Standard notions of intentionality as a mental state involving representations of objects go back to the medieval Iranian philosopher Avicenna (980 – 1037). Augustine had already spoken of of “intentions” as acts of the soul, but it was Avicenna who explicitly gave what were translated to Latin as “intentions” the later standard sense of mental representations. Discussion of Avicennan “intentions” was common in the Latin scholastic tradition, but disappeared in the early modern period, only to be revived by Franz Brentano. In his 1874 work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Brentano characterized intentionality as having to do with mental states that are directed toward objects that are themselves mental representations, and argued that intentionality is the defining characteristic of mind in general. Edmund Husserl later attempted to separate a logical concept of intentionality from empirical psychology, and made it a central theme of his phenomenology. Intentionality is widely discussed among analytic philosophers as well.

A main focus of Brandom’s Making It Explicit was to develop in great detail a novel concept of intentionality that is linguistic, social, and normative, rather than mental in the usual sense. Intentionality for Brandom is rooted in normative social practices and dialogue rather than psychology. Representation is treated as something to be explained, rather than as an unexplained explainer. The objects Brandomian intentionality is concerned with are not objects of mental representations, but objects of normative social practices and dialogue. Accepting Brentano’s thesis that intentionality is the defining characteristic of mind, this gives us a concept of mind that is mainly ethical, linguistic, and social (see Mind Without Mentalism).

I think the kind of hermeneutics implicitly practiced by Aristotle throughout his work was concerned with real things, but primarily as objects of normative social practices and dialogue, and only secondarily in a more direct way. Aristotle also said that intelligence comes to us “from outside”. I read him too as working with a primarily ethical, linguistic, and social notion of mind (see also Aristotelian Subjectivity). Plato’s Forms were also explicitly nonpsychological. Even Augustine’s “inner man” has nothing private about it, but rather participates in an ethical community of the spirit that tends toward universality.

An ethical-linguistic-social view of intentionality also gives us a good way of talking about all the practical, real-life concerns of human subjectivity, without the bad theoretical baggage of referring all those concerns to a supposedly sovereign individual Subject or Ego.


The Iranian philosopher Ibn Sina (980 – 1037) — known to the Latins as Avicenna — had a large impact on Latin medieval thought. He was also an important medical authority up through the Renaissance. In terms specifically of the relation between philosophy and religion, the spirit of Ibn Sina’s work was a conciliatory one, in that way a bit like the emphasis of Aquinas on one truth. In terms of debates in the Latin world, he was most often cited by people in the broadly Augustinian as opposed to Aristotelian stream, but Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas also used some of his formulations.

Ibn Sina was original in many ways. He recounts that he improved on Aristotle by putting God at the beginning instead of the end (See First Principles Come Last; God and the Soul). He also liked to talk about Being, which seems to have caught the attention of Aquinas and Duns Scotus (see Being, Existence; Ontology). Along with Augustine, he largely anticipated the “I think, therefore I am” of Descartes (see account of the “flying man” argument in Modernity, Again). Many Augustinians found agreeable resonances in things he said about what I am here calling subjectivity (see Augustinian Interiority). None of this seems particularly like a recommendation to me. Where Averroes criticized Avicenna from a more purely Aristotelian point of view (as he often did), I think the arguments of Averroes generally seem much more sound.

The Latin translations of Avicenna’s works introduced the Latin term for representation into philosophical discourse. Early antecedents of modern mentalism can be found in Augustine, and to some extent even further back in Plotinus, but Avicenna contributed significantly to its crystallization. He introduced the terminology of intentionality, as well as a pregnant distinction between “first” and “second” intentions. First intentions were a kind of immediate mental objects, while second intentions applied to thoughts about the first. Here, I believe, is the historical source of the two-stage theory of representation that Brandom has been concerned to criticize. Descartes and Locke picked it up from the Latin scholastics.

The German philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote an intriguing — but I think misguided — little book called Avicenna und die Aristotelische Linke (1952). By analogy with the historical category of “Left Hegelianism”, he wanted to develop a concept of “Left Aristotelianism” in the Latin middle ages. His selection of Avicenna as its main representative is quite perplexing in view of the way citations to Avicenna most often figured in Latin disputation, where they were most often used to support what seem to me like more conservative, “Augustinian” positions in opposition to more Aristotelian positions. Bloch does quote some interesting passages about the concept of matter. To me, these seem possibly related to the notion of multiple substantial forms, which was one of the biggest points of contention between Augustinians and Latin Aristotelians.

(Albert the Great and Aquinas wanted to strongly insist that each thing has a single substantial form. What makes this difficult to evaluate is that the specific notion of “substantial” form is a much later — and much narrower and more univocal — invention not clearly apparent in Aristotle’s own works. So, the single-substantial-form thesis cannot be Aristotle’s own, and I don’t feel a need to defend it, even though I usually strongly favor the Aristotelian side in Augustinian-versus-Aristotelian disputes. Consequently, even though (as I understand it) one of the main motivations for the multiple-substantial-forms thesis was to support a very non-Aristotelian dualism of soul and body and I don’t like that motivation, the idea itself of multiple forms does not seem inherently bad. It might be understood as a sort of reification of the different senses or meanings of “form” in Aristotle.)

Modernity, Again

Brandom is a systematic philosopher, and he has always been clear that his aims are not principally historical. Nonetheless, like Pippin, he considers it very important to argue that Hegel, despite all his criticisms of modernity and admiration for Plato and Aristotle, regarded modernity’s advent both as the single most important event in history and as fundamentally progressive. Brandom’s uncharacteristically telegraphic argument deliberately constructs coarse historical stereotypes, with a specific, edifying purpose in mind. I am a lover of the fine grain of history, deeply concerned with subtleties and ambiguities of historiography, and critical of clich├ęs in the history of philosophy. Coarse periodizations in cultural and intellectual matters always trouble me. So, while highly sympathetic to the edifying intent, I worry about historiographical soundness of predications on coarse periodizations.

Chapter 13 of Spirit of Trust provides the best available clarification of the conceptual content Brandom means to impute to modernity. In the more careful treatment there, the order of explanation begins from a type based simply on what Hegel would call the determinate negation of immediate Sittlichkeit — a move away from the unquestioned governance of tradition. Association of this with a particular periodization is a separate, secondary move. Also, from the point of view of the edifying intent, conceptual content is what matters, not the periodization with which it is associated. So on two separate grounds, disagreement on the periodization would not really touch the main argument, which is good. (See also Alienation, Modernity.)

Having now completed a first pass through the book, I find the less careful language of the introduction repeated in the conclusion. This could be just an editorial issue. But some of the wording again sounds like periodization could come first, and again attributes major unexplained significance to Descartes, with no earlier signpost. (He refers to a suppressed chapter on normativity in early modernity that probably would have been helpful. I’m guessing it expanded on the role he attributes to social contract theories in the published text. See also Modernity, Rousseau?)

Let me try to forgivingly recollect what is going on here. In the very big picture, stepping away from tradition is progressive compared to never doing so, and Descartes did step away from tradition. In sharp contrast to the highly technical and deeply contexted discourse of the academic philosophers of his day, Descartes became famous for simple reflections in the first person addressed to a much broader audience and presupposing no acquaintance with other philosophical texts. That is to say, he became famous as an instigator of a style of writing. A kind of individualism and a kind of democratic impulse — both interpretable as counterposed to the governance of tradition — can be read into this style, so in very broad terms that gives it a proto-Enlightenment shape that undoubtedly inspired others. The large social/historical impact of his proto-Enlightenment writing style cannot be denied, regardless of the verdict we reach on the relative merits of his philosophical claims and arguments. He also tried to build a complete foundationalist system of his own, which for better or worse could be read as another expression of burgeoning individualism. In conjunction with this, he promoted a kind of know-nothing attitude toward previous philosophy, which if we are being very charitable could again be loosely tied to a sort of democratic impulse.

That said, while reflections in the first person are important in our social relations, to claim to derive the only true system of the world from first-person reflections is a terrible and extremely arrogant way to do philosophy. To think otherwise is a particularly bald example of the illusion of Mastery. The wholesale rejection of previous philosophy is another artifact of hopeless Mastery. The specific conceptual content Descartes gives us does little to improve the situation. (I’ve commented before on Descartes and representation — see the Repraesentatio post.)

The thrust of the famous cogito ergo sum was already anticipated in Augustine’s Confessions. A more detailed version was developed by Avicenna, in an argument known to the medievals as the “flying man”. He proposed a thought experiment, considering someone in counterfactual absolute sensory deprivation from birth, with the intent of asking whether awareness could be completely independent of sensibility. He argued that the person in absolute sensory deprivation would still be aware of her own existence, due to a pure immediate reflexive awareness intrinsic to the soul and independent of the body. This kind of claim would have been accepted by Plotinus, but rejected by Aristotle or Hegel. Medieval Augustinians, however, enthusiastically adopted many of Avicenna’s ideas.

More originally but even less auspiciously, Descartes argued for the incorrigibility of raw appearance qua appearance as an epistemic foundation. In Brandom’s Fregean terms, this gives us bare reference to an unspecified something, but no sense we could begin to work with. This kind of incorrigibility is a trivial truth, but because it is trivial, nothing of interest follows from it. As Brandom says, a contraction to appearance-talk is a refusal of actual commitment to anything. And we don’t want an incorrigible foundation anyway. What does any of this add to our expressive genealogy? It still seems like a node deserving of omission in a short account.

Brandom himself in his study guide to Sellars’ “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” says “the Cartesian way of talking about the mind is the result of confusion about the distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic items, and the roles they can play in various sorts of explanation”. (See also Enlightenment.)