Intentionality as a Biological Concept

Meaning is sometimes equated with intentionality. The philosophical concept of intentionality is attributed to Franz Brentano (1838-1927), whose lectures Freud attended when he was a medical student in 1874. Whether Freud was influenced by Brentano is not at all clear (Jones 1953). Inten-tionality refers to directing the mind toward an object. Brentano believed that what defines mental states is their intentionality, that is to say, that mental states invariably are about something. Brentano also included within the concept of intentionality, the mental "inexistence" of an object, so intentionality includes the imagination. This conception invites the recognition that intentionality must also encompass the unconscious mind's relation to the world. However, the term intentionality usually refers, in philosophical discourse, to the conscious mind's relation to the world. It is in this sense that, following Brentano, the philosopher John Searle (1983) defines intentionality as "directedness or aboutness," a "mind-to-world direction of fit." Searle concludes, as I too do, that "intentional states are realized in the neurophysiology of the brain."

A first step toward a biology of meaning requires a broadening of the concept of intentionality. If intentionality is to be brought into a biological context, the direction of fit between brain/minds and the world cannot remain at the descriptive level of "aboutness." Aboutness is unidirectional. If the philosopher's definition of intentionality is to be converted into a biological intentionality, we must posit a more complex relationship between the mind/brain and its environment. Such a relationship between the organism in the environment was described by the geneticist Richard Lewontin. He said, "The external forces, what we usually think of as 'environment,' are themselves partly a consequence of the activities of the organism itself as it produces and consumes the conditions of its own existence. Organisms do not find the world in which they develop. They make it" (1991, p. 105). The neurobiologist Walter Freeman

(1995, 1999b) proposed a more truly biological concept of intentionality as an interactive, ecological concept. Freeman proposed that "meanings arise as a brain creates intentional behaviors and then changes itself in accordance with the sensory consequences of those behaviors." To avoid the errors implicit in Descartes' concept of mental representation, Freeman embraced the idea of intentionality as described by Thomas Aquinas in 1272. Thomas Aquinas defined inten-tionality as the process by which humans and other animals act in accordance with their own growth and maturation. An "intent" is the directing of action toward some future goal that is defined and chosen by the actor. Intentionality, as redefined in this pre-Cartesian manner, is quite different from the term as used by Brentano and other philosophers such as Searle (1983). Intentionality as redefined here is not about "aboutness." Meaning is achieved through action in the world, and in turn, the self is altered by that action. Freeman's redefinition of intentionality, therefore, also includes the idea of assimilation—the self changes itself as a result of what it has encountered as a consequence of its actions. Aquinas' definition of intentionality includes the imagination, as intentionality refers to actions at a future time. Although Thomas Aquinas describes intentionality as directing action toward some future goal defined and chosen by the actor, it should also be understood that intentionality is fundamentally an unconscious process, that the self is not necessarily a conscious agent. (I will discuss the self and intentionality in greater detail in chapter 5.) Intentionality so redefined also includes the idea of mental construction by means of selection that is based on forming hypotheses and testing the environment, in contrast to a mental construction that is based on the representation of information. This is a point of view that is consistent with the pragmatic philosophy of William James and John Dewey, as well as the ecological approach to perception proposed by Piaget (1954), James Gibson (1986), and Andy Clark (1997). "Inten-tionality differs from a 'motive,' which is the reason and explanation of the action, and from a 'desire,' which is the awareness and experience stemming from the intent" (Freeman 1999b). This definition is fully in accord with Vico's understanding that "meaning is embodied in our total affective interest in the world."

The philosopher Merleau-Ponty's formulation of "the intentional arc" (1962), which "projects around about us our past, our future, our human setting," resulting in "maximum grip," is also fully consistent with Aquinas' concept of intentionality. Freeman believes that the intentional arc names the tight connection between the agent and the world, that as the agent acquires skills, those skills are "stored," not as representations in the mind, but as dispositions to respond to the solicitations of situations in the world. Freeman not only affirms the existence of a biology of meaning but also recognizes that mappings between the mind and the world are intersubjective. Further, Freeman observed in his research on the reaction of rabbits' brains to odors (which will be described in chapter 5) that there was no invariance between the environmental stimuli and the response in the rabbit's brain. The rabbit's brain does not respond to a symbolically coded message; instead, the individual rabbit uniquely determined the "meaning" of the stimuli. Freeman concluded that "the bulbar patterns [in the rabbits' brains] were signs of the meaning of the stimuli for the subjects, not of the stimuli as we observers knew them" (1993). Not only was there a failure to observe invariance between the stimulus and the individual rabbit's response, but the response of each individual rabbit was different from the others.

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