8 May 2022


Is intentionality dependent upon consciousness?

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"Is intentionality dependent upon consciousness?"


The research focuses on arguments that support the aspect of intentionality as depending on consciousness. It explores two major presentations by John Searle and ColinMcGinn to help come up with a basis of anargument on the issue. The article explores the ideas of John Searle and Colin McGinn to help give a clear understanding of the originality of the issue. With clear definitions of what both terms mean individually, the task diverts to helping deal with the topic at hand. A view on how consciousness influences the intentionality of mental states is discussed in the paper. With a clear picture, it brings to light the aspects that have been focused on in helping lay a foundation for the topic of intentionality dependability on consciousness. The primary intention is to help explore the issue on intentionality depending on consciousness.


Both intentionality and consciousness represent an aspect of what it is to have a mind, they provide broader aspects to the mind. Consciousness refers to the phenomena of having an experience; it is the state of which the mind is aware of the world around and itself. A state at which one's brain is awake or aware of the surroundings that the individual is experiencing (Kriegel, 2003). To be in a conscious state is to be in an experience, consciousness makes certain states count as experiences. Some examples of consciousness could be senses, images, periodic thoughts and feelings that are commonly experienced by people. An example of these experiences could be the way in which a person sees a color or how he or she hears a beat in music. The above examples seem a certain way for that person and would be experienced differently by another individual within the same surrounding.

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According to (McIntyre, 1984), intentionality, on the other hand, refers to the direction and reason for our mental states, in regards to objects, events or things. Intentionality seeks to answer the questions, “what are you thinking of?” or “what are you thinking about?” An example of intentionality is when someone is thinking about a city, a meeting he or she has with someone at a designated place, or a political event. The direction of thoughts for this individual is then the city, the designated meeting or the political event. The state of direction in intentionality is an important aspect of philosophy. The definition of intentionality, in this case, goes beyond the common sentiments used in common communication. It does not refer to the term of an individual doing something with intention. When defining intentionality, there must be a recognition of the possibility of a problem with the interpretation of terms.

Further exploration of consciousness

According to (Kung, Smith, & McIntyre, 1988), to understand consciousness better, we must focus on the ability of someone to say that he or she knows what it is like to be in a particular state. A conscious state is created when an individual experiences something in a given state, the state of whatever it is like to be in a particular state. A state of consciousness can only be shared between two people who have experienced the state at hand. For instance, a person who has experienced an orgasm knows what it is like to be in that state and can only explain it to someone who has been in the same state.

More so, consciousness can be understood in two different ways, one of which being the conscious state where we have experiences, in this case, the stimuli that stimulate our senses are directly experienced. On the other hand, consciousness could be experienced when we have the response to the stimuli even without the direct stimulation of our senses. What this means is that sometimes, we experience consciousness when we are awake and can feel the effects of certain stimuli. Alternatively, on the other hand, a state of consciousness can be experienced when a person is dreaming without necessarily feeling the stimuli but responds as if they did.

An example of this is a person falling from a considerable height, the action of falling is not a conscious state. However, the feeling of falling from this height is a conscious state, and if a person is dreaming and feels the same way, this is also considered a conscious state. However, if the distinct senses the fall while dreaming and adjusts to avoid the feeling of falling, this cannot be considered a conscious state. In this state, the individual does not experience the state as he or she would awake.

The definition of consciousness differs, for example, if someone is struck by thought, for instance, they were to send a message, and one experiences a feeling, for example, a stinging on the arm. Both of these are experiences. However, the feeling is much more of an experience than the sudden thought. Therefore the latter is conscious in an excellent sense. Both of these instances are experiences, however, if the thought is not accompanied by images, it is not conscious while the feeling is.

Further exploration of intentionality

Many of our mental states exhibit intentionality. Similarly, desires are directed at or come up with things, if one desires a fly to go away, their desire is directed at the fly. Imaginings are aimed at imaginary scenarios while misgivings are of events or objects in the past, this is memories. Perceptions, on the other hand,are directed at things that are within one's surrounding. Mental states that are directed towards specific things or events are called intentional states. Intentionality is referred to as a necessary and satisfactory condition for mentality.

However, some occurrences such as pictures or words seem to display a level of intentionality. These occurrences are said to develop their intentionality from the mental states that produce them hence their intentionality lacks originality. Derived from the word intentio which refers to ‘directed at.' Definitions of intentionality might portray the term as technical. However, the technicality of it does not deviate us from the fact that it is a familiar thing (McIntyre, 1984).

It is characterized by each of our mental states and experiences. As people with consciousness, we are not simply affected by our environment; we are conscious of the existence of the objects within this environment. Many of these events and objects that make up our environment have the characteristic of being about or directed at something.

One of the pioneers of the aspect of intentionality Franz Brentano said that intentionality is a significant characteristic of the mental. That is, all the mental phenomena are intentional and that only mental states are intentional. While these statements have been used as a basis for the definition of the intentionality phenomenon, they have also raised much criticism. For example, the fact that he says that only mental states are intentional is brought into questions by some philosophers who believe that some objects have a sense of intentionality.

The relationship between intentionality and consciousness as discussed by Brentano is that every mental state of an object has an intentional sense. Secondly, he suggested that every mental state is conscious, therefore introducing intentional consciousness. He also believed in the unconscious mental states that he believed were unperceived. However, he was not able to provide enough conclusive evidence of their existence. Some views have suggested that a state of consciousness is intentional hence suggesting that consciousness depends on intentionality. A topic that has considerably been looked upon unlike that of intentionality depending on consciousness.

Searle’s contribution

As seen above, intentionality is the aspect at which an individual’s mental state is directed at or is about other than the person's mind. Consciousness, on the other hand, is an experience of what something is like for a person to be in a mental state. These two aspects of the mind have for many years been assumed as independent from each other. For this conclusion to be made, assumptions are made, that the fact that a mental state has some intention does not relate to any element concerning consciousness. What this means is that a mental state can have intention but not necessarily be conscious. Another assumption is that a mental state can be conscious but not necessarily intentional.

Hoverer, the second assumption has over the years been eroded by the fact that philosophers argue that for an individual’s mental state to be conscious, the person must have some degree of intention. According to the representational theory of consciousness, (Hill, 2009), if a mental state is to be conscious, there must be some intention to it. Therefore, this position then goes against the previous one that a conscious mental state does not necessarily contain intention. The new position puts intention on a person’s conscious mental state.

The fact presented above is supported by yet another theory, the higher-order monitoring theory of consciousness (Searle, 1992). The theory states that for a mental state to be conscious, it must, therefore, be an entity of a higher-order intention. It supports this fact by stating that for a person’s mental state to be conscious, that person, must have another mental state that has a direction of intention. This again goes against the statement that a conscious mental state does not any have an intentionality to it. The fact that the person has an intentional mental state that is directed to the conscious state erodes this fact.

Many philosophers accept the fact that there is a certain level of dependence of consciousness on intentionality. However, the dependence of intentionality on consciousness is not greatly regarded in philosophy. Nevertheless, some philosophers who see the capability of such dependence have advanced the study of intentionality depending on consciousness. Some of these philosophers include John Serle and Colin McGinn, using their arguments as a point of reference, the exploration of this research seeks to find out the truth behind the presented statement b that the fact that intentionality can be dependent on consciousness.

In his book The Rediscovery of the Mind, (Searle, 1992), Searle makes his claim that only a person who has the capability of having conscious, intentional mental states could have intentionality. Moreover, that for every intentional mental state that is unconscious, there is a possibility for consciousness. With this statement, he suggests that for intentionality to exist, there must be a certain degree of consciousness. The position presented above then goes against the idea that an intentional mental state is not necessarily conscious. It presents the ideology that the intentional mental state has some facts of consciousness to it.

The above ideology borrowed from Searle presents two facts that support the dependence of intentionality on consciousness. The first one being that only an individual that has both the conscious and intentional mental states could experience an intentional state at all. In simpler terms, the fact that a person experiences a conscious mental state that has the intention, that person has an intentional mental state that has a sense of consciousness. The second fact presented is for every intentional mental state that is unconscious, there is a possibility of consciousness. Simply put, the fact that a person’s mental state is intentional, it is theoretically conscious.

What all this means is that, according to Searle, an intentional mental state is in opinion reachable by consciousness, meaning that is the sort of thing that is conscious. However, a concern that arises from this is the degree of possibility that the intentional mental state is conscious. Philosophically, the possibility could be considered too weak. However, there are other factors to be taken into account in regards to how weak possibility is. Therefore, the possibility could be all that is needed to give with certainty the degree of dependability of intentionality to consciousness in this case for instance.

According to (Kriegel, 2003), using the logic of psychology, the intentions of the statement given by Searle hopes to define the possibility of consciousness to be a psychological feature. That it is the law of psychology that such a possibility is possible. With this train of thought, it is safe to say that an intentional mental state holds some psychological possibility that it is conscious following the law of psychology. The ideology then supports the fact stated that for a mental state to be intentional, it has to be conscious or in this case psychologically- possibly aware, generally supporting the idea presented by Searle.

Searle’s position is that a person’s access to reality is highly dependent on their point of view, perspective, provided aspects among others, he calls this the aspectual shape. He claims that intentional mental state of a person has an aspectual shape to it. For example, if a person believes that daylight is beautiful, their belief, unconscious at this point is directed to the sun as the source of light during the day. Therefore according to him, when a mental state has aspectual shape, then it is also intentional. He argues that the thing that makes a person’s unconscious intentionality have an aspectual shape is the conscious intentionality. For instance in the example above, for the person to think that daylight is beautiful and therefore the sun is beautiful is the fact that consciously he knows that the sun is the source of daylight.

Therefore, both conscious and unconscious intentionality have aspectual shape. However, the unconscious intentionality is dependent on the conscious intentionality. In short, the position of Searle is that unconscious intentional mental states are frankly intentional, honest intentions have an aspectual shape. Therefore unconscious intentional mental states have an aspectual shape, the aspectual shape of the unconscious intentional state is derived from the conscious state which is aspectual. Therefore, in conclusion, the mental state could be originally conscious. Searle’s contribution to the aspect of intentionality being dependent on consciousness is debatable. However, his whole view on intentionality is objective and probable.

McGinn’s contribution

In his book Consciousness and Content, (McGinn, 1997), McGinn says that every content was original of conscious state. Therefore there is no intentionality without consciousness. He argues that there would be nothing in a world that has no consciousness and therefore every experience must have a state of consciousness. His argument is based on the fact that the mental state is the only first aspect of intentionality. What this means is that everything derived from the mental state is not originally intentional. For example, the capability to speak only comes about by the ability of a person to interpret his or her mental state. Therefore such a thing as speaking is not directed at anything other than itself.

McGinn suggests that unconscious mental states develop their intentionality from the interpretation one has on the behavior of the person experiencing it. For example, if someone says they are traveling to the Maldives while he or she are on a plane headed for Asia, the interpretation would be that they unconsciously believe that the Maldives is in Asia. However, the interpretation made by another person is also unconscious, and the intentionality of his or her mental state is derived from an interpretive state. Therefore, the intentionality of an unconscious state is always derived from the intentionality of another state. The sequence continues until the intentionality of the unconscious state is derived from a conscious state.

McGinn argues that there are aspects of conscious intentionality that has not been explored in philosophical theories. Then says that for us to fully understand consciousness, we must understand intentionality and it is impossible to achieve this understanding without understanding consciousness. Therefore, with this, he creates a dependency between the understanding of intentionality and that of consciousness. Meaning that if a mental state is conscious, then to understand its intentionality, we have to understand its consciousness. On the other hand, if the mental state is unconscious, then its intentionality is derived from a state of consciousness.

In this case, therefore, if understanding intentionality means understanding consciousness, then there is an aspect of intentionality that is dependent on an aspect of consciousness. Some philosophers argue that the intentionality of a conscious, intentional state is not affected by the fact that the state is conscious. Therefore, to understand this intentionality can be achieved by understanding the intentionality of the unconscious state (McGinn, 2004). Therefore if this is achieved, the intentionality of a conscious state is not dependent on the consciousness of the country.

McGinn discards this argument by the fact that, the reasoning makes an assumption that the consciousness of an intentional, conscious state does not alter the intention of that state. He refuses the fact that the intentionality of an unconscious state is the same as that of a conscious state. According to him, the intentionality of these two states is different because, with the conscious state, there is a relevance to the subject. The relevance to the subject comes in what McGinn calls presence to the subject.

His whole argument is based on this aspect, the fact that conscious state has the aspect of “presence to the subject” while the unconscious state does not. An example, in this case, is that of television, in the conscious state, a person watching a television presents to aspects. The first one is the presentation of the television in general, and the other is the presentation of the television to the person, hence the presence of the subject. In the unconscious state, there is a general presentation of the television but no presentation of the television to the person in question.

In the example above, the individual’s presentation of the Maldives is in traces within her brain, therefore, making it detached. When this presentation is brought to consciousness, then it stops being detached, and the person becomes aware of the representation of her destination. In the same way, if a thief leaves footprints in the sand, the representation of the footprints in the unconscious mind is detached. Once the detachment is broken by the state changing into consciousness, then the footprints become visible. The visibility happens because the person is now aware of the footprints. Just like the television, they have been presented to him or her.

According to McGinn, (McGinn, 1997), only mental states who have an intentionality that has inward-looking face are basically intentional. Since only conscious states have an intentionality with an inward-looking face, then it is safe to say that conscious states are basically intentional. The argument presented by McGinn is simpler than Searle's. However, it depends on the phenomenon that the conscious state has an inward-looking face. An inward-looking face means the interpretation presented to the subject what McGinn said to be “presence of the subject.” Just like Searle, McGinn’s arguments have both supporters and critics.

Both McGinn and Searle agree that there is irregularity between the intentionality of conscious and unconscious states. However, McGinn attributes the irregularity to the inward-looking face of the conscious state. Therefore according to him, the conscious state is basically intentional as a result of the inward-looking face. The inward-looking face being the fact that there is a presentation on the subject. What this means is that as long as the aspect of the Maldives remains unconscious, the Maldives is not presented to anyone and therefore no intentionality. In the case where the Maldives is brought into awareness, presentation to the subject takes place, and intentionality is achieved.

Therefore, According to McGinn, the dependence of intentionality to consciousness depends on the assumption that conscious state is basically intentional due to the inward looking face. The presence of a subject is also an important fact. With this, then, when the person thinks about the Maldives as being in Asia, the Maldives being in Asia is presented to the person. Therefore, the major criticism of this reasoning would be to the inward-looking face. Compared to Searle’s argument on the aspectual shape, McGinn’s argument on an inward-looking face has merit. Even when broken down, the inward-looking face remains relevant in a conscious state whereas the aspectual shape might not stand.


The arguments presented by the two philosophers have both merits and demerits; they are not indisputable. Nevertheless, they shed more light on the topic of how intentionality is dependent on consciousness. The merits presented here offer proper argument basis for the exploration of the subject. The arguments put forward are more or less alike and present a different view of the two philosophical phenomena of the mind. They provide a strategy that can be further investigated on the dependence of intentionality on consciousness.

The arguments presented offer two major points that provide direction for further argument on the topic. One of them being, the formation of an irregularity of the intentionality between the conscious state and the unconscious state. Where the intentionality of the conscious state must have a special property to be offered which the intentionality of the unconscious state does not offer. Apart from that, this particular property afforded by the conscious state must be about or directed at something else rather than itself. With both points proven, then it is safe to say that the conscious state brings forth the intentionality.

A point brought forth by both arguments is the fact that unconscious states spring their intentionality from conscious states, therefore with no conscious states, there would be no intentionality. The only difference presented in the two arguments is the focus of the special material. While Searle presents it as the aspectual shape that is attributed to consciousness, McGinn puts his as the inward face. Whatever the case, they both present us with argument basis for the idea that intentionality might be as well dependent on consciousness, a new phenomenon in philosophy.


Hill, C. (2009). Consciousness (1st ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kriegel, U. (2003). Is Intentionality Dependent upon Consciousness?. Philosophical Studies , 116 (3), 271-307. http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/b:phil.0000007204.53683.d7

Kung, G., Smith, D., & McIntyre, R. (1988). Husserl and Intentionality: A Study of Mind, Meaning and Language. Noûs , 22 (1), 158. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2215565

McIntyre, R. (1984). II. Searle on Intentionality∗. Inquiry , 27 (1-4), 468-483. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00201748408602044

Searle, J. (1992). The rediscovery of the mind (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

McGinn, C. (1997). Consciousness and content (1st ed.). [S.l.]: [s.n.].

McGinn, C. (2004). Consciousness and its objects (1st ed.). Oxford: Clarendon.

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