When philosophers discuss intentionality they use the term somewhat differently from most people. In philosophy it refers to the relationship between a person’s mind and an object. So, for example, when a person loves, wants, or believes, the person that they love, the cake that they want or the story that they believe forms the intentional object, whist the loving, wanting or believing describes their relationship towards that object. For some philosophers this relationship is very problematic, but I’m not one of them. Personally I find it a useful tool to help clarify our thinking regarding the relationship between a single person (mind/brain) and whatever it is in the physical or social world that may have gained their attention. A person (the intentional subject) may claim that they believe in ghosts. Providing that we can be clear as to the intentional object (an agreed understanding of what a ghost is – even as an abstract idea) and the nature of the intentional relationship (belief being the ability of the person’s world view to allow the existence of an object that cannot be detected by the senses), there is little to concern us. We do not have to have evidence of the actual existence of ghosts to understand what the person means.
However, what I do have a serious problem with is collective intentionality – the supposed relationship between a group of people and an intentional object. Take the simple claim that “the people of Bridport support their annual hat festival”. Using the structure of intentionality it quickly becomes obvious that a clear meaning becomes difficult to find. First, we have an intentional object, the annual Bridport Hat Festival, for which it is easy to produce a non-contentious definition. Second, we have the intentional subject, the people of Bridport. Now things start to get more complicated. Is it claimed that all the population support the festival, or just some of them? And if the latter, how many? Then we have the intentional relationship, the support. Even if we can clearly define the group of people who form the intentional subject (which I doubt), how do we define what they mean by ‘support’? This could range from simply walking into town to observe the hats being worn and uttering positive comments, all the way to spending months creating the most elaborate hat imaginable and parading it in the streets on the day. Any definition of ‘support’ capable of including the entire range would be close to meaningless. OK, I know what most people’s reaction to such analysis is: in ‘the real world’ there is no problem, and trying to create one either gets you angry or sends you to sleep. And most of the time I agree with you. But there are occasions when the implications of such statements, and their meaning, have very serious consequences – and Brexit is one of them!
Many people compare leaving the EU to a divorce, and even if you are not one of them it’s a useful comparison to make to highlight the huge problems associated with the former. Most divorces have a structure similar to that of intentionality. For each party there is a clear intentional subject (themselves), a clear intentional object (their current partner, soon to be ex-partner), and whilst it’s often not easy to find clarity as to the desired new relationship, it is at least possible. You can choose to avoid each other, have nothing to do with each other if you wish, providing the needs and interests of any children are taken into account. It is at least theoretically possible for each party to be both clear and support the desired post-divorce relationship.
However, no such clarity is possible regarding our future relationship with the EU. Any statement along the lines of “the British people have chosen to leave the EU” is close to meaningless. Whilst it is reasonably straight forward to define the intentional object (the EU as an institution), it is next to impossible to have any degree of clarity regarding either the intentional subject (the British people), or the existing / desired relationship between them. In order to hold a referendum in the first place the very nature of this complex relationship needed simplifying and condensing down to a binary leave / remain question. This simplified people’s thoughts and feelings down to a level of abstract meaningless. The only meaningful statement regarding the wishes, desires or beliefs of the British people is that of those that who voted, at the time of voting 52% voted to leave and 48% voted to remain. It is simply impossible to extrapolate from this what the British people want our long term relationship with our ex-partners to be. The ‘British people’ cannot be regarded as an intentional subject. As a collective they are a vast number of biologically distinct brains whose minds are unique in the details of their loves, wants and beliefs. And within this collective there will be an almost infinite number of variations around a large number of different perspectives.
So where does this leave us? Well, because Brexit is claimed to be about giving control back the British people, and because it is impossible to have clarity as to what the British people want their future relationship with their ex-partners to be, we have to have the opportunity to either approve or reject the relationship negotiated on our behalf by a small group of politicians. A divorce agreement may be negotiated by solicitors, but it has to be either approved by the person on whose behalf the solicitor was working, or else imposed by a civil court. No Brexit agreement will be capable of capturing the wishes of everyone, that is just impossible, but the individual people of the UK must have the opportunity to decide whether the new relationship on offer is close enough to their own individually desired relationship to be acceptable – or not. It took a referendum to get us into this mess, and it will take another to get us out of it. After that…please, no more referendums – ever!