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Monday, August 6, 2012

Please Forgive a Brief Digression into Philosophy


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?


3 comments:

Dawn said...

hmmm...it was my intention to comment when I read this yesterday but I got distracted. I was curious about how this topic came up at all...in what context. I know Katie has definite intentions...she's pretty obvious about it...and sometimes she gets to follow through and sometimes we say...NO!

P. J. Grath said...

Steve tried to leave a comment and couldn't so sent me the following e-mail:

Hi Pamela,

Great essay!

My questions are related more to the grand scale of things.

Is there intention in the on-going creation of the universe? Is intentionality implied in the creation of the universe? Is this what Bergson was driving at?

Does creativity imply or require intention? Are the creations of writers and artists and musicians, examples of intentionally creative acts?

Is this just another statement of the "free will debate"?

Puzzled

I need to know this before I die. :)

--Well, great, Steve! Is there a Meaning of Life, other than the meaning we give it--is that your question? When you read the Jacques Barzun book, you'll be treated to the arguments back and forth that the evolutionists and their opponents made on this topic. It doesn't seem to me that evolution, in any form, necessitates a predetermined endpoint. Quite the contrary, I should think. So if you think that life and cultures evolve, you wouldn't think there was any specific goal, but you still might think improvement was intended--but by whom or what? Bergson did believe in evolution, from simple to more complex, from lower to higher culture and consciousness, etc. But remember that he said our future path does not exist until we forge it in time.

Dawn, you and I are on the same page! Our dogs clearly have minds of their own!

P. J. Grath said...

I did not fully respond to your questions but gave a preliminary stab at them. Creativity, of course, is Bergson's domain. I would say that he would say that
the intention need not precede but may emerge with and in the act of creating. It would be a case of one's whole self and past and personality giving birth to
something new. Eh? Yes? It is in a way the "free will" debate, and you will recall that Bergson demolished the dilemma assumed by both sides of that debate: it isn't a question of two roads in front of us and whether or not we are free to choose one or whether one has been predetermined for us--there is no "road" until we move ahead, in whatever direction we take.