Jan Nuyts
Table of contents

This contribution is meant to offer a brief introduction to (some of) the intricacies of the notion of human intentions and intentionality, with special reference to their role in language behavior. Intention/intentionality is meant here (in a narrow sense – see below) as the theoretical concept which is generally invoked to account for the purposefulness or goal-directedness of human behavior (or ‘action’), linguistic and otherwise. Intuitively, this is a straightforward concept. It is an essential part of our ‘folk psychology’: we often wonder whether things people do are intentional (i.e., done on purpose) or not, and the notion is thereby taken to refer to an element ‘inside’ a person which motivates him/her to act in certain ways. (Thus, the notion is crucial in determining ‘guilt’ in many legal systems.) Not surprisingly, then, the term is quite common in ‘ordinary’ language use: utterances like sorry, I didn’t do that intentionally or beware of that guy, his intentions are bad or I intend to finish that paper by tomorrow sound very familiar. Scientifically, however, the notion turns out to be extremely volatile and difficult to grasp. Especially in philosophy, it has received some attention, yet without this leading – not even remotely – to a consensus even on the bare essentials of what a theory of intentionality ought to look like. And although most (empirical-)scientific theories of human behavior axiomatically accept the notion (explicitly or implicitly) as a critical ‘causal force’, very few dare to venture into its nature and phenomenology. Hence, basic questions such as ‘what is intentionality’ (beyond the almost tautological statement that it involves having a purpose or an aim with something), ‘how does it work’, ‘how does it relate to (types of) behavior’, ‘how should it be situated in a wider concept of human cognitive and social functioning’, etc. remain largely unresolved. Thus, the notion belongs in the ‘hall of scientific mysteries’, next to notions such as ‘self’, ‘consciousness’, ‘attention’, or ‘will’ (many of which are no doubt directly related to the concept of intentionality – see Section 1).

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