The Background of “The Background”

In Intentionality, John Searle describes what he calls “The Background.” The Background is the set of non-representational pre-intentional beliefs or understanding which underlies and makes representational intentionality possible. The Background can also be described as the know-how that enables us to do all the things that we do while thinking about something completely different. “The Background consists of mental phenomena” (154). The Background helps to determine the particular conditions of satisfaction of any particular intentional state. To say “the members” of the Background are “beliefs” is misleading, because they are unarticulated and expressly not intentional states. These phrases seem to imply that the Background is made up of a definite number of implicit or unconscious intentional states. This is exactly what Searle doesn’t want to say. Our only way of describing the Background is in terms of intentional states that seem to be made manifest in certain situations. But, just because an intentional state becomes explicit through such an experience, it does not follow that that intentional state was implicitly held beforehand.

One example of the understanding that makes up the Background is that of our expectations in any specific situation. For example, Jones goes to take a drink from a mug and finds that the mug weighs a lot less than he expected. In such a case he may say or think “I expected the mug to be heavier than it was,” which is certainly the expression of an intentional state. However, this does not mean that the expectation was held unconsciously or implicitly before reaching for the mug. Imagine all the situations which would be surprising to find upon waking up in the morning. For example, it would be quite surprising to wake up under an elephant, or with a rock where a pillow once was, or in the body of a bug. The list of such surprises would hold an infinite number of situations. Each of those situations, if it should happen, could be followed by saying “I didn’t expect that to happen.” From this, it does not follow that every individual holds an infinite number of implicit intentional expectations about what their room will be like when they wake up in the morning. These experiences can be described as a breakdown of one’s Background understanding.

Another way the Background is made manifest is in our understanding of the meaning of sentences. We can understand a word, even with the same literal meaning, differently as we relate to various aspects of the world. So for example, take the word “add,” with the literal meaning “to join (something) to something else so as to increase the size, number, or amount.” In each of the following sentences, add has the same literal meaning yet calls for vastly different activities.

      1. John added a tip to his bill.

      2. Jack added sugar to the batter.

      3. Jane added 3 and 5 in her head.

The understanding that one adds a tip by writing on a receipt, adds sugar by pouring, and adds numbers by arithmetic is part of the Background. We can’t try to express our understanding of these three sentences by other intentional sentences like “A tip is the kind of thing one adds by writing on a receipt” or “Sugar is the kind of thing one adds by pouring.” Our understanding of the meaning of words is not to be described as a vast set of internalized rules. Another way of saying this is that we do not conceive of each of these things as objects with functional predicates. We can easily conceive of breakdown cases of our understanding of words analogous to the breakdown cases of our understanding of situations discussed above. If someone asked me to add sugar to a cake mix we were making and I scratched my chin in deep thought for a second and then said “Done”, I would seem crazy. The asker would probably say “I meant really add the sugar, not just in your head.” In such a case, it would become explicit that the asker thought that in the case of sugar adding literally means pouring it into something that contained whatever we were making. But, that thought was not an intentional state before it became explicit. It should be said that in the case of numbers, adding them in your head is really adding them.

One particularly important Background ability we must have in order to have the thoughts that we do is the “capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts.” For any intentional state, we must have or be able to have an indefinite number of other intentional states which will explain that intentional state. Searle calls this ability and the accompanying intentional states “the Network.” Continuing the quotation from above, Searle writes “these conscious [Network] thoughts all require further [Background] capacities for their application” (Rediscovery, 190). So, the Network is all the Intentional states that give meaning to an Intentional state, all of which we would be able to formulate or at least assent to if we were to be questioned about the state.

Searle writes that these arguments are not “intended to be phenomenological.” They aim at “the logical structure of intentionality,” and “phenomenology, for the most part, is unable to access this structure” (Intro, 122). These arguments are also not intended to “demonstrate this hypothesis [of the Background] conclusively” (Intentionality, 143). These kinds of arguments Searle gives for the Background basically say in order to explain how we can do certain things that we in fact do, we must postulate a Network and a Background. Any explanation that does not include something like the Background will be subject to an infinite regress with intentional states explaining intentional states forever. In the case of literal meanings, without the Background, we will not be able to explain those instances in which we are certain of one and only one interpretation to the meaning of a sentence.

Note: I did not write a works cited page because all three texts which I referenced are written by the professor of the class for which this paper was written, and as such are required reading for the class. He, John Searle, is also the philosopher whose ideas I discuss in the paper itself. For convenience the titles are Intentionality, The Rediscovery Of The Mind, and Mind: A Brief Introduction

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