The Open University since 2006
Alternatively you can skip the navigation by pressing 'Enter'.
Life - with David Attenborough: Creatures of the DeepTuesday, 31st May 2016 09:00 - EdenLife under the waves. Read more: Life - with David Attenborough: Creatures of the Deep
Life - with David Attenborough: PlantsTuesday, 31st May 2016 10:00 - Eden
Life - with David Attenborough: PrimatesTuesday, 31st May 2016 11:00 - Eden
Life - with David Attenborough: Creatures of the DeepTuesday, 31st May 2016 16:00 - Eden
The Educators: Series 2: What Finland Did NextAvailable for over a yearFinland has one of the highest-performing education systems in the world, yet it is overhauling the way schools teach... Read more: The Educators: Series 2: What Finland Did Next
All in the Mind - Summer 2016: Microbes in relation to mood; Depressed cake shop and Perils of perceptionAvailable until Wednesday, 31st May 2017 00:00
The Educators: Series 2: Character LessonsAvailable for over a year
Thinking Allowed 2016: 'Queer' wars, Nigerian beauty pageantsAvailable for over a year
Life - with David AttenboroughDavid Attenborough explores the vibrant mix of life found on our plant - where it comes from, and... Read more: Life - with David Attenborough
Take the photographic memory testCan you capture scenes just by looking at them? Find out with our photographic memory test. Launch now: Take the photographic memory test
Una lengua en movimientoThis free course will develop your knowledge and understanding of the societies and cultures of... Try: Una lengua en movimiento now
Start writing fictionHave you always wanted to write, but never quite had the courage to start? This free course,... Try: Start writing fiction now
This free course, Minds and mental phenomena: An introduction, examines the philosophical questions surrounding the mind. You will examine how beliefs have changed over the centuries and be able to contrast the views of Descartes with more modern ideas.
After studying this course, you should be able to:
- discuss basic philosophical questions concerning the mind
- understand problems concerning the mind and mental phenomena and discuss them in a philosophical way.
- Learning outcomes
- 1 The quick and the dead – the minded and the non-minded
- 2 Kinds of minds
- 3 Varieties of mental phenomena
- Current section: 4 The attitudinal and the experiential
- 5 Dispositions versus occurrences
- 6 The relations among mental phenomena
- 7 Conclusion
- Further reading
- Keep on learning
Study this free course
Enrol to access the full course, get recognition for the skills you learn, track your progress and on completion gain a statement of participation to demonstrate your learning to others. Make your learning visible!
4 The attitudinal and the experiential
Are there any mental phenomena that do not involve having an experience?
Though the term ‘experience’ covers a lot of the mental territory, it does not seem to cover it all. Having a belief, for example, does not seem to be any kind of experience, nor does having an intention or a memory. There does not seem to be anything it is like to believe that Descartes was a Christian or to remember that he was; such a thing does not have much ‘feel’ to it or any kind of distinctive phenomenology. Similarly, wanting something and intending to do something do not seem to be different kinds of experiences that we undergo. After all, you can want something, intend to do something and believe something all while you are in a dreamless sleep.
Philosophers call beliefs, wants, and intentions attitudes because they all involve having a certain kind of attitude toward something; they all involve what is sometimes called ‘direction upon something’. One can have various different attitudes toward, for example, the state of affairs in which Descartes is a Christian: one can believe it, desire it, fear it, lament it and so on. When one does so, one's attitude is directed at or focused upon something, in this case, upon the state of affairs in which Descartes is a Christian. This attitudinal direction upon an object is called ‘intentionality’ and attitudes are often called ‘intentional states’ and are said to possess ‘intentionality’. The term ‘intentionality’ has a long and complex history stretching back through the medieval scholastics and ultimately to Aristotle. It derives from the medieval Latin word ‘intention’, which literally means a tension or stretching towards, and is used by the scholastics as a term for the mind's direction upon the objects of thought. The British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (b. 1919) has speculated that it was chosen because of an analogy between stretching towards and aiming one's bow at something and aiming one's thought at something. Attitudes such as belief and desire have intentionality because they point beyond themselves to something else, and this something else is sometimes called the ‘intentional object’ of the attitude. Sometimes the thing towards which an attitude is directed is called the ‘content’ of the attitude. So philosophers sometimes say that the content of my belief or desire or fear that Descartes was a Christian is that Descartes was a Christian. Employing this term, we can say that one can have different attitudes to the same content: one can believe the content, dispute the content, fear the content, and so on. (One should always be aware of subtly different ways of using this terminology. Some philosophers distinguish between the content of an attitude and the intentional object of the attitude. In the case of belief, the intentional object is whatever thing the belief is about and the content is what it is that is believed about the object. For example, using this terminology, the intentional object of my belief that Descartes was a Christian is Descartes himself – for it is Descartes I am thinking of – and the content of my belief – i.e. what it is that I believe about him – is that he is a Christian.)
One of the most interesting and perplexing things about attitudes is that they appear to be capable of being directed at things that do not exist. Thus in the late nineteenth century many anthropologists had beliefs about the so-called ‘Piltdown Man’, even though the eponymous fossils turned out to be an elaborate hoax, cobbled together out of bits of human and orang-utan skulls. Small children have beliefs about Santa Claus and physicists about ‘phlogiston’ (a substance once falsely believed to be released into the air during combustion). But if none of these things exists, if there is no Piltdown Man, no Santa Claus or phlogiston, then how can we have thoughts about them? What is it that our thoughts are about in such cases, since we appear to be thinking about, directing our thoughts upon, things that do not exist?
As we noted earlier, some attitudes, such as belief, do not seem to have an experiential component. Some, of course, do: very strong desires, such as sexual lust, for example, and expectation and being startled. Conversely, many experiential mental phenomena have an attitudinal element, in the sense that, like belief, they are directed at things. Fear and disgust are obviously directed upon certain things and states of affairs – we are typically afraid of something and disgusted at something – as well as having an essential visceral element to them. Perception, too, is directed: we always see something or hear something. Whether sensations such as pain, nausea and orgasm have an attitudinal or ‘intentional’ component is, however, controversial.
Intentionality is a complex and controversial topic. Before leaving the notion, however, consider the following question.
Does pain have an attitudinal component, that is, does it point to something beyond itself in the way that beliefs do? In other words, are pains about anything in the way that beliefs are about things?
There is a tendency to think of pain as entirely a pure ‘raw feel’, a distinctively unpleasant feeling, painfulness. But it is also very plausible to think of pain as an indication of bodily damage, as pointing to a distressed area of the body, especially when evolutionary considerations are in the forefront. Pain, then, seems to have both experiential and attitudinal sides to it. Some philosophers would argue, however, that this indicator feature of pain, while extremely important to an animal's survival, is not an essential feature of pain and that the real essence of pain, what makes pain pain, is its experiential character, its painfulness. After all, if evolution had instead unfolded so that a tickling sensation was the indicator of bodily damage, then this ticklish sensation would not be pain. Conversely, if for some reason, sensations of pain were not in any way indicators of bodily damage they would nevertheless still be pain.
Wherever the truth of the matter lies with respect to pain, the distinction between the attitudinal and the experiential side of the mental is a very useful one and we shall have recourse to it in much of what follows. The attitudinal and experiential seem to be two poles of a spectrum on which one can situate mental phenomena (cf. Guttenplan 2000). Some mental phenomena seem to lie close to one end because they are virtually all attitude, as it were, such as belief; some lie near the other extreme, being all but experience, such as pain, while others lie somewhere nearer the middle, possessing both attitudinal and experiential features, such as fear and disgust (with their intentional and visceral sides).
This free course includes adapted extracts from an Open University course which is no longer available to new students. If you found this interesting you could explore more free Philosophy courses or view the range of currently available OU Philosophy courses.
Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Wednesday, 27th January 2016
Last updated on: Wednesday, 27th January 2016
- Creative-Commons: The Open University is proud to release this free course under a Creative Commons licence. However, any third-party materials featured within it are used with permission and are not ours to give away. These materials are not subject to the Creative Commons licence. See terms and conditions. Full details can be found in the Acknowledgements and our FAQs section.
- This site has Copy Reuse Tracking enabled - see our FAQs for more information.
If you enjoyed this, why not follow a feed to find out when we have new things like it? Choose an RSS feed from the list below. (Don't know what to do with RSS feeds?)
Remember, you can also make your own, personal feed by combining tags from around OpenLearn.
All our alternative formats are free for you to download, for more information about the different formats we offer please see our FAQs. The most frequently used are Word (for accessibility), PDF (for print) and ePub and Kindle to download to eReaders*.
- Word (850 KB)
- PDF (1.9 MB)
- ePub 3.0 (686 KB)
- ePub 2.0 (687 KB)
- Kindle (266 KB)
- RSS (150 KB)
- HTML (642 KB)
- SCORM (641 KB)
- OUXML Package (26 KB)
- OUXML File (73 KB)
- IMS Common cartridge
- Moodle backup (765 KB)
*Please note you will need an ePub and Mobi reader for these formats.