In the philosophy of mind, I have read that "intentionality" is a difficult thing to explain in a naturalistic fashion. But I don't necessarily see the heart of the problem in the same way that explaining "qualia" poses difficulties for naturalism. When somebody asks me to picture Tokyo in my head, a mental image pops up that represents or is "about" Tokyo. Where is the mystery? Why can't I simply say that my mental image of Tokyo exhibits certain properties which my brain relates to Tokyo (big buildings, busy traffic, etc)?

One way in which I've heard it explained is via a regress problem. If intentional thoughts exist, they must be somehow connected to other intentional thoughts. That is, they cannot be isolated if they are to be truly intentional thoughts. Therefore, if a naturalist tries to say that my thought about Tokyo can be isolated to a specific firing of neurons, he/she would have to concede that my thought cannot be intentional in the first place. But I don't understand what is meant by intentional thoughts being unable to be isolated from other intentional thoughts, or why this must be the case.

Can somebody point me in the right direction here?

  • 1
    Mental image is just a pattern of firing neurons in the brain, just like physical image is just a splash of paint on paper. What is it exactly that makes it "about" Tokyo? How does the brain do the "relating", and what is it in the image itself that allows this "relating"? If all humans go extinct but scribbles on stones and paper remain, will they still be "about" anything, or just scribbles?
    – Conifold
    Jun 6, 2021 at 19:09
  • Thanks for the response! What if I say that buildings and traffic are the associations my brain makes when the word "Tokyo" enters my ears, and hence the neurons necessary to give me a mental image of big buildings and traffic are activated?
    – Mark
    Jun 6, 2021 at 21:02
  • And how does this miraculous association come to pass? Brain has some patterns in it, and then... magic happens, they become entangled with something way outside of it. The problem of intentionality is to explain what kind of magic it is, and how it happens. Changing "relating" to "associating" doesn't do much for answering the questions, does it?
    – Conifold
    Jun 11, 2021 at 22:14

3 Answers 3


There is a related question open on identity. Consider 'intensionality' from that more limited perspective, in its mathematical form as contrasted from 'extensionality' -- where you want to collect up a set of mathematical objects, but there is no way to list them. Forget for the moment your speculations on how the intent is embodied within you, consider what is being intended in the first place.

When I want to refer to Socrates, he is not a set of atoms, because he continually gains and sheds atoms. He is not a given mental process, he might be asleep or even dead. He is not... Well, he is not anything in particular. What do I intend to refer to? How do I map my 'intensionality' to some 'extensionality'?

Quine's argument on vagueness from 'Word and Object' is that basically, you can't say. To refer to exactly a single thing, you would have to have so many parameters on your selection criteria that nothing would meet them. You cannot simply select a single thing. And to the degree you have not nailed down your thing, you really don't know what you referred to.

So this is a thoroughgoing ambiguity that all notions of intensionality share. I can 'intend' to be talking about a given person. What constitutes that person can never be clear. So I am intending in a general direction, and not toward a given object. Objects, in the sense of things to which I can refer with a total lack of ambiguity, do not exist.

Given that, how do you approximate the natural language process of intending, even in the most limited case, where you are simply intending to identify what you are talking about? You have a lot of options, and they rapidly become complex.

  • Thanks for your comment! What if I just take a very practical approach to this. I have read stories and seen images of things which have all carried the label "Socrates". Over the experience of my lifetime, my brain has filed all of these descriptions under "Socrates". When I hear the word "Socrates", the utterance of that word then triggers a retrieval of some conglomeration of these descriptions, and a mental image appears corresponding to these descriptions. I don't need a complete and perfect "essential" description of Socrates to do so, I only rely on my past experiences with the concept.
    – Mark
    Jun 7, 2021 at 14:09
  • @Mark. The problem arises within 'naturalism'. Assuming the whole world, or at least all the meaning in it, is determined by the contents of your mind is a form of idealism. So you can solve the problem. But it is not the same problem. It comes with a different package of basic issues. The problem, once you go to an ideal or socially-constructed focus is how we share meaning, and how that process gets started. OK, so it is clear to you, and only to you, who Socrates is... How does that work as a word? Jun 7, 2021 at 15:29
  • @Mark From a different ideal position, at some point, in order to believe we can actually establish the meaning of words, for both parties, the speaker and the listener, you have to rely upon internal predispositions -- we genetically know about 'people' and 'places' as privileged categories of things that are important to us as animals (The Forms live in survival requirements, to ground Plato in DNA)... So then, why do we believe that the products of that machinery are real, in any way other than appealing to our instincts? And what does that mean we are missing? Jun 7, 2021 at 15:42

A central issue for theories of intentionality has been the problem of intentional inexistence: to determine the ontological status of the entities which are the objects of intentional states. This is particularly relevant for cases involving objects that have no existence outside the mind, as in the case of mere fantasies or hallucinations according to reference here:

For example, assume that Mary is thinking about Superman. On the one hand, it seems that this thought is intentional: Mary is thinking about something. On the other hand, Superman doesn't exist. This suggests that Mary is either not thinking about something or that Mary is thinking about something that doesn't exist. Various theories have been proposed in order to reconcile these conflicting intuitions. These theories can roughly be divided into eliminativism, relationalism, and adverbialism. Eliminativists deny that this kind of problematic mental state is possible. Relationalist try to solve the problem by interpreting intentional states as relations while adverbialists interpret them as properties.

So if you adopt thorough eliminative materialism, you have to reject intentionality and perhaps together with a large portion of philosophy of mind and psychology as well, and you won't have any remaining questions about intentionality.

If you adopt relationalism to accept intentionality, since relations are usually assumed to be existence-entailing, you have to argue for intentionality exceptionalism for the hallucination cases. But then you have to explain why you make such an exception only to intentionality? Is it just a superficial confirmation bias for living organism vs say a computer program? Is this like a circular explanation? Or if you like most relationalists accept intentionality relates to some abstract objects or mental objects, then you have to accept modal realism which most people won't accept or agree.

Finally if you adopt adverbialism to avoid any independent intentional objects, you just shift the burden to natural language and the metaphysical insights encoded in it, namely, it's just a linguistic cheap trick not a real epistemic solution. Another objection is that, by treating intentional objects as mere modifications of intentional states, adverbialism loses the power to distinguish between different complex intentional contents, the so-called many-property-problem. It seems there's no end you can have such modified internal states, similar to your infinite regress problem.

In summary the heart of the intentionality problem may share exactly the same nature as that explaining qualia poses difficulties for naturalism, contrary to your intuition above...

  • Thanks for your response! What if I contended the following: Mary has read stories and seen movies about a thing called "Superman", and over her lifetime experience, her brain has associated an assortment of properties and descriptions all associated with the term "Superman". Then, when Mary thinks of Superman, or she hears the word, the brain simply retrieves and triggers some of these descriptions?
    – Mark
    Jun 7, 2021 at 14:13
  • @Mark thx for your feedback! Your question about internal spontaneous image emerging is similar to the emergence of qualia after direct perception of outside objects. These are all private internal metaphors, ideas, conceptions and dispositions about something. Sure you seem very confident you feel it, but other people cannot refer to anything to confirm this until you communicate with them like in an exchange here. You can never claim you follow a rule yourself unless others observe this and agree. Intentionality and qualia both suffer this from physicalist's POV. Jun 7, 2021 at 17:08
  • @Mark maybe you didn't realize, but from exchange info I can observe that you're most likely a adverbialist as I described in my answer. Then you treat intentional objects as mere modifications of some internal intentional states which are not grounded by real world. So your intention suddenly becomes pure psychology with so-called many-property-problem, in complicated cases having lots of assortment of properties and descriptions you'll quickly confused with no help in reality to further check and align but only groundless regress. You may understand Superman, but this is not JTB knowledge. Jun 7, 2021 at 17:23
  • Thank you for the clarification and helping me understand even my own current stance on the issue :). For some reason, I see qualia as a truly insurmountable problem for the physicalist approach, but I just can't seem to see the same immediate hurdle with intentionality. I guess it stems from the feeling that qualia are pure subjective experiences which I (personally) cannot deny, whereas it seems like we can devolve into a back and forth in semantics about what we really mean by "aboutness".
    – Mark
    Jun 7, 2021 at 18:13
  • @Mark intentionality is heavily used in folk psychology theory called theory-theory and frankly most people agree it's actually very successful through history, especially when you're intending about real objects, so it's a useful and central concept in phenomenology of philosophy. However, even in such cases your aboutness of grounded propositions have truth values while at the ultimate material level there's no such true or false trace or state you can find in brain where there're only ever-changing neural processes not fixed to a true or false mental state. So as long as you hold existence Jun 8, 2021 at 2:24

Here's how I like to think of it. Philosophers make a distinction between derived intentionality and original intentionality. Derived intentionality is the "aboutness" that an image of the Eiffel has that makes it about the Eiffel Tower. It's not inherent in the image: the image only represents the Eiffel Tower if there's someone (a mind) there to recognize the image and to understand what it represents. The image itself, strictly speaking, isn't about anything. It's pixels on a screen, brush strokes on a canvass, a collection of particles, and the physical properties associated with these all these physical objects, and that's it. If you delete every mind from existence, the image no longer means anything, just like how words no longer mean anything, they'd just be ink blots on pages. Physical things by themselves aren't about anything in themselves, and can only have derived intentionality, where there is a mind present to know what the physical thing is supposed to represent.

Then there's original intentionality. It's the aboutness feature that certain mental states (like the thought of the Eiffel Tower) have that makes them about something. Unlike derived intentionality, these intentional mental states don't need an additional "interpreter" to make sense of them and to know what they're about. Plainly, my thought of the Eiffel Tower just is about the Eiffel Tower, and I don't need some other mind to look upon it in order for it to be so. (I guess we can say derived intentionality involves a three-place relation between a representation, the thing represented, and a mental state; whereas original intentionality involves a two-place relation between a mental state and the thing represented.)

With this in mind, we can state the problem of intentionality for materialism as an argument:

No physical thing (object, property, state, process) has (original) intentionality (they only have derived intentionality).

Some mental states have (original) intentionality.

Therefore, some mental states are not physical things.

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