Building Nothing Out of Something

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Preintentional states

I wrote this fairly quickly, and I thought it up really recently, so I hope it’s not too abbreviated or hard to understand:

In my last post I argued that the contents of an intentional state need not be individuated by the conceptual repertoire of the person who is subject to that state. In fact, I think this is the case for the object of any intentional state that has for an object something which is not individuated by concepts just by its very nature (i.e. de dicto propositions, and, trivially, concepts themselves). The main counterexamples to this position are intentional states which have supposedly nonexistent entities as objects, such as fictional characters, impossible geometric constructions, and Hellenic gods. The basic idea is this: intentional state ascriptions having Homer Simpson, the square circle, and Apollo as objects cannot be subject to existential generalization on those objects; so, those terms are need not be subject to indefinite substitution; only those substitutions of coextensive terms which are in accord with the conceptual scheme of the subject of that state will be assented to by the subject; so, these states and their objects appear to be individuated by the concepts had by the subject.

One problem for this train of thought is the question of just what the object term refers to. In order for these expressions to make much sense we have to posit nonexistent intentional objects. But I think we can avoid a lot of resulting metaphysical weirdness by just explaining away these states. Specifically, I think the state of someone who likes Homer, tries to picture a square circle, or worships Apollo is not an intentional state at all. These are pre-intentional states: qualitatively identical to intentional states for the subject, but having only “narrow” content. The subject of a pre-intentional state could be in such a state while being the only thing in the universe. This is not true for intentional states, for which there must always be something to which the subject is related (with the exception of intentional states relating the subject to him-, her-, or itself).

Pre-intentional states just don’t have objects. So, it is less appropriate to talk about “worshipping Apollo” than it is to talk about “Apollo-worshipping”, or “worshipping in an Apollo-y way”. And when I say I’m trying to picture a square circle, I’m really saying something false. We have adopted the convention of attributing pre-intentional states to people in the same way we attribute intentional states for the reasons that they are qualitatively identical to the subject, and because until relatively recently it was taken as common knowledge that the subject of an intentional state had authoritative knowledge of his or her mental states. But we ought to reject the second of those premises if it means finding a simpler, more coherent philosophy of mind.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

First posting: intentional states

Hey everyone (anyone?), thanks for reading my first post on this new thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about intentionality and propositional attitudes for the past few months, and the next few posts will be about some conclusions I’ve come to in that time. This stuff was going to go on the Buffalo Philosophy blog, but that stopped existing. This first post might seem kind of simple or boring. Things will get more interesting once I build off of what’s posted here tonight. Leave comments please!

Some prelimary clearing-up of the terminology:

For our purposes, intentional states are mental states that have content: states of mind such as belief, fear-of, trust, and so on. The content of an intentional state is the object that state is directed at.

An intentional state ascription is a sentence whose predicate meets three conditions:
a. The verb that heads up the phrase is a transitive one;
b. The concept associated with that verb is an intentional state;
c. And the object position of the sentence is occupied by a noun phrase or that-clause.

I’ll leave it up to the reader to sort out by the context of use which occurrences of the word “object” below are objects of sentences and which are objects of mental state.

A concept is the way some piece of the world is thought about by a person. I won’t say anymore about concepts right now because there seem to be a lot of conflicting ideas out there about them.

Alright, then:

What I’d like to begin with is an argument that the objects of at least some intentional states are not determined by the concepts possessed by the person subject to that intentional state. To begin with, notice that at least some intentional state ascriptions tolerate quantification into object position. The inference from “I see Mark Twain” to “There is something which I see” is a valid one. In normal contexts, a variable bound by an existential quantifier can be specified by any phrase with the same extension. So, any term coextensive with “Mark Twain” can be substituted for “Mark Twain” in the above intentional state ascription: “Samuel Clemens”, say.
But maybe the utterer of “I see Mark Twain” has never heard the name “Samuel Clemens”, or believes they are two different people. It still follows that there is something he sees, and that something is Samuel Clemens. So, the object of an intentional state is not determined by any concept the speaker may associate with the phrase in the object position of the ascription of that state.

Edit: "noun" in condition c for intention-state-ascriptionhood became "noun phrase".