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William Allanson White Institute

The concept of intentionality was central in the philosophy and psychology of the Middle Ages, but was perforce thrown out by Descartes' dichotomy between body and mind. For intentionality is the bridge that makes just such a bifurcation impossible. The concept was then reintroduced by Franz Brentano in the last half of the nineteenth century, whose forceful lectures at the University of Vienna both Freud and Husserl attended.

Intentionality is present in all psychotherapy, and is shown in significant ways in Freud. But the concept has been almost entirely left out of our academic psychology, much to the impoverishment, I believe, of our understanding not only of human experience in the area of wish and will but of consciousness as well. Intentionality is at the heart of consciousness. I believe it is likewise the key to the problem of wish and will.

Some readers might immediately identify intentionality with mere voluntarism and purposivism, and conclude prematurely that what I am discussing is only the obvious fact that we look at things with different goals in mind. But something considerably more significant than that is going on. To take an illustration from therapy: a patient's voluntary intention, so far as he is consciously aware of it, is to get to his hour on time, to tell me this or that important thing that has happened to him, to relax and free associate. But his intentionality, in contrast, may well be to please me by playing the role of the "good patient," or to impress me with how brilliant his free associations are, or to force my unconditioned attention by describing what a catastrophic things he may do to himself or others. Intention is a conscious, psychological state; I can set myself voluntarily to do this or that. Intentionality, rather, refers to a state of being, and involves to a greater or lesser degree the totality of the person's orientation to the world at that time. This may be opposite to conscious intention. And what is most interesting is the times in psychotherapy when strong voluntary intention- correlated with "will power"- gets in the way of the person's intentionality, and is just what blocks communicating with the deeper dimensions of his experience.


The concept of intentionality was developed in its modern form in the "second Copernican Revolution" (see Note 1) set in motion by Franz Brentano. He held that consciousness is defined by the fact that it intends something, points toward something outside itself; thus intentionality gives meaningful contents to consciousness. Edmund Husserl, the disciple of Brentano who was to become the father of modern phenomenology, extended the concept to the whole of our knowledge. Consciousness, he pointed out, never exists in the subjective vacuum but always is consciousness of something. Consciousness not only cannot be separated from its objective world, but it is indeed constitutive of its world.

Thus Brentano and Husserl carried further Kant's "first Copernican Revolution" in modern thought, namely, that the mind is not simply passive clay on which sensations write, or which merely absorbs and classifies facts. But what really happens is that object themselves conform to our ways of understanding. Good examples of this are mathematics and the principle of cause and effect. These are constructs in our minds, but nature conforms, "answers," to them. As Bertrand Russell was to say a century and a half after Kant, "Nature is mathematical not because that is the final truth about nature, but because mathematical questions are the only ones we have yet learned how to ask." Kant's revolution lay in making the human mind an active, forming participant in what it knows. Understanding itself is then constitutive of its world. Brentano and Husserl believed this truth went beyond reason and the intellect and included the whole of consciousness. The act and experience of consciousness itself is thus a continuous molding and remolding of our world, self related to object and object to self in inseparable ways, self participating in world as well as observing it, neither pole of self or world being conceivable without the other. "This of course does not mean we cannot bracket for the moment the subjective or objective side of the experience. when I measure my house to see how much paint it will take to repaint it, or when I get a report on some endocrinological tests on my child, I bracket for the moment how I feel about it: I want only to get and understand as clearly as I can some measurements. But then my responsibility is to put these more or less objective facts back into the context in which they have meaning for me- my project to paint my house, or my caring for the health of my child.)

Now a fact which may be surprising to many readers, as it was to me, is that the first meaning given for intend in Webster's dictionary does not have to do with "purpose" or "design," such as when we say "I intend to do something," but rather, "to mean, signify." Only secondly does Webster give the definition "to have in mind a purpose or a design." Most people in our voluntaristic Victorian tradition have tended to skip the primary and central meaning, and to use the concept only in its derivative meaning of conscious design and purpose. And since our psychology soon became able to prove that such conscious designs and purposes were mostly illusions, and that we are not at all creatures of these nice freely-chosen, voluntary plans (behaviorism could demonstrate this by the effects of conditioning, and psychoanalysis could by the determinism of the unconscious) we were constrained to throw out the whole kit of "intents" and "intentions." We had known already that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we now saw that these intentions, good or bad, were figments of our own self-conceit anyway. The backbone of will was broken not by the determinists, but rather by those voluntarists who made intentionality into merely conscious purpose, and identified intent with the easily-disproved freedom in which choices were the product of simple whim on the one hand, or poor digestion or psychological depression on the other. Both the man in the street and the intellectual in his chair, feeling overwhelmed in our time by forces beside which their conscious purposes looked puny indeed, were willing to admit, then, a moral requirement to surrender such self-conceit.

The point I want to emphasize here is the other, and to my mind more significant, aspect of intention- its relation to meaning. We use this in one form in the legal phrase; we ask, "What is the intent of the law?"- referring to its meaning. "Intent" is "the turning of the mind toward an object," Webster tells us in the first definition, "hence, a design, purpose." The design and purpose come after the "hence." That is to say, the voluntaristic aspects of the experience lie in the fact that already the mind is turned toward an object which has a certain import and meaning for us.

The upshot of what we are uncovering is that "Meaning is an intention of the mind," to borrow Husserl's words. In every intention there are two things, the meaning and the movement toward something, that is, the act. Husserl points out this dual meaning in the German language: the word "Meinung," which signifies either opinion or meaning, has the same stem as the German verb "meinen," " to intend." In pondering the English language at this point, I was surprised -being brought up to think that the objective and abstract fact was the epitome of everything and occupied the place next to God if not indeed His Throne itself- to find that we also have that dual import. When I say, "I mean the paper is white," you take my sentence as giving you merely a statement of fact; it is a unilateral equivalence, "A" is "B." But when I say, "I meant to turn the corner, but the car skidded," you take my "meant" as my intention, a statement of my commitment, conviction. The conclusion, thus, to which our argument points is that every meaning has within it a commitment. This does not refer to the use of my muscles after I get an idea in order to accomplish the idea. And most of all it does not refer to what a behaviorist might say on reading these paragraphs, "Just as we've always said- the consciousness is only in the act anyway, and we might as well study only the muscular action, the behavior, to start with." No, our analysis leads to exactly the opposite conclusion, that a sheer movement of the muscles, as the larynx in talking, is exactly what you don't have. You have, rather, a human being intending something. And you cannot understand the overt behavior except as you see it in relation to, and as an expression of, its intention. Meaning has no meaning apart from intention. Each act of consciousness tends toward something, is a turning of the person toward something, and has within it, no matter how latent, some commitment to an action.


Psychotherapy pushes "intention" toward the deeper dimension of intentionality. Intentionality, as I am using it, goes below levels of immediate awareness, and includes spontaneous, bodily elements and other dimensions which are usually called "unconscious" (see Note 2). This has positive as well as negative implications. For example, my intention at this moment is to put these ideas, which seem to me of importance, into readable form. But unless my intentionality is more than that-i.e., unless I am committed to writing as good and true a paper as I can- I shall accomplish only a pedestrian job. I shall produce nothing of genuine significance or originality. For in my pressure to get the paper done, I will be blocking off new ideas which might well up in me, new insights and forms, emerging from the so-called preconscious and unconscious dimensions of experience. Intention goes along with conscious purpose. But the gift of psychoanalysis, and probably all therapy, is the depth dimension, a contribution which vastly enlarges intention, and indeed pushes it from a conscious purpose to the more total, organic, feeling and wishing man, the man who is the product of his past as well as moving toward the future. Psychotherapy will not let intention rest as simple intention, but pushes it to the deeper, wider, organic dimension of intentionality.

We have said that intentionality gives the underlying structure for wishing and willing. Speaking now psychoanalytically, intentionality gives the structure within which repression and the blocking off of conscious intentions takes place. Freud made it undeniably clear in his use of "free association," that what seem merely random associations are not at all random. In free association, the thoughts and memories and phantasies take their form, their pattern, their meaningful theme (which the patient, or any one of us engaging in association not on the couch but in normal thinking and creativity, may not catch at the moment at all) from the fact that they are his phantasies, his associations, coming out of his way of perceiving the world and his commitments and problems. It is only afterwards that the person himself can see and absorb the meaning that has been in these apparently random, disconnected things he is saying. Free association is a technique of going beyond mere conscious intention and giving one's self over to the realm of intentionality. It is in the basic, more inclusive realm of intentionality that these deeper meanings lie, but also it is here that are found the patient's reasons for his repressing in the first place. I believe that the long run impact of Freud and psychoanalysis will be to deepen and enlarge our understanding on intentionality.

There are several other practical implications in our analysis above. One is the undercutting of the subject-object dichotomy. Since consciousness is always of something, we never have a subject, men, separated from the pole of his objects, just as, in the words of Werner Heisenberg, "the idea of an objective nature is an illusion." The ideal of the rational man who stands aside, views all the facts, impartially weighs the data, does not contaminate the data with his own involvement- in short, is completely objective- is also an illusion. And fortunately so: any man who pretended to that God- like status would be dangerous indeed. Every experiencing of meaning is already a being "partial" a participating; and our only solution is to admit this and turn our participating to as constructive use as possible. Here we see the theoretical justification and necessity for the contention of Heisenberg and other modern physicist that the subject, the scientist himself doing the experiment, must be figured in as part of the experiment. And if this is true for the physicist, may I be so naive as to ask, why not doubly so for the psychologist (see Note 3)? It seems to me that the course for psychologists, instead of leaving intentionality specifically out of the picture- which I think in itself contaminated our work- is to figure intentionality directly in. This means taking account of the experimenter's bias, which will certainly influence his research (see Note 4).


"Every intention is an attention," writes Merleau-Ponty, "and attention is 'I-can'" (see Note 5). Webster gives "attend" as one of the synonyms for "intent." An intention, so is the implication, is a turning of one's attention toward something. Perception is given by intention.

On the desk before which I sit lies a sheet of paper. If I have in mind to make some notes on the paper for my manuscript, I see the sheet in terms of its whiteness, i.e., has it already been scribbled upon? If my intention is to fold it into a toy plane for my grandson, I see the paper in its sturdiness. Or if my intent is to draw a picture on it, I see the rough coarse-grain texture of the paper inviting my pencil and promising to make my lines more interesting. It is the same piece of paper, in each case, and I am the same man responding to it. But I see three entirely different pieces of paper. It makes no sense, of course, to call this "distortion": it is simply an example of the infinite variety of meanings a given event, a given pattern of stimulus and response, can have.

Consciousness consists of a figure-ground constellation. If I look at the tree, the mountain is a background; if I look at the mountain, it then becomes the figure, and the rest the ground. The selective, either/or character of perception is one aspect of intentionality: I cannot look at one thing at this instant without refusing to look at another. To say "yes" means for that moment I must say "no" to something else. This is one example of how conflict is of the essence of consciousness. The conflict, which is part and parcel of intentionality, is the beginning of volition. And I am here proposing that the beginning of volition is present in the structure of consciousness itself.

But we must now hasten to say that this selecting process-I look here rather then there- is not at all simply a using of neck and eye muscles to turn the head and line of vision in my picking out the object to which I attend. A more intricate and much more interesting process is occurring. It is the inner process of conceiving the object in order that I can perceive it. Such is the amazingly intimate interrelation of my subjective experience and with what goes on in the objective world: I cannot perceive something until I can conceive it. Professor Donald Snygg has reminded us of that memorable day when the people in a primitive society were unable to see Captain Cook's ship when it sailed into their harbor because they had no word, no symbol, for such a ship. Language, or the symbolizing process, is our way of conceiving that we may perceive.

The stem of both words, perceive and conceive, is the Latin "capere" which means to take, to seize. Even the word "apprehend" has the same active rather than passive quality, coming as it does from "prehendere," to seize with the hand. (How far removed is this-the wisdom inhering in the evolution of these words-from the passive picture most of us were taught about perception, namely a stimulus occurs and makes an imprint upon the retina!) The sexual as well as a pregnancy analogy is not out of place: both perception and conception are an active forming of the world that goes on in the intercourse between the living being, man, and the world to which he is related. The new idea is born, the new view of Cezanne's trees is created, the new technical invention is made. Consciousness creates in the sense of its conceiving its knowledge, but this is a continuous, reciprocal, attracting and counter-attracting, responsive relationship between subject and object not unlike sexual intercourse. It is not the mere relation between master and slave, sculptor and clay- unless we see that the clay also forms the sculptor, the clay conditions what he does, limits and even changes his intentions, and thus also forms his potentialities and consciousness.

What seem to me the most fascinating evidence of this phenomenon are the instances in psychotherapy when a person cannot perceive some obvious thing not because anything is wrong with his eyes or his neurological functioning, or anything of that sort, but because his intentionality makes it impossible for him to see it. A patient, for example, may present data the very first session that his mother tried to abort him before he was born, that she then gave him over to an old-maid aunt to raise the first two years of his life, then left him in an orphans' home promising to visit him every Sunday but rarely put in an appearance. If I were to say to him- being naive enough to think it would do any good- "Your mother hated you," the patient would hear the words but they might well have no meaning whatever for him. (Sometimes a vivid and impressive thing happens- such a patient cannot even hear the word, such as "hate," even though the therapist repeats it.) Suppose the patient is a psychologist or psychiatrist, he might then remark, "I realize all of this seems to say my mother didn't want me, didn't love me, but those are simply foreign words to me." He is not prevaricating or playing a game of hide-and-seek with me. It is simply a fact: he cannot permit himself to see the trauma until he is ready to take a stand toward it.


In one of his sonnets, Shakespeare writes of his going to bed at night weary with the day's travel. Then he continues,
But then begins the journey in my head
To work my mind, when body's work's expir'd;
For then my thoughts- from far where I abide-
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide. . .(see Note 6)

In this use of the word "intend" Shakespeare has the act already present in the intention. In our day we would say, "intend to make a zealous pilgrimage to thee"; we see the act as separate, as something which must be brought in explicitly, something added after you've put your mind to it, made a decision. Shakespeare wrote when English, as always with languages in their classical periods, had a special vitality and power, and this carries with it the inseparability of intent and act. Our later language reflects the dichotomy between mind and body, we assume that the intent and act are separate as a matter of course, we have to state the "making" by itself. The emphasis here is that Shakespeare's usage represents not only the more poetic but the more accurate version psychologically. It is what we experience prior to the artificial abstraction. We are proposing that the separation of intention and act is an artificial picture, and does not accurately describe human experience. The act is in the intention, and the intention in the act.

It is in intentionality and will that the human being experiences his identity. "I" is the "I" of "I can." Descartes was wrong in his famous sentence, "I think, therefore I am," for identity does not come out of thinking as such, and certainly not our of intellectualization. Descartes' formulation leaves out, as we have previously indicated, exactly the variable that is most significant; it jumps from mind to identity, when what actually occurs is the intermediate variable of "I can." Kierkegaard mocked Hegel's similarly oversimplified and intellectualistic solution, "potentiality goes over into actuality," when he proclaimed potentiality goes over into actuality, but the intermediate variable is anxiety. We could rephrase it, "potentiality is experienced as mine, my power, my question, therefore whether it goes over into actuality depends to some extent on me, where I throw my weight, how much I hesitate, and so on." What happens in human experience is "I think-- I can-- I will-- I am," the "I can" and "I will" being the essential experiences of identity. This saves us from the untenable position in therapy of assuming that the patient develops a sense of identity and then he acts. On the contrary, does he not experience the identity in the action, or at least in the possibility for it? Bruno Bettleheim has pur this plithily, "A strong ego is not the cause of decisions, but the result."

We must conclude that there are both elements in intentionality, conscious and "unconscious" in the common terminology. There are, for example, bodily elements in intentionality, and certainly many of these influences and tendencies of the body are on dimensions of which we are not at the moment aware. There are also many events from our own individual past experience, our genetic history, of which we are unaware which, nevertheless, is present in our intentionality, as for example in the words and symbols in which we form and communicate intentionality to ourselves, if not to others.

If one is thinking in terms of the medieval view of intentionality as "reason," as our way of discovering structure in the universe which our personal meanings then reflect, we can speak of a dimension of trans-consciousness, as well as sub- and un-consciousness. For consciousness not only reaches behind itself-- in uncovering repressions, archaic phenomena, primitive infantile experience. But consciousness also reaches before, ahead of itself-- in discovering new structures in reality, new laws, new forms, new ethical and aesthetic norms.


1. This phrase is from the valuable book by Jacob Needleman, Being-in-the-World, Selected Papers of Ludwig Binswanger.
2. I define "unconscious" as a person's potentialities for awareness and action which he cannot or will not yet actualize.
3. The logician Morris Cohen has pointed out, "Unlike the physicist, the psychologist...investigates processes that belong to the same general order -- perception, learning, thinking -- as those by which he conducts his investigation." Thus the psychologist cannot deal with these processes without dictating what these processes are like, without dictating to the data in advance. (See Needleman, op. cit.)
4. Robert Rosenthal, in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, has demonstrated how the state of mind, the "intentions" of the experimenter, do influence the results. See his work on "Experimenter Bias."
5. The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty's work on this topic, is classic, and readers who wish to pursue the topic are enthusiastically referred to him.
6. Sonnet Number XXVII, italics mine.

(This paper has been presented as it appeared in The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1965, pp. 202 - 209.)