Brentano and the Mechanization of the Mind

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On Thursday October 16 I will be speaking at the conference The Making of the Humanities IV: Connecting Disciplines with a presentation titled “Against the Mechanization of the Mind: Brentano’s Psychology as the Ultimate Foundational and Interdisciplinary Geisteswissenschaft“. My talk will actually continue more or less where I left off two years ago, at the previous Making of the Humanities conference. Moreover, while in 2012 I presented some essential elements of my VENI project that had just been funded, now I will explore some themes that might become the basis for my next project and grant proposal.

In order to connect scientific disciplines and enable productive collaboration, we have to formulate an encompassing framework that allows for different forms of data to be shared. How can that be made possible given all the methodological diversity within the humanities, let alone across the disciplinary borders of the natural sciences and the humanities? What scientific paradigm could  safeguard this unity of science while avoiding reductionism?

For Franz Brentano, the ultimate foundation for the humanities and social sciences as well as the natural sciences would lie in his descriptive psychology as the ultimate interdisciplinary paradigm. In order to avoid both the unscientific speculation of the idealists as well as the mechanization of the mind implied by the reductionism of the natural sciences, Brentano claimed an autonomous domain of scientific inquiry for the philosophical sciences: the mind. However, Brentano’s approach is strikingly contemporary in explicitly acknowledging sources of data about mental phenomena beyond subjective reflection, opening up the framework to both first- and third-person methodologies. Through the mediation of his philosophical psychology, Brentano is able to connect  the domains of the Natur- and the Geisteswissenschaften, but without reducing the latter to the former or mechanizing the mind.

In Brentano’s paradigm, the starting point for all sciences lies in the analysis of sensation. Since sensations depend on a physical stimulus, the science of mental phenomena must be complemented by the sciences of natural phenomena. However, psychology also draws on the humanities, i.a. history and linguistics. Specifically, Brentano claims that we can have indirect knowledge of other minds than our own insofar as it is expressed in words, since “language in general has the purpose of expressing our mental phenomena.” Language itself is a cultural sediment of how people have put their mental life in words, providing at least a preliminary classification of mental phenomena. For instance, empirical generalizations from common sense insights are encoded in proverbs, which can then be verified by more detailed psychological research.

That this interdisciplinary paradigm was very fruitful indeed is shown by extraordinary success of the schools and movements captained by his students, across a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines (including i.a. musicology, linguistics, Gestalt-psychology), eclipsing their common teacher. Thus Brentano’s “invisibility” in the history of philosophy and psychology should be understood not simply as a contingent historical accident, but rather as a hallmark of the fruitfulness of his project.

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