[hist-analytic] Mele 4: Consciousness and Intention

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Thu Feb 17 16:04:31 EST 2011

The main question at issue in the second chapter of EI (Mele's Effective Intentions) is this: 

"If occurrent intentions are items of the kind described in Chapter 1, must they be "conscious" for any of the following to play a significant role in producing intended actions: occurrent intentions, acquisitions of such intentions, the persistence of such intentions, or the physical correlates of any of these things?" (E.I. p. 22). 

It is important to realize that nowhere (to the best of my knowledge) has Mele defined, described, or elucidated the notion 'intention'. While this may be strategic and,therefore, deliberate it does nothing to help the discussion. Here are a couple of problems I have with this line of approach, i.e., the approach of what I shall call "implicit definition." In the first place, it takes the meaning of 'intention' to follow from philosophical discussion, leaving the question of evaluating the adequacy of the eventual analysis "text dependent." We don't want 'intention' to mean 'whatever it is the current few years of discussion of philosophical discussion implies that it is'. Secondly, by not elucidating the concept, as it is employed by the author, many distinctions are left unaddressed. For example, the role, if any, of volition is obscured. There is also the problem of figuring out what the relation of consciousness to intention is if we don't have a firm grasp of what an intention is taken to be. 'Intention' must be treated as something of a technical term, a term requiring elucidation; it is more like 'gravity' than 'weight'. Part of the problem is related to individuation, but I refuse to swim in this quick sand at the moment. 

Owing to Mele's lack of familiarity with discussion taking place before Anscombe, or at least his reluctance to discuss it - he is not alone in this - questions about the relation of consciousness and intention are sometimes ignored or unasked. For example, consider Aristotle's practical syllogism (strict sense). In this case the conclusion of the syllogism is not a proposition; it is an action. Does this mean there is not intention? Does it mean that, given the immediacy ("straight off one acts"), there is no consciousness of the intention to perform THAT action? Or that there is but it is fleeting,etc? Or,does it serve to relate occurrent and standing intentions. The questions aren't asked and so we pursue the "hip" current neurological philosophy in abandonment of the issues which I think are most serious. There are other more immediately pressing unasked questions. 

Of what value is consciousness of our intentions or, for that matter, consciousness of our actions? Does it just "go along for the ride"? Now some, as we shall see make this claim, but in my opinion it reveals a fatal flaw - one analogous to a butcher grinding meat to a liquid; or a dissection that results in pieces of pieces of pieces, etc. In other words, a naive reader seems at this stage to be perfectly justified in asking:"Of what significance is the question of the relation of consciousness to intention?" Mle is not oblivious to these concerns. He redirects the above quoted question to two others. First, must I be aware *of* an intention, A, in order for that intention to figure, significantly in my "intentional A-ing"; and, second, "must I be aware *that* I intend to A in order for the intention to figure signficantly in my intentional A-ing? (E.I. 23). There is much going on here. In the first place, and important distinction, much discussed by Anscombe, is relevant here: that between acting "with the intention that" and "acting intentionally." These are not one and the same and, yet, both questions can be asked of each with different answers being arguably correct. The reliance that Mele places on the of/that distinction is indicative of what I consider an unfortunate turn in the discussion of mind and action since the beginning of the "linguistic turn." 

Since the "linguistic turn" (the expression comes from Gustav Bergmann), there is a tendency to see far too much in terms of what can be done with the semantics of propositional attitudes in the elucidation of traditional issues. Simplistically stated there is the de dicto ("that") and the "de re" ("of"). This doesn't even exhaust the scopal alternatives (e.g. Hintikka/Peirce branching quantifiers), but worse yet is the distance between certain phenomenological facts and bare, overworked, linguistic-logical distinctions. The de re side ("of") it should be noted is not exaustive of the alternatives to the belief (de dicto ("that"). There is a phenomenogical side to this issue that is both legitiate and well beyond the purview of the semantical issue. James was the master of the phenomenological aspects of psychology; this despite the fact that he was, almost, certainly the most informed on neurology of his philosophical contemporaries. James drew a distinction, almost in passing, one picked up by Samuel Alexander and made much of: the distinction between objects of contemplation and what is actually "lived through." Applied to our case of the relation of consciousness and intention we might want to begin by saying that there are some things that can be made "objects" of awareness and contemplation, even idea of reflection, but which cannot be lived through. It is this living through that is interesting. On Mele's account I may be aware "of" my intention without being aware "that" I intend such and such. But what gets lost is the fact that I can experience or "liver through" the intention without being aware "of" it OR being aware that I have it. In these two cases, one might argue, that the resources of self ascription must be available (cf. Chisholm in The First Person); but in the case of "living through" no such mechanisms are required for its existence. I need not be aware THAT I am living through an intentional action; nor need Ibe aware OF my intention if I am engaged in willful activity. I may act consciously and with an intention but neither be aware OF the intention nor be aware THAT I have an intention. O'Shaughnessy gets into a mess from which I don't believe he ever, fully, extricates himself by neglect of this fundamental fact, but this is another story, one to be told on some later occasion. 

It may turn out that the conclusion of an Aristotelian practical syllogism is an example of an intentional action where neither am I aware OF the intention nor am I aware that there is this intention. The "living through" aspect can accommodate such an action but, clearly, more would need to be said. Perhaps seeing can be regarded analogously: it seems to me that there have been occasions where I have been able to see without being aware of my seeing. Coming out of anaesthetic, e.g., a patient may be visually aware of his surroundings without being aware that the manner of his awareness is a seeing. Similarly a hawk may be visually aware of a chicken without conscious awareness that his knowledge is seeing. What he knows is not the act but the mere fact of the experience of knowing that what he knows has certain properties, properties that a speaker may attribute to him as being visual. For the hawk, the seeing is not the object of awareness accompanying the content, as we might imagine some arguing that we are aware of the intention *along with* awareness OF our intending. I will have more to say, but for now let's move on. Now the second, somewhat, unrelated point which I'll return to later. 

A gambit in chess suggests a limited set of likely responses. It conveys information; in this case about strategy. But the game itself conveys no information because a game, as such (unlike a gambit), is not linked to subsequent strategy. A gambit, I shall argue, conveys information; but a game does not. A gambit is one sort of process; a game is another. 


Steve Bayne 
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