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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Thoughts on Intentionality

Trying to Get Clear on Intentionality

Mike Agar


In April of 2009 I participated in a meeting of biological ecologists. They wanted to integrate "social science" into a five-site comparative study of urban land fragmentation. It was—and continues to be—a pleasure to work with them. At that first meeting, I gave a standard spiel which rested on the fact that—to explain a process of urban fragmentation—a number of perspectives would be relevant, a set P of perspectives p motivated by human interests in the context of a particular task t. We usually assume that the various p's are distributed with reference to different social identities, so in this case I talked to the ecological audience about "various stakeholders," like developers, community members, journalists, ecologists, and the like. This linking of perspectives with social identities is the normal way of thinking, but it is in fact a great stumbling block of our post-structural era. A simple equivalence of perspectives within single identities has become less and less common. It is nowadays an assumption that is almost never true.

In a nutshell, the problem is that any perspective relevant for a task for a particular person may be a mix of quite different biographical and historical sources, and that these mix 'n match blends might be different for two persons in a task even if they draw on the same sources. "Culture" no longer an adequate description, explanation, or generalization of any person or group. For any two perspectives in any set P, they will never be completely identical nor will they ever be completely distinct. If we defined a function that measured overlap between any two perspectives, with perfect overlap being 1 and non overlap being 0, we could claim that for any two p's in P, 1 > f (pi, pj) > 0. More on such problems another day. Ignore them for the moment.

Ethnography is a means to the end of learning another perspective. So I told my ecological colleagues that several stakeholders were relevant to understanding urban fragmentation, which of course they all knew better than I did, and I ignored the post-structural problem described in the preceding paragraph. Ethnography is weird enough. You can't do the whole megillah at once or heads will explode. So I then rounded up the usual methodological villains and summarized how an ethnography of different perspectives could be done as a "social science" research project. My summary rested on the simple assumption that, whatever else it is that is going on, a different perspective implies that different beliefs and desires are in play. There is also of course overlap between any two perspectives, as just described above, in part because of human universals, in part because of shared history. But standard ethnographic operating procedure is to assume differences until proven otherwise.

Now, the odd thing here is that scenarios like the one with the group of ecologists come up over and over again in my life. They have for decades. People ask me for advice, usually because they've tried "real" social science and it didn't tell them diddley-squat. So I tell them that there is a set P of p's relevant to any task t, that the members of the set are not identical, that translation is possible among the different p's, and that incorporating the various p's and the interests they serve into the analysis of task t is necessary to understand and explain and intervene and deal with task t in an effective and efficient way. It's what I used to teach and now it's how I make my living. Fortunately I happen to enjoy doing work that starts with those premises.

People usually react in one of two ways. They might believe that the premise is wrong, that there is more overlap among p's than I think, or even that all p's are identical to their p, at least as far as that specific task t goes. Or they might believe that other p's are different, but the differences don't matter for any number of possible reasons. I mean, why listen to that p? Social psychology tells us that "naïve realism" is the normal human condition. We ordinarily believe that our p is equivalent to objective reality and all other p's are defective and distorted images of it.

But usually it's not like that, or else why would a group or organization ask me to look at a problem in the first place? The group of ecologists, for example, described recent histories of land fragmentation at their sites, and of course they described interactions among different kinds of people with different interests. They are ecologists for god's sake. They automatically think in terms of webs of interactions. What was news to them was that a systematic approach to learning and comparing human perspectives and their interactions was available. Mostly they dealt with plants and animals, not humans. That was where the differences in our perspectives were. The differences were about the old fact that humans have language and culture, not about logic.

So the question I thought about that caused me to start blogging was this: Why is what I suggest about how to research perspective differences always so peculiar, or a surprise, or something people react to like it's on a par with the theory of relativity when in fact it's just plain hundred-year-old ethnography? And why is it that most "social science" doesn't deal with this simple fact of multiple p's very well either, if in fact it deals with it at all? I mean, contemplate the concept of "standardization" in social research. Standardization means one and only one perspective p driving the definition of what you want to learn and how you learn it, right from the start of the research. Here you go, respondent. Answer these questions. My perspective or no interview fee. Talk about killing them softly with their song.

After I talked with the ecologists, I decided that I really needed a pithy concept, or at least a short phrase, to summarize this premise about multiple perspectives. The fundamental but simple assumption that drives what I do, what any ethnographer does, is that meanings and practices aren't always the same among a group of people with reference to some task t. Their hopes, their dreams, their fears—You can't assume they are like yours, because they will never be identical. They will run from a little different in important ways to something you'd never imagined could have existed. As long as everyone's interests are being served, nobody cares but academic ethnographers. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But I get called in just because everyone's interests are most emphatically not being served. There is conflict. The task isn't getting done. No one is particularly happy about that.

For some strange reason, as I thought about a way to summarize all this after the meeting with the ecologists, I remembered the concept of intentionality.

I knew the concept, sort of but not really. That's like most of what I know, sort of but not really. I remembered a conversation long ago with a phenomenologist who'd had too many beers. I asked him what in the hell "intentionality" really meant. The phenomenologist told me that intentionality meant that "consciousness has an object." Thank you very much. I knew that phenomenologists acknowledged Brentano's work in the 19th century, where he revived the medieval concept to explain why human science was different from physics and biology. That sounded promising.

Then, much later, in the 1980s, I worked with some of the artificial intelligentsia and they used the term "intentionality" as well. They meant that an intentional system was one whose behavior you couldn't explain without including the beliefs and desires and goals of that system. In other words, just observing surface behavior wouldn't cut it. You had to know what was in the program, what the program "wanted" to do and what it "knew." That was part of any intelligent system, artificial or organic.

I knew that intentionality has to do with what a system, whether a human or R2D2 or Waldo the cat for that matter, knew and wanted. And I knew that the argument was that you couldn't understand or explain what a human or R2D2 or Waldo the cat were up to without knowing something about their intentionality. And it was pretty obvious that what the system knew and wanted wasn't always visible on the surface of things, not directly, not usually. It was part of the taken-for-granted background and the invisible processes of which behavior was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And it didn't seem like a wild hypothesis to think that maybe what was behind what they did wasn't the same as what would have been behind it if you did it. Voila, different perspectives.

Right around the same time as the meeting with ecologists, while I was thinking about all this, I went to a panel discussion on Darwin. It was a very good panel. But when they got to applications of Darwin to humans, there was no intentionality, except for the assumption that we all want to maximize fitness in some biologically universal way. That’s all right as far as it goes, but not when you want to learn what people are doing in some task, from their perspective, and that’s what they wanted to do. You couldn't evaluate fitness unless you knew what they were doing, and you couldn't know what they were doing unless you looked into their intentionality, and their intentionality wasn't obvious on the surface of things.

The scientists on the panel didn't problematize subject intentionality. They assumed it, assumed that any relevant part of a perspective p that served someone's interest for some task t was a universal, in the sense that it was just like the panelists', just like any human's would be. Sometimes it might well be, in part. But you can't just assume that. You have to problematize the assumption first. Especially given the human proclivity for naïve realism. Pretty basic, pretty obvious, and everyone who lives in today's world and hasn't hidden under the bed for the last thirty years knows from personal experience that the argument is right.

So I thought I'd look up "intentionality" in four encyclopedias and see what the experts said. Even Wikipedia, which I'm supposed to sneer at to prove I'm above such digital fluff. But I won't do that, because usually it's not digital fluff. It's useful. You have to be critical, of course, but did you uncritically believe the last thing you read or heard? Here are four definitions I found on the web. The phenomenologist at the bar who told me that consciousness has an object was a little too succinct, but he didn't lie.

"Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. The puzzles of intentionality lie at the interface between the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language. The word itself, which is of medieval Scholastic origin, was rehabilitated by Franz Brentano towards the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Intentionality’ is a philosopher's word. It derives from the Latin word intentio, which in turn derives from the verb intendere, which means being directed towards some goal or thing." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003, Pierre Jacob, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality/.

"Intentionality is aboutness. Some things are about other things: a belief can be about icebergs, but an iceberg is not about anything; an idea can be about the number 7, but the number 7 is not about anything; a book or a film can be about Paris, but Paris is not about anything. Philosophers have long been concerned with the analysis of the phenomenon of intentionality, which has seemed to many to be a fundamental feature of mental states and events." (Intentionality, Daniel C. Dennett and John Haugeland), in R. L. Gregory, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Oxford University Press 1987, http://cogprints.org/252/0/intentio.htm

"Some things are about, or are directed on, or represent, other things. For example, the sentence 'Cats are animals' is about cats (and about animals), this article is about intentionality, Emanuel Leutze's most famous painting is about Washington's crossing of the Delaware, lanterns hung in Boston's North Church were about the British, and a map of Boston is about Boston. In contrast, '#a$b', a blank slate, and the city of Boston are not about anything. Many mental states and events also have "aboutness": the belief that cats are animals is about cats, as is the fear of cats, the desire to have many cats, and seeing that the cats are on the mat. Arguably some mental states and events are not about anything: sensations, like pains and itches, are often held to be examples. Actions can also be about other things: hunting for the cat is about the cat, although tripping over the cat is not. This -- rather vaguely characterized -- phenomenon of "aboutness" is called intentionality. Something that is about (directed on, represents) something else is said to "have intentionality", or (in the case of mental states) is said to be an 'intentional mental state'." Intentionality In Philosophy of Science: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. Pfeifer and S. Sarkar (Routledge, forthcoming) http://mit.edu/abyrne/www/intentionality.html

"The term intentionality is often simplistically summarized as "aboutness". 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".[1] Originally intentionality was a concept from scholastic philosophy. The concept of intentionality was reintroduced in 19th-century contemporary philosophy by the philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano in his work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874). 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". Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentionality

Wikipedia is in fast company here and it ain't no slouch.
So let me turn around what the phenomenologist in the bar told me. Consciousness has an object; it is directed at something; it has an “aboutness.” As far as humans go, there is no pure consciousness separate from experience, and there is no experience separate from consciousness. I know, Buddha and all that, but I mean 99% of the people 99% of the time. In other words, lose the distinction between objective and subjective. It’s moot; it doesn't work; intentionality tells us it is the wrong question to ask, like asking whether the U.S. is a sacred or a secular state. The answer is yes. Intentionality means there is no knowledge that is purely objective: it is always embedded in a particular human consciousness. And it means that there is no human consciousness that is purely subjective; it is always about things that exist in the world, imagined or real, things that endure beyond the moment of thinking.

When I look at the encyclopedia definitions, the first bump in the road is in the assertion that something like "Paris" isn't about anything. The hell, I thought. The authors need to get out more. But then the experts eliminate this problem by talking about "derived" intentionality, which just means that Paris has meaning because a human makes it mean something. In and of itself a city is not "about" anything. So, a trivial problem.

Another problem: The fact that consciousness can be about something that doesn't exist in the world upsets philosophers. Unicorns have attracted much too much attention in this regard. If I say "I believe the unicorn in the garage is hungry," the belief is true. But there is not a single unicorn traipsing around in the world. There are some, probably, on merry-go-rounds, if they still exist, merry-go-rounds, I mean, not unicorns. Or another variation on the theme. If I see a dog in your garage, I believe there is a dog in the garage. If you tell me Albert is in the garage, I do not believe that. What I don't know is that the dog is named Albert. So with intentional idioms, as they are called, I can believe that something said about the same thing is both true and false. Philosophers don't much care for this, either.
This is a big one.

The rest of the encyclopedia articles, supported by a literature that fills several bookshelves, hark back to the hazy days of 1960s college when we'd argue about whether or not there was such a thing as "reality," especially at a time when many of those who claimed it existed were doing evil things. Philosophers argue from one extreme—intentionality is bullshit—to another—intentionality is everything. At stake, among other things, is the very issue that inspired Brentano: Is human research different from physics and chemistry. At stake also is whether physics and chemistry are "objective," since at its most radical one can argue that all objects are targets of human consciousness rather than universal objects free of person, time and place. I mean, even physicists say that what you know about the universe depends on who does the listening and how they do it.

I don't want to return to those hazy days of college. Of course human social research is different, but like all research it is committed to making an argument that something is the case based on evidence and logic. Of course reality exists, but so does imagination. There are obvious and important issues here, and the fact that intentionality raises them is a good thing. As a researcher I have to worry about "making a case," in Toulmin's terms. As an ethnographer I have to worry about making sense of human differences in terms of human similarities. As an applied type I have to worry about which recommendation is "right." Of course I have to worry about whether or not a proposition is "true," and I have to worry about whether or not anyone "believes" it.

But right at the moment I don't have to worry about these things to write this essay. Whatever else I do, I can't do any of it until I investigate the intentionality of the humans I want to describe and explain. Their intentionality is the bedrock, the data, the fundamental so-called "object" of study, which in this case consists of "subjects" who live in a world interpreted and acted upon in terms of their intentional idioms, what they believe and desire. And the fundamental and foundational error of most social research is that it does not investigate the assumptions it so often makes, namely, that their intentionality in a particular task is the same as my intentionality is or would be. As I wrote earlier, they fail to problematize subject intentionality.

There's yet another big problem with the encyclopedia entries, the ambiguity between "intentionality," as used here in an abstract pointy-headed way, and "intention," as in "aim or objective," and "quality of purposefulness," according to my word processor dictionary. A perspective is formed with reference to a task and to the interests that a human has in that task. Consciousness has an object, fine, but isn't the object linked to a human body trying to get things done?
The problem is, it looks like the connection between consciousness and action isn't so clear for the philosophical definitions. Wikepedia, god bless the authors, makes it clear:

"The major problem with the term intentionality is that users often do not make it explicit whether or not they use the term to imply concepts such as agency or desire, i.e. whether it involves teleology. Dennett … explicitly invokes teleological concepts in the 'intentional stance'. However, most philosophers use intentionality to mean something with no teleological import."

I'm not sure why this problem exists, but any ethnographer needs to include in their description what people are up to, and an artificial intelligence program is designed to do something. My computer dictionary definition of "teleology" is a little thin. But the Encarta entry that also tags along with the word processor is a little better.

"Teleology (Greek telos, “end”; logos, “discourse”), in philosophy, the science or doctrine that attempts to explain the universe in terms of ends or final causes. Teleology is based on the proposition that the universe has design and purpose. In Aristotelian philosophy, the explanation of, or justification for, a phenomenon or process is to be found not only in the immediate purpose or cause, but also in the “final cause”—the reason for which the phenomenon exists or was created."

I need teleology, as do the computer scientists, to get the link between perspective, task and interests, as do Dennet and Haugeland and probably many others who did not write an encyclopedia entry. And I especially want to narrow the scope now to human intentionality, rather than robots or animals, though they obviously deserve more air time in the intentional debates as well. But in the end, "desire" is a frequent example of an intentional idiom that the philosophers use. How can anyone think of "desire" without thinking of something someone wants to make happen?

So let me wrap up the concept, at least for the moment. What it means to problematize human intentionality is this: First, assume that any human actor has a perspective, or what many academic and popular books would call a mental model. I like “perspective,” since it suggests active perception and interpretation and action.

Second, a perspective at any particular moment is always linked to a task; a task is what it is “about,” if not in a simple one-to-one way, then partially or indirectly by focusing in on some task part, or task implement, or task environment, etc.
Third, a perspective in a task is always working in service of some interest. A perspective interacts with some task where a human is trying to get something done.

So, here is what I can give the fancy name of the intentional inverse. When a human social researcher runs across another human and wants to understand and then explain what they’re up to, he/she needs to find out about their perspective, the task they’re engaged in, and the interests that task serves by participating in it. The perspective is the consciousness. The task is the object. The interest is the final cause. All wrapped up in a nice intentional package. Not so neat a package, but at least something I can carry around and show people.

And the shock is, all those things in the package may and probably will differ, guaranteed, from what the human social researcher assumes a priori. Maybe they differ just a little, maybe they differ in previously unknown profound ways. But they will differ. Most humans know this to be true from experience. But most don't know how to learn the variety of p's and tasks and interests, get a handle on how the interactions work through time, including their own role as they engage them, and then aim their energy at system change, for better or for worse. President Obama knows this, but then he was a community organizer with an anthropologist mother.

That's what I do that's so different to so many people. I problematize subject intentionality. The people who ask me to help out with something have already done the same thing on a commonsense level, before I'm invited to come into their organization and help out, or else they wouldn't have invited me. But then I can clarify what intentionality is all about, show them how to do something with socially-distributed intentionality by way of learning what they need to know, show them why they can believe what they learned, and help them figure out how to use the knowledge to solve a problem.

Those last lines aim towards new blogs, since going after all those partially-overlapping perspectives p that are members of the task-relevant set P isn't exactly a walk on the beach. We're dealing with intentionality that for the most part is tacit. In other words, you usually can't just ask people to tell you what it is. And we're dealing with something meshed into a rich semiotic system, including but not limited to language, where the relationship between a sign and its meaning is for the most part arbitrary.

More material for future blogs.



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