Two Connected Philosophical Puzzles: On Carl Sachs’s Intentionality and the Myths of the Given
1. Two Puzzles
Consider two puzzling phenomena. The first is the puzzle of what seems to be the of- or about-ness that characterizes thought. We have thoughts of things, we think about this or that. This is the phenomenon of intentionality, and the puzzle is how exactly to characterize it. For starters, it seems to be a relation, but the relata make the relation curious, because it seems that one of the relata don’t have to exist for the relation to obtain. You can think about Santa Claus or of a world of perfect justice and love, but neither of them exist. Moreover, the relation of aboutness doesn’t seem to require any particular level of accuracy, since a child’s drawing of a horse can still be of a horse, even if it looks more like a nightmarish potato. These two puzzling features of intentionality yield a philosophically heavy puzzle: What kind of thing or relation (or property) is the intentionality of thought? It doesn’t seem to be causal or physical (since that would require the existence of the relata), so how is it that it is a natural phenomenon? How can intentionality be naturalized?
The second puzzle is that of the Given. One intuitive way to think about how empirical knowledge works is that experience provides us first with information about the world around us, because it is the product of our bodies being causally connected to it. Light strikes our retinas, our skin brushes a surface, our noses pick up a scent. Once we have this brute information, we then interpret it, turn it into a representation of the world, produce theories, and then test them by returning to brute experience. The trouble is, when we try to talk about those givens in experience, those brute cases that provide us with articulate reasons, we seem flummoxed as to how to characterize them. This is because all accounts we have of those givens are always with our conceptual (and so, already interpretive) vocabularies. The given recedes, and with it, we worry, so recedes our account of how our empirical knowledge is hooked up with the world it is about.
2. Carl Sachs’s Intentionality and the Myths of the Given
Carl Sachs’s new book, Intentionality and Myths of the Given (IMOG), makes the case that the two puzzles of intentionality and the given are tied together in an important way, and so, a solution to one of the puzzles provides the tools for solving the other. The puzzle of intentionality has taken on a great deal of urgency, given the fact that philosophical naturalism (the view that we can understand ourselves as purely natural beings) seems to be both appealing but also inconsistent with the puzzle of intentionality. The puzzle of the given has taken on a good deal of urgency, too, in light of the pragmatist tradition’s criticism of the view of givens as a myth. This, it seems, has put the realm of causes and the realm of reasons as distinct and irrelevant to one another. When these two puzzles converge, it becomes hard to see how we can successfully think about the world.
Sachs’s insight is that the attempt to naturalize intentionality founders because the phenomenon is multiform, and two types of intentionality must be treated as distinct. There is discursive intentionality, which is exemplary in language-use and inference, and there is somatic intentionality, which is exemplary in bodily perceiving and doing.
These two capacities are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for all reasoning with empirical content, and thus are essentially bound up with perception and action. (IMOG, 2)
This bifurcated theory of intentionality, then, is a prime candidate for addressing the puzzle of the given, too. The somatic feature of intentionality, then, may yield a form of givenness as that puts us in contact with things around us and provides us with content to interpret with our more articulate discursive intentionality. This is the transcendental friction, as Sachs calls it (IMOG, 13), that we must have, if we are to think we are getting things right with empirical knowledge.
Sachs argues that both accounts of intentionality are naturalist, since they are both about the natural phenomena of embodiment and language-use, respectively. And so, we’ve got a working solution (or, in this case a dissolution) to our two vexing puzzles.
Sachs, in working through the details of this bifurcated theory, is philosophically omnivorous. He appeals to thought from the classical- and neo-pragmatist traditions. He pauses regularly to explain the impact of contemporary analytic philosophy, and he draws inspiration from the phenomenological tradition, making analogies to Merleau-Ponty’s model for perception at key junctions. In fact, part of Sachs’s story is that the phenomenological tradition provides the tools for an account of somatic intentionality that resolves the incompleteness of the neopragmatist model for discursive intentionality. He calls the normativity at this level of intentionality “habitual normativity,” which “consists of perceptual norms that in turn reside in bodily habits adopted toward perceptual objects” (109). In turn, we have a working model for how, as perceivers, we are not only responsible to each other (as Sachs puts it in Brandomian terms, “deontic scorekeepers”), but to the world, too. The result is a book that builds bridges between multiple traditions and problem areas in philosophy.