Franz Brentano (1838–1917)

1. Brief Vita

Franz Clemens Honoratius Hermann Brentano was born at Marienberg am Rhein, on 16 January 1838, into a family of ancient lineage whose members included Clemens Brentano and Bettina von Arnim. His brother Ludwig Joseph (Lujo), was economist, Nobel prize winner and a precursor of German social policy. Brentano studied at the Universities of Munich, Berlin, and Münster. In 1862 he obtained his teaching qualification at Tübingen with a thesis on the multiple meanings of being according to Aristotle. On 6 August 1864 he joined the priesthood. In 1866 he qualified as a university teacher at Würzburg on discussion of twenty-five Habilitationstheses, one of which, entitled Vera philosophiae methodus nulla alia nisi scientia naturalis, contained his entire philosophy in nuce: it not only attacked the idealism then paramount in the German philosophy faculties but also, and especially, advocated philosophy as a rigorous science à la Comte and Stuart Mill. Brentano, in fact, argued that the philosophical method should be not different from that of the natural sciences.

In 1867 Brentano published Die Psychologie des Aristoteles, insbesondere seine Lehre vom noùs poietikòs. Nebst einer Beilage über das Wirken des Aristotelischen Gottes. In 1872 he obtained an interim professorship of philosophy at Würzburg, where he formed his first group of pupils, among them Stumpf, Marty, Schell, Commer and von Hertling. In 1873 he resigned his interim professorship and continued to teach in Würzburg as a Privatdozent until the March of that year. In the same year he definitively left the Catholic Church. In 1874 he published Psychologie vom Empirischen Standpunkte and was then appointed full professor at the University of Vienna, where on April 22 delivered his inaugural lecture, Über die Gründe der Entmutigung auf philosophischem Gebiete. At Vienna he formed a second group of pupils including Husserl, Meinong, Twardowski, Masaryk, Höfler, von Ehrenfels, Kreibig, and subsequently Kastil, Einsenmeyer, Utiz, H. Bergmann, Urbach and Engländer. After writing essays on the theory of colour, the musical qualities and optical illusions, in 1876 he published Was für ein Philosoph manchmal Epoche macht? On 16 September 1880 he resigned his professorship and married Ida von Lieben in Leipzig. Returning to Vienna, he re-qualified as a Privatdozent with Fleisch, Freud and Meynert now among his pupils. He published Vom Ursprung sittlicher Erkenntnis (1889), Das Genie (1892), Vom Schlechten als Gegenstand dichterischer Darstellung (1892), Über die Zukunft der Philosophie (1893), Die vier Phasen der Philosophie und ihr augenblicklicher Stand (1895). In the years 1882-83 he published further writings on Aristotle: Über den Creatianismus des Aristoteles (1882) and Offener Brief an Herrn Prof. Dr. Zeller (1883). In 1894, on the death of his wife, Brentano left Vienna and Austria forever, bidding his farewells in Meine letzten Wünsche für Österreich.

In 1895 he travelled first to Switzerland (Lausanne) and then to Italy, where he took Italian citizenship. He remained in Italy for twenty years, first living briefly in Rome and Palermo and then settling in Florence, where he made the acquaintance of Enriques, Vailati, Calderoni, Papini, Stallo, Pojero, De Sarlo, Faggi, Orestano and Puglisi. In 1897 he married Emilie Ruprecht and in 1903 underwent an operation on both eyes. In 1913 Puglisi translated Die Klassification der Psychischen Phänomene for publication by Carabba. Also published in this period were Untersuchungen zur Sinnespsychologie (1907), Aristoteles und seine Weltanschauung (1911) and Aristoteles Lehre vom Ursprung des menschlichen Geistes (1911). In May 1915 he moved to Zurich when Italy joined the First World War. Franz Brentano died in Zurich on 17 May 1917. His ashes were removed to Aschaffenburg and placed in the family vault, where they remain until this day.

2. Work in Philosophy and Psychology

Brentano’s endeavour to develop a psychology from an empirical standpoint sprang from a distinctive combination of Aristotelianism and scientific psychology into a theory of immanent realism.

In many respects, Brentano conducted pioneering analysis of problems that are currently in the focus of cognitive science and artificial intelligence: from the problem of reference to that of representation, from the problem of categorial classification to ontology and the cognitive analysis of natural language. Brentano, in fact, dealt with and wrote on questions concerning the auditory stream (temporal apprehension), visual perception (continua, point of view, three-dimensional construction of phenomenal objects), intentionality, and conceptual space, considering these as pertaining to a metaphysical enquiry. Brentano’s immanent realism seems to be one of the few ways out of the reductionism, upwards (representationalism) or downwards (neurophysiology), in which research on consciousness still today finds itself. Consequently, Brentano’s views themselves contradict those who have sought to depict him as the originator of the various contemporary forms of mentalism or merely as the precursor of Husserl. By contrast, his painstaking analysis of the structure of the actual presentation in the moment now (the time of presentness in experimental terms), being evident, concrete and direct, is rooted in the external world, which coincides with the primary cognitive processes—that is, with perception in the various perceptual fields, and in its intermodality.

Several characteristics of Aristotle’s theory of the soul, mediated by Lotze’s theories, and notably the relationship among sensation and psychophysical activity, psychophysical activity and the conscious psychic phenomenon, the quantitative and qualitative difference among phenomena, the perception of stimuli and the perception of difference, the relationship and difference between increase/diminution and alteration, etc., converged in Brentano’s Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, one of whose points of departure was a critique not so much of Weber’s law as of Fechner’s psychophysics.

Aristotle’s theory of knowledge, in fact, considers diverse aspects of the sensing process. These aspects concern phenomena relating to external stimuli as well as to sensation and perception. Moreover, his analysis highlights the difference between perceiving an object and perceiving the perception of that object, and the complexity of simultaneously perceiving different objects like, for instance, sound and sweetness (different senses) or sweetness and bitterness (contrasting experiences of the same sense).

More in general, the subsequent debate on Aristotle’s De Anima in the following centuries shows the complexity of the problem in itself. Even a brief survey of the interpretations given to the relation between the passive and the active intellect reveals a wide difference of opinions. The direct picking up, so to say, of information in the phantasms, expressed in De Anima, was variously accepted or rejected by mediaeval and renaissance Peripatetics. The core of the problem—whether the active intellect reveals the cognitive input (noeta) already present in the sensory content, or simply processes sensory images imposing a constructivist frame on it—is still a matter of contemporary debate. The Peripatetics generally endorsed the second point of view, and also Thomas’ conception of the role of active intellect in generating its own objects (generare esse intellectuale) was a variation of the second kind which introduced the problem of abstraction and influenced the development of Brentano’s thought and later Husserl’s.

Historians of philosophy customarily view Brentano as a proponent—albeit to a minor extent—of the late nineteenth-century “Aristotelian Renaissance” carried forward most notably by Trendelenburg, Schwegler, Zeller and Bonitz, but also as a forerunner of the phenomenology of Husserl (who was his pupil) and as a theoretician of intentionality—although this is to overlook the fact that he indeed developed a theory of intentional reference but not a thoroughgoing theory of intentionality. The Brentanian programme views psychology as the foundation of science, a psychology that performs the role that Newtonian physics fulfilled in the last century. The physics to which Brentano’s descriptive psychology refers, carrying traces of Aristotle’s naïve physics, is a physics from the point of view of the beholder, and as such it is closer to comprehension of phenomena such as the perception of phenomenal space, of subjective duration and more generally of the various types of perception, from natural to artificial to virtual, that interest various sectors of contemporary research.

Presentations (i.e. acts of intentional reference) are also the bricks of Brentano’s metaphysical architecture. In Brentanian terms, the acts of intentional reference, occurring here and now, are boundaries of multiple and multiform continua existing in all their parts and made up of accidental though connected parts. Inner perception thus unfolds as the locus of the original intuition of the continuum of our experience, which is such because it is relative to a temporal-spatial “becoming,” namely the perceiver/thinker.

At bottom, this “becoming” is nothing but a temporal-spatial structure of specific type filled with phenomenal appearances from the various sensory fields and which manifests itself as the accidental perception of itself qua multiple and multiform continua. This is essentially the philosophical meaning of the concept of accident as a modal extension of its substance in Brentano’s late theory of categories, and it is an intriguing field of research for a scientific theory of consciousness.

His theory of conscious psychic acts is based on the continuous variation and change of the modes of a multifarious conscious accidental being, in which the world is continuously reconstructed, so to speak, amodally and indirectly. To be grounded—and not to finish up as a sort of phenomenalism—it therefore requires a theory of continua able to explain the architecture of the multiple and multifarious spaces given in actual duration and their laws of dependence. There is no “first-person” perspective in Brentano’s intentional reference, as is usually assumed in phenomenology. The idea of a mental Ego, at this foundational and ante-predicative level, is totally absent as well. In any case, according to Brentano, it is not possible to build metaphysics upon language, because symbolic forms of indirect presentation on various capacities—natural and formal languages, and epistemological theories—lack evidence, they have inferior veridicality and are intrinsically opaque.

3. Brentano and Whitehead Compared

From many points of view Brentano’s thought has striking analogies with that of A.N. Whitehead, although there is no evidence of any specific influence between them. Both their metaphysics established the relationship between philosophy and cognitive processes long obscured by the hostility towards it shown by behaviourism and analytic philosophy during the twentieth century.

From a general point of view, both Brentano and Whitehead share an anti-behaviourist and anti-mentalist stance, and both maintain the presence of different formats in representation. Postulating a mind that follows the procedural rules of a symbolic classical language is, for Brentano and Whitehead, profoundly incorrect, because language is wholly indeterminate: every event presupposes a certain type of environment and a specific context. Equally incorrect is consideration of the mind on the basis of its mere representational and information aspect, independently of its perceptual basis. Both Brentano and Whitehead, contrary to the classical idea of substance, propose a metaphysics of events (whether these are termed intentional referents (intentionale Beziehungen) or occasions or actual entities) considered to be intrinsically interrelated. For both, perception of the here and now is of fundamental importance because, rather than being the more or less veridical encounter of contraposed and separate entities (perceiver/perceived, subject/object), it constitutes the relation itself of events in the strict sense. As a consequence, nature acquires permanence and is viewed as a total event-relation of which the perceiver is part as an observer within the system.

From an analytical point of view, Brentano and Whitehead share the idea that both science and metaphysics are based on the foundation of immediate experience, and consequently that the meanings of concepts essential to physical science are to be understood in those terms. Secondly, they both maintain that the nature of immediate experience (immediacy of experience in Whitehead, the moment-now (Jetz) in Brentano) is constituted by a specific here-and-now spatio-temporal structure on which the realism of conception is grounded. Moreover, they see the present not as instantaneous but as extending in a stretch of time and comprising fringes of the past and of the future (AE 189-90, 206). Space and time, in fact, are considered to be characteristics of event and co-present, as phases of an intrinsic relationship between events themselves (CN 185, 186). With these intuitions, both Brentano and Whitehead helped lay the bases for the construction of a theory of continua based on primitives different from the mathematical ones envisaged by Dedekind and Cantor.

Besides these affinities, Brentano’s originality consists in having analysed the structures of the presentation more in terms of whole/parts and specific qualities and relations, while Whitehead was more closely concerned with the corporeal rootedness of the immediacy of perception based on feeling as the primary ontological category.

From an epistemological point of view, both of them share a view similar to Lord Kelvin’s idea of reality as made up of tiny knotted strings, which signifies also a qualitative idea of cosmology. In 1915, in one of his last dictations, in fact, Brentano puts forward Lord Kelvin’s theory of vortices and magnetic fields as a plausible hypothesis, conjecturing that the aggregate mass of matter constitutes a single stationary corporeal substance which, like Lord Kelvin’s homogeneous fluid, would be shot through with certain particular accidents corresponding to his vortices. In this case, the laws of mechanics as well as those of physics, chemistry and physiology, would pertain to these accidents and to their change and interaction. In other words, in place of what had been formerly regarded as the substances of corporeal matter, there would be accidents attaching to the single substance, and these would be transmitted from one part of it to another. The laws of mechanics would pertain to the interchange and preservation of these accidents. As regards the propagation of light and electricity, for example, rather than conceiving oscillations or displacements of the parts of the substance underlying the rays, one could hypothesise only displacements of quality which can be conceived as divisible in tiny portions. In other words, quality would contain the place as its ultimate subject. Obviously, our minds interact with the qualities inhering in the unitary corporal substance, which need not necessarily be considered unlimited in length, width and depth as empty space was thought to be. For Brentano, in fact, this is replaced by a finite material substance, immobile and immutable in its position. The boundaries and the mode of this substance, moreover, need not necessarily be uniform, so that it is possible to conceive a cause of its initial state of motion. However, there is little more in Brentano’s published dictations on which to base a less fragmentary account of his views on the nature of the transcendent world, so that a more detailed comparison with Whitehead’s views is not possible.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Major Works by F. Brentano

1902. On the Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong, edited by R.M. Chisholm and E.H. Schneewind (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul). First German edition published in 1892 (Leipzig, Duncker & Humblot).

1954. Religion und Philosophie, edited by F. Mayer-Hillebrand (Bern, Francke).

1956. Die Lehre vom richtigen Urteil, edited by F. Mayer-Hillebrand (Bern, Francke).

1959. Grundzüge der Ästhetik, edited by F. Mayer-Hillebrand (Bern, Francke).

1966. The True and the Evident, translated by R.M. Chisholm and E. Politzer (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul). First German edition published in 1930, edited by O. Kraus (Leipzig, Meiner).

1970. Versuch über die Erkenntnis, edited by A. Kastil, revised by F. Mayer Hillebrand (Leipzig, Meiner). First edition published in 1925 (Leipzig, Meiner).

1971. Von der Klassifikation der psychische Phänomene, edited by O. Kraus (Hamburg, Meiner). First German edition published in 1911 (Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig).

1973. The Foundation and Construction of Ethics, translated by E.H. Schneewind (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul). First German edition published in 1952, edited by F. Mayer-Hillebrand (Bern, Francke).

1975. On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle: Aristoteles Metaphysics Z, 1., translated by R. George (Berkeley, University of California Press). First German edition published in 1862 (Freiburg, Breisgau-Herder).

1977a. The Psychology of Aristotle, in Particular his Doctrine of the Active Intellect. With an Appendix Concerning the Activity of Aristotle’s God, translated by R. George (Berkeley, University of California Press). First German edition published in 1867 (Mainz, Kirchheim).

1977b. Die Abkehr vom Nichtrealen, edited by F. Mayer-Hillebrand (Hamburg, Meiner). First German edition published in 1966 (Hamburg, Meiner).

1978. Grundlegung und Aufbau der Ethik, edited by F. Mayer-Hillebrand (Hamburg, Meiner).

1979. Untersuchungen zur Sinnespsychologie, edited by R.M. Chisholm and R. Fabian (Hamburg, Meiner). First German edition published in 1907 (Leipzig, Duncker & Humblot).

1981a. Sensory and Noetic Consciousness, edited by L. McAlister (London, Routledge). First German edition published in 1928, edited by O. Kraus (Leipzig, Meiner); reprinted in 1968, edited by F. Mayer-Hillebrand.

1981b. The Theory of Categories, edited by R.M. Chisholm and N. Guterman (Den Haag, Nijhoff). First German edition published in 1933, edited by A. Kastil (Leipzig, Meiner).

1987a. On the Existence of God. Lectures Given at the Universities of Würzburg and Vienna (1868-1891), edited and translated by S.F. Krantz (Dordrecht, Nijhoff).

1988a. Grundzüge der Ästhetik, edited by F. Mayer Hillebrand (Hamburg, Meiner). First German edition published in 1959 (Bern, Francke).

1988b. Über Ernst Machs ‘Erkenntnis und Irrtum’, edited by R.M. Chisholm and J.C. Marek (Amsterdam, Rodopi).

1988c. Philosophical Lectures on Space, Time and the Continuum, edited by S. Körner and R.M. Chisholm (London, Croom Helm). First German edition published in 1976 (Hamburg, Meiner).

1988d. The Four Phases of Philosophy and Its Current State, edited by B.M. Mezei and B. Smith (Amsterdam, Rodopi). First German edition published in 1895 (Stuttgart, Cotta).

1995a. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, edited by L. McAlister (London, Routledge). (Translation of the 2nd ed. with an Introduction and notes by O. Kraus, Leipzig 1924). First German edition published in 1874 (Leipzig Duncker & Humblot).

1995b. Descriptive Psychology, edited by B. Müller (London, Routledge). First German edition published in 1982, edited by R.M. Chisholm and W. Baumgartner (Hamburg, Meiner).

Further Readings

Albertazzi, L. 2002. “Towards a Neo-aristotelian theory of continua: Elements of an empirical geometry,” in Unfolding Perceptual Continua edited by L. Albertazzi (Amsterdam, Benjamins Publishing), 29-79.

_____. 2003. “A psychology for the eco-system,” in Searching for New Contrasts. Whiteheadian Contributes to Contemporary Challenges in Neurophysiology, Psychology, Psychotherapy, and the Philosophy of Mind, edited by F. Riffert and M. Weber (Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang), 275-84.

_____. 2005. Immanent Realism. Introduction to Franz Brentano (Berlin/New York, Springer).

_____. 2007. ”Intentional presentations. At the roots of consciousness,” in J.S. Jordan, D. M. McBride eds., The Concept of Consciousness. Integrating an Emergent Science, special issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 14, No. 1-2, January-February 2007, 94-114.

Bell, J.L. 2005. “Divergent conceptions of the continuum in 19th and early 20th Century mathematics and philosophy,” Axiomathes, 15, 63-84.

Author Information

Liliana Albertazzi
Trento University
Department of Cognition and Education Sciences
Corso Bettini, 31, Rovereto, Italy

How to Cite this Article

Albertazzi, Liliana, “Franz Brentano (1838–1917)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.