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Minds and mental phenomena: an introduction
Minds and mental phenomena: an introduction

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4 The attitudinal and the experiential

Activity 3

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.

Activity 4

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).