Franz Brentano: The Age of Intentionalism

One of the most important innovations is that I am no longer of the opinion that mental relation can have something other than a thing [Reales] as its object. In order to justify this new point of view, I had to explore entirely new questions, for example I had to go into the investigation of the modes of presentation.

Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

The recursive nature of the mind goes back as far a Kant (1787) who spoke explicitly of ‘inner sense,’ and Locke (1690) defined consciousness as the ‘perception of what passes in a man’s mind.’ Brentano (controversially) interpreted Aristotle’s enigmatic and terse discussion of “seeing that one sees” in De Anima III.2 as an anticipation of his own ‘inner perception’ view.

In some ways the Age of Intentionalism is coming to an end. We’ve been skirting around this issue for some time now but have yet to meet it on its own terms. If we are moving toward a post-Intentional view of the Mind then we should be reminded once again of Wilfred Sellars admonition:

Once again, as so often in the history of philosophy, there is a danger that a position will be abandoned before the reasons for its inadequacy are fully understood, with the twin results that: (a) it will not be noticed that its successor, to all appearances a direct contrary, shares some of its mistakes; (b) the truths contained in the old position will be cast aside with its errors. The almost inevitable result of these stampedes has been the ‘swing of the pendulum’ character of philosophical thought; the partial truth of the old position reasserts itself in the long run and brings the rest of the tangle with it.

– Wilfred Sellars, Phenomenalism

I’m of the opinion that many current breakthroughs in the realms of the neurosciences will displace this abstruse philosophical view, but before we say goodbye to its main thrust which bore its most distinctive fruit within the philosophies of the Analytic and Continental traditions we need a stock taking. To trace the patterns of a notion through its uses, transformations, and codifications within this tradition is part of that clearing a way toward the post-intentional. One cannot simply dismiss this tradition before fully understanding the problems it was trying to solve within its philosophical quest. Franz Brentano more than any other previous philosopher set the horizon for this conception, and it is to his work we should look for the crystallization of its first conceptual realization. Two of his works stand out in this: Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint and Descriptive Psychology.

Within the pages of these two works we see the traditions of the Philosophy of Mind in their kernel. As one commentator put it by revitalizing Austrian scientific philosophy, Brentano and his school simultaneously laid the groundwork for twentieth-century philosophy of science as it came to fruition in the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, for the Gegenstandstheorie or object theory of Alexius Meinong and his students in the Graz School, and for phenomenology, notably in the work of Edmund Husserl, and indirectly in such later thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Beyond the borders of the German-speaking world, Brentano’s philosophy had a profound impact on the course of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, as evinced in tributes to his influence by, among many others, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Gilbert Ryle, G. F. Stout, and Roderick M. Chisholm.2

It was his time in Vienna, where he became a flamboyant and enormously popular university lecturer teaching such students as Husserl, Meinong, Anton Marty, Carl Stumpf, Christian von Ehrenfels (the founder of Gestalt psychology), and Kazimierz Twardowski, among numerous others, and his lectures were attended by such interested nonphilosophers as Sigmund Freud. With his prominent beard and electric delivery, Brentano’s lectures were standing-room-only events, in which his audience was stimulated, entertained, and infused with the power and excitement of ideas. Brentano made it his philosophical mission to reverse the influence of German idealist philosophy in Austria. He strove to replace romanticism and subjectivism with a scientific philosophy that opposed Aristotle’s and John Stuart Mill’s empiricism to Kantian and post-Kantian transcendentalism, and especially to Hegel’s dialectical idealism and metaphysics of the Absolute.(ibid. 320-326)

One commentator asks: Why should readers today be interested in Brentano’s philosophy? What is its relevance to the philosophical problems that have become urgent in our time? Then answers, saying:

The answer is that Brentano has insightful things to say about most if not all of the philosophical problems that continue to preoccupy philosophers. He made lasting contributions in all the fields of philosophy to which he devoted attention, and in many instances he set the terms and problems for future inquiry while introducing valuable doctrinal and methodological innovations. The propriety of empirical methods in philosophy, the concept of mind and the intentionality or object-directedness of thought, the ideal of correct epistemic and moral judgment, the metaphysics of individuals, and the definitions of intrinsic good and part-whole relations in value theory which he developed have exerted a powerful influence on contemporary investigations in analytic philosophy. At the same time, Brentano is rightly credited as the originator of a scientific phenomenology in the rigorous investigation of first-person psychological thought structure and content. If we want to understand the history of these ongoing philosophical discussions and tap into a rich source of ideas that have yet to be fully exploited, we cannot afford to ignore Brentano’s philosophy. (Kindle Locations 332-340)

So it is here, with the work of Franz Brentano that we begin our investigation into the roots of a mistake, a wrong turn in philosophy that has slowly accrued over time in its insidious ability to weave itself into the very fabric of philosophy and the sciences.

Yet, one asks, what is Intentionality in itself? To say that thought is intentional is to say that it intends or is about something , that it aims at or is directed upon an intended object. Intentionality is thus the aboutness of thought, the relation whereby a psychological state intends or refers to an intended object. Brentano argues that all psychological phenomena and only psychological phenomena are intentional. He holds that to believe is to believe something; it is for a belief state, a particular kind of mental act, to intend or be about whatever is believed. As he states it in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Brentano maintains:

Every psychic phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called intentional (also indeed mental) in-existence of an object, and which we, although not with an entirely unambiguous expression, will call the relation to a content, the direction toward an object (by which here a reality is not understood), or an immanent objectivity. Every [psychic phenomenon] contains something as an object within itself, though not every one in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgment something acknowledged or rejected, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired, and so on.  (Kindle Locations 2191-2196).

It was from the kernel of this one insight that both the Analytical and Continental Schools of philosophy discovered their calling either in agreement or division with this notion. Everything else is a footnote to this insight and is now part of history. This is only an introductory post, but for me at least the history of the notion of ‘intentionality’ is just as important as the concept itself. If we are moving toward a post-intentional age in philosophy and the sciences then we will have to carefully appraise this heritage and clarify both its truths and its errors before proceeding into a new framework. This might as well entail a dip into Aristotle and the Medieval philosophers as well. But it is in Brentano’s work that the delimiting narrative was set so with him we begin our survey. I’ll be reviewing his two main works in the coming weeks among other things. My mind is trying to slow down but a fire has been lit and a course set which is flaming the fires within me to understand and convey that excitement in having discovered the measure of a counter-tradition that seems to be underpinning the skeptical naturalist worldview. This is only an aspect of that exploration into the subterranean world feeding into contemporary philosophy and the sciences. This anti-naturalist Idealism is at the heart of my quest to unfold the history of Intentionality in all its guises.

An anti-naturalist Idealism is at the heart of this philosophical and scientific worldview, and it is my main purpose to uncover the consequences of this turn away from naturalist empirical materialism and toward an unfounded Idealism that is at the core of my present investigations. I will show that from Brentano onwards, but especially in Husserl and his progeny that what Iain Hamilton Grant calls the exclusion of the natural attitude: “that is, the naïve acceptance of the world as existing “on hand” without my conscious intervention” (126).3 This interventionist mental relationalism of which Brenatano was the first to focus attention on the concept of “aboutness” is at the heart of this Idealism. And his later turn toward ethics might be the first sign of a normative Idealism in the making. Of which the best little description is from those commentators:

Transcendental phenomenology then has as its task the analysis or “reduction” of phenomena to the  “intentional object“, or the thing itself being intended by consciousness.(ibid. 127)

This is why such later normative Idealists from Rescher, Sprigge and Leslie onward adapted many of these central insights of Brentano. And, also, why someone like Robert Brandom in his neo-Hegelian branch of normative Idealism believes that “reason” is not subject to naturalization as in the empirical traditions but rather marks out a set of normative practices forcing us to rethink this whole tradition within an Idealist framework. If the Age of Intentionalism has its roots, as I believe, in Idealism then we need to be aware of its inherent bias against all forms of the empirical naturalist perspective in the sciences lest it too creep in by the backdoor into our own neomaterialist discourses and philosophies. More on this later…

1. Brentano, Franz (2012-10-12). Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (International Library of Philosophy) (Kindle Locations 597-599). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2.  The Cambridge Companion to Brentano (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) (Kindle Locations 312-317). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
3. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy. editors. Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Smith, Sean Watson (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011)

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