The next part of the series - Initially Not A Psychologist ...
Franz Brentano was a significant figure in modern psychology. At a time when the Wundtian approach was dominant, he began the movement called Act psychology that turned out to be a precursor to Gestalt psychology and humanistic psychology. He opposed the Wundtian approach and came closest to Wundt in terms of being influential, in the late nineteenth century. Brentano, however, did not begin his career in psychology; he was, initially, not a psychologist.
Brentano, at the age of sixteen, began studying for Catholic priesthood in Germany. He was also studying philosophy, and in 1862 he was awarded a doctorate at the University of Tübingen, Germany. The topic of dissertation was On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle.
In the next two years, Brentano, completed his studies in theology and was ordained as priest at Würzburg. After that he began teaching philosophy at the University of Würzburg, Germany. He gave lectures on the work of Aristotle, which was recognized as highly scholarly. He became known as an effective teacher, who had a lot of clarity in philosophy and mathematics.
During this time, Brentano started becoming a controversial figure because of his criticisms of the anti-intellectualism of the Church. This eventually led him to resign from his professorship and formally leave the Church.
In 1874, Brentano joined the University of Vienna as professor of philosophy. He spent his most productive years at Vienna. Some of his students were Carl Stumpf, a significant figure in German psychology; Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology; and Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.
The most important and well known book of Brentano, Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt (Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint) was published in 1874. It would have been one of the first multivolume books about the scope and methodology of psychology, but he could not complete the later volumes.
Brentano began the movement called Act psychology. The central aspect of Act psychology is the inseparable interaction between the individual and the environment. Accordingly, psychological events are defined as phenomena, that is, events cannot be reduced to component elements without losing their identity.
With this respect, Brentano defined psychology as the science of psychic phenomena expressed as acts and processes. This perspective was different from psychology emphasizing on reductionism, consciousness, and associationism, which was dominant at that time, as reflected in the Wundtian approach.
In this sense, Brentano’s Act psychology opposed Wundt’s idea that psychology is the study of the content of conscious experience. According to Brentano, the subject matter of psychology should be mental activity. Act psychology questioned the Wundtian approach that mental processes involve contents or elements.
Brentano viewed consciousness as a unity expressed by acts. He felt that examining the contents or elements of consciousness, as in the Wundtian approach does not have psychological meaning because it destroys the essential unity of consciousness. In contrast, he believed that consciousness is a unity and that the product of consciousness (the acts and processes) are truly psychological.
Brentano also opposed Wundt in terms of not favoring the experimental method. Rather than the experimental method, he favored the empirical method. According to him, instead of experimentation, observation should be the primary method of psychology. He believed that the empirical method is broader and more apt to study mental acts.
He suggested various empirical methods to study mental acts such as inner perception of ongoing acts (naïve reporting of psychic phenomena), recalling past psychic events in the memory and objectively observing them, observation of overt behavior, observation of antecedent and physiological processes associated to psychological acts, and imagining a mental state and observing the accompanying mental processes.
In his later years, Brentano used the phenomenological method. He believed that phenomenology would help in describing psychological acts in terms of subjective experiences.
Brentano’s idea of unity of consciousness later on was influential in the development of the Gestalt movement and his use of the phenomenological method led to the phenomenological movement, which became an integral aspect of humanistic psychology. In this way, Act psychology is considered to be the precursor of two of the major movements in psychology.
From being a priest and a professor of philosophy, Brentano came to be known as one of the most important early psychologists. His Act psychology gave a perspective of psychology that was different from the dominant Wundtian approach. Act psychology was also the precursor in the development of Gestalt psychology and humanistic psychology, two of the highly significant and influential approaches in psychology.