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Contrasting Two Ways of Making Psychology: Brentano and Freud


Brentano’s views on psychology influenced the way philosophy was made at the beginning of the 20th century. But did this influence spread as far as to give place to Freud’s revolutionary discovery of the psychoanalytical unconscious? There are reasons to believe that Brentano had a profound influence on Freud. An attentive analysis of Freud’s vocabulary as well as his arguments against “philosophical” objections supports this point rather convincingly. However, Freud was not a philosopher and Brentano’s historical influence does not suffice to transform the Freudian unconscious in a philosophical concept. It is the purpose of this paper to sketch a way to make a philosophical use of Freud’s unconscious by reconstructing the dialogue between Brentano and Freud on a conceptual level. Despite the explicit critique of the unconscious that we find in Brentano’s Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, I show that Freud never truly opposed Brentano. He rather took Brentano’s descriptive psychology a step further: he introduced a dynamic component to the analysis of the psyche that is complementary to Brentano’s descriptive psychology and could be considered a type of genetic psychology.

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  1. 1.

    Freud (1871–1881).

  2. 2.

    Merlan (1945, 1947), Fancher (1973), Heaton (1981), Hemecker (1991), Domenjo (2000), Cohen (2000).

  3. 3.

    Brentano (1874, Book II, Chapter IIa, p. 101–137).

  4. 4.

    Brentano (1874, p. 106). Of course, there are some variables in this statement: first we have to agree on the meaning of ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’. Secondly, we have to understand what exactly is the sense in which Brentano formulates this question, which that of descriptive psychology.

  5. 5.

    See Freud, Sigmund (1913) The Claim of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest, (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams, (1912) A Note on the Unconscious in Psycho-analysis, (1915) The Unconscious and also (1917) A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-analysis, (1923) The Ego and the Id, (1925) The Resistances to Psycho-analysis, (1938a) An Outline of Psycho-analysis, (1938b) Some Elementary Lessons in Psycho-analysis.

  6. 6.

    Brentano explicitly formulated the project of a genetic psychology in his lectures on Descriptive Psychology from 1887–1888. This shows that, for Brentano, genetic psychology is not opposed but complementary to the descriptive psychology of the Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. Yet, despite his discussion of concepts like ‘instinct’ or ‘drive’, he still identifies the mental with the intentional and thus, for him, with the conscious. I would like to argue here that Freud’s metapsychology of the unconscious can be read as another way to accomplish Brentano’s project of a genetic psychology, and in this respect, despite the appearance of disagreement, Brentano and Freud are in fact on the same page.

  7. 7.

    In the second chapter of Book II of the Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, dedicated to arguments against the unconscious, Brentano discusses several philosophical defences of various theories of the unconscious, starting with Leibniz, ending with Wundt and Helmholz, and passing through Eduard von Hartmann, Mill, Hamilton, and Maudsley. The idea all these different authors have in common is that the unconscious could be described one way or another because it contains the same kind of describable contents as consciousness. It is this same describable unconscious that Brentano is criticising with very thorough arguments in this chapter of the Psychology. My purpose in this paper is to show that the very same describable unconscious is also what Freud criticizes under the name of “the philosophers’ unconscious”. I would like to show that Freud’s defence of the unconscious is not defeated by Brentano’s arguments precisely because it is to be understood as completely different from “the philosophers’ unconscious”: the unconscious in Freud’s view can only be inferred and not described, and thus it can only be seized from a dynamic perspective that takes in consideration the crucial concept of repression.

  8. 8.

    Thus, the question about the unconscious is also another way for Brentano to answer objections concerning his definition of mental phenomena as phenomena accompanied by inner consciousness. If there are mental phenomena that are not perceived in an inner consciousness (of which we are not aware) then inner consciousness cannot function as a criterion for distinguishing between physical and mental phenomena. See Brentano (1874), Book II, Chapter I, §6. Of course, inner consciousness is not the only criterion for distinguishing mental and physical phenomena. We must not forget the well-known argument of intentionality: a mental phenomenon is a phenomenon that is about something, that has an intentional object (Brentano (1874, Book II, Chapter I, §5). Yet, it appears that, for Brentano, these two criteria (inner consciousness and intentionality) are inseparable: we can only have inner consciousness of an intentional state, and all intentional states are subject to inner consciousness.

  9. 9.

    Ibid., § 3, p. 105.

  10. 10.

    Ibid., p. 91.

  11. 11.

    In Brentano’s view, it is a conditio sine qua non for psychology conceived as a proper scientific field that all its objects be knowable. And it is a condition for descriptive psychology qua descriptive to be able to describe what we are aware of, i.e., to be aware of all its objects, since otherwise we would have no object to describe.

  12. 12.

    “The manner in which some of them (geniuses), Newton, for example, reported their most brilliant discoveries clearly shows that these discoveries were not the product of unconscious thought. We follow them in their investigations and understand their success, without thereby being any less in awe of it. If other geniuses have not been able to give a like account of their accomplishments, is it more presumptuous to assume that they have forgotten the conscious steps of their discoveries, than to assume that unconscious thought processes bridged the gap?” Ibid., p. 82.

  13. 13.

    For further reading on the concept of time in Brentano see Frechette (2012).

  14. 14.

    See Brentano (1874, Book II, Chap. II, § 6). “There are no unconscious mental acts, for wherever there exists a mental act of greater or lesser intensity, it is necessary to attribute an equal intensity to the presentation which accompanies it and of which this act is the object”, p. 121.

  15. 15.

    Ibid., p. 120. This is particularly interesting because, as I will show later, it is, in fact, not the variable intensity, but the infallibility of the inner perception that will be questioned by Freud.

  16. 16.

    “We can say that the sound is the primary object of the act of hearing, and that the act of hearing itself is the secondary object. Temporally they both occur at the same time, but in the nature of the case, the sound is prior.” Ibid., p. 128.

  17. 17.

    Husserl raised indirect objections to this point in Brentano in his discussion of Kasimierz Twardowski’s dissertation, Zur Lehre vom Inhalt und Gegenstand der Vorstellungen, eine psychologische Untersuchung (1894). See Husserl (1894).

  18. 18.

    “The problem of the unconscious in psychology is, in the forcible words of Lipps (1897), less a psychological problem than the problem of psychology. So long as psychology dealt with this problem by a verbal explanation to the effect that ‘psychical’ meant ‘conscious’ and that to speak of ‘unconscious psychical processes’ was palpable nonsense, any psychological evaluation of the observations made by physicians upon abnormal mental states was out of the question.” Freud, Sigmund, (1900, p. 611).

  19. 19.

    Freud (1912).

  20. 20.

    Ibid., p. 261.

  21. 21.

    “Unconsciousness is a regular and inevitable phase in the processes constituting our psychical activity; every psychical act begins as an unconscious one, and it may either remain so or go on developing into consciousness, according as it meets with resistance or not.” Ibid., p. 264.

  22. 22.

    “The term unconscious, which was used in the purely descriptive sense before, now comes to imply something more. It designates not only latent ideas in general, but especially ideas with a certain dynamic character, ideas kept apart from consciousness in spite of their intensity and activity.” Ibid., p. 262. See also S. Freud (1923), p. 15.

  23. 23.

    “It is true that the physician cannot learn of these unconscious processes until they have produced some effect upon consciousness which can be communicated or observed. But this conscious effect may exhibit a psychical character quite different from that of the unconscious process, so that internal perception cannot possibly regard the one as a substitute for the other.” Freud (1900, p. 612).

  24. 24.

    See Brentano (1887–1888, Part I).

  25. 25.

    This point is worth further discussion, since it is clear that Freud doesn’t reject the idea of a mental preconscious, which corresponds up to a point to the “philosophers’ unconscious”.

  26. 26.

    “We were accustomed to think that every latent idea was so because it was weak and that it grew conscious as soon as it became strong. We have now gained the conviction that there are some latent ideas which do not penetrate into consciousness, however strong they may have become.” Idem.

  27. 27.

    “How are we to arrive at a knowledge of the unconscious? It is of course only as something conscious that we know it, after it has undergone transformation or translation into something conscious. Psycho-analytic work shows us everyday that translation of this kind is possible.” Freud (1915, p. 166).

  28. 28.

    “Thus, we may speak of an unconscious thought seeking to convey itself into the preconscious so as to be able then to force its way through into consciousness. What we have in mind here is not the forming of a second thought situated in a new place, like a transcription which continues to exist alongside the original; and the notion of forcing a way through into consciousness must be kept carefully free from any idea of a change of locality…. What we are doing here is once again to replace a topographical way of representing things by a dynamic one. What we regard as a mobile is not the psychical structure itself but its innervation.” Ibid., p. 610–611.

  29. 29.

    This part of Freud’s theory could be compared to the more recent cognitive scientific studies of unconscious priming, for instance those lead by Naccache and Dehaene (2001) and by Hughes et al. (2009), and based on the concept of priming developed by D.E. Meyer and R.W. Schvaneveldt in the seventies.

  30. 30.

    “Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with what is perceived though unknowable, so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object.” Freud (1915, p. 171).

  31. 31.

    In fact, Brentano’s idea that inner perception is infallible is not incompatible with Freud’s position. For Brentano, inner perception gives us an evident and doubtless account of the fact that we are having such and such a mental state, but the same evidence doesn’t apply to the precise description of psycho-dynamic aetiology of this state. We can know without any trace of doubt that we perceive without being infallible about what we perceive. On this point see Brentano (1890–1891, p. 3).


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Gyemant, M. Contrasting Two Ways of Making Psychology: Brentano and Freud. Axiomathes 27, 491–501 (2017).

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  • Brentano
  • Freud
  • Descriptive psychology
  • Genetic psychology
  • Unconscious
  • Austrian philosophy
  • Austrian thought