|Philosophy of Mind
Consciousness and Intentionality of Action
ABSTRACT: One much discussed issue in contemporary philosophy is the relation between consciousness and intentionality. Philosophers debate whether consciousness and intentionality are somehow connected; whether we have reason to be more optimistic about an objective, scientific or third person account of intentionality than about an analogous account of consciousness. This paper is intended as a limited contribution to that debate. I shall be concerned only with the intentionality of action. Not everything which is true of intentionality of action is true of intentionality of other phenomena, such as beliefs. I shall discuss the question, What is the intentionality of action? More specifically, I shall discuss one partial answer to this question: that a necessary condition of an agent performing a certain intentional action is that the agent is conscious of performing that action. This answer is fairly unpopular in contemporary philosophy. In this paper, I shall try to say something about the ground for the rather wide-spread philosophical resistance to the answer, and I shall also outline the kind of considerations that I think are required to judge whether a wedge can or cannot be driven between consciousness and intentionality of action.
One much discussed issue in contemporary philosophy is the relation between consciousness and intentionality. Philosophers debate whether consciousness and intentionality are somehow "connected" (see Searle, chap. 7); whether the one or the other is the "theoretically fundamental" one (see Dennett); and whether we have reason to be more optimistic about an "objective" or "scientific," or "third-person" "account" of intentionality than about an analogous account of consciousness (see e.g. McGinn 1991, chap. 2).
In this paper, I will outline a possible contribution to that debate. I will discuss some instances of what I will talk about as "intentionality of action". This is, obviously, at best a limited contribution to the debate about consciousness and intentionality, since what is true of intentionality of action may not be true of the intentionality of other phenomena, such as beliefs.
I will formulate a question about what needs to be true for a certain intentional action to take place, and I will discuss an answer to the question. The answer is that a necessary condition of an agent performing a certain intentional action is that the agent is conscious of performing that action. It seems to me that many contemporary philosophers would deny or have reservations about this answer. I shall outline an inquiry into what is involved in this resistance. I shall also say something by way of evaluation of the resistance.
The Consciousness Thesis of intentionality of action
Consider an example of intentional action. Suppose a person is walking about a meadow. After a while he picks up a flower. (1) So far as this description of the event goes, at least a couple of different intentional actions may have taken place. It may be that the person was searching for a flower, and found what he searched for. Alternatively, it may be that the person was searching for a plant exceeding a certain length, and found what he was searching for. Or again, he may have walked around thinking about a philosophical problem and by chance picked up a flower.
I will, here, assume without discussion that it does not conflict with common philosophical usage to say that the three descriptions ascribe to the person's activity different intentionalities. I will also assume that which description (if any) is true is underdetermined by the mere movements undergone by the person on the meadow; or at least that the intentionality of action is underdetermined by the gross, or external, bodily movements undergone by the agent.
If this is correct, we may pose the following question: what needs to be true, other than that certain gross movements take place, for a given intentional action to take place?
There is an answer to this question which one would expect to have at least an intuitive appeal. It is this: what needs to be true for a given type of intentional action to take place is that the agent is taking himself to perform that action, in the sense that this action is what the agent is conscious of doing when carrying out his performance. For example, a person searches for a flower only if the person takes himself to search, or is conscious of searching, for a flower. I shall call the general philosophical thesis expressed in this answer Consciousness Thesis (1). It can be formulated thus:
The Consciousness Thesis in contemporary philosophy
Like I said, one would perhaps expect the Consciousness Thesis to have an intuitive appeal. However, it seems that many philosophers would have doubts or reservations about the thesis. Here, I can only briefly hint at positions which seem to me to be in conflict or tension with it. I have in mind, for example, the position commonly held in analytic philosophy of mind that, quite generally, there is nothing essentially conscious about intentionality (see e.g. McGinn 1996, chap. 1, Lycan, chap. 1). I also have in mind the view, commonly held among philosophers inspired by the later Wittgenstein, that such differences as those between searching for a flower and searching for a plant exceeding a certain length could not reside in the qualitative experiences which the agent has as he is acting (see e.g. Kripke, chap. 2, and Boghossian). Again, phenomenologists have allegedly held the view that there is nothing essentially conscious about intentional action. So for example, in Dreyfus' commentary on Being and Time, Heidegger holds the view that intentional action can take place without any "mental, inner, first-person, private, subjective experience" (p. 68). Let these examples serve to at least indicate that philosophers of various convictions would find reason to doubt or make reservations about the Consciousness Thesis.
What is involved in this resistance in philosophy to the Consciousness Thesis? After all, there can be little doubt that the thesis has at least an intuitive appeal among many non-philosophers.
One thing which comes to mind when this question is asked is the ambition to describe human beings in what has been called "objective," or "scientific," or "third-person" terms. It is an ambition which has been common in particular in analytic philosophy of mind at least since the 50's. Following this ambition, it is natural to resist the Consciousness Thesis. The Consciousness Thesis can be understood as what is sometimes called a "first-person view" of intentionality of action. And thus understood, it is in conflict with the objectivist commitment shared by many philosophers of mind.
However, it seems clear that this can at least not be the only ground for resistance to the thesis. First resistance to the Consciousness Thesis goes beyond movements in which the objectivist or scientific ideal is a central commitment. It occurs, I have suggested, among philosophers inspired by the later Wittgenstein, as well as among phenomenologists. And second, even among philosophers who are committed to the objectivist or scientific ideal, the Consciousness Thesis of intentionality of action is taken less seriously than other, analogous consciousness theses.
Consider, for example, the following thesis, which I shall call Consciousness Thesis (2).
This is a thesis which I understand to display perfect analogy with Consciousness Thesis (1). Thesis (1) is a thesis about what it is to perform an intentional action; Thesis (2) is about what it is to be in pain. The claim of Thesis (1) is that an agent, to perform a certain intentional action, must be conscious of performing that action; analogously, the claim of the second is that an agent, to be in pain, must be conscious of being in pain.
Consciousness Thesis (2) has a strong position in contemporary philosophy. It has as strong a position as any analogous consciousness thesis will have. To be in pain is often mentioned by philosophers, along with a few other examples, as a paradigmatic example of an essentially conscious phenomenon. To be sure, not all philosophers are entirely happy with the thesis. Some hope that the thesis will be abandoned in favour of a more objective or scientific account of what it is to be in pain; others wish that it could be so abandoned; and others again are convinced that it will be. But even those who are dissatisfied with Thesis (2) on such objectivist grounds, normally admit that it makes up an exceptionally strong case for the "first-person standpoint" as it were. They are prepared to acknowledge the intuitive force of claiming that unless an agent is conscious of being in pain, there is no ground for saying that he is in fact in pain. Consciousness Thesis (1) by contrast, is normally granted no such intuitive force. It seems to offend no strong and widely shared intuition of philosophers to claim that an agent can perform an action even though the agent is not conscious of doing so.
This all suggests that resistance to Consciousness Thesis (1) must have roots other than philosophical commitment to an objectivist or scientific ideal. The resistance can be found among philosophers who do not share the commitment. And even among philosophers who share the commitment, Consciousness Thesis (1) is taken less seriously than other analogous consciousness theses.
So we must ask again: what is involved in the resistance in philosophy to Thesis (1)? Why is the Consciousness Thesis of intentionality of action taken less seriously than other analogous consciousness theses?
The concept of consciousness in philosophy
It seems to me that a main reason perhaps the main reason for resistance to the Consciousness Thesis of intentionality of action, is a feeling that there is something wrong with the very idea of a "conscious experience" of performing a certain action.
It seems to be difficult to plant doubt about there being a genuine conscious experience of being in pain. Whenever an agent is in pain, there is something that "it is like" to be that agent, something that it is like "from this inside." The agent who is in pain, feels pain.
By comparison, it seems to be easy to plant doubt that there is a conscious experience of performing a certain kind of action. What may be doubted, it seems, is that there is a type of conscious experience accompanying the performance of a type of intentional action. Instead, it may be claimed, a certain intentional action is on one occasion accompanied by one type of experience, on the next occasion by another type of experience, and on a third occasion by yet another type of experience. For example, searching for a flower will on one occasion be accompanied by one experience, and on another occasion by another experience. But there will be no type of experience which accompanies this action in all its instances. This is a line of reasoning which has impressed many readers of the later Wittgenstein (see e.g. Wittgenstein, §§156-71).
At first sight, this doubt about a conscious experience of performing a type of action may seem to be based on a simple survey of the relevant phenomenological facts. You look and see which conscious experiences accompany the performance of a given type of action. And you find that no type of conscious experience is present in all instances of that action.
However, I believe that behind this kind of investigation, it is possible to identify an understanding, which could perhaps be called conceptual, about what conscious experiences are. This can be seen for example in Kripke's discussion of the difference between the two performances of, on the one hand, meaning plus by '+' when computing 'x+y', and, on the other hand, meaning something other by '+' when thus computing (where we are assuming that, for any actually performed computation, the results of the respective operations are the same whether we mean one thing or the other). When it is inquired by Kripke whether the difference between the performances could consist in a difference in the conscious experiences of the agent, only a limited range of contents of consciousness is examined. It is the contents of bodily sensations, such as having a pain, and of perceptions of secondary qualities, such as seeing red. The contents are characterised as "introspectible," "irreducible" "internal impressions" having their own "special quale" (pp. 41ff). It is concluded that there is no such conscious experience of meaning plus by '+'.
There is one (as one might think possible) content of consciousness which is not considered in this discussion. It is the content the characterisation of which coincides with the characterisation of the performance; i.e. I mean plus by '+'. The understanding seems to be that this cannot be a content of consciousness proper.
This understanding, I believe, lies behind the relative unpopularity of the Consciousness Thesis of intentionality of action in philosophy. The understanding is that the content I A is the wrong kind of thing to qualify as a possible content of consciousness. By contrast, whatever it is that we have "in consciousness" when we are in pain, or see something as of red, is the right kind of thing to qualify as a content of consciousness.
If being conscious implies having a conscious experience, and if examples of experiences are exhausted by bodily sensations and perceptions of secondary qualities, then I think it is justified to value theses (1) and (2) asymmetrically. While it is plausible that I must have a type of experience (viz. the experience of pain) in order to be in pain, it is far from clear that I need to have any particular bodily sensation or perceive any particular secondary quality to perform an intentional action.
However, it seems that more than this is involved in the resistance in philosophy to Consciousness Thesis (1). It is commonly understood in philosophy that being conscious of something is equivalent with having a peculiar first-person perspective on oneself. It is possible to detect some such understanding with Kripke, I think. Concluding that there is no experience of meaning plus by '+', Kripke understands this to mean that meaning plus by '+' is not a mental state the "introspectible inner 'contents'" of which I can "find in my mind" (p. 50). The same understanding seems to be at work with philosophers who deem that insofar as intentionality can be present without experience being present, there is reason to be optimistic about an "objective" or "scientific" or "third-person" account of intentionality (see e.g. Chalmers, chap. 1).
Now, judged from the point of view of this implication, it seems to me less obvious that theses (1) and (2) should be valued asymmetrically. In one clear sense at least, I can "introspect", or "find in my mind" such contents as I mean plus by '+', and I search for a flower. When I mean plus by '+' or search for a flower, I can know in a peculiar first-person way what I am doing. Whereas other people can know about what I am doing only by being informed about it through any of their five senses, I need not be so informed to know what I am doing. I can know what I am doing not on the basis of such observation. And it may even be that it is necessary for me to so know, in order to do these kinds of things. Unless I know that I am searching for a flower, it is perhaps not clear what ground there is for saying that it is a flower that I search for and not, say, a plant exceeding a certain length; or indeed what ground there is for saying that I am searching for something at all, as opposed to walking about absent-mindedly.
I have suggested that at least two things can be found to be involved in the resistance in philosophy to the Consciousness Thesis (1). The first thing involved in this resistance is an understanding that to be conscious of something is to have a conscious experience, where examples of conscious experiences are exhausted by bodily sensations and perceptions of secondary qualities. The second thing involved is that to be conscious of something is to have a peculiar first-person perspective on oneself. Leaning on the first understanding, it is possible to reject the thesis (1) with some confidence. Leaning on the second understanding, it is possible to draw a certain conclusion from this rejection, i.e. that performing an intentional action one need not have a genuine first-person perspective on oneself. I have wished to indicate that we should at least have an open mind about whether it is justified to lean on both these understandings at one and the same time; whether it is justified, that is, to both make the confident rejection of Consciousness Thesis (1) and to conclude from this rejection that one need not have a first-person perspective on oneself when performing an intentional action.
|Notes(1) Throughout this paper,
terms such as 'he,' and 'himself' are used as abbreviations for 'he or she,' and 'himself
Boghossian, Paul A. (1989) "The rule-following considerations" in Mind 98, pp. 507-49.
Chalmers, David J. (1996) The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford UP.
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