Friday, March 18, 2016

Brentano on the mental

What distinguishes the mental from the non-mental?  Franz Brentano (1838-1917), in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, famously takes intentionality to be the key.  He developed this answer by way of criticism of (what he took to be) the traditional Cartesian criterion.  Descartes held that the essence of matter lies in extension and spatial location.  Whatever lacks these geometrical features is therefore non-material.  Accordingly, it must fall into the second class of substances recognized by Descartes, namely mental substance.  As Brentano reads the Cartesian tradition, then, it holds that the essence of the mental is to be unextended and non-spatial.

Brentano argues that this criterion is problematic insofar as there are apparent counterexamples.  For one thing, there are physical phenomena that are arguably neither extended nor spatial.  He notes that sounds and odors are possible examples cited by some of the psychologists of his day.  For another thing, there are mental phenomena that are evidently extended or spatially located.  For example, sense perception is associated with specific bodily organs, and pains and other sensations are located in specific parts of the body.  Brentano doesn’t necessarily endorse all of these examples, but he thinks that the very fact that the criterion of appealing to extension and spatial location (or the lack thereof) is controversial shows that the criterion is inadequate.  Furthermore, he says, it is a purely negative criterion.  A positive characterization of the mental is desirable. 

I’ll get to Brentano’s own proposed criterion in a moment, but let’s pause to evaluate what he says about the purportedly Cartesian criterion.  I’m not a Cartesian, but if I were I’d find Brentano’s remarks pretty annoying, because I don’t think they get Descartes right, and are problematic in other ways too.  First and least importantly (and as Brentano himself might have agreed) the first set of alleged counterexamples is pretty unimpressive.  It’s true that sounds and odors lack the precise spatial locations and boundaries that (say) shapes and color patches have, but they are also clearly locatable and extended in a looser sense.  For example, if someone burns popcorn in the microwave, there is an obvious sense in which the smell of it is located in the kitchen but not in the driveway, and in which the range of the odor might extend to the nearest bedroom but (say) not to the farthest bedroom.  A sound will also be audible only within a certain distance, and its source localizable.  These sorts of facts are enough to make sounds and odors extended and spatially locatable by Descartes’ lights.

A second problem, though, is that Descartes would hold that to say that odors and sounds have extension and spatial location is in any event to speak ambiguously.  For example, he would point out that by “sound,” we might mean compression waves in the air, or we might instead mean the auditory experience these waves cause in us.  If we mean the former, then a sound clearly does have a spatial location.  If we mean the latter, then Descartes would agree that it does not have a spatial location, but would also say that it is not physical in the first place (though note the qualification he would make vis-à-vis sensory experiences that I’ll describe below).

A third and more important problem is that it just isn’t true that Descartes lacks a positive conception of the mental or that he takes the lack of extension and spatial location to be the essence of the mental.  Rather, the essence of the mental is thought -- what remains when you’ve doubted away everything else as a dream, a hallucination caused by an evil spirit, etc., but can still know that cogito, ergo sum.  To be a mind is just to be a thing that thinks, a res cogitans, and there is nothing more to its essence than that.  It is true, of course, that Descartes takes the mind to be unextended and non-spatial, and thus to be immaterial.  But that is not because these features are themselves the essence of the mental.  Rather, he takes them to follow from the essence of the mental, and in particular from the fact (as he sees it) that thought might still exist even if extension and space were fictions.  Of course, we might reasonably go on to ask Descartes what thought is, but the point is that whatever he might say about that, his criterion of what makes something a mind is (i) a positive one, and (ii) not stated in terms of the lack of extension and spatial location. 

A fourth problem is that Descartes would take the other alleged counterexamples cited by Brentano to be characterized in a tendentious way.  For the experiences associated with sensory perception and with pain and other bodily sensations are not, in Descartes’ view, mental full stop.  Again, for Descartes to be a mind is to be a thing that thinks, a res cogitans, and what he primarily associates “thinking” with is intellectual activity, the sort that involves the grasp of concepts which might be expressed in language, etc.  The capacity for sensation (and also for appetite and emotion) he takes to arise only when the res cogitans gets conjoined to the body (the res extensa or extended substance). 

A sensation, then (whether a visual sensation, a sensation of pain, or whatever) is therefore a kind of hybrid attribute in Descartes’ view.  It has both mental and non-mental or physical aspects.  That a sensation of pain has a conscious feel to it is certainly a mental aspect of it, and is contributed by the res cogitans.  But that it has a location (in the back, say) is a non-mental aspect of the sensation, and is contributed by the res extensa.  Hence to cite sensations as purported examples of mental phenomena having extension and spatial location would in Descartes’ view be conceptually sloppy or at least question-begging.

So, Brentano’s critique of the Cartesian position seems to me weak.  What about his own alternative?  Again, Brentano’s claim is that what truly sets the mental apart from everything else is intentionality -- the way a thought, for example, is directed at, “points” to, or is about something.  For instance, the thought that the cat is on the mat is about the cat and its being on the mat, is directed toward that alleged state of affairs or “points” toward it.  Nothing physical is like that, Brentano thinks.  Hence to be mental is, essentially to be intentional, and to be physical is to be non-intentional.  (Remember that “intentional” here is being used in a technical sense.  Brentano isn’t talking about e.g. whether you did something intentionally or unintentionally.  “Intentions” in that ordinary sense are just one manifestation of intentionality in Brentano’s sense.  To be intentional in the relevant technical sense is to exhibit “aboutness” or “directedness toward” an object, and to be non-intentional in the relevant sense is to lack this directedness or aboutness.)

What should we think of this criterion?  One problem with it is that, at least as Brentano states it, it is no less subject to alleged counterexamples than the pseudo-Cartesian criterion he criticizes.  And ironically (given Brentano’s own use of them against the Cartesian view), some would take pains and certain other bodily sensations to provide such counterexamples.  For example, it is sometimes claimed that a sensation of pain is mental but lacks any intentionality.  Pain is (so the argument goes) just a raw feel that isn’t “about” anything. 

That is controversial -- others (such as Tim Crane) argue that an experience of pain is directed toward the body part in which the pain is felt, and thus does have intentionality -- but Brentano’s criterion faces a more serious problem.  Some contemporary philosophers have argued that purely physical and non-mental phenomena do possess a kind of intentionality.  For example, in his book Powers: A Study in Metaphysics, George Molnar holds that there are four aspects to intentionality -- directedness; the possibility that the object of the intentional state may not actually exist; indeterminacy; and referential opacity -- and he argues that causal powers possess features like all four of these. 

Now, I think Molnar is only half-right here, and in particular that powers only plausibly possess the first two of these.  (See pp. 100-105 of Scholastic Metaphysics for discussion of Molnar’s views and related contemporary arguments.)  But they do indeed possess something like the “directedness” so emphasized by Brentano.  In particular, they possess what Aristotelian and Scholastic philosophers would call finality of a very rudimentary sort (namely the “stripped-down core notion” of final causality or teleology that I referred to in a recent post). 

Of course, most modern philosophers since the time of Descartes would reject the claim that there is anything like Aristotelian finality in the material world.  They would relegate all “directedness toward” an object to the mind, and would say that where it appears to exist in nature, that is only because the mind projects it onto nature, rather than finding it in nature.  (Molnar and like-minded contemporary thinkers are really neo-Aristotelians of a sort, whether they realize it or not.)  Hence if one accepts the modern, post-Cartesian conception of matter as devoid of any inherent finality, teleology, or directedness, and regards all finality, teleology, or directedness as mind-dependent, then one will be hard-pressed to resist Brentano’s criterion -- which is precisely why so many contemporary philosophers have found it plausible.  (It is ironic, given Brentano’s criticism of what he takes to be the Cartesian criterion, that the plausibility of his own proposed criterion itself presupposes a post-Cartesian conception of matter.)

It should also be noted that that is not all Brentano had to say on the subject, though.  He also characterizes the mental as that which we know via a kind of “inner perception.”  Is this a better criterion of what sets the mental apart from the non-mental?

I would answer: It is hard to say, in part because the term “mental” is used so broadly in contemporary philosophy.  Suppose we use the term “mental” narrowly, to refer to what is true of the intellect specifically.  In that case, neither of Brentano’s criteria is quite right, at least from the point of view of the Aristotelian or the Thomist.  The first criterion is not quite right because non-human animals, plants, and indeed inorganic phenomena can all exhibit a kind of “directedness” and yet lack intellects.  The second criterion is inadequate if we suppose that anything that is conscious has at least some kind of “inner perception” (though whether this is the case will depend on how we interpret the notion of inner perception).  For animals are conscious and yet lack intellects.

From an Aristotelian or Thomist point of view, it is not intentionality as such that is the mark of intellectual activity, but rather intentionality that involves the conceptualization of that toward which the mind is directed.  Animal consciousness has a kind of intentionality, but not the grasp or application of true concepts.  Hence conceptual thought is the mark of the mental, if by “mental” we mean strictly intellectual activity. 

If we use “mental” more broadly, though, to include any conscious phenomena -- including the kind of conscious experiences had by non-human animals, which lack intellects -- then perhaps Brentano’s second criterion (“inner perception”) is defensible.  (In this case, though, the criterion would not support any claim to the effect that the mental, broadly construed, is incorporeal or non-bodily -- at least not for Aristotelians and Thomists, who regard the intellect as incorporeal, but sensory experience as corporeal or bodily.)


  1. Great post, and I absolutely love the thumbnail.

  2. Samaya Prekrasnaya ZhiznMarch 18, 2016 at 7:30 PM

    Quick question about all this: from an A-T perspective, since animals have consciousness , does it follow that their minds are in principle irreducible to the physical such as is said for humans?

  3. I was just wondering how someone could have a thought about X when X does not exist. Would one be directed towards some other object that was not X but somehow represented X somehow?

  4. The thumbnail doesn't appear in shares, Edward Feser (a kind of cross of two spanners does instead, which is ugly).

  5. I read these posts from Dr. Feser, scroll down to the comments and think of Scott Ryan, who's soul I will pray for today.

  6. SK, what do you mean X does not exist?

  7. Interesting discussion from a 21st Century perspective but Brentano had the 19th Century perspective. I think he was building on Descartes notion by recognition that mind/intentionality/aboutness allowed us to perceive the unextended by default or the absence thereof. Descartes conception was savy but preceded Newtonian physics, action at a distance etc. Brentano's insight is further developed by 20th century physiology which show close integration as well as separation between the higher neocortical functions of space/language/"mind" and the limbic system that we share with lower species, which sources basic drives and bodily sensations.

  8. @Philip Alawonde

    What I mean is how does intentionality work when I am thinking about non-existing objects. For example, lets say I have the thought that "The moon is made out of cheese". Clearly an object like does not exist, but my thought is nonetheless about it or "points" to it. Yet it seems strange to say that one's mind can point to a non-existing thing. Hopefully that clarified things.

  9. How do you get around the criticism that the mind is just what the brain does?
    It's like with information. People want to say information is immaterial, but, you only ever experience information in a material form (written with ink on paper, written in sand).
    So, same with mind: it's always linked to the brain.

  10. SK, no it didn't, for you did not answer my question at all.

    What, again do you mean by a NON-EXISTENT OBJECT?

    This is because your perplexity is caused by your quite limited notion of existence.

  11. Charlie2na: How do you get around the criticism that the mind is just what the brain does?

    Well, it's not really a criticism (any more than noting that you never hear sound without ears is somehow a criticism of the idea that there are sound waves). It's a good question, though: Could the mind simply be the brain!? And Prof. Feser doesn't get around it, he tackles it head-on, in dozens of articles here. Just dive into any of the posts about mind or materialism or indeterminacy, or read one of his books (or anyone else's books about Thomism).

  12. @Philip Alawonde

    I'm not sure how much clearer I could get about talking about what a non-existing object could be. Let's say I have the thought that "there is a cat on the mat" and there really is one right in front of me. So my thought looks like it successfully points to a real state of affairs. But let's say I have the same thought and let's say there is not a cat on the mat at all in the real world at all. I have a thought that "points" to something yet the state of affairs does not exist in reality.

    One way of dealing wih is to admit that there is some object my thought pouts to even if the state of affairs does not hold. Like maybe something platonic like entities.

    Also you said "this is because your perplexity is caused by your quite limited notion of existence.". If this is truly the case then could you tell me how it is my notion of existence is limited.

  13. Hi SK,

    The distinction you're looking for is between intentional content and intentional objects. For example, two perceptual experiences can have exactly the same content, where one has an object and the other doesn't. The veridical perception of an apple has an object; the hallucination of an apple doesn't. The content of the perception is satisfied; the content of the hallucination isn't satisfied.

    Two desires can also have type-identical content, where one has an object and the other doesn't. I could really want the ham sandwich in my fridge. Charlie could too. But if Charlie slipped into my house and ate my sandwich five minutes ago, then my desire is currently not satisfied by its object.

    Thoughts about unrealized possibles (or impossibles) have content, but no object.

  14. SK, Oh, I see. By non-existent object you mean non-external object. It doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

    So, thinking ABOUT a state of affairs that is not -- to the best of your knowledge -- present in external reality is intentional, obviously, and the OBJECT of your thought are the imaginations, or phantasms as they're referred to here, that you are making up. That's why we're called self-conscious or intelligent: We engage in discursive thought, reflecting on OUR OWN THOUGHTS. For example, thinking about a unicorn has your phantasm of the unicorn as your object of thought.

    Hope that helps?

  15. @Philip Alawonde

    Yes thanks it does help.

    @John West

    The distinction you made really helps too.

  16. Do designs have content or not? When I design a chair the chair is not yet but will be. Once I've crafted it, it is. Does the design have content now or do I merely have content to a perception of a chair which bears some kind of non-content relationship to the design?

  17. Brentano seems to be conceiving of mental intentionality as directed towards particular objects. At least in Aquinas, the intellect is not directed at particular material objects but towards forms; it connection to material particulars depends on a context being provided by sense experience to identify such particulars. The human intellect cannot naturally be directed at immaterial individuals (substantial forms), since it has no access to such forms. This is a fundamental difference between the two positions.

  18. @John L

    You said "At least in Aquinas, the intellect is not directed at particular material objects but towards forms" and "The human intellect cannot naturally be directed at immaterial individuals (substantial forms), since it has no access to such forms". To me it sounds like you said the intellect is both directed towards and not directed towards forms. This is a contradiction. Yet I am sure you did not mean this. So could you clarify what you said because I am a bit confused.

  19. The underlying substance of the mental is not materia signata quantitate. The mind pertains to the subtle or animic substance--the psyche.

  20. Can anybody help me with this question:

    In philosophy, and more specifically in metaphysics, we speak of many "orders" eg order of being, of truth, action, good etc. In one sense, being is a transcendental idea (all-encompassing) and therefore the idea of "order" is subsumed under it. In another sense, when we say "order of being" we subsume the idea of being (a transcendental which can therefore have no specific difference) under the idea of "order" - how is this possible when "being" is a transcendental or even just a genus of the idea of "order"?

  21. In more precise words, how one be a species of another (it's genus) and vice versa as well at the same time- this old maxim might be of help:the order of Being is the reverse of the order of knowing.”

  22. To avoid ambiguity Existence can be distinguished from Being. Existence would then refer to what the Abrahamic religions term "creation." Existence comprises degrees of reality. As for Being, this would then refer to that which the Abrahamic religions term "God," namely the creative ontological Principle, comprising the Divine Attributes. Most theology stops here, but strictly speaking, reality in its ultimate sense pertains only to the divine Essence. Palamas, for example distinguishes between the Essence and the Energies; Eckhart distinguishes between "Gott" and "Gottheit." The Essence alone is absolutely unconditioned, while Being is self-determination of the Absolute "in the direction" of its manifestion as the creation. Being is absolute or Principle in relation to the world, but determination in relation to the Divine Essence.

    Theology tends either to avoid this distinction or "bracket" it. It shies away from ascribing relativity in the Divine order, and hence tends to ascribe all absoluteness to "God," without making such distinctions, which is opportune for the religion generally, but very much a two-edged sword in other important respects, for the total truth also deserves to be expressed.

  23. Mihret Gelan, how does 'order of being' mean being is subsumed under order?

    The 'of' clearly tells us what is subject to what. Being is an absolute concept, indeed the first thing the intellect grasps. It can be subordinate to nothing.

  24. Well I mean, when you say being is .. "An absolute concept" it subsumes being under the category of absolute concepts, as if the idea of absoluteness and the idea of concept preceded "being". The general problem is just how can "being" be the genus of all things while at the same time being specified under certain categories? Even more generally, how can two things be the species and genus of one another at the same time? Perhaps there is a fallacy in my thinking, idk? This is problematic because we are explaining a basic concept with a concept that is subordinate to it

  25. Mihret,

    Oh, it seems you're conflating the several senses in which 'is' may be used. That being is an absolute concept does not preclude its being unique to that genus, as you're implicitly assuming.

    So, to stop you getting yourself confused further, being is the most absolute concept.

    Any more problem?

  26. "That being is an absolute concept does not preclude it's being unique to that genus" can you elaborate on that more and the different senses in which we could use the word "is" - if you don't have the time, can you direct me to any paper or literature on the topic? My ulterior motive in asking these questions is that I'm trying to create a panoramic view or taxonomy of all the scholastic concepts so diverse as essence, existence, act, potency, possibility, probability, substance, predicates, ethics, logic and so on? I'm asking where do all these concepts fit in the big picture because sometimes I feel that my thinking is done in a vacuum. thus, creating a one-glance view of it all will I think help me understand things better. When I tried to do this by mind-mapping it all to show which idea was fundamental to which, I ran across these questions I asked you. Is there any help you could provide

  27. Sure, check out Wippel's 'Metaphysical Themes'.

  28. Hello all,

    Can someone explain why an immaterial souk also has to be immortal?


    Christi pax.

  29. "Can someone explain why an immaterial souk also has to be immortal?"

    If an immaterial soul is so dependent on the material substrate so as to be obliterated upon destruction of the material substrate, then it can't really be that immaterial, now, can it? Strictly speaking, an immaterial soul doesn't have to be immortal, but it is irrational to conclude that the immaterial soul must be obliterated upon the destruction of the material apparatus if the immaterial soul isn't the antecedent of some essential causal relationship with the material substrate.

  30. Thanks Philip. I have the two volumes of Wippel, but from the contents table, I judge the works to be more random and less comprehensive, systematic, and taxonomical in their treatment of thomistic metaphysics... is that true or does the book give a panoramic, one-glance view of Aquinas' metaphysics/philosophy - showing what the exact relationships are between the innumerably diverse concepts found in scholastic/thomistic philosophy?

  31. Thank you, Tomislav Ostojich!

    I agree that material corruption can't affect an immaterial soul, but I was thinking that somehow immortality deprives from the nature of immaterial substance.

    Christi pax.

  32. 'Can someone explain why an immaterial souk [sic] also has to be immortal?'

    Mortality means the corruption of a corporeal substance (usually an organism), so that only material things can be mortal. This entails that the human soul -- which can at least subsist by itself -- is also immortal.

    But I have a hunch you're worried about annihilation and not mortality per se. Mortality, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with annihilation. All material bodies will eventually change their forms (i.e., will be corrupted -- this was what informed Heraclitus' fallacy of eternal flux), so that no material thing can ever be immortal, or incorruptible (well, barring the christian doctrine of the new creation, which is a renewed nature, not the natural material world as we know it now).

    Now having cleared up a potential terminological confusion, the question you might have *meant* may be framed, 'Why is an immaterial soul non-annihilable?' The short answer is that no one claims it's not. As every other thing that God has created, he MIGHT choose to annihilate the soul -- i.e., radically dis-exist it, or any other thing for that matter.

    Barring that however, nothing is *naturally* annihilable in so far as God continues to sustain them in existence. In short, nothing can ever pluck you (well, technically, your soul) from his hand, as one writer puts it.

    Hopefully, this cleared the muddle?

  33. Yes, thank you Philip!

    Christi pax.

  34. (Completely off-topic)

    Dr. Feser....are you responsible for the creation of this hoodie/t-shirt?

  35. In reference to the question of why the soul must be immortal, it might not. But until we can know what it means to "live" we cannot answer that question. The assumption if that spirits or souls are living beings, but since they do not facie physical death, are immortal.

  36. @SK:

    *cough* Meinong *cough* *cough*

  37. Ed wrote: "In this case, though, the criterion would not support any claim to the effect that the mental, broadly construed, is incorporeal or non-bodily -- at least not for Aristotelians and Thomists, who regard the intellect as incorporeal, but sensory experience as corporeal or bodily."

    Gilson (1971): They [modern scientists] understand nothing anymore since they forgot Aristotle's great saying that "there is no part of an animal which is purely material or purely immaterial".

    Ed's line is a standard one, but one that is confusing. On the one hand the sensible forms grasped by sensation are not material, insofar as they are found in the senses (when I see red, my eye (the physical organ) doesn't become red in the material sense), even though they lack the universality proper to concepts. On the other hand, it seems that intelligible forms grasped by the human intellect must be material insofar as we rely on sensible images (phantasms) in order to get them into focus and actually think about them. (Mind you, I don't understand why we should deny that memory (qua storehouse of images) can be properly intellectual, and so I don't see why our intellectual reliance on sense images requires ongoing reliance on a physical organ for all acts of intellectual contemplation.)

  38. Mirror reflects light.
    Mind reflects being.