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Major themes of the philosophy of mind

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The intentionality of the mind

Originating in medieval scholasticism, it was with Franz Brentano at the end of the 19th century that the theme of intentionality began to become central in philosophy. It was taken up in the 20th century both by the phenomenological movement and by the analytical current from which the philosophy of the mind emerged. For Brentano, intentionality is what distinguishes consciousness from purely physical entities. The essence of consciousness is to be “directed” towards something other than itself – it is always aware of something – whereas physical entities are nothing other than what they are. It is this direction of consciousness toward something other than itself that Brentano calls “intentionality.” Today, most contemporary philosophers accept the idea that intentionality is a sign of mental activity, but they also consider it to be a phenomenon distinct and independent from what we generally understand by “awareness”. This now dominant position is qualified by some authors as “separatist”, in the sense that it stipulates that the so-called “phenomenal” consciousness and intentionality are two separable or independent aspects of mental activity.

“Separatism” is the position taken by Jaegwon Kim in particular. He remarks: If someone were to ask us to create a machine with consciousness, we wouldn’t know where to start, but if we were asked to design a structure with intentionality, it seems we could start to design such a thing. While Kim argues for the independence of intentionality from consciousness, other authors argue the independence thesis in the opposite direction: a subject’s mind can be conscious without this phenomenon implying a any intentional structure. There are indeed mental states that represent nothing at all. John Searle, who supports this position, cites as examples of such states elation, depression, or anxiety, states in which we are not “elated, depressed, or anxious about anything.” According to him, there are many conscious states that are unintentional, while intentionality on his side always involves consciousness.

In contrast to separatism, “inseparatism” is the thesis that mind is a unified rather than divided phenomenon between phenomenal consciousness and intentionality: the characteristics of consciousness and intentionality are interdependent and inseparable. According to this thesis, consciousness has an intentional structure which is characteristic of it and which makes it possible for conscious contents to present themselves immediately to the conscious subject. This immediate relation of phenomenal consciousness to its contents prohibits radical skepticism, since it is not possible for a conscious subject to doubt the “phenomenal” existence (mental and subjective) of what he experiences. Phenomenal consciousness is therefore said to be “transparent.”

This position is accepted by proponents of so-called “representational theories” of phenomenal consciousness, for which anything conscious in this sense is intentional or directed to something. According to this form of “representationalism”, embodied in particular by Fred Dretske and Michael Tye, our perceptual experiences (visual, auditory, etc.) represent the local environment while our “internal” sensory experiences inform us about our bodies. Even emotions and feelings have intentional objects, like when we are afraid of something. This object can be indeterminate so that some emotions seem objectless. Thus anxiety, which is defined by Searle as an emotion without an object, is a kind of representation by which we represent everything (and not a particular object or situation) as a source of fear or anxiety.


The term “consciousness” notoriously has several meanings, including in philosophy of mind. But the meaning to which contemporary philosophers of mind have attached itself is that of “phenomenal consciousness”, a concept supposed to designate certain characteristics that at least certain mental states exhibit, such as subjectivity or the qualitative aspect experience. In more phenomenological terms, phenomenal consciousness designates the set of experiences characterizing the “lived” or the “felt” of a subject. It is made up of all our subjective and qualitative experiences, referred to as “qualia“. Generally, the subjective character of the experience and its qualitative character are not specially distinguished there, but according to Uriah Kriegel, the philosophers of the mind who speak of phenomenal consciousness emphasize sometimes the first aspect, sometimes on the second.

It is also possible to define phenomenal consciousness as that subjective state which is present when we ourselves are the subjects of the state in question and which is lacking when we are not. We then speak of a “first person” point of view – the point of view adopted by the person who says “I see” or “I feel” when describing their experiences – to characterize the privileged mode of access that we have with our own mental states, because we have them. Moreover, in addition to covering the idea of ​​appearance or subjective manifestation, the notion of phenomenal consciousness includes all of what is now agreed to be called qualia. Contrary to consciousness understood as “cognition”, phenomenal consciousness indeed implies a properly qualitative experience (a quale), such as that of the blue color of the sky. This aspect of the experience would completely escape the possibility of public, intersubjective observation.

Since the pioneering articles of Thomas Nagel in 1974 and Frank Jackson in 1982, the question has arisen as to whether there is a significant difference between experiencing or sensing a mental state oneself, experiencing it “in the first person”, and picturing or describing that mental state “in the third person”, from the point of view of an outside observer. This difference is usually summed up by saying that “first-person” experience has a subjective character that is not reducible – at least in its description – to corresponding physical states or processes (nor to their functions). Understood thus, the dual subjective and objective aspect of conscious states involves at least one weak form of dualism, namely:

  1. an epistemological dualism (weak form) when only the mode of knowledge differs
  2. an ontological or metaphysical dualism (strong form) in the case where the very nature of the phenomena in question differs

The epistemological dualism is tacitly admitted as soon as one considers as complementary, and not as equivalent, the objective accounts based on the observation of the external manifestations of a consciousness (behaviour, cerebral processes) and the accounts subjective based on introspection. Ontological dualism is admitted as soon as the irreducibility of phenomenal concepts to physical concepts is justified by the fact that phenomenal consciousness is not a physical process.

Free will

In philosophy of mind, the problem of free will can be summarized as follows: if there exists in the human being a will conceived in connection with the doing of certain things ( “voluntary action”), the question arises whether I am free not to want any of these things that I do want to do. Another way, positive this time, of summing up the problem is to ask myself if I am free to want what I want. This is not about whether we are free to do what we want or intend to do, but whether we are free to want or intend to do those things that we actually want to do.

The affirmation of free will is generally opposed to determinism, which affirms that causes external to human actions submit the will (or what passes for such) to the same mechanisms as those which govern nature. Philosophers who recognize this opposition while supporting the existence of free will are called “libertarians” in the philosophical sense, while those, in the minority, who do not recognize this opposition, because they believe that assertion of free will is compatible with determinism, are called “compatibilists“. According to libertarians like van Inwagen, the circumstances in which a decision is made by a person, and the desires and motives that person has at the time of making his decision, do not determine his intention; the person decides freely on the basis of his wishes and his reasons. An important version of libertarianism explains the indeterminism presupposed by free will conceived within this framework by distinguishing between two kinds of causality:

  1. physical causality, consisting of causes that can always be traced back to other causes (until the Big Bang)
  2. free causality, consisting of causes that produce effects without themselves being the effects of other causes

Free will would thus consist in the capacity to start new causal chains, and this, not under the effect of chance, but by virtue of our ability to deliberate. In the compatibilist approach, on the contrary, that of Daniel Dennett for example, the freedom of the will does not prevent each intention of free action from having causes, these causes being able to be conceived as pertaining to an order superior to that of the causes that determine our simple cravings or desires (as when I decide to persevere in my effort despite my desire to give up). Compatibilism makes it possible to integrate in principle the moral notion of responsibility in a deterministic framework which does not appeal to causes other than those, physical, which govern nature. For this reason, the opposition between libertarianism and compatibilism largely overlaps with the opposition that exists between mind-body dualism and materialism.

Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu

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