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Franz Brentano and the psychology of intentionality

Franz Brentano and the psychology of intentionality

June 25, 2022

The study of intentionality is relatively recent in the history of philosophy. Although philosophers of antiquity and medieval as Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Avicenna or Thomas Aquinas made specific references to the human will, in general is considered Franz Brentano, who lived in the nineteenth century, 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") of Franz Brentano . For the German philosopher intentionality is the main feature that distinguishes psychological phenomena from physicists, which contain themselves instead of directing the acts towards another external object.


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Biography of Franz Brentano

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

In the year 1873 he left the Church because of his disagreements with the official theses; in particular, Brentano denied the dogma of papal infallibility, according to which the Pope is incapable of making mistakes. Later he married and devoted himself to university teaching. He died in 1917 in Zurich, Switzerland, where he moved after the First World War broke out.


The fundamental work of Brentano is entitled "Psychology from the empirical point of view" and it was published in the year 1874. In it, this author described the key role of intentionality in thinking and other processes of a psychological nature, and affirmed that it is the main factor that distinguishes them from purely physical phenomena.

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

The concept of intentionality

Brentano recovered the concept of intentionality in modern philosophy. For it was based mainly on the work of Aristotle and other classical authors ; However, René Descartes' approach, which focused on knowledge instead of the will, was what inspired Brentano to highlight the relevance of this construct.


As defined by this author, intentionality is the common characteristic of all psychological phenomena . It is the property that directs an act or event determined towards an object or goal located in the external 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 external world, such as sounds, visual stimuli and objects in the environment in general. On the other hand, among psychological phenomena we find the perceptions of others of a physical nature, as well as the mental contents that are directed to them.

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

However, and given that the mental object (the intention or "intentional existence") that accompanies any physical object has different characteristics for each person, it is not possible in any case that more than one is directed exactly towards the same object, even if it is equivalent from a physical point of view.

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The psychology of the act

Brentano said that Psychology consisted of two branches: descriptive and genetic . The first one would focus on the description of 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 to psychology that he baptized as "descriptive". According to Brentano's thesis and his psychology of the act we should not analyze the objective experience associated with mental phenomena, but we would simply have to focus on describing how we experience it as richly as possible.

In this way, considering that one can not study the mind solely through its physical correlates, Franz Brentano was positioned against that our discipline could be part of the natural sciences . For this author, as for many others in the foundational era and nowadays, psychology would be closer to philosophy.

However, the psychology of the act of Brentano has been criticized since its inception (even by the disciples of the philosopher himself, much to his chagrin) for the lack of clarity of their approach. In addition, the introspective study methods are very questioned at present because it is not possible to systematize them in an adequate way.


Psychology: The Distinction of the Mental and the Physical: Franz Brentano: 1/2 (June 2022).


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