Monday, September 29, 2008

Vallicella on intentionality and potentiality

Over at Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella takes note of some important analogies between, on the one hand, the potentialities and dispositions we find in material world, and on the other hand, the intentionality that Brentano famously took to be the mark of the mental. I pretty much endorse everything he says; indeed, Bill’s observations dovetail nicely with some of what I say in the second of my recent posts on dualism.

Still, in reply to that post, Bill today comments:

“What is less clear to me is whether intentionality strictly speaking is to be found in the material world, as Ed suggests in the first paragraph, or whether it is only something analogous to intentionality, a sort of proto-intentionality, that is found in the material world. My recent defense of the Potentiality Argument against the moral acceptability of abortion commits me to holding that there are irreducible potentialities in nature below the level of conscious mind. And perhaps this should soften me up for hylomorphic dualism, which is Ed's preferred solution to the mind-body problem. But I find some difficulties with hylomorphic dualism.”

In response, I would say, first of all, that I suppose it depends on what one means by “intentionality.” The Brentano-inspired definition Bill makes use of in his original post makes reference only to “aboutness” or directedness toward an object. And if that is all that intentionality entails, then it seems to me that the position I endorse, but also the position Bill defends, does indeed imply that intentionality exists in the material world below the level of consciousness, wherever potentialities and dispositions (or “potencies” and “powers” as we Aristotelian Scholastics would say) are found. Interestingly, this is a view that is coming to be taken seriously by thinkers well outside the orbit of either the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic family of views to which I am partial, or the more general blend of traditional metaphysical views to which Bill is sympathetic. David Armstrong, for example, has suggested that dispositions manifest a kind of “proto-intentionality.” The late George Molnar argued that causal powers cannot be understood except as instances of what he called “physical intentionality,” to distinguish it from the sort of intentionality mental states exhibit. The biologist J. Scott Turner argues that we must attribute a kind of “intentionality” to certain biological processes if we are to make sense of the distinction between the normal development of an organism and aberrant growth patterns. These are just a few examples; and in my view they support the conclusion that the Aristotelian-Scholastic notions of potencies, powers, and final causes are not only defensible today, but are in fact surprisingly widely defended today, even if those doing the defending often do not realize (given differences in jargon and certain false assumptions about what the Scholastics believed) that that is what they are doing. (I discuss this issue at length in The Last Superstition.)

Of course, given its typical usage, the term “intentionality” does smack of mentality, so that the idea of “intentionality below the level of consciousness” might seem jarring. And the medievals from whom Brentano derived the term did indeed use “intentional” as a way of characterizing the objects of the intellect. (To describe the phenomena Bill, along with Armstrong, Molnar, Turner, et al. are interested in, the medievals would just have spoken of potencies, powers, final causes, and the like, not intentionality.) So it is certainly defensible to suggest that “intentionality” be reserved to describe the kind of directedness that is associated with grasping something with the intellect (as we do but physical objects manifesting potentialities, dispositions, etc. do not), and perhaps more generally to describe the sort of directedness that animals exhibit in their various states of conscious awareness (as even creatures without intellects can do). In short, it seems to me that if there is a difference between Bill and me over the existence of intentionality below the level of mind, it is probably a verbal one.

Regarding hylomorphic dualism (or “hylemorphic” dualism, as it is sometimes spelled), I suppose someone could in theory accept the existence of irreducible dispositions, final causes, and the like without going the whole hog for Aristotelian hylemorphism and the sort of dualism thinkers like Aquinas would build on it. So we can bracket that question off for now. Still, it does seem to me that once one concedes the existence of inherent potentialities, powers, etc., then since these potentialities, powers, and the like are the potentialities, powers, etc. of certain kinds of thing (such embryos and acorns, to use Bill’s examples), one is also well on the way to conceding something like Aristotelian essentialism, which brings the question of hylemorphism onto center stage. But, again, that is a matter for another time.


  1. Dear Ed, I know this is an old post of yours, but I'm actually going through the whole blog trying to read everything, thanks for the resource!!
    The question I have is: what is the succinct way to show that act and potency are real features of the natural world?
    Many thanks - where's the donate button!?

  2. To put it simply, noting that in the natural world there is change, which ontologically requires potency for the actualization of this new act.

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