Searle on Intentionality
by Roger Bissell
presented to Institute for Objectivist Studies cyberseminar on epistemology, January 1996

0. Introductory Comments

"Intentionality is that property of many mental states and events by which they are directed at or about or of objects and states of affairs in the world."

With this formulation, John R. Searle begins his inquiry into how the mind relates the human organism to the world. Intentionality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983) is Searle's attempt to ground his philosophy of language in a more fundamental philosophy of mind. A central (but not the only) concern of this paper is to determine the extent to which Searle's view of Intentionality presented in Chapter 1, "The Nature of Intentional States," is compatible with Objectivism--and whether, on the deepest level, he has really explained anything about Intentionality. (Note: page numbers from Searle's text will be given in brackets,[ ].)

[As an aside: Searle's "biological naturalism" [264] places him squarely in the camp of non-materialist, non-dualist philosophers who view mental phenomena as real and as having specifically mental properties as well as a broader biological nature. [ix] In this general respect, his views on mind are clearly in the same ballpark with the "mentalist monism" of Roger W. Sperry, as well as Objectivism. For more on Searle's view of mind, please refer to Chapter 10, "Epilogue: Intentionality and the Brain" or to Searle's more recent book, The Rediscovery of the Mind (MIT Press,1992).]

I. "Intentionality as Directedness"

Searle uses the term "Intentionality" in the standard way (though always capitalized), to refer to the "directedness or aboutness" of some mental states. [1] E.g., if I have a suspicion, it must be a suspicion about someone, or that such and such is the case; an expectation must be an expectation that someone will do something, or of a certain thing coming to pass. Searle takes pains, however, to indicate how his use of the term differs from that of the philosophical tradition in general:

A. First, for Searle, some mental states (e.g., undirected nervousness, floating anxiety) do not have Intentionality, even though "characteristically accompanied by directed states such as beliefs and desires." [1]

Comment: From the very outset, Searle appears to be in conflict with the Objectivist tenet that consciousness is inherently Intentional. To quote Ayn Rand: "...some object, i.e., some content is involved in every state of awareness...awareness is awareness of something." (p. 29, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd edition). I think, however, that Searle is in error here. Nervousness and agitation are physiological states, which may be caused by a number of things, not all of which we are directly aware of; and though we can in fact be aware of these physiological states (though we need not be), this does not make them mental states.

When we are conscious of being nervous, the mental state involved is our enteroceptive (internally perceptive) awareness of a certain physiological state and/or our introspective awareness of any Intentional mental states (e.g., beliefs, etc.) it may accompany. And both enteroception (of physiological states) and introspection (of mental states that accompany physiological states) are Intentional. If, however, we are not conscious, in one of these two ways, of being nervous, then there is no mental state to be concerned with, merely a physiological state of which we could become (Intentionally) aware, if it became intense enough.

One can be aware, through internal perception, of a high-intensity physiological state that is not itself about anything. For instance, if I have a rapid heartbeat, of which I am enteroceptively aware, it may simply be the result of having drunk too much coffee. (Is there such a thing??) This physiological state, of which I am conscious, is not itself a conscious state and in this case is not about anything--though, admittedly, it could on another occasion be the concomitant of emotional excitement, in which case in a second-hand sort of way one could say my rapid heartbeat was "about" whatever had aroused the emotion it accompanied.

Similarly, there are states of anxiety (or like anxiety?) that are caused by purely physical factors (e.g., blood sugar levels, hormone shift, etc.) and thus are not about anything, and which are sometimes confused with the kind of states that result from one's awareness of an actual or imagined threatening situation. Toothaches, cramps, etc., are also often regarded as conscious states, while in reality the conscious state is our enteroceptive awareness of the condition of the part of the body with the problem. In the case of the kind of anxiety states I am referring to, the body part is a nervous system which has been jangled by some non-cognitive factor.

An agitation or depression of the nervous system is just like an agitation or epression of one's digestive tract. If it becomes intense enough that one becomes aware of it, it becomes the object of one's cognitive awareness (a conscious state). Because there is such a strong tendency to identify these somatic states as being the end result of a progression from cognition-->evaluation-->emotion chain--which they sometimes are--one is likely to be drawn into wondering, "Why am I nervous?" (or depressed, agitated, etc.) "What am I nervous/depressed about?"

Although the cause of a somatic state may be strictly physiological/biochemical, one may still search for and find something plausible in one's experience to which to attach it and regard it as being "about" (in this case, caused by). Thus, even if one attached it to something real and plausible, one's conclusion would merely be a case of "being right for the wrong reason" and not the product of a valid act of cognition. Unless the somatic state was generated by something other than a strictly physiological/biochemical fact, it is not actually "about" anything, any more than rocks washing up on the beach to form "A is A" are actually about the Law of Identity.

In sorting out what is or is not a "mood state" or "feeling," it's important to bear in mind that our consciousness always has a certain global background "tang" to it. It's part of what Rand called the "intensity" of a state of consciousness. Antonio Damasio in Descartes' Error (Read this book!) called it "background feeling," because "it originates in 'background' body states rather than in emotional states." (p. 150) It "corresponds to the body state prevailing between emotions." (ibid) "The background body sense is continuous, although one may hardly notice it, since it represents not a specific part of anything in the body but rather an overall state of most everything in it. Yet such an ongoing, unstoppable representation of the body state is what allows you to reply promptly to the question 'How do you feel?' with an answer that does relate to whether you feel fine or do not feel that well." (p. 152)

Jerome Kagan in The Nature of the Child (This one, too!) referred to Damasio's "background feeling" as "internal tone," when it is undetected, and as a "feeling state," when it is detected. When you perceive an intense change in the background feeling, it is "a discrepant event that invites an interpretation of cause, a name, and, on occasion, a behavioral plan...These consequences are missing when bodily changes go undetected." (p. 158)

Kagan points to a real conceptual problem in whether or not we should treat internal tone and feeling states as the same. Relate the following to an anxiety-ridden person: "If one eventually detects the change in tone (i.e., one's agitation, jitteriness, etc.), evaluates one's thoughts, and decides that one is worried, a new feeling state is created that alters the original and often has consequences for interaction with others...Should the scientist regard the evaluated feeling state simply as a gloss on the original, undetected one....or treat it as a different emotion?" (p. 159)

The former view is the medical/biological model, which Kagan thinks is inappropriate for classifying emotional states. In particular, he says, if we want to understand the "behavior that follows evaluation of a prior change in feeling tone, it is more useful to assume that the evaluation has produced a different emotional state." (ibid) In other words, once the agitated guy reacts emotionally to his now-noticed somatic state and starts foraging around for an explanation of it, he has indeed generated an Intentional mental state--an emotion--that is about the somatic state and, by implication, whatever might have caused it.

Thus, the agitated "mood state" accompanying this emotion, while following from the original, pre-emotional "mood state," is distinct from it. My comments here are focused on trying to explain how pre-emotional "mood states" are not only not "about" anything--and thus not Intentional--but also are not even conscious states, but physiological states about which one might be conscious. I am not married to using terms such as "anxiety" to cover both cases, though I think that modified forms such as "floating anxiety" and "job-related anxiety" are adequate to make the distinction clear.

B. Searle holds that "Intentionality is not the same as consciousness," that "many conscious states are not Intentional...and many Intentional states are not conscious..."[2] In regard to the former, Searle gives the example of the difference between a fear of snakes which is Intentional and an experience of anxiety which (he says) is not, since "the experience and the anxiety are identical," [2] and there is thus no directedness of one's awareness during an experiencing of anxiety. In regard to the latter, Searle points out that we know/believe many things that we do not normally think about (e.g., my usually unconscious belief that the earth will continue to revolve around the sun) -- or may never have thought about (e.g., my belief, formulated now for the first time, that Leonard Peikoff is not a visitor from another planet).

Comment 1: Searle denies that conscious states and intentional states are one and the same. However, there is a difference between his claim that "not all Intentional states are conscious states" and his claim that "consciousness is not always intentional." They may both be true, but they are not equivalent. Compare these statements: "Not all socialists are statists" (true) and "Statists are not always socialists" (also true). These do not "make an identical claim," though they do both deny that socialism and statism are "one and the same."

Searle's position is thus not the only way of denying that Intentionality and consciousness are one and the same. It may be that not all Intentional states are conscious states, while consciousness is always Intentional--or vice versa--and it still be the case that conscious states and Intentionality are not one and the same.

Comment 2: Again, Searle appears to be confusing the having of a certain physiological state with one's awareness of that state, "experience" being the ambiguous term here. If to "experience" anxiety simply means to have a certain physiological state, one may well not be aware of that state, in which case no conscious state is involved, and the distinction collapses. But if to "experience" anxiety means to be aware of one's having a certain physiological state, then both consciousness and Intentionality are involved; and, again, the distinction collapses. (This analysis also applies to Searle's example of the supposedly non-Intentional experience of pain vs. the Intentional experience of redness. [39])

Comment 3: Searle recognizes that some Intentional states (e.g., beliefs) are unconscious and dispositional, rather than occurrent; but he does not seem to realize that dispositional mental states are only Intentional because of their potential for being (or having been in the past) occurrent conscious mental states. Thus, the Intentionality of beliefs--insofar as they are conclusions stored in memory or would-be conclusions--is derivative from that of conscious Intentional states, which beliefs can give rise to.

That is, strictly speaking, dispositional states such as stored beliefs do not possess Intentionality, only the mental acts leading to or from them. Yet, belief and desire are the mental states or events that are Searle's chief focus in regard to mental Intentionality. He does not seem to think that mental acts such as conceptualizing, judging, or thinking have Intentionality; they are not included in his long list, [4] and he also says "I will speak of certain mental states and events as having Intentionality or as being Intentional, but there is no sense attaching to any corresponding verb." [3] Surely, this is the reverse of the truth--strictly speaking, at least.

I maintain that consciousness is always Intentional, and all actually Intentional states are conscious states. The Intentionality of dispositional states, e.g., subconsciously stored knowledge, beliefs, values, etc., is all potential. Their "aboutness" is inactive.

The basic distinction I draw on is between conscious=occurrent and sub/unconscious= dispositional. States such as beliefs can be either occurrent or dispositional. When beliefs "constitute our present awareness of something," they are occurrent states, not dispositional.

Let me state my position again: thoughts or beliefs which are stored in memory (and thus are dispositional) are Intentional only insofar as they can (or have previously) become occurrent thoughts or beliefs. That is why I say that dispositional states have only derivative, and not literal, Intentionality. I'm somewhat surprised that Searle did not pick up on this point, because it is an obvious parallel to his point that language is Intentional only insofar as it can be used (in an occurrent act) by someone to mean something.

As said above, dispositional states are sub/unconscious states. I hesitate to use the word "intrinsically" in Objectivist circles. Instead, let me just reiterate that occurrent (or conscious) states are literally Intentional, while dispositional states are not Intentional in the literal sense. They have a derived or "borrowed" Intentionality, which is strictly dependent upon their being able to give (or their having given) rise to an occurrent, conscious, Intentional state. Dispositional states do not have an active, actual Intentionality, only a dormant, potential one.

C. Searle capitalizes the generic sense of "Intentionality" in order to differentiate it from the ordinary usage of intending to do something. The latter is "just one kind of Intentionality among others" and has no "special role in the theory of Intentionality." [3] He argues that beliefs, fears, hopes, and desires are not "mental acts" and that they do not intend anything in the ordinary sense.

Comment: It seems obvious that there are occurrent forms of these mental states--i.e., actively before the mind, rather than stored in the subconscious or memory. In particular, whether or not the sentence "I hope that I can finish this paper finished by January 12, and I believe that I will finish it by then" is fully equivalent to "I intend to finish this paper by January 12," it certainly does describe an actively occurring Intentional mental state I am now in (on January 9!), rather than simply a disposition to have one at some time in the future.

This section closes with Searle's list of a number of Intentional mental states [4] and the posing of some questions that he will focus on for the rest of the chapter: what are the relations between the items on the list? what categories do they fall into? and what is the nature of "the relation between Intentional states and the objects and states of affairs that they are in some sense about or directed at?" [4] As we will see, Searle has some success with the first two questions, but his answer to the third and philosophically crucial one is, ultimately, inadequate. He also notes that Intentionality is not an ordinary relation, but he does not satisfactorily deal with the problem of existential import: how can mental states be Intentional when the object they are directed at does not exist?

II. "Intentionality as Representation: the Speech Acts Model"

III. "Some Applications and Extensions of the Theory"

Although, as Searle claims, the Intentionality of language is "derived" while that of Intentional states is "intrinsic," he wants to take advantage of our better understanding of language in order to explain how "Intentional states represent objects and states of affairs in the same sense of 'represent' that speech acts represent objects and states of affairs..." [4] He stresses that this approach does not "imply that Intentionality is essentially and necessarily linguistic," [5] supporting his claim with examples of Intentional states in animals and pre-linguistic babies. Indeed, he says, "language is derived from Intentionality and not conversely," [5] a claim which he establishes in Chapter 6.

Searle explores four connections between Intentional states and speech acts [5-11] which, to my mind, are uncontroversial, so I will not discuss them individually here. He summarizes the individual points by saying that "every Intentional state consists of a representative content in a certain psychological mode." [11]

Searle distinguishes his version of representation from various flawed conceptions that happen to run afoul of the representationalist fallacy (we are aware of ideas of reality, rather than of reality by means of ideas) by saying that "there is nothing ontological about [his] use of 'representation.'"[12] "Intentional states represent objects and states of affairs in the same sense of 'represent' that [though in a different manner than] speech acts represent states of affairs."[4] E.g., my statement and my belief are both about (i.e., represent) the object or state of affairs that must exist in order for them to be true.

Comment: If, as Searle claims, an Intentional state really does have an "intrinsic form of intentionality" [5], it would seem that he should by now have begun to consider what the intrinsic nature of such a state is. One expects to see him explore the ontological nature of Intentional states by introducing and elaborating on some form of theory that representative contents are "natural signs," i.e., mental contents that by their very nature represent something else--an idea that dates back at least to William of Ockham in the 14th century.

Briefly, a natural sign is an emergent property of a mental act that by its nature (rather than by human choice) refers to/stands for/intends some aspect of reality. Awareness of reality does not require one's being aware of that emergent property (which would be the representationalist pitfall), just that the property emerges and is the means by which one's mental act is aware of`its object. (One can, of course, be aware of that natural sign by means of an act of introspection, but one has to use another natural sign in order to do so, and one does not at that time have to be aware of that natural sign.)

Using Searle's metaphor from chapter 2, rather than gazing at "vertical" contents of awareness qua ideas, that loom up between oneself and reality, one looks at reality "horizontally" with/by means of contents of awareness qua signs. Searle's "representational contents" and "natural sign" thus perform similar functions.

Some Objectivists appear to think that the concept of a 'natural formal sign' does not advance our understanding of epistemology. But our goal is to understand why consciousness is "awareness" of existence and not merely some representation of it. Simply saying that it is so appears dogmatic. Of course, we cannot prove this claim (trying to would be circular), but we can come to understand how it is plausible/possible and that it is a very natural way to view consciousness. So, understanding concepts and percepts in terms of natural signs---i.e., that we are aware with/through our percepts and concepts "horizontally" rather than being aware of them "vertically"---can help us to see the error of representationalism, etc.

Other Objectivists seem to think that the concept of a 'natural formal sign' is redundant, since we already have Searle's term "representative contents" to do the same job. However, Searle's term is applied both to "linguistically realized Intentional states and [to] those that are not realized in language." (p. 6) Thus, it corresponds to the more general term, "sign," which includes the artificial variety (symbols, used in language and art) and the natural kind (mental contents, such as abstractions and judgments). So, for a concept on the level equivalent to "natural sign," we would need to use the more specific (and unwieldy) "mental representative contents."

More basically, though, mental (representative) content and natural sign are two distinguishable aspects of a conscious act for which we need distinct concepts: (1) our awareness is about something, it is an object-in-a-content, and we need "content" to refer to this; and (2) our awareness is about something, it points to something like a concrete sign points to something in the physical world, and we need "sign" to refer to this. I don't see how we can dispense with either of these concepts if we want to have a complete understanding of consciousness. Readers who want more depth on this subject would do well to consult Henry B. Veatch's Intentional Logic, Francis Parker and Henry Veatch's Logic, a Human Instrument, and Laird Addis' Natural Signs.

Instead of availing himself of this longstanding tradition of plumbing the ontology of Intentionality, however, Searle continues instead to focus on "logical" considerations, saying that "what is important as far as the Intentionality of belief is concerned is not its ontological category but its logical properties." [14] And "...the question of how Intentional states are realized in the ontology of the world is no more a relevant question for us to answer than...the analogous questions about how a certain linguistic act is realized." [15] Searle thus fails to come to grips with a very real and crucial issue: what is the nature of the literal "aboutness" of occurrent mental states? To speak of "conditions of satisfaction" for dispositional mental states (e.g., beliefs) and speech acts (e.g., statements) is not an acceptable substitute for an explanation of how the occurrent mental states on which they rely are connected to their objects!

Of the various applications discussed in Section III, I will briefly mention and comment on only the second. [17] In general, if there is no object that satisfies the representational content of an Intentional state, then it has no Intentional object and is thus not "about" anything in the sense of "directnedness." A belief, for instance, has both content (i.e., a proposition) and an object (Searle says "an ordinary object," I would say "a fact"); but a belief, true or false, is directed (if at all) only at its object, not at its content. Searle applies these insights to the problem of the existential import of fantasy, imagination, and fictional discourse.

Comment: Searle's treatment of existential import is correct on a more superficial level but, in my opinion, he does not get to the heart of the matter. Because he does not give a fundamental accounting of the nature of intentionality, he cannot fully accounting for what is going on when we think of, or entertain a belief about, something that doesn't exist (such as the King of France).

As a rough attempt at the latter (and that being a promissory note on the former), I would suggest that to think of or have a belief about the King of France is to generate a mental content that would be about the King of France, if the King of France in fact existed. The "aboutness" or Intentionality of the mental contents only holds when the object of awareness exists. But the mental content (the proposition) about the King of France is such that it could, by its own "intrinsic" nature, be about the King of France. Or, in alternate terms: the natural sign that emerges when one thinks about a nonexistent object (such as an imaginary being) is of such a nature that it would be about the nonexistent object if that object did in fact exist.

The key to understanding the link between nonexistent objects and reality is to realize that to even think about or entertain a belief about a nonexistent object, it must be true that the object's constituents exist "outside the mind," whether or not they're actually found together in the way that one is entertaining. I believe Bertrand Russell is the one who originally made this point, but I also recall several discussions by Objectivists about imagination vs. cognition, making the point that one cannot imagine anything whose constituents are not derived from one's perceptual awareness.

This is the basis by which we distinguish between an act of imagination and an act of introspecting one's imaginings. On the one hand, an act of imagination is (creatively) splintered or garbled or warped awareness of constituents from "the world outside our mind." It is the means by which we construct/indulge in fantasy. On the other hand, an act of introspecting one's imaginings is a straightforward contemplation of "another mental content." It is the means by which we think of/entertain beliefs about fantasy.

IV. "Meaning"

The only real difference between Intentional mental states and language that Searle recognizes is that language requires overt action (making marks or noises) with a certain intention (to express a particular Intentional mental state by conferring its "conditions of satisfaction" upon the products of one's action), which makes its Intentionality "derived." Mental states, on the other hand, just are intentional, intrinsically, by their very nature.

Meaning, Searle says, applies literally to linguistic utterances, but not to mental states: " makes no sense to ask...what a belief or a desire means." [28] Meaning exists when the distinction can be made between a person's Intentional content and the external form in which it is expressed. If I believe that I am tired, there is no such gap between my belief and its Intentional content. While my believing that I am tired can stand on its own, however, meaning that I am tired requires an overt act (a linguistic utterance): "By saying 'Ich bin tod mude,' I mean that I am tired." Thus, there is no meaning without a speech act "by way of which" one means something. [29] Nor is any speech act meaningful except insofar as it is the means by which someone externally expresses some Intentional content. Neither ideas nor language per se have meaning; a person means such-and-such when he uses some utterance in order to express some idea.

Comment: Notwithstanding the importance of Searle's point about meaning, the shortcomings of his approach to Intentionality infect this section, too. He clearly implies that there are ontological factors responsible for the intrinsic Intentionality of mental states, yet he does not follow through and identify them. At the very least, we would like to know: is Intentionality a property of the mind, or of a mental state, or of a mental act, or of a mental content? Or is it a relation of some kind? Or is it a property of a property, or of a relation? And in what way?

Searle avoids this kind of analysis, which he believes would be circular, saying instead simply that Intentionality is already "a ground floor property of the mind." [26] It is clear that he intends to limit his attempt to explain the nature of Intentionality to the references he has already made to the analogy between mental events and speech acts. Because Searle fails to realize and deal with the need to provide an ontological ground for his view of Intentionality, his philosophy of mind and language thus amounts to an enormous structure of interrelated mental and linguistic concepts dangling in mid-air, as it were.

V. "Belief and Desire"

Searle explores two broad categories he calls "Bel" (for belief) and "Des" (for desire), in order to see how basic they are to Intentionality--i.e., to what extent we might be able to "reduce all (some, many) Intentional states to Bel and Des." [31] The methodology Searle uses is quite simple: "Take a specific type of Intentional state with a specific propositional content. Then ask yourself what you must believe and desire in order to have that content." [33] Here is a simple example: Expect(p)<--->Bel(Fut p) means that one expects that p if and only if one believes that p will come to pass in the future.

After analyzing a number of affective states (e.g., disappointment, sorrow, regret, remorse, blame, pleasure, hope, pride, shame), Searle concludes that it is a mistake to regard feelings in general as "simply a conjunction of belief and desire." [33] Instead, he says, they "are more accurately construed as...more or less strong forms of negative and positive desires given or presupposing a belief." [33] E.g., if I am relieved at getting a clean bill of health from my doctor, I have a case of Bel (possible I was diagnosed with a serious health condition) & strong Des (I was not diagnosed with serious health condition), given Bel (I was not diagnosed with a serious health condition).

Another important conclusion Searle establishes in this section is that "at least a significant part of the Intentionality of [feelings] in terms of Bel and Des." [35] He hypothesizes that "...all Intentional states...contain a Bel or a Des or both, and that in many cases the Intentionality of the state is explained by the Bel or the Des." [35] (Yet, it should be noted, Searle maintains that the primary forms of Intentionality are not Bel and Des, but the "more primordial experiences in perceiving and doing," [36] which he addresses in the following chapters.)

Comment: In my opinion, this is the most useful, creative section of the chapter. It presents a simple methodology that can be applied in analyzing the myriad affective states we talk about but don't always clearly understand. The compatibility of Searle's Bel-Des-feeling model with the Objectivist view of the relationship between cognition, evaluation, and emotion is fairly clear, though it must be noted that the evaluation step is only implicit in Searle's model. It also seems to be in keeping with Objectivism to maintain, as Searle does, that every directed mental state has a cognitive element, a normative element, or both, and that the cognitive element (Bel) is primary.

VI. Concluding Remarks

Searle contrasts mental states with language by claiming that "whereas the Intentionality of belief is intrinsic the Intentionality of the utterance is derived"; [27] and he claims further that "every Intentional state consists of a representative content in a certain psychological mode." [11] Searle apparently wants us to understand from this that the representative contents of Intentional states are what give them their intrinsic Intentionality. Yet, he does not explain how, nor prove that, those contents in fact establish the "aboutness" or "directedness" of those states. To that extent, Searle's model suffers from the pitfall of Representationalism: we have these mental contents that we believe constitute awareness of reality, but he is unable to say how we might ground that belief. Theoretically, at least, Searle leaves us trapped inside our heads, with no direct awareness of reality.

In Chapter 2 on perception Searle comes close to grappling with the ontological nature of the intentional relation. He embraces a version of what he calls "naive realism," in contrast to the representational and phenomenological theories of perception, which he eschews. He describes his view of the contents of perception as "horizontal," as opposed to the verticality of the other two views which want to turn the contents into the object (with or without an external reality behind them).[58] It is not difficult to see that each of these latter two views is, in Objectivist terms, a form of the subjective view of perception. The question is: does Searle's "naive realism" amount to the other side of the false alternative, the intrinsic view?

I think Searle is closer to us than it might appear. Tucked away in Searle's reply to a skeptic challenge [76] is an acknowledgement that our perceptual awareness has an identity and is not simply diaphanous: "...we can know the world how it is, but our very notion of how it is is relative to our constitution and our causal transactions with it." Searle also concedes that, while his account of other Intentional states as representations was "ontologically neutral," a lot more must be said in order to characterize the Intentionality of perceptual experiences. Perceptual experience is "a special subclass of representations" that is more naturally described as a presentation of (giving direct access to) a state of affairs. [46] Its Intentionality must be "realized in quite specific phenomenal properties of conscious mental events." [45]

Even if we grant (the debatable point) that Searle has successfully steered between the Scylla of subjectivism and the Charybdis of intrinsicism in his view of perception, a shortcoming remains. It appears to be that he still has not established the primacy of perception and its Intentionality over the other mental states and their Intentionality--and that the latter are all dependent upon the former. This epistemologically egalitarian way of handling the various forms of consciousness continues to affect Searle's theorizing here. To this extent, he still has not grounded the great bulk of his conceptual framework--and the products of the conscious states it applies to (i.e., our knowledge)--in the direct awareness of reality.

Insofar as Searle is able to identify "logical" features common to occurrent mental states, dispositional mental states (e.g., beliefs, desires), and language, he has offered us some valuable insights; and his analytical methods and techniques have clear usefulness. Searle has failed, however, to identify the ontological factors that establish the fundamentality of mental Intentionality over linguistic meaning--and thus to explain how the Intentionality of belief is "intrinsic," whereas that of language is "derived." As a result, therefore, we still do not understand the basic nature of Intentionality, apart from its "aboutness" or "directedness." We only know that

Appendix: Re-ontologizing Consciousness

In my review of Searle's book Intentionality, I criticized him for failing to give an account of Intentionality--viz., for failing to analyze "the nature of the literal 'aboutness' of occurrent mental states." Some Objectivists apparently find this to be an unreasonable criticism, holding instead that an account of the nature of consciousness must be confined to either the phenomenological or scientific--what are its observable attributes? how does it work?

I do not deny that cognitive scientists and neurophysiologists have a major role to play in identifying how the faculty of consciousness works, viz., what neural conditions underlie its functioning. But I maintain that there is a place for ontology, too. While Rand and Peikoff come across as being overly phenomenological and positivistic on this issue, with no apparent sense of ontology, we don't have to take on their shortcomings. We can and should think outside of this box.

In other words, we need a metaphysics or ontology of consciousness (and, more specifically, of knowledge). This is what Jean Poinsot and those following him (Veatch, Parker, Glanville, Wild, and others, including myself) have pursued in our investigation into the nature of intentionality and "natural signs." And, in their own way, so have the Iowa ontologists (Bergmann, Butchvarov, Addis, et al) in saying that consciousness can be ontologically assayed--that is, a location for consciousness among the various types of ontological furniture can be determined.

"What kind of reality is 'aboutness'?" Answering this question requires much more than simply acknowledging the ontological categories involved--i.e., that consciousness qua faculty is a capacity, and consciousness qua active, occurrent state is a relation between a subject and an object. There is much more work, many more questions, for the ontologist here. Here is a brief summary of what I am referring to:

1. As Rand et al have said, each state of consciousness has two attributes. One we can call a "mode property," which specifies what mode or kind of conscious act a given state of awareness is. The other is an "intentional property" (viz., "natural sign" or "content"), which specifies what the state of awareness is awareness of. The relation between the state of awareness and what it is of is (one and the same as) the relation between a natural sign and what it is a sign of. We can call this the "intentional connection" or relation. (I repeat these points in order to underscore the point that Intentionality and natural signs do not violate the Law of Identity--and thus that there is nothing weird, as some have suggested, in characterizing percepts and concepts as natural formal signs.)

2. There are two basic kinds of attributes and relations that correspond roughly to the distinction between content and form: "descriptive" attributes and relations are (or can be) causally efficacious, whereas "logical" attributes and relations are not (and cannot be) causally efficacious. Thus, the natural sign and the mode property (re the kind of awareness) are descriptive attributes, while the intentional connection is a logical relation. Thus, there are no causal relations in a state of consciousness per se, just causally-generated descriptive attributes (generated by the interaction between our nervous systems and some aspect of reality) and an a-causal intentional connection. Thus, consciousness is a-causal or, in Rand's terms, "metaphysically passive." (Those who ponder the nature of the mind-body relationship should ask themselves how something that is a-causal and metaphysically passive can have "causal efficacy," i.e., can exert a causal influence on the human nervous system.)

3. One key question, which I hope is not premature, is this: Is the intentional connection an internal relation or an external relation? Is it somehow determined by the very nature of one or both of its terms (one of which is the intentional property or natural sign)--or is it a relation that is not determined solely by the properties its terms possess, but by additional factors as well? Consider that I (following Occam and others) have characterized a natural sign as a characteristic of consciousness that, by its very nature, points to or "is about" something else--and thus determines the relationship of consciousness to some object. Since we maintain (correctly) that awareness is metaphysically passive, that our consciousness does not have any effect on its object, the intentional connection must be both a logical relation and an internal relation. Since it is radically different from internal, descriptive relations (e.g., being-faster-than or being-the-friend-of), it would seem to be immune from the criticisms of Putnam et al.

4. In point 2 above, I alluded to the "causal inefficacy" of consciousness. I do not deny that we can profitably and correctly describe human action in terms of the conscious experience that accompanies it. The aspects of human action that we are aware of through introspection offer an "inside" perspective on the causal factors driving our actions; without this perspective (which was evolved out of necessity), we would not be able to regulate nearly as broad a range of actions as we are. But it is we, as conscious organismic entities, who determine our actions, not consciousness per se.

References and Suggested Readings 

Addis, Laird. "Intrinsic Reference and the New Theory," Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XIV (1989), pp. 240-257.

Addis, Laird. Natural Signs, a Theory of Intentionality, Temple Univ. Press, 1989.

Bissell, Roger. "A Dual-Aspect Approach to the Mind-Body Problem," Reason Papers, No. 1 (Fall 1974), pp. 18-39.

Bissell, Roger. Review of Roger Sperry, Science and Moral Priority. Merging Mind, Brain, and Human Values in Vera Lex, Vol. XIV, Nos. 1 and 2, 1994, pp. 84-87. 

D'Amasio, Antonio R. Descartes' Error. Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1994.

Kagan, Jerome. The Nature of the Child, Basic Books, 1984.

Parker, Francis H. and Veatch, Henry B. Logic, a Human Instrument, Harper & Row, 1959.

Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Dutton, 1994.

Rasmussen, Douglas. "The Significance for Cognitive Realism of the Thought of John Poinsot," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 68, no. 3, 1994, pp. 410-424.

Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, expanded 2nd edition., Meridian, 1990.

Simon, Glanville, Hollenhorst, trans. The Material Logic of John of St. Thomas, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955.

Veatch, Henry B. Intentional Logic. A Logic Based on Philosophical Realism, Yale University Press, 1952.


This review essay is revised and expanded from an earlier version which was presented in January 1996 to the Institute for Objectivist Studies cyberseminar on the nature of propositions. Thanks are owed to Michael Young, Francisco Villalobos, William Dale, and David Kelley for their helpful comments.