Phil 340: Intensional and Intentional

In earlier classes, we mentioned the idea of mental states being “intentional/representational” or about things. And we also mentioned a term “intensional” that philosophers sometime use (spelled with an “s” where the other has a “t”). I said that these concepts are connected but different. I also said that not everyone uses these words in exactly the same way. So I can’t show you official definitions that every philosopher who uses these words agrees with.

Still I can help you get a handle on what they mean, and the differences in how they’re used.


“Intensional” (with an “s”) is contrasted to “extensional”.

Intentionality or “Aboutness”

The word “intentional” on the other hand (with a “t”) is mostly used in philosophy in one of three ways:

In his Philosophy of Mind textbook, Kim uses the label “content intentionality” to talk about whatever is going on with mental states that have propositional content. He uses the label “referential intentionality” to talk about intentional objects.

Those two options are most common in the philosophy of mind, and they’re definitely using “intentional” as a bit of special technical jargon. The third use is more common when discussing actions and related issues (practical reasons, free will); and it uses “intentional” in a way that’s closer to its everyday English meaning. In this sense, to call something “intentional” means:

For example, if you’re gloating to me about having grabbed the last beer at the party, and then I “accidentally” trip and bump you, making you spill the beer, then we might get into an argument about whether I bumped you intentionally. When people talk about your “forming an intention” and your “doing something intentionally,” they’re talking about your actions and decisions and motives in this way.

In philosophy of mind, though, I think you’ll most often see “intentional” used in the first way. Try replacing it with “propositional” or “representational” and see whether what the author is saying still makes sense. (Intentional states in this sense include, but are not limited to, decisions and intentions in the third sense.)