In a paper published several years ago, Kathleen Akins argued convincingly that the most popular contemporary attempts to account for the intentional directedness, or “aboutness.” of mental states within a decidedly naturalistic explanatory framework suffer from a principled theoretical inadequacy. The problem, Akins argued, lies in the fact that these explanatory attempts are invariably committed to a seductive, but ultimately mistaken, view regarding the modus operandi of the senses, a view she labels as “the traditional view”. According to the traditional view, the senses are our “windows on the world” – the disinterested transducers of veridical information about external conditions. Backing herself with empirical data pertaining in particular to thermoreception, Akins argued that, rather than being veridical recorders of objective external facts, the sensory systems are narcissistic (viz., egocentric) and action oriented. This unorthodox contention lead Akins to a rather problematic conclusion: Understanding the workings of the sensory systems cannot help us understand how genuine intentionality, of the sort exemplified in so-called higher cognitive processes (perception, thought, memory, etc.) is rendered possible, since, unlike the former, the latter is staunchly non-narcissistic. While Akins’ critique of the traditional view of the senses is, to my judgement, timely, this paper is, in the main, an attempt to challenge her latter conclusion and the principled gap it establishes between sensation and the rest of cognition. Akins’ chief mistake, I argue, lies in overlooking the possibility that the entire space of intentional phenomena, including the seemingly objective representations of types and tokens, of objects, situations, events, and the like, is, at the root, narcissistic and action oriented. An interactivist account of mental content, based on the concept of autonomous conduct in far from equilibrium thermodynamic conditions, is delineated which provides such an alternative unified perspective.
Itay Shani is currently instructor at the University of Haifa, Israel. He studied philosophy at Tel-Aviv University (MA, 1999) and at the University of Western Ontario, Canada (PhD, 2004; dissertation on "Content and its Problems: A Critique of Contemporary Naturalistic Semantics"). His areas of specialization are the philosophy of mind, the foundations of cognitive science, metaphysics, and epistemology. His papers, "Intension and Representation: Quine’s Indeterminacy Thesis Revisited" and "Computation and Intentionality: A Recipe for Epistemic Impasse" have been accepted for publication in Philosophical Psychology and Minds and Machines, respectively.