We can never know for certain the intentions of another person. In the event someone describes his/her intentions we listeners would only know what the speaker described his/her intentions to be, and not everyone always tells the truth. "Intentionality is a philosophical concept and is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as 'the power of mind to be about, to represent or to stand for things, properties and states of affairs.'"1 In other words intentionality is a state of mind, and that is why what others say or do can never be known for certain—because we have no direct access to the mind of another to check if s/he is telling the truth.
The distinction between "intentionality" as a state of mind and human intentions in terms of actions and statements was first recognized in the medieval period. "The earliest theory of intentionality is associated with St Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God" in which he distinguished "between objects that exist in the understanding and objects that exist in reality."2 If this is correct, it means that the concept of intentionality was unknown in antiquity until the tenth/eleventh centuries. In the New Testament, for example, there is no word exclusively reserved for the concept of intention/intentionality.
In the New Testament "intention" is described in terms of a purpose that leads to certain concrete actions. The Greek words that are pressed into service to express intention are boulomai (Acts 5:28, 12:4), thelō (Luke 14:28), mellō (Acts 5:35, 20:13), logos (Acts 10:29). In other cases Koine Greek employs certain constructions that are used to express the idea of purpose, "for this [purpose]": Acts 9:21; "with a view to": 1 Cor 10:6; "so that": John 11:15; Eph 3:10; "for what [purpose]": John 13:28.
Two examples illustrate the murky distinction between the mental state of intentionality and human intentions underlying concrete actions. In Acts 5:28 the intent of the apostles is "apparently" misjudged in the light of the mood of the crowd (5:26). The Jewish leaders assume that the apostles intended their preaching as an attack upon the Jewish high council, while the apostles, on the other hand, describe the purpose of their preaching as performed in obedience to God (5:28-29) so as to bring repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel (5:31-32). But note that the apostles also accuse the Jewish leaders of killing Jesus by hanging him on a tree (5:30).3 So perhaps the Jewish leaders were at least partially correct and the apostles did subliminally, at least, intend their preaching as a criticism of the Jewish leaders.
This example is made more complicated in that the motives and intent of the characters in the drama (Acts 4:1-5:42) were ascribed to them by an author who was not present at the events, but who writes later about the situation. So readers are left to wonder for what purpose would an author write a narrative making the apostles appear either duplicitous or creating a suspicion that perhaps they do not fully understand their own intentions.
Here is a second example from my own life experience: in my last blog I described a conversation in which I was accused of writing editorials for the local newspaper "in order to draw attention to" myself. I, on the other hand, tell myself that I think of what I publish in the newspaper as a public service and regard my editorials as an extension of my former classroom beyond its brick and mortar walls. I only publish an editorial when I have information that in my view might help clarify issues in public discussion. Obviously my critic would not agree. So the question becomes have I duped myself and do not fully understand my own intentions? Or has my critic duped himself and erroneously cast aspersions on my motives? Since one's intentionality cannot be directly examined, the answers to both questions must remain uncertain.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://seop.illc.uva.nl/entries/intentionality/.
2"Intentionality," Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentionality.
3All the gospels, however, portray Jesus' death as being done at the behest of Roman authority.