Many refutations of Descartes cogito go along the line of:

All Descartes really proved is that thinking is happening, but there can be thinking without there being a thinker to do the thinking. Just as there can be raining without a "rainer", or snowing without a "snower", there is nothing illogical about thinking occurring without a thinker. The move from "there is thinking" to "I think" is not a necessary one.

But I am wondering if the same can be said of intentionality?

Unlike thinking, intending is a directed relationship between two entities: Intention doesn't occur without a source and a target of the intention.

It is it possible to substitute thinking with intention, and use that as a neo-Cartesian proof for the existence of self?

  • I would suggest that survival is an intention without a target, and with an ambiguous source.
    – user9166
    Jan 13, 2017 at 16:24
  • @jobermark how is it ambiguous ? Jan 13, 2017 at 22:14
  • 1
    It seems to me to be an intention that can be had with very limited mind. You fall down the well of my previous problem with 'thinking'. It is the same question. Do bacteria 'intend', when they do things in order to survive? Then are they really not doing them in order to survive? Proposing that seems evasively obtuse. If their intention to survive does not make them intenders, why does ours? OTOH, if it does, then do they have 'selves'? You end up with phenotypes or individual genes having selves, unless you place some weird side condition to clarify what kind of intending you mean.
    – user9166
    Jan 13, 2017 at 22:19
  • After all, from a certain perspective our intention to survive is really just the composite of our selfish genes' intentions to survive. Who owns the intention? And the only target would have to be either the process of survival, which is pretty vague, or the same as the source.
    – user9166
    Jan 13, 2017 at 22:24
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    Maybe it's time to move on from refuting Descartes cogito, and begin to discuss other things that Descarte wrote on; its rather like getting stuck on page one of a text...theres that film called groundhog day. Jan 14, 2017 at 11:17

4 Answers 4


I'm not sure how you get to your neo-Cartesian proof of self from the fact that intention requires an intender, without begging the question. The word intention is used in our language to describe that to which we ascribe some property of self or will, but that it is used as a term doesn't prove it's existence. Time-travelling, needs a time-traveller to do it, but that does not prove time-travelling exists.

Decartes's conclusion differs. He is saying "this thing I'm doing now, I will call thinking. It therefore requires a thinker, because something has to be doing the action by which the thing requires a definition"

This would not be true of intention, because intention is not the same action as considering the act of intending.


No, there can not be intentionality without an intentionalistic agent, nor can there be intending without an intender.

Anthropomorphizing rain and snow does not support the notion that because there can be snowing without a "snower", then there can be thinking without a thinker. The cause of snow and rain do not involve volition; these phenomena are the result of "brute" and non-intentionalistic cause. The description of snow having a "snower" is metaphorical.

Of note, intending is a kind of intentionality, but intentionality is not limited to intent. Reading your question, I am not sure if you are distinguishing intent and intentionality. Also of note, Brentano reintroduced the term and in intent German is "absicht", intend is "wollen" and intentional, "intentionale" and intentionality "intentionalität". Such are technical words English inherits from German by way of Latin...

All Descartes really proved is that thinking is happening, but there can be thinking without there being a thinker to do the thinking.

Is this what DesCartes said, or is this a dualistic inference?

As for a "neo-DesCartesian" proof of self which substitutes intentionality (or intending) for cogito, sure why not? Go for it. DesCartes, however, came to the conclusion of "cogito ergo sum" from a method of radical skepticism in which he doubted everything and discovered there was one thing he was unable to doubt: that he was thinking. He was not proving the existence of self, just that there is at the very least one thing which he could not doubt, i.e. his proof is epistemic, not ontological. Intendo ergo sum would be an interesting project, however, that you are intending to do something, you could still be deceived (if you deem the argument from hallucination convincing). It may be sufficient that your existence is demonstrated by your intention (or intentionlity) but is it necessary? Also, does thinking removed from a first person subjective ontology have a third-person objective or subjective or first-person objective ontology? Wouldn't these be contrary to the notion of intentionality?

If you are intending to also argue DesCartesian dualism, you might also benefit from this article, particularly section 5.


The difference of opinion in a lot of questions, I find, comes down to our definitions of the words we use. To me it seems intention is something prescribed by a 'thinker' rather than nature. You cannot say the rain intended to fall, only that the laws of nature dictated that it would. Just so, if we take the view of solipsism then no other being has intention.

Determinism would say none of us have intentions, it is only an attempt to preserve our idea of free-will.

It really depends where you draw your definition but I would say that intention is an abstract concept and requires, at least, a thinker for it to be possible. The thinker, however, could merely be explaining what they see by to preserve free-will.

We now have another conundrum though: If a rain drop could be a thinker and thought "I just got bored of those clouds, I really want to get to the ground now." Is there an intention despite there being no control?

I would say no but that is just my definition of intent. To me there can be no intention or intender without free-will, only a preservation of the concept of free will for a thinker.


There can be thought without a thinker if epiphenomenalism is true, but there still is some underlying substance (whatever criticisms you assail against that notion, you'll end up relying on some form of substance nevertheless to analyze thought), so it's clear then that hard determinism and eliminative materialism aren't what you're getting at, but rather there being something happening without there being something underlying it (substance). If this is not so, then what do you mean by 'thought'? Has to be organized somewhere (yes, we should reject the nonspatiotemporal).

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