• Reprint: Socializing Intentionality

    From jeffrubard@gmail.com@21:1/5 to All on Tue Apr 24 09:46:38 2018
    [April 2008]

    Perhaps every mentally ill person is a philosopher of mind manque; at any rate, I used to worry a lot about intentional mental states before I didn’t have any worth mentioning. “Intentionality” is the property of directedness towards a content, “
    aboutness”, that mental states and semantic tokens have; although the term originally derives from Scholastic discussions of voluntary acts, thanks to an expansion of its meaning by Brentano and Husserl saying something is “intentional” in that it
    possesses intentionality is different from saying that it is intentional in that you meant to do it.

    A little while ago, intentionality was a major philosophical topic: there were all sorts of plans to either naturalize it as an unproblematic part of the physical world or socialize it as a consequence of the organization of collective life. Qua budding
    marxisant my inclinations were with the second option; I would be surprised if there was fundamentally anything but atoms in the void, but I suspected (which suspicions were later amply confirmed) that the kind of instrumental control “biological
    hypotheses” about psychological phenomena serve often creates illusions of being able to understand without the need for “charitable interpretation”.

    However, I appreciate a good subjective-objective genitive ambiguity as much as anyone, and so I’m not quite proposing a “social practice” account of intentional mental states here; instead, I would like to float the prospect that social life is
    not the fundament of intentionality which compels us to take an “intentional stance” towards people we interact with but rather the end it tends toward, its fullest realization. Now, a Sellarsian would say that semantic intentionality, the ability of
    words to be about what they refer to, explains mental intentionality, the ability of our minds to focus on an actual or possible state of affairs; and for some people this is reversal enough.

    Not me, though: I want to say that semantic meaning is the fundamental constituent of social structure, and as such represents the relative “perfection” of the proto-intentional mentation and gregarious behavior we share with animals. (Relative
    indeed, though; the ambiguities and apparent “defects” that linguistic expression possesses cannot but reflect the real conflict and suffering in our lives, and the strategic overdetermination of those slippery signifiers cannot be dispensed with.)
    This might seem to lend itself to a social theory which is Hegelian in a bad sense, celebrating the perpetual improvement of the human race’s ability to express itself through an ever-expanding and complexifying “world society”. So I will address
    one possible complement which is not “Whiggish” or “progressive”: the idea that classical models in literature, art, or politics are exemplars of what is called in psychology (and sometimes the philosophy of mathematics) “cognitive control”.

    We know more than Dante; he depicted the world through Ptolemaic epicycles, and we live in a heliocentric one. Maybe we (some of you, anyway) have more and better brain cells in your head than his disease-ravaged medieval one. But his ability to
    universalize some very local phenomena (the intricacies of Florentine politics) into timeless human drama represents a pitch of perfection regarding the ability of self-consciousness to coordinate words and deeds; we would like to be able to control our
    relationship to our more complex environment as well as him.

    So perhaps the donning of masks from history, as famously remarked upon by Marx at the beginning of the 18th Brumaire, represents an essential and unavoidable form of rationality with respect to the ebb and flow of perceptions taken from and spilling out
    into contemporary society. At any rate, “socializing intentionality”, or the intentionality involved in socializing, requires a great deal of careful thought before we can declare its “hard problems” beaten: “doxastic kinematics” are so
    fantastically complicated, and the social forms they operate in so manifold and historically/culturally/politically/sexually striated, that a simple “social pragmatism” about intentional content would be, well, crazy.

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