Brentanian Immanentism

Brentano, too, embraces elements of the immanentistic doctrine of the idealists. He goes beyond them, however, in his thesis that all acts are directed towards objects. This is Brentano’s much-mooted ‘principle of the intentionality of the mental’. Rarely, however, has this principle been properly understood. Note, first of all, that it does not assert that all acts are directed towards objects in their own right. Some borrow their directedness from other acts on which they are founded. It is in fact ‘presentations’, for Brentano, which do the job of securing directedness to objects in every case.(14) A presentation is any act in which the subject is conscious of an object without taking up any position with regard to it. Such an act may be either intuitive or conceptual. That is, we can have an object before our mind either in sensory experience (and in variant forms thereof in imagination), or conceptually – for example when we think of the concepts colour or pain in general. Presentations may be either (relatively) simple or (relatively) complex, a distinction recalling the British empiricists’ doctrine of simple and complex ideas. A simple presentation is for example that of a red sensum; a complex presentation that of an array of differently coloured squares.(15) Here, as in every other case, the presentation is a relation to an object.

On the basis of a presentation, now, new sorts of relations to objects of these sorts are built up. Above all, such objects can be accepted (in positive judgments) or rejected (in negative judgments). To the simple manner of being related to an object in presentation, in other words, there may come to be added one of two diametrically opposed modes of relating to this object, which we call ‘acceptance’ and ‘rejection’ respectively. A judgment is, somewhat crudely put, either the belief or the disbelief in the existence of an object given in presentation. This is the famous existential theory of judgment defended by Brentano. Its importance consists not least in the fact that it is the first influential alternative to the combination theory, a theory that had for so long remained unchallenged.

‘Object’, in the Brentanian context, is to be understood simply as: ‘correlate of presentation’,(16) a notion embracing in particular simple and complex data of sense. Thus when Brentano talks of ‘objects’, he is not referring to putative transcendent targets of mental acts. As we can see by reflecting on the acts involved in reading fiction or on those cases where our acts rest on mistaken presuppositions of existence, the thesis that all mental acts are directed to objects in this sense, to objects external to the mind, is clearly false.(17) Brentano is referring, rather, to immanent ‘objects of thought’, and in fact no distinction is drawn in Brentano’s treatment in the Psychology between ‘content’, and ‘object’ in this sense. That which is thought of has, he insists, a merely derivative being. The act of thought is something real (a real event or process); but the object of thought has being only to the extent that the act which thinks it has being. The object of thought is according to its nature something non-real which dwells in [innewohnt] a real substance (a thinker).(18)

Confusion on this matter has reigned in the secondary literature on Brentano above all because his own statement of the intentionality principle in the oft-quoted passage from the Psychology (pp. 88f.) is not entirely clear. Brentano himself however appends a footnote to this passage in which he states explicitly that for him the intentionality relation holds always between an act and an object immanent to the mind. He points out that ‘Aristotle himself had spoken of this mental in-existence’, and he goes on to elaborate Aristotle’s theory according to which ‘the object which is thought is in the thinking intellect.’ This same thesis is to be found also in Brentano’s more detailed formulations of his views in the Descriptive Psychology, where ‘immanent objects’ are explicitly assigned to what Brentano calls the ‘parts of the soul in the strict or literal sense’.(19)

Even on the immanentistic reading, however, Brentano’s intentionality principle is not without its problems. It faces difficulties especially in dealing with negative existential judgments such as ‘God does not exist’, which seem, on the face of it, both to have and to lack an object. It was as part of an attempt to solve these difficulties that Brentano and his immediate successors began to reconsider the original thesis that acts of judgment get their objects (contents, matters) from underlying acts of presentation.

14. For Husserl, in contrast, judgments, too, are ‘objectifying acts’ in the sense that they have objects (Sachverhalte) of their own. See my “Materials Towards a History of Speech Act Theory”, in A. Eschbach, ed., Karl Bühler’s Theory of Language (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1987), 125-52.

Barry Smith, Logic and the Sachverhalt

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