On October 17, Professor David Luft gave a lecture entitled “Philosophy and Science in Nineteenth-Century Austria: Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848) and Franz Brentano (1838-1917).” The theme of Professor Luft’s talk was to give Bolzano and Brentano more credit and attention than they normally receive among English speaking historians and philosophers. Bolzano warrants such attention because his analytic methods end up indirectly influencing Anglo-American philosophers in the twentieth century, while Brentano inaugurated the other major twentieth century philosophical tradition of Continental philosophy by establishing phenomenology.
Bolzano’s work was all new to me. His main interests were in the philosophical foundations of mathematics and the natural sciences which he addressed in Theory of Science (1837). How Bolzano approached philosophy was greatly influenced by Immanuel Kant such that Professor Luft noted he as been called the “Austrian Kant.” Bolzano sought to further differentiate Kant’s distinction between the subjective and objective. To do so, he could spend several pages clarifying particular words, like “concept” or “intuition.” To establish scientific knowledge on firm ground, Bolzano separated logic from other mental processes. His concept of “propositions in themselves” exemplified this through their objectivity and non-reality, which Professor Luft described as their only being consisting of their being true and not dependent on mental processes.
I had previously come across Brentano as the teacher of Edmund Husserl, but had not known the content of his work to the extent that Professor Luft provided. Brentano wrote very little, Psychology from and Empirical Standpoint (1874) being his most important work, and has been better known as a great teacher. Besides Husserl, his students included Sigmund Freud and Christian von Ehrenfels, both important in the history of psychology, which Brentano saw as the science of the future. He based his research, in part, on Aristotle’s work On the Soul, advocating a psychology based in perception and experience of ones own mental phenomena. These observations could take place only through memory, since, as Professor Luft pointed out, its hard to observe the mental process occurring that contribute to a mental state such as anger while one is angry. Brentano’s psychological method, which focused on describing what could be empirically observed of mental phenomena, led him to avoid developing any significant theory of the unconscious. These theories would become more the work of his students, especially Freud.
While Bolzano and Brentano sat at the beginning of two different philosophical traditions, they still held some things in common. Both had been Catholic priests. Advocating for the equality of all people as well as teaching that Christ was concerned with both the inward and outward conditions of the individual helped Bolzano gain enemies who would have him fired from the University of Prague. Brentano similarly held beliefs that countered Catholic dogma. He would leave the Church of his own accord after opposing papal infallibility. For Professor Luft, the most important similarity between Bolzano and Brentano was their slow and careful methods which ultimately led them in different directions.
*Andre Hahn is pursuing a Ph.D. in History of Science at Oregon State University