(Report 2015)

(The following report was written by Xavier Meulders, PhD student at the University of Antwerp (Belgium), whom I’d like to thank for making it available for publication on this site. C.I.)

Report Philosophy as Science Conference, Utrecht, 9-11 April 2015 

When the announcement of the Philosophy as Science conference popped into my mailbox somewhere around Saint Valentine’s Day I was thrilled with excitement. I just enrolled as a PhD student at Antwerp University, currently working on a project linking Franz Brentano’s value theory with the Austrian School of Economics. Since Utrecht is figuratively speaking next to my own front door, I deemed it worthwhile to grab this unique opportunity to meet a couple of the great minds (among whom Barry Smith, Robin Rollinger, Dale Jacquette and many others) I only knew from their very elucidating literature and, last but not least, to explore a city where I have never been before. Since I consider myself an absolute layman both regarding past and present exegesis on Brentano, I will only give a brief personal impression of the conference and its variety of subjects that have been dealt with. But I am quite confident that a report written from a first person’s perspective will be welcomed enthusiastically within phenomenological circles.

So here it goes. The first observation relates to the conference’s theme: philosophy as science, as it has been conceived in the nineteenth century. No doubt that Brentano only has a small share in this story, so it is perfectly understandable that authors such as Kant, Schelling and Goethe are incorporated in this project as well. But given the fact that the conference was – except for the keynote speeches and plenary sessions – neatly divided into parallel lectures, there arose no clear intellectual synergies between the ‘Brentanists’ on the one hand, and the ‘German Idealists’ on the other. Indeed, the quite literal division of the venue into a ‘German Room’ and an ‘Austrian Room’ was a running gag throughout the conference, yet there was no Holy Roman Emperor to foster strong ties between his provinces. I definitely wish to refrain from calling this a failure – since I do recognize the merit of parallel sessions – but in a certain sense, and given the overarching topic of the conference, I think some opportunities might have been missed. Perhaps – but in this I already take a ‘Brentanist’ standpoint – this is due to the philosophical remoteness between Brentano and the Idealists. A conference incorporating philosophers such as, say, Bernard Bolzano, Hermann Lotze and Friedrich Trendelenburg may be more apt to generate the ‘synergies’ I am talking about.

I usually waltzed into the Austrian Room. Yet, given the vast amount of lectures given I will just briefly touch upon two insights that attracted the most of my attention. The first of these insights has been delivered by Guillaume Fréchette’s during his presentation on Brentano’s scientific conception of descriptive psychology.1 Fréchette expounded (among other topics) upon Brentano’s conception of the a priori. Most philosophers, indeed, even a whole lot of experts on Brentano’s philosophy, take it for granted that any law or proposition defining an a priori statement is therefore, by implication, a necessary statement. An example would be a descriptive psychological law such as “every mental phenomenon is either a presentation or founded upon a presentation” which, according to the standard interpretation, should count as a statement that is both necessary and a priori.

Fréchette challenges this view. According to him, Brentano’s use of the a priori within the realm of his descriptive psychology does not point toward necessary claims at all. Rather, “the sole meaning of apriori here is that it is prior or independent upon the external perception.” (Fréchette’s typescript, p. 13). Fréchette then continues as follow: “Therefore, the thesis that all mental acts are based on presentations is an apriori truth iff it is a truth which one can accept with evidence in inner perception. It doesn’t mean that in all possible worlds, mental acts are such.” (ibid., pp. 13-14, emphasis mine)

At first glance, I consider this statement rather problematic, for the simple reason that the distinction between necessary and contingent (a priori) statements remains adopted. However, the proper method by which we can stipulate a proper distinction between necessary and contingent claims is – as Fréchette seems to indicate – the introduction of a metaphysics of possible worlds. Although I do not want to abandon any possible world metaphysics altogether, I think that there are several reasons to be cautious in introducing such highly queer entities. For a start, and given Brentano’s own radical abandonment of states of affairs and entia rationis (esp. during the latest phases of his philosophy), one could point toward Brentano’s own regress argument against them. The core of this argument has been stated in a letter to Anton Marty, dating from September 1906:

“Consider, above all, the regressus ad infinitum which would be involved if a man wished to know, or to judge with evidence, that ‘A is’. He could not affirm or acknowledge A with evidence unless he could also affirm or acknowledge the ‘being’ of A with evidence. For if he could not convince himself of the existence of this second object, he would be unable to know whether his original judgement corresponds with it. Did he affirm ‘the being of A’ before he affirmed A with evidence? Surely not. Hence the affirmations were simultaneous.  […] In which case there must also have been a content of the second judgement. And he must have affirmed this second content either at the same time or prior to affirming the being of A. This second content would be the being of the being of A. And this, too, must have been thought, not merely as content, but also as object, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.”2

Supposing that Brentano’s regress argument is successful in denouncing any type of judgmental content (c.q. state of affairs), it implies that the argument is sound in rejecting metaphysical entities such as possible worlds as well: if one wishes to know whether ‘A possibly is’, she should be able to assess both A and the being of A’s possibility. Yet, A, as intentional object, even when thought or imagined, is an actual object (as implied by Brentano’s theory of intentional inexistence) whereas the being of A’s possibility (a possible world) is a possible content that cannot be judged of simpliciter since it does not rely upon a presentation in the present tense (by definition, a possible world lies beyond our actual conceptions of linear and phenomenal time). Hence, a metaphysics of possible worlds collapses since one cannot judge evidently anything about a possible state of affairs.

Whether we could, for instance, imagine someone having a (descriptive) psychological makeup other than ours (as cautiously suggested by Fréchette), already presupposes our conception of agents having their mental acts based upon presentations, since it is impossible for us to imagine a mental act (say, an emotion) without that emotion being based upon a presentation or even lacking intentionality altogether. The existence of a ‘possible world’ in which such strange, otherworldly agents exist is therefore entirely dependent upon the acquaintance with our actual world. And it is for these considerations that I am inclined to adopt a rather skeptical attitude whenever the use of possible worlds (or other extravagant ontological entities) – including the necessity/contingency distinction – is introduced.

But I will not dwell further upon this point which nevertheless could be seamlessly attached to Robin Rollinger’s lecture on Brentano’s critique of Bolzano and Husserl. Besides the regress argument which I sketched above, thus Rollinger, another argument could be put forward against the introduction of Platonic states of affairs or eternal truths, namely that due to their introduction, the unity of being could be jeopardized. This thought goes back to Aristotle, who taught us that there is a focal meaning of the term ‘being’ that could be predicated beyond the ten particular categories of being – that is, whether their could be a universal meaning of ‘Socrates’s being’ beyond ‘Socrates being a husband’ and ‘Socrates being seated’. Rollinger takes this Aristotelian way of questioning to be a starting point for Brentano’s own criticism of states of affairs and other Undinge: laws of logic and laws of physics, for instance, describe two entirely different realms of science; yet they are united in that they both describe the real (mental acts and physical phenomena). So laws, whether they be laws of logic, physics or geology, always apply normatively to a particular domain of reality, and in that sense we could derive a univocal conception of ‘law’. Conceptions of logic and truth which involve ‘states of affairs’ or ‘ideal meanings’, however, do not refer to any specter of reality whatsoever. Indeed, they do not ‘refer’ to or apply to anything at all, since they are considered to be truths in themselves. But this implies that we have to deal with two focal meanings of being instead of one – one meaning referring to normative laws, and another to an allegedly existing domain of eternal and immutable truths – hence endangering the unity, simplicity and univocity of being.

These are important observations, and already just for historical reasons worth fleshing out, since this ‘Brentanist-Rollingerian’ critique takes a stunningly similar intellectual path as the one taken, for instance, by the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus in the thirteenth century (substitute ‘being’ by ‘God’, and one gets the core of his main charge against Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy)3. At least I hope that the seeds of Rollinger’s remarkable presentation will come to full fruition in an extensive publication, since I personally cannot retrace this or similar arguments in Brentano’s own writings (admittedly, I didn’t go through his whole oeuvre so far).

Speaking about which, though I must first confess something: I have been so rude and impolite to overhear a conversation between a couple of lecturers, taking place in the venue’s ambient courtyard during an afternoon coffee break. Yet I cannot resist to report its content: according to those scholars steeped in Brentano’s philosophy, it is expedient for the academic community to edit a critical edition of his collected works (both published and unpublished), analogously to the much-acclaimed Husserliana-volumes. This would indeed be a splendid idea, since finding Brentano’s works in an academic research library today feels somewhat like assembling a tapas plate from a lorry that lost its cargo: bits and pieces everywhere, though impossible to make an entire, tasty meal of it. I personally cannot wait until these critically edited and annotated volumes will move beyond mere intentional inexistence!

Sadly, an all-soaking downpour put an abrupt end both to the relaxed outdoor coffee break, and marked at the same time the end of the conference as a whole at the same time. Sour faces and grumpy complaints about the awful rainy weather in the Netherlands suddenly became the standard. “It rains!,” those participants ready to leave exclaimed with a shivering voice. I, by contrast, could only smile and cheer. For, as Brentano explains in the seventh chapter of his Psychology: “[…] It can be shown with utmost clarity that every categorical proposition can be translated without any change of meaning into an existential proposition […]”.4

Indeed, judgements such as “it rains” do not effectuate a synthetic unity between a predicate and its subject, but rather immediately pertain toward the object of judgement itself. So it seems that we couldn’t have a more Brentanist ending of this conference than a refreshing, rainy shower. Of course, “it is sunny” would have done the trick as well, but then probably no one would have noticed that the weather gods have blessed this conference, its speakers and its participants, hoping that an equally interesting sequel will be organized in due course.

Xavier Meulders,

PhD Student, University of Antwerp, Belgium


  1. I am fully appreciative for Dr Fréchette’s kind effort to send me the typescript of his presentation.
  2. F. Brentano, The True and the Evident, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966, pp. 85-86.
  3. For an elaborate discussion of Scotus’s arguments for univocity, see Alexander W. Hall, Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus: Natural Theology in the High Middle Ages, London: Continuum, 2007, 170 p.
  4. F. Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, London: Routledge, 1995 [1973], p. 213.
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