Hall, Dennett and the Problems of Reference and Intentionality
February 24, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Daniel Dennett, Everett Wesley Hall, Intentionality, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Mind, Stuart Mirsky, consciousness

I've taken up Walter's suggestion to begin reading Everett Wesley Hall's book on-line, pending a decision to obtain a hard copy from Amazon. I've found it quite interesting, as Walter suggested, though partly because of various synchronicities I've found with earlier highly energized debates some of us have participated in on other lists. Interestingly and in light of a longstanding argument on this and other sites, Hall, early on in his book, Our Knowledge of Fact and Value, uses "refers" precisely as I have often done, i.e., to pick out what one has in mind, rather than what actually is the case.

He writes:

A cognitive verb with a substantival clause as objective complement may be taken, then, to refer to an act whose object is a fact or a 'non-fact,' that is, a fact that does not obtain. (page 19, chapter 2)

Here he uses "refers" precisely as we do in ordinary language, and as I had done when I wrote, to the consternation of some of my interlocutors, things like 'a referent is what I have in mind when I make a referring statement, i.e., it's that to which I am referring by making the statement, gesture, etc., and can be understood based on my description of what I have in mind.' I caught a lot of criticism for that, as I recall, based on the claim by my critics that Frege uses terms like "refers" and "referent" only to designate what actually exists and therefore to speak of what does not exist (such as unicorns, flying purple people eaters or square circles) is, in fact, to fail to refer! Why? Because that's how Frege put it.

When I objected that that was not in keeping with how we ordinarily speak and that I had been clear as to what I meant, so no one should have any cause to confuse my usage with Frege's, I was informed that, when speaking with philosophers, especially of the analytical persuasion, I was obliged to modify my vocabulary so that it would be consistent with Fregean usage as understood by said philosophers because that was the accepted technical use which all professional philosophers in the analytical tradition since Frege accepted. When I objected that Frege's use had nothing to do with my point, and noted that whether it reflected an adequate theory of meaning or not was irrelevant to the case I was making, I was repeatedly slammed for "complaining about Frege," for failing to know enough about philosophy to even converse with philosophers (e.g., for not having read "a hundred or so substantive books" in the field), and for making up my own vocabulary! And yet here is Hall, surely a philosopher in good standing, doing the same.

Hall later goes on to discuss the activity of referring as a convention that is built into language, as it were, but not merely grounded in linguistic convention (i.e., the choices some rule setters make). He argues that referring, like perception itself, is part of the natural way we operate in, and so relate to, the world. He writes:

. . . English can, by its conventions, make 'red' refer to a certain color, but it no more creates the nature of designation than it does the color designated. For this conventional language must look elsewhere; this other place is natural language, that is, perceptions." (p. 34, chapter 3)

Note that he likens the occurrence of perceptions in us to a kind of language that precedes conventional language, e.g., English, though he elsewhere acknowledges that this is a somewhat attenuated use of the term "language" (and may even be no more than metaphorical.)

So the first thing that came to my mind, on reading this was to wonder what were the difference making factors between Hall's use and my own that might have entitled his use to a pass from the said critics but not mine? Perhaps some of my past critics had just missed this. If "refer" has this usage, as Hall certainly thinks, then the claim that Dennett was misusing "refer" made elsewhere in these discussions, would be wrong if Hall is correct. Later, at page 74, Hall addresses another important element of the account that we have seen Dennett gives in his explanation of consciousness. Speaking of the relation between mental events, which Hall calls referencing or intentions, and neurological or brain events (he calls these acts of the body rather than of the mind) he writes:

My suggestion is that intentions (in the sense of references) are the mental atoms and they are not events but "aspects," "dimensions," "functions of physical events," namely, of certain complex neurological events. Intentions are like properties in being incomplete, by nature dependent for existence on something else, of certain complex neurological events.

Here I want to recall the claims made by Dennett about the basis of consciousness which I have supported and explained elsewhere as the idea that the features (including our experiences) that we call, in the aggregate, "consciousness" can be understood as a system level feature (or features) of brain operations, i.e., as a state of awareness that happens not at the lower level of brain activity but at the level of a complex system of interactivity between many different brain operations. Moreover, I have, in the past, made the point that the best way to understand this idea is to take what we call "consciousness" as one aspect of the system in play and the physical events that are observable (via appropriate instrumentation, in principle if not always in fact) as another aspect. I got quite a bit of criticism for suggesting that there could be an aspect relation (as in two sides of the same coin) between our mental features (what we call "consciousness") and brain events. Yet it would seem that Hall, who is apparently in much better philosophical standing than I am here, is in roughly the same camp as Dennett in the account he provides of how consciousness (Hall calls it intentionality) occurs in the world -- and what constitutes it.

I want to acknowledge that, earlier on, in the same chapter, Hall had rejected the use of "cause" in his explanation while I have relied on it, invoking Searle's sense of that term in order to advance what I take to be a Dennettian explanation of consciousness, so here one might say Hall's account differs from what I have given. But still earlier Hall made the point that atoms will not have the same properties we ascribe, at our level of operation, to clusters of atoms which we encounter as objects in the universe in which we operate via our senses. Thus he is not, in fact, at odds with the Searlean usage (which I support) which holds that while water may be wet, its molecules would not be, thus establishing a basis, on Searle's view and mine, for speaking of the behavior of water's atomic level constituents as causative of water's features, including wetness -- and this even if Hall seems to use different terms at times than I have or Searle, or even Dennett, has!

So far I would say that there appears to be much in Hall to support the view I've argued for on this list and on earlier sites concerning how we can best understand the phenomenon in the universe we recognize as subjectness, the state or condition of being a subject, of having consciousness. (I have only read the first five chapters of the book as of now but I am pleasantly surprised to see that a great deal of his account seems to accord with the one I take Dennett to be giving of consciousness and with my own -- despite the sometimes ferocious criticisms my remarks on this subject have often engendered. Perhaps Hall is not well known to some of my critics though, apparently, he is quite well known to Walter who pointed me toward this book.)

Hall goes on to give an interesting account of "intentions," by the way, differentiating these both from what he calls "properties" and "relations" and explaining why he does so. In this, too, there is much similarity between this account and the one I have given elsewhere, i.e., that intentions are not to be understood as particular things in our mental lives to which we can refer by description of certain occurrences in our mental lives (like sensations) but, rather, complex arrays of various other, more basic, features of our mental lives (which includes perceptions, of course).

Dennett, for his part, has given an interesting account of intentions via his notion of the "intentional stance" which he says we take toward certain kinds of entities based on how they behave, differentiating that stance from two other stances which he argues we may take towards things in the universe: the physical stance, which looks at physical phenomena in a purely mechanistic way, and the design stance, which looks at physical phenomena in terms of the systems which some physical phenomena may constitute and which perform a function or functions (whether this functionality has been designed into such systems by evolution or by intelligent agency).

The last stance, the intentional stance, Dennett asserts represents the case where we ascribe to some (but not all) systems not just the condition of being designed and so being purposeful but of also having the capacity to design. That is, on this Dennettian view, we recognize that some systems are not just designed but also designing.

This designing capability may be quite rudimentary, as we find in lower creatures, and consist of no more than the capacity to move toward its food, to move away from danger, to follow certain physical indicators, etc., (I'm not sure this is actually Dennett's position but it is my own) or it may be as sophisticated as what we discover in other creatures roughly like ourselves -- nor is it entirely clear, on the ladder of life, where we draw a clear line between being merely purposeful, as in being designed to accomplish some purpose or purposes, and being purposeful in a designing way, i.e., where having purpose becomes having the purpose of designing (and so warrants the ascription of intentionality). But the key, as I read Dennett, is that, to take the design stance toward another entity, is to impute to it a level of subjectivity (a mental life) commensurate with the capacity to have and act on its own wants, needs, expectations, etc. That is imputing intentionality to another entity is to impute a mental life of sorts to it.

Dennett proposes that the capacity to make these three kinds of distinctions (differentiating between entities by taking a physical, design or intentional stance towards them) is explainable as a function of our own evolutionary development, the result of design by natural forces which has resulted in entities like ourselves which have the capability of differentiating the types of entities they encounter in order to enhance their survival capacities.

Intentions on this view are not distinct, observable phenomena but imputable to entities via our capacity to grasp certain behaviors as evidencing the condition we call intentionality in the observed entities. This is quite consistent with Hall's account of intention, it turns out. On page 75 Hall states:

. . . thus intentions can themselves be called signs, natural or radical signs, identical with their objects (in veridical perception) in the quality or character of those objects' properties but non-identical in the factor of exemplification (in place of exemplification intentions have ascription).

Note, again, the consistency between Hall's account and Dennett's, i.e., that we ascribe intentions to certain entities by taking what Dennett calls an intentional stance toward them, i.e., treating them as having designing capabilities.

It should be noted here that by "intention" both Hall and Dennett mean what is sometimes called, in other philosophical usages, aboutness, i.e., the condition of being about something as in thinking about, perceiving some thing, experiencing, etc. This need not be confused with intentions as the plans we formulate when we decide to act, and do act, with forethought (whether explicitly articulated to others or ourselves or only implicit in our patterns of behavior) -- but it's also critical, I think, to note that you do not have the latter without the former and so to act intentionally in the moral sense presumes intentionality in the broader philosophical sense. (This, I think, is important for the explication of moral behavior as I have suggested elsewhere but that is something, I suppose, for another post).

In sum, I would just note that this initial reading of Hall which I've undertaken at Walter's suggestion provides plenty of fodder for supposing that Hall and Dennett are not all that far apart in the account they want to give of the mental though, quite naturally, the vocabulary and focus of the two seem to differ. I shall read further as time permits and perhaps discover more similarities between the two thinkers. At the least I'm pleasantly surprised to find that Hall's views are not so far removed from some of my own.

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