Main Figures in the Phenomenological Movement
Franz Brentano (b.1838, Marienberg am Rhein, d.1917, Zurich) grew up in a talented literary family. He studied theology and philosophy at various German universities, taking his doctorate in 1862 in Berlin. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1864, lectured at Würzburg until 1873, but having publicly opposed papal infallibility, and losing his faith, he resigned his position and ordination. He was appointed Professor in Vienna in 1874. In 1880 he married, but to avoid infringing an Austrian law against former priests marrying he resigned and married abroad. The Emperor refused to reinstate him and he taught for fifteen years as a mere Privatdozent. After the death of his wife he moved with his son and second wife to Florence, but left when Italy went to war with Austria in 1915. Brentano moved to Switzerland, where he died two years later. From 1903 he was completely blind and had to have books read to him and compose writings by dictation. Brentano was an inspiring teacher, and many of his students went on to become famous figures in philosophy and other callings. Only a small portion of Brentano’s output was published in his lifetime. Parts of his work were published posthumously, but almost a century after his death there is still no critical edition of his writings.
Brentano in the History of Philosophy
To describe Brentano as “forerunner of the phenomenological movement” (Spiegelberg 1960/1982: 27) is not wrong, but it does too little justice to the many-sidedness, richness and complexity of his work. Brentano certainly pioneered methods and attitudes which fed into the phenomenological movement, principally through Edmund Husserl, who described Brentano as “my one and only teacher in philosophy” (ibid.). In this chapter I outline the ways in which Brentano prepared the way for later phenomenology, and the phenomenological aspects of his own work. But before doing that I shall briefly set Brentano in place in the history of philosophy as he himself and others saw him, and mention other relevant but non-phenomenological aspects of Brentano’s philosophy.
Brentano considered that philosophy neither improves in unending progress nor degenerates from a mythical past golden age, but that it advances and retreats in repeating cycles. The four phases of each cycle comprise, firstly, a high theoretical phase, in which philosophy is heroic, constructive, theoretical and closely linked with the sciences; this gives way to a more practical phase in which ethical and pragmatic elements dominate. These in turn give way to a corrosive skeptical phase in which the possibility of knowledge is held up to doubt, and this in turn yields to a dogmatic and mystical phase indulging in unfounded speculation, divorced from science. The cycle had in Brentano’s view already passed three times, in the ancient, medieval and early modern periods, and the most recent dogmatic phase was associated by Brentano with German idealism, which he saw as the nadir of philosophy.
Brentano’s self-understanding, and the messianic sense of mission which informed his life, his teaching and his philosophy, was that he was attempting to spearhead the beginning of a new constructive phase. For this he both reached back to similar phases of the past, and their chief figures such as Aristotle, Aquinas and Descartes, and attempted to ensure that the philosophy he passed on to his students and readers would be positive, constructive and scientific, in the broad German sense of wissenschaftlich. His readiness to cite Aristotle and the Scholastics as well as his status as a leading Roman Catholic thinker led to his being pigeonholed in Germany at the time as a neo-Scholastic, but this label is only partly appropriate, since while Brentano is concerned to preserve what he sees as important insights of the Scholastics, his is a pragmatic and forward-looking use of the past.
Brentano’s cyclical theory of the history of philosophy is a simplification, but it is better than most of the alternatives. One may discern mini-cycles closely following Brentano’s pattern in shorter periods and smaller contexts, such as that of analytic philosophy, and with an irony that would not have escaped Brentano, in the later phenomenological movement itself. His own immodest estimation of his role was also in good part borne out by his success as a teacher of young philosophers, who one and all carried that sense of mission forward. This stress on the scientific nature of philosophy was to become one of the defining characteristics of phenomenology, especially in its early phase.
Brentano’s influences extend beyond phenomenology and its later offshoots. He also inspired, to varying degrees and with different results, the proponents of Gestalt psychology (von Ehrenfels), object theory (Meinong), psychoanalysis (Freud), and even, partly through Twardowski and Meinong, analytic philosophy (Moore, Russell, Polish philosophers, Bergmann, Chisholm).
The Development of Brentano’s Philosophy
Important as Brentano’s writings on psychology are for the subsequent history of philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular, they form a part, and though methodologically key, not even the major part of his endeavors and writings. His contributions range widely across most branches of philosophy: metaphysics,
epistemology, ethics, logic, philosophy of language, philosophical theology, and the history of philosophy.
It is important to realize that Brentano’s philosophy underwent several major changes during his lifetime. In his early years he stressed metaphysics, logic and the history of philosophy, especially his revered Aristotle. From the 1870s he developed his philosophical psychology, which itself underwent a series of revisions through the 1880s and 1890s. This grew to become for a period the methodological key to his philosophy, and it is this middle phase that pervasively influenced phenomenology. But in old age Brentano threw over his previous views and embarked on a new and even more radical phase, in which a supremely parsimonious ontology of concrete things alone, called reism, formed the framework for all his philosophy, including his thinking on key aspects of psychology. In this late phase, a critique of language saw him not only taking issue with his own former pupils but anticipating topics that were to emerge decades later in analytic philosophy, such as ontological commitment, the form of thought, and the (often misleading) expression of thought in language.
Brentano’s early philosophy is carried on in the shadow of Aristotle, his great hero. His doctoral dissertation investigates Aristotle’s views on the ambiguity of the verb “to be,” and charts a sympathetic justification for the much-criticized table of categories. He then moves to Aristotle’s psychology, and the theory of the active intellect. He also upheld a broadly Aristotelian conception of metaphysics, though stressing, under the influence of the British empiricists, the importance of the anatomization into constituent parts of both objects and our thoughts about them.
The middle philosophy is dominated by Brentano’s developing conception of psychology, and his practical philosophy or ethics. His ethics lectures in Vienna were extremely popular and well attended, not least because of the notoriety surrounding Brentano’s non-reinstatement as a professor at the university after his marriage.
The final phase is dominated by ontological concerns and their ramifications. Brentano’s reism rules out properties, relations, states of affairs or any of the many other entia rationis such as numbers and universals. All of Brentano’s things are concrete individuals: they divide into the material on the one hand and the mental on the other. He is thus a dualist, by contrast with the materialistic reism developed independently a little later by his Polish grand-pupil Tadeusz Kotarbiński. God is also a res, and like all others has a history in time. Brentano, who had been ordained a Roman Catholic priest, both left the church and gave up Christianity, but he retained his theism. Much of Brentano’s late work is polemical, even vitriolic, and the chief targets of his vitriol are those of his former students such as Meinong and Husserl who had in his view learnt the wrong and ontologically spendthrift lessons of his passing middle period. Brentano was also resentful of Husserl’s accusation of psychologism, and perhaps a little jealous of Husserl’s success.
In part due to his inability to complete projects, and in part due to his advancing blindness, Brentano left a Nachlass
far richer in material than his (by German standards) relatively meager published output. During and after his lifetime his grandpupils Oskar Kraus and Alfred Kastil followed his wishes to turn parts of this material into further published works, some of them employing highly questionable
editorial methods. A critical chronological edition of the Nachlass
is needed before we can finally assess Brentano’s development or his place in the history of philosophy.
The Science of Psychology
Brentano lectured on psychology in his early years in Würzburg. The major influences on him during this period were Aristotle and the Scholastics, Descartes, the British empiricists up to and including Mill and Bain, and the positivist Auguste Comte. When in 1873 Brentano resigned his position in Würzburg, he was working on a manuscript on psychology as a “passport out of Würzburg.” It was this work that was published in an incomplete state in 1874 as Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkte (Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint), the same year in which Brentano took up a chair of philosophy at the Imperial-Royal capital, Vienna. It quickly became and remained his most notable publication.
Until the nineteenth century, psychology had yet to break free of philosophy as an independent science. The foundations had been laid by the British empiricists Locke, Berkeley and Hume, and their latter-day followers in associationist psychology such as Bain, Hamilton, James Mill and John Stuart Mill. But psychology was only just developing as an experimental discipline. The works of Gustav Weber and Theodor Fechner on psycho–physical correlation in perception, and the introspective methods of Brentano’s contemporary Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, were taking psychology out of the armchair and into the laboratory. Brentano was not against this movement, indeed he undertook some rudimentary experiments with homemade apparatus himself, and had he not lost his professorship in Vienna might have had a greater pioneering role in experimental psychology. But Brentano did not think that psychology could simply be torn from its philosophical roots and handed over wholesale to experimentalists, and his Psychologie is in part about providing the right conceptual framework within which experimental psychology can be carried out. This retained an ineliminable role for philosophy, and it was this role that was to inspire phenomenology.
Modern university psychology departments are in natural science or medical faculties, unlike the arts and humanities faculties that predominantly house philosophy departments, so has Brentano simply lost this battle? Institutionally, and perhaps doctrinally, he has. But intellectually the case is far from proven. To see this we have to examine Brentano’s view of science. It is customary to divide philosophy as a conceptual or a priori discipline from science as empirical, but Brentano considered there to be a priori principles involved in all science. As to method, his famous fourth habilitation thesis of 1866 declared that the true method of philosophy is the same as that of the natural sciences. So how is psychology to be treated as a distinct science, and not subsumed under, say, physiology?
Clearly, according to Brentano, not because it has a different method, for example, introspective versus observational: introspection for Brentano is a form of observation, simply one which is directed inwards rather than outwards. That leaves only the subject matter to differentiate psychology from physics, chemistry, etc., and that
is how Brentano draws the distinction. So how does the subject matter of psychology differ from that of the other sciences such as physics? Brentano considers two suggestions, both of which he endorses as to doctrine, but rejects as to method. One could say the physical sciences deal with objects in space and time whereas the psychological science deals with objects (perceptions, judgments, feelings, etc.) in time only. This assumes a Cartesian dualism about mind and body that Brentano fully endorses. But he does not take this route, for two reasons. The first is that to describe the mental as not
in space is to give a negative characterization, and like Aristotle he thinks these are to be avoided where possible. Secondly, mind–body dualism is a frankly metaphysical position, and Brentano was concerned not to leave too many hostages to metaphysical fortune, but to pursue psychology as far as possible in a metaphysics-free manner. In this he was under the influence of Comte’s positivism. So the data of the science have to come from experience, and the theories be answerable to experience. This is the point of the adjective “empirical” in the book’s title: it contrasts with “speculative.” In addition, by shying away from too much metaphysics at the outset, Brentano was hoping not to put off those who view metaphysics with suspicion. For similar reasons he is not willing to qualify psychology in traditional fashion as the science of the soul and its qualities and states, although again he does not disagree that this is what it in fact is. But Brentano wants to keep back the metaphysics, and specifically the soul, until later.
The positive characteristic that Brentano settles on as criterial for the subject matter of psychology is what he calls intentional inexistence. In a justly famous passage he writes,
Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, the reference to a content, a direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or an immanent objectivity. Each mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired, and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We can, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.
(Brentano 1973/1995: 88)
Brentano is quite right to insist that the theory is not new: it is present in Aristotle’s theory of perception in De anima
. When I see a lion, the experience consists in the soul’s adopting or receiving the form Lion
without the matter. The very same form, Lion
, exists in the lion combined with matter (so it is a real lion) as immaterially in
my soul, qualifying my experience (so it is not a lion but a lion-perceiving). Hence the morpheme “in” in “inexistence”: it literally means “existence-in” and not “non-existence.” The doctrine is filtered through Augustine and the Arabic translators of Aristotle to Aquinas, where the term “intentional,” signifying directedness or targeting, comes into play. Brentano sees his contribution not as inventing a new doctrine but of reminding us of an old one, forgotten in the modern theory of ideas of Descartes and Locke.
Two things need to be carefully noted before we can say we understand this doctrine. The first is that Brentano’s description is quite deliberately stated to apply to phenomena. This might sometimes be just a fancy name for “things,” but here it is not: Brentano introduces the distinction between physical and mental as one among the “data of our consciousness.” In his early years, under the influence of Descartes, Brentano was very wary of ascribing us knowledge of the so-called external world. He thought we knew of the existence of such a world at best indirectly, by inference. That explains also some of the examples he gives of physical phenomena, which include a sound we hear, and a landscape we see. By the description, each of these examples could denote the things themselves, but here they do not: they denote rather something inherent in our experience: a heard sound, a seen pattern of green, brown, blue, etc. These are physical phenomena: as phenomena, they are experiential or mental. What makes them physical is their simplicity. A sound ...