Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) developed the concept of intentionality to include what we would now describe as embodiment. He argues that it is only though our lived bodies do we have access to what he describes as the “primary world”. Without our bodies there could be no world thus the concept of the lived body is central to his account of (corporeal) intentionality and replaces the usual Cartesian mind-body distinction.

The world and the lived body together form what Merleau-Ponty calls an intentional arc which binds the body to the world. For example, the movement of the lived body actually creates (produces) existential space. It is not, however, the “objective” movement of the body as such, instead it is the experience of this movement, “Far from my body’s being for me no more than a fragment of space, there would be no space at all for me if I had no body”. To feel our body (kinaesthesia) feeling its surroundings is not merely an exercise in self-reflection but the means by which we, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, “prehend” the world. This kinaesthetic feedback is the means by which we both objectify the world and orient ourselves within it. To orient ourselves is to adopt an external point or frame of reference. However, Merleau-Ponty also recognised the role of the world (environment) when he wrote, “To move one’s body is to aim at things through it; it is to allow oneself to respond to their call” (ibid). This intentional arc is then the knowledge of how to act in a way that coheres with one’s environment bringing body and world together. But this is more than just being physically present in the world: “the life of consciousness - cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life - is subtended by an intentional arc which projects round about us our past, our future, our human setting, our physical, ideological and moral situation”. So, from this reading of Merleau-Ponty, witnessing is an act of construction and a part of an intentional arc binding us to the world.
The second treatment of intentionality draws on the work of Walter Freeman, the celebrated neuro-scientist, who has described the philosophical treatment of intentionality as “anaemic”. Instead he describes intentionality as ‘the process of the brain in action’ (Freeman, 1999 p.18) and ‘having the properties of unity, wholeness and intent (the intension of taking in by stretching forth) ...” - the parallel with Merleau-Ponty (cf. Dreyfus, 1996) is striking.

In his Society of Brains Freeman sees intentionality as an outward push and likens it to what Darwin called “nerve force”; and what Bergson called “élan vitale”. This outward push is mediated by the neural circuits represented in figure 2. Freeman observes that studies of the origin of ‘spontaneous’ background activity of cortex place it in the mutual excitation among neurons which can spill over into the restlessness. The schematic flow of activity locates the intentional arc in the forebrain by which purposive behaviours are generated.

Writing in Society of Brains he notes that the state of the brain at any moment, may be conceived of as a spatiotemporal pattern, which is the result of the interaction of the motor, sensory and associational areas creates. This pattern is transmitted to the brain stem and spinal cord, with a number of feedback loops acting as a control mechanism. Additional feedback is delivered proprioceptively and monitors action and evaluates the performance with respect to the intent. The above architecture provides for a neurological basis for intentionality.

Having considered presence as an outward, intentional push we now turn to the object of its “attention” in the environment.

Phil Turner