The Intentional Object as Unding


, ,

There is no such thing as an “intentional object” and we should avoid using the term “object” in discussions about intentionality altogether, because it is extremely misleading. Specifically, the use of terminology like “intentional object” leads to ontologizing whatever it is that it is (mistakenly) applied to, whether this is something immanent or transcendent. In order to argue for this admittedly radical view, I will turn to the philosopher who re-introduced this originally scholastic concept in contemporary debates: Franz Brentano. As it turns out, on closer inspection of his theory of intentionality, we could very well stick to his original account, while abandoning all misleading terminology. I present my argument in “Das intentionale Objekt als Unding“, available as Open Access in Grazer Philosophische Studien 100.

The traditional interpretation of Brentano’s theory of intentionality has been distorted by the inflationary use of one single quotation from his 1874 Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, which uses the expression “intentional inexistence”. By considering other sources we can see more clearly what his account really amounted to. In his lectures and letters we find passages that explicitly and unambiguously identify the immanent object, the intentional object, and the correlate of an act. These turn out to be merely perspectival distinctions, not separate parts or independent things. The most fundamental perspective in Brentano is that of internal perception. In internal perception it is clear that the phenomena that I experience, as phenomena, are always part of my mental acts, which are then merely mistaken as independent objects from another perspective. This mistake leads to ontologizing either the transcendent object or the immanent object and taking it as something it is not. All we have in intentional acts is a content, there cannot be any independent objects (in the proper sense of the word) inside or outside of us.

Intentionality then is not a relation between two independent objects or substances, but rather a correlation of a mental act and its dependent, immanent correlate: the content. This leads to the seemingly radical conclusion that there are no mind-independent objects. Transcendently directed acts conceive their contents as external objects, but “objects” are always “objects of an act” and exist only insofar they are part of and wholly dependent on the mind. Without loss of meaning we can use a less misleading expression, such as content, instead. This avoids any talk of “objects” existing either inside or outside the mind and stresses that we do not straightforwardly perceive “objects” at all, but merely interpret bundles of perceptions as “objects”.

The conclusion will be that all objects are intentional in the proper sense, i.e. contents of an act, i.e. correlates of an act, i.e. dependent on the mind. They are therefore not at all what is usually understood by “object” – as opposed to “subject” – namely something that exists separately and independently of consciousness. There is no such thing like an “intentional object” and we should avoid using the term “object” in discussions about intentionality, because it is extremely misleading.