A Continental Perspective On Intentionality And Rationality Research Paper

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1. The Text

There is an objective interrelationship between ‘intentionality’ and ‘rationality.’ As a rule, intentionality is considered to be a necessary, although not a sufficient, condition for rationality. This means that one is usually convinced that something or someone can be called rational only when the predicate ‘intentional’ can be applied to it or to him or her first. In addition, both concepts can be applied both in the sense of an expression of disposition and to describe specific manifest qualities. Thus, intentionality is attributed to living beings when they have the ability to produce something that can be described as intentional: actions, psychic occurrences, or linguistic utterances. Conversely, the intentional has always been understood as the actualization of the disposition ‘intentionality.’ Similarly, in the case of ‘rationality,’ that which can be seen as rational, can be traced back to the activation of rational competence which itself presupposes intentionality. Both can be applied only to people. If one considers institutions, systems, or even machines and their achievements to be rational, one uses this expression in a figurative or derived sense.

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2. Intentionality

2.1 Intentionality From The Standpoint Of The Theory Of Action

This artificial philosophical term does not have an equivalent in colloquial language except to characterize something that someone has done as intentional, i.e., deliberate. Thus, it made sense that the theory of action use this predicate in a defining sense as well, and speak of actions only when there is sufficient reason to assume that the action or behavior took place intentionally. For the social sciences in so far as they conceive of themselves as sciences of action, but also in a court of law or in morally relevant situations, it is important to know what it is that makes occurrences in the world actions. Reflex movements or forms of instinctual behavior certainly do not belong in this category; they are objects neither of social scientific research nor of normative judgment. The specific difference of actions is usually seen in the fact that they took place deliberately, and only under this condition is responsibility taken for them. The question, then, is how this relation to intentions fits together with the causal interpretation of all world events: are intentions causes? If so, then they themselves would have to have been caused, and this is considered incompatible with our self-understanding as subjects acting freely and spontaneously.

In opposition to the neo-positivist concept of a physicalistic unified science, which also ties the social sciences to behaviorism—that is, to the description and explanation of observable behavior only—the attempt has been made since the 1950s, above all in Anglo-Saxon analytical philosophy, to place the theory of action on its own foundation. In this attempt, special meaning was attached to the concept of ‘intention’ (cf. Anscombe 1957). Related concepts were grouped around it, all of which were explicated more precisely with the goal of countering the physicalists’ causal manner of speech with an intentional vocabulary that also enabled one to speak in scientific terms about the intentions, motives, and reasons for actions. The central differences became clear above all in the extensive debate that took place in the 1960s about causes and reasons. According to the intentionalist camp, two characteristics above all distinguish reasons, as the clearest intentions or motives for action, from causes. First, reasons are not events that are followed by other events according to general laws of nature, but rather, they are subjects’ dispositions to bring about specific events under specific circumstances. Second, reasons, like intentions or motives, relate to what follows from them, and not, like cause and effect, to each other. According to Hume, one can speak of causality in the strict sense of the word only when cause and effect are two events that can be described as logically independent of one another. This is not the case here, as one cannot ascribe to someone a reason for any action without making reference to this same action. Thus, someone who did not take a specific action also cannot have had a reason for this action. (This is referred to in the literature as the ‘logical connection argument’: cf. Melden 1961, p. 78ff.)

The reference to the special status of intentions and their meaning for the description and explanation of events as actions also led to attempts at opposing the causal explanations of the natural and behavioral sciences with another explanation type: that of intentional or rational explanations (cf. Schwemmer 1973), which are to be determinative in the sciences of action. (When speaking of rational explanations, ‘rational’ refers to the reasons (rationes) that someone has for doing something specific.) In this context, recourse is made to Aristotle’s practical syllogism, which can be considered an elementary form of practical rationality in general (cf. von Wright 1963).

The thesis ‘what we call causes in the case of physical events are, in the case of actions, intentions (reasons, motives, aims)’ does admittedly lead to the problem that actions are also physical events—for example, bodily movements—and in this respect, of course, also have causes. Thus, when the thing–event language and the action–reason language are used in parallel, they are simply two different descriptions of one and the same occurrence in the world, and the problem arises of how these two kinds of description can be reconciled with each other. The same holds for the compatibility of causal explanations of action with intentional explanations of action: it can be ensured only by accepting that the intentional explanation type is not a sub-type of causal explanation forms, but something else with a completely different aim. Additionally, Donald Davidson (cf. Davidson 1980, p. 7ff.) showed that it is very sensible to view not the reasons themselves, but rather the complex intentional disposition of having reasons as a causally effective factor.

2.2 Intentionality From A Psychological Standpoint

In the late scholastic period, the expression intentio was used as a generic term for concepts and ideas, whereby a distinction was made between intentio prima and intentio secunda. Intentio prima applied to things and facts, while intentio secunda had other intentiones as its object: as thoughts about thoughts. In this case, intentio thus has an object which itself is an intentio and which only exists within it. Franz Brentano characterized consciousness using this figure of the intentional inexistence of the intentio prima in the intentio secunda. According to Brentano it is always consciousness of something, and intentionality, in this sense of being directed at an inner object, was considered by him to be the specific characteristic that differentiates mental states from all others. Brentano’s student Edmund Husserl adhered to his teacher’s model, although with several changes, and thus also to ‘intentionality’ as a fundamental concept of his phenomenological philosophy. The same is true of the phenomenological schools that broke with Husserl (including Scheler, Heidegger, Sartre, and MerleauPonty). Furthermore, the work of Alfred Schutz is important (especially Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt 1974): he took up the ideas of Husserl and, using phenomenological means, undertook to lay the foundations of sociology as an understanding ( erstehende) and at the same time explaining (erklarende) science of action in Max Weber’s sense. Weber was interested in defining the difference between mere behavior and action with a ‘subjective meaning,’ that is, action to which agents attach their own meaning (Weber 1974, p. 542). The phenomenological concept of intentionality opened up the opportunity for Schutz to explicate more precisely what could be meant by the term ‘subjective meaning.’ The phenomenological tradition found its way into the discussion of the foundations of social sciences through Schutz above all, and here provided an important additional stimulus to the methodological programs of symbolic interactionism and of ethno-methodology.

2.3 Intentionality From The Standpoint Of Linguistic Philosophy

In contrast to Brentano and the phenomenologists, linguistic philosophy maintains that thoughts cannot be discussed independently of their expression in language. In this field, Rudolf Carnap in his Logischer Aufbau der Welt (1966) was the first to study ‘intentional relationships,’ that is, the logical relationships between sentences beginning with ‘X thinks,’ ‘Y believes,’ or ‘Z assumes’ and the clauses which, as a rule, follow the word ‘that.’ In designating such verbs as ‘intentional,’ Carnap expressly followed Brentano and Husserl, but with an important difference in interpretation: he held that an entire sentence must always follow the ‘that.’ The idea that intentional attitudes always relate to something that exhibits the form of an entire sentence and, only in this context, to objects has been disputed ever since. For this reason, such attitudes are also known as propositional attitudes. The grammatical forms in which we present such attitudes do admittedly have the unpleasant characteristic of not conforming to the demand of extensionality. This means that the truth value of sentences such as ‘X believes that p’ is not a function of the sentence parts contained within them, since it could be true that X believes p, even if p is false. This connection between intentionality and intensionality, which means that sentences expressing intention are extensionally opaque, has prompted many philosophers to follow the example of W. V. O. Quine in banishing the intensional context from scientific language—although admittedly at the cost of having to bring the intentional into compliance via a purely behavioral interpretation of physicalistic–extensional description and explanation.

Today, the intentional is no longer threatened by reductionism. At least since Wittgenstein’s late work and Gilbert Ryle’s classic, The Concept of Mind (1949), the philosophy of mind has striven to provide the intentional attitudes their grammatical right as well, but without falling back into the pre-lingual self-observation or introspection with which Brentano and the phenomenology of Husserl operated. Daniel Dennett (1991) in particular made important suggestions for an answer to the question of what it means to ascribe intentionality (intentional stance) to organisms or machines. His most formidable opponent for many years was John R. Searle, who does not hold intentionality to be merely something ascribed by an observer, but rather, a natural quality of specific organisms. The question of the naturalizability of consciousness (cf. Dretske 1995)—that is, the possibility to describe and explain intentionality exclusively by natural scientific means—has been debated heatedly since then.

In language theory as well, the topic of ‘intentionality’ has been discussed in depth, particularly in connection with the thesis of Grice (1957) which states that linguistic meaning can be understood and reconstructed exclusively from that which a speaker means and expresses in communicative actions. In simpler terms, this intention-based semantics (cf. Meggle 1994) refers back to what a speaker wants to give a hearer to understand through his or her speech act. Thus, it brings together the semantic aspect of intentionality with the aspect of intentionality represented in theory of action. In his work Intentionality, Searle (1983) submitted a superior version of this approach to Grice’s, with the central thesis that intentionality is a basic state of mind that ‘gives’ the mind its linguistic expression. With this, suddenly Searle’s earlier theory of the speech act appeared as a branch of the philosophy of mind. The opposing position to this intentionalism in semantics is conventionalism (e.g., Wittgenstein), according to which all that we can mean and communicate is already set out according to linguistic conventions and rules. The conventionalist asks ‘How can I know what I mean before I hear what I say?’ (Black 1977). The strength of the conventionalist position is that it refers to what a speaker means and can give a hearer to understand, even before the speaker has to be present in verbal or just symbolic form (cf. Schnadelbach 2000, pp. 204ff.), because ‘X means that’ and ‘X wants Y to believe that’ always needs a propositional object which is itself written in grammatical form. Not only is the relationship between intentionality and conventionality (Strawson 1971, pp. 174ff.) interesting from the point of view of language theory; it also applies to a wide variety of types of action—for example, to ritual or institutional actions—and not merely to speech acts.

3. Rationality

The word ‘rationality’ is currently used mostly in the sense of means–ends rationality (Zweckrationalitat), which takes as its own example the economic conception of rationality. What it means is always the optimal balancing of ends and means while giving primacy to ends, which can either not be rationally justified at all or only incompletely. However, this model cannot adequately express all that is connected historically and objectively with the rationalitas of the animal rationale. The philosophical tradition, admittedly, seldom used the expression ‘rationality’ and always gave preference to other terms such as ‘reason’ or ‘understanding.’ Therefore, the concept of rationality has only returned to modern philosophical discourse via the detour of discussions in the social sciences and in the theory of science. It is well known from common experience with unreasonable rationalizations that a distinction can be made between the rational and the reasonable; thus, a philosophical theory of rationality should be defined broadly enough to encompass such intuitions.

3.1 A Narrower And A Broader Concept Of Rationality

The predicate ‘rational’ is most often used in a normative or evaluative sense, whereas the opposite appears as ‘irrational’ in the sense of being contrary to reason. Thus, we judge actions, institutional rules, and also people by means of a criterion of rationality, and discover that what is being judged is inadequate to the criterion. The fact that we are dealing here with the narrower concept of rationality becomes clear when we recall that we are also talking about the opposite of the rational even when such a judgment does not come into question at all. In this case, we use the ‘irrational’ to designate that which is lacking reason or is arational. This broader concept of rationality thus serves to separate from the wide variety of things and events those things which we could view as candidates for a normative or evaluative judgment according to the narrower concept of rationality. Rationality, as the opposite of unreasonableness, is probably the same thing as understandability; we use the narrower, normative concept of rationality only for behavior patterns and expressions where there is something to understand about the causal or functional explanation (cf. Schnadelbach 1992, pp. 79ff.). The relationships between this broader concept and the normative concept of rationality were the topic that was debated following the theses of Winch (1958) among philosophers and social scientists on ‘rationality and relativism’ (cf. Hollis and Lukes 1982, Wilson 1970). The question, then, is whether rationality as understandability simply coincides with intentionality. What is certain is that intentionality is a necessary condition for rationality qua understandability, but it is not certain whether it is a sufficient condition. The concept of the rule appears to decide this question: it is to be assumed that the understandability of behavior patterns and expressions presupposes the capacity to follow rules which the person understanding them is also in a position to follow. There is much evidence suggesting that intentionality exists below the level of following rules as well, although here the condition of understandability would not yet be fulfilled.

3.2 Types Of Rationality

The fact that we always have to reckon with different types of rationality (cf. Schnadelbach 2000, pp. 256ff.) has been known to philosophy since its beginnings. Plato’s differentiation between noesis and dianoia, which was passed down into the modern age via the difference between ratio and intellectus or between reason (Vernunft) and understanding (Verstand ) can be mentioned in this context, as can Aristotle’s doctrine of the five dianoetic virtues, Scientific Knowledge, Art, Prudence, Intuitive Reason, and Wisdom. Even when one assumes the usual, but much too narrow, interpretation of rational competence as the capability of establishing reasons, one must make further differentiations. Because of the fact that Aristotle defined the capability of establishing reasons—which according to him constitutes the specific characteristic of scientific knowledge—in general terms as the ability to answer why-questions, we have had to clearly differentiate between causes (causae) and reasons (rationes) since the seventeenth century. Therefore, at the beginning of the twenty-first century we regard answers to questions about causes as explanations, and only answers to questions about reasons as ‘the establishing of reasons’ in the strict sense. We can differentiate between cognitive and normative types of explanations: while cognitive (causal, final, functional, historical, etc.) explanations tell us why something is the case, normative explanations inform us about why something should be the case. Establishing reasons, on the other hand, relates in the epistemological case to reasons that indicate why one could believe something to be true, and in the intentional or rational case, to what—within the bounds of what we can possibly know—can be said for doing or not doing something specific. The intentional or rational establishing of reasons is the locus of the social scientific model of rationality, since neither in the case of economic rationality nor in the case of Weber’s means–ends rationality does it play a role whether subjective calculations correspond to reality to the best of one’s knowledge or not. Thus, someone who made a mistake was not irrational but simply unlucky. This is also the locus of those intentional or rational explanations for action mentioned in Sect. 2.1 which cannot be interpreted as a special type of causal explanation because of their relation to the subjective perspective of the agents.

Often, ‘establishing reasons’ is used in the sense of the Latin rationem reddere or the Greek logon didonai to mean argumentation. However, this usage often fails to recognize that argumentation, as a reflection of critique and justification, relates not directly to things, occurrences, or actions—after all, nobody criticizes or justifies the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow—but to the claims to validity that are connected with assertions about things, occurrences, or actions. The most important of these claims to validity are those of truth and rightness. The question whether or not an occurrence took place is not the theme of argumentation, but rather, the assertion that this occurrence did take place. Here, as well, the issue is not primarily whether or not an action is good, but whether the thesis that this action is good can be justified or not. In simpler terms, the rationality type ‘argumentation’ is to be located on the meta-level of speaking about assertions that apply to things and occurrences or actions. There is much evidence to support the idea that when Kant and Popper among others defined reason as essentially a critical faculty, they had this type of rationality in mind. However, in order for something that can be the object of argumentation— that is, of critique and justification—to come about at all requires rationality in the broad sense, that is, qua understandability. Thus, understandability is the more fundamental type of rationality.

3.3 Incompleteness Of Every Theory Of Rationality

The idea that it is probably impossible to explicate rationality all at once, as a whole and for all contexts is supported by the fact that every explication of rationality must itself have a claim to rationality. Therefore, it cannot discuss its own medium of explication and the implicit standards of explication contained in it as long as it makes use of them itself. Admittedly, this is possible in other contexts, but then as well something outside the theme of discussion is left behind (cf. Putnam 1981, Chap. 5). From this emerges an argument against the radical skepticism regarding rationality that has come into fashion under Nietzsche’s influence; if it really takes itself seriously, it forgoes the opportunity to present itself as a serious position.


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