Thursday, 7 March 2013

Intentionality ('Aboutness') and Mental Designation in Buddhism

Nothing but Pixels

Aboutness (intentionality) is something that only minds possess. 

Minds know and perceive objects.   In contrast, words, sentences and symbols can only be about things in a derivative sort of way, in so far as they transmit or evoke a primary aboutness in the mind of the beholder.

Physical things, such as electrical circuits, computer inputs and outputs, do not possess aboutness. As Roger Scruton pointed out recently, the pixels displaying a picture of a woman on a computer monitor are not in themselves about the woman. Only the mind of the viewer is about her. 


Intentionality, aboutness, meaning, semantics and mental designation.

This quality of 'aboutness' is known in Western philosophy as 'intentionality'  - a rather confusing term which has nothing to do with 'intention'. 

Near synonyms for intentionality are 'semantics' and just plain old 'meaning'.

The property of being about something, of having 'an intentional object', is the key feature that distinguishes psychological phenomena from physical phenomena, because physical phenomena lack the ability to generate original intentionality, and can only perform an intentional relationship in a second-hand manner: derived intentionality.

In Buddhist philosophy, intentionality is known as  'mental designation', 'mental imputation', 'mental projection' or 'mental attribution'.

Intentionality plays a much more fundamental role in Buddhism that it does in traditional Western philosophy.  Intentionality, in its role as 'mental designation' is, together with causality and structure, one of the three axiomatic foundations of all phenomena,  and is not reducible to the other two.   

Consequently intentionality, with qualia, is one of the attributes of mind that is not reducible to physical mechanisms.    

'In current artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind intentionality is a controversial subject and sometimes claimed to be something that a machine will never achieve. John Searle argued for this position with the Chinese room thought experiment, according to which no syntactic operations that occurred in a computer would provide it with semantic content.' -  Wiki

The role of intentionality in Western philosophy is weaker than in Buddhism.   Intentionality came comparitively late into Western thought, being first formulated in its modern form by Franz Brentano in the late nineteenth century.  Unlike in Buddhism, intentionality took a long time in the West to be established as a causative aspect of reality, and for much of the twentieth century was dismissed as an epiphenomenon of matter by the dominant philosophies of positivism, behaviorism and materialism: 

'So-called ‘eliminative materialists’ (see Churchland 1989) resolutely opt for the second horn of Quine's dilemma and deny purely and simply the reality of human beliefs and desires. As a consequence of their denial of the reality of beliefs and desires, the eliminative materialists must face the challenge raised by the existence of physical objects whose existence depends on the intentions, beliefs and desires of their designers, i.e., human artifacts.'  -  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mentally indwelling images of real and imagined objects

A mental phenomenon is characterized by reference to a content and/or direction toward an object, which is not necessarily a real 'thing'.  Each mental phenomenon includes something as an object within itself. That object may or may not refer to something in the real world.  That is why these indwelling mental objects ('generic images') are said to be 'inexistent'.  

The word 'inexistent' refers to two attributes of generic images:
(i)  They exist as indwelling images within thoughts.
(ii) The actual physical existence of the objects referred to is irrelevant. They can be either existent, or non-existent, or somewhere in between. 

The mind can grasp generic images of non-existent objects, including objects of its own creation. These objects can be potentially existent, such as a new device in the mind of its inventor, or formerly existent such as the Dodo, or they can be completely non-existent such as a unicorn.

Only minds possess intrinsic intentionality. All symbols, signifiers, signs,  words, computer inputs, outputs and internal states have merely derivative intentionality originating from a mind.


This property of 'inexistence' - the ability of the mind to construct internal objects before they exist - is the fountainhead of creativity and spiritual transcendence in art.  All great art has a 'spiritual' dimension, even if it is not overtly religious. It is this transcendence of the mundane that we recognise as 'beauty'.

Non-physical Mind

For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanistic Mind.

- Sean Robsville

Related Articles

Mind and Mechanism – Buddhism and the Turing Machine

Shared Etymology of 'Meaning' and 'Mind'

Minds, Machines and Meaning

Conceptual Designation 

Mysterians, Mysterianism and the Mystery of the Mind

Qualia - Objective versus Subjective Experience

Objections to Computationalism