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Sympathy and Intentionality in Practical Philosophy: Scheler and Searle


‘Intentionality’ as a property of the mind means a primary ‘directedness’ of mental states and actions towards various points of reference, either in the world around us, or within our own physical and mental states or events. Whether I enjoy the peaceful scenery of a serene, remote island, joyfully anticipate a birthday party, or worry whether I might have cancer, my mental states (e.g. elation at the beauty of the island) and mental actions (e.g. anticipation of the party or worry about the blood test) tend to be ‘about’ something other than those mental states and actions themselves.

All communication is by definition intentional: in order to effectively communicate, we must refer to something. Intentionality is thus mad up by reference, and not by an intention to do something, although an intention to do something directly or indirectly refers to an object that we wish to act on. Mental states such as fear or hope are intentional if they include the reference to a specific object that one hopes for or fears, however they do not necessarily include intentions to do anything. Although intentionality generally characterises communication, and most mental states and actions generally, according to Searle, there are mental states that are not intentional, because they do not refer to a specific object. Such are ’generalised’ nervousness or anxiety that do not hinge on a specific cause or event. If I fear the results of my blood test, my fear is intentional. If, on the other hand, I wake up in the morning with a generalised feeling of anxiety with no specific cause in mind, my fear is non-intentional

At first glance, Searle’s account of intentionality is limited to conscious mental states and acts — ones where the subject is conscious of the object that seems to cause his mental states. This assumption is at least consistent with the idea that mental states may have a referent object of which the subject is not conscious. On the one hand, it is now a matter of common understanding that much, if not most of our mental life occurs below the threshold of conscious thought. On the other hand, experience often confirms that we may appear to have a ‘non-intentional’ mental state, only to discover later that there was a hidden reference to an object. I may wakeup anxious for days, without an obvious reason, thus seemingly experiencing a ‘non-intentional’ mental state, only to discover that, once my blood test results have arrived confirming my good health, the morning anxiety has disappeared never to return. There is plenty of experiential evidence to warrant a prima facie caution about the true non-intentional nature of mental states when they non-intentional, until more information and experiential checking is available with the passage of time. This is particularly important from the practical point of view, e.g. in counseling, when the mental states under consideration are those that cause us distress. Unless an anxiety or depression are pathological, it is at least possible that they are caused by, or referenced to, a particular expectation, prospect or experience, but that the subject is not conscious of the reference, which results in the mental states appearing to be ‘about nothing’.

In his intuitionist and biologistic account of ‘sympathy’, Max Scheler describes how innate intra- and inter-species commonalities operate in the animal world. He mentions a type of wasp that is capable of stinging a caterpillar right in a nerve centre that paralyses it and allows the wasp to fertiliz

e it. The wasp has no prior ‘knowledge’ of the caterpillar’s anatomy, yet it unmistakably hits the right spot. Unlike the lion cubs, which learn how to kill their pray from their mother, the wasp lives to fertilize one caterpillar, and then disappears. No learning is possible for the individual; any ‘knowledge’ comes from what could be considered philogenetic or collective experience or memory. The instinct of procreation appears to be coupled with a primal inter-species commonality that cannot be explained in terms of the individual’s life or experience.

Read the full paper on Academia.

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