Principle

The term intentionality was introduced by Jeremy Bentham as a principle of utility in his doctrine of consciousness for the purpose of distinguishing acts that are intentional and acts that are not. The term was later used by Edmund Husserl in his doctrine that consciousness is always intentional, a concept that he undertook in connection with theses set forth by Franz Brentano regarding the ontological and psychological status of objects of thought.

It has been defined as “aboutness”, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary it is “the distinguishing property of mental phenomena of being necessarily directed upon an object, whether real or imaginary”. It is in this sense and the usage of Husserl that the term is primarily used in contemporary philosophy. The concept of intentionality has its foundation in scholastic philosophy with the earliest theory being associated with St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God and his tenets distinguishing between objects that exist in understanding and objects that exist in reality.

A major problem within intentionality discourse is that participants often fail to make explicit whether or not they use the term to imply concepts such as agency or desire, or whether it involves teleology. Most philosophers use intentionality to mean something with no teleological import. Thus, a thought of a chair can be about a chair without any implication of an intention or even a belief relating to the chair. For philosophers of language, intentionality is largely an issue of how symbols can have meaning.

In current artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind, intentionality is a controversial subject and sometimes claimed to be something that a machine will never achieve. John Searle argued for this position with the Chinese room thought experiment, according to which no syntactic operations that occurred in a computer would provide it with semantic content. As he noted in the article, Searle’s view was a minority position in artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind.

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