Phil 101: The Varieties of Mental States

We said that a mental state or process or attitude is a kind of property or event which can be had only by thinking, feeling creatures.

Some examples are:

Let’s talk a bit about some important categories of mental states.

Propositional Attitudes and Intentional Objects

Many mental states are representational or intentional. What this means is that they’re about things. For instance, consider the true belief that Charlotte is south of Carrboro. This belief is about Charlotte and about Carrboro. The false belief that Charlotte is north of Raleigh would also be about Charlotte.

Many representational states concern the possibility of things being one way rather than another. For instance, the belief that Charlotte is south of Carrboro concerns Charlotte being located in one place rather than another. My wish that I could dance like Fred Astaire concerns my dancing one way rather than another. We call these states propositional attitudes. A proposition is the sort of thing that can be true or false, and can be believed or denied. Charlotte is south of Carrboro and I dance like Fred Astaire are two examples of propositions. A propositional attitude is a kind of “mental stance” you take towards a proposition. In the first example, you believe the proposition to be true. In the second example, I wish that the proposition were true.

Some philosophers count knowing that something is the case (or remembering, or forgetting, and so on) as propositional attitudes too, even though you can only know/remember/forget that something happened if it really did happen. That is, these are attitudes you can only have towards true propositions or facts.

When we talk about representational states in this class, we’ll mostly be concerned with propositional attitudes. It’s controversial whether there are any representational states that aren’t propositional attitudes. Some candidates for being such are states like this:

For these examples, understand the state to be focused on the general possibility of a pony (any pony). Not some specific ponies living up the street.

These examples would also make sense if we replaced “pony” with “troll”. You can want, and imagine, and seek things that don’t exist.

In examples like this, since there’s no specific pony you’re thinking about, ponies are called “intentional objects” of the state. Some philosophers have argued that these states can all be reduced to facts about what propositional attitudes you have. For example, wanting a pony might be a matter of wanting that you own a pony. Fearing ponies might be a matter of fearing that some pony will chase you and eat you up. Or something like that. Other philosophers argue that these examples can’t be reduced in this way. This controversy remains unsettled.

Representational states of either sort have important characteristics that we should keep track of.

  1. They can be “incomplete” in certain ways. They need not specify every detail of the objects they’re about. Consider my memories of my first-grade teacher. These memories do not represent her as having brown eyes. But they do not represent her as having non-brown eyes either. I cannot remember the color of her eyes. The mere fact that some representational states represents an object, and fails to represent it as being F, does not entail that the state represents the object as being not-F. There is a gap between “not-(representing it as F)” and “representing it as (not-F).”

  2. Here’s another way that representational states needn’t specify every detail: they can represent things about an F, without there being any particular F they are about. In our examples, a needy child desires a pony (or that he have a pony) without there being any particular pony such that his desire is for that pony.

  3. As we said, representational states can also represent things about an F, even though no Fs ever have or ever will exist. Our child may fear trolls, or believe that there is a troll hiding under her bed, even though no trolls ever have or ever will exist.

  4. Representational states can represent the F (or represent that the F is a certain way), and fail to represent the G in the same way, even if the F is the G. For instance, Lois Lane believes that the super-hero who defends Metropolis is strong. But it doesn’t seem like Lois believes that the mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet is strong. Yet the super-hero who defends Metropolis (Superman) is the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent at the Daily Planet.

    Contrast this to other, non-representational, relations Lois might stand in to Superman. If she kisses the super-hero, and the super-hero is the same person as the reporter, then it follows that she kissed the reporter, too. If she kicks the reporter in the knee, and the super-hero and the reporter are the same person, then it follows that she kicked the super-hero in the knee, too. Representational states seem different. If she believes the super-hero is strong, it’s not clear she has to believe the reporter is strong; even though they’re the same person. If she wants to marry the super-hero, it’s not clear she has to want to marry the reporter. And so on.

Intentional versus Intensional

Note how we spelled the term “intentional,” above. There’s another term you may encounter in your reading, that’s spelled like this: “intensional” (with an “s” where the other word has a “t”). These concepts are connected but different. Also, not everyone uses these words in exactly the same way.

Here are some notes if you want to read more about it.

Qualitative or Phenomenal Feels

We’ve discussed one (or two?) categories of mental states that philosophers talk about: ones with propositional content, and ones with intentional objects, which may or may not be different.

A third category of mental states goes under many different names. Some of them are:

Some examples of states with these properties are: pains, tickles, experiences of tasting salt, experiences of seeing colors, and so on.

These kinds of states are understood to be conscious, and such that there’s some distinctive way it “feels” to be in that mental state. There is no special way it feels to be 6 feet tall, on the other hand. The statue is 6 feet tall, but it doesn’t feel anything. Joe and Terry might both be 6 feet tall, but have very different feelings. There is a special way it “feels” to be in pain. Everyone who is in pain feels the same way. Of course, we can be more specific and fine-grained, and talk about stabbing pains vs. dull throbbing pains vs. other sorts of pain. But for each of these, there will be some distinctive way it feels to have that sort of pain.

The same goes for perceptual experiences. When I look at a ripe tomato, I have a certain kind of visual experience, and there is a distinctive conscious character to this experience. Everyone who has the same experience will also have that distinctive conscious character. (Let’s leave it an open question whether you also have this same experience when you look at ripe tomatos. Maybe you have a different kind of experience.

But if you have the same experience as me, there is a distinctive conscious character that you must be having.)

When mental states have a distinctive conscious character like this, we say that they are qualitative states or phenomenal feels, and we call their distinctive “feel” or conscious character their qualitative character. (Or we use some of the other labels above.)

It is a major question in contemporary philosophy of mind how exactly we should understand and explain these notions.

Part of the controversy concerns what the relation is between qualitative states and representational states.


I already introduced these technical terms above: propositional attitudes, intentional/intensional (which we’ll come back to later), qualitative/phenomenal.

Some other special vocabulary you may come across:


Some authors use “sapience” to mean aspects of mentality having to do with knowledge, rationality, or intelligence; and they contrast this to “sentience” which has to do with qualitative feelings. Other authors use “sentient” in the same way that the first authors use “sapient” (for example, when they talk about whether there’s sentient life on other planets, or about AIs becoming sentient, they’re thinking about life that’s self-aware and intelligent, not just life that can feel pains). That’s awkward, isn’t it? In the philosophical literature we’ll be looking at, this pair of words isn’t used very much.


There’s a broad usage of this to mean “having to do with mental machinery at the level of psychology, rather than neurochemistry.” In philosophy, there’s also a narrower use to mean “having to do with belief.” For instance, a “cognitive theory of fear” would be a theory that says fearing trolls always implies (and on some versions, may wholly consist in) having some belief, such as the belief that trolls are dangerous or may hurt you.


This means a kind of intrinsic attractive or repulsive charge, as found in states like pain, desire, disgust.


This word is sometimes used for sensations or “raw phenomenal feels.” Other times it’s used as another name for emotions, like anger and excitement. It’s controversial what is the relation between these and the three categories of mental states (propositional attitudes, states with intentional objects, phenomenal feels) we described above. Often emotions have some affective component. I don’t know whether they always do.

Other categories of mental events / properties

A fourth category of mentally-related things are actions and abilities, as when you lower your arm on purpose. Often these involve the participation of your body, as well as your mind. But there can also be wholly mental actions: for example, when you (silently, to yourself) count how many letters in the alphabet come before “h.” Some abilities, like solving puzzles and using language, also seem to be more mental than physical.

A fifth category are psychological habits and character traits, like honesty, obsession, wit, and so on.

We started the course asking some questions about actions and abilities. (There’s much more to explore.) In coming weeks, we’ll be talking more about propositional attitudes and phenomenal feels.