You are on page 1of 50

Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 1

Please cite only the published version

Brentanos Act Psychology

Was Not Aristotelian
(Or Else, Not Empirical)
Ben Sheredos

Brentanos Psychology constantly refers to mental phenomena as
mental acts, yet there has been surprisingly little effort devoted
to discerning the significance of the term act in this context. A
widespread implicit view is (1) that it is merely a technical term, and
does not literally invoke any connotations of action at all. But since
many regard the Psychology as riddled with Aristotelian assumptions,
some also suggest (2) that Brentanos talk of mental acts is a signifi-
cant holdover from his Aristotelian pedigree. Here I argue, negatively,
that both claims are deeply problematic. First, traditional readings
of Brentano (by, e.g., Oskar Kraus) in terms of (1) are incapable of
supporting some of Brentanos most central commitments regarding
inner perception and the method of psychology. Second, Brentanos
own conception of Aristotelianism is such that if (2) were true, (1)
would be false. Finally, if (2) were true in any significant sense, then
Brentano would simply fail to do what he sets out to do in his em-
pirical psychology. I thus call for renewed attention to Brentanos
conception of mental acts.

For helpful comments on earlier work leading up to this paper, I thank the
organizers and audiences of the 2013 meetings of the North American Soci-
ety for Early Phenomenology (NASEP) and the Seminar in Phenomenology
and History of Philosophy (SIPHOP). I also benefited from discussions with
members of the California Phenomenology Circle (CPC), UC San Diegos
History of Philosophy Roundtable (HOPR), and UC San Diegos Phenomenol-
ogy Reading Group. William Bechtel, Monte Johnson, and Clinton Tolley
gave extensive feedback on earlier drafts. Finally, thoughtful comments and
critique from two anonymous referees helped strengthen the paper.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 2
Please cite only the published version

1 Introduction: Mental Acts as the

Unexamined Locus of Intentionality

Brentanos Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt (PES ) holds interest

as a unique and philosophically rich attempt to put scientific psychology on a
firm foundation. PES is also key to understanding the roots of phenomenol-
ogy, due to its influence on the early Husserl, who himself initially (1901a;
1901b) understood phenomenology as a form of Brentanian, descriptive psy-
chology. PES is of broader interest since (a) intentionality (directedness
to an object) remains widely cited as a core explanandum in philosophy of
mind, and (b) Brentano remains widely credited for bringing intentionality
(in some sense) to philosophers attention. A popular passage (Brentano,
1874, pp.88-89/68/115)1 often serves as a touchstone to intentionality.2
There has been much disagreement over how to understand Brentanos
views. A popular interpretive method reads Brentano as a (neo-)Aristotelian.

Citations to PES will be ugly, but useful. Previous scholarship often cited the out-
of-print 1973 edition of McAlisters translation, whereas future scholarship may rely on
the 1995/2009 re-issue. Since their pagination does not match, I provide both, along with
relevant German pagination. Citations thus follow the order: (i ) pagination in the 1973
translation, (ii ) pagination of the 1995/2009 re-issue, then (iii ) usually the pagination of
the first German edition, but sometimes (where I am explicitly discussing Brentanos 1911
revisions) pagination of the 1911 re-issue of Book II, Ch. 5-9, and sometimes (where I
am explicitly discussing Kraus additions in 1924) pagination of Felix Meiners 2-volume
edition in the Philosophische Bibliothek series.
This passage is quoted explicitly by: Bechtel (2008, p.179); Byrne (2006, p.406);
Chisholm (1957, p.168); Deacon (2010, p.191) Dennett (1969, p.14); Dummett (1990,
p.192); Kim (1996, p.21); Russell (1921, pp.14-15); Sayre (1976, p.243); Segal (2005,
p.283); Stubenberg (1998, p.222); and Tye (1995, p.95). It is cited more obliquely by:
Searle (1983, p.14); Dennett (1987, p.67); and Dretske (1995, p.28).
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 3
Please cite only the published version

There is precedent for this method in the fact that Brentano was unmistak-
ably enamored with Aristotles thought throughout his life.3 Moreover, the
strategy appears to pay dividends. Many have looked to Brentanos earlier
works especially The Psychology of Aristotle to locate Aristotelian prece-
dents for his mature views in psychology. Fugali (2009) identifies Brentano
and his teacher, Trendelenburg, as proponents of a broader 19th century
movement to revitalize an Aristotelian approach to psychology. Libardi
(1996, p.35) suggests that Brentanos early work on Aristotle provided him
with a set of premises which constituted the conceptual basis for his mature
psychological work. George & Koehn (2004) locate Aristotelian precursors
to Brentanos later views on a number of topics, including intentionality,
judgment, and the proper method of philosophy. Smith (1995) recognizes all
these same connections in essence (though there is dispute over details).
But there is a striking historical puzzle regarding treatments of Brentanos
doctrine of intentionality. In PES, Brentano defined as synonymous the terms
(i) mental act, (ii ) intentional mental phenomenon and (iii ) conscious
mental phenomenon (1874, p.102/78/132). Many have doubted whether
(ii ) and (iii ) are synonymous: many contemporary philosophers of mind and

Brentano published Von der mannigfachen Bedeutung des Seienden nach Aristoteles
in 1862, and completed Die Psychologie des Aristoteles in 1867. In PES itself, Brentano
is keen to locate Aristotelian precursors for many of his central claims. At the time of the
second edition of PES, in 1911, Brentano also published an introduction to Aristotelian
thought (Aristotles une seine Weltanschauung), while also re-releasing another text on
Aristotle (Aristotles Lehre vom Ursprung des menschlischen Geistes). And Brentano con-
tinued to write a number of letters and manuscripts on Aristotle thereafter, many of which
have been collected and reprinted in the posthumous volume, Uber Aristoteles, and some
in the posthumous Wahrheit und Evidenz.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 4
Please cite only the published version

cognitive scientists hold that a plethora of intentional mental phenomena are

not conscious. But few have inquired systematically after the term mental
acts. This is my quarry. If one looks to the historians of early 20th century
psychology, intentionality was widely regarded as a specialized theoretical
term that belonged to a school of thought (held to be founded by Brentano)
called Act Psychology in the way, e.g., that forces belong to Newto-
nians, or thatcaloric was a posit of the eponymous theory of heat.4 What
one finds in the historical record, repeatedly, is the claim that intentional-
ity must be understood in light of Act Psychologys focus on psychical or
mental acts.
To be sure, historians of psychology did a poor job clarifying how Act
Psychology (AP) was to be understood. Most identified Brentano and
Husserl as central proponents of AP, but other theorists status as members of
AP was disputed (such as James, Lipps, Meinong, Stout, Stumpf, Ward, and
Witasek). Likewise, APs relation to other schools of thought was never made
precise. Boring (1950) portrays AP as a forerunner to Gestalt Psychology,
superseded in the works of Kohler and Koffka, whereas Brunswik (1952) sees
AP giving way to American functionalism in the hands of Tolmann, Hull, and
the cybernetic movement. Brett (1930) and Flugel (1951) portray AP as
a return to 19th century faculty psychology, whereas M
uller-Freienfels (1935)
rejects this reading. Further, historians never radically clarified the precise

Even some quite recent reference texts in psychology maintain the legacy of treating
intentionality explicity and exclusively as a posit of Act Psychology see Eysenck
et al. (1982); Corsini (2002).
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 5
Please cite only the published version

doctrines of AP. Often, AP was introduced thematically, simply by glossing

the views of theorists held to be proponents of AP but again, there was
disagreement over who belonged on the roster. Often, the technical term
mental act receives no concise elucidation. But one can also locate claims
by historians which suggest a more substantive reading of AP. Here are a
pair of representative examples:

Intentionality and intentional in-existence become intelligible

only when it is realized that psychical phenomena are to be
thought of as acts (Boring, 1950, p.360, original emph.).

The term Akt is a translation of the scholastic actus, which in

turn is a translation of the Aristotelian energeia. It is likely to
carry a suggestion of activity, in the sense of voluntary acts,
acts of kindness, etc. (Titchener, 1922, p.44, fn.4).5

The suggestion is that when Brentano and Husserl spoke (as they often did)
of intentional phenomena as mental acts, they were genuinely committed
to viewing them as acts, i.e., dynamic doings or performances, as intuitively
opposed to things which just happen, and as opposed to static properties
which a mind simply has. I call this the Act Conception of intentionality.
In recent discussions of the works of AP, one can occasionally find the
term mental act deployed for convenience or continuity, but there is lit-
tle reflection on whether it means anything significant. For example, the
Here, and throughout this paper, I replace any Greek orthography with the more
accessible Romanized version. Great thanks go to Monte Johnson for his oversight.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 6
Please cite only the published version

works collected in Textor (2006) move freely and comfortably between talk
of mental acts (which connotes a dynamic character) and talk of mental
states (which rather suggests something static). Such ambivalence is long-
running: in his book Mental Acts, Peter Geach treats as interchangeable the
expressions mental acts or mental events or what happened in a persons
mind (1957, p.2). This ambivalence is also still alive. Tim Crane remarks:
...all intentional objects are the objects of intentional states or acts. (By
act I mean a mental phenomenon that has an object and has a place in
a time-series, like an act of judgement, or a decision) (2001, p.342). This
may distinguish mental acts, as datable events, from states, but if we follow
Crane, we implicitly suppose that there is really nothing lost in throwing
overboard an explicitly active connotation. This is a common view today,
but it is at odds with the historians conception of AP.
One can detect two long-running assumptions in the secondary literature
on Brentano, which many readers may have already called to mind:

(1) Mental act is a potentially misleading technical term, and

has no active connotations at all; the historians were wrong;
Brentanos view involved no significant Act Conception.

(2) Mental act is to be read in light of Brentanos Aristotelian-

ism, following the Scholastics.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 7
Please cite only the published version

As I discuss further below, a combination of (1) and (2) was promoted by Os-
kar Kraus, Brentanos editor and former student. (1) can also be detected in
the positivistic (Comtean) reading of Brentano pursued by Hickerson (2007,
see esp. p.27). Similarly (1) might be suggested by Smiths (1995) treatment
of the Brentano school as a forerunner to the Vienna Circle. Biagio Tassone
(2012) is a recent proponent of (2), whose work I discuss below.6
In this essay my aims are entirely negative: I argue that no combination
of the foregoing two claims can provide an adequate reading of PES. I offer
no positive reading of mental act in Brentanos work rather, I underscore
why new work is required to provide any such reading.
In S2, I argue that (1) is incompatible with (2): if Brentano did intend
that we read mental acts in light of his early work on Aristotle, this would
enable a significant construal of mental acts as acts. I distinguish two ways in
which Brentanos early conception of Aristotelian psychology could support
an Act Conception of (at least some) intentionality.
In S3, I outline Krauss claims in support of (1), and I examine Tassones
endorsement of (2). I thus explicate a total of three distinct proposals for

It is difficult to find explicit treatments of the locution mental acts, as I have
remarked. I offer three further examples which suggest that (1) and (2) are in the air.
(a) Spiegelberg (1976) is quite clear in maintaining that the Latin intentio, as used by
the Scholastics which inspired Brentano, is to be read in an extra-practical sense which
must be sharply distinguished from any connotation of acts (cf. p.110), even if it did
eventually come to be paired up with the term actus, by Duns Scotus (cf. p. 112).
(b) Marras (1976) is an example of a text in which talk of mental activity comes along
for free (see p. 137 poof!) once we trace intentionality back to the Scholastics.
(c) George & Koehn 2004 suggest rather strongly that the concept of a mental act goes
back to Aristotle, and they move comfortably between that locution and talk of mental
states (cf. pp.29-30).
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 8
Please cite only the published version

how to read mental acts in Brentano two Aristotelian readings, and one
Krausian, dismissive reading.
Lastly, in S4, I argue that none of these options provides an adequate
reading of PES. First, (2) is false: none of the Aristotelian readings of mental
acts can provide an adequate reading of PES, unless Brentano simply fails
to do what he says he aims to do. Moreover, I argue that Krauss proposal
for upholding (1) is inadequate to capture the most central commitments of
Brentanos empirical psychology (namely, the intentional unity of any mental
act which enables the empirical method of inner perception).
In short, I pose an interpretive challenge for future scholarship: we need
novel analyses of Brentanos work to provide an adequate account of what
mental acts are intended to be: some middle-ground between Aristotelian-
ism and a positivism that would proceed without any robust metaphysics of
mental phenomena. Without this, we can have no adequate understanding
of Brentanos synonymous locution, intentional mental phenomenon.
My focus here is on PES, rather than Brentanos broader corpus. As will
become clear, this is because I think that overzealous attempts to supplement
PES by drawing on Brentanos other works face hitherto unnoticed difficul-
ties in providing a coherent reading of PES. If the essay succeeds in clarifying
these difficulties, I shall count it as a success, and will then welcome fresh
attempts at supplementing PES. I cannot simultaneously pursue that task
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 9
Please cite only the published version

2 Brentanos Aristotles Psychology

In this section my aim is to provide a selective overview of Brentanos reading

of Aristotelian psychology note: not Aristotles own view. To begin, we
need a basic sketch of an Aristotelian ontology of dunameis, understood
as powers, potentialities, or capacities (Brentanos favored terms are
Krafte, Potenzen, Potenziellen or Vermogen). I first (S2.1) discuss capacities
and their actualizations (energeia). With this in place, I sketch how these
concepts are deployed in Brentanos understanding of Aristotelian psychology
(S2.2). This will lead, at the end of this subsection, to the two Aristotelian
conceptions of mental acts (S2.3).

2.1 Dunameis and Energeia

Translations of energeia have varied, but a recent consensus is emerging that

regarding it as the actualization of a potentiality, or a potentialitys being
now made real, is a bit too thin and passive. We should rather regard it
as actively be-ing. Thus Anna Marmodoro suggests interpreting the actu-
alization of a power as its state of activation; its exercising powerfulness
(2014, p.5, original emph.). Likewise Aryeh Kosman (1975) once suggested
we read energeia as acting out. More recently, he locates the activity of
being (i.e., the dynamic activity which is actualization) as a central concern
of Aristotles ontology (2013, p.x ). Likewise Monte Johnson points out that
energeia literally means something like being in action, i.e., doing work
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 10
Please cite only the published version

or exercise (2005, p.88).

It is not implausible that in early work, Brentano recognized the active
connotation of energeia. True, one can often read him as interpreting energeia
as actuality (Wirklichkeit), and he often speaks of the exercise of a capacity
as an actualization (verwirklichen) via some efficient cause. However he
notes that the term derives from ergon, to act [wirken], a verb having to
do with motion [einem Verbum der Bewegung] (1862, p.29/43).7
To understand this active construal, we must distinguish several phases
of actualization, shown schematically in Figure 1. At 1 , there is a subject
or substance. It has a capacity or potentiality (dunameis) in the thinnest
sense for example, suppose the substance is a human, and it could speak
German, but has not yet learned the language. But at 1 , the substance is
affected by some actualization or some movement, A1 . The result at 2 is that
the subject now has potentiality which has reached its first actualization
for example, the human has a real capacity to speak German, having learned
the language, but is not now speaking it. But at 2 , the capacity is affected
by another actualization, A2 . The result at 3 is that the capacity is now
fully actualized: for example, the human is speaking German. This novel
actualization, A3 , consists in the capacity attaining its purpose or telos.
Now (Brentanos) Aristotle maintains that the progression from mere
potentiality to full actualization is an active progression. At every stage, the

Citations to Von der mannigfachen Bedeutung des Seienden nach Aristotles provide
pagination from Rolf Georges 1975 English translation, followed by pagination from the
first German edition.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 11
Please cite only the published version

1 2

(t 1 ) (t 2 ) (t 3 )

Figure 1: A Schematic of the Phases of Actualization. In all three

time-points, the black sphere is a subject or substance, and actualizations
are marked A . At times t 2 and t 3 , a particular potentiality is represented
using a gray arc, and its telos is marked with T. See text for discussion.

concept of actualization is linked to movement (kin^esis; Bewegung). I

will highlight three related components of the view.
First, Brentano offers a novel proposal to make sense of Aristotles claim
that the actuality (energeia) of a potential being as such is to be understood
as motion or movement (kin^esis; Bewegung). Disagreeing with other com-
mentators, Brentano reads this as the claim that, in a very broad sense of
movement, all potentiality presupposes movement:

Movement [die kin^esis] is the actuality of the potential as such...

the actuality [Actualitat] (energeia) which makes something that
is potentially (tou dunamei ontos) into that which it is (h^ei toiou-
ton esti ), viz., into this potential being. In other words it [i.e.,
movement] constitutes and forms a potential as potential... [die
ein Mogliches als Mogliches... constituirt oder formirt] (1862,
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 12
Please cite only the published version

p.38/58, translation amended).8

I have built this claim into Figure 1: the effect of some actuality (energeia
or movement) at 1 is that, at 2 , a subject now has a potentiality. One way
to put the claim is that the Aristotelian does not reify all that is logically
possible in her power ontology. What matters are the real potentialities that
a thing has, which it has by some cause, i.e., as a result of some energeia.
This first component of Brentanos view prioritizes energeia over any real
potentiality, and moreover links energeia to movement (kin^esis; Bewegung).
The second component of Brentanos view is that once any potentiality
is made real (at 2 in Figure 1), then the subject of that potentiality is in a
process of becoming [des Werdens] i.e., becoming that which it now has
a real potential to be (1862, p.44/65). He illustrates this with the example
of locomotion: locomotion [die ortliche Bewegung] (phora) constitutes that
which moves toward a goal in this state of potentiality for a location (1862,
pp.44-45/66-67). In exercising our will and setting a goal, we are becoming
a thing which is on-the-way to the potential location; as we exercise bodily
movement to get there, we are fully-actualizing our potential to be there. A
stone, by contrast, cannot even become a thing-on-the-way to a new place
without external influence, nor can it actually get there on its own. But in
all cases, the process of actualizing a capacity for relocation is to be under-

In this and other quoted passages, any insertions in square brackets are mine any
Greek and German text I insert in this way gives Brentanos own usage from the original
text, whereas any English is my addition, for clarification. All insertions in parentheses
are Brentanos own, just as they appear in the original.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 13
Please cite only the published version

stood as an active process of (1) becoming, or coming-to-be, a thing with a

new potentiality, and (2) fully-actualizing that potentiality. So the first com-
ponent of Brentanos view is that motion is presupposed in having any real
potentiality. And the second component is that to have any real potentiality
to be capable at all is to be-in-motion, and to be actively becoming.
The third component completes the account of energeia as active being-
at-work. The transition from capability, through becoming, to full actual-
ization, occurs since any real potentiality, in a manner of speaking, strives
towards and desires its form [nach der Form begehrt und ihr zustrebt], i.e.,
strives towards its actualization (1862, p.34/52). As Brentano says elsewhere,
Each activity [Wirken operation] proceeds from a striving [Streben]
(1867, p.42/62).9 Obviously, this broad sense of striving activity implies
no conscious intention; a stones capacity to dissipate heat is just as well
an activity which proceeds from a striving, i.e., a tendency [Neigung] to
dissipate heat (1867, p.42/62). In Figure 1, I have represented this striving,
in 2 , using a dotted line that runs through the capacity toward its telos. The
full actualization of the capacity, A3 at 3 , is the attainment of this telos, and
this arises through a striving.
In sum then, any energeia is something which actively becomes actual,
through a striving to be actual. Even a triggering-of-powerfulness under the
influence of a prior movement leads to an exercising of a capacity, a being-

Citations to Die Psychologie des Aristotles provide pagination from Rolf Georges
1977 English translation, followed by pagination from the first German edition.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 14
Please cite only the published version

at-work, or being-in-action. As we shall see, this active construal of energeia

forms the basis for one Aristotelian conception of mental acts as acts.
A pair of clarifications must be added to this basic sketch. First, it
would be wrong to suppose that when a capacity is triggered into activity,
the triggering, efficient cause always comes from outside of the substance
which has the capacity. This is misleadingly suggested in Figure 1, given the
placement of A1 and A2 . In cases like this, we have what are called enforced
movements (gewaltsamen Bewegungen) (1867, pp.29/41-42). For example, a
stone can only dissipate heat if it suffers an external movement that heats it.
For as long as the stone is heated, it has a capacity to dissipate heat, and it
strives to actualize it. An enforced actualization is still a being-at-work, but
it depends on environmental circumstances. However, some capacities are
triggered into activity through the influence of an efficient cause which lies
within the same subject these are called natural movements (nat
Bewegungen) (1867, p.29/42; see also 1862, p.33/51). Animal locomotion is
a canonical example: the efficient cause of bodily movements lies within the
animal itself.
Second, in an Aristotelian scheme, capacities are individuated teleolog-
ically, i.e., with attention to their telos end, purpose, aim, etc. Some
capacities have the purpose of responding or reacting to events and states
which obtain outside of themselves.10 In these cases, although the capacities

One way to understand this is to imaginatively fold Fig.1s central image, so that
the capacitys telos overlaps with the efficient cause of its actualization.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 15
Please cite only the published version

actualization is in a minimal sense active, nonetheless the capacity as

a whole is regarded as passive or receptive (though not in the sense of be-
ing impassive or resistant) (1862, p.31/47). A straightforward psychological
example is an organisms capacity for sensory representation. In contrast
to such cases, active capacities have the purpose of bringing about change
outside of themselves. Prototypical examples are vegetative capacities of nu-
trition, and capacities of animal locomotion, whose purpose is to affect a
change in the body.

2.2 Psychological Powers and Activities

With this sketch of capacities (both passive and active) and actualizations
(both natural and enforced) in place, we may follow Brentano in deploying it
to understand Aristotelian psychology. In the Aristotelian scheme, the way
to distinguish any two subjects or substances is to look at their powers or ca-
pacities, and we discover the nature of powers [Krafte] by using knowledge
of their effects [Wirkungen] and activities [Thatigkeiten] (Brentano, 1867,
pp.27/39). The Aristotelian thus distinguishes all living creatures from inan-
imate objects, as follows. (1) Living creatures exhibit natural (un-enforced)
actualizations distinct from those seen in inanimate matter. (2) This dif-
ference of actualizations is held to manifest different underlying capacities.
(3) The difference in capacities is held to manifest different natures. The
distinction is drawn by saying that living things are ensouled (German: be-
seelt), and soul (psuch^e ) is the term of art used to refer to the locus for
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 16
Please cite only the published version

the foregoing powers and activities.

The soul, in its broadest sense, is a pure potentiality: it is the potentiality
of any matter to become a living substance. Brentano describes it as a
mere substantial potentiality [die blosse substantielle Moglichkeit] which is
itself devoid of any matter (1867, p.31/44); it is a mere substantial form
[substantielle Form] (1867, p.35/52). This very broad notion of the soul
corresponds to a very thin sense of potentiality e.g., the sense in which one
could speak German, while not knowing the language.
In the Aristotelian scheme, we can only gain knowledge of souls insofar as
they are actualized to some extent. In a second and more narrow sense, the
term soul is used to refer to enlivened matter [die Materie Belebende]...
the first entelechy of a natural body [die erste Entelechie eines nat
Korpers] that is potentially alive (1867, p.32/46). In this sense, the soul is
the first actualization of the potentiality for life: we have not yet reached the
full actualization of the soul, in concrete actualizations of psychical capaci-
The soul, in this second sense, is a unitary form of a whole living body.
However, we may speak derivatively of the parts of a soul (1867, p.37/56).
This division relies on showing that diverse capacities, possessed by differ-
ent organisms, are separable from each other: some occur in the absence of
others. This in turn relies on distinguishing a variety of actualizations which
occur separably. For example, all living things exhibit basic nutritive actual-
izations which distinguish them from inanimate things. Humans also exhibit,
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 17
Please cite only the published version

e.g., volitional actualizations of the power for locomotion, which distinguish

them further from inanimate objects, and also from plants. Thus plants and
humans share a set of powers which distinguish them from the inanimate,
but humans actualize another set of powers that plants lack. In roughly this
way, the Aristotelian will distinguish the vegetative, the sensitive, and the
intellectual parts of the human soul.
The Psychology of Aristotle pursues this basic division in detail, distin-
guishing a number of capacities which uniquely co-occur with each other, but
are separable from others, and which thus serve to demarcate each soul-part.
I provide a summary in Table 1 below. Throughout fully half of the text,
Brentano is concerned to clarify a single capacity: the active intellect (nous
poi^etikos). For my purposes, I offer only a terse introduction to the intel-
lectual soul. (I will say more about this and other soul-parts in SS3-4 below).
The active intellect must be understood in relation to the receptive intellect,
or the intellect which becomes all things (nous dunamei) (cf. Brentano
1867, p.74ff/118ff).11 The receptive intellect is a passive capacity, whose
purpose is to receive intelligible forms as representations. Now Aristotle en-
dorses a variant of the principle that like causes like (what Brentano calls the
law of synonymy, 1867, cf. p.125/187). By this principle, whatever causes
the receptive intellect to harbor intellectual representations, this cause must
itself be intellectual. In Brentanos view, it is the active intellect which

George variably translates nous dunamei as receptive intellect and as potential
intellect. Brentano disagrees with other interpreters in treating this as equivalent to the
intellect which becomes all things (1867, cf. p.148/217). I cannot address this here.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 18
Please cite only the published version

unconsciously plays this role. The active intellect does not think, since it
does not itself harbor any conscious, intellectual representations. Rather, it
makes thinking possible: it unconsciously acts upon the images of the imagi-
nation, rendering them intelligible through abstraction, and thereby induces
the receptive intellect to receive intelligible forms as representations (1867,
The active intellect is essential, in Brentanos reading, to make sense of
the Aristotelian theory of knowledge: it mediates between sensory repre-
sentation and intellectual representation, bringing about the latter in a way
always dependent upon the former (1867, pp.106-108/163-165). The recep-
tive intellect is pure potentiality it is wholly unmixed with any actuality by

belongs to
A(n) power of actualization
Representation Conscious =Sensation =Receptive Int.
Striving Conscious =Sens. Desire =Int. Desire
Movement Conscious =Locomotion =Rational Action
Movement Unconscious =Vegetative =Active Intellect

Table 1: Aristotelian Soul-parts & their Capacities. Note that Move-

ment is used here in a narrow sense, to denote powers to reorganize a living
body. Note that the active intellect is only one power of the intellectual soul.
The symmetry between (i) the four capacities of the intellectual soul-part,
and (ii ) the four capacities of the vegetative and sensitive soul-parts taken
together, is central to Brentanos reading of Aristotles psychology, and so
I sketch it here. In column 4, only the last entry concerns powers of the
vegetative soul (these are the powers of growth, nutrition, and generation).
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 19
Please cite only the published version

its nature, and can thus receive the form (as representation) of any thinkable
thing (1867, p.77/120). Reciprocally, the active intellect is pure actuality
pure activity which is unconstrained and unmixed with all form and as a
result it can act to induce the receptive intellect to have the real potentiality
for, and the actuality (in representation) of, any intelligible form. The active
intellect is by nature actuality [indem er seinem Wesen nach Wirklichkeit
sei ] t^ei ousia ^on energeia [sic] (1867, p.119/178).

2.3 Two Aristotelian Conceptions of Mental Acts

With these remarks in place, we can clarify two senses in which the Aris-
totelian may speak significantly of mental acts. In the permissive Aristotelian
conception, we allow the notion of acts to range widely over all instances
of actualization. We likewise allow the notion of mentality (or, of the
psychological) to range widely, over all those features which are unique to
living systems. In this sense, every actualization which is unique to any kind
of living system will count significantly, but permissively as a mental
act. This will include a variety of phenomena which are not at all regarded
as bound up with consciousness, with the intellect, or with representation
for example, the nutritive actualizations of plant life. Nonetheless, some
mental acts, in this sense, will be the locus of intentionality. For example,
a token actualization of a sensory or intellectual capacity for representation
is a representation. It is mental because only living systems exhibit such
activities; it is a genuine act in this permissive sense because it is a being-at-
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 20
Please cite only the published version

work which arises from a striving-for-a-form. This is not diminished by the

fact that it is an actualization of a passive capacity: the capacity may only
exhibit being-at-work when induced, but this being-at-work is itself active.
Some might suggest that such a permissive conception of acts is irrel-
evant to the question of whether Brentano endorsed a significant Act Con-
ception of intentionality. That is, one might think the only dispute worth
having is whether or not mental acts arise from an active capacity, and
one might maintain that if they do not, then mental acts really are passive
in the only sense worth clarifying: they are simply some accident of a sub-
stance. I deny this. It is true that acts in this sense would be ubiquitous
in an Aristotelian universe, since almost anything that happens (any ac-
tualization of a capacity) would be treated as an act. But ubiquity is not a
mark of insignificance, and an Act Conception of intentionality might well be
meaningfully grounded in a more basic act conception of actualization. It
matters deeply whether we view actualizations as events which merely occur
(or accidents that a substance simply has), or if we instead regard actu-
alizations as a capacitys acting-out, in which events or properties actively
become actual through a striving. The relevant possibility is that this active
construal of actualizations renders them basically performative, even if they
are enforced movements, and even if they are not richly volitional (in the
sense of involving an agents conscious striving for a goal). If this permissive
conception of acts underwrites Brentanos conception of mental acts, we can
assign real significance to the term a significance we would miss if we sim-
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 21
Please cite only the published version

ply stop with the claim that they arise from a capacity which is receptive or
Still, there is no denying the importance of richer conceptions of activity,
and so we can also frame a more restrictive Aristotelian conception. We
restrict our attention to only those mental capacities which are active in
this way we tighten up the conception of activity. Further, we restrict our
attention to only those phenomena which are intimately involved in conscious
representation in this way we tighten up the conception of the mental. In
this sense, only the activities of the active intellect will be regarded as mental
acts even though they are not themselves conscious, and are not themselves
representational. Mental acts in this sense are (in the Arisotelian scheme)
the origin of any conscious, intellectual representation: the actualizations of
the active intellect are the efficient causes which induce such representations
in the receptive intellect. In this scheme, it can be said only that intellectual
representations arise from a mental act: sensory representations, by contrast,
do not arise through the activity of the active intellect.

Thus, while it is true that in his mature metaphysics Brentano treats mental acts (even
thinking) under the category of passive affections (which are not transformations) (1933,
cf. pp.156ff/214ff, pp.172ff/240ff, 195ff/275ff), this alone does not settle the question of
whether or not there is a basic sense of activity in which the affection is an activity, even
if it is one induced by some other active principle.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 22
Please cite only the published version

3 Other Readings of Mental Acts

I have clarified two well-defined senses in which an active reading of men-

tal acts is supported by Brentanos Aristotelian psychology. I have not yet
investigated whether these find a place in Brentanos own, mature psychol-
ogy, as the locus of intentionality. Before doing so, it will be worthwhile to
compare how other commentators have approached the issue. My examples
here are Oskar Kraus and Biagio Tassone. In this section I introduce each
view in turn. I shall argue against both in S4 below.

3.1 Krauss Resistance to Mental Acts

Oskar Kraus, editor of the 1924 German edition of PES, seemed to resist any
suggestion that Brentano understood mental phenomena as acts in any sig-
nificant sense. For example, in one passage Brentano says: By presentation
I do not mean that which is presented, but rather the act of presentation [den
Act des Vorstellens] (PES 79/60/103). Kraus dutifully appends a footnote,
asserting that every such [mental] activity [Tatigkeit], at least in men and
animals, is a passio, an affection in the Aristotelian sense [eine passio, eine
Affektion im aristotelischen Sinne ist]. So what we are concerned with is the
sheer having of an object [Es handelt sich also um das schlichte Etwas zum
Objekte haben]... (PES, 79/60/266 fn.1). This re-rendering removes the
key term act from the discussion, treating any explicitly active connotation
as dispensable.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 23
Please cite only the published version

Similarly, in his Supplementary Remarks added to the 1911 edition,

Brentano begins: What is characteristic of every mental activity [psychische
Tatigkeit] is, as I believe I have shown, the reference [Beziehung] to something
as an object. In this respect, every mental activity [psychische Tatigkeit]
seems to be something relational (PES, 271/211/122). Kraus urges that
this notion of mental Activity is to be understood simply in the sense of
an event, not in the sense of action [Tatigkeit ist einfach im Sinne von
Vorgang, nicht von Aktivitat zu verstehen] (PES, 271/211/292 fn.1). Here
again, any explicitly active connotation is set aside, and mental acts are
simply treated as events.
Kraus can thus be read as cautioning against any significant construal of
mental acts as acts. He offers three claims which are worth distinguishing:

(K1) Mental acts have the character of an Aristotelian passio or affection.

(K2) Mental acts are events (Vorgange), not actions (Aktivitat).
(K3) Mental acts are the sheer having-of-an-object.

I shall consider these points more fully in S4 below. At present, I note only
that Kraus serves to illustrate a null hypothesis, and a set of strategies for
evading active connotations, which one must work against in attributing to
Brentano an Act Conception of intentionality.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 24
Please cite only the published version

3.2 Tassone

Biagio Tassone pursues the interpretive strategy of reading Brentano as a

(neo-)Aristotelian, claiming that ...the underlying framework of the PES
can, in outline, be traced back almost directly to Brentanos earlier engage-
ment with Aristotelian metaphysics and psychology (2012, p.38).
Tassone begins (ch.1) with a brief biography of Brentano. He then (ch.2)
discusses Brentanos early work on Aristotle (On the Several Senses of Being,
and The Psychology of Aristotle). By the time Tassone begins (ch.3) his
discussion of PES, he declares that in its early pages, Brentano outlines
a philosophical and methodological framework to support the above act
psychology (2012, p.71). That is, act psychology is used by Tassone to
refer to a Brentanian conception of Aristotelian psychology.
The terms act and activity are indeed deployed widely in Tassones
discussion of Brentano-on-Aristotle. We find the following sorts of claims:

1. Nature always acts towards an end or for a purpose (ibid., p.53).

2. Each part of the soul manifests its own distinct form of striving or
actualization of latent power (ibid., p.53).

3. All intellectual activity presupposes sensory activity (ibid, pp.59-60).

4. ...The intellect actualizes (acts) to bring about what it perceives and

therefore contains only potency. (ibid. p.60).

5. Building on the Aristotelian conception of act, Brentano assumes

Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 25
Please cite only the published version

that psychic phenomena are only made fully actual, i.e., given as full
states or processes by which we are immediately aware of their exis-
tence, when they take or are directed to objects (ibid, p.112).

The final claim 5 builds in a commitment regarding what mental phenomena

are: they are intentionally directed at objects. But quite generally, Tassone
treats the notion of mental activity at work in The Psychology of Aristotle
as involving nothing more than the actualization of any mental capacity
see especially claims 35. Some of his remarks (e.g., claims 1 and 2) suggest
an active construal of actualization, of the sort I explicated in S2 above,
though Tassone does not himself clarify this view. I shall simply credit him
with the permissive Aristotelian conception of mental acts.13

4 Brentanos Mature Psychology

We now have in place three interpretive options for how we might seek to un-
derstand Brentanos mature conception of mental acts. We have first Krauss
null hypothesis the term is a misnomer, and active connotations can be
evaded. We have next two distinct ways in which we might seek to pursue the
Tassone appears to be of several minds about this. On the one hand, many remarks
are consistent with the permissive Aristotelian conception of mental acts. On the other
hand, Tassone repeatedly suggests that a focus on the special features of the intellectual
soul will offer the key to the Aristotelian conception of mental acts in PES (Tassone,
2012, see pp.60, 65, 66). Yet he focuses mainly on the receptive intellect, and thus his
intellectualist conception of mental acts does not cohere with what I have called the
restrictive Aristotelian conception. Before providing any robust treatment of the active
intellect, Tassone declares that he has already outlined the basis for Brentanos empiricism
and traced its Aristotelian origin(2012, pp.62). For brevity and charity, I simply credit
him with the permissive Aristotelian conception.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 26
Please cite only the published version

standard line of interpreting Brentano as a (neo-)Aristotelian. These are the

permissive Aristotelian conception (which, I have suggested, Tassone could
endorse), and the restrictive Aristotelian conception. In this section I argue
that none of these interpretations fit Brentanos mature psychology.
I shall first (S4.1) make clear a basic difficulty for the two Aristotelian
interpretations: they cannot provide any sense to mental acts in PES
unless Brentano fails there to accomplish his own explicit aims. Then (S4.2)
I shall reject Krauss dismissal of mental acts. The result is that we seem to
need something like a significant conception of mental acts in order to make
sense of Brentanos claims, but we cannot provide such a reading by going
back to his earlier work on Aristotle.

4.1 The Problem for any Aristotelian Interpretation

Aristotelian psychology is the science of the soul (Wissenschaft von der Seele;
peri psuch^es) and since all living beings are considered ensouled, all are stud-
ied by psychology. In PES, however, Brentano agrees with others in endors-
ing a narrowing (Beschrankung) of the field of psychology: consciousness
(Bewutsein) is to be the key feature of psychological phenomena, and this
means excluding from the domain of psychology not only all vegetative life,
but also many details concerning the nervous system and muscles these
are ceded to the physiologist (PES, pp.4/3/5).
This narrowing-down of psychology causes difficulties in understanding
its nominal promise of being a science of the soul. Brentano remarks that
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 27
Please cite only the published version

the meaning of the term soul has also been narrowed. For Aristotle, as
we have seen, the soul was the nature, or, as he preferred to express it, the
form [die Form], the first activity [die erste Wirklichkeit], the first actuality
[die erste Vollendung] of a living being (PES, p.4/2/4).14 Brentano remarks
that he will use the word soul in what he thinks is a common meaning at
the time of writing, to refer to:

the substantial bearer of presentations and other properties which

are based on presentations [den substantiellen Trager von Vorstel-
lungen und anderen Eigenschaften... f
ur welche Vorstellungen die
Grundlage bilden] and which, like presentations, are only perceiv-
able through inner perception. Thus we usually call soul the sub-
stantial bearer [den substantiellen Trager ] of sensations such as
fantasy images, acts of memory [Gedachtnissactes], acts [Actes]
of hope or fear, desire or aversion (PES, p.5/4/6).15

(Note: Brentano appeals to inner perception as our mode of access to con-

scious mental phenomena more on this below.) If we adopt this modern
understanding of the term soul we might retain the conception of psy-
chology as the science of the soul, despite the restriction of psychologys
domain. That is: psychology could be a science of the substantial bearers of

Brentanos own footnote here reads: The Greek expressions are: phusis, morph^e,
ot^e energeia, pr^
ot^e entelecheia.
Translation slightly amended: McAllister switches to using the noun-form the sub-
stance rather than using the adjectival substantial bearer in both places, and also
translates Eigenschaften as activities.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 28
Please cite only the published version

conscious presentations this would exclude study of vegetative life, which

lacks consciousness.
Brentano does not himself proceed, in PES, with such a conception of psy-
chology.16 Rather, he countenances the objection that the soul, even on
this modern redefinition, remains a metaphysical posit for which we have no
direct, experiential evidence. Brentano pursues psychology mainly as a phe-
nomenalistic science a science of mental phenomena. He locates support for
this view in J.S. Mills System of Logic (cf. PES, pp.12-14/9-10/14-17). It is
summarized in Albert Langes suggestion that we should pursue a psychol-
ogy without a soul (quoted in PES, p.11/8/13). On this view, the empirical
psychologist simply seeks to formulate laws (simple and complex, special and
general) which capture the actual progression of mental phenomena. This
is what Brentanos PES is mainly designed to pursue. No claims are made
regarding a soul as substantial bearer of those phenomena.17

There is room for significant confusion on this point. What we find in Book I, Part
I of PES is this idea of a substantial soul mentioned (on p.5/4/6), and set aside (on
p.19/14/24). I cannot follow Albertazzi (2006) in supposing that Brentanos empirical
psychology can be read as a science of the substantial soul.
Brentano raises one possible complaint against this phenomenalistic view: it might be
taken to close the question of continued existence after death, which he locates in Plato as
the first impetus to psychological research (PES, p.14/11/18). But he quickly dispenses
with this worry, and preserves the possibility of continued existence after death even for
a psychology without a soul, since the continuity [Fortbestand ] of mental life [Lebens]
need not require any soul behind it (PES, p.17/12-13/21).
This must be taken into account in understanding Brentanos aims in the intended 6th
and final book of PES. In his introduction to the most recent English editions of PES, Peter
Simons suggests that Brentano hoped to address the mind-body problem, the soul, and
immortality (PES, p.xiv ). But what Brentano himself said the 6th book would discuss
was the connection of our mental with our physical organism [der Verbindung unseres
psychischen mit unserem physischen Organismus], and... whether a continuity of mental
life after the disintegration of the body is conceivable [ob ein Fortbestand des psychis-
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 29
Please cite only the published version

Brentanos psychology without a soul has a positivistic or Humean

flavor. Yet it is not a rigorous, positivistic account according to which there
are no metaphysical commitments in play (as Tassone rightly points out:
2012, pp.95ff; 105ff). For example, Brentano has robust commitments re-
garding causal relations between mental phenomena. But the metaphysics
of a substantial soul behind mental phenomena are not among Brentanos
commitments in PES. He remarks that there may still be a soul, understood
in the modern sense of a substantial bearer of conscious phenomena, but he
sets the question aside, simplifying the work and making it acceptable to a
broader audience (PES, p.18/13-14/23).
I stress all this to underscore three points. (1) Prior to any discus-
sion of whether or not psychology studies a soul, Brentano endorses a
non-Aristotelian restriction of psychologys domain to all and only conscious
mental phenomena. (2) In pursuing an empirical psychology, Brentano avoids
a priori metaphysical presuppositions, relying on experience (inner percep-
tion) as the mode of access to mental phenomena. (3) All this leads to se-
lectively setting aside the soul, or the most basic metaphysical substructure

chen Lebens nach dem Zerfalle des Leibes denkbar sei ]. (PES, p.xv /xxv /v, translation
amended). There need be no presupposition here of a substantial soul behind mental life.
The metaphysical posit of a soul is never clearly made central to Brentanos empirical
psychology. See for example how little is built into the conception of a soul deployed
in his 1901 lectures: a soul is no longer even clearly regarded as the substantial bearer
of conscious presentations, but rather what makes up [was.. ausmacht] the essential
appearance of personal unity and particularity (1911b, Descriptive Psychology Appendix
4: Psychognostic Sketch of September 1901, pp.155-156/146). His view as of 1916 was
that it is impossible to perceive that which individuates me in inner perception, and
thus the soul (even on this yet-thinner conception) would again be excluded from the core
of empirical psychology (Brentano, 1929, p.82).
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 30
Please cite only the published version

which could support a complete Brentanian-Aristotelian psychology. I now

underscore a fourth point: (4) for similar reasons, in PES Brentano likewise
rejects faculties or capacities (Vermogen), and these are no part of his
mature psychology. He argues at length against the attempts of Kant, Hamil-
ton, Lotze and others to distinguish mental phenomena on the basis of claims
about the capacities that produce them (PES, pp.182-190/141-147/239-251).
Brentanos counter-claim is that all these thinkers implicitly relied upon dis-
tinguishing the intentional features of diverse mental phenomena themselves
which is where his own psychology is squarely focused. He regards it as
a great error to assign to empirical psychology the task of looking beyond
mental phenomena for some underlying reality (PES, p.165/128/235). Thus,
essentially the entirety of the Aristotelians metaphysical substructure is ex-
cluded from consideration. I illustrate this selectivity in Figure 2 below.
This raises a serious interpretive difficulty for any attempt to locate the
precursors of Brentanos mature conception of mental acts in his early work
on Aristotle. To illustrate the conflict, note that Kraus suggests (PES, pp.10-
11/8/258, fn.8) that Brentano adopts the view that we do directly experience
substances in perception, and experience ourselves as a thinking thing in
inner perception. The perception of substances is a mature Brentanian doc-
trine which George & Koehn (2004) likewise source in Aristotle. Tassone
is also keen to suggest that Brentano posits such a soul (2012, pp.81-82).
The problem with offering any such claims as part of a reading of PES is
that Brentanos empirical psychology can involve no such epistemological-
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 31
Please cite only the published version

) Psychological
The Aristotelians
Metaphysical = Phenomena (= )
Substructure ti vit
n Consciously
o ke
(T available in
at Inner Perception
A ct
ies na
tio n
Ra ctio
a cit A

ap es en
C Re

u al
l Lo

l l ect S ou res

ul e p
t Re
So rts In ial
t De
Pa m
Im y
n sor
t h Se
Gr n
t P roc dy
jec rit
io n Bo
Su or nce Nu
e oul
ta tiv ns
u bs g eta E
S Ve

Figure 2: Brentanian psychology excludes the Aristotelians meta-

physical substructure. This graphic may be read in a top-down fashion.
For example, take the rightmost blue dot. This is a phenomenon Brentano
will treat, since it is consciously accessible in inner perception. The black
line shows that this corresponds, in the Aristotelian scheme, to a token actu-
alization (red dot on the red plane). This is an actualization of a capacity for
representation (the red dot is located above the blue circle labeled Repre-
sentation on the blue plane). The capacity belongs to the sensory soul-part
(it falls within the black circle labeled Sensory on the green plane). Like
the vegetative soul-part, this soul-part is mixed with the body (see the black
bar on the bottom plane). Details are hazy on the intellectual soul.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 32
Please cite only the published version

ontological commitments even if Brentano himself held them.18 Any ade-

quate reading of PES must regard it as only a science of conscious mental
phenomena.19 A metaphysics of souls as substances, forms and matters, ca-
pacities and their actualization, etc, is an appendage to the phenomenalistic
psychology Brentano intends to express, and if PES is to be a coherent work
on its own terms, its key terms (e.g., mental acts) cannot be read in a way
which presupposes such metaphysical apparatus.
For this reason, Brentano cannot legitimately help himself to either the
permissive or the restrictive Aristotelian conceptions of mental acts. PES has
access to conscious mental phenomena, and Brentano declares that these
are synonymous with mental acts. But since PES excludes consideration
of faculties or capacities, mental acts cannot coherently be regarded as
actualizations in any straightforward Aristotelian sense. (Of what would
they be actualizations?) Note further: since the active intellects activities
are regarded in the Aristotelian view as unconscious, they have no place
within PES. Thus the restrictive Aristotelian conception is doubly ruled out.
There is, in short, a dilemma for the standard line of interpretation of
Brentano as a (neo-)Aristotelian. We might succeed in fleshing out Brentanos
own, private views by branding him an Aristotelian.20 But we cannot thereby

It is worth noting that Brentanos mature conception of substances (1933) makes
notable departures from his earlier exegesis of the Aristotelian conception (1862; 1867).
Kraus himself is aware of this, as in borne out in the footnote I have just cited.
There may be less support for this view than commonly thought. As George and
Koehn note, 40 years after publication of The Psychology of Aristotle, Brentano maintained
that his reading of Aristotle could [d urfte] be refuted in no point by anyone, or even
improved (Brentano, 1909, p.136). Yet while he maintained that his account was correct
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 33
Please cite only the published version

succeed in fleshing out the conception of mental acts Brentano intends to of-
fer in PES, unless we suppose that Brentano is incapable of setting aside
metaphysical commitments when he says he will do so. The standard inter-
pretive strategy can thus only offer a reading of PES by turning Brentano
into a kind of dope.

4.2 Against Kraus

With this interpretive constraint in place, it might appear that the best op-
tion is to pursue Krauss null hypothesis. One might flesh out the null
hypothesis as follows: Brentano deploys the term mental act as a ter-
minological holdover from his own, private commitments to an Aristotelian
ontology of powers, even though these have no legitimate place in PES. The
proper reading of PES, operating under the methodological restrictions it
sets out, should assign no significance to the term mental act.
It is not clear that this is what Kraus himself had in mind. Consider
again Krauss key claims:

(K1) Mental acts have the character of an Aristotelian passio or affection.

(K2) Mental acts are events (Vorgange), not actions (Aktivitat).

as a reading of Aristotle, he did not claim that the view expressed therein was simply
correct. He was far from agreeing unreservedly with what he regarded as Aristotles
doctrines of substantial form and matter crucial concepts, without which the entire
account would collapse (ibid., p.146). Likewise, Brentano concludes Aristotle and His
Worldview by saying: it would not be difficult to show that the system as a whole is
not tenable (1911a, p.125/152). Brentanos Aristotle is perhaps not best viewed as
Brentano himself.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 34
Please cite only the published version

(K3) Mental acts are the sheer having-of-an-object.

It appears we must set (K1) aside as unhelpful for understanding the concep-
tion of mental acts in PES, because any properly Aristotelian conception of
affections will invoke a metaphysics of forms, matters, capacities, etc., which
is inconsistent with the methodological restrictions of PES.21 The question
that remains is this: is there support for (K2) and (K3) in Brentanos own
work, such that the null hypothesis is well-motivated? I want to briefly chal-
lenge both (K2) and (K3) in what follows. In doing so, I mean to resist
the null hypothesis, and to suggest that Brentano may yet have in mind a
significant conception of mental acts.
Take first (K2). It is unclear how somethings status as an event should
speak against its status as an act. Acts are quite naturally thought of as
a special class of events intuitively, those which are in some sense done,
performed or executed, rather than events which merely happen. I take it
then that Kraus means to suggest that all mental acts are mere happenings,
or events without any such performative genesis.
Some of Brentanos remarks connect with this point. Consider the fol-
lowing footnote, which Brentano added to the 1911 second edition of PES
to clarify his notion of intentional inexistence:

This expression has been misunderstood in that some people have

Note also that Brentanos mature metaphysics alters the Aristotelian conception of
passive affections, along with the notion of substances: see fn.s 12 & 18 above.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 35
Please cite only the published version

thought it had to do with intention and the pursuit of a goal [Ab-

sicht und Verfolgung eines Zieles]. In view of this, I might have
done better to avoid it altogether. Instead of the term inten-
tional the Scholastics very frequently used the expression objec-
tive. This has to do with the fact that something is an object
for the mentally active subject and is in some manner present
in his consciousness [etwas f
ur das psychisch tatige Objekt und
als solches... gewissermaen in seinem Bewutsein gegenwartig
ist]...(ibid., 180-181/140/6, fn.).22

The important point in this passage is that if our only understanding of

activity is one that regards it as intentional in the (not uncommon)
volitional sense of pursuing an explicit goal, then Brentano here rules out
generally understanding intentionality in terms of acts.
There are two straightforward reasons why not all mental acts (in-
tentional mental phenomena) are volitional. First, a desire or a willing is
intentionally directed at a desired end, and what makes any act volitional
is plausibly its involving such mental phenomena. (This is still the default
conception of acting intentionally in mainstream philosophy of action).
One cannot presuppose such intentionality in distinguishing volitional ac-
tions, then turn around and seek to understand all mental acts as volitional
Here I have included McAllisters insertion of a nominalized subject, though it is
problematic. One must offer a correction on Brentanos behalf to read this as even the
mental actor (it is written das psychiche tatige with no capital T), and though this
nominalizes an actor, it would not nominalize a subject per se. (I thank an anonymous
reviewer for encouraging me to address this point).
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 36
Please cite only the published version

actions this would lead to circularity (and further, to regress). Second, in

Brentanos mature account, any desire as an intentional mental phenomenon
can only occur on the basis of the more basic intentionality of presentations
(PES, pp.198ff/153ff/261ff; 266ff/207ff/347ff). So it cannot generally be true
that mental acts are to be understood volitionally, since there are mental acts
which are more basic than, and presupposed by, any such volitional act.
But if this is all that Kraus has in mind by (K2), it is not sufficient to
conclude that Brentano does not mean mental acts in a significant way.
Brentano does not say, in 1911, that he should have done better not to speak
of mental acts at all, for fear that this might be confused for a volitional
conception. Rather he appears quite happy to retain talk of mental activ-
ity, even while resisting a volitional conception of it. It is simply unsettled
whether the term mental act might be used in a way that still invokes a
connotation of performative activity, even though it is not richly volitional.
Similarly, of course, I do not explicitly intend to do everything that I can be
properly said to bodily do: not all of my bodily acts are volitional in this rich
sense, either. So it is unclear whether Brentanos remarks support (K2), in a
way that would rule out some significant (non-Aristotelian) Act Conception.
We are left to consider whether a null hypothesis can be supported simply
by (K3): Krauss claim that a mental act is the sheer having of an object.
In fact, in Brentanos account, every mental act has multiple objects. It
has its primary object, and it has itself as a secondary object. To flesh
out what is at stake here, consider Brentanos Supplementary Remark II of
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 37
Please cite only the published version

the 1911 edition, on his notion of secondary intentionality:

In a single mental activity [psychische Tatigkeit], then, there is

always a plurality of references and a plurality of objects... [and]
for the secondary object of mental activity one does not have to
think of any particular one of these references [Beziehungen], as
for example the reference to the primary object. It is easy to
see that this would lead to an infinite regress, for there would
have to be a third reference, which would have the secondary
reference as its object, a fourth, which would have the additional
third one as object, and so on. The secondary object [of an
act] is not a reference [Beziehung] but [rather] a mental activity
[die psychische Tatigkeit], or, more strictly, the mentally active
subject [das psychisch Tatige], in which the secondary reference is
included along with the primary one (PES, 275-276/214-215/127-

Consider two of Brentanos claims: (a) that the secondary object of a mental
act (i.e, that act itself) is not a reference at all but rather a mental activity,
and (b) that in apprehending the secondary object (i.e., the act itself) one
does not have to think of any particular one of the references involved. How
shall we understand these claims? I submit that in Brentanos view, if we
are to apprehend one of our own mental phenomena in inner perception (i.e.,
Here again we see McAllisters nominalization of a mentally active subject. Here
we need offer no correction on Brentanos behalf to read instead only the mental actor,
since T
atige is capitalized.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 38
Please cite only the published version

as its own secondary object), then instead of thinking only about any one
of its intentional references to an object, what one must do is to think of
all those references as they are unified in that particular act. In secondary
intentionality, I have the act itself. But of course, an act is nothing but a
way of consciously orienting towards its object(s): no (intentional) object,
no act. When a mental act is presented to us as a secondary object, this
also includes some awareness of its primary object(s), since the act is an
orientation towards its primary object. If I am to be (secondarily) aware of
that act, then I must be aware of it as oriented towards its primary object.
So for example, when I have a mental act of hearing which is primarily
directed at a tone, I am also secondarily conscious, through inner perception,
of that very act of hearing. Here I am not just made aware of the tone,
and also secondarily made aware of some hearing. I am made secondarily
aware of my hearing of that tone. I do not simply have two objects: the
hearing and the tone. If that were so, then I should be able to wonder
whether the hearing I am aware of is a hearing of the tone I am aware
of: I would have to infer that these two objects had any relation to each
other. But this is not Brentanos view. Rather, the hearing I am aware
of already includes a reference to the tone I am hearing. It is evident
there is no question that it is the presented tone which I hear, and that
the hearing I am aware of is a hearing of that presented tone. As Brentano
puts it, Apart from the fact that it presents the physical phenomenon of
sound, the mental act of hearing becomes at the same time its own object
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 39
Please cite only the published version

and content, taken as a whole i.e., as the hearing of-the-tone which it

is (PES, 129/100/170, my emph.). Brentano sometimes describes this as
acts of inner perception forming a fusion [Verschmelzung] or becoming
fused [verschmolzen] with their objects (i.e, with the very acts that they
are, and of which they are perceptions) (PES cf. p. 256/199/334; see also
130/100/170, 132/102/173,fn./1, and 144-145/112/190-191).
This fusion, and the plurality of references in an intentional unity, is
something any reading of PES must capture: the self-reference of any mental
phenomenon in secondary intentionality is what enables inner perception,
and thus makes possible Brentanos empirical program. It is because I need
no recourse to a new act in order to be aware of any mental act that I am
always immediately aware (with Evidenz or certainty) of the occurrence of
any mental phenomenon. Taking all this into account, (K3) can only support
the null hypothesis if we can speak of the sheer having of this kind of
intentional unity that presents us with multiple objects, and can account for
fusion in a way that evades active connotations. It is not clear to me that
this is so.
Consider the following characterization of such unity:

...inner experience seems to prove undeniably [schient die innere

Erfahrung unzweifelhaft zu zeigen] that the presentation of the
sound is connected with the presentation of the presentation of
the sound in such a peculiarly intimate way [in so eigenthumlich
inniger Weise verbunden ist] that its very existence constitutes an
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 40
Please cite only the published version

intrinsic prerequisite for the existence of this presentation [indem

sie besteht, zugleich innerlich zum Sein der anderen beitragt].

This points to a special interweaving between the object of in-

ner presentation and the presentation itself [Dies deutet auf eine
umliche Verwebung des Objects der inneren Vorstellung
mit dieser selbst] and to a belonging of both to one and the same
mental act [und auf eine Zugehorigkeit beider zu ein demselben
psychischen Acte hin]. We must in fact assume [annehmen] this...
[W]e have to answer the question of whether there is more than
one presentation affirmatively, if we determine them according to
the number of objects; with the same certainty, however, we have
to answer this question negatively if we determine these presen-
tations according to the number of mental acts [der Zahl psychis-
chen Acte] in which objects are presented (PES, p.127/98/167,
translation amended).

Brentano certainly holds that we have undeniable, empirical knowledge

of the constant co-occurrence of, e.g., a presentation of a sound and the pre-
sentation of that presentation. He emphasizes later that this is an empirical
datum and not a conceptual point: A presentation of the sound without a
presentation of the act of hearing would not be inconceivable, at least a pri-
ori (PES, p.128/98/167). Perhaps some psychologists would stop at simply
noting this constant conjunction. But it seems that Brentano is committed
to more than mere co-occurrence: he appears to be committed to a kind of
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 41
Please cite only the published version

co-constitutive relationship between presentations and presentations of pre-

sentations; and he is committed, moreover, to an interweaving of their in-
tentionality in a single act. Similarly, as I have remarked, although Brentano
eschews the metaphysical posits of souls and capacities behind mental phe-
nomena, he maintains that inner perception incurs robust commitments to
causal relations between mental phenomena, rather than regarding them as
a mere series.24 In Brentanos view, the co-constitutive character of presen-
tations and presentations of presentations licenses us in supposing that their
intentionality interweaves in a single act.
This seems to me to commit Brentano to something more than what
one might aptly call, with (K3), the sheer having of an object, even if we
interpret this broadly to mean the sheer having of an intentional unity that
presents us with primary and secondary objects. Kraus gloss obscures the
empirical datum that something brings it about that, e.g., any presentation is
always co-constituted with a presentation of itself, even though it is a priori
conceivable that this should not be so. To understand what brings this co-
constitution about, Brentano does not invoke the metaphysical posit of a
substantial soul or some capacity behind mental phenomena but, I submit,
he incurs a modicum of (a posteriori ) metaphysical commitment regarding
mental phenomena themselves. Any mental phenomenon not only makes us
aware of its primary object, but also (we discover a posteriori) brings about

Note that Brentano resists the suggestion that the relationship between, e.g., hearing
a tone and my consciousness of the hearing, is to be understood causally, specifically on
the Aristotelian model of action and passion (PES, pp.131-132/101/191-192).
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 42
Please cite only the published version

an interweaving of intentionality which co-constitutes our awareness of that

phenomenon itself as secondary object.
Brentano himself suggests that such co-constitution is what licenses us
in regarding multiple intentional references as inhering in the same mental
act. Thus, I submit that mental act (rather than, say, simply intentional
mental phenomenon) is used by Brentano in part to underscore this pecu-
liar co-constitution, the interweaving of intentional references in fusions.
Now such co-constitution might plausibly be understood as fundamentally
active, and if so, we would have located legitimate grounds for construing
mental acts as active: the claim would be that any mental phenomenon
is active in bringing about the sort of fusion and interweaving of intention-
ality that constitutes our consciousness of that very phenomenon. My claim
is not that this active construal of mental acts is decidedly the correct
reading of Brentano, but only that it readily captures the importance of co-
constitution, in a way which cannot easily be done by talking of the sheer
having of objects. As Brentano remarks, we would overlook all such fu-
sion, and seriously misunderstand secondary intentionality, if we simply in-
dividuated mental phenomena by the objects that they present. We likewise
risk overlooking such fusion if we follow Kraus in treating mental acts as the
sheer having of an object, since secondary objects are not simply had,
but brought about in such a peculiar co-constitution. We must keep such
co-constitution squarely in view if we are to provide an adequate account of
secondary intentionality and inner perception in PES. I conclude then that
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 43
Please cite only the published version

(K3) does not provide sufficient motivation for resisting a significant Act
Conception, since (a) it obscures what Brentano regards as empirical claims
that are central to PES, and (b) an active construal of mental acts is available
which seems well-suited to accommodate those claims.

5 Conclusion

I have argued that the standard interpretive approach to Brentanos mature

psychology regarding him as pushing doctrines from his earlier work in The
Psychology of Aristotle is unsuitable. I clarified two distinct conceptions of
mental acts which one could source in Brentanos early work on Aristotle
what I called the permissive and restrictive Aristotelian conceptions. Neither
of these metaphysically-loaded accounts, I argued, provide a conception of
mental acts which Brentano can legitimately deploy in his Psychology, since
both violate his own methodological restrictions on what psychology from an
empirical standpoint pursues.
On the other hand, I argued that a Krausian null hypothesis, accord-
ing to which mental act is a merely technical term that may be readily
swapped out for a passive conception of the having of an object, is also
inadequate. Such a view risks overlooking the intentional unity involved in
any mental act, and which is required to support inner perception as the very
method of Brentanos Psychology. This may be viewed as part of Brentanos
hesitance to pursue a full-blown positivistic conception of psychology: de-
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 44
Please cite only the published version

spite the fact that he follows Mill and others in regarding psychology as
a phenomenalistic science, he maintains that we can discover, a posteriori,
that mental acts are involved in constituting peculiar forms of unity. I
suggested that in discussing the constitution of such unity, Brentano might
plausibly be understood to incur some metaphysical commitment to mental
acts as active.
I have not intended to adequately defend this active construal of mental
acts, but only to underscore that it is a live option that has been underex-
plored. The options at this point are three. (1) We might regard Brentanos
conception of mental acts as ill-formed or inchoate. (2) We might pursue a
new null hypothesis which is better-motivated than Krauss. (3) We might
try to work out a positive Act Conception of intentionality which has a le-
gitimate place in Brentanos empirical psychology. Pursuing any option will
have profound implications for our assessments of Brentanos lasting con-
tributions to the philosophy of mind. For again, Brentano regards mental
act and intentional mental phenomenon as synonyms; we have only an
incomplete understanding of one so long as we do not understand the other.


Albertazzi, L. (2006). Immanent Realism: an Introduction to Brentano.

Springer Science & Business Media.

Bechtel, W. (2008). Mental Mechanisms: Philosophical Perspectives on Cog-

Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 45
Please cite only the published version

nitive Neuroscience. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.

Boring, E. (1950). A History of Experimental Psychology (2nd ed.). New

York, NY: Routledge.

Brentano, F. (1862). On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle. University

of California Press. Trans: R. George, 1975.

Brentano, F. (1867). The Psychology of Aristotle. University of California

Press. (Trans: Rolf, G., 1977).

Brentano, F. (1874). Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint. New York,

NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (Trans: McAlister, L.L., 1973; Reprinted

Brentano, F. (1909). Intellectus agens. Materia prima. In R. G. (1986) (Ed.),

Uber Aristoteles chapter 18, (pp. 440463). Hamburg: DE: Felix Meiner

Brentano, F. (1911a). Aristotle and His World View. University of California

Press. Trans: George, R., and Chisholm, R.M., 1978.

Brentano, F. (1911b). Descriptive Psychology. New York, NY: Routledge

and Kegan Paul. (Trans: M
uller, B., 1995).

Brentano, F. (1933). The Theory of Categories. Martinus Nijhoff. Trans:

R.M. Chisholm and N. Guterman, 1981.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 46
Please cite only the published version

Brentano, F. C. (1929). Sensory and Noetic Consciousness. Routledge.

(Trans:L. McAlister (1981).

Brett, G. (1930). Associationism and act psychology: an historical retro-

spect. In C. Murchison (Ed.), Psychologies of 1930 chapter 2, (pp. 3055).
Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

Brunswik, E. (1952). The conceptual framework of psychology. In Interna-

tional Encyclopedia of Unified Sciences, volume 1. University of Chicago

Byrne, A. (2006). Intentionality. In J. Pfeifer & S. Sarkar (Eds.), The Phi-

losophy of Science: An Encyclopedia. Routledge.

Chisholm, R. (1957). Perceiving: a Philosophical Study. Ithaca, NY: Cornell

University press.

Corsini, R. (2002). The Dictionary of Psychology. Banner-Routledge.

Crane, T. (2001). Intentional objects. Ratio, 14 (4), 336349.

Deacon, T. W. (2010). What is missing from theories of information. In

P. C. W. Davies & N. H. Gregersen (Eds.), Information and the Nature of
Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1969). Content and Consciousness (2nd ed.). New York,

NY: Routledge.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 47
Please cite only the published version

Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. Number 1. Cambridge, MA:

MIT Press.

Dretske, F. (1995). Naturalizing the Mind. Number 4. Cambridge, MA: MIT


Dummett, M. (1990). Thought and perception: The views of two philosoph-

ical innovators. In D. Bell & N. Cooper (Eds.), The Analytic Tradition:
Philosophical Quarterly Monographs, Volume 1. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Eysenck, H., Arnold, W., & Meili, R. (1972/1982). Encyclopedia of Psychol-

ogy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Flugel, J. (1951). 100 Years of Psychology (2nd ed.). London, UK: Gerald

Fugali, E. (2009). Toward the rebirth of Aristotelian psychology-

Trendelenburg and Brentano. In S. Heinamaa & M. Reuter (Eds.), Psy-
chology and Philosophy- Inquiries into the Soul from Late Scholasticism to
Contemporary Thought chapter 10, (pp. 179202). University of Chicago

Geach, P. (1957). Mental Acts: Their Content and their Objects. London,
UK: Routledge Kegan Paul.

George, R. & Koehn, G. (2004). Brentanos relation to Aristotle. In

D. Jacquette (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Brentano chapter 1,
(pp. 2044). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 48
Please cite only the published version

Hickerson, R. (2007). The History of Intentionality: Theories of Conscious-

ness From Brentano to Husserl. Continuum.

Husserl, E. (1901a). Logical Investigations, volume 1. J. Findley (trans),

1970. Routledge.

Husserl, E. (1901b). Logical Investigations, volume 2. J. Findley (trans),

1970. Routledge.

Johnson, M. R. (2005). Aristotle on Teleology. Oxford University Press.

Kim, J. (1996). Philosophy of Mind, volume 72. Boulder, CO: Westview


Kosman, A. (1975). Perceiving that we perceive: On the soul III, 2. The

Philosophical Review, 84 (4), pp. 499519.

Kosman, A. (2013). The Activity of Being: An Essay in Aristotles Ontology.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Libardi, M. (1996). Franz Brentano (1838-1917). In L. Albertazzi, M. Libardi,

& P. Roberto (Eds.), The School of Franz Brentano chapter 1, (pp. 2579).
London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Marmodoro, A. (2014). Aristotle on Perceiving Objects. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.
Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 49
Please cite only the published version

Marras, A. (1976). Scholatic roots of Brentanos conception of intentionality.

In L. McAlister (Ed.), The Philosophy of Franz Brentano chapter 10, (pp.
128139). London: Duckworth.

uller-Freienfels, R. (1935). The Evolution of Modern Psychology. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Russell, B. (1921). The Analysis of Mind. New York, NY: The Macmillan

Sayre, K. M. (1976). Cybernetics and the Philosophy of Mind, volume 87.

New York, NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Searle, J. (1983). Intentionality. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Segal, G. (2005). Intentionality. In F. Jackson & M. A. Smith (Eds.), The

Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy. New York, NY: Oxford
University Press.

Smith, B. (1995). Austrian Philosophy: The Legacy of Franz Brentano (2nd

ed.). Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing.

Spiegelberg, H. (1976). Intention and intentionality in the Scholastics,

Brentano and Husserl. In L. McAlister (Ed.), The Philosophy of Franz
Brentano chapter 9, (pp. 108127). London: Duckworth.

Stubenberg, L. (1998). Consciousness and Qualia. John Benjamins.

Sheredos Brentanos Act Psychology 50
Please cite only the published version

Tassone, B. (2012). From Psychology to Phenomenology: Franz Brentanos

Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint and Contemporary Philosophy
of Mind. Palgrave-Macmillan.

Textor, M. (Ed.). (2006). The Austrian Contribution to Analytic Philosophy.

New York, NY: Routledge.

Titchener, E. (1922). Functional psychology and the psychology of act: II.

The American Journal of Psychology, 33 (1, January), 4383.

Tye, M. (1995). Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory

of the Phenomenal Mind, volume 282. Mit Press.