Franz Brentano and the psychology of intentionality

The study of intentionality is relatively recent in the history of philosophy. Although ancient and medieval philosophers such as Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas made specific references to the human will, he is generally considered to be Franz Brentano, who lived in the century. XIX, the pioneer in this field of analysis.

In this article, we will describe the main approaches of the psychology of intentionality (or “of the act”) by Franz Brentano. For the German philosopher, intentionality is the main characteristic that distinguishes psychological phenomena from physical phenomena, which contain themselves rather than directing acts to another external object.

    Biography of Franz Brentano

    Franz Clemens Honoratus Hermann Brentano (1838-1917) was a priest, philosopher and psychologist born in Prussia, present-day Germany. His interest in scholastic philosophy and that of Aristotle led him to study this subject at various German universities and later to train as a theologian and become a priest of the Catholic religion.

    In 1873, he left the Church because of his discrepancies with the official theses; in particular, Brentano denied the dogma of papal infallibility, that the Pope is incapable of being wrong. He then married and devoted himself to university education. He died in 1917 in Zurich, Switzerland, where he moved after the outbreak of World War I.

    Brentano’s fundamental work is called “Psychology from an Empirical Point of View” and was published in 1874. There this author described the key role of intentionality in thought and other processes of a psychological nature and stated that this is the main factor which distinguishes them from purely physical phenomena.

    The proposals of this pioneer had a great impact on different approaches to psychology and other disciplines: logic, analytical philosophy of Wittgenstein and Russell, experimental psychology, structuralist and functionalist literary analysis, the School of Gestalt and above all phenomenology, based on its act psychology.

    The concept of intentionality

    Brentano recovered the concept of intentionality from modern philosophy. for that it was based primarily on the works of Aristotle and other classical authors; however, it was René Descartes’ approaches, centered on knowledge rather than will, that inspired Brentano to emphasize the relevance of this construct.

    According to this author’s definition, intentionality is the common characteristic of all psychological phenomena. It is the property which directs a certain act or event towards an object or a goal located in the outside world. Intentionality has an immanent character, that is, it is always present in the mind of the person.

    Physical phenomena are all those that occur in the outside world, such as sounds, visual stimuli and objects in the environment in general. On the other hand, among the psychological phenomena, we find the perceptions of others of a physical nature, as well as the mental contents which are addressed to them.

    This way all mental phenomena contain an object; for example, in the act of desiring, there must be an external entity that fulfills the role of receiver of such an event. The same happens when we remember a past event, place or specific information, when we feel love or hate for another living being, etc.

    However, and since the mental object (intention or “intentional existence”) that accompanies any physical object has different characteristics for each person, it is by no means possible that more than one is heading for the exact same object, even if it is physically equivalent.

      The psychology of the act

      Brentano said that psychology consisted of two branches: descriptive and genetic. The first of these would focus on describing mental phenomena in the first person, similar to phenomenological psychology. Genetic psychology, like current cognitivism, would do it in the third person through empirical experiments.

      This philosopher clearly defended the approach of psychology which he qualified as “descriptive”. According to Brentano’s theses and his psychology of the act, one should not analyze objective experience associated with mental phenomena, but we should just focus on describing how we experience them as rich as possible.

      Thus, considering that the mind cannot be studied only through its physical correlates, Franz Brentano took a stand against the fact that our discipline could be part of the natural sciences. For this author, as for many others at the founding period and today, psychology would be closer to philosophy.

      However, Brentano’s act psychology has been criticized since its inception (even by the philosopher’s own followers, much to his chagrin) for the lack of clarity in his approaches. Moreover, the methods of introspective study are today strongly questioned because it is not possible to systematize them correctly.

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