German-Austrian, b: 1838, Marienburg, Germany, d: 1917, Florence. Cat: Philosophical psychology. Ints: Intentionality; act psychology. Educ: Universtiy of Tübingen. Infls: Aristotle, Kant and the post-Kantians. Appts: Professor of Philosophy, first at the Catholic University of Würzburg, later at University of Vienna.
A philosopher and psychologist, Franz Brentano has a permanent place in the history of philosophy as the first to give a clear account of the intentionality, or object-relatedness, of mental phenomena. Born in the Rhineland, he became a Roman Catholic priest and Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Würzburg. He resigned both priesthood and Chair after the Declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1871, and was appointed to a Chair of Philosophy at Vienna University. In a voluminous output, his most important work was Psychology from the Empirical Standpoint, first published in 1874, the same year as Wundt’s Foundations of Physiological Psychology.
In the Psychology Brentano set out to provide an account of the structure of mind which would serve as a foundation for empirical psychology. He called this ‘descriptive psychology’ (and sometimes ‘descriptive phenomenology’). He considered himself an empiricist: experience, he claimed, was his only teacher. Where Wundt was establishing psychology as an empirical science through the experimental investigation of the context of experience, Brentano’s primary method was careful observation of the act of experience itself. Taking for granted a broadly dualistic view of the world (as divided into ‘psychical’ and ‘physical’ phenomena), he concentrated on two questions: What are the essential or defining characteristics of the mental?; Into what categories can mental phenomena be classified?
It was in attempting to answer the first of these questions that he developed his influential ideas on the intentionality of mind. Mental phenomena, he argued, are distinguished from physical by ‘intentional inexistence’, that is ‘reference to a content’ or ‘direction upon an object’. Thus a thought is always a thought about something, a desire is always a desire for something, a perception is always a perception of something, and so on. This is more than a merely contingent matter. The ‘something’ may be some other mental content (an image, say). It may be something that does not exist (for example, a unicorn). Hence the intentionality of mind is not a relation between it and its object (which would entail that the object existed) it is ‘relational’ or ‘relation-like’. But there must (logically must) always be something towards which a mental act is directed. In the absence of this, mental verbs are literally meaningless. Subjective experiences can only be understood as acts of consciousness directed towards objects.
As to the second question, Brentano allowed only three categories, or ‘Grand Classes’, of mental phenomena: representations, judgements and feelings (including both emotions and volitions). These reflect three ways in which mental phenomena may be directed upon their objects. Thus with a representation an idea is simply before the mind or ‘present to consciousness’. But with a judgement we take up a stance towards an idea, an intellectual stance, which may be either of acceptance or rejection. A feeling also involves taking a stance. In this case the stance is emotional, a feeling being broadly either ‘for’ or ‘against’ the idea in question. (Brentano used ‘love’/’hate’ here to mean something along the lines of approach/avoidance.)
In this classification, representations are basic in the sense that we must have an idea before we can take up a stance towards it, intellectual or emotional. However, it is with the epistemological and ethical implications respectively of judgements and feelings that much of the remainder of Brentano’s extensive philosophy is concerned. Thus representations, ideas directly present to consciousness, cannot be either correct or incorrect. They are as it were just there. But when we take up one or other of two opposed stances we open up the possibility of being right or wrong. In the case of judgements, then, one or other of the two opposed stances of affirmation or rejection must be correct in a given case: ‘This is a pencil’, or, ‘This is not a pencil’. As to which is correct, we come to understand the difference by contrasting actual cases of judgements which are correct with those which are not. And judgements are objective in the sense that we cannot affirm correctly what anyone else denies correctly, or vice versa. This is a non-propositional theory of judgement. To affirm/deny that there is a pencil is not to affirm/deny the proposition ‘my pencil exists’. It is to affirm/deny the existence of a pencil. The object of the affirmation/denial is not a proposition, nor even a state of affairs, but, like the object of the corresponding representation, the pencil. Indeed, terms like ‘exist’ do not refer: they are ‘systematic’, allowing us to express our acceptance or rejection of things.
Much the same, Brentano argued, is true of feelings and, hence, since this category includes the ethical stances of good and bad, morals. This is the basis of his moral philosophy. He considered morality, no less than epistemology, to be a branch of descriptive psychology. As with opposed intellectual stances, only one of two opposed emotional stances can be correct in a given case. Again, we grasp the difference between correct and incorrect emotional stances only by experience of contrasting cases, much as we learn what it is for something to be, say, red. Moreover feelings, like judgements, are objective in the sense that we cannot correctly have a pro-emotion towards an object towards which anyone can correctly have an anti-emotion, and vice versa. The correctness of feelings, then, including moral feelings, is, like the correctness of judgements, objective.
Brentano developed his ideas on truth and evidence in the posthumously published Truth and Evidence (1930). He distinguished evident judgements and blind judgements. The former we should perhaps call self-evident: they include judgements of inner awareness (‘I seem to see a pencil’) and judgements of necessary truth (‘two pencils are more than one’). Blind judgements are all those that are not self-evident (‘I see a pencil’). Most judgements of the outer world and all judgements of memory are blind; but, to the extent that they confirm each other, we can have confidence in them. The judgement, for instance, that there is a three-dimensional (spatial) world is, Brentano believed, so widely confirmed as to be infinitely more likely than any of its alternatives. Truth is then that which ‘pertains to the judgement of one who asserts what the person who judges with evidence would assert’ (p. 139).
Besides epistemology and moral philosophy, Brentano wrote on a wide range of other topics. First, on logic, developing a revised syllogism. Second, on the nature of categories, arguing that there are only concrete (as opposed to abstract) things, and that every judgement is an acceptance or rejection of a concrete thing (thus any true sentence which appears to refer to some abstract entity can be translated into a sentence which refers to a concrete thing—for example, ‘he believes that there are horses’ becomes ‘he affirms horses’). Third, on God, whose existence, as a Necessary Being, he derived from the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Fourth, on the nature of chance, rejecting the notion of absolute chance as self-contradictory, and arguing that determinism is incompatible with the fact of freedom of the will. His ideas, though often speculative, were always sharp and challenging. In Religion and Philosophy (1954), for instance, he extended his dualistic view of the mind to incorporate a Christian picture of the soul as separate from the body and yet capable of acting through it. He argued that the soul was created ex nihilo at the time of conception, defending this idea by claiming that ‘psychical’ things are created ex nihilo every time we call an image to mind. He believed that philosophy went through cycles of flourishing and decline, the latter being marked by three phases: a shift of interest from theory to practice, scepticism, and mysticism. As well as being a prolific writer, Brentano was a charismatic and inspiring teacher. His pupils included Alexius Meinong, Karl Stumpf, Christian Ehrenfels and Edmund Husserl. Through the last, his ideas helped to establish the school of phenomenology, from which (though in a much modified form) modern descriptive psychopathology is derived. His picture of the mind as intentional rather than as a receptacle was an important formative idea for Freud in the development of psychoanalysis. Along with others who have sought a philosophical foundation for empirical science, his project failed: the positivist tendencies of scientific psychology owe more to Wundt. His account of the intentionality of subjective experience remains important in the philosophy of mind.
Sources: Goldenson; Reese; Corsini; Edwards; Urmson & Rée.
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