Re: [xmca] PoTAYto and PoTAHto

From: Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch who-is-at>
Date: Tue Oct 14 2008 - 06:13:42 PDT

David and Michael, the two of you had me running all over the internet
trying to figure out what intentionalism is. It isn't in my usual
lexicon and it is not on the A list of common philosophical terms but
it does have a fair amount of usage in philosophical work in and
around cognitive science these days, and perhaps other areas. Part of
the reason for that, apparently, is that there is a shift by some in
cognitive science away from computer models of the brain to what could
be called rationalist models, looking for innate structures and
processes in the brain that guide if not dominate perception and
thought, which artificial intelligence and mind simulation work might
base itself around.

Most definitions I saw say intentionalism is a synonym for
representationalism. The heritage of representationalism looks like
it harks back to the idea Kant developed, that the mind has innate
precepts through which it interprets a reality it cannot know
directly, or perhaps not at all. This is a different model than the
complex calculation machine concept that has dominated cognitive

The term intentionalism also seems to be extended by some to go beyond
representationalism, or perhaps instead of representationalism, to
include the concept "intention," as in a "plan." Perhaps two separate
and fairly different philosophical meanings have evolved. That can
happen with words over time - they can evolve into something very
different from the original meaning, and the two opposing meanings can
even coincide. In this case, one meaning of the term intentionalism,
if you will forgive my computer metaphor, seems to refer to "input" -
how we consciously perceive - and the other seems to refer to
"output," how and from what resources we initiate action - how we
deliberately act - so the two meanings do not, on the surface anyway,
appear to be close cousins. The two issues themselves, of course,
from a CHAT point of view, are intimately related.

As far as the rationalist origins and core of representationalism go,
this aspect is a problem for cultural-historical psychology, at least
from the point of view of its dialectical materialist thread. At the
same time, the arch philosophical adversary of rationalism, especially
in past centuries, empiricism, presents the opposite problem. The
former overstates the role of innate structures and the inability of
the mind to perceive reality directly, while the other understates the
role of the mind and overstates the ability of the mind to learn
directly from experience. Modern research has moved beyond these now
relatively primitive explanations, although shadows of these
perspectives certainly live on - old wine in new bottles, some might

The materialist answer to this debate, once it got its hands on a
dialectical and historical approach to human reality, and especially
after it was refined in the Vygotsky school, is that both solutions
are indeed outmoded: neither direct experience nor innate structures,
or some combination of the two, have sufficient explanatory power.
Closer to the case say the materialist dialecticians is that social
relations are always in the middle, and cultures (mediated by human
mind-brains and their idiosyncratic memories, forces of will, etc.),
are the interpsychological repositories of what humans consider mind;
and social relations and culture are the source of experience and

Which does not mean the debate over which is predominant, the thinking
mind or active experience, is resolved: it has just shifted to a more
sophisticated ground informed by many decades of research on the mind,
brain and body; multitudes of cultural developments and cultural
intertransactions and new ways to research that; and now about 500
years of experience at all levels with social relations under
capitalism. Nowadays, including within the Vygotsky school, the
debate tends to be over the relative weight and precise relationships
between these three: between social relations, culture, and that pesky
mind-brain-body entity we call the human individual. Or some variant
of these in words and concepts others may prefer.

My take is that everyone within the LSV school does some oscillation
between the various points of view mentioned here, and others. I like
to paint with a very broad brush (along with detailed ones when I can)
and picture two basic philosophical strategies in operation in the
sciences today: objectivism and subjectivism. Objectivism and
subjectivism, as I see them, amount to modern forms of mechanical
materialism and idealism (respectively) in their more extreme
versions, but in their milder and more sophisticated forms, can be and
indeed are leaned toward by serious materialists, sometimes this way,
sometimes that, as they struggle with new and complex issues. In the
LSV school, to my observation, everyone, or nearly so, is a
materialist - materialism generally won the battle with idealism in
the sciences over the basic ontological issue of which came first,
being or consciousness, and dealt serious (but not fatal) blows to
notions of God intervening in the affairs of this universe - and
everyone I know of in the LSV school is a sharp advocate of basic
materialist perspectives such as these. So the discussions today
within that school, and among serious materialists in general, are
highly refined, employing state of the art research and new ways to
conceptualize these complex relationships between social relations,
culture, and individual subjectivity.

At the same time, I frequently detect, or think I detect, some
oscillation between these two strategies, subjectivism and
objectivism, by every individual mind-brain that aims at a materialist
approach, including mine, and maybe sometimes especially mine, which
is probably one of the reasons I try to pay close attention to
methodology - I need all the help I can get. Individually, because
we are individuals, we are going to be prone to lean this way (toward
subjectivism) and now that way (toward objectivism) over new issues,
and old issues raised in new ways - as well as perhaps being somewhat
hardened on some of the old questions, one way or the other - or both.

The solution in my mind is that we need to strive to be collective in
our approach - while individually we sway, in groups we stand a better
chance against the winds and storms that buffet us in all directions.
One of course needs to choose the right group that corresponds to
their core sense of the world, and the right group for one's group to
work within, perhaps ultimately entailing numerous nested groups, (not
all of our choice) and then changing groups as needed (when possible),
but even within such complex situations, we still need to rely on
others to help us guide ourselves. This means needing to cultivate a
strong sense of cooperation and teamwork that is mixed with
straightforward (while hopefully tactful) criticism, with the goal of
mutual growth and empowerment. (That sounds a bit starry-eyed, I
admit, but what the hell - cynicism is too easy).

And so it goes here on xmca, which has been a significant window for
me into this intriguing world of scientific, philosophical and
methodological debate. The LSV school has many things to bring to the
larger table - and its ability to debate and grow from it is one of

Anyway, after all that - I kinda slipped in a few things I have been
wanting to say, especially following ISCAR - I still don't know what
the heck David and Michael meant by "intentionalism," or why one is
intentionally using intentionalism as a practical guide to classroom
discourse, and the other is worried about the tunnel-visioned folly of
intentionally putting all of one's eggs in an intentionalist basket.
Anyone up for giving me a hand? David, Michael, others?

- Steve

BEFORE!! LOL When time permits, we can return to your thoughts. I
hope I represented her at least somewhat fairly with my selections.
If anyone gets a chance to spend an hour or two with her book
Philosophy in a New Key, read the first few chapters - she is a breezy
read and truly is delightful and refreshing - and does have some
thought-provoking ideas - despite the fact that, in my opinion, she is
an ardent "subjectivist," and not even of the materialist kind ... :-))

On Oct 9, 2008, at 9:11 PM, Wolff-Michael Roth wrote:

> YOU ARE MORE than welcome to don blinders, sometimes it makes
> horses shy less, but also gives you tunnel vision. Intentions don't
> explain many aspects of human experience, and this is their
> shortfall, which transfers to those who put all their eggs in the
> same intentionalist basket.
> Sorry for the puns and metaphors.
> Cheers,
> Michael
> On 9-Oct-08, at 6:56 PM, David Kellogg wrote:
> Michael, I am afraid I am thoroughly intentionalist; I think of it
> as just being practical, though. It's all about understanding
> classroom discourse. But let me return to the stuff Steve helpfully
> laid before us.

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