Franz Brentano: Catholicism, Idealism and Immortality

My psychological standpoint is empirical; experience alone is my teacher. Yet I share with other thinkers the conviction that this is entirely compatible with a certain ideal point of view.

The laws of gravitation, of sound, of light and electricity disappear along with the phenomena  for which experience has established them. Mental laws, on the other hand, hold true for our life to come as they do in our present life, insofar as this life is immortal.

Franz Brentano,   Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

Even in this 1874 preface to his now famous work we get the hint of an Idealist framework working its way insidiously into the very fabric of this otherwise naturalist and empirical perspective. If as Iain Hamilton Grant and his fellow commentators in Idealism: The History of a Philosophy are correct and Idealism is a Realism of the Idea, a one-world idealism that takes nature seriously, and that sees the Idea as a causal agent in terms of organization as well as being neither a pure formalism nor abstract in the separable sense, but rather concretely relating part to whole “as the whole”, then we must know how this transcendental realism entered into the sciences of our day by way of none other than those early practioners of the higher sciences in the twentieth-century: such as Albert Einstein whose mathematical-theoretical cosmology displaced the earlier mechanistic materialist perspective of Newton. But that is a longer tale than my particular post is set to problematize. Much of what we take to be scientific realism and modern science itself is based on many of the unmanifest suppositions of Idealism according to Grant and his fellow commentators.

One aspect of Brentano we should not overlook is his life’s tale. Franz Brentano studied philosophy at the universities of Munich, Würzburg, Berlin (with Trendelenburg) and Münster. He had a special interest in Aristotle and scholastic philosophy. He wrote his dissertation in Tübingen On the manifold sense of Being in Aristotle.

Subsequently he began to study theology and entered the seminar in Munich and then Würzburg, preparing to become a Roman Catholic priest (ordained August 6, 1864). In 1865 – 1866 he writes and defends his habilitation essay and theses and begins to lecture at the university of Würzburg. His students in this period include among others Carl Stumpf and Anton Marty.

Between 1870 and 1873 Brentano is heavily involved in the debate on papal infallibility. As strong opponent of such a dogma, he eventually gives up his priesthood. Following his religious struggles, also Stumpf (who was studying at the seminar at the time) is drawn away from the church.

In 1874 he publishes his major work: “Psychology from an empirical standpoint” and from 1874 to 1895 he teaches at the university of Vienna. Among his students are Edmund Husserl, Alexius Meinong, Christian von Ehrenfels and many others (see School of Brentano for more details). While beginning his carreer as a full ordinary professor, he is forced to give up his Austrian citizenship and his professorship in 1880 to be able to marry. He is permitted to return to the university only as a Privatdozent. (see Biography)

When we think on this we have to ask: Did Brentano’s Catholicism influence his philosophical perspective? And, of course, as in most things I believe it comes through loud and clear in many of the statements he makes in his own philosophical musings. As he states it in his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint:

Plato’s and Aristotle’s hopes of reaching certainty concerning the continued existence of our better part after the dissolution of the body, the laws of association of ideas, of the development of convictions and opinions, and of the origin and growth of desire and love, would hardly be real compensation. The loss of this hope would appear to be far more regrettable. Consequently , if the opposition between these two conceptions of psychology really implied the acceptance or rejection of the question of immortality, this issue would become of paramount importance and would compel us to undertake metaphysical research concerning the existence of substance as the bearer of mental states.1

In a discussion of Hume and that philosophers ready acceptance that arguments and proofs of immortality retain absolutely the same strength as in the traditional conception to which it is opposed Brentano continues saying:

…it still does not follow that the question of the immortality of the soul loses all meaning because we deny the existence of a substantial bearer of mental phenomena. This becomes evident as soon as you recognize that with or without a substantial soul you cannot deny that there is a certain continuity of our mental life here on earth. If some-one rejects the existence of a substance, he must assume that such a continuity does not require a substantial bearer. And the question whether our mental life somehow continues even after the destruction of the body will be no more meaningless for him than for anyone else. It is wholly inconsistent for thinkers of this persuasion to reject, for the reasons mentioned, the question of immortality even in this, its essential sense, though it certainly would be more appropriate to call it immortality of life than immortality of the soul. (Kindle Locations 930-936).

The whole point of much of his argument in the early part of this book was to establish that even if the older Aristotelian substantial formalism of the soul had been eliminated from modern philosophical discourse on the Mind/Psychology, etc. there was, at least for him proof that mental phenomena did exist and would now carry the burden of thought that had once been placed within the confines of the soul. Thus he hoped to establish a ‘science of mental phenomena’ as Aristotle had once thought to establish a science of the Soul.

He next begins his attack on the naturalist perspective of the physical sciences of his day telling us that they give us only partial knowledge of reality, an incomplete theory of what in fact exists:

We can probably also prove that there must be relations among these realities similar to those which are manifested by spatial phenomena shapes and sizes. But this is as far as we can go. We have no experience of that which truly exists, in and of itself, and that which we do experience is not true. The truth of physical phenomena is, as they say, only a relative truth.(Kindle Locations 973-975).

He uses this notion of relative truth as a sort of bludgeon to prove that on the other hand Psychology has a more satisfying truth:

The phenomena of inner perception are a different matter. They are true in themselves. As they appear to be, so they are in reality, a fact which is attested to by the evidence with which they are perceived. Who could deny, then, that this constitutes a great advantage of psychology over the natural sciences?(Kindle Locations 977-979).

So here already early on the man who would teach many of the future phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, and thereby influence Martin Heidegger, was of the opinion that the natural sciences were of lesser value than philosophy and subordinate to its explanatory regime. O how subtle are the ways of insidious Idealism. If one is still unconvinced here is another high-blown testament to this magical power of the mental science over the naturalist perspective:

The high theoretical value of psychological knowledge is obvious in still another respect. The worthiness of a science increases not only according to the manner in which it is known, but also with the worthiness of its object. And the phenomena the laws of which psychology investigates are superior to physical phenomena not only in that they are true and real in themselves,  but also in that they are incomparably more beautiful and sublime.(Kindle Locations 979-983).

Telling us of the ‘high theoretical value’ of psychology over the relative truths of the physical sciences, and the superiority  of mental phenomena to physical phenomena harbors yet another Platonic callback to the immortal world of Ideas where everything is more beautiful and sublime. In the very statement that these laws of the mind, these mental phenomena, are “true and real in themselves” is the very definition of Idealism as Realism-of-the-Idea that Grant and his cohorts in their work make us aware:

If we put together our view that idealism is realist about ideas with the argument that philosophy of nature forms a crucial component of it, we arrive at a conception not of the two-worlds idealism beloved of interpretations of Plato, but of a one-world inflationary idealism. … This is the Platonism maintained by idealists, a Platonism of “immanent law” or causal efficacy.2

Is this not Brentano’s laws of mental phenomena? Is he not a full blown Idealist, a realist of the Ideas he terms “mental phenomena”? Shall I put a pin in the cushion now and deflate this strange menagerie of thought? His attack on naturalism is swift and measured, he knows his enemy and seeks to slay it with his sublime and topical arsenal of psychological wisdom. One can read many treatises on this philosopher but very few will talk about this sordid Idealism that lives on within almost every page of his books. Strange that this man, father of modern phenomenology in the lesser sense gained traction in so many philosophers to come. Does this portend what we shall find in the writings of those descendants Husserl and Heidegger, Sellars and Brandom? Is the subterranean current within phenomenology and the Age of Intentionalism none other than the secret history of Idealism through its many and various manifestations?

I leave you with one last gem from this Idealist philosopher of the mental phenomena waxing on about the future of his ideal world:

How many evils could be remedied, both on the individual and social level, by the correct psychological diagnosis, or by knowledge of the laws according to which a mental state can be modified! What an increase in mental power mankind would achieve if the basic mental conditions which determine the different aptitudes for being a poet, a scientist, or a man of practical ability could be fully ascertained beyond any doubt by means of psychological analysis!(Kindle Locations 1012-1015).

Are these the dreams of a social engineer? Of a society of transhumanist genetic manipulation to come, psychic surgery or strange scientist of the eugenics of mind control? Who knows what is budding in this Romantic haberdashery of philosophical Idealism gone bonkers?

Even more is his pure hatred of what he terms blind empiricists:

But anyone who is acquainted with medicine today knows how impossible it would have been for there to have been a single truly great physician prior to the last few decades. The others were all merely blind empiricists, more or less skilful, and more or less lucky. They were not, and could not have been what a trained and discerning physician must be.

Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

Brentano had no love for either materialists, naturalists, or empiricists. His hatred shows adamantly in is descriptions of various classes of his day. I chose only his disgust of physicians and statesman, one above the other below:

Up to the present time the same thing holds true of statesmen. The extent to which they, too, are merely blind empiricists is demonstrated every time that an extraordinary event suddenly changes the political situation, and even more clearly every time one of them finds himself in a foreign country where conditions are different. Forsaken by their empirically derived maxims, they become completely incompetent and helpless.

Even in his discussion of the place within his hierarchical thinking of the sciences of the higher mathematical theoretical disciplines as compared to the lower and weaker empirical antecedents: “The progress of the sciences which stand higher in the scale naturally presupposes that of the lower ones. It is, therefore, evident that, apart from certain weak empirical antecedents, the higher sciences will attain their development later than the lower” (Kindle Locations 1034-1036).

He is also a prognosticator envisioning the future of his pet theoretic of psychology as the master science:

It seems beyond doubt, therefore, that in the future— and to a certain extent perhaps the not too distant future— psychology will exert a considerable influence upon the practical aspects of life. In this sense we could characterize psychology, as others have already done, as the science of the future, i.e. as the science to which, more than any other, the future belongs; the science which, more than any other, will mould the future; and the science to which, in the future, other sciences will be of service and to which they will be subordinate in their practical application. For this will be the position of psychology once it reaches maturity and is capable of effective action. (Kindle Locations 1076-1080).

Reading this now I am almost strangely and eerily thinking to myself is this a precursor (Brentano being German) of all those future Nazi social engineers that would arise in the early part of the twentieth-century? Such flamboyant and romantic talk of a this Master Science of Sciences with ‘practical application’ that will rule the day once it is capable of action. As he reminds his reader: “We have advanced four reasons which appear to be sufficient to show the outstanding importance of the science of psychology: the inner truth of the phenomena it studies, the sublimity of these phenomena, the special relationship they have to us, and finally, the practical importance of the laws which govern it” (Kindle Locations 1084-1086) .

Could you see this being offered in today’s market for young philosophers as a trendy forecast of what the future holds, and that you should enter into this new and upcoming science if you, too, would hold the keys to this new and socially engineered society? Remember that even the young and impressionable Sigmund Freud attended lectures by this famed philosopher in Vienna. So that finally we return to his defense of Immortality and the life to come:

To these we must add the special and incomparable interest which psychology possesses insofar as it instructs us about immortality and thus becomes, in another sense, the science of the future. The question concerning the hope of a hereafter and our participation in a more perfect state of the world falls to psychology. As we have noted, psychology has already made attempts to solve this problem, and it does not seem that all its efforts in that direction have been without success. If this really is the case, we have here, without doubt, its highest theoretical achievement , which would be of the greatest practical importance as well,  besides lending new value to psychology’s other theoretical achievements. When we depart from this life we separate ourselves from all that is subject to the laws of natural science. The laws of gravitation, of sound, of light and electricity disappear along with the phenomena  for which experience has established them. Mental laws, on the other hand, hold true for our life to come as they do in our present life, insofar as this life is immortal. (Kindle Locations 1086-1094).

So this was the progenitor of all those phenomenologies of the twentieth-century, the man who shaped both Analytic and Continental thought in new directions? What does this tell us about modern philosophy?

1. Brentano, Franz (2012-10-12). Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (International Library of Philosophy) (Kindle Locations 910-915). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy. editors. Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Smith, Sean Watson (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011)

4 thoughts on “Franz Brentano: Catholicism, Idealism and Immortality

  1. I keep trying to tell people that their faith in there being such ghost-in-machine agents as Ideas/Concepts that somehow occupy/program us is theo-logical in nature, so much unconscious archetypal psychology out there…


    • Haha… was this a comment on my post? Or, a comment about your exasperation with theo-ontic arguments people make unknowing of their own blindness and religious belief in that Idealist Jungian crap? Sometimes you are a little cryptic in your comments… this one has me wondering where your coming from. 🙂

      Obviously to me there is a lot of philosophical Idealism underpinning much of our purported phenomenology. With Brentano you see a guy in the midst of Vienna in the later half of the Nineteenth Century who quit his Catholic Faith because of his heretical notions, and then turned to psychology, not philosophy in hopes of finding something to replace the Soul. What he found was the Idea: Idealism… the concept that mental phenomena were there to replace the Soul and guide him toward a new theo-epistemic Immortality. LOL… Things people will believe to save their own egos… strange, but true, this kind of discourse passed as philosophy in the Nineteenth Century.


    • You say:

      are you asking about my “intentions”?
      I kid. all of the above really.

      You have intentions 🙂

      So I was to assume you were kidding about things… you might add a smiley next time as a marker for “kidding all”… not to be taken seriously. Haha….

      You so rarely comment that I’m never sure just what your cryptic one liners actually do “mean”… my bad.


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