Content and Object

Brentano and Stumpf have hereby reached a new sort of sophistication as concerns the objects of our cognitive acts. And this has allowed them successfully to break away from the combination theory of judgment. Their shared immanentism meant however that they were still unable to achieve clarity as to the relations between mental acts and objects in the world, and this precluded also a conception of the ways in which judgments may come to be made true by such objects.(23) Their immanentism precluded also a conception of the contents of judgment and of the meanings of sentences of a sort that would be fruitful for the purposes of modern logic. It is in this respect Kasimir Twardowski, another student of Brentano’s, who makes the crucial break with the core thesis of the immanentistic position. In his On the Content and Object of Presentations of 1894,(24) Twardowski puts forward a series of arguments in defence of a distinction between the contents of presenting acts on the one hand, and their objects, on the other. The object of presentation he conceives broadly as a transcendent target of the act. The content he conceives as something like a mental ‘picture’ or ‘image’ of the object. Every act has, he claims, both a content and an object, though the object of an act need not in every case exist. Even non-existent objects are, however, seen by Twardowski as having properties of their own, a doctrine later transmuted by Meinong into the ‘principle of the independence of being from being-so’ and in this form taken as the basis of Meinong’s theory of non-existent objects.(25)

The distinction between content and object is initially drawn by Twardowski for presentations only. The act of judgment has a special content of its own, but in On the Content and Object of Presentations this act is still seen as inheriting its object from the relevant underlying presentation. Three years later, however, in a letter to Meinong, Twardowski suggests that one should recognise also a special object of the judging act, in addition to the judgment-content.(26) He thereby effected a generalisation of the content-object distinction to the sphere of judging acts, in a way which yields a schema of the following sort:

presenting act

content of presentation

object of presentation

judging act


state of affairs

One consequence of Brentano’s immanentism is that judgments are conceived as real events in a way that leaves no room for any view of truth and falsity as timeless properties of judgments. This conclusion Brentano takes to imply that God, too, if he is omniscient, must exist in time, since the knowledge of which judgments are true and false must change from moment to moment.(27) Here, too, Twardowski moves in the direction of a view more adequate to the purposes of modern logic. In his paper “On So-Called Relative Truth” of 1902, he argues forcefully in favour of a conception of truth as something absolute, a conception which would rule out the possibility that the truth of a judgment might change from occasion to occasion or from subject to subject.(28) Brentano’s acceptance of the thesis that truth can change and judgment remain the same follows, Twardowski argues, from a confusion of judgments on the one hand with their statements or expressions on the other. Twardowski’s argument here – which again reveals the influence of Bolzano(29) – is to be found in different forms in the work of Frege and Russell, as also in the Tractatus, for example in Wittgenstein’s remark to the effect that language ‘disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it’ (4.002). In Twardowski’s formulation, however, this argument is part of an attempt to come to an understanding of the mental acts involved in judging and of the ontological correlates of such acts. Thus Twardowski is not, like Frege, Russell or Wittgenstein, attracted by the more ambitious task of building an ideal or artificial language in which thought and its expression would coincide. True to the Brentanist heritage, his efforts are directed to the things and processes that are involved in actual judgings, not to the construction of abstract models thereof. For all this, however, Twardowski’s emphasis on the notion of absolute truth can be shown to have pointed his students in the direction of a truth-functional conception of logic in the modern sense. Further steps would however have to be taken before there could come into being among Twardowski’s students in Poland a fully-fledged logic of propositions of the sort we now take for granted.(30)

Barry Smith, Logic and the Sachverhalt

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