Intentional content

 Incorporated contributions
Florio (01/03/09)
 Usage domain
philosophy of psychology, pragmatic of natural language
contenu intentionnel
 German intentionalen Inhalt  

[Some LINGUISTIC comments and suggestions -marked in red- were done by the team in charge of the English edition. The editor must take away the comments or colour marks after having modified the text accordingly. These changes must be done in order to include this article in the second edition.]

[Some other comments concerning the CONTENT was done by the editor council and marked in blue, indicating that some review should be done regarding the critics. Answers to what has been pointed out should be sent to the reviewer and the text modified accordingly. Reviewer: J.M.Díaz Nafría]

Arguably the concept of intentional content is the basic theoretical construct of common sense psychology and pragmatic of natural language. The concept of "intentional content of information" emerges in the framework of Dretske's Semantic Theory of Information and it is subsequently improved and formalized by Situations Semantic and Situation Theory [However there is a long history on intentionality non reducible to Dretske's ideas, which should also be considered -to my belief- as sources of this important question regarding differences among points of view on information].

According to Dretske's Semantic Theory of Information, the content of information is conveyed by signals in items of the form
s is F and it can be analized at two levels. The first level consists in a non-conceptual theory of representation and the second level consists in a conceptual theory of representation. The first is named environmental content of information (Floridi 2005) and it is the level at which the sensory system of animals and human beings detect information from the environment as well as the level at which machines manage information. The second is named intentional content of information and it is the level at which exclusivley human beings manage information by cognition. In general, intentionality constitutes the mark of the mental.
On these two levels, Dretske's naturalized epistemology is constructed by information [the order of the sentence elements were changed]. Information flows from perception which is a non-conceptual theory of representation or a "chategorization" or a "scheme of individuation" [I would rather say: non-conceptualized representation; theory is something out of the action], by which the informational objects are gained, to cognition which is a conceptual theory of representation [idem], by which those simple objects are transformed in complex objects in the forms of beliefs, desires, intentions which constitute knowledge and which are the causes of behaviour [beliefs, desires, intentions are rather related to knowledge than constituting it].

Starting from the notion of information as an item of the form
s is F, Dretske points out that agents, organisms, material or mechanical devices use information in different ways and are able to extract information from the environment and reacting accordingly. Furthermore, they are actually able to extract different pieces from the same source. Human beings can extract from the environment a lot of information. The characteristic of the environment is that it is capable of further and further information. For instance a common person, by seeing the rings of a tree, being attuned of the linkage between the number of rings and the age of the tree, can extract the information that the tree is of the age that it actually is, while an expert can extract a lot of other information, [...] eg. what kind of tree it was, or the kinds of insect living in the vicinity and so on.
The acquisition of particular items of information from those available is matter of cognition. The main ability of cognition is conceptualize. The thermometer, the speedometer and generally any technical device have not this ability, as human beings do. Plants have not this ability either but problems arise when we try to concede this ability to heigh level animals as our pets and to deny this ability to low level animals.

What Dretske tells us about this peculiarity of human beings is what it calls intentionality. Dretske's hypothesis is that the mental activity inherits this peculiarity that is intentionality from the structure of the signal carrying the information. Practically Dretske trys "to naturalize intentionality", that is he argues that information carried by a physical implementation as an item of the form
s is F has an intentional structure.

Standing to Dretske's account, the intentional structure is something which information shares with the laws of nature and the items of information exhibit lawful correlation in two ways: analytically and nomically. Therefore the content of information qualifies as nomically nested and analytically nested. The content of information is nomically nested if the correlation between
s and F is of the kind of natural law and it is analytically nested if the correlation between s and F is a law of logic. For instance, the information that "it is a square" is analytically nested in the information that "it is a quadrilateral" and the information that "there is smoke" is nomically nested in the information that "there is fire".
This peculiarity of the informational structure as lawful correlation is something that permits to distinguish between information and meaning. In fact the meaning of a sentence is unique; eg., "This water is freezing" means that 'this water is freezing'. Differently the content of information is not unique given that the information that "This water is freezing" means that 'this water is expanding', that 'it is H2O', because there is a lawful correlation between 'this water is freezing', 'this water is expanding', 'it is H2O' and so forth.

Moreover, [...] this peculiarity of signals carrying the information, that is their being reach of information [review], is actually something being responsible for the intentional nature exhibited by simple mechanical devices, as well as for the intentionality of mental representations of human beings. In fact a thermometer, indicating the temperature of the environment, indicates at the same time the atmospheric pressure because it is a law of nature that the temperature covaries with the covariation of atmospheric pressure [this is valid for closed systems, not open as the atmosphere is. I think it could be better the example of an altimeter or a barometer, since here we have a covariation of height and air pressure, which is actually measured.], but nevertheless it indicates the temperature and not the atmospheric pressure. In the same way, one can believe that "This water is freezing" without believing that 'it is H2O'. This is one of the basic feature of intentionality, that is: even if there is extensionality between the fact that
s is F ("water is freezing") and s is G ("water is expanding") the agents can believe the former without believing or being attuned of the latter.  'Naturally' the thermometer and the devices in general have not intentionality and the intentional character of them has the source in human beings which arrange the technical instruments to carry out the functions that they are designed to carry out.

This lawful correlation which is responsible of the intentional content of information is a function acquired in the course of learning and for this fact Dretske defines it as: "acquired function". The idea is simple: in the course of learning the organisms experience lawful correlation.

[...] Nevertheless [the deleted beginning was repeated], by perception the organism can see, hear, smell and so forth that s is F, but it does not know that s is F because perception is a non-conceptual form of representation. The organism can believe and know that s is F when the information that s is F acquired perceptually is transformed by cognition in the form of propositional attitudes as "She believes, hopes, knows,...that s is F". It is in cognition that a conceptual model of representation is performed and that the items of information acquire a semantic nature, that is they become true or false and therefore semantically valuable. What Dretske tells us about this transformation of the items of information from the non-conceptual representation of perception to the conceptual representation of cognition is that there is an analogous process to the transformation from the infinite and continuous to the finite and discrete, and he uses the terms analog and digital for referring to this process. It is to note that Dretske's analogy between perception and cognition and analog and digital is a patological analogy given that artificial agents are able to do this transformation and nevertheless they are not able to exhibit any semantic and intentional content [To my understanding the use of 'patological' is a hard judgement. Even when I don't agree with Dretske's stance, I believe it is coherent with his defended externalism]. In fact the analog and digital codification is an operative informational process and it is not a representational one. If Dretske's analogy would be right, it would solve the Symbol Grounding Problem (Harnad 1990) but evidently it is not the case 

Situations Semantic and Situation Theory [...] represents the linguistic formalization of Dretske's acquired indicator function, accounting for the intentional content of information, which is defined and formalized by the concept of
constraint. The concept of constraint represents the liberalization of the intentional character of information as not only restricted to lawful correlations. Barwise and Perry (1983), identified four kinds of constraints: lawlike, conventional, linguistic, reflexive. Despite this liberalization it is to note that the concept of constraint is identical to the notion of acquired function. The basic idea is simple: in classifying situations or in categorizing, humans observe that some types of situations involve -in such a sense "constraint"- other types of situations.

  • BARWISE, J. and PERRY, J. (1983). Situations and Attitudes. Mit Press. 
  • CHEMERO, A. (2003). "Information for Perception and Information Processing". Mind and Machines, 13, pp. 577-588.
  • DEVLIN, K., J. (1991). Logic and Information. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • DRETSKE, F., I. (1981). Knowledge and Flow of Information. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • DRETSKE, F., I. (1988). Explaining Behavior. Cambridge: The Mit Press.
  • DRETSKE, F., I. (1994). Naturalizing the Mind. Cambridge: The Mit Press.
  • EZQUERRO, J., & MANRIQUE, M., F. (2003).  "Epistemology and Cognitive Theorizing”. Truth, Rationality, Cognition, and Music, K. Korta and J. M. Larrazabal (eds.), Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in Netherlandschap. chap 7, pp. 135-158.
  • FELDMAN, R., (2001). Naturalized Epistemology.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  • HARNAD, S. (1990). “The Symbol Grounding Problem”, Physica, D, pp.335-346.
  • ISRAEL, D., PERRY, J. (1990). “What is information?”. Information, Language and Cognition., pp. 1-19.
  • JACOB, P. (2003). Intentionality.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  • McLAUGHLIN, B., P. (1991). Dretske and His Critics. Cambridge:Basic Blackwell.
  • NEANDER, K. (2004). Teleological Theories of Mental Content. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  • PITT, D. (2008). Mental Representation. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  • QUINE, W. (1969). "Naturalized Epistemology". Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, pp.69-90.
  • VAN BENTHEM, J., (2005). ”Information as correlation vs. information as a range”. Amsterdam and Stenford.
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Incorporated entries
Antonio Florio (01/03/2009)

[It corresponds to the first version of the article which is in the left column]
José María Díaz Nafría,
Jun 8, 2009, 1:23 PM