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The term intentionality according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "the distinguishing property of mind of being necessarily directed upon an object, whether real or imaginary". Originally intentionality was a concept from scholastic philosophy but was reintroduced in 19th century philosophy by Franz Brentano in his work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. Brentano defined intentionality as one characteristic of "mental phenomena", by which they could be distinguished from "physical phenomena" (physische Phänomene), using such phrases as "reference to a content", the "direction towards an object" and "the immanent objectivity".

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[a. OF. en-, intencion, -ciun, -tion, -çon stretching, intensity, will, thought, opinion, etc. (12th c. in Hatz.-Darm.), ad. L. intenti{omac}n-em stretching, straining, effort, attention, application, design, purpose, etc., n. of action from intend{ebreve}re to INTEND. A doublet of intension; see note to INTENT a.]

  • I. General senses.
1. The action of straining or directing the mind or attention to something; mental application or effort; attention, intent observation or regard; endeavour. Obs. (but cf. 7b).
2. The action or faculty of understanding; way of understanding (something); the notion one has of anything. Also, the mind or mental faculties generally; cf. INTENT n. 4. Obs.
3. The way in which anything is to be understood; meaning, significance, import. Obs. or blending with 5.
4. The action of intending or purposing; volition which one is minded to carry out; purpose. of intention, on purpose, intentionally (obs.).
Intention 1375.jpg
5. a. That which is intended or purposed; a purpose, design.
b. colloq. in pl. Purposes in respect of a proposal of marriage.
6. a. Ultimate purpose; the aim of an action; that for which anything is intended (obs.).
b. In literary criticism: the aim or design which a critic detects in a writer's work.
7. a. Stretching, tension: = INTENSION 1. Obs.
b. Straining, bending, forcible application or direction (of the mind, eye, thoughts, etc.). (Akin to 1, but with more of the notion of tension as in 7.)
8. Intensification: = INTENTION 3. Obs.
9. Inclination, tendency. Obs.
  • II. Specific uses.
10. Surg. and Med. a. An aim or purpose in a healing process; hence, a plan or method of treatment. [med.L. curationis intentio, transl. {oasper} {tau}{ghfrown}{fsigma} {ilenis}{gaacu}{sigma}{epsilon}{omega}{fsigma} {sigma}{kappa}{omicron}{pi}{goacu}{fsigma} Galen (ed. Kühn I. 385).] arch.
b. spec. in first intention, the healing of a lesion or fracture by the immediate re-union of the severed parts, without granulation; second intention, the healing of a wound by granulation after suppuration.
11. Logic. The direction or application of the mind to an object; a conception formed by directing the mind to some object; a general concept. first intentions, primary conceptions of things, formed by the first or direct application of the mind to the things themselves; e.g. the concepts of a tree, an oak. second intentions, secondary conceptions formed by the application of thought to first intentions in their relations to each other; e.g. the concepts of genus, species, variety, property, accident, difference, identity.

The introduction of these terms is due to the early Latin translation of Avicenna, in which the Arabic ma{ayinold}q{umac}l{amac}t ‘perceptions, notions’, pl. of ma{ayinold}q{umac}l ‘what is perceived by the intellect, intelligible, known’, is rendered by intentiones. Thus tr. Avicenna Metaph. I, 2 (Prantl II. 321) Subjectum vero logicæ, sicut scisti, sunt intentiones intellectæ secundo [al-ma{ayinold}q{umac}l{amac}t al-{th}{amac}niyah], quæ apponuntur intentionibus primo intellectis [al-ma{ayinold}q{umac}l{amac}t al-{umac}l{amac}y], secundum quod per eas pervenitur de cognito ad incognitum. Hence in Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) Metaph. I; I, 1 (Opp. ed. Jammy, Lugd. 1651, III. 3/1) Scientiæ logicæ non considerant ens et partem entis aliquam, sed intentiones secundas circa res per sermonem positas, per quas viæ habentur veniendi de noto ad ignotum. Pacius (Aristot. Organ., 1584) identifies intentio with notio ‘notion’: ‘prima notio seu prima intentio’.

12. Theol. a. One of the three things necessary, according to the Schoolmen, to the effectual administration and validity of a Sacrament, the two others being matter and form: see quots.
b. R.C. Ch. special or particular intention, a special purpose or end for which mass is celebrated, prayers are offered up, etc. as the spiritual welfare of some person, etc.
13. Roman Law. (as below)

1880 MUIRHEAD Gaius IV. §41 The clauses of a formula are these,{em}the demonstration, the intention, the adjudication, and the condemnation..The intention is the clause in which the pursuer embodies his demand; for example, thus: ‘Should it appear that Numerius Negidius ought to give ten thousand sesterces to Aulus Agerius’.

14. Rhet. Intensification of force or meaning; the use of a word to such an end. (L. intentio, Aul. Gell.; Gr. {elenis}{pi}{giacu}{tau}{alpha}{sigma}{iota}{fsigma}, Dion. Hal.) Obs.
15. Special Comb.: intention movement [tr. G. intentionsbewegung (O. Heinroth)], a movement or action on the part of an animal which itself performs no function except to reveal or signal that a further movement or action may follow or is contemplated; intention tremor, a tremor which is manifested when a voluntary action is performed.


The theory of intentionality states that every mental phenomenon (that is, every psychological act) has a content, and is directed at an object (the intentional object). Intentionality states that every belief, desire, etc. has an object that it is about: the believed, the wanted, etc.. Brentano used the expression "intentional inexistence" (existence in) to indicate the status of the objects of thought in the mind. The property of being intentional, of having an intentional object, was the key feature to distinguish mental phenomena and physical phenomena, because physical phenomena lack intentionality altogether.

Through the works of Husserl, who took it over from Brentano, the concept of intentionality received more widespread attention in current philosophy, both continental and analytic. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, identified intentionality with consciousness, stating that they were indistinguishable from one another, a position that was a stark contrast to Brentano's position that intentionality is but one quality of mental phenomena. German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time, defined intentionality as "care" (Sorge), a sentient condition where an individual's existentialism, facticity, and forfeiture to the world identifies their ontological significance, in contrast to that which is the mere ontic (thinghood).

Modern views

Other twentieth century philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle and A J Ayer have been critical of Husserl's concept of intentionality and his many layers of consciousness, Ryle insisting that perceiving is not a process and Ayer that describing one's knowledge is not to describe mental processes. The effect of these positions is that consciousness is so fully intentional that the mental act has been emptied of all content and the idea of pure consciousness is that it is nothing (Sartre also referred to "consciousness" as "nothing").

Platonist Roderick Chisholm has revived the Brentano thesis through linguistic analysis, distinguishing two parts to Brentano's concept, the ontological aspect and the psychological aspect. Chisholm's writings have attempted to summarize the suitable and unsuitable criteria of the concept since the Scholastics, arriving at a criterion of intentionality identified by the two aspects of Brentano's thesis and defined by the logical properties that distinguish language describing psychological phenomena from language describing non-psychological phenomena. Chisholm's criteria for the intentional use of sentences are: existence independence, truth-value indifference, and referential opacity.

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.

Whereas humans can conceive with some difficulty 6th order intentionality (Robin Dunbar - 6th Order Intentionality Story[1]), a future superintelligence or could comfortably envision many more. The most complex mental trains of thought, that we can hold fleetingly and with the utmost concentration and effort, will to it be almost

Dennett's Taxonomy of Current Theories about Intentionality

Daniel Dennett offers a taxonomy of the current theories about intentionality in Chapter 10 of his book "The Intentional Stance". Most, if not all, current theories on intentionality accept Brentano's thesis of the irreducibility of intentional idiom. From this thesis the following positions emerge:

Is Intentional Idiom problematic for Science?

Chisholm (1956), Anscombe (1957), Geach (1957), and Taylor (1964) all adhere to the former position, namely that intentional idiom is problematic and cannot be integrated with the natural sciences. Members of this category also maintain realism in regard to intentional objects, which may imply some kind of dualism (though this is debatable).

The latter position, which maintains the unity of intentionality with the natural sciences, is further divided into three standpoints:

  • Eliminative Materialism, supported by W.V. Quine (1960) and Churchland (1981)
  • Realism, advocated by Jerry Fodor (1975), as well as Burge, Dretske, Kripke, and the early Hilary Putnam
  • those who adhere to the Quinean double standard.
Intentionality is not problematic for science

Proponents of the eliminative materialism, understand intentional idiom, such as "belief", "desire", and the like, to be replaceable either with behavioristic language (e.g. Quine) or with the language of neuroscience (e.g. Churchland).

Holders of realism argue, in contrast to those in support of C, that there is a deeper fact of the matter to both translation and belief attribution. In other words, manuals for translating one language into another cannot be set up in different yet behaviorally identical ways and ontologically there are intentional objects. Famously, Fodor has attempted to ground such realist claims about intentionality in a language of thought. Dennett comments on this issue, Fodor "attempt[s] to make these irreducible realities acceptable to the physical sciences by grounding them (somehow) in the 'syntax' of a system of physically realized mental representations" (Dennett 1987, 345).

Those who adhere to the so-called Quinean double standard (namely that ontologically there is nothing intentional, but that the language of intentionality is indispensable), accept Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of radical translation and its implications, while the other positions so far mentioned do not. As Quine puts it, indeterminacy of radical translation is the thesis that "manuals for translating one language into another can be set up in divergent ways, all compatible with the totality of speech dispositions, yet incompatible with one another" (Quine 1960, 27). Quine (1960) and Wilfrid Sellars (1958) both comment on this intermediary position. One such implication would be that there is, in principle, no deeper fact of the matter that could settle two interpretative strategies on what belief to attribute to a physical system. In other words, the behavior (including speech dispositions) of any physical system, in theory, could be interpreted by two different predictive strategies and both would be equally warranted in their belief attribution. This category can be seen to be a medial position between the realists and the eliminativists since it attempts to blend attributes of both into a theory of intentionality. Dennett, for example, argues in "True Believers" (1981) that intentional idiom (or "folk psychology") is a predictive strategy and if such a strategy successfully and voluminously predicts the actions of a physical system, then that physical system can be said to have those beliefs attributed to it. Dennett calls this predictive strategy the intentional stance.

They are further divided into two thesis:

  • adherence to the Normative Principle
  • adherence to the Projective Principle

Advocates of the former, the Normative Principle, argue that attributions of intentional idioms to physical systems should be the propositional attitudes that the physical system ought to have in those circumstances (Dennett 1987, 342). However, exponents of this view are still further divided into those who make an Assumption of Rationality and those who adhere to the Principle of Charity. Dennett (1969, 1971, 1975), Cherniak (1981, 1986), and the late Putnam (1983) recommend the Assumption of Rationality, which unsurprisingly assumes that the physical system in question is rational. Donald Davidson (1967, 1973, 1974, 1985) and Lewis (1974) defend the Principle of Charity.

The latter is advocated by Grandy (1973) and Stich (1980, 1981, 1983, 1984), who maintain that attributions of intentional idioms to any physical system (e.g. humans, artifacts, non-human animals, etc.) should be the propositional attitude (e.g. "belief", "desire", etc.) that one would suppose one would have in the same circumstances (Dennett 1987, 343).

Basic kinds of intentionality in Le Morvan

Working on the intentionality of vision, belief, and knowledge, Pierre Le Morvan (2005) has distinguished between three basic kinds of intentionality that he dubs "transparent," "translucent," and "opaque" respectively. The three-fold distinction may be explained as follows. Let's call the "intendum" what an intentional state is about, and the "intender" the subject who is in the intentional state. An intentional state is transparent if it satisfies the following two conditions: (i) it is genuinely relational in that it entails the existence of not just the intender but the intendum as well, and (ii) substitutivity of identicals applies to the intendum (i.e. if the intentional state is about a, and a = b, then the intentional state is about b as well). An intentional state is translucent if it satisfies (i) but not (ii). An intentional state is opaque if it satisfies neither (i) nor (ii).

Intentionality vs. intensionality

Intentionality should not be confused with intensionality, a concept from semantics though it is related to the modern understanding of intention.


  • Chisholm, Roderick M. "Intentionality" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. MacMillan, N.Y., 1967.
  • Chisholm, Roderick M. "Notes on the Logic of Believing". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. 24: 195-201, 1963.
  • Chisholm, Roderick M. Perceiving: A Philosophical Study. Ithaca, N.Y., 1957.
  • Dennett, Daniel C. "The Intentional Stance". Massachusetts: Cambridge, 1987.
  • Husserl, Edmund. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology.
  • Husserl, Edmund. Logical Investigations.
  • Le Morvan, Pierre. "Intentionality: Transparent, Translucent, and Opaque". The Journal of Philosophical Research, 30, pp. 283-302. 2005.
  • Malle, B. F., Moses, L. J., & Baldwin, D. A. (Eds.). Intentions and intentionality: Foundations of social cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-13386-5.
  • Mohanty, Jitendra Nath. The Concept of Intentionality: A Critical Study. St. Louis, MO: Warren H. Green, 1972.
  • Quine, W.V. "Word and Object". Massachusetts: Cambridge, 1960.

Further reading

  • Davidson, Donald. "Truth and Meaning". Synthese, XVII, pp. 304-23. 1967.
  • Fodor, J. "The Language of Thought". Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press; Scranton, PA: Crowell, 1975.
  • Sajama, Seppo & Kamppinen, Matti. Historical Introduction to Phenomenology. New York, NY: Croom Helm, 1987.
  • Stich, Stephen. "Relativism, Rationality, and the Limits of Intentional Description". Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 65, pp.211-35. 1984.

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