Following Chisholm, et al. and as against Sellars, et al. I subscribe to the broadly logical primacy of the intentional over the linguistic.
But before we can discuss the primacy of the intentional, we must have some idea of (i) what intentionality is and (ii) what the problem of intentionality is. Very simply, (mental) intentionality is object-directedness, a feature of some (if not all) of our mental states. (The qualifier 'mental' leaves open the eistemic possibility of what George Molnar calls physical intentionality which transpires, if it does transpire, below the level of mind. I take no position on it at the moment.)
Suppose a neighbor asks me about Max Black, a stray cat of our mutual acquaintance, who we haven't seen in a few weeks. The asking occasions in me a thought of Max, with or without accompanying imagery. The problem of intentionality is to provide an adequate account of what it is for my thought of Max to be a thought of Max, and of nothing else. Simply put, what makes my thought of Max a thought of Max? How is object-directedness (intentionality, the objective reference of episodes of thinking) possible?
Why should there be a problem about this? Well, an episode of thinking is a datable event in my mental life. But a cat is not. No cat is a content of consciousness. Cats ain't in the head or in the mind. Obviously, no cat is spatially inside my mind, and it is only a little less obvious that no cat depends for its existence on my mind: it's nothing to Max, ontologically speaking, if me and my mind cease to exist. He needs my thinking of him to exist as little as my thinking needs to be about him. Cats are physical things out there in the physical world. And yet my thinking of Max 'reaches' beyond my mind and targets -- not some cat or other, but a particular cat. How is this possible? What must our ontology include for it to be possible?
To get the full flavor of the problem, please observe that my thinking of Max would be unaffected if Max were, unbeknownst to me, to pass out of existence while I was thinking of him. (He's out on the prowl and a hungry coyote kills him while I am thinking of him.) It would be the very same thought with the very same content and the very same directedness. But if Max were to cease to exist while a flea was biting him, then the relation of biting would cease to obtain. So if the obtaining of a relation requires the existence of all its relata, it follows that intentionality is not a relation between a thinker (or his thought) and an external object. But if intentionality is not a relation, then how are we to account for the fact that intentional states refer beyond themselves to objects that are (typically) transcendent of the mind?
Now it seems to me that any viable solution must respect the primacy of the intentional over the linguistic. This thesis consists of the following subtheses:
1. Words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and the like, considered in their physical being as marks on paper or sounds in the air or carvings in stone (etc.) are entirely lacking in any intrinsic referential, representative, semantic, or intentional character. There is nothing in the nature of the mark 'red' that makes it mean red. After all, it doesn't mean red to a speaker of German. It doesn't mean anything to a speaker of German qua speaker of German. In German 'rot' means red while in English the same sign is in use but has a different meaning. Clearly, then, marks on paper, pixels on screen, etc. have no intrinsic sense or reference grounded in their very nature. It s a matter of conventional that they mean what they mean. And that brings minds into the picture.
2. So any sense or reference linguistic signs have must be derivative and relational as opposed to intrinsic: whatever intentionality they have they get from minds that are intrinsically intentional. Mind is the source of all intelligibility. Linguistic signs in and of themselves as mere marks and sounds (etc.) are unintelligible.
3. There can be mind without language, but no language without mind. Laird Addis puts it like this:
Conscious states can and do occur in beings with no language, and in us with no apparent connection to the fact that we are beings with language. Thus we may say that "mind explains language" in a logical or philosophical sense: that while it is perfectly intelligible to suppose the existence of beings who have no language but have much the same kinds of conscious states that we have, including introspections of other conscious states, it is unintelligible to suppose the existence of beings who are using language in all of its representative functions and who are also lacking in conscious states. The very notion of language as a representational system presupposes the notion of mind, but not vice versa. (Natural Signs: A Theory of Intentionality, Temple University Press, 1989, pp. 64-65)