Mental States & Intentionality

Posted: March 6, 2013 by Dillon in Apologetics
Tags: , , , ,

We now know that essences are fairly important.  But we have to keep going.  In keeping with the idea of this blog, being a site “for the rest of us,” I’m going to do my best to boil down these complicated topics.  Once you understand the concept of an essence, you can then apply it to mental states and intentionality.

“A mental state or mental process is a kind of condition or process which can be had only by thinking, feeling creatures.  Some examples to consider are:

  • pains
  • itches
  • hearing yourself think
  • wanting to go on vacation
  • remembering that Henry VIII was an English king
  • remembering your first kiss
  • emotions”¹

Easy enough?  Mental states are basically all the things that go on inside your head: thoughts, beliefs, experiences, intentions.  That means when I think about the first time I drove a car, I’m creating a mental state.  Likewise, my back itches right now and me thinking about it is creating another mental state.  From here we can further break down mental states into two categories: representational and qualitative.

A representational mental state does exactly what you’d think; it represents something.  It might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s very important to grasp that a representational mental state is about something.  If it’s confusing then consider a quick example.  I believe that Wisconsin is a state in the United States of America.  My belief is about Wisconsin (and, to a lesser extent, about the USA).  There’s quite a bit more, but this will do for a basic understanding.

There are many mental states that also have a specific feeling to them.  Everyone has experienced pain before.  Although it may differ in the level and type (throbbing, dull, stabbing, etc) we all understand what it means to experience pain.  Mental states that also possess a distinct “feel” are called qualitative states.  There is a lot of debate in modern philosophy over the exact relationship between these two mental states, but that doesn’t stop us from understanding them.

Now consider “intentionality,” or, being intentional.  Being intentional in our everyday lives just means your decisions and actions.  I intentionally do this, etc.  An intentional state, however, is actually a technical expression used in philosophy to mean “representational states.”  To put it simply, intentional state=representational state.  This carries over to the idea of “intentionality,” which simply means that there are such things as representational states.This is a technical expression that just means the same thing as “representational states.” It includes, but is not limited to, things like decisions and intentions in the first sense. You may also see people talk about “intentionality.” This just means: the fact that there are such things as representational states.

We can sum it all up very easily:

Mental States: Thoughts, beliefs, experiences, intentions.  Can be representational of something, or qualitative in terms of having a unique quality associated with it.  Immaterial.

Intentionality: All mental states are inherently about something.  Knowledge is of something specific and experience is of something specific.  Immaterial.

When we looked at an essence, we discovered the core of an identity and a definition.  Essences give the foundation for a mental state; mental states are how we form thoughts and ideas.  But why does any of this matter?  Stay tuned for part 3!

¹Quotation and information from Jim Pryor‘s notes on Mental States.


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