Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Brentano, Franz from Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Metaphysics

(1838–1917) German philosopher-psychologist. Brentano taught for much of his life in the University of Vienna, where his students included Husserl, Christian von Ehrenfels (1859–1932), Carl Stumpf (1848–1936), Kasimir Twardowski (1866–1938) and Meinong. Of these Husserl, notoriously, was the founder of PHENOMENOLOGY, Ehrenfels and Stumpf were instrumental in the formation of the Gestalt-psychological movement in Berlin, Twardowski was almost single-handedly responsible for the founding of modern Polish philosophy, and Meinong established what has come to be known as the “theory of objects”. Common to all of these thinkers is the use of psychology, following the example of Brentano himself, as the basis for the development of new and original ideas in ONTOLOGY. Brentano's rigorous and analytic style of teaching and his doctrine of the unity of scientific method (see unity of science) formed part of the background also of the LOGICAL POSITIVISM of the Vienna circle.

Brentano's early works concern the metaphysics and psychology of Aristotle. For Aristotle, as seen through Brentano's eyes, the two realms of thinking and of corporeal substance are, as it were, attuned to each other. Perceiving and thinking amount to something like a taking in of form from the one into the other. Forms or UNIVERSALS exist, accordingly, in two different ways: within corporeal substance and (as “inexistent”) within the soul. They exist only as immanent to individual substances in one or other of these two different ways. When I see a red object, then I see something that is composed of matter and form. What I take in is the form alone, but this form is in fact still connected to (and thus individuated by) its matter. What I know intellectually is this form itself, for example the redness. And this is not a transcendent redness subsisting in some Platonic realm, but rather a redness here on earth (see plato; platonism).

Only one sort of essence is, as far as Aristotle is concerned, free of materiality in this sense: the essence mind or intellect. Of this essence, and of the concepts abstracted therefrom, we can have knowledge other than via sensory images. Mind or intellect is, as Brentano puts it, “with the highest intelligibility completely intelligible” (1867, p. 136, trans, p. 90). Psychology, accordingly, enjoys a peculiarly noble status within the system of the sciences, and our knowledge of psychological phenomena (for example of mental causality, of the relations of part, whole and dependence among mental phenomena) can provide a firm foundation for our knowledge of corresponding concepts as these are applied also to entities of other sorts.

It will be clear from the above how one has properly to interpret Brentano's thesis in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1924) to the effect that “Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object” (1924, p. 124, trans. p. 88). As Brentano himself puts it in the very next sentence: “Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself.” This thesis is to be taken literally–against the grain of a seemingly unshakeable tendency to twist Brentano's words at this point. Only in the writings of Husserl, Meinong and other students of Brentano do we find a systematic treatment of INTENTIONALITY as a matter of the mind's directedness to transcendent objects in the world.

By the time of his lectures on descriptive psychology given in Vienna University in 1889–90, Brentano has developed a rich ontological theory of parts and of unity. As Brentano himself puts it, he seeks to construct a psychological characteristica universalis, whose letters and words would reflect the different mental constituents or elements of the mind, and whose syntax would reflect the relations between these constituents in different sorts of mental wholes. His ideas here can be seen to stand at the beginning of a tradition which results inter alia in Husserl's development of the formal ontology of parts and wholes in the Logical Investigations, as also in Leśniewskian mereology and categorial grammar (see leśniewski).

In the theory of substance and accident put forward toward the end of his life (see his Theory of Categories (1933)), Brentano adopts a new sort of mono-categorial ontology, seeking once more to develop and refine an original Aristotelian theory.

Where Brentano had earlier held that mental acts have an inferior being in relation to their subjects, he gradually came to believe that all entities exist in the same way, that “existence” has only a strict and proper sense (that all uses of this term which depart therefrom are illegitimate). Everything that exists, he now says, is a concretum, a “real thing”. Hence he has to find some way of coping with what Aristotle wants to say about the relation between accident and substance–and with what he himself wants to say about mental acts and their subjects–without appealing to special, inferior, “dependent” entities. Brentano solves this problem by turning Aristotle's theory on its head: it is not, for Brentano, that the accident is an inferior entity existing in or on its substance. Rather, the substance itself is included within the accident as its proper part. That is, Brentano conceives the accident as the substance itself augmented in a certain way.

Thus when one has a mental act, then the subject of this act (one's self) is present as a part of the act. The act, according to Brentano, is not some extra entity attached to the self; it is the self momentarily augmenting itself, mentally, in a certain way. This gives Brentano a means of explaining how it is, when one is seeing and hearing, that it is the same self that is subject in both acts. That is, it gives him a means of accounting for the unity of consciousness, which is to say, for the fact that experience does not resolve itself into a bundle or multiplicity of scattered bits.

It is crucial to the Brentanian theory that there be no extra entity which would make up the difference between substance and accident. For this third entity would be precisely an “inferior existent” of the sort he is now determined to get rid of. An accident is a thing, no less than its substance. There are no jumps and runs, on this new dispensation, but only jumpers and runners; no thinkings and perceivings, but only thinkers and perceivers. In this way, as Chisholm has noted, Brentano anticipated contemporary developments in the direction of an Adverbial theory of perception.

What, then, are the ultimate substances of Brentano's ontology? One group of ultimate substances we have met already: they are the mental substances or souls which become augmented to form those half-way familiar things we call hearers, thinkers, and so on. It is natural, now, to suppose that the remaining ultimate substances in the Brentanian ontology are just material or concrete things, and Brentano's philosophy has indeed often been interpreted along these lines, particularly by those who would see him as having anticipated a reist or concretist doctrine of the sort propounded by Leśniewski or Kotarbiński (1886–1981). In fact, however, Brentano takes as non-mental substances–as ultimate individuators–the places which material things occupy. Things in the normal sense are accidents of such places. The totality of places is itself a substance, a certain spatial continuum (see space and time). Movement within this continuum is not, as we normally suppose, a matter of the perseveration of one thing through a continuum of places which it successively occupies. Rather, it is a matter of neighboring parts of the unitary substance experiencing in succession a chain or ripple of similar accidental determinations. Here, therefore, Brentano anticipates later substantival interpretations of the space–time continuum which were formulated in the wake of the Special Theory of Relativity.

  • Deskriptive Psychologie; ed. R.M. Chisholm; W. Baumgartner (Meiner Hamburg, 1982).
  • Kategorienlehre (Meiner Hamburg, 1933); trans. R.M. Chisholm and N. Guterman, The Theory of Categories (The Hague, Boston, MA, and London: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981).
  • Psychologie des Aristoteles (Mainz, 1867); trans. R. George, The Psychology of Aristotle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).
  • Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt, vol. I (Meiner Leipzig, 1874), 2nd edn. (Leipzig: Meiner, 1924); trans. A.C. Rancurello, D.B. Terrell, and L.L. McAlister, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint.
  • Chisholm, R.M.: Brentano and Meinong Studies (Rodopi Amsterdam, 1982).
  • Smith, B.: Austrian Philosophy: The Legacy of Franz Brentano (Open Court La Salle, IL, 1994), ch. 3.
    Wiley ©2009

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Brentano, Franz
    Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Philosophers

    German-Austrian, b: 1838, Marienburg, Germany, d: 1917, Florence. Cat: Philosophical psychology. Ints: Intentionality; act psychology. ...

    Full text Article Franz Brentano
    Great Thinkers A-Z

    1838-1917 Franz Brentano is best known for the way in which he proposed to distinguish mental from physical phenomena. He was born in Germany...

    Full text Article Brentano, Franz (1838 - 1916)
    The Macmillan Encyclopedia

    He trained as a priest but resigned over the doctrine of papal infallibility. Thinking psychology a necessary foundation for...

    See more from Credo