Brentano on Aristotle


First of all I had to apprentice myself to a master. But since I was born when philosophy had fallen into most lamentable decay, I could find none better than old Aristotle. To understand him, which is not always easy, I enlisted the help of Thomas Aquinas. (ANR, p.291)

This is Brentano’s recollection of his first steps in philosophy, writ­ten toward the end of his life. Earlier he had entered a passionate poem in a student’s autograph album, portraying himself as brother of Aristotle’s famous students, and as his offspring:

I can even today claim to be of his issue.

Welcome Eudemus you pious, welcome O brother, and you Godlike in speech Theophrast, sweet as the Lesbian wine. Since I was given him late, youngest of all his descendants Loves my father me most, more tenderly than all the others. (AWV, p. xii)

The derisive remark about the lamentable decay of philosophy was not aimed merely at philosophers active when he was a student, but at the German Idealist tradition from Kant to Hegel.

Brentano maintained that western philosophy had run through similar four-stage cycles three times. Each time a single period of advance was followed by three stages of decline. The positive phase is characterized by “natural method” and purely theoretical interest. In antiquity it ended with Aristotle. Then practical motives came to the fore in Epicureanism and Stoicism. Philosophy became unscien­tific, its methods no longer trustworthy, which led to skepticism. But the longing for knowledge could not be stifled and became an rrational urge. Plotinus and other neo-Platonists invented extravagant and fantastical systems and not only claimed higher inspiration but were even accorded divine status in their schools.

Four analogous phases occurred in the Middle Ages, beginning with Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas and ending yet again in mysticism In the modern period the upward movement began with Descartes and Bacon and continued in Leibniz and Locke. The decline set in with George Berkeley, Voltaire, Rousseau, and other ‘popular philosophers”, to be followed by Hume’s skepticism. The low point was reached with Kant, who maintained that objects in the world obey the blind prejudices inherent and innate in our minds. The work of his successors, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, “lacks any all value from a scientific point of view” (ZF, p. 125).

   In contrast to these philosophers Brentano thought that philos­ophy must, and in its high periods did, mirror the method of the natural sciences. He meant by this that all branches of philosophy, including metaphysics, logic, aesthetics, and ethics, have their foun­dation in scientific “inner perception,” which is necessary and suffi­cient for all philosophical knowledge (cf. PES bk. I, ch. 1). In his late years (sic!!) he thought that he had himself set in motion a fourth cycle of philosophies and ushered in a new beginning by reconnecting with Aristotle He saw himself to be struggling with some of the same problems that challenged his great predecessor, as well as the other philosophers of the high periods. Theorizing alongside Aristotle, he is inclined to attribute many of the same views to him that he himself finds persuasive. His admiration is tempered with criticism, but he is always happy to find an Aristotelian precedent for a theory he wishes to maintain. In his interpretation he laid great stress upon coherence and plausibility as guides (AWV, pp. 9ff.) and was often prepared to reconstruct the meaning of fragmentary and abbreviated work by reconciling apparent conflicts, amending the text with conclusions that Aristotle himself did not explicitly draw. This, he thought, was as solid a procedure as Cuvier’s famous reconstructions of prehistoric animals from a few fossils (UA, p.36).

Rolf Georg and Glen Kohen

From The Companion to Brentano, ed. by Dale Jacquette,  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004, p.p. 20-21