Intentionality in phenomenology and speech act theory




Els Elffers

1. Introduction

Phenomenology covers a large area, and the same is true of speech act theory. Here I will focus on one point of contact between them, namely intentionality. Intentionality is a key concept in phenomenology and it also figures in speech act theory as developed by philosophers such as John Searle (b. 1932) and Paul Grice (1913–1988).

What is intentionality? The Oxford English Dictionary says: “Intentionality is the distinguishing property of mental phenomena of being necessarily directed upon an object, whether real or imaginary“.

This meaning applies to intentionality as presented in the work of the man who introduced the concept in the late 19th-century, the philosopher Franz Brentano (1838–1917). He borrowed the term from mediaeval philosophy and reintroduced it by making it the central concept of his new psychology. According to Brentano, mental life consists of acts, such as perceiving, thinking and feeling. These acts are called intentional, because they cannot occur without an object to which they are directed. You cannot perceive without perceiving something, you cannot think without thinking something, etc. Brentano considered intentionality as exclusively belonging to mental phenomena; in physical phenomena it is entirely absent.

The concept was developed further, in the first place by Brentano’s pupils Anton Marty (1847–1914) and Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), who made it a key notion of phenomenological philosophy and psychology. Others adopted the concept and elaborated it in various ways.

During this process, the idea of directedness acquired two more specific meanings; first aboutness: intentional acts are directed to a content, namely objects and states of affairs; second goal-directedness: intentional acts are essentially purposive (this is also the modern non-philosophical meaning of the word “intentionality”). This diversification came about through a gliding scale from intentional as ‘relating to’ via ‘referring to’ to ‘directed to’. Van Baaren formulates this development in the following way:

To the [‘aboutness’, E.E.] use of the term a second meaning was added, the meaning ‘goal-directedness’. According to this meaning, an action can be intentional or not. According to Brentano, a mental phenomenon or act has always an intentional object, its content. In this sense, acts are always intentional. There is a sliding semantic scale of ‘relation to’, via ‘referring to’ to ‘being directed to’. It is unclear whether Brentano tried to make use of this ambiguity. (Van Baaren 1996: 144, transl. E.E.)

Both varieties of intentionality were, in one way or other, incorporated into philosophy of language: ‘aboutness’ – intentionality mainly in logical semantics, goal-directed-intentionality mainly in speech act theory.

Only goal-directed intentionality, and especially its philosophical-linguistic implications, is my present focus. I will argue, first, that it is no coincidence that Husserl’s pupil Adolf Reinach (1883–1917), a renowned phenomenologist, was the first to develop a fully-fledged speech-act theory during the first decades of the 20th century. Second, I will show that Searle’s speech act theory only partially benefits from its appeal to goal-directed intentionality.

2.Phenomenology. Rise and development

As to the earlier developments, it is useful to look first at the situation just before the rise of phenomenology. During the 19th century, mental life was largely thought to consist of representations, based upon sense data and internal sensations. These representations could be related to each other by associative or apperceptive relations. Language was supposed to exteriorize mental life; so meanings were equated with successive representations. This approach can be found in the work of psychologically-oriented linguists such as Heymann Steinthal (1823–1899) and Hermann Paul (1846–1921).

From the end of the 19th century onwards, this idea was gradually abandoned in favor of a more active view of mental life. Meanings of words and sentences were no longer conceived as merely representations of psychical occurrences. As mental counterparts of linguistic entities, more complex volitional acts were assumed as well. To a certain degree, this is already the case in the work of Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), whose overall view is still thoroughly representationist. The real breakthrough came with Brentano and his phenomenological successors. All of them regarded the intentional act as the key element of mental life.

This change in psychology had philosophical-linguistic implications. Words and sentences were no longer considered as reflections of occurrences in the speaker’s mind. This view was now negatively labelled “psychologism”. Marty was one of the first scholars to stress the ultimate absurdity of this view, which actually implies that our own psychical life is all we can talk about. In Marty’s words:

The announcement of one own psychic life is not the only, nor the primary thing which is intended in deliberate speaking. […] Deliberate speech is a special kind of acting, whose proper goal is to call forth certain psychic phenomena in other beings. In relation to this intention, the announcement of processes within oneself appears merely as a side-effect. (Marty 1908: 284)

Marty was also the first to elaborate the goal-directed aspect of Brentano’s concept of ‘intentionality’. For him, intention was intention to achieve something, and in the context of language, to have an effect on the hearer. Meaning was conceived in terms of the hearer’s recognition of this intention. A few decades later, Karl Bühler (1879–1963), who leaned upon ideas of Husserl and Marty, presented his famous triangular Organon-model of the linguistic sign (Bühler 1990 [1934]: 34). This model can be regarded as a pinnacle of the process of abandoning earlier psychologism. The linguistic sign no longer has its roots only in the speaker, but also in the listener and in the objects and states of affairs referred to, just in line with the two aspects of ‘intentionality’.

Bühler’s Organon-model

Not surprisingly, Bühler no longer defines the notion ‘sentence’ in the psychologistic way in terms of successive representations in the speaker’s mind as in Paul’s definition:

Der Satz ist der sprachliche Ausdruck, das Symbol dafür dass sich die Verbindung mehrerer Vorstellungen in der Seele des Sprechenden vollzogen hat und das Mittel dazu, die nämliche Verbindung der nämliche Vorstellungen in der Seele des Hörenden zu erzeugen. (Paul 19205 [1880]: 121)

Bühler rejects this type of what he called genetic definitions (genetische Definitionen) in favour of definitions in terms of the sentence’s effect (Leistungsdefinitionen). Sentences are, in Bühler’s terms, purposive entities, Zweckgebilde. Bühler’s definition runs as follows:

Sätze sind die einfachen selbständigen, in sich abgeschlossenen Leistungseinheiten, oder kurz die Sinneinheiten der Rede. (Bühler 1918: 18)

According to Bühler, genetic definitions are irrelevant and also impossible, because sentences come about in innumerable ways. Bühler compares sentences with clocks, which are also Zweckgebilde. Genetic definitions in terms of sand, water, shadows of the sun, mechanics with dials and hands etc. will always be incomplete, whereas definitions in terms of the purpose ‘measuring of time’ will be successful.

Marty and Bühler can be considered as preparing the ground upon which speech act theory could arise, but they did not develop such a theory themselves. It was Adolf Reinach who brought this about.

3. Reinach’s early speech act theory

Reinach was a pupil of Husserl and became famous for his contributions to phenomenology, the theory as well as the method. It was due to his early death in World War I that his ideas were soon overshadowed. Reinach was not only a philosopher but also a lawyer, which stimulated his phenomenological analysis of what he called ‘spontaneous acts’: social acts, such as commanding, admonishment, promising, request, informing. There are also internal acts, such as forgiving, that do not need linguistic expression.

Social acts are described in terms of their purpose towards others and their socially binding effects (Verbindlichkeit). The psychical events related to the performance of the act are not essential to the act. In his 1921 article About phenomenology, Reinach discusses the internal act of forgiving. He criticizes earlier reductive analyses in terms of the actor’s preceding representations, judgments or feelings. For example, it can be easily shown that forgiving is not the same as the judgment that something wrong is not wrong after all, or as the cessation of a feeling of anger:

Well, it certainly is not an act of representing. So, people have attempted to maintain that it is a judgment: the judgment that the wrong done, is after all, not so serious, or really no wrong at all – thus rendering absolutely impossible any act of forgiving. Or, one says that forgiving is a cessation of a feeling, the cessation of anger, as if forgiving were not something with its own positive nature, and much more than a mere forgetting or disappearing. (Reinach 1921: 196)

In another publication, he presents an extensive analysis of the social act of promising. He rejects earlier psychologistic analyses of promising as a special kind of willing. Instead, the socially binding effect of claim and obligation is essential:

Das Versprechen ist weder Wille, noch Äusserung des Willens, sondern es ist ein selbständiger spontaner Akt, der, nach aussen sich wendend, in äussere Erscheinung tritt. (Reinach 1913: 166)

Against externally-motivated reductive analyses, Reinach emphasizes, like Husserl, the importance of focusing on die Sachen selbst. He regards his analyses as a priori knowledge about essences. If one nowadays rejects this general metaphilosophy, one can still observe the wholesome effect of the phenomenological focus on epistemological immediacy: the careful observation of facts as they present themselves, undistorted by psychologistic or other presuppositions. Alongside familiarity with goal-directed intentionality, this general approach was helpful for the rise of Reinach’s early speech act theory.

Reinach’s theory did not become widely known. In general, Austin’s 1955 How to do things with words is regarded as the first text about speech acts, or, as Austin called them, performatives. The question whether Austin knew about Reinach has been investigated by several scholars, but no clear indications were found (cf. Nelich & Clarke 1996: section 11.5). In any case, Austin developed his theory in a non-phenomenological framework.

Searle elaborated Austin’s theory further into what is now widely known as “speech act theory”

4. Searle’s speech act theory. Ambivalence about intentionality

Like Austin, Searle was not a phenomenologist. Nevertheless, ‘intentionality’ became a central concept in his theory. In his earlier work Speech acts (1969), its role is not prominent. Later on, speech acts are explicitly embedded in a general theory of intentionality. Searle does not want to pay attention to the phenomenological work from which he borrowed the concept. As reasons for taking this approach, he mentions his ignorance of the subject, but also his greater confidence in his own investigations. Asked in an interview about Brentano’s contributions to intentionality and the contributions of ‘a famous philosophical school, which tries to elucidate the intentional structure of consciousness’, Searle laconically answered: ‘Yes, I have heard of them; they are called phenomenologists’ (Baumgartner & Klawitter 1990: 221). The following quotation shows Searle’s attitude more explicitly:

Entire philosophical movements have been built around theories of Intentionality. What is one to do in the face of this distinguished past? My own approach has been simply to ignore it, partly out of ignorance of most of the traditional writings on Intentionality, partly out of the conviction that my only hope of resolving the worries which led me into this study in the first place lay in the relentless pursuit of my own investigations. (Searle 1983: ix)

The effect of Searle’s half-hearted appeal to intentionality was ambiguous. On the one hand, it deepened his insights into goal-directedness as the essence of speech acts. In Expression and meaning (1979) which already pays due attention to intentionality, there is an increased focus on illocutionary purpose as the most important element of illocutionary force.[1] In Intentionality (1983: 84-85), Searle emphasizes the inherent intentionality in actions. Like Bühler in his plea for Leistungsdefinitionen, he explicitly claims that intentionality does not depend on deliberations of the agent prior to the action.

On the other hand, however, Searle’s appeal to intentional states (not actions) can be considered as a step backwards toward earlier psychologism. In his later work, speech acts are related to specific psychological states of the speaker. For example, an assertion x is said to express the fact that the speaker believes x, a command x expresses the fact that the speaker wants x etc. In this context, only the aboutness aspect of intentionality is applicable, goal-directedness disappears into the background, and the earlier psychologistic idea of language as exteriorizing the speaker’s inner life seems to be reanimated. In Nerlich and Clarke (1996), this transition in Searle’s work is described as a shift from functionalism to mentalism:

[…] one could say that Searle as the author of Speech Acts (1969) follows in the footsteps of Marty […], whereas Searle as the author of Intentionality (1983) follows in the footsteps of Brentano and Husserl […]. This shift in Searle’s thinking is also marked by a shift from analyzing meaning in terms of communication to analyzing meaning in terms of representation [..]. In the first case meaning intentions are basically intentions to produce an illocutionary effect, in the second case it is even possible to represent without any intention to communicate. The shift can be seen as a shift from seeing speech act theory as part of a theory of action to seeing it as a part of a theory of representation and cognition, that is, as a shift from functionalism to mentalism. (Nerlich & Clarke 1996: 189)

5. Intentionality: implications for linguistics

I turn now to the question if and how ideas about intentionality influenced the descriptive practice of linguists. This influence is not at all a matter of course; metatheory and practice may develop quite independently. But there are also cases in which descriptive practice is influenced by metatheory.

The description of interjections is an example. In Elffers (2008), I argued that the traditional view of interjections as mere expressions of the speaker’s emotion is largely mistaken, and that earlier psychologism is the main cause of the continuation of this mistake.

Conversely, discourse analysis by Hofstede (1999) in terms of speech act theory resulted in a gain of descriptive adequacy. Hofstede observed that, contrary to the received view, only a very small percentage (7.04%) of interjections belong to the class of expressives. This category contains expressions of the speaker’s emotion. The great majority of interjections fulfil other functions that are in line with goal-directed intentionality, e.g. directive or commissive. Hofstede’s percentages, based upon 412 illocutionary analyses of interjections, occurring in 17 fragments of Dutch spoken texts, are the following:

Representative (propositions, true or false)

Expositive (directive in the conversation)

Directive (to actions)

Expressive (of the speaker’s psychical situation)

Commissive (to future actions)

Hofstede makes use of insights developed by Ameka (1992). Ameka investigated interjections in a West-African language in a very detailed way, taking full account of contextual and situational aspects. For his description, he appeals to Searle’s speech act theory. What is important is the central position attributed to illocutionary purpose, in line with Searle’s view of inherent goal-directed intentionality. Like Hofstede’s analysis of Dutch interjections, Ameka’s description shows that a main function of interjections is the purposeful elicitation of a reaction in the listener, rather than the expression of an emotion:

If one accepts Searle’s view that the illocutionary purpose is the most important component of the illocutionary force of a linguistic item, then one could say that interjections have an illocutionary force since they have a communicative purpose. (Ameka 1992: 255)

In Ameka’s work, as in Hofstede’s, there is no direct link with phenomenology, but, as in Reinach’s work, there is an emphasis on careful and unprejudiced observation of situated langue, alongside a focus on goal-directed intentionality.

6. Conclusion

The concept ‘intentionality’ embodies the relationship between phenomenology and speech act theory, as developed – avant la lettre – by Reinach. In his speech act theory, Searle exhibits, on the one hand, a clear awareness of the role of intentionality in speech acts, but, on the other hand, his purposeful ignorance of earlier thought about intentionality probably contributed to his mistake of insufficiently taking the goal-directed aspect of intentionality into account and partially returning to obsolete psychologism. Fortunately, this could not prevent linguists from applying Searle’s speech act theory successfully.


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[1] Illocutionary purpose is what the speaker wants the listener to do. Questions and commands may have identical illocutionary purposes, but their illocutionary forces are different.

Originally appeared on History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences Read More