Communicative Intentions vs. Intentionality

A foreign student emailed me the following questions.

(1) According to Jerry Fodor, does intentionality reduce to the reference of mental symbols plus the relation between the subject and the symbols? 

(2) Under this theory, what happens to Gricean “communicative intentionality”?

As far as I can tell the answer to (1) is, roughly, yes.  The difference bewteen beliefs, desires, and other mental states is in the different functional relations they stand in with the subject that has them.  The difference between beliefs about dogs vs. beliefs about cats is that the former refer to dogs, while the latter refer to cats.  And mutatis mutandis, it’s not just Fodor.  Most philosophers of mind with naturalistic inclinations believe that mental states’ capacity of being about things–their intentionality–is due to how they relate to the things they represent and to the subject that has them.  At least, this should be a decent first approximation.

Now to question (2).  According to Grice, the meaning of statements is fixed in part by speakers’ intentions.  Ok, but intentions can do this because they are assumed to already possess mental content.  What gives mental content to intentions?  Grice did not have much of an answer to that.  Fodor (and other naturalistically inclined philosophers of mind) do.  The answer is that intentions are mental representations, and mental representations have content because of how they relate to what they represent plus how they relate to the subject that has them.

This way, Fodor (and others) can help Grice complete his theory of meaning in a naturalistic direction.  As far as I can tell, this was one of the original motivations that got naturalized theories of content off the ground.  Does this sound right?


  1. Edoardo

    Thank you very much! It sounds completely right. It’s very important to me that “intentions are mental representations”: I imagined intentionality more like an attribute of consciousness (à la Searle?), and I was driven to imagine that intentionality lied ‘behind’ mental representations…
    So, a Fodorian could say: “no representations without intentions, no intentions without representations”.

  2. The balance of evidence (behavioural studies, animal studies…) show us that the only viable vehicles of pscyhological states (with representational or intentional content) are not only linguistic vehicles.
    Let me explain the idea. Mayor cognitive systems (human beings but also other animals)posses “core” states (ussually self-concious states of present moment)in wich knowledge is not interchangeable with awareness, that is, pior to the exhibition of full fledge conceptual capacities (knowledge) exist in a logical and ontological sense more primitive states in which the individual cognitive system display psychological states bearing intentions. So, though knowledge is not equal to awareness (there are diffrences in gradation of knowing that we have knowledge: implicit versus explicit or minimally deploided consciosness or maximally deploided consciousness), the reverse is not true, because when we(and other animals) have awareness (total awareness) normally we have its relavant feature,say, intentionality á la Searle (pace Freud and other psychoanalysts however bear in mind the unconscious in many human behaviours).
    When producing an utterance we create a communicative intention considered to be a prelinguistic process, therefore we cannot equate intentions with mental reprsentations if you understand mental rpersentations as essentially representations with a linguistic component either in a public language or in an alleged language of thought. Truly, intentions lie behind mental representations in the above mentioned sense (your sense)but are paired with psychological states broadly construed and related to phenomenal conciousness in many relevant ways.
    As we say, communicative intention is a prelinguistic process there to be recognized by tracking the signs of intentionality, which Grice detached them from the literal meaning of an utterance, so a forward step to solve how intentions are directed to something (what gives mental content to intentions) is to add an extra dimension in pragmatics: the non-verbal behaviour of speakers in order to dissambiguate the intention of linguistic expressions or the introduction of theory of mind (ToM) into pragmatics.

  3. Robert Thompson

    I disagree with Anibal’s rendering of the Gricean program. There are some tricky issues about how to fit Grice’s commitments into recent work in cognitive psychology and psychosemantics, but I think that one should keep in mind that any plausible Gricean account of communicative intentions should not be committed to the idea that these reflexive intentions and the ToM resources involved in communication (typically) arise at a conscious level (consciousness is a red herring here).

    More importantly to the issue at hand, the Gricean Intention-based Semantics program attempted to accomplish the following reduction: reduce all questions about the meaning of linguistic entities to questions about the meaning of psychological entities. Hence, the reduction was supposed to go as follows: Explain the meanings of utterance types as conventional signals of speaker meanings. Next, explain speaker meanings in terms of certain psychological states, specifically, intentions to produce beliefs in an audience. Finally, explain the significance of those intentions and beliefs by developing a psychosemantics for those mental states.

    Anibal is right that the tokening of Gricean communicative intentions is a prelinguistic process, if what Anibal means is merely that this tokening precedes the uttering of a particular utterance (here there are complications about whether Grice thought this was a psychologically real account, or merely something that could be rationally reconstructed by the interlocutors. But, for those who followed Grice and developed psychosemantic theories, we can assume a psychologically real model of this process). Given basic assumptions about the language of thought and propositional attitudes, however, if intentions essentially involve propositional attitudes like belief (and everything on the right hand side of Grice’s definition of speaker meaning), intentions must involve beliefs which have been given a meaning via psychosemantics. Hence, intentions must lie behind linguistic utterances, but could NOT lie behind ALL mental representations, as Anibal suggests. If what Griceans say is right, intentions are mental representations that are defined as including/involving other propositional attitudes (and hence, mental representations with a psychosemantics) as essential components.

  4. Hi Thompson,
    let me proceed step by step in order to deconstruct in which aspects i dissent from your views and finally how we can go beyond our antithetical positions.

    First, we have to be bold and no longer see consciosness as a non operational variable, or simply no talk about it just because is a complex issue in addition to the preexisting problems.

    Mayor interdisciplinary efforts have been made to treat conciousness as sicentific respectable topic in this area or to be apply in others, legitimally.
    Consciousness is fundamental to access linguistic information and to comprehend languistic input on-line during interactional encounters with others speakers. Evidence for that comes from laboratory based studies with paradigms of “scrumbled” words and real words (either in writting format or spoken format) and other paradigms under the framework of neurolinguistics or the “language as action tradition” (Oxford language school), or the “visual world pradigm” (see, Michael K. Tanenhaus) in which the putative brain structures involve in one or other form in conscious states (working memory and executive processes); are also involve when processing lexical information.

    Moreover,roughly, in many protocols to evaluate the presence or absence of consciousness in comatose patients the way to settle the matter is observe if those patients are able to converse. So, consciousness and language are tied.

    How to accomodote and fit well, the standard Grice account in pragmatics with current cognitve psychology is a difficult task, but several attempts are under way (see Noveck and Sperber´s book entitled “Experimental Pragmatics” for a wide overview with several authors considering this).
    Apply ToM mechanisms in pragmatics is a must, in natural contexts or from the point of view of academics that want to give a functional account of pragmatics, becuase the speaker´s meaning is not in the utterance, is an internal variable constrained by socio-cognitive factors need to be recognized (See, H.H. Clark and Tom Givon).

    Second, intentionality is a building block of self-representational systems not only share by their linguistic systems but also by affective systems (and perhaps others), therefore is anterior to a fully cristallyzed mental life. In a genuine sense we can argue that intentionality lies behind MANY if not ALL mental states. I not concieve intentionality from the unique perspective of symbols, meaning, representations as traditional resources in classical psychosemantics, philosophy of language and logic tell us is associated with our linguistic expressions standing for…something. Intentionality is mapping one-to-one, many-to-one or one-to-many mechanism to allow reflexive integration of complex behaviour with the enviroment to be dysplay in agency or linguistic contexts.
    Finally, the way to resolve our dissagreements is perhaps focus our attention in how real people use language and what are the mechanisms enabling that

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