Sellarsian Intentionality. Thought of the Day 59.0


Sellars developed a theory of intentionality that seems calculated to so construe intentional phenomena as to make them compatible with developments in the sciences.

Now if thoughts are items which are conceived in terms of the roles they play, then there is no barrier in principle to the identification of conceptual thinking with neurophysiological process. There would be no “qualitative” remainder to be accounted for. The identification, curiously enough, would be even more straightforward than the identification of the physical things in the manifest image with complex systems of physical particles. And in this key, if not decisive, respect, the respect in which both images are concerned with conceptual thinking (which is the distinctive trait of man), the manifest and scientific images could merge without clash in the synoptic view. (Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man).

The first thing to notice is that Sellars maintains that intentionality is irreducible in the sense that we cannot define in any of the vocabularies of the natural sciences concepts equivalent to the concepts of intentionality. The language of intentionality is introduced as an autonomous explanatory vocabulary tied, of course, to the vocabulary of empirical behavior, but not reducible to that language. The autonomy of mentalistic discourse surely commits us to a new ideology, a new set of basic predicates, above and beyond what can be constructed in the vocabularies of the natural sciences. What we get from the sciences can be the whole truth about the world, including intentional phenomena, then, only if there is some way to construct, using proper scientific methodology, concepts in the scientific image that are legitimate successors to the concepts of intentionality present in the manifest image. That there is such a rigorous construction of successors to the concepts of intentionality is, a clear commitment on Sellars’s part. The only real alternative is some form of eliminativism, an alternative that some of his students adopted and some of his critics thought Sellars was committed to, but which never held any real attraction for Sellars.

The second thing to notice is that the concepts of intentionality, especially the concepts of agency, differ in some significant ways from the normal concepts of the natural sciences. Sellars puts it this way:

To say that a certain person desired to do A, thought it his duty to do B but was forced to do C, is not to describe him as one might describe a scientific specimen. One does, indeed, describe him, but one does something more. And it is this something more which is the irreducible core of the framework of persons.

Here the focus is explicitly on the language of agency, but the point is fundamentally the same as in Sellars’s well-known dictum from Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind:

in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says.

In both epistemic and agential language something extra-descriptive is going on. In order to accommodate this important aspect of such phenomena, Sellars tells us, we must add to the purely descriptive/explanatory vocabulary of the sciences “the language of individual and community intentions”. He points to intentions here because the point is that epistemic and agential language – mentalistic language in general – is ineluctably normative; it always contains a prescriptive, action-oriented dimension and engages in direct or indirect assessment against normative standards. In Sellars’s own theory, norms are grounded in the structure of intentions, particularly community intentions, so any truly complete image must contain the language of intentions.



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