and to explore the possibility of bringing it off. A successful naturalization might well be an impressive and valuable accomplishment. But should it turn out that intentional notions can’t be naturalized, no dire consequences will follow” (p. 170, their emphasis). I agree, even to the extent of agreeing that a science of consciousness could well be possible even without a full scientific explanation of intentionality. There are countless other examples where science has progressed without a full explication of key concepts. Darwin’s rightly famous theory of evolution was devised and tested decades before there was any good scientific model of inheritance. Copernicus and Galileo had good reason to think that the sun was the center of the solar system long before there was any account of the physical forces which might bring this off. Nevertheless, the naturalization of intentionality assumes a special significance as a test of the completeness (or incompleteness) in principle of the science of consciousness. For this reason, it cannot be ignored here.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeffrey Foss
    • 1
  1. 1.University of VictoriaCanada

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