A Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture

Introduction to it by Ted Honderich

            John McDowell came from the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland to New College in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. In due course he became a Fellow of University College Oxford, and then moved to the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh. He has written widely -- in all of the philosophies of mind and language, ancient philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, and metaethics. He is an independent thinker in the tradition of the later Wittgenstein among others and in connection with the Oxford philosopher Gareth Evans, whose posthumous book he edited. His own fruitful books and papers have been much discussed.

            When waiting for the traffic light to change we intend to cross the street when that happens, and when it does, we then intend differently what we do -- cross. So we or most of us have the habit of distinguishing what we may call intentions for the future, as McDowell calls them, or forward-looking or inactive intentions, from intentions in action as he calls them -- which latter things presumably are what have also been called active intentions, volitions, initiations, and traditionally willings -- all of which do not require something called the will, a separate faculty of mind, which has been discarded along with other such faculties. John Searle is one philosopher among us who gives and develops such a distinction between intentions.

            In place of these two things McDowell puts one, or in a sense puts one. An intention for the future itself becomes or turns into an intention in action. The two make up one continuant. Also, he explains, that the latter phase is said to change its shape as the action goes forward does not make for other than the whole intention that is one thing.

            Much that is at least new and arresting is said of the intention in action. It is said, to take an example that may be unfamiliar, that the intention does not relate de re but rather de dicto to the action it is in. The difference between de re and de dicto, which is to say between being about a thing and being about a representation -- all has to do with representations or propositional attitudes, including beliefs, desires, statements, sentences -- and intentions.

            It is a matter, surely, of several different differences. But just take the philosopher Quine's example of a desire. I want a boat can mean either that I want a particular one, maybe that particular thing that I tried unsuccessfully to buy yesterday, or that I want some boat, one of the things that are boats, any of the items that is of that kind or falls under that term as I use it. So, to get back to intentions, I take it we are to understand that the intention in action is not about just that particular action.

            Leaving aside much more that is said of the new view of intention, including the matters of keeping track of time and the succession of shapes, it  is presented as having a number of recommendations over the old view. It is more natural, familiar, not a theory but rather a spelling out of ways we learn to think and talk about intentionality, and simpler.

            It is also an extension of the admired account of intention of the late London philosopher Brian O'Shaugnessy. In particular this is an account of intention that is in accord with his general dual aspect view of the mind, an account in the tradition of many predecessors, including Spinoza. In intentionally engaging in bodily action, the action's intentional character is an aspect or manifestation of or a perspective on an underlying state or reality, and in O'Shaugnessy's case and McDowell's apparently something that is also bodily through and through.

            I myself wonder about the question of whether in the lecture there is an explicit principle of counting depended on that can be made explicit -- of when two things are two parts of one thing or instead two things. No doubt that is worked on in the challenging part of philosophy that is mereology. I wonder too about what is implicit in the lecture, that what it says of intending does what Wittgenstein recommended, which is that good philosophy 'leaves everything as it is'. Has philosophy not changed our conceptions of ourselves? In what fundamental way did Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and the rest leave everything as it is?

            I cannot say I myself have been wholly converted from my own form of the ordinary view of intentions. But the reasonable intention of even a fine lecture cannot conceivably be conversion of all parties. The aim, first, is to make you really think. This one does.