Austrian Philosophy,
the Legacy of Franz Brentano

by Barry Smith, Open Court, 1994

Barry Smith is a Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and the Editor of The Monist. The SUNY Buffalo Philosophy Department was the home ground of Paul Kurtz (1925-2012), founder and chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the Council for Secular Humanism, and Prometheus Books. Smith's thought and the editorial viewpoint of The Monist, long edited by John Hospers (1918-2011), Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of South California and first Presidential Nominee of the Libertarian Party, both appear to fit into Kurtz's vision of "seculiar humanism." This orientation overlaps the concerns of The Proceedings of the Friesian School but differs mainly in its hostility to religion [note].

Smith's book on Austrian Philosophy appears to have three ultimate purposes: (1) the identification of a distinctive Austrian school and tendency in 20th Century philosophy, which avoided many of the mistakes of the mainstream German tradition, made some major contributions to recent philosophy, but also needs some corrections; (2) a rediscovery and rehabilitation of Franz Brentano, especially Brentano's Aristotelianism, not just as a major and sometimes overlooked influence in 20th Century philosophy, but as an influence whose principles could usefully be taken more seriously now as a corrective to mistakes in subsequent philosophy; and (3) as a bridge to the Austrian school of economics, especially Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, who were among the few economists in the 20th Century to realize that the capitalism of the Classical economists, Adam Smith, Say, Mill, etc., was superior to all the alternatives proposed or employed since, whether varieties of Marxism, socialism, or Keynesian capitalism.

The project of The Proceedings of the Friesian School is to promote Kantianism and the Friesians. Since Karl Popper and Hayek are seen as at least partially Friesian, there is already some overlap there between Friesian and Austrian philosophy; but, in terms of Smith's Introduction, the Friesians actually seem to represent something more like a bridge between Austrian and German philosophy.

For instance, Smith says (p. 4), " is especially significant that the contribution of philosophically-minded mathematicians such as Frege and Hilbert were taken up not by German philosophers but by philosophers in England or Poland." However, Hilbert had his own philosopher protégé right at Göttingen: Leonard Nelson, whose Abhandlungen der Fries'schen Schule was the venue for several important papers in logic and the philosophy of mathematics (Nelson, last name only, occurs in Smith's footnote on page 9--though he does rate an "L." in the index). That Nelson's students sometimes ended up outside Germany (Kraft, Bernays) was due to their fleeing the Nazis--just as Popper, Hayek, and von Mises ended up outside Austria. As an graduate student, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Irving Copi had actually heard of Nelson, because of his familiarity with some of the papers in the Abhandlungen.

Then Smith says (p. 4), "...Neo-Kantians such as Rickert or Cohen, who attempted to develop a scientifically oriented philosophy in the spirit of Kant, never achieved in their writings the sort of clarity of language and precision of argument which we associate with Bolzano or Berntano." This also overlooks Nelson, whose clarity and discursiveness are exemplary, and who often illustrated his arguments with the aid of axiomatic trees--no doubt reflecting, at least, the sympathy and influence he shared with Hilbert.

Finally, Smith mentions (p. 5) in relation to "Brentanian philosophers" how "their work in ontology proceeded always in tandem with work on the cognitive processes in which the corresponding objects are experienced, and it is in thus spanning the gulf between ontology and psychology....that the members of the Brentano school can be seen to have anticipated certain crucial aspects of contemporary cognitive science." This issue of the relationship of psychology to metaphysics, however, goes back to Jakob Fries himself--whose method is described by Nelson in "The Critical Method and the Relation of Psychology to Philosophy" (originally published in the very first issue of the Abhandlungen). Consequently, Fries was attacked by the Neo-Kantians (and even Popper) for "psychologism." But this was to misunderstand his theory. The greater Austrian than German concern with empirical science that Smith emphasizes (p. 2) also finds a counterexample in Fries, who actually taught physics for many years, much of it while he was politically forbidden from teaching philosophy.

With these similarities between Friesian and Austrian concerns, it is perhaps not surprising that Popper in particular, who rejected both Vienna Circle Positivism and Wittgenstein's linguistic reductionism (both early scientism and late behaviorism), should have discovered much in common with his cousin, and Nelson's defender, Julius Kraft, and that they should have pursued common objectives in the founding of Ratio in 1957. Ratio constituted a Friesian-Austrian crossroad, formulated in the mutual sanctuary of England.

But it turns out that the real key for Smith to Franz Brentano, who was at one time a Catholic priest, is Aristotle. There will be more to say about this than I can get to right now, but there are some unfortunate consequences to this that are already evident in Smith's first chapter.

  1. Brentano's principle (p. 30), purely Aristotelian, that "the tasks of the philosopher and of the empirical scientist cannot and should not be pursued in serparation" (or "The true method of philosophy is none other than that of the natural sciences," p. 31), is not only false but of catastrophic consequences historically. The sterile scientism of the Positivists and the early Wittgenstein, once it breaks down, leads directly to the nihilism, irrationalism, and anti-scientism that we see in much of philosophy, and literary culture, now. Perhaps Smith thinks that the unity of knowledge can be maintained through a stricter or truer Aristotelianism, but the more fruitful endeavor at this point is to follow Kant and to differentiate, rather than unify, philosophy and science--not to mention philosophy, science, and religion.

  2. One consideration that is prohibitive of unification arises from another of Brentano's principles: "that description is prior to explanation, in the sense that an explanation of given phenomena is of value only to the extent that we 'know what we are talking about'" (p. 30). However, it may justly be said about science, as it was by both Popper and Hayek, that we never know what we are talking about. I think that this characteristic arises from the circumstance that a predictive theory need only be sufficient to its predictions, and from the abstractness of mathematics, where a mathematical theory need only be minimally interpreted in order to determine a prediction. Thus, for Newtonian mechanics, it did not much matter what space, matter, and gravity actually were metaphysically. It still doesn't make much of a difference for Relativity and quantum mechanics, although now the theories involve such conspicuous paradoxes that hardly anyone pretends to know what is going on. Thus Feynman's classic statement in QED, "Those of you who have heard the other two lectures will also find this lecture incomprehensible, but you know that that's all right: as I explained in the first lecture, the way we have to describe Nature is generally incomprehensible to us" (p. 77). Quantum Mechanics is a decisive counterexample to Brentano's principle, as it has survived all attempts by the more sensible (e.g. Einstein, John Bell) to either refute it or provide a more intelligible interpretation.

If it is characteristic of science to offer explanations without understanding, we should have examples prior to quantum mechanics. And we do. In Newtonian mechanics itself. The philosophical objections to Newton at the time, about action-at-a-distance and infinitesimals, especially, are revealing of philosophical problems that, as it happened, could be papered over. And why could they be papered over? Because otherwise the theory worked, and people stopped worrying about it. When the theory stopped working so well, then we got new theories, Relativity and quantum mechanics, neither of which, ironically, is a theory of action-at-a-distance. How curious.

On the other hand, one hopes through a philosophical theory precisely to understand what is going on--while such understanding may have no predictive value at all. Philosophers, at least, will hope that understanding and prediction can meet in the middle, but this is a goal, even a hope, not a method or criterion. And it does leave us with a profound methodological difference between philosophy and science--or at least predictive and mathematical sciences.

Perhaps Smith does not completely agree with Brentano on these two points; but to the extent that Aristotelian epistemology and metaphysics appeals to him, I suspect that he does agree with him--which would be one of the serious problems I would have with the whole project of Austrian Philosophy.


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Austrian Philosophy, by Barry Smith, Note

Looking through an Open Court publisher's catalogue (with no Web address yet), I discover that both Open Court (the publisher of Austrian Philosophy) and The Monist were founded by the same man, Paul Carus (1852-1919), a philosophy professor who fled Bismark's Germany for the United States, "because of his liberal views."

Carus's concerns, although evidently perpetuated by Open Court, now appear somewhat different from the "secular humanism" and the libertarianism, or vague leftism, of the present The Monist, Prometheus Books, and the other manifestations of the SUNY Buffalo school. Carus is said to have been "a pioneer in the promotion of interfaith dialogue, the exploration of the relationship of science and religion, and the introduction of new ideas [i.e. Eastern philosophy] to the West." Carus met D.T. Suzuki at the 1893 "Parliament of World Religions," and worked to publicize Buddhism, Taoism, etc. in the West. Open Court continues this project, but we do not find such things at Prometheus Books.

The mix of titles at Open Court, from Schopenhauer to Popper to Jung, with some interest in religion and science, in fact suggests more of a Friesian sensibility than what we see in the direction taken by The Monist and Paul Kurtz's projects. Although Open Court does not appear to have a free market component, it does have some books on Ayn Rand and actually publishes Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, a recent libertarian favorite. It also has a rare title on Benjamin Franklin, whose views provide cold comfort for recent welfare statism. All in all, therefore, one wishes that the Buffalo crowd had hewn a bit more closely to the vision of Paul Carus.

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