In 1815 A German astronomer named Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel came across the curious story of an assistant researcher at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. He found that in 1795 David Kinnebrook was relieved from his duties for sloppy data recording. It seems that the head researcher (Reverend Nevil Maskelyne) noticed a consistent half-second discrepancy between his and Kinnebrook's recording of the "transits of stars".
What Bessel found intriguing was that Kinnebrook was not the only researcher whose data recording was questioned. The more Bessel investigated, he found increasing evidence that there are distinct individual differences in our experience of the the world; a personal equation. This is the event that many scholars point to as the impetus for the development of a scientific psychology.
|Gustav Fechner (1801-1887)|
The predicament of the the personal equation challenged the Enlightenment certainty in the objective observation and measurement of the natural world; the project of the scientific revolution of the 16th century. A new field called psychophysics emerged to investigate how individual differences occur at the sensory level. In an attempt to understand the personal equation, researchers including Johannes Müller, Hermann von Helmholtz, Ernst Weber, and Gustav Fechner took up the task of examining how the sense organs function.
The culmination of the psychophysicists' work was presented in Gustav Fechner's 1860 text, Elements of Psychophysics. We find in Fechner's book, some 7 years before Wilhelm Wundt's first course on experimental psychology, much of what Wundt taught in that course. So great was Fechner's influence on Wundt (Wundt gave the eulogy at Fechner's funeral) that we find an almost seamless transition from Fechner's psychophysics to Wundt's experimental psychology.
|Franz Brentano (1838-1917)|
The physiologically oriented psychophysicists were not the only Germans investigating the sensory experience of the world. In 1874 a German-Italian named Franz Brentano published a book that challenged nearly every aspect of Wundt's experimental psychology. In Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Brentano argued that the experimental methods of the psychophysicists were of limited usefulness in the study of the human mind. He proposed that psychology should be based on qualitative observation, rather than on quantitative measurement. It is interesting to note that in his final work, the ten volume Völkerpsychologie of 1900-1920, Wundt himself described the limitations of a quantitative, experimental psychology.
Brentano's influence on psychology is significant. At the University of Vienna, where he was professor of philosophy for 20 years, he taught students including Christian von Ehrenfels, Edmund Husserl, Carl Stumpf, and Sigmund Freud. Freud was so taken by Brentano's lectures that he enrolled in five of Brentano's courses. Later Freud would regard Brentano as a "genius... a damned clever fellow".
If we trace the lineage of the Gestalt psychologists and the existential phenomenological (humanistic) psychologists we arrive at Brentano. Carl Stumpf, one of Brentano's best known students, was influential in the founding of Gestalt psychology. Stumpf's students included Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka (two of the main founders of the Gestalt movement), and Kurt Lewin, one of the founders of social psychology.
What made Brentano's psychology different from Wundt's can be seen in the qualities of its descendants. Social, Gestalt, existential-phenomenology, and psychoanalytic psychologies are all based on meaning arising from the interaction between and individual and their world; it is the study not of the quantitative functions of the senses, but of the qualitative contextual experience.
For Brentano experience was an activity, not a structured contents of sensory elements, as Wundt and the psychophysicists held. Act psychology, as Brentano called it was interested in describing the act of experiencing a phenomenon; rather than dissecting consciousness into associations of sensations.
This way of doing psychology is strikingly different from Wundt's tradition of objective measurement. Brentano's psychology is entirely descriptive and experienced from the first-person perspective, rather than the third-person, which is common to the the tradition of experimental psychology. This difference, the description from the first person, is not merely a grammatical variation--it is an act that calls into question the separation of the subject and the object; it eliminates the possibility of distinctly "subjective" and "objective" experience.
For Brentano, and the phenomenologists who followed, there is no distinction between subject and object, there is a dynamic interaction between a person and the world, from which experience emerges.
Phenomenology is descriptive psychology. For Brentano, as he discusses it in his text Descriptive Psychology, it is the description of experience from the first-person point of view. Edmund Husserl, who is often cited as the founder of the phenomenological method of research, built his theory upon Brentano's writings on descriptive psychology, as well as those of Brentano's student Carl Stumpf.
What made Brentano's theory of mind different from the experimental psychologists can be seen in three concepts which Brentano attributes to mental phenomena. He claims that experience is: internal, experienced as a whole, and always intentionally directed. These three concepts place the focus of psychology not on the objective world, but on the internal world of the individual. Like Freud's new science of psychoanalysis, the phenomenologists rejected the experimental approach of studying psychology. The focus of psychology should be on experience, not measurement.
In his 1874 text Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint Brentano describes intentionality:
"Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, a direction toward an object (which is not to be understood here a meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes somthing as object within itself..."(Pg. 88)
This passage illustrates the issue that positivist, experimental psychologists took with Brentano's descriptive psychology. To them, Brentano's psychology was vague, unscientific, and lacking in the rigour of the psychophysical tradition.
*An excellent introduction to the work of Franz Brentano can be found at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.