1.3. Products of the mind

In the last section, I came to the result that (1) intentionality is independent of consciousness, and (2) also physical brain structures can have an intentional content. In the present section, I will claim that even physical structures outside the brain can have an intentional content , that is, they are about something or refer to something different from themselves.

Usually, mental states and processes are assumed to be localized in the brain. Many naturalists think that mental states are closely linked or even identical with states of the brain. An exception are functionalists: They hold that the important thing about mental states is not where they are located or what they are made of, but what function they perform. Brentano did certainly not believe that mental, i.e. psychic processes take place outside the head (or the body if we want to include the human heart). But let us see what follows from his definition of the mental as something being intentional:

What about things like Goethe’s poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Undoubtedly, the poem is about something: about a sorcerer’s apprentice and his dramatically failed trial to control the spirits he called in his master’s absence. On the other hand, the poem exists as a physical thing consisting of characters written or printed on paper or, if recited by someone, of sound waves, i.e., of oscillating air molecules. The poem must have any physical, material form to exist, at least outside of one’s brain and mind (its existence in the brain is topic of the next section).

Regarding the poem printed in a book, one may object: it has no intentional content as long as nobody reads and understands it, and when somebody is reading it, the poem’s content arises in his or her mind and becomes mental and intentional by that. And it seems to be true, since neither the meaning of the charcters nor of the words, nor the necessary contextual knowledge is included in the text. All this knowledge must be provided by the reader. Can the text have any semantic content without the reader’s knowledge? Apparently not. Nevertheless, the order of the charcters on the paper was determined by the words and sentences and eventually by the content of the poem, and it is this order which enables the reader to generate the content in his or her own mind. Therefore, the characters on the paper must contain the poem, even if in a peculiar, non-semantic manner.

Let us consider a further example: When I think in words or sentences, my thoughts are about something. When I think the same words or sentences aloud, my speech is about the same content. My speech is a sequence of sound waves, thus someone else can perceive and understand it. It is the sound waves that transfer the content, thus they must contain it anyway in their structure or configuration. However, just as with a written or printed text, the listener needs to understand my language and often needs some contextual knowledge to be able to reconstruct the semantic content of my speech in his or her mind.

One may further object that the content of a thought (or of another mental state) is intrinsic, the content of a sentence spoken or written is not. But is it not rather the thought itself, i.e., thinking as an intentional act which is intrinsic by nature (accessible only for the thinker himself), When I’m thinking, when I’m feeling pain, or when I hear or see or smell something, then all these mental states as such, regardless of their contents, are intrinsic. They are not observable by someone else as long as I do not express them in a physical way in my face, or by gestures, sounds, etc. Therefore, it is not the content itself, which is intrinsic by nature, but the mental state containing it.

A third possible objection may be that the intentional content of language is dependent on the fact that we possess that mind and are conscious beings, thus the intentional features of language are secondary and derived, whereas the intentionality of mental states is primary and original. My answer is: Without having mind and consciousness I could not think these thoughts and not write these sentences, that’s true, But it is not crucial in the context of our investigation. Instead, the fact crucial in our context is that physical structures like sound waves or ink on paper can have an intentional content, and that they resemble thoughts, notions, and other mental states in this regard – even if with the important difference that, in a text or in a speech, the content is present only formally, as a structure or configuration, as the specific arrangement of the pieces of a whole. This specific arrangement keeps and carries the content.

Since they obviously are about something, objects like a poem in a book seem to be both, physical and, in a sense, mental. Karl Popper who also saw this proposed a Three Worlds ontology [1]: In addition to a World 1 of physical objects and a World 2 of mental objects and events in the mind, he postulated a World 3 of objects that are products of the human mind, such as poems, novels, construction plans, scientific theories, myths, symphonies, paintings, sculptures, etc. Regarding their physical existence, these objects are part of World 1, but regarding their intellectual, cultural, or aesthetic contents existing independently of the individual mind they are part of World 3 [2].

If, however, the content of a construction plan is part of World 3, then the house or the machine built after the plan is, in this sense, part of World 3 as well, because the content of the plan is embodied in them. This is true even for simple everyday products: also the pattern for a dress or the design drawing for a chair are products of the human mind, And eventually, every man-made thing is the embodiment of a purpose and an idea who to materialize it. There is always a plan, even if it is present in the worker’s mind only.

It is not even necessary that an object was shaped by human work: A stick or stone picked up from the ground in order to use it as a tool turns into a thing that answers to a purpose. The stick or stone in the hand is the embodiment of a plan in the mind, and the flower in a girl’s hair is the embodiment her desire to look pretty. In this way, physical things turn to an expression of something mental: of an idea, a target, a desire [3].

Obviously, there exist a lot of things in our environment which are undoubtedly physical, but exhibit a crucial property of the mental, namely an intentional content: They refer to something which is different from themselves. In a dualist world strictly divided into mind and matter, and also in Popper’s Three Worlds, such objects appear to be somehow Janus-faced, chimeras of matter and mind. In the next chapter, I will propose that not only products of the human mind are of this apparently ‘dual nature’, but all physical objects anyway structured. It’s, so to say, the most natural thing of the world.


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  1. K. R. Popper and J. C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer International, 1977.  [⇑]
  2. Some believe that another kind of objects constitute Poppers’s World 3: abstract, collective ideas like the theory of evolution as such (not in a book or in someone’s mind or brain),or Buddhism as such (not in books nor what particular Buddhists believe), or collective notions like that of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as such (i.e., not a particular performance, not the score, nor the subjective memory of the music in someone's mind).
       Things of this kind are sometimes regarded the true content of Popper’s World 3, but I think they do not exist. They are a phenomenon of language only. We speak about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as we speak about something really existing, but there is nothing more than the score (the manuscripts and several issues printed), particular performances (of different style and quality), recordings (tapes, records, CDs), individual, subjective listening experiences, -memories, and -notions, and a comprehensive secondary literature about the Fifth Symphony (hope I haven’t forgotten anything). But the Symphony as such does not exist.
       Abstract objects (universals) do not exist. They are nothing than words in our language; they extremely simplify communication and our verbal description of the world. However, a words as well only exists as a written or printed or spoken one, or as a thought in one’s mind. The word ‘symphony’ as such, as an abstract entity does not exist. Now one may ask: How do words come about, and the collective ideas they refer to? My answer: They come about by communication. Communication is the basis on which language, that is, a system of symbols, develops. Communication is primary, language, concepts, and collective ideas are secondary. I will return also to this issue later.  [⇑]
  3. There is no basic difference between, e.g., Michelangelo who shaped the marble to materialize his idea of a beautiful sculpture and the girl who places the flower in her hair to materialize her idea of looking beautiful (even if this is a lot less work than that done by Michelangelo).
       John Searle wrote: “... in artifacts we extend our own intentionality; our tools are extensions of our purposes, and so we find it natural to make metaphorical attributions of intentionality to them” *. Searle means with ‘metaphorical attributions’ to say, e.g., a computer knows or understands something. Such attribution can be only metaphoric, However, computers often store and process data by which a content is coded, e.g., a text about something. Thus we can say the computer contains and processes intentional contents, even if it does not understand them.
       Like Searle, I’m convinced that machines do not know or understand anything in a semantic sense. But the circumstance that artifacts physically ‘embody’ our intentions, our purposes, that is, something mental, and ‘express’ it in their shape or structure – this fact, I think, is important. We shape and change ourselves and our environment according to our ideas, desires and plans, and in this way. we and our environment become an embodiment of our ideas, desires, and plans. Matter mirrors our mind.
       *) John R. Searle, Minds, Brains, and Programs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (3): 417-457; p. 422.  [⇑]

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