Searle’s Solution to the Missing Object Problem

Searle’s Solution to the Missing Object Problem

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Let us imagine that to play a joke on her new friend Suzy, Jenny tells her all about her cocker spaniel. Jenny tells Suzy that her dog’s name is Sally, that Sally has long blonde hair, and that she loves to eat table scraps. The only problem is that Sally does not really exist ¾ but Jenny doesn’t tell this to Suzy. Because of this, Suzy forms all sorts of beliefs about Jenny’s cocker spaniel. She believes that it is named Sally, that it has long blonde hair and loves to eat table scraps, and perhaps a few other beliefs. She also forms desires regarding the dog ¾ she wants to meet Sally, to play fetch with her, and to buy her a doggie treat. Suzy, therefore, has many beliefs and desires regarding Sally the cocker spaniel ¾ and all of this in spite of the fact that Sally does not really exist at all. In orchestrating this prank, Jenny thought she was merely playing a simple trick on her friend. But in succeeding at this, she has brought about a significant philosophical dilemma. If Sally the cocker spaniel does not exist, then what are all of Suzy’s beliefs and desires about?

This is the problem of “objectless directedness.” Mental states like believing and desiring are understood to be directed at things; they are intentional states, and every intentional state must have an intentional object. If I have a belief that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time, or that Bush is a good wartime President, then these are beliefs about, respectively, Michael Jordan and George Bush. If I have a desire to meet the Pope, or to have a hamburger, then these desires are directed at the Pope and a hamburger, respectively. But in Suzy’s case, the supposed intentional object of her beliefs and desires ¾ Sally the cocker spaniel ¾ turned out not to exist at all. So did the beliefs and desires have an intentional object at all? And if so, what was it?

In addressing this problem, this paper will explicate and argue for a solution given by John Searle in his book, Intentionality. After briefly

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Related Searches

considering the difficulties with two other suggested ways of solving this problem ¾ first, by denying that objectless intentional states are really directed at anything at all; second, by positing some sort of ‘substitute’ intentional object at which they are directed ¾ I will explain Searle’s solution, which argues that an intentional state can be directed at something, even if the thing does not exist. I will show that Searle’s solution to the problem of objectless aboutness deals very well with the phenomenon, while respecting our commonsense intuitions about the nature of intentionality.

The problem

Intentionality, as it has been traditionally understood, is that property by virtue of which certain mental states and events are directed at or about or of certain things in the world. We can therefore symbolize a given intentional state, and the individual who holds it, as Person=State{Content}. For example, Bob’s belief that airplanes are safe would be symbolized by Bob=Belief{Airplanes are safe}. His desire to smoke a cigar would be symbolized by Bob=Desire{Smoke a cigar}.[1] From this structure, it is quite reasonable to infer our first important principle:

1. Every intentional state must be directed at or about or of something.

There seem to be no reasonable grounds for denying the truth of (1); indeed, it seems quite implicit in our accepted definition of intentionality. The problem, of course, is that we have already seen that Suzy=Belief{Sally is blonde}, Suzy=Desire{Play fetch with Sally}, &c., even though Sally does not exist. Therefore, Suzy’s beliefs and desires, while seemingly intentional, have no intentional object. From this, we can conclude that:

2. Some intentional states are not directed at or about or of anything.

Plainly, however, (1) and (2) are in explicit conflict with each other. We must either reject or reformulate one or both of them.

Two failed solutions

One way to get around the conflict between (1) and (2) is to accept (1) but reject (2) outright. This is sometimes done by arguing that a supposed intentional state whose supposed intentional object does not exist is not really intentional at all. So, Suzy’s beliefs and desires that were supposedly about Sally were not really about anything; as such, they were only pseudo-intentional. Every intentional state must have an intentional object (by (1)); the states in question do not have an intentional object; therefore, the states in question are not intentional. Despite, however, its evident success at solving the conflict between (1) and (2), this claim only does so at the expense of some deeply-felt commonsense intuitions. True, Suzy might have a few moments of confusion if she finds out that Jenny was lying to her, but it seems that she would insist that her beliefs and desires about Sally were indeed real beliefs and desires ¾ and, as such, real intentional states. Indeed, Suzy would probably insist that the beliefs and desires she had about Sally the cocker spaniel were directed at Sally the cocker spaniel. Once she finds out that Sally does not exist, she will no longer hold these beliefs and desires. (Perhaps, however, she will have other intentional states, like Suzy=Wish{Sally existed} ¾ more on these sorts of state later.) But the point is that while she is oblivious to the nonexistence of Sally, it seems that Suzy will indeed have beliefs and desires directed at Sally. When pressed to explain how this can be, we should certainly look for other options than simply to deny that these sorts of mental states really have intentional directedness.

The other common way to get around the problem is to reject (2) by proposing that some or all intentional states are not ‘immediately’ directed at or about or of things in the world; rather, their intentional objects enjoy some sort of peculiar ontological status. To explain our example, one might argue that Suzy’s beliefs were about a conglomeration of universal attributes (“cocker spaniel”, “owned by Jenny”, “named Sally”, “blonde”, &c.), or an unactualized possible cocker spaniel with the appropriate attributes, or perhaps some sort of ‘mental’ entity. This suggestion, however, while much more promising than the first, ultimately runs up against the same central objection: it is simply counterintuitive. We would be hard-pressed to convince Suzy that her beliefs and desires were about some unactualized possible cocker spaniel, or an assemblage of universal concepts, or a strange ‘mental’ entity. We also run up against questions surrounding the nature of the rest of our intentional states: are they directed ‘immediately’ at or about or of things in the world, or do they enjoy only some ‘intermediate’ directedness, by virtue of some other objects? The latter seems quite hard to swallow. Once again, this solution is too counterintuitive to be desirable.

Searle’s way out

In presenting his solution to this problem, Searle wants to insist that there are no “shadowy intermediate entit[ies]” intervening in intentional directedness: “an Intentional object is just an object like any other; it has no peculiar ontological status at all” (1998, p. 16). Therefore, if Frank loves Marilyn Monroe, the intentional object of his love is Ms. Monroe herself ¾ the actual woman, and not some sort of intermediate intentional entity. So how does Searle explain the nature of intentional states whose supposed objects do not exist? It will be helpful to outline a further aspect of his theory of intentionality.

Searle argues that all intentional states have what he calls “conditions of satisfaction.” A satisfaction condition for a given intentional state is that which the state requires to be, in a sense, ‘fulfilled’. For example, if Sam=Belief{Wilt Chamberlain is in the Hall of Fame}, then Sam’s belief will be satisfied iff Wilt Chamberlain is in the Hall of Fame. To give another example, if Beth=Desire{Eat ice cream for dessert}, then Beth’s desire will be satisfied iff she eats ice cream for dessert. These constitute the conditions of satisfaction for Sam’s belief and Beth’s desire, respectively.

How does this idea tie into our problem of objectless aboutness? It seems that a common feature to nearly all intentional states whose intentional objects do not exist is that they cannot be satisfied. [2] So if Suzy=Belief{Sally is Jenny’s dog}, or Suzy=Desire{Play fetch with Sally}, neither of these intentional states can be satisfied. Because ‘Sally exists’ is included in the satisfaction conditions for both of these intentional states (i.e., Sally cannot be Jenny’s dog if she does not exist, nor can Suzy play fetch with a nonexistent animal), these conditions cannot be met. But this does not mean that the states are not intentional ¾ it simply means that they, like many other intentional states (such as my desires to play in the NBA, have a million dollars, &c.), have satisfaction conditions that are not or cannot be met.

The second aspect of Searle’s solution stems from a distinction between the extensional and the intensional-with-an-s understanding of ‘aboutness’. This classical distinction arises from sentences like “Joe believes that the King of France is bald.” This sentence fails an important logical test for extensionality: it does not follow from this sentence that $(x)(x is the King of France); the sentence, therefore, is intensional-with-an-s. In the case of Suzy’s beliefs and desires, we can say that in the intensional-with-an-s sense, they are indeed directed at or about or of Sally. But in the extensional sense, there is no object that they are directed at or about or of, because there is no Sally. So we can distinguish two senses of intentional directedness. The first is the intensional-with-an-s sense; here, the key feature of a mental state that makes it directed at or about or of an object in this sense is that the existence of the object in question is necessary (but not sufficient!) for the satisfaction of the mental state. This sort of intensional-with-an-s directedness also applies if the non-existence of the object is part of the satisfaction conditions (e.g. Norma=Believe{Witches do not exist} and Paul=Desire{Witches do not exist} are directed about and at witches in the intensional-with-an-s sense, and will be satisfied iff ~$(Witches)). So:

i-directedness: A given mental state M is i-directed at or about or of a
given object x when either $(x) or ~$(x) is part of the satisfaction
conditions for M.

For a mental state to be directed at or about or of an object in the extensional sense, however, it must both be i-about the object, and the object must exist. So:

e-directedness: A given mental state M is e-directed at or about or of a
given object x when M is i-about x, and $(x).

Using this distinction, we can reformulate the two conflicting principles we outlined earlier:

1-i. Every intentional state must be i-directed at or about or of something;


2-e. Some intentional states are not e-directed at or about or of anything.

It is clear that (1-i) and (2-e) are not in conflict: an intentional state can be i-directed at or about or of something, but if the thing does not exist, then the intentional state is not e-directed at or about or of anything.

But can we accept (2-e)? Does this not put us right back where we started? Can we be happy with a ‘solution’ that accepts the fact that certain intentional states are not really directed at or about or of anything? It seems to me that we should. But the way to understand this is to see that an intentional state is not necessarily in a relation to something or other; rather, we should see intentionality as an orientation toward being in such a relation.[3] Just being intentionally i-directed at or about or of an object, does not put a mental state in a relation to that object; if it did, we would have to reject (2-e), since any relation requires two relata. But Searle’s understanding of conditions of satisfaction as central to intentionality enables us to say that for a mental state M to be intentionally i-directed at or about or of an object x is for M to be such that (a) it can be satisfied or unsatisfied, and (b) its satisfaction depends on x.

We can state a concrete formula for intentionality, P=M{R(x)}: a given intentional mental state M held by a given person P contains a relation R predicated of an object x.[4] For example, where Suzy=Belief{Sally is a cocker spaniel}, P=“Suzy”, M=“Belief”, x=“Sally”, and R=“is a cocker spaniel.” In this case, the satisfaction conditions for M include $(x); because this is not the case, M is i-about x, but not e-about x, and the satisfaction conditions for M are not met. But where Al Gore=Desire{Be President of the U.S.A.}, the satisfaction conditions for M include $(x), where x is the Presidential office. Since $(x) but not R(x) (i.e., the Presidential office exists but Al Gore does not hold it), M is e-directed at (and therefore i-directed at) x, but it is unsatisfied. These instances give us the means to state an overarching rule linking $(x) to both the directedness of and satisfaction conditions for M:

Where P=M{R(x)}, M will always be i-directed at or about or of x, but will be e-directed at or about or of x iff $(x). Furthermore, where R(x)¹~$(x), M will be satisfied only if $(x); where R(x)=~$(x), M will be satisfied iff ~$(x).

The major point we should draw from this rule is that conditions of satisfaction and conditions for e-directedness are not coextensive: an intentional state can be satisfied but not be e-directed at or about or of anything (e.g., Jenny’s belief that Sally does not exist); an intentional state can be e-directed at or about or of something but remain unsatisfied (e.g., Al Gore’s desire to be President of the U.S.A.).


So what is the moral of the story? Suzy has nothing to fear ¾ all of her beliefs and desires were indeed real beliefs and desires, and they were directed immediately at Sally the dog, and no other spooky sort of entity. (This directedness, however, was of the intensional-with-an-s sort, and was not “real” extensional directedness ¾ but there is nothing wrong with this! Many intentional states, satisfied and otherwise, turn out to be directed only in the intensional sense.) Unfortunately, since Sally does not exist, none of Suzy’s beliefs and desires that were directed at Sally (save for her belief that Sally does not exist, which she forms only after the fact and in place of all her other beliefs) can be satisfied ¾ since Sally does not exist, the satisfaction conditions of any intentional state that require her existence cannot be met. The “missing object problem” is certainly a real philosophical dilemma ¾ but Searle has presented a real solution, which deals effectively with the phenomenon while respecting and largely satisfying our commonsense intuitions.

Works cited:

Searle, J. R. 1982. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge.


[1] We can also have intentional states that do not have an entire proposition as their
content, such as Fred=Desire{New bike} or George=Worry{Car accident}, but are a
little bit more difficult. See Searle 1982, pp. 29-36 for some discussion.

[2] We will consider the notable exception later in the paper.

[3] Thanks to Michael Gorman for this distinction.

[4] As I mentioned earlier, intentional states that do not have an entire proposition as
their representative content are a sticky question, and so I have not discussed them
at length. How would one deal with a dilemma like Suzy=Love{Sally}, which does not
have a clear set of satisfaction conditions? Perhaps the easiest way is to say that
if Sally does not exist, Suzy cannot really love her at all; in this case, we might
be willing to sacrifice a few supposedly intentional states for the sake of
coherence. Another way out is to follow Searle and say that an intentional state
like P=Love(x) actually ‘contains’ other intentional states like P=Believe{x exists}
and P=Desire(something regarding x); this is an interesting suggestion, but I fear
it is not quite right.
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