Intentionality is not a real existing thing. Intentionality is an abstract concept that has very little use and a lot of downside. The concept of intentionality has been thought up by Brentano. Intentionality is about the aboutness of our mental states. The problem with this concept is that there are no mental states and our brain states are not about something.

The first issue is that many people would think that intentionality has only to do with our intentions. Intention is also a concept and also doesn’t really exist. If you think that people have intentions, then intentions are about something, i.e. intentions are about what you intend to do. As such intentions have intentionality as intentions are about something. But our beliefs also have intentionality as our beliefs are also about something. The same goes for our desires, our expectations and our motivation, to name a few examples.

The aboutness is a problematic idea. Brentano thought that there was a literal connection between our mental state and what that mental state was about. Given that no such connection was ever found, people soon changed the story of intentionality into the idea that we have representation of what our mental states are about and that those representations inside our head form our intentionality. Somehow the outside world would be mirrored inside our brain through representation of everything we sensed. As it turns out this picture of how the brain works is also very problematic.


As most people would think that intentionality is mainly about intentions, let me give you an alternative way of looking at intentions. Human behavior is most easily explained if you consider humans to be goal achieving systems. Yet, these goals don’t have to explicit or conscious goals. For instance, the biological hardware structure of our brain forms our personality which in turn gives players a lot of goals on their own. These are evolutionary behavioral patterns around emotions, cognition and motivation and can best be explained as trying to achieve specific goals. But these are unconscious goals, if they are goals in the brain at all. Independent of whether there are goals in the brain, consciously or not, the behavior of players is best understood as if they had goals. Yet, it is important to understand that this goal achieving way of interpreting the behavior of players is being done by third parties, i.e. other human beings.

We as outsiders put intentions into players. It is our way of explaining their behavior. This is a clear clue that there are no intentions inside the player’s brain. But what then is inside the brain? For we experience ourselves subjectively that we have goals and try to achieve them. That our subjective experience is like that, doesn’t mean that there are real goals inside our brain. Inside our brain there are only brain cells and neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. We also know that our brain is capable of processing sense data. The five main senses are: seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. So a much more probable story to replace intentions, is that players have memory like fantasies about the future where they see themselves acting in a way that makes them feel good.

What happens next is that our ability to put our thoughts into sentences, is that we start to create abstract talk about this mental imagery with a good feeling attached. We start to translate this mental picture that feels good to talk about what I want (the good feeling) to achieve (the mental picture). In the next level of abstraction, this changes to talk about intentions. From there intentions get a life on their own and suddenly people act as if intentions are real. But this simplification creates a situation where we make mistakes and misjudge people because we think we understand the non-existing intentions in their brain. Whereas we go back to understanding that (a) the fact that we use goals to understand the behavior of players, doesn’t mean that they really have those goals and (b) that even if they have those goals, these goals are nothing more than memory like fantasies about their future that feel good.

Relevance for football

We know that players play at their best if they don’t overthink situations. Through associative learning and instrumental learning their unconscious mind knows what to do (technique) and how to read the match (game intelligence) unconsciously. At the same time, it is also known that if players start the match having a clear goal of what they want to achieve consciously, the play better. Unconscious processing is meant for quick decisions, yet the brain also needs a long term goal so it knows how to weigh options during the quick decision in the light of the long term goal. The long term goal for a football match is only a few hours in the future. Nevertheless, a few hours are long term for the brain. So it is important just before the match that the manager is able to create a very similar mental picture of what the team wants to achieve in each of his players. And he also needs to make sure that his players attach good feelings to this mental picture of the team’s future.

Being able to attack good feelings to the long term goal for the match, is one of the reasons why morale and confidence seem to be so important in football. The issue is that with a bad morale of the team or individual players who lack confidence is that for those players it becomes quite hard to attach a good feeling to the long term goal for the match. Without that good feeling the brain doesn’t value the mental picture of how the manager wants the match to develop as goal worthy of achieving. Without that long term goal, the brain finds it harder to make decisions quickly and unconsciously as there is no direction set to weigh different options lacking a long term goal.

Psychology without content

One of the academic philosophy books that I published is called Psychology Without Content in Dutch. In Psychology Without Content I argue that there is no content inside our brain. All talk about intentionality, but also about mental states, implies that there is content inside our brain. Yet, no one has any clue as to how our brain can be contentful. It is one thing to assume that there is content in our brain, but without any evidence or arguments for content in our brain, it is a big assumption. Nor is there a need for content in our brain. Everything our brain does can be described syntactically. There is no need for semantics.

Of course when we make a memory like fantasy about the future, it looks as if there is content inside our brain. But looks can be deceiving. It is enough for there to be a system that can be described syntactically to create this mental imagery. Even though our eyes and our brains don’t work with pixels, you can compare this with how pixels are stored in the RAM of a computer when it displays a photo or plays a movie. There is no content in the RAM of the computer. There are only electronic connections that either have a current going through it or not. Syntactically we describe this as an on/off state or a 0 and a 1. Nobody thinks that the computer itself sees this data semantically or as content. We humans watching the monitor of the computer ascribe content to what we see on the computer monitor.

The same thing is happening with us humans. Except we don’t have a monitor attached where a third party can see what we produce. Our computer monitor is society though. Semantics and content does exist, but not inside our brains. Instead these are emerging properties of our society. Through our ability to speak to each other we form a community, Content and semantics exist within this community and not within our brains. In our brains we only have encoded how to act and speak and behave within a community. This gives us the illusion of content, semantics and intentionality inside our brain, but this is only due to our functioning within a community of other language users.

The same goes for the player and the team. The manager doesn’t have content inside his brain, nor does his players have content inside their brain. The same goes for intentionality and intentions. Instead the intentions, intentionality and content exist within the team. Players often say that playing football is a team effort. This is of course true, but not only because they play together, but also because they create meaning together. As a team they create intentionality, intentions and content. Given what we know about how the brain works, this can be a very powerful tool if used correctly.