Brentano held that every mental phenomenon has content, has a mental object, is about a mental object, or words to that effect.

However, skillful Buddhist phenomenologists, over millenia, have found first-hand that there are mental states that have no object. These are variously described as objectless consciousness, the sphere of nothingness, the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, and cessation.

The more academically inclined Sartre, too, found that nothingness lies at the heart of being.

Furthermore, sites like erowid.org are replete with accounts of the use of psychedelics resulting in objectless states.

What are the implications for philosophy of mind and consciousness, phenomenology etc, if Brentano's dictum is rejected given the evidence against it.

  • you have misinterpreted as many people do, sunyata. A better way to express it in English is 'no-thing' or 'no thing'. It is not nothingness. The emptiness that sunyata refers to is not a vacuum. It means the absence of the sensual universe; the absence of the senses. Sartre is not comparable to sunyata. Existentialism is nothingness. See here for a detailed explanation - archive.org/details/IndianPhilosophyACriticalSurvey – Swami Vishwananda May 23 '18 at 13:06
  • Cognitive psychologists also cite "blank states" as evidence against universality of intentionality, and many analytic philosophers (e.g. Tughendat) insist that the structure of consciousness is propositional rather than intentional. You'll have to ask about something more specific than "what are the implications". – Conifold May 23 '18 at 21:41
  • In the sphere of nothingness there is still object - nothingness, and in sphere and sphere of neither perception nor non-perception is samjna and vedana are undefined, which is not whole perception, but these are late states after contact (sparsa), which is not undefined, thus there is object too. In cessation (nirodha) states nirodha itself could be self-percipient object, and on other nirodha states there is no vijnana (consciousness). Thus, Brentano is not contradicted by Buddhists. – catpnosis May 25 '18 at 9:33
  • 1
    You incorrectly understand Sartre if you think that his Nothingness is the voidness of the "content" or "object" of of consciousness. Moreover, phenomenology (which owes to Brentano) does not insist that there always be an articulated object for consciousness; there is, however, some kind of "aboutness" something. – ttnphns Jun 22 '18 at 16:15

Nice question.

I feel the problem is not that Brentano is wrong but that his idea is misapplied. His specification works just fine for 'intentional' consciousness and is useful, but most academics working in consciousness studies seem to take consciousness to be no more an no less than intentional consciousness and this is where they depart from those who study consciousness first-hand.

The implications for philosophy of mind and 'scientific' consciousness studies of assuming consciousness must always be intentional is the stagnation of the discipline. No progress on metaphysical problems is possible in the face of this assumption since there is then no way to reduce Mind and thus no way to reduce anything. A fundamental theory becomes impossible. Mind-Matter becomes an irreducible conundrum.

The implication of questioning this assumption would be the possibility that a study of Buddhist philosophy might be useful for an understanding of consciousness. Given that Buddhists study nothing else this would hardly be surprising. It seems, however, that for the prevailing zeitgeist some assumptions are more appealing than mysticism even where they cause trouble.

Intentional consciousness is an inherently dualistic phenomenon divided into subject and object. To overcome this dualism is easy enough but typically 'Western thought is dualistic and cannot take this step. It must deny the Unity of All and maintain distinctions that are not real. Buddhism must be rejected and the whole of mysticism with it and even Kant cannot be fully endorsed.

The heart of the problem may be that it is not easy to establish or understand the possibility of non-intentional consciousness and it requires some work, and this connects with the problem that mysticism is not understood within the mainstream of the philosophy profession. Philosophers like Nagarjuna, Bradley and Kant are almost entirely ignored in modern professional consciousness studies since they are 'mystical' and speak of what lies beyond intentional consciousness.

EDIT: Having read some of the comments I should note that there is a view that what lies beyond intentional consciousness cannot be called consciousness. This complicates the discussion but I think my comments here still stand up given this proviso


Brentano's thesis

Brentano's Thesis. In an oft-quoted paragraph of Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874, hereafter PES), offered as a positive criterion for identifying mental states: 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, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. (PES 88) (Dermot Moran, 'The Inaugural Address: Brentano's Thesis', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 70 (1996), pp. 1-27 : 4.)

Very roughly, the idea is that if I am in a state of fear there must be something, existent or supposedly/ imaginedly existent, of which I am afraid : I fear the snarling dog, a bad result in tomorrow's interview, a ghost. My fear must be 'about' something. Equally if I am angry I must be angry 'about' something : the way you have treated me or a slight (even a purely imagined slight). If I am contemplating, my contemplation must be 'about' something.

Mental states have directedness towards an object, as explained, and relation to a content. Brentano's ideas about content are not entirely clear but I think the essential point is that if I fear the snarling dog, the dog or the dog as believed by me to exist, is the object of my fear but that object must be regarded or conceived under a description (I must represent it to myself as potentially dangerous and harmful to me).

This works for a range of examples and is a corrective to the Humean view that emotions are just 'feelings'.

How far does the thesis hold ?

☛ No object

If intentionality involves every mental state being 'about' an object 'under a description', not all mental states easily fit this model. If I am depressed, there need be no object of my depression (real or imagined). I am not depressed 'about' something or need not be; I may just have a pessimistic predisposition to anything that comes to my attention. The state itself has no object.

Again if I enjoy an orgasm, I enjoy a total state of pleasure. The state is caused by the orgasm but is not 'about' the orgasm, nor do I represent the orgasm to myself under a description (a cognitive distraction which would detractive) : I simply enjoy it.

☛ No content

There are in my experience mental states of blankness. When I was recovering from heart surgery I occasionally realised that in the last minute or so I had not been thinking of anything. Sceptically one might say : 'You merely could not remember thinking of anything in the interval'. That's certainly a possibility but my firm impression is that, briefly, I had been conscious but without any presentation, judgement, love, hate or desire (Brentano's examples) going on.


Brentano. F. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, ed. Oskar Kraus, English ed. Linda L. McAlister, trans. A.C. Rancurello, D.B. Terrell and L.L. McAlister (London: Routledge, 1973; 2nd English Edition with introduction by Peter Simmons, 1995).

Dermot Moran, 'The Inaugural Address: Brentano's Thesis', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 70 (1996), pp. 1-27.

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