Intentionality is an interesting thing. Me personally, I find it fascinating how you just can’t get rid of it. If you try and eliminate it or reduce it, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Now to me, this makes quite a bit of sense since, if you read my blog many moons ago, I spent a little bit of time trying to develop a linguistic and semantic conception of reality (here, for example) which I still pretty much hold to. You could probably get away with calling my view tagmemics, or at least noting that it’s in the same neighbourhood.
When it comes to intentionality, meaning, etc, I generally take a semiotic view (not that I’m any great expert in semiotics). The classic Stoic example is a flushed face, which is a sign for a fever. The flush means fever. But this isn’t the whole story – how does a flush, which at bottom is just a biological phenomenon, mean anything? Well, it depends on how we define ‘mean’. If we see enough flushes in close connection with enough fevers, we start to realize, hey, there’s some connection here. If there is a flush, then he has a fever. Or think of smoke and fire. Smoke doesn’t ‘mean’ fire – smoke is just a collection of particles floating around. The meaning comes from us – when we see enough columns of smoke coming from enough fires, we can confidently say, ‘smoke means fire’. These are what John Searle would call ‘derived’ intentionality – the intentionality is derived from us. It’s not an intrinsic feature of smoke, or flushes. Smoke isn’t ‘about’ fire and flushes aren’t ‘about’ fevers.
Most things in the world have derived intentionality. Words on paper don’t have intrinsic intentionality or meaning – there’s no intrinsic connection between c-a-t and the furry four-legged creature that meows at at my bedside 3AM to be let out. It could just as well be m-a-t, if enough folks went with that.
As-if intentionality is another of Searle’s classification – when we say, ‘boy, that computer just doesn’t want to run that program’, that’s as-if intentionality. The computer doesn’t want or not want to do anything – it has no desires or goals or any kind of conscious life. Another classic example is that of a river – the river appears to want to flow downstream, but the river has no conscious intention or desire to flow. It’s just a river.
The last of Searle’s three types of intentionality is ‘intrinsic’ – intentionality intrinsic to a thing. This is generally associated with the mind – Brentano called intentionality ‘the mark of the mental’. This refers to the ability of the mind to direct itself in thought towards things – to have thoughts ‘about’ things. There are lots of different ways of thinking about intentionality – naturalist, reductionist, eliminativist (of these, eliminativism is perhaps the least coherent) – but for my money, I’m not convinced by any of them for the rather simple fact that no matter what’s done to eliminate it, it always seems to be a very necessary part of how it’s eliminated. Other accounts of intentionality, say the conceptual role theory, do a decent enough job explaining a possible mechanism of intentionality but don’t really offer any actual account of how there is such a thing in the first place.
A basic theme in intentionality is that if it’s physical, it has no fixed meaning:
‘One could never derive the specific meaning of a given physical event from the event itself, not even a brain event, because in itself it means nothing at all; even the most minute investigation of its physical constituents and instances could never yield the particular significance that mind represents it as having.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God’, p. 195-196)
Meaning, being the mark of the mental, is also the gift of the mental. I’ve expounded (the two links above) a conception of reality in which it’s semantic in nature – call it a field of semantics, out of which meaning can be made (this is different from, say a more general account of ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ in the universe that one often hears about). We exist as meaning-making agents because we exist in a reality that is a semantic field.