Searle distinguishes between intrinsic intentionality of the mind... vs 'as-if' intentionality of physical objects like a computer, book, picture etc... that depend on conscious minds to exhibit intentionality.

However, don't the laws of physics exhibit intrinsic intentionality? They do exist and they are about the material world. There doesn't need to be a mind for the aboutness to exhibit itself... this is not a "representative" intentionality... the way a book or computer "represents" information... the representation depends on something like a language or interpretive mechanism. But these universal laws don't require such a thing...

More trivially, all 'objective' truths may be taken as intentional... like the truths of mathematics... but I think this is less interesting than the case of physics, because these truths are necessary.

The remarkable thing in the physics case is... in some sense the material world is following 'rules'. These rules aren't necessary.

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    Question. My clothes dryer automatically turns off when the clothes are dry. Does my clothes dryer have intentionality? After all, its moisture sensor is "about" wetness.
    – user4894
    Aug 19, 2016 at 18:57
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    This would be 'as-if' intentionality. Not intrinsic intentionality. Designed physical systems are not about anything in and of themselves. But to us they are about something. Moisture sensor is about wetness only to us. Aug 19, 2016 at 19:01
  • Hegel might be a useful resource, I just read something in the preface to his Phenomenology where he discusses intentionality with reference to mind. Aug 20, 2016 at 8:16

2 Answers 2


The inverse square law is about gravity, the triangle inequality is about triangles, "the grass is green" is about grass. They sure are. But what makes them being about? A brick wall has bricks in it, but it is not about bricks, or anything. What distinguishes the three examples above from the brick wall is that they are not objects but propositions. Well, what are propositions? They are a kind of thoughts, a.k.a. intentional acts, expressed by declarative sentences. And this is the secret of it: this use of "about" isn't jarring only because it implicitly relates to a more familiar one, the "intentionality" of it is derivative from the "primary" intentionality. In another sense, the triangle inequality is not about triangles, or anything at all, it is a brick wall, a formula, a cipher, only our intention makes it about triangles.

We can try to evade this by reinterpreting what propositions and laws are. One route is to house them in a Platonic heaven as pure forms. But pure forms are like brick walls, and we face the classical problem of relating them to their "matter", which they are supposed to be about, at all, let alone intentionally. The traditional metaphysics (Plotinus, Avicenna) helpfully embedded Plato's forms into a cosmic mind, where they are placed into such a relation by being its thoughts. But then we did not escape consciousness after all. And on the nominalist/conceptualist route the forms only manifest through particulars, from which they are abstracted by a subject's mind. So there is nothing in the ontology that is about something else, again until we encounter a consciousness.

My point is that attempting to model intentionality on "x means y" misses the target because it is in essence a ternary relation: "x means y to z". A berry can be about eating to a bear, and about a beautiful shade of color to an artist, intentionality is only "intrinsic" by ellipsis. Now, z has been traditionally assumed to be (something like) a conscious subject. The question is if that is necessary. Well, whatever else "means" means z has to be able to relate y to x, and reproducibly so. So it has to be an actor capable of developing "habits", then in the most primitive cases x is a piece of a habit which, if put into action, reaches y (I am skipping a volume here, in particular the role of society and language). That is more or less what Peirce, Ryle, Merleau-Ponty, Dreyfus and other pragmatist advocates of embodied cognition assert. The habit part requires discrimination between "success" and "failure", which could be accomplished through some sort of "tension" qualia, that is Merleau-Ponty's route. But if we admit both habits and qualia we are already pretty close to awareness. I do not think that the qualia are necessary though: the discriminator for habit formation can function causally, "blindly", like a motion sensor connected to a circuit breaker. If so, what we get is a philosophical zombie capable of acting and learning, hence of forming x-s and connecting them to y-s.

I am afraid that Searle will object that the zombie's "intentionality" is parasitic on our own: we say that x "means" y to the zombie because we project ourselves onto it, along with that precious "true" intentionality of ours. But the zombie only "learns" to repeat it mindlessly, it really is just a brick wall that moves. In contrast, the empiricist school (Sellars, Davidson, Dennett) argues that our intentionality is a zombie intentionality, and the strategy is to give a plausible account of how we come to believe, historically and developmentally, that it is more. Sellars's Myth of Jones is an influential hypothetical reconstruction of that.


You don't have to go so far down as the laws of physics. Most classes of life exhibit intentionality without consciousness (amoebas, viruses, plants, etc...). Daniel Dennett talks about it in many places, but I specifically read about it in his book "Kinds of Minds".

See also Dennett's intentional stance and his idea of free floating rationales (described in his paper Darwin's “strange inversion of reasoning”.

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    Thanks. I have to check out Dennett's work on intentionality. I think Searle would say an amoeba has 'as-if' intentionality, like a computer. In other words, they appear intentional to conscious minds, but aren't in and of themselves intentional. The behavior is reducible to more elementary physical laws. But in the case of the universe obeying the basic laws of physics (whatever they are)... it's impossible to reduce it to anything else. Aug 19, 2016 at 18:17
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    The intentionality (and indeed consciousness) of viruses, etc is very much in the eye of the beholder. Aug 21, 2016 at 22:11

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