Mathieu Guerin, 2013, Version 1

(Preliminary editing by Maximilian Forte)

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Intentionality has an ambivalent or even obscure role in the social sciences. This is likely due to its referring to two different concepts, both of which are profoundly abstract. In Cartesian philosophy, it refers to the ability of a mind to be about, to have direction, to correspond to objects in the world. In the broader social sciences, it refers to one’s ability to be conscious of one’s circumstances, to form intentions and to act deliberately. Anthropologists working in fields such as cognitive science, philosophy or psychology typically use intentionality as it has existed in Cartesian discourse, whereas political anthropologists as well as social theorists interested in Posthumanism use intentionality as it refers to the deliberate actions of an agent, actor, or actant.

The notion of intentionality as a characteristically human property has recently been analytically challenged by posthumanist anthropologists who envision ways of conceptualizing intentionality and agency without (or with less of) the intrinsic human exceptionalism bound to the post-enlightenment version of these notions.

Intentionality is a translation from Arabic into Latin and was borrowed into the discourse of medieval scholastic philosophy to refer to the nature of concepts and ideas (Schnädelbach, 2001, p. 7682; Braddon-Mitchell, 2001, p. 7686). Its use was resurrected in 19th-century discourse over the mind-body problem by Franz Brentano. Brentano’s definition of intentionality replaced the long-standing Aristotelian definition of truth in Western philosophy whereby “truth is the correspondence between an object and a state of mind” (Duranti, 1993, p. 218). He established the putative meaning of intentionality for contemporary philosophers, referring to the ability of a mind to be about, or to be directed toward what is outside of itself (Braddon-Mitchell, 2001, p. 7685). Brentano thought of intentionality as a property of mental states, specifically as that property which distinguishes them from physical states (Braddon-Mitchell, 2001, p. 7685).

Philosopher Edmund Husserl, a student of Brentano’s, developed the “phenomenological method” which inspired social scientists the likes of Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Thiel, 2001, p. 7088; Schnädelbach, 2001, p. 7682). For Husserl, intentionality is crucial in that, being the correspondence between the subject’s mind and some object in the world, it takes on the role of mediating between the subject and that subject’s immediate experience in the world (Thiel, 2001, p. 7089). Philosophers and psychologists were not satisfied without some mechanism by which to distinguish social intelligence from mere behaviour (Schnädelbach, 2001, p. 7682). This led to the invention of higher-order intentionality (Schnädelbach, 2001, p. 7682). Higher-order intentionality is “the ability to think about one’s own and others’ states of mind and reactions” (Carrithers, 2001, p. 14502). In this sense, a subject’s ability to comprehend and anticipate the thoughts and reactions of others is contingent on intentionality.

Parallel to these developments in philosophy, social scientists also developed an interest in subjectivity (for example, Max Weber and later the symbolic interactionists under G. H. Mead and Erving Goffman). By the 1960s and 1970s the social sciences were embroiled in debates on human nature (spurring widespread contention over other social theory concerns such as self versus other and nature versus culture). Social scientists saw the same problem as the philosophers concerning the how to distinguish social intelligence from behaviour. A subject, being subjected to immediate experience—perhaps via biological interfaces such as the senses and the nervous system—also calculates and performs actions which have very specific meanings and does so for very specific reasons. Husserl’s idea of intentionality finds its limits here, where the subject becomes more than a passive computer of the world for which a mechanism such as intentionality is required as a mediator, but indeed is a participant in the world, mediates the world for other subjects, and even must do so in order to function at all.

Ralph Nicholas, in dealing with social movements, observed that “social scientists speak of the social body of a movement as if it were a living body, influenced by external forces but capable of a significant degree of autonomy in setting its own direction” (Nicholas, 1973, p. 67). Nicholas provides the reader with the example of A.F.C. Wallace who,

“uses the organismic analogy to develop a comprehensive theory for the ‘movements’ most familiar to anthropologists. He calls them ‘revitalization movements,’ with the explicit reference to their attempted re-enlivening of both individual and collective bodies. [Wallace] defines a revitalization movement ‘as a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of society to construct a more satisfying culture’”. (Nicholas, 1973, p. 68)

If one is to say that a movement is “attempting”, the attempt itself is constituted by at least two components. First by a goal which relates to the circumstances which are the immediate experience of this movement, and second by an appraisal of the states of minds and reactions of the entities in relation to which the “movement” is attempting to “move”. This second component of a deliberate and organized attempt bears a striking resemblance to what has come to be referred to as agency. Furthermore, the conscious component of the effort reflects the intimate relationship with awareness and rationality which was central in the moment of the term’s resurrection by Franz Brentano.

Consider now the following definition provided by Braddon-Mitchell (2001, p. 7685):

“[Rationality is] concerned with how [the mental representation given by the intentional ability of the mind] should work so as to be accurate, and with how one should behave given one’s thoughts about the world, both those that are about how it is (beliefs) and those about how one wants it to be (desires)”.

Here intentionality as an ability of the mind is considered essential for rationality, and that rationality itself is considered essential for forming intentions. This reveals a crucial gap between the two usages of the term: the philosophical notion relating to mental states versus the broader notion relating to “deliberate, organized and conscious efforts”, to recycle Wallace’s phrase.

Thus, the original usage of intentionality, the ability of the mind to be directed, to be about, to mediate the world for the subject, is a component of the ability to be rational. The intentionality which constitutes “deliberate, organized, conscious efforts” by an individual or a collective requires the ability to rationalize. To illustrate this separation further, recall that philosophers invented higher-order intentionality which is, succinctly, to have mental representations about one’s own and others’ thoughts and reactions. It is evident that this higher-order intentionality, although it appears similar to agency, is still subordinate to rationality, and in fact must factor into it, so that one’s beliefs about others’ thoughts and reactions can become involved in rationalizing and finally in enabling the formation of intentions.

The term intentionality has thus travelled, thrived in Cartesian discourse as a reference to the ability of the mind to be about, developed along a tangent through Husserl’s phenomenology of the subject, and is now diffuse in social science theories as a critical component in the understanding of rationality and agency. It has also traveled to the field of cognitive anthropology.

Cognitive anthropology is a sub-discipline of anthropology which attempts to analyze findings in anthropology and ethnography via the paradigms of cognitive science. As with certain tendencies in anthropology, the cognitive sciences attempt to make sense of the human experience of reality. Cognitive anthropology seeks to describe other cultures in their own conceptualization, specifically presuming that cultural content is based on mental representation and that perception, memory and such mental faculties developed by Western traditions can be extrapolated to any and all forms of human experience (Wassmann, 2001, p. 2080). Duranti (1993) describes the way in which intentionality can be an analytic tool for anthropological discourse and ethnographic methodology. He concedes that strategies of interpretation differ cross-culturally and cross-contextually, and that the putative idea of interpretation is steeped in “the Western assumption of a universal ethics” (Duranti, 1993, p. 227). However, he insists that “to engage in assigning intentionality means to engage in the economy of power relations in a given community” (Duranti, 1993, p. 229). Regarding intentionality, he proposes that acts of representation are social acts, and as such

“the assignment of intentionality and the assessment of the truth-value of a given expression are themselves processes that need to be understood for their social as well as their cognitive properties. Ethnographers seem to be in a special position for providing major contributions in this area. At the same time, their observations must be empirically grounded by means of a careful analysis of discourse patterns as produced by social actors in the course of everyday interaction”. (Duranti, 1993, p. 237)

Thus, Duranti strongly advocates a reflexive empirical approach to anthropology via the tools of Western logic and cognitive science.

In terms of using intentionality as analytic tool, Toren demonstrates how “the ontogenetic process of constituting kinship as intentionality makes any given Fijian able ideally to be kin with any other” (Toren, 1999). Toren analyzes her ethnographic data on kinship by invoking Merleau-Ponty’s definition of intentionality whereby the conscious subject is not simply conscious, but conscious of (a less Cartesian way of seeing how the mind is about) and, importantly, conscious of a world that precedes the subject’s knowledge of it or of any identification with it (Toren, 1999, p. 277 n2):

“A Fijian village child lives kinship as the very medium of existence; such a child constitutes ideas of self and others or, in simpler terms, comes to be who he or she is, in reciprocal relations between kin. And to be kin to others a Fijian child must become one whose very being is informed by compassion as the ground of existence”. (Toren, 1999, p. 266)

Toren demonstrates how intentionality is a useful tool for interpreting non-Western conceptualizations (in this case, of kinship). This further suggests the usefulness of intentionality in examining relationships between people in general, whether the analyst chooses to focus on relations of power and dominance or on kinship relations.

In post-humanist anthropology, Olli Pyyhtinen and Sakari Tamminen (2011) discuss the impact of Michel Foucault’s and Bruno Latour’s work on contemporary notions of action and agency. They claim, synthesizing Latour and Foucault, that human intentionality can be thought of as a contribution of human and non-human elements, challenging the idea of autonomous intentionality. The discussion pertains very directly to intentionality as it challenges the “human-centred notion of action by examining intentionality as a product of the coming together and interchange of both human and non-human elements” (Pyyhtinen & Tamminen, 2011, p. 137). Latour situates the human in a network of human and non-human entities, and suggests that “humans owe their agentic efficacy and capabilities to the larger assemblage of elements that they are part of” (Pyyhtinen & Tamminen, 2011, p. 140). In fact, for Latour, intentionality is a property of networks (Pyyhtinen & Tamminen, 2011, p. 143). He does not attribute intentionality to mental or non-mental, living or non-living, or human or non-human entities so much as he considers them all to be endowed with the ability to act by virtue of their causal co-existence within these networks.

Pyyhtinen and Tamminen present the following digression by Gregory Bateson which illustrates the difficulty in delineating the human versus non-human boundaries that we take for granted:

“Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick? Does it start at the tip of the stick? But these are nonsense questions. The stick is a pathway along which transforms of difference are being transmitted. The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways which leave things inexplicable. If what you are trying to explain is a given piece of behavior, such as the locomotion of the blind man, then, for this purpose, you will need the street, the stick, the man; the street, the stick, and so on, round and round”. (Bateson quoted in Pyyhtinen & Tamminen, 2011, p. 143)

This passage exemplifies a theoretical node from which digressions by Actor-Network theorists and others such as Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway have proceeded. Working within the paradigm of undermining the human-exceptionalist approach to agency, anthropologist Cathrine Degnen (2013) discovers a new metaphor for the human body among gardeners in Northern England. She explains that among the gardeners,

“plants, like people, are perceived as exhibiting intentionality and sentience. Plants have likes and dislikes; plants find their way and climb through obstructions such as rocks, fences, and plastic sheeting used to try to contain them. They are able to do this because they are clever and they can undo the hard work of the gardener”. (Degnen, 2013, p. 160)

Intentionality is used here in the classic form of deliberate and organized effort, but with the purpose of attributing this intentionality to non-human actants of a network:

“The intersections [between plants and people] encompass intentionality and…extend beyond physiology to include subjective states such as cleverness and insanity; and they include nationalism, segregation, and fears over immigration”. (Degnen, 2013, p. 163)

The metaphor is almost a reverse-anthropomorphism, arranged by Degnen to contrast against the traditional enlightenment model of the human body as a machine (2013, p. 152).

“Consequently, the relationships being evoked between humans and plants also surpass a simple ‘human-other’ divide of Western naturalist ontology. This, however, becomes silenced if we deem these as ‘only’ metaphorical and not substantive….within a broadly Western worldview, plants are supposed to be of a realm that is not human, and which cannot be human. Not only are plants non-sentient organisms that exist in the natural world and which are a resource available for human use, subject to human intentionality via cultivation and breeding, but it is human intervention in plants via domestication that has itself marked a monumental moment in the history of human civilization”. (Degnen, 2013, pp. 163-164)


Braddon-Mitchell, D. (2001). Intentionality and Rationality: An Analytic Perspective. In Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp. 7685–7691). Oxford: Pergamon.

Carrithers, M. (2001). Sociality: Anthropological Aspects. In Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp. 14500–14504). Oxford: Pergamon.

Degnen, C. (2013). On vegetable love: gardening, plants, and people in the north of England. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15, 151-167.

Duranti, A. (1993). Truth and intentionality: An ethnographic critique. Cultural Anthropology, 8(2), 214-245.

Nicolas, R. (1973). Social and political movements. Annual Review of Anthropology, 2, 63-84.

Pyyhtinen, O., & and Tamminen, S. (2011_. We have never been only human: Foucault and Latour on the question of the anthropos. Anthropological Theory, 11(2), 135-152.

Schnädelbach, H. (2001). Intentionality and Rationality: A Continental-European Perspective. In Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp. 7681–7685). Oxford: Pergamon.

Thiel, C. (2001). Husserl Edmund (1859-1938). In Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp. 7088–7092). Oxford: Pergamon.

Toren, C. (1999). Compassion for one another: Constituting kinship as intentionality in Fiji. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 5(2), 265-280.

Wassmann, J. (2001). Cognitive Antropology. In Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp. 2080–2085). Oxford: Pergamon.