A friend asked the other day if I could give him a definition of ‘intention.’ Definitions are not my strong point. I generally use words correctly (let me know if you find errors in this post, please!), but I’m not quick at defining and sometimes downright resistant to it. But let me not get sidetracked into speculating on reasons why this may be. Digressing from a digression can be the beginning of an infinite something-or-other.
Here’s what I came up with for Steve, and let’s see what he thinks of it:
Intention: (1) a being’s purpose in acting; (2) the will directed in action toward some end
Acute critics will be one step ahead of me already at this point. They will know that many modern philosophers have asked if intention (or will, for that matter) can be said to exist at all prior to or apart from action, and many of them have answered the question in the negative, while others (does the name Wittgenstein leap to mind?) are content to hedge their bets, turning the question around and asking, “Where is it? Can you point it out?”
Philosophers, psychologists, and others skeptical of intention and will also express skepticism about consciousness in general. Thoughts? Beliefs? Nothing but relics of old, irrational beliefs, they say. There is no “ghost in the machine,” and we are only “meat machines,” in their view. There are no minds, they say, only meaty brains. It is strange that anyone denying the reality of thought would bother to give arguments to try to change others’ minds, but consistency has always been more a feature of formal systems than of human behavior.
To say that we can judge another’s thoughts, beliefs, and intentions only by their actions (words possibly counted as actions, depending on the particular opponent) is hardly a refutation of thought, belief or intention. It is merely another illustration of one more aspect of reality where we must, if we are to make judgments at all, judge on incomplete evidence. Can anyone give a single example of a situation for which we have complete evidence? The problem is not with reality or with our beliefs but with the requirements of epistemological justification we have set up.
So here I go, out on a limb, with my own position on intention:
(1) Intention may precede action but does not necessarily always do so. When a situation permits only a split-second response, intention and action are two sides of the same coin, flipped with the speed of lightning.
(2) An agent may be unconscious of or mistaken about his or her intention(s). This was the position of Kant, who, while he argued that the only thing good in itself was the good will, also believed that only God could read the secrets of the heart and know an individual’s true motive.
(3) An agent may form an intention upon which, for any of a number of reasons, he or she does not act. An example should suffice to make my meaning clear: A cat crouches, preparing to spring, eyes fixed on a ground-feeding bird. The bird flies away. The cat relaxes. Who would doubt what the cat “meant to do” and what it hoped to accomplish in the doing?
Okay, that’s it. Now what’s your take?