Derived Intentionality

Carl H. Flygt

February 2006


I’ve always thought of intentionality as a natural phenomenon, a consequence of the needs of mobile forms of life to respond with intelligence and self-interest to their environment. Without intentionality, animal life would be generally impossible, or at least not very complex or very interesting. With intentionality, life is given the capacity to adapt in countless ways to countless niches in a world given by the mineral nature itself and by relationships and states of affairs produced by the efflorescence of the animals and the plants. Paradigm cases of intentionality are the drive to satisfy the desires of hunger and thirst, to unite with the opposite sex for the sake of ecstasy and immortality, and to make judgments about the world or about oneself that leave one substantially free.


Now John Searle tells us there is a form of intentionality that has nothing to do with life and the functions of life, but that is imposed on functional artifacts by conventions of logic and authority. It is an intentionality derived from life, but not intrinsic to it. It is a formal but not a biological feature of linguistic meaning, of convention and of human institutions generally that these exhibit and require conditions of satisfaction without having any biological needs to satisfy.


Is Searle’s account plausible? Although the analysis is impressive and groundbreaking, and generally useful to point up the complexities involved in analyzing mental phenomena, I think it is put into language that is misleading, or at least incomplete, because the only way intentionality of this sort can naturalistically be construed is as an intentionality of perception. It is only as an aspect or a shape that an object can mean something or carry authority. Characterizing aspect or shape as derived or imposed is misleading because motor action is not where aspect or shape lives. Aspect and shape live in perception. Only if the intentionality of linguistic meaning, for example, is conceived as perceptual can a generally naturalistic conception of intentionality be preserved.


Why does Searle choose to characterize the intentionality of language and deontic status as derived and not perceptual? I think the reasons are clear enough. Searle wants to preserve a first-order interpretation of psychology and of consciousness in general. He wants a materialist reduction of mind to brain. He wants a science of consciousness in the language of neurobiology. The intentionality of perception threatens this reduction because perception is irreducibly propositional. Notwithstanding claims of object-salience in perception, in which objects in themselves are supposed to become available to experience, all perception is perception of states of affairs. All perception is perception that something is the case.


This undeniable fact, of course, plays havoc with the naïve realism that Searle wants to endorse. Immediately upon recognizing the propositional nature of all perception and all experience, one is for all intents and purposes forced into idealism. What is primary in experience are not objects, but ideas of objects, propositions pertaining to objects. All self-conscious forms of life, it would appear, function in terms of ideas, and may in fact actually be constituted by ideas. Linguistic meaning and deontic statuses are just straightforward extensions of an a priori second-order organization that pervades all of life, all of consciousness and, because it is only an appearance in consciousness, all of the cosmos itself. How can we hope to get an instrumental science out of a situation like that?


It is really somewhat unfortunate when philosophy seeks to deny idealism. The truth is that philosophy just is idealism. Philosophy is a spiritual impulse in the human organization. Metaphysics, strictly speaking, is not possible without a usage of idealism. What else could possibly motivate metaphysics? And if philosophy is taken merely to be the search for good sense in our concepts, as I think Searle takes the enterprise to be, the ideal of The Good still underwrites it. Let us abandon, therefore, our attempts to justify naïve realism, defeated as they are before they begin, and let us go back to Kant and take up something that can really make a difference in our social sciences – an empirical study of philosophical conversation and of the self-consciousness that causally pervades it, and the ambition to place metaphysics and all forms of reference on the secure path of scientific method and psycho-biological fact.