Saturday, April 05, 2008

Franz Brentano (1838, Marienberg am Rhein – March 17, 1917, Zürich): An Early Philosophical Influence on Freud



We are all inevitably influenced by our earliest teachers and this is true even of the greatest scholars.  We simply cannot escape this inevitable formation of our thought.  Both Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) among many other scholars sat on the benches in the lecture halls where the great philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano lectured.  Between the years 1874 to 1895 this great scholar taught at the University of ViennaRoss M. Skelton of TCD writes of Freud  that at this university "he studied medicine, neurology and psychiatry, but perhaps more importantly he was to attend the classes of the great German philosopher, Franz BrentanoBrentano was at the time pioneering a revolutionary theory of how human subjective experience was to be understood and, in those classes, Freud was to sit in the same room as Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, which became the great rival theory of subjectivity to Freud's theory of psychoanalysis." ("Psychoanalysis", art. in Psychotherapy in Ireland, Edward Boyne, ed., The Columba Press, 1995, 12)

In starting these recent posts my intention has been to get to grips with Freud and his writings.  If luck is on my side I shall have inscribed on an M. Phil. in Psychoanalysis in TCD for the 2008/2009 academic year.  Hence my grappling with these early philosophical influences on our man Freud.  Who was Brentano and what were his teaching?  Ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1864, Franz Brentano became a Professor at the University of Würzburg in 1872, but doubts over the dogma of papal infallibility led to his resignation from his post, and eventually from the priesthood in 1873.  He was an astute student both of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas and especially of the influence of the former on the latter.  Indeed he had spent some six months as a student in the Dominican Order earlier in his life.  Brentano is best known for his reintroduction of the concept of intentionality, also called intentionalism — a concept derived from scholastic philosophy (Thomas Aquinas) — into contemporary philosophy in his lectures and in his famous academic tome Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint.  Here is a brief summary of his impact on psychiatry and psychology in the words of the scholar Raymond E. Fancher, trained in clinical psychology at Harvard (Ph.D.) and emeritus professor of psychology at York University, Ontario:

Brentano published an important book of his own entitled Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint.  Here Brentano proposed an act psychology, in which he contrasted the essential nature of psychology's subject matter with that of the physical sciences.  While the physical sciences study objects, for Brentano the fundamental units of psychological analysis are acts that always refer to or "contain" an object.  For example, while a unit of physical analysis might be an atom, a psychological unit might be an act such as thinking about an atom, or believing that a particular kind of atom must exist, or wanting such a kind of atom to exist.  Thus there is an "aboutness" to all mental phenomena, a quality of referring to or implicating some object in consciousness that Brentano called intentionality. (Pioneers of Psychology, W.W. Norton & Co., 1996, 370-371)

It is interesting to note in passing that the young Freud inscribed for and took five elective courses with Brentano in his first two years as a medical student, and for a while he toyed with the idea of taking a degree in philosophy with this learned scholar after taking his medical degree.

It is also interesting to note that Franz Brentano believed that philosophy should be done with methods that are as rigorous and as exact as those of the natural sciences.  Freud also believed this to be strongly the case as regards what he termed the science of psychoanalysis.  In this belief Brentano had an empirical approach to psychology.  However, we must enter a "caveat" here as this scholar's understanding of the term "empirical" differed markedly from that of the meaning of the word for us today.  Brentano meant that all our knowledge should be based on direct experience - a readily understandable premise.  However, he did not contend at all that this experience needs to be made from a third-person point of view - that is, an objective point of view like that of another more neutral observer - and thus opposes what is the very essence of standard empirical science of today.  In other words, our man Brentano argued for a form of introspectionism.  In other words, for him doing psychology from an empirical standpoint means to describe what one directly experiences in inner perception, from a first-person point of view.

Needless to say such introspectionism - subjectivism indeed - was harshly criticized with the rise of scientific psychology in the tradition of logical positivism, especially by the behaviourists.   However, this in no way gainsays the fact that Brentano did play a crucial role in the process of psychology becoming an independent science.

It is further interesting to note that he distinguished between what he termed (i) Genetic and  (ii) Empirical or, as he later called the latter, Descriptive Psychology (or at times Phenomenology), a distinction that is most explicitly drawn in his Descriptive Psychology. Genetic Psychology studies psychological phenomena from a third-person point of view.  This second category of Descriptive Psychology aims at describing consciousness from a first-person point of view. Its goal is to list “fully the basic components out of which everything internally perceived by humans is composed, and … [to enumerate] the ways in which these components can be connected” (Descriptive Psychology , 4). Brentano's distinction between Genetic and Descriptive psychology strongly influenced Husserl's development of the phenomenological method.

In short, one can see clearly that Brentano's theory of intentionalism or intentionality is a blend of scholastic thought with a form of empiricism which leads to a type of subjective idealism which links into his native and strong Theism. However, his importance cannot be forgotten because he had considerable influence on the thought, writings, work and life of psychologist Carl Stumpf, philosopher Edmund Husserl, and Tomás Masaryk, the founder of modern Czechoslovakia, not to mention our man Sigmund Freud.

I shall conclude these thoughts here by returning to an above quoted article by Ross M. Skelton and quoting a relevant few lines:

By the age of 37 then, Freud had assembled the main ingredients of his theory: from Brentano he had received a profound teaching about the subjectivity of human experience, from Charcot he had seen with his own eyes the unconscious power of repressed ideas, from Elizabeth von R he was aspired to free association, and in his relation with Breuer we find the first nudge towards what will become the theory of transference. (Skelton, op.cit., 13)


Above I have uploaded a picture of the young Brentano!

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