Intentionality and Meaning

In the previous post, I put forth the question of whether Husserl’s phenomenology could be of use to AI, weak or strong. This is a genuine question that I put out there to discuss…I have no thesis to support. Just curious to hear what you think.

In writing this post, I realized I’d have to break this down into several segments. From now on, I’ll be using Husserl for the most part, not Heidegger, to explain aspects of phenomenology…although I do like Heidegger’s readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand distinction. But I prefer the bracketing methodology of Husserl for these purposes. I could see Maurice Merleau-Ponty coming into the picture, especially on the issue of AI embodiment, but I haven’t read him. (Perhaps those of you who have can weigh in. I’d love that.)

I might stray from Husserl too, setting out on my own. In other words, not everything here will be a lesson on Husserl. I don’t want to be encumbered by referring back to his works to verify what I’m saying, because that would make what should be a simple blog post an academic enterprise. I’m not feeling that game right now.

Conditions of experience

Phenomenology allows us to describe experience as it’s actually experienced. In doing so, we look for conditions that make experience possible—the constitution of meaning. These “rules” are not likely to be revelatory in describing what happens inside a biological brain. However, phenomenology could run parallel to neuroscience. After all, in order to know what’s going on in the brain, we must know what brain states correspond to—the so-called “subjective” experience, i.e. 1st person accounts. One might argue that 1st person accounts tend to miss the mark, fall into error, but we can’t allow all 1st person accounts to err on a grand scale. There must be a back and forth here, perhaps only a preliminary one at the outset. There is no mapping of the brain without knowing what it is we’re mapping.

Why should we care about a philosophy that sounds very much like navel-gazing? Well, this navel-gazing isn’t about the stuff we ordinarily think of as “subjective”: our favorite ice cream, the personal feelings we get when we listen to music…that stuff we generally agree is “a matter of taste.” Husserl’s direction is actually scientific (like, Wissenschaft scientific, “the sciences” scientific) in the sense that we are looking for elements of experience that are essential to it.

For example, those of you familiar with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason may remember that space is the a priori outer form of experience, and time, the inner form. Causality was explained in this way too; everything we experience will be shaped by the categories because these are necessarily presupposed. (Kant also believed there were inexperience-able things “out there”—noumena—which causes phenomena. Let’s leave this aside.) Husserl goes further than Kant by setting forth a philosophy that seeks to ground the content of experiences individually, on a case by case basis. We’ll see how this works in later posts. Let’s just say for now that Husserl’s phenomenology is a lot more detailed and specific.

The very fact that phenomenology seeks out “rules” makes me wonder if it could apply to AI in some capacity, especially in areas that have to do with perception and learning. It might actually be preferable to bracket the “natural world”: “objective” reality, Kantian “things in themselves.” In a way, we’re looking at our own experience as if it were virtual reality. Like a computer.

However, phenomenologically speaking, we live in an environment that is not closed, which seems to imply that computers just aren’t like us. It seems that AI would have to progress significantly to allow for open-ended possibilities if we want to achieve those hard-to-accomplish tasks that for us seem basic. Does that which allows for creativity and learning in us preclude algorithmic AI? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not well-informed in this area, but it seems at the very least we’d have to know what makes our experience what it is in order to answer the question. Do we really take in new information just as it comes to us, spontaneously, or do we have to synthesize that information onto pre-existing charts? I suspect the latter, and I suspect if we could “crack the code” that allows us to understand our own learning methods, we’d be better able to do the same for AI (even if only in weak AI, or for certain specific goals).

In my last post I told you I’d explain how phenomenology operates by exploring Husserl’s intentionality. Let’s do phenomenology.


Husserl’s Intentionality is at the heart of his phenomenology. Intentionality is our directed-ness toward things, and it’s basically this: Consciousness is always consciousness about or of something. Pause here for a moment. Really stop and give this consideration. Much of phenomenology is reflection on experience. If you don’t do it, if you read articles on phenomenology and look for ways to summarize the logic, to relate to it only on the level of mere verbal cohesiveness, you’re missing a crucial aspect of it. The process is intuitive. You analyze the veracity of such statements as “consciousness is always consciousness about or of something” via intuition, reflection on your own experience.

Try not to think about anything. You might think you’ve experienced something like this once: a dreamless sleep, a coma perhaps. But were you conscious? No. So right now do this: Really try not to perceive something, to be aware of. You can close your eyes, close the windows, block out the sound, but time goes by. What happens? Well, if you’re like me, perhaps even more happens in your consciousness now that the senses are closed off. Ideas, daydreams, random thoughts…these are included as content, “about-ness.”

Those of you who meditate may raise objections, and these will be well taken. I, for my part, have never found myself to be conscious while being conscious of nothing, absolutely nothing.

It is the nature of our experience to be directed towards things or about things. (What I’m loosely calling “things” are not just objects of sense perception, but can include thoughts, ideas, memories, etc.) Intentionality is always there. In other words, it plays a pervasive role in every kind of experience: perceiving, judging, remembering, dreaming, screwing up, etc.

Imagine an omniscient camera (or recorder of some sort) that captures the infinity of experiences, all sense data, equally, without any directness toward things, without signifying any particular experience. We are not even a time-limited “subjective” version of such a camera. We can speak of this omniscient experience just as we can speak of a square circle, but we can’t really picture it. That’s because, in an a-logical—non-logical—way, it is nonsense. Through intuition we know that in such a world, there would be no objects. No objects, no intentionality. No intentionality, no objects.*

You might’ve guessed by now that intentionality is broader than what we mean when we say, “I intend to fix this,” but includes such statements and meanings. Plus, intentionality is not attention, necessarily, but includes attention.

What intentionality does is acknowledge that there is always a foreground and background to experience. The background is a vague summation of the world. This world may not be the world of science, may not include the world ‘in itself’ (or it may, phenomenologically, but let’s not get too complicated here). Let’s say for now that, at a minimum, it’s a world that’s available for us, and therefore it coheres in a loose sense—it must. This background is what Husserl calls the “horizon.” It can be thought of as a potential experience, past or future, which has not yet shown itself or is not now in view. The horizon is also infinite (more on this later.)

Intentionality is mostly passive as we go about our everyday lives, and on philosophical-phenomenological reflection we can “see” it operating, to some extent.

We quickly disregard what isn’t relevant to us at the moment while simultaneously knowing that those things that are currently irrelevant or out-of-focus—on the horizon—are possible experiences that could come into the foreground. Those background possibilities constitute our foreground experiences. We know what’s behind us in a loose sense. We have expectations about what’s behind us and those inform our foreground experiences.

I repeat, these foreground experiences are not necessarily “paying attention.” More often than not, we’re not trying to focus.

We grasp content in its context, leaping ahead to the most likely meaning or its totality, its unity, often unaware of other possible meanings or interpretations of the content, although further investigation may warrant a change. This is all done in a flash due to the intentional nature of our experience. The horizon, the background, is operating at the same time that we make the leap. The meaning of words/objects are constituted in time and situation, and this constitution is holistic, yet adaptable and subject to constraints.

Furthermore, the object or content of the experience is the way we look at it. Here’s a good example found in this article:

Consider the plight of poor Oedipus Rex. Oedipus despised the man he killed on the road from Delphi although he did not despise his own father; he desired to marry the Queen although he did not desire to marry his mother; and he loathed the murderer of King Laius before he came to loathe himself. But of course the man he killed was his father, the Queen was his mother, and he himself was the King’s murderer. How shall we describe the intentionality of such acts? Oedipus’ desire, for example, seems to have been directed toward Queen Jocasta, but not toward his mother. But Queen Jocasta and Oedipus’ mother were the very same person…Oedipus’ desire was therefore not simply “for” Jocasta: it was for Jocasta as conceived in a particular way. And the same sort of thing is true, not only of Oedipus’ mental states, but of everyone else’s as well…The intentionality of an act depends not just on which object the act represents but on a certain conception of the object represented.

The intentional conception of an X is not just an imposition of our minds on “facts” and therefore subject to error. (Remember, intentionality is always there, and it doesn’t always err. Error is just a clear way of showing the difference between fact and intention.) The example above demonstrates how meaning is constituted, but also how new conceptions can arise from new evidence. The meaning of Oedipus Rex would be entirely lost on us if we did not understand Oedipus’ intentions and the context which guided those intentions.

*Here I’m combining “object” and “content” for the sake of avoiding pedantry. We’ve established we’re not talking about noumena, so I hope you’ll excuse my sloppy language.


Meaning Constitution

Let’s look at our intentionality, our guiding mental behavior, linguistically.

Consider the sentence: The pig is in the pen.

I would be incredulous if you interpreted this sentence to mean, “There is a pig that is inside a writing instrument.” (Unless you happened to look down at the picture first, and you probably did because images tend to command attention. And there’s another topic for discussion…but anyway. Pretend you didn’t.)

The truth about the world, the background—that pigs don’t fit in writing instruments—informs your foreground interpretation. Yet you did not (I hope) have to analyze the sentence and determine all possible meanings of the word “pen” in order to arrive at your interpretation. You probably didn’t even think of writing instruments.

Consider the sentence: The pig is in the pen. Then imagine someone pointing to this while saying the sentence:


The pig is in the pen?

You might laugh and say, “Well, the pig is on the pen, or maybe the pig’s relationship to the pen is something about which we don’t wish to speculate.” Whatever the case may be, the sentence now has a different meaning constitution. You might wonder…why would the speaker say, “The pig is in the pen?” Does this person speak English? Is this person having a prepositional brain fart?

And the best question: Would you have considered “pen” in this case as signifying “an enclosure for animals”? Probably not in this situation.

Or maybe the speaker of the sentence is a moderately funny, punny person who has this whole theory about truth and language and you two have discussed this pig in the pen example on many occasions.* In this case, you might grasp both meanings of “pen” simultaneously to get the joke. You might only get the joke because you know this person makes this sort of joke on a regular basis.

As you can see, the holistic interpretation is adaptable and situational; even as it “runs ahead of itself,” it is subject to all sorts of constraints. In other words, intentionality is not just some willy-nilly imagining of the world, some sort of act of creation from nothing.

Also, this “leaping ahead” applies to all experience of objects, not just language interpretation. In my next post, I’ll go into further detail on this topic. Be on the lookout for eidos…

Ha ha. (Okay, not funny. But you’ll “see” what I mean later.)

*This is my husband’s example, which he used in a different context in his unpublished book on language and generosity (Donald Davidson’s “charity”).




Stumbling Blocks in Reading Philosophy

Philosophical texts are notoriously difficult to read, but the real problem comes when each text calls for a distinct set of skills. By the time you’ve “cracked the code” to reach that “ah ha” moment with one philosopher, it’s time to start all over with another.

I’d like to share some of my stumbling blocks with you.

I was inspired to write on this topic after reading Michelle Joelle’s The Delicate Art of Reading Philosophy, a post every philosophy student should read.


This is the most difficult category, because we think we understand when we don’t. There’s no impetus to move beyond our flawed understanding to reach the deeper meaning. It’s only by accident that we realize we’ve had it wrong all along. The only cure for this malady is to take a more generous approach with the text, to assume it has something important to say rather than tearing it apart before we’ve fully grasped it.

Anything ancient goes in this category.

Can we really learn from someone who wrote over 2000 years ago? It seems fair enough to say we’d get an historical understanding, but are these ancient texts intrinsically interesting?

Of course, these questions are usually in the back of student’s minds, not explicit or conscious. However, the doubt can make it difficult to take a text seriously. Students often give obligatory lip service to the great achievements of the ancients without really finding these achievements anything but curious artifacts. I certainly had these doubts in the back of my mind, until I reached the “ah ha” moment in a major way with Plato.

Plato is particularly difficult. On the one hand, students are often told that Plato wrote in dialogue form, so they expect to be carried along as if they were reading a novel. Very soon they realize this is not the way it works. So then they switch back to the familiar methods of analyzing arguments. Here they find themselves wandering down blind alleys, and they wonder what the point is. They might appreciate that Plato wanted us to “think for ourselves” or some such platitude, but ultimately they find the whole experience disappointing.

Plato always requires multiple readings. Give yourself time! 

Know your history. There will always be historical characters, and if you don’t know your Greek history or who these characters were, it’s worth looking them up. For instance, if you don’t know who Alcibiades was, you won’t understand his significance when he shows up drunk at the end of the Symposium. Try to imagine a modern-day equivalent. Imagine J.F.K. crashing your party instead of just some dude off the street.

Secondly, give some time to analyzing arguments, but then place them in context. Who’s making these claims? Why? What motivations/intentions are they coming from? What’s the setting? What is Socrates trying to do? Is he being facetious? Is Plato speaking through him?

And lastly, pay attention to detail. The more irrelevant it seems, the more you should pay attention. If a speaker mentions that he just came from the Piraeus or a festival, look up that festival and its significance. If someone seems to be blathering on about nothing, pay even closer attention. Assume this: Absolutely nothing in the text is disposable (Phaedrus 264c). Reading Plato is like putting together an enormously complex puzzle.

William James. I started with The Varieties of Religious Experience and learned so much about what I had previously found perplexing about asceticism in religion. James struck me as thoughtful and fair-minded, deeply sympathetic to religion but also realistic. I immediately read most of his other works with great eagerness.

James wrote in a clear and direct style, which presents its own peculiar problem. I found after reading several books that I had to take a step back to avoid getting swept along. It’s a kind of rhetoric that comes as such a relief after reading a lot of German philosophy, but don’t let it make you lazy. As I read him I really wanted to be on his side…it’s a lulling quality, a “hot damn, he sounds so direct he must be right!” Don’t get me wrong, he’s a hard hitter and his ideas on radical empiricism were big, but tread with caution. Take the time to write out his arguments or repeat them to yourself.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical InvestigationsI think most people know the difficulties here. I never did reach the “ah ha” moment with Wittgenstein. At first I was excited to see that same sentence-level clarity that William James exhibits, but then found after reading the first paragraph that I had no idea what was said. I have never read anything so hard, but seemingly easy. I kept pushing on through Philosophical Investigations, but never got beyond the “slab” example.

Analytic philosophy. I found similar problems with reading Frege and others. I never achieved the “ah ha” moment.

Leibniz’s MonadologyThis is the most beautifully bizarre work I’ve ever read. Leibniz’s style here is to lay down the law, and this can be off-putting. But the law he lays down is…so…weird. The best way to read this is to run with it, let him take you there. Think of it at first as a strange new poetry. Let down your guard and explore its beauty then later come back to criticize, otherwise reading this will feel like a waste of time. A solid understanding of Plato’s Timaeus is also useful.

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. If you’re not a Christian, try to pretend you are and take a sympathetic stance. This work attempts to make sense of God coming down to earth in the flesh of Jesus Christ. It explains the paradox and the importance of paradox as central to Christianity. It’s the best defense and explanation of Christianity I have ever read.

Augustine’s Confessions. It’s always the pear thing. He steals a pear for no reason, feels bad. Can we move on to Rousseau’s masochistic fantasies, please?

Hold your horses. There’s a lot going on here. The fact that stealing a pear is so small a sin is part of the point.

Also, this is regarded as the first autobiography—take into consideration what must have been going through Augustine’s mind when writing in this form. When arguments are brought to a personal account, they cease to be arguments. No one can argue with my experience, but I can still use my recounting to persuade you, to make you feel what I’m feeling even if you don’t agree with my opinions. I may steal a pear and feel guilty about it, and you may laugh at me for feeling guilty, but you won’t argue with me. There! I have my foot in the door to your soul. Now I will show you how stealing that pear for no reason is actually worse than doing something really bad. No really.

His insights into memory and psychology are especially worth reading. His thinking was authentic and original, and very thoughtful. So push on after you’re done laughing at the pear thing.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. It’s massive. It’s overarching. It’s preposterously ambitious by our standards. I remember giggling as I showed my roommate the three or four pages in which Aquinas assumed he had proven the existence of God. I later read those arguments and caught myself frowning and scratching my head. Well, shit. Maybe he did it!

This is some of the clearest, most succinct philosophical thinking I’ve ever encountered. Dry, but solid. Beautiful in its precision. (And, of course, heavily influenced by Aristotle, whom I love.) Sometimes when it’s this clear and simple, it’s hard to take it seriously. But why is that?

I think philosophy students are used to…


This includes a great deal of philosophy, especially German. If you don’t have to work hard for it, you must not have anything of value…that follows, doesn’t it? But watch out for those muddy puddles!

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. There’s a reason philosophy professors begin with Kant’s ethics—it’s much more manageable. Problems with CPR include contradictions and lots of terminology. When you try to use ordinary language to talk about his philosophy, you feel paralyzed in fear of saying something like: “Kant has this idea about…I mean, not an idea, a concept—NO! not that—a kind of thought, sort of…well anyways Kant says…” By now you’ve forgotten your point.

My advice here is to be understanding. Kant is not trying to be obscure; he’s trying to be clearer with all his definitions, but sometimes he fails. And when he fails after setting such a high standard for himself, it’s easy to get frustrated. Remember that he was pioneering an enormous project. Look for the overall meaning of his philosophy rather than let yourself get bogged down in details.

Husserl’s Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Doesn’t the title say it all? The key to reading Husserl is this—find the linking verb. It may be halfway down the page in that page-long sentence. Once you find it, cut as many clauses as you can to make sense of that ridiculous sentence. Once you’ve done this, start taking in a few of the clauses.  Take a deep breath. You won’t die. Not yet. Get ready for your mind to be blown.

Heidegger’s Being and Time. I chose to focus on present-at-hand and readiness-to-hand. A lot of Heidegger’s writing can be infuriatingly tedious (I would call a lot of it muddy puddles). I found most of what I needed to know about phenomenology in Husserl, but I’m sure there are some who will disagree.


Descartes’ Metaphysical Meditations. How did the infamous Cartesian circle come to pass? How could such a thinker make this mistake? Even I, a lowly college undergrad, spotted the error. I think Descartes was a secret atheist, but I don’t really know. I take Galileo’s house arrest into consideration and the time the Meditations were published—eight years later. Not enough to prove anything, especially when you think of how often Descartes writes about God in letters and such, but if you assume he was an atheist, you’ll see the work in a whole new light. I found it was easier to appreciate what he had achieved. In any case, taking out the error will help you refocus on the methodology of doubt, which is really the main point.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot more writing falls into this category, for political reasons.

What are your stumbling blocks? Which writers/philosophers did you find the most difficult to read? How did you learn to read their works?

What is Freedom?

Just another word for nothing left to lose?

At Jmeqvist, you’ll find a great post distinguishing between positive and negative freedom. I’d like elaborate on these to get you good and confused:

1. Negative Freedom. Here I’m quoting Johan at Jmeqvist as he says it so well:

“…we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which in this case is the absence of interference.”

I might call this concept of freedom “common sense freedom” since in ordinary language (esp. in North America, as Johan carefully points out), this is usually what we mean by the word.

2. Positive Freedom. Here again I’ll quote Johan and then elaborate with a few examples:

“…a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree.”

Plato: Those of you who are familiar with Plato know that he often spoke of being a slave to desire (consider the metaphor in the Gorgias which likens the blind hedonist’s soul to a leaky jar that can never be filled). One cannot be free until one has knowledge of what is good. Otherwise one is left to snatch at random desires, which will only lead to dissatisfaction in the long run, even if you happen to get lucky from time to time. Freedom in the Platonic sense will lead to happiness, happiness and wisdom being inextricably tied.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: One can be constrained in the #1 sense and still be free. “And all, being born free, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage,”—Ch 2 of the Social Contract. And: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Here we have a sticky philosophy indeed, but I’m not capable of giving the best summary of it right now. What I will say is here we have a sort of Platonic idea of freedom, but replace knowledge of the Good with the Law and the General Will and you have a closer fit. The problem is the General Will need not be the general will of the majority, so Rousseau’s effort to bring the Good down to earth seems to have failed. The Good and the General Will remain just as abstract as before.

Kant: Freedom is unconditional, self-causing; in other words, it’s autonomy from the world of contingency for rational beings. Since we can’t control everything that goes on in the world of cause and effect, we, as rational beings, shouldn’t place our moral laws on empirical foundations, but instead on the Categorical Imperative. Freedom is noumenal and cannot be known, but must be assumed. Also, being a free agent doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Morality and happiness do not necessarily coincide.

3. Existential Freedom. This area is not my forte, so there’s my word of caution. If we suppose, like Nietzsche, for instance, that there is no clear definition of what it is to be human, then there can be no ordering of the psyche. Achieving perfection cannot be a goal unless it is taken to mean something subjective (which, in my opinion, is not really the same thing as #2.) Without these definitions we move into a territory beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. One must scratch out one’s own meaning, own’s authenticity, in this world despite seeing beyond false, imposed definitions, and this self-invention ex nihilo is existential freedom.

Johan asked an interesting question of #1 and #2: Are these definitions of freedom contradictory?

It is certainly true that existential freedom (which Johan doesn’t go into) contradicts positive freedom, but what about positive and negative?

Johan says: “Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.”

I agree with Johan, but I wonder how the various relationships would play out in the extreme.

Suppose you are given a choice between two boxes, but you don’t know what’s inside either box. You are free in the sense that you get to choose a box and no one is stopping you, but since you have no knowledge of what’s inside them, you have no rational basis on which to make a decision and are therefore not free in a positive sense (Let’s leave aside the possibility of abstaining from choice, please). Here positive and negative freedoms don’t seem to be in fundamental conflict, they just refer to different aspects of the situation.

However, having only negative freedom puts you in a crappy place. You have to gamble, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. You still have reason in this scenario, of course, which is why Kant’s freedom would not apply here. But in this case, reason is rendered entirely inoperative.

Let’s amend this metaphor and put a thousand mosquitos inside one box and a magical infinitely delicious calorie-free cupcake in the other. Throw in world peace if the cupcake is not enough for you.

Reverse the scenario. Suppose you know the cupcake and world peace are in one box, and you know mosquitos are in the other box, but someone has your hands tied behind your back and your mouth taped shut and so on so you cannot engage in your choice. Here we have one freedom (positive, knowledge-based freedom) but not negative.

But what good is knowing which box the cupcake is in if no one can eat it? What good is knowing how to bring about world peace and absolute guilt-free deliciousness if these things cannot come to pass?

Is positive freedom necessary for negative freedom to thrive?

Is negative freedom necessary for positive freedom to thrive? 

How would you play out this thought experiment for a society?

In what ways do these thought experiments pertain to real life situations?

What is your conception of freedom?

As usual, feel free to answer any of these questions. In fact, feel free to answer this question: Would you take the cupcake or world peace? And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?

Many thanks to Johan for his insightful post!