Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Imagining Itself (part XIII: Intentionality and Intention)

It is of the very nature of consciousness to be intentional and a consciousness that ceases to be a consciousness of something would ipso facto cease to exist. -Jean-Paul Sartre,
Whilst examining the differences between photographs, caricatures and mental images, Sartre writes:
The material of the mental image is more difficult to determine. Can it exist outside the intention? […] In our opinion, it is not only the mental image which needs an intention to be constructed: an external object functioning as an image cannot exercise that function without an intention which interprets it as such.
Here Sartre is drawing upon the earlier work of influential German philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano who held the view that all mental states exhibit an intentionality or ‘aboutness’ i.e. they are directed towards an object, albeit one that is “inexistent”. This same notion of intentionality has also been a popular reference point in theories of representation – though its popularity seems to have waned in recent decades  - and it is clear from the above quote that Sartre conceived of representations in the same way: as things that can only function through interpretation. As we have already seen a more thorough theorization of representational strategies provides a far more illuminating means to understand and examine representations.

So why bother with intentionality? The main reason for addressing the idea of intentionality in a discussion of imagination is because intentionality is widely regarded as fundamental to the phenomenon we call “mental imagery”. Nigel Thomas makes this very point in his detailed entry for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the subject of Mental Imagery. There is certainly no need to hold back the tide of opinion on this matter but what we must do is establish a clear distinction between intentionality on the one hand and intention on the other. For the purposes of this discussion we will take an intention to be a mental state directed towards a goal as a necessary component in purposeful action. It will also be necessary to determine whether the notion of intentionality applies universally, not necessarily to mental states but to behavior, much of which we take to be the consequence of cognitive - though not necessarily conscious - processes.

For a 2011 book-chapter entitled “Evolutionary Emergence of Intentionality and Imagination” philosopher Dale Jacquette discusses intentionality as a cognitive activity directed towards (or ‘about’) an object:
For a living thing to sense or perceive is for it to sense or perceive something, to be directed in psychological occurrence towards the object intended by the sensation of perception.
Jacquette outlines an example of a mollusk on the seafloor snapping its shell closed in response to a change in light or motion. He writes:
The internal neuronal change triggered by environmental events will accordingly have an intended object, even in so simple an organism, as a proximate cause of the neuronal state change. The cause of this neuronal state change is in turn what the change intends or is about.
This can’t possibly be right. The mollusk doesn’t have an intended object, it is simply responding to a stimulus. The response is not ‘about’ anything, it is not directed ‘towards’ any thing, it merely moves. To impute an intention to this primitive motion is to take a giant leap into error. If intentionality is directed toward any ‘thing’ in this instance it is toward the result of a movement, not an object. If we were to follow the preposterous logic of Jacquette’s argument then every smoke alarm, not to mention every mobile phone, would have some intended object as its ultimate aim.

The mistake Jacquette makes here is precisely the same as that made by Alva Noƫ in his assumption (already discussed) that bacteria are on a behavioural spectrum with the complex behaviours of humans. If we are to meaningfully distinguish between the sometimes highly sophisticated response systems of basic organisms and the far more complex behaviours of higher forms of life then we will need to understand the role not of intentionality but of intention.

For a behaviour to be intentional there has to be an anticipated goal towards which the behaviour is directed. If no goal is involved we would simply have movement or an advantageous response or reaction of the kind commonly exhibited by mollusks. Mollusks do not choose between contemplated options. They do not form an alternative goal and respond differentially based upon this anticipated future state. Humans on the other hand do this a great deal. In fact we form intentions and entertain actions and refrain from enacting them on a massive scale. Take for example the familiar process commonly referred to as “inner speech”. To conduct an inner monologue or silent soliloquy is, I suggest, to enact absolutely everything aside from the physical performance of speech itself.

Imagine someone unable to ‘hear’ their inner voice, someone who can only consciously think by speaking everything aloud. Such people do in fact exist. Pre-school children commonly engage in ‘private speech’ and it is only around school age that this becomes internalized or, more accurately, the speech stops but all the other associated processes continue.*

So, strange as it may seem, consciousness is not where the majority of mind-work is being done. As is already well understood, a vast majority of decisions are made long before they ever find their way to conscious awareness. What we call consciousness is in fact just the process in which we privately enact (ie: inhibit from public performance) everything but the representations themselves. If this seems hard to believe, then it might be worth considering the conscious thought processes of the congenitally deaf. Congenitally deaf people brought up to sign do not report having inner voices, they report having inner signing: they ‘feel’ and ‘see’ themselves gesturing ‘in their head’. Obviously there are no physical gestures going on in their heads, nor are there representations. What is going through their minds are the intentions to represent via signing.

Conscious thought then, understood from the perspective of intention, might be best characterized as a form of covert (i.e. unexpressed) representationally oriented action. Once again, this is not to side with those who claim that we experience inner representations. This is exactly the suggestion I have been trying assiduously to avoid throughout these discussions on imagination. The claim I am making is as follows. We are a social species and as such we have evolved a range of representational practices that allow us to communicate with one another in highly sophisticated ways. The importance of communication is so fundamental to us and the associated dispositions to represent are so thoroughly embedded that we can barely distinguish between the intention to represent something and the publicly perceptible representations we are capable of producing.

We think we imagine in words, images and propositions etc. when in fact we imagine in intentions: intentions to represent the thing or event in question. So, to speak out loud (i.e. to make verbal representations) and then to continue this speaking as an inner monologue is not to continue the representations in one’s head. It is to terminate the speaking but to continue with the intention: i.e. all of the mental actions apart from representation itself.
We might say that imagining oneself talking or humming is a series of absentions from producing the noises which would be the due words or notes to produce, if one were talking or humming aloud.” –Gilbert Ryle

*It might also be interesting to note that the practice of silent reading is also a relatively recent phenomenon. In “A History of Reading” (1996) Alberto Manguel unearths several rare descriptions of people reading silently but he points out that: “not until the tenth century does this manner of reading become usual in the West.”


drawstillwater said...

? conscious thought = silent/covert/unrealised action? does this make sense?

"...we can barely distinguish between the intention to represent something and the publicly perceptible representations we are capable of producing."

? because it happens so fast?

Jim Hamlyn said...

No, not quite. Conscious thought = covert/unrealized representationally oriented action. Consciousness is the process in which we intend but do not enact the ways that we would represent whatever is of concern. A painter would consider the “appearance” (I have already written about this term) a writer would think of the description (which might include visual references etc.) and a sculptor might think of how they would represent the form.

"? because it happens so fast?"

Why fast? The point is this. Just as reading is often discussed as an internalised reading aloud so too can imagining be thought of as a variety of internalised representationally oriented actions. Actually ‘internalised’ is a misnomer because there are no actions going on, just the intentions to act. The intentions alone are enough to serve as ‘substance’ for the mind. Do you see?

drawstillwater said...

Yes, now I do see… its like talking "to yourself" (silently or sometimes aloud!) when you are trying to work something out or imagine the consequences of something. ('Something' in this case I suppose being a representation or physical action)

And do you think it's possible that some people (painters, artists & sculptors) are more 'visual' than others & so they 'imagine' (intend privately as you put it) more representationally than other people?

Jim Hamlyn said...

”Its like talking "to yourself" (silently or sometimes aloud!) when you are trying to work something out or imagine the consequences of something. ('Something' in this case I suppose being a representation or physical action)”

Actually the footnote at the end of my post about Manguel's "History of Reading" is also illuminating in this respect. It shows how the processes of representational action e.g picture–making, modelling, speaking, gesturing, reading are all capable of exerting an influence (of becoming thoughts) even if we refrain from physically producing/expressing them. Just as readers become capable of reading silently ("in their head" as it were) so too do we learn to inhibit our actions of representation. But the inhibited actions are not simply terminated – the intention persists and this is what IS imagination.

”And do you think it's possible that some people (painters, artists & sculptors) are more 'visual' than others & so they 'imagine' (intend privately as you put it) more representationally than other people?”

No doubt at all that painters think in terms of simulating representations more than other people. But there are, of course, Matching representations too that are visual and no doubt play a role (how large or small is difficult to gauge for us language users) presumably for many animals too. I’m also sure that musicians think in terms of musical compositions more than others too. When in 1880 Francis Galton found that his first batch of academic associates barely ever 'visualised' things it was no doubt because they tended to think primarily in language, and a very powerful and incredibly efficient tool it is too. Indeed language is such a powerful tool that painters etc. often use it extensively to aid the process of representation making. For example, how often have you seen a preparatory drawing in which the artist annotates the colours for future reference. Similarly language has appropriated simulating strategies into its lexicon ("appear", "look", to "loom large" and no doubt many others). All this toing and froing between different representational strategies is probably why it has been so difficult to analyse how representation works. Donald Brook should be commended on his perseverance and insight a great deal more than he has been I think.

drawstillwater said...

And how about "as a necessary precursor to purposeful action" ?

Jim Hamlyn said...

I presume you're enquiring about this because it is perhaps implied that purposeful action must be a necessary outcome of imagination since I'm arguing that imagination is intentional? However, it doesn't follow that imagination should result in purposeful action. For an action to be purposeful it needs to be intentional but for imagination to be intentional it doesn't have to result in action.

Or have I misunderstood you?

drawstillwater said...

"for imagination to be intentional it doesn't have to result in action."
But surely it does have to result in some kind of resolution? Maybe not an 'action' as such …but imagination is presumably stimulatedt by something… a question or 'problem'…which it 'intends' to solve'.

I suppose the solution can be contained mentally & added to the sum of other knowledge & experience & so then contribute to an eventual 'outcome'? (OK not necessarily an 'action')

And if there is no visible or conscious outcome isn't that what we call a 'daydream'?
Or is it 'understanding?
And if so isn't 'understanding' an outcome?

Maybe I'm confusing an outcome with an action…but surely imagination is always 'purposeful'?

And where do 'thinking' & 'imagination' overlap?

Jim Hamlyn said...

There are several questions there and since it's easy to get confused about all this stuff I'm going to try to keep things as simple as possible. Let me know if I miss out anything important.

Firstly, I would suggest that there are indeed a lot of overlaps. Basicallyit's all the same stuff: thinking (representationally oriented intention). Imagination though, might be distinguished from inner monologue type thinking by being thinking intended towards non-verbal representations (images, music, constructions etc.) whereas silent soliloquy (often just called "thought") is primarily intended towards verbal representation. Much thought though is a big mixture of different representational intentions.

I think the Intentionality theorists are quite right that imagination is directed towards something (i.e. it's purposeful). But where some, perhaps all, are wrong is in thinking that all behaviour is bears intentionality. Some behaviour is, so far as we know, wholly inadvertent (say tics) whereas much is automatic and not (or not easily) under conscious control.

To answer your point about resolution or outcome. I think that we have found that by entertaining these intentions to act (i.e. intentions to make representations like descriptions, diagrams, drawings, models, gestures etc) we are able to anticipate outcomes and save ourselves the effort of unnecessary expenditure. To anticipate is to imagine but very often the best outcome is actually inaction.

Brian said...

I think you may have missed the point about ‘intentionality’ with regard to Jacquette. The mollusk must respond to ‘something’: there cannot be any response without both subject and object, however mindless and unconscious, or subtle and refined. This is the basis of intentionality. There is of course a difference between human and animal consciousness, but I think the case for a kind of continuum of evolution is a good one, and it is, I believe, Darwinian. If we imagine nature as a machine - if you will forgive a rather simplistic analogy - then we are all part of that machine. By making a too marked distinction between humans and animals, are you not advocating the very dualism that you elsewhere reject? At the present stage of evolution, humans unconsciously perceive themselves as ‘ghosts’ outside of the machine, a position - with regard to philosophy of mind - that Ryle rejected. This may change over time, when we fully finally see (as we have begun to do) that our privilege rests solely on being able to consciously realise our oneness with nature, not our being outside of it. I have a notion, Jim, that Ryle was influenced by Parmenides, but I can’t get hold of the journal (“Mind”) in which he writes about him: maybe I can go through RGU’s library.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi Brian,
The received opinion really would seem to be that mere reflex systems of the kind that cause us goose bumps are on a gradient with intentional acts. I don’t see though why we should conclude that consciousness is on a straightforward evolutionary gradient with the behaviour of primitive organisms any more than we should conclude that teeth are on a gradient with hair. Sure, they both evolved but it seems to me quite obvious that a heliotrope’s movement is not on a behavioural spectrum towards consciousness. Nor is a smoke alarm – mammals though, I’m less sure about – though the wee cow'rin beastie that popped its breastie from under our fridge yesterday seemed to me little more than a pure panic of responses (but what do I know?).

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft agley,

An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,

For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e'e,

On prospects drear!

An' forward, tho' I canna see,

I guess an' fear!

The point at which our ancestors became capable of purposeful action may well have been far back in evolutionary history and long before our particular species carved out its evolutionary niche. I certainly wasn’t intending to lay schemes of mice and men though it’s beyond doubt that we can discuss our backward casting eyes where our earth born companions cannae.

You say “there cannot be any response without both subject and object”. That’s not true at all. You’re invoking some philosophical terminology there that I take to be mistaken in this context. If you had said that you cannot have an effect without a cause I think there would be far less room for disagreement. A smoke alarm doesn’t have a subject. Or are you making the case that a smoke alarm doesn’t, strictly speaking, respond?

The simple point I’m trying to make is that choices involve roads not taken because we cannot travel both. Natural processes (simple behaviours, reflexes etc.), of which our bodies host many, are not consciously controlled. The rain isn’t an action. And nor is your scratching the itch on your head (though your deliberately not doing so would likely qualify). Representationalists would invoke mental representations as causally influential in this instance and this is a ruinous philosophical enterprise, as I keep trying to elucidate.

I recently tried to look up Ryle’s Parmenides essay too. A couple of reprints of Ryle’s essays were published last year I think but they have a crazy hefty pricetag even secondhand.

Brian said...

Surely Jim, the very word ‘response’ implies two. Cause and effect are inferred from observation. The smoke alarm is a subject (albeit an unconscious one), and the smoke an object, to which it responds. Action does not need to be conscious, it can be unconscious - scratching my head is still an action. So is rain. According to Spinoza, and perhaps Ryle, there may be grounds for deeming what we think of as conscious action to be actually no different in essence from unconscious action, i.e. it is not - contrary to what we would like to believe - strictly under our control. This is also the basis of psychiatry, behaviourism, and on a deeper level, psychology.

Jim Hamlyn said...

The subject/object issue is a huge one in philosophy but I think it's based on a misunderstanding about the very issue we are discussing. I've just started reading "The act of Thinking" by a furniture-maker-turned-philosopher called Derek Melser that distinguishes between "Natural Processes vs. Personal Actions". Donald Brook makes essentially the same distinction - though divided along behavioural lines between "mere behaviours and intentional acts". I think the best way to exemplify this would to be to say that we do not attribute agency to natural processes (unless we're superstitious) and we do not blame unconscious things for the consequences of their behaviour. We don't attribute agency to the rain, but we do attribute causality to it. If you're a determinist of course we're all above blame because we're not the authors of our actions, unless you're a compatibilist that is.

I doubt Ryle would agree that conscious actions are essentially the same as unconscious ones. I can't speak for Spinoza but I don't get the impression that he has much to offer in an elucidation what consciousness is whereas Ryle certainly does and this is no doubt why Ryle figures so prominently in the development of both Brook's and Melser's work.

Melser writes of what he calls "Action Physicalists" who take the view that all "Actions are physical events and can therefore, in principle, be analysed down to and explained in terms of physiological and other natural causal processes. If action physicalism is true, showing thinking to be in action is pointless. Thinking still could (or would) be a natural process, such as a brain process."Melser thinks this is wrong and I think he's got it very largely right. The important thing to add is that he is not saying that thinking is immaterial mind stuff, rather he is arguing that it is an action, specifically an importantly incipient action. This is the same conclusion to which I have been led by Brook and Ryle.

Unlike Brook, Melser doesn't make an evolutionary claim about actions, but like Brook he is keen to distinguish between natural processes (mere behaviours) and actions. The last chapter of his book addresses Action Physicalism but I haven't got there yet.

Where Melser and Brook diverge is on the attribution of consciousness to other organisms. Melser believes that consciousness is learned whereas Brook, whilst no doubt agreeing that this is partly correct, contends that there is a phylogenic component too which means that animals are, in principle, also capable of action. I've not come across Melser's thoughts on animal consciousness yet (if he has any) but his conceptualisation of representation use is more rudimentary than Brook's which makes me a uncertain of what claims his theory might permit.

You wrote "the very word ‘response’ implies two." All causality leads back at least as far as the Big Bang so to say that a response implies two things is really a shorthand way of saying that nothing happens without a cause. (which is why the BB is such a perplexity). I don't have a problem with this but what I do have a problem with is the metaphor of "subject" especially, because it frames the discussion in what George Lakoff would call a "fundamentalist epistemology" which I think is spurious.

To speak of subject object relations in this way is not really to talk of two things (cause and effect) at all, but to invoke a whole raft of entailments like intentionality, meaning, relationship and interpretation. I don't think these things apply to natural processes in the same way as they do to intentional acts and I guess this is largely why we have a legal system that seeks to differentiate as carefully as possible, on the basis of the available evidence, between intentional acts and natural processes: between what people intend and what they do by accident.

Does this help or do you still think I've got it wrong?

Brian said...

Briefly scanning Lakoff through Wikipedia, it appears that he thinks even mathematics is subjective, in that it must be based in the “meat” of the physical, with no true ‘object’ at all, so I don’t quite see how your reference to him vis-a-vis “fundamentalist epistemology” fits? Perhaps you could explain this, as it may be an interesting turn. He seems to be saying that thought is a physical process, and one which cannot be independent, therefore, of physical limitations or prescriptions: this is much the same as structuralist theories of linguistics, whereby we are limited in what we can say - and therefore think - by our existing language. I think that view - which is echoed in neuroscience - has been largely superseded by post-structuralism. I can readily accept that thought is a material process: the transcendent element is not outside the material, but somehow immanent to it.

About Melser: “The important thing to add is that he is not saying that thinking is immaterial mind stuff, rather he is arguing that it is an action, specifically an importantly incipient action. This is the same conclusion to which I have been led by Brook and Ryle.” As far as we can tell from science, all actions are material or are based in materiality. To distinguish thought in this way, even as incipient, is I would say, simply a form of Cartesian dualism - “I think, therefore I am”. This is the paradox in your argument that I just cannot fail to bang up against, since you are generally not supportive of the mind-body distinction.

As you rightly point our, even our reasoning as regards the law is based on this ability to discern the intelligible from the sensible, which has been with us at least since the time of Plato. Therefore the structures of epistemology that you appear to reject on the one hand, you support on the other. Anyway, Jim, I have read all your articles on Imagination except the most recent, so I’d better do that asap.

Brian said...

It might be apposite - with regard to your paragraph about Melser and the “Action physicalists”, and the relevance of Spinoza to consciousness - to add that Spinoza saw “thought and extension” as being integral to an all pervading, self-causal “substance” (not to be confused with the Arisotetelian substance). Therefore your notion of thought as incipient action would fit that model. But importantly, as a rational philosopher Spinoza went further than Descartes, denying free will, which got him into a lot of bother with his religious contemporaries. In this sense, he anticipated behaviourism and modern (20th century) psychology. Melser seems to want to hang on to the notion of free will, while rejecting, with Lyle, the “ghost in the machine”. Spinoza replaced the notion of free will with “adequate knowledge”, i.e. the ability to discern in ourselves and in nature what was there as a “necessity”, or unavoidable pattern of life, and learn through “reason and intuition” (also immanently present in substance) to work with it and within it. This constitutes a kind of abrogation of power over nature, and replaces it with wisdom gained from observing nature, and ourselves, in a detached light. This is a quite different approach to the more interventional one our culture has pursued through the last few centuries, but paradoxically is in tune with more recent developments in thinking our relationship to the world and to ourselves.

Jim Hamlyn said...

I’m not sure that the general drift of Lakoff’s thinking is relevant to my use of some fragment of it. Take, for instance the video about moral politics and framing (here). The very first thing Lakoff says is “Any idea that you have that you use over and over again - that is part of your conceptual system - is physically represented in your brain.” I disagree with him on this ‘fundamental’ premise but that doesn’t mean that I disagree that the metaphor of “tax burden” (that was coined in the 1980’s by the American right) has become a powerful obstacle for oppositional discourse in just the same way that the Subject/Object metaphor has for the philosophy of mind. Similarly I can agree with what I see as the general drift of your position, whilst being bewildered about what something like the “transcendent element” of thought being “immanent to it” could mean. Sorry, but metaphors matter hugely because, as Lakoff shows, they sometimes ‘frame’ thought in fundamental ways that sometimes obscure much more than they illuminate.

RE: Melser and the accusation of dualism. The startling conclusion that I take from an “actional” theory of thinking is this: I act therefore I am. That’s about as far from the cogito as it’s possible to get.

You say “…our reasoning as regards the law is based on this ability to discern the intelligible from the sensible […]Therefore the structures of epistemology that you appear to reject on the one hand, you support on the other.
I’m not sure that I know what you think I’m rejecting or supporting? All I would say is that I’m trying not to get lost on a journey that is already taxing enough. My rucksack is only so big and I have to be sparing about what I choose to put in it. You seem to be doing fine with your own map reading skills (though many of them are a complete mystery to me) yet I appreciate your pointing out what clearly seem to you to be my crazy peregrinations because it helps me orientate myself much better.

1Z said...

The OP seems to be largely based on a confusion between the technical meaning of intention, robustness, and the popular meaning...deliberate, having an aim or goal.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks 1Z, you are absolutely right, it does confuse the two usages. In my defence, I wrote it a couple of years ago and at the time I wasn't fully aware of the distinction between aboutness and intentional directness. (I'm not quite sure what you mean about "robustness" though?)
I still stand by most of the points made but it's going to be quite a big job to sort it all out. Thanks for the comment.

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