Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What is an intentional object?

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is an intentional object?
Date: 10th August 2011 13:55

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 1 August, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, 'What, if anything, is an 'intentional object'?'

I appreciate the fact that you have sought to keep the word count down to a reasonable level. I'm guessing that your experience in the May exams may have had something to do with it. In a one hour timed essay, you have to keep to essentials, and this you have done very well.

Your point against Meinong and the ontological jungle are, of course, well taken. I'm no fan of Meinong, but it seems to me that there is a question being begged here, that somehow sheer numbers have something to do with it (a la Occam). Can this be true? Is it so bad that intentional objects are generated in their billions?

Numbers as such don't faze me, but 'unruliness' does.

Quine's point about the rhinoceros in the doorway identifies the key problem. It is a problem of identity conditions (cf. Strawson, 'no entity without identity'). It doesn't matter how elaborate your description, there will always be more than one possible way to satisfy that description. When you talk about the 'possible rhinoceros' you haven't *identified* anything.

But why all the fuss? This is what has me puzzled. I thought I saw a rhinoceros charging through the park gate. (It was actually a pony, it was dark, and I was tipsy.) In that case I believed/ thought it was the case that (Ex)(x is a rhinoceros and x charged through the park gate and I saw x). No 'object', just three properties which together give the truth condition for my belief. That is to say, my belief is true if and only if (Ex)(x is a rhinoceros and x charged through the park gate and I saw x). Job done.

If you want to get more elaborate, we can include the pony, and describe my false beliefs about IT. I believed that the pony was a rhinoceros, absurd as it may seem. In my agitated state, the coat hanging on the side of the cupboard in the darkened room becomes an intruder waiting to pounce. Similarly you can 'want' things you wouldn't want if you realized what they really were.

You say, 'Gorman's insight is that talk about intentional objects is talk about the satisfaction-conditions of intentional states. The intentional object is *simpliciter* the entity (object/ state of affairs/ property/ event) that would, if it existed or came about in the way the intentional state aims or claims, be the satisfaction-condition for the said state.'

Taken literally, this would seem to imply that there are certain 'objects' which either exist or don't exist. Whereas, if we are talking about predicates or properties, then there's no problem. The intentional 'object' is characterized by a description which is either satisfied by one or more of the objects that actually exist, or not. Talk of an 'object that would, if it existed...' is just shorthand.

One reason for finding the description view unsatisfactory is that it fails to capture the phenomenology of the mental state. Let's say I want an apple. There's far more to it than the truth of the statement, 'I desire that (Ex)(x is an apple and I eat x). I imagine the apple, I see it in my minds eye. I picture myself munching its crunchy flesh, enjoying the tangy taste, the feeling of satisfaction afterwards. We can run exactly the same analysis for each of the statements I have just made, but it somehow doesn't seem to do my mental state justice.

The objects in our mental life have a phenomenological quality, sometimes very vivid. The phenomenology is functional, not just an epiphenomenon, because we rely on it in forming intentions, controlling our actions. We discover more about what we believe, or what we want, by focusing on the mental object and discerning its properties.

I want a screwdriver which will work on every kind of screw. What kind of blade would it have? Large, small, tapering, adjustable? With a bit of effort of imagination, I can *see* that I really don't know what I want, so far as screwdrivers are concerned. As my judo opponent strides towards me I can see that the possible throw which I would have attempted cannot succeed, because our weight difference is too great, or because he is already moving to counter the throw, or because of a certain look in his eyes that tells me he is too smart to be taken in by my feinting move.

The magic wand. This is an interesting example, because it shows how varied are the ways in which we 'want' something quite specific. I want a wand like Gandalf's staff in Lord of the Rings. I want to make the angry motorist berating me for scratching his Jag disappear. I don't ever want to have to work for a living again. A magic wand can be something which looks like x, and/or does y, and/or enables me to be z.

You might say that this point applies quite generally, that there are any number of ways for, 'It is raining' to be true. But each of those ways is a specific way, which we can describe, in any amount of detail. And this takes us to the point where we came in: mental states are ultimately indeterminate, they don't have 'satisfaction' conditions in the same sense as the truth conditions for an ordinary factual statement. The phenomenon is real enough, but any description necessarily falls short. This isn't an argument for dualism, but it is an argument against reductionism.

All the best,

Geoffrey