Source: Video Text


Intentionality is the contentfulness distinctive of some of our psychological states and linguistic utterances.

Intentionality partially overlaps with consciousness:

  • pain is a nonintentional but psychologically conscious phenomenon. (a pain is not about anything - there is no content that could be expressed by a sentential ‘that’ clause).
  • We make use of unconscious intentional states when making sense of other’s behavior.

This distinction of consciousness and intentionality is related to the distinction between sentience and sapience:

  • Sentience: being awake - anything that can feel pain is sentient.
  • Sapience: having intentionally contentful states (beliefs/desires/intentions).

Our desire to mix these up is traced back to Descartes, who radically assimilated sensations (e.g. pain) and thoughts both as mental events. He saw them both as transparent and incorrigible to their subject.

Representational and Propositional Dimensions of Practical and Discursive Intentionality

Practical vs discursive intentionality.

  • Practical: directedness at an object that animals exhibit when they deal skillfully with their world. However, this is difficult to separate from the kind of directedness that inanimate objects demonstrate.
  • Discursive: exhibited by concept-users when making judgments/claims about objects semantically.

Propositional vs representational intentionality of an intentional state .

  • Representational: Specification of an object represented by a state (what is of?)
  • Propositional: Specification of what is believed/thought (what is it an that?)
PracticalThe dog believes of his master / The thermostat believes of the room… that he will serve dinner / that it is too cold
DiscursiveAlice believes of ships……that they should float

(Note: The dog doesn’t have the concepts of “master” or “serve”, since it doesn’t grasp most of the contrasts/implications essential to those concepts. Hence this must be practical rather than discursive intentionality.)

Two orders of explanation about the relationship between practical and discursive intentionality:

  • Platonism - understand practical intentionality in terms of discursive intentionality. Every implicit skill or propriety of practice is underwritten by a rule/principle - something that could be made discursively explicit.
  • Pragmatism - understand discursive intentionality in terms of practical intentionality. Knowing-that (things are thus-and-so) is a kind of knowing-how (to do something). What is explicit in the form of a conceptually articulated principle is intelligible only against a background of implicit practices.

What of the explanatory priority of the representational and propositional dimensions? Brandom says for practical intentionality, the propositional should be understood in terms of representational.1 But for discursive intentionality, the representational should be understood in terms of the propositional.

The normativity of discursive intentionality

Kant’s idea: judgments/intentional doings are distinguished from nondiscursive creatures’ behavior in that they are things the subject is responsible for. They express commitments or endorsements, they are exercises of the authority of the subject. Concepts are normative. Discursive creatures are ones who live in a normative space.

Example: in judging the coin is copper, one is committed (whether one knows it or not) to the coin conducting electricity / melting at 1085 degrees. One is precluded from claiming the coin is less dense than water.

Kant explains the content of concepts in terms of judgments / responsibility (i.e. representational content explained in terms of propositional content). This is an opposite explanatory order from the tradition before him: people would start with contents of concepts (particular ones, like “Socrates”, which represent objects and general ones, like “man” or “mortal”, which represent properties). These concepts can be combined to form propositions (e.g. “Socrates is a man”) and a theory of syllogisms (“Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, so Socrates is mortal”) which classifies the inferences as good or bad depending on the contents of the propositions. This is explaining propositional content in terms of representational.

Given the Kantian order of explanation, what it means to treat something as a representing (of something represented) is to acknowledge the authority of what is represented over assessments of the correctness of that representing.

Two broad ways of understanding normativity (as it appears in discursive intentionality). Both are functionalist (they look at the role discursive intentional states play in some larger system)

  • Teleosemantic: what we ought to follow / how representing ought be derives from selectionary/adaptive/evolutionary explanations.
  • Social-practical: the norms of concepts are instituted socially by normative attitudes (in particular, “reciprocal recognition”). This line of thought was invented by Hegel and continued through American pragmatists and Wittgenstein. Social norms is instituted when practitioners take performances as appropriate or inappropriate / treat others as committed or entitled etc.2

An inferential approach to discursive propositional intentional content

What kind of knowing how (to do something) amounts to knowing that (things are thus-and-so)? What is the difference between the parrot squawking “that’s red” in the presence of red things and the human who responds to the same stimuli by claiming that something is red? What does the sapient, discursively-intentional observer do that the merely sentient, practically-intentional parrot does not?

The difference is understanding - what practical abilities does that understanding consist in? There is a normative difference (the parrot does not express an endorsement) but also crucial is that the understood content is conceptual content (propositional contents are a paradigmatic kind of conceptual content). What makes content conceptual is that it stands in relations of material consequence and incompatibility. The observer can make inferences from their commitment and knows how to distinguish evidence for and against the commitment - the commitment is taking a stance in a network of related possible commitments.

Material inferential relations (in contrast to formal-logical ones) articulate the contents of non-logical (in contrast to logical) ones. E.g. ” is to the West of , so is to the East of .” and “If it’s copper, it’ll conduct electricity”. Part of what one must do in order to understand the concept of “West” is to endorse inferences like above. This is different from saying there is some meaning-constitutive set of inferences one must endorse - it’s merely claiming that if one makes no endorsements like that then one cannot count as a user of that concept.

If one makes no such distinctions, one has merely labeled (classified) something rather than described it. The parrot can reliably classify things as red by squawking “Red!” in the presence of red things the way iron can classify environments as oxygen-rich by rusting.

Seeing that boxes in an attic were labeled with red, yellow, green stickers tells us that boxes with the same label share some property. What the colors mean depends on the further inferences bound up in the colors (e.g. red boxes are to be discarded). Description is classification plus inferential consequences.

Semantic inferentialism: what distinguishes discursive commitments is that their contents are articulated by the roles they play in material inferential / incompatibility relations. Grasping / understanding such contents is a kind of practical know-how which distinguishes sapients from mere sentients.

The relation of language and thought in discursive intentionality

Clearly there can be practical intentionality without language.

Can there by discursive intentionality without language? Early modern philosophers took it to be obvious we could have thoughts apart from their linguistic expression. Grice and Fodor have continued this tradition. However, there is an alternative order of explanation which understands discursive intentionality in terms of language (often associated with Wittgenstein). Dummett expresses this with the quote:

We have opposed throughout the view of assertion as the expression of an interior act; judgment, rather, is the interiorization of the external act of assertion.

This view is more extreme than Davidson’s view which holds that there is no overall explanatory priority in either direction:

Neither language nor thinking can be fully explained in terms of the other, and neither has conceptual priority. The two are, indeed, linked in the sense that each requires the other in order to be understood, but the linkage is not so complete that either suffices, even when reasonably reinforced, to explicate the other.

This view says concept use is not intelligible in a context that does not include language use, while allowing for intentional states (e.g. beliefs) to be essential in understanding linguistic practices. The capacity to think (i.e. have propositionally contentful thoughts, that things are thus-and-so) and the capacity to talk arise and develop together.

Putting together a social normative pragmatics and an inferential semantics for discursive intentionality

Iron triangle of discursiveness:

  • Syntax: declarative sentences
  • Semantics: propositions
  • Pragmatics: assertions

A pragmatist considers explaining/understanding the first two categories in terms of the last.

  • What is a declarative sentence is characterized in terms of the practice of asserting things are thus-and-so.
  • What is a propositional content is characterize as that which can serve as (and stand in need of) reasons, i.e. play the role of premise and conclusion in inferences.

Deontic scorekeeping

Normative statuses are social statuses. The paradigm deontic status is commitment.

To understand an assertional speech act is to know how to keep score on the commitments the speaker has undertaken by performing that speech act.

  • Asserting obliges one
    • to acknowledge commits that follow from
    • to offer a justification (give reasons) if one is suitably challenged
  • Asserting authorizes others to attribute commitment to to oneself

Exercising such inferentially-articulated authority and fulfilling such responsibility is what one must do in order to count as committed to .

A second deontic status is entitlement, which is also something that must be tracked by scorekeepers. We can then distinguish three flavors of (modally-robust) inferential relations:

  1. Permissive inferential (probably evidential): scorekeepers who take anyone entitled to to be (prima facie) entitled to . (This is a generalization of inductive inference)
  2. Committive inferential (dispositive evidential): scorekeepers who take anyone committed to to be committed to . (This is a generalization of deductive inference)
  3. Material incompatibility: scorekeepers treat anyone who is committed to to not be entitled to (and vice-versa)

This story (developed in Making it Explicit) is a sketch of how discursive intentionality is intelligible as emerging from exercises of practical intentionality that have the right normative and social structure.

Logic: the organ of semantic self-consciousness

Being practically taken/treated as standing in relations of material inference/incompatibility is how expressions come to have propositional discursive semantic content, and so are able to make something explicit (sayable, claimable, thinkable). We can go further and make explicit those normative material inferential relations, which are (initially) implicit in the practical attitudes discursive scorekeepers adopt to one another.

This makes intelligible the possibility of creatures that are rational (engaging in practices of giving and asking for reasons) but not yet logical. They have the practical skills needed to use logical vocabulary, if we were to introduce that vocabulary to them.

Pragmatic social normative perspectives and the representational dimension of discursive semantic content

Bob attributes to Alice the claim “Benjamin Franklin was a printer” and the claim “Benjamin Franklin is the inventor of the lightening rod.” Then Bob should also attribute Alice the claim “The inventor of the lightening rod was a printer.”

Suppose Bob (not necessarily Alice) is committed to “Benjamin Franklin is the inventor of bifocals.” Should Bob attribute to Alice “The inventor of bifocals was a printer.”? This is a consequence of the facts (as Bob takes them) whether or not Alice realizes that. In an important sense, Alice has (without knowing it) committed herself to the inventor of bifocals having been a printer. But this is a different sense from how she has committed herself to the inventor of the lightening rod having been a printer.

Syntactically, we make this explicit with de dicto vs de re clauses.

  • De dicto: “Alice claims that the inventor of the lightening rod was a printer.”
  • De re: “Alice claims of the inventor of bifocals that he was a printer.”

These play different scorekeeping roles: the former attributes to Alice the responsibility of the overall claim, whereas in the latter Bob must undertake responsibility of the claim (that Ben Franklin was the inventor of bifocals) in order to attribute responsibility of the overall claim to Alice. Thus the “of-ness” (which we think of as representation) makes explicit these dynamics of undertaking commitments vs attributing them.

Bob cares about de dicto consequential commitments because he wants to know what else Alice would endorse / do based on the commitments she acknowledges. He cares about the de re consequential commitments because he wants to extract information from the claims of others—i.e., premises that he can use in his own inferences.

Another example: Bob attributes to Alice the intention to shoot a deer and the belief that the creature in front of her is a deer. De dicto: “Alice believes that the creature in front of her is a deer, the shooting of which would fulfill her intention” is helpful for Bob to predict that Alice will shoot. Bob may believe that the creature is a cow, so de re: “Alice believes of the cow in front of her that it is a deer, the shooting of which would fulfill her intention.” From this Bob can deduce that Alice will shoot a cow. Using his collateral beliefs, Bob can extract information from Alice’s commitments that is unavailable to her.

Keeping track of what premises are available for the reasoning of others and what premises are available for our own reasoning is what we are doing when we talk or think about what we are talking or thinking about: the representational dimension of discursive intentionality.


  1. Consider the mapping relation that skillful dealings produce and promote between items in the environment and states of the organism. The usefulness of map representations depends on the goodness of inferences from map-facts (there is a blue wavy line between two dots here) to terrain-facts (there is a river between these two cities). The propositional content of the map facts is built up out of representational relations that are sub-propositional (correlating blue lines and rivers, dots and cities). Such relations underwrite the representation-to-proposition order of explanation at the level of practical intentionality.

  2. E.g. what it means for the the court to really be adjourned is precisely when takes it to be adjourned, and that the community takes to be the judge, who has the authority to adjourn the court.