Issue #39 April 2021

Emotional Phenomenology: Franz Brentano and Feeling Theory

Edouard Vuillard, Intérieur à la couseuse, (1900)

Brentano opens his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint by considering the potential differences between physical and mental phenomena. What are the essential distinctions, he asks, between the sensation of cold and the thought “I am cold”? While it may be tempting to ascribe the former to an experience of the body and the latter to that of the mind, this simply begs the question of just how it is that I distinguish between ‘mindful’ and ‘bodily’ experiences. One may suggest that mindful experiences take place inside my head (more precisely, just behind my eyes), but then what of a headache? Would a headache that occurs in the precise ‘location’ of my mind be a mental phenomenon? Surely not. Clearly, the distinction between mind and body is not meant to be a geographic border, but rather one of type and quality. A pain in my leg is far more similar to the feeling of the wind in my hair, than either of those are to the worries in my mind.

Alternatively, one may suggest that an experience is mental if it is a conscious experience. For example, imagine yourself at the moment you wake up in the morning. What changed? You didn’t simply open your physical eyes; in a manner of speaking, you’ve opened your mental eyes as well. You’ve become mentally conscious of everything that had, up until that moment, merely been a physical (unconscious) phenomenon. Simply label everything that you are now aware of as a mental phenomenon and there you have it! Put differently, mental phenomena only exist consciously, while physical phenomenon exist regardless of your conscious state. But, of course, this distinction fails just as soon as you recall the types of things that we’ve labeled as physical phenomena: experiences such as the feel of the cold air on your skin and the pain in your back; experiences which you became aware of (or conscious of) just moments after you become awake. While we work to distinguish between mental and physical phenomena, then it is important to remember that we are trying to differentiate between different kinds of experiences; experiences that are by definition native to consciousness. In other words, human consciousness supports both mental and physical phenomena, and therefore cannot be said to be a distinguishing characteristic between the two.

And so, we return to the beginning and ask once again: What is the difference between physical and mental phenomena?

In his response to this problem, Brentano articulates what would become the central tenet of Phenomenology: Every mental phenomenon is an attitude toward another phenomenon, while every physical phenomenon is simply about itself (if it can be said to be about anything at all). This trademark characteristic of mental phenomena is known as intentionality. Or as Brentano puts it, “mental phenomena […] are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves” (Brentano 2015, 93).

Returning to our example above, I can feel cold directly, but I can only think about my being cold. Conversely, it would be just as nonsensical to think cold as it would be to feel about the cold.

But even with this most basic categorization, there are still numerous distinctions that can be made within each category. For example, physical phenomena may be further broken down into, say, feelings (e.g. pain) and perceptions (e.g. the color red), while our mental experience can be divided into judgements (1 is less than 2) and presentations (the concept of an apple). For now, though, let’s put aside the question of whether this is a comprehensive schema and join Brentano in using intentionality as our point of departure.


The Question of Emotions

Assuming that the word ‘emotions’ does in fact refer to a somewhat-stable collection of experiences, and is not a completely meaningless term, it seems that we are left with four available options:

  1.     Emotions are a kind of mental phenomenon.
  2.     Emotions are a kind of physical phenomenon.
  3.     Emotions are a composite of both mental and physical phenomena.
  4.     Emotions are neither mental nor physical phenomena, nor a composite of the two. Rather, emotional phenomena are a basic phenomenological category.

I will consider each in turn. But first, a note on methodology.


The Separability Test

How might we evaluate these claims? Or, more broadly, how do we begin to analyze emotions at all? As a first pass, we might ask ourselves ‘How do I even know when I’m experiencing an emotion?’ For example, I can feel physical phenomena, and think mental phenomena. I know it’s hot because I feel heat, while I know that my name is Daniel because I remember it being so. In this case, why not simply ask ourselves whether emotions are accessed via a feeling or a thought?

This epistemic approach, however, fails just as soon as it starts out. The problem with emotions is precisely that they seem to contain both cognitive and sensory elements. In other words, when I feel an emotion, both mental and physical data arise within my field of experience. In asking which of these data sets points to the emotion itself, I am once again simply begging the question.

In considering the makeup and composition of human experiences, I’ve found it to be more fruitful to use what Brentano calls Separability (Brentano 1995b, 15). As a simple example, consider a red apple. Now, ask yourself whether apples are, by definition, red. Even if you had never seen a green apple, you could still rightfully respond that no, an apple is not inherently red, for even if I remove the red color from the apple, the apple itself remains. Therefore, any definition of ‘apple’ which retains a reference to its color, must be incorrect. On the other hand, if I ask you to remove the fruit from the apple, well then, you wouldn’t have much of an apple at all. This is similar to Aristotle’s notion of Substance vs Attribute, or the Kantian analytic-synthetic distinction. Similarly, with human experiences, in order for some element e to be constitutive of some phenomenon p, it must be the case that removing (or separating) e from p would render p untenable.


Option 1: Emotions are a kind of mental phenomenon

Turning to the first categorization1placeholder, then, let’s try running the Separability Test. If you remove the physical content from your experience of, say, anxiety, would you still say that you are experiencing anxiety? Probably not. While you may be having some anxious thoughts (such as, ‘getting a degree in philosophy is going to be so hard’ or ‘yeah, but everything else is even harder’), without the felt experience of anxiety, you wouldn’t seem to be all that anxious after all.

Now, let’s try it in reverse. If you remove the anxious thoughts, while retaining the feeling (a tight chest, sweaty hands, pounding heart, abrupt breathing), it would seem that you are in fact experiencing the emotion we call anxiety. In fact, many people experience chronic anxiety even in the complete absence of anxious thoughts. And, while it may be that the anxious thoughts are always lurking around semi- or subconsciously, that does nothing to negate the fact that what we talk about when we talk about anxiety is the feeling anxious, not the thinking anxious. Recall that the Separability Test does not require that we indeed separate the various elements (after all, an apple must be some color), but just that we could separate them without violating the core concept in the process.


Option 2: Emotions are a composite of both mental and physical phenomena

The previous section, it seems, did us the double favor of not only disqualifying the possibility that emotions are only a mental phenomenon, but also demonstrated that mental phenomena are not a constitutive element of emotions at all. After all, if I can separate the cognitive content of my emotion from the emotion itself, it seems clear that whatever cognitive content that does in fact accompany my emotion, can never be a constitutive factor. 2placeholder

We can then safely reject Option 2 as well, leaving us with just two last possibilities. If emotions are entirely non-mental, then they are either (a) entirely physical or (b) neither mental nor physical, but just, well, emotional. As we will see, neither of these options comes risk-free, but I will make the case that a well-qualified version of physical reductionism does away with any need to create an entirely new phenomenological category, while simultaneously providing added insight into the functionality of emotional phenomenology.

Edouard Vuillard, Self Portrait, (1910)

Option 3: Emotions are a kind of physical phenomena

Once we’ve extracted mental phenomena from emotions, we naturally arrive at the view that emotions are composed entirely of feelings. And yet, it seems that we immediately run into the following problems:

  1.     If emotions are just feelings under a new name, why do they seem so different than some other feelings such as heat, pleasure, and motion?
  2.     Furthermore, what are we to do with the fact that, as opposed to simple sensations, cognitive content does seem to follow our emotions everywhere they go?3placeholder

But wait. Could it be that both questions actually answer each other? Emotions seem different than sensations just because emotions always include some cognitive element, while sensations never include a cognitive element. If so, would this entail a problematic regression to the previously rejected position that ‘emotions = feelings + cognitions’? As Dewalque (2017) puts it:

“What makes us experience this emotion rather than that, and what makes us experience an emotion at all, heavily depends on how we conceptually frame the situation. Therefore, it seems a satisfying analysis of emotional phenomenology should take into account a distinctively cognitive ingredient.”

My response, however, is that while it is correct to say that “a satisfying analysis of emotional phenomenology” should include some cognitive element, it is false to characterize this cognitive element as an “ingredient.” More precisely, rather than regressing to a position which considers cognition to be a constitutive “ingredient,” I will argue that the cognitive element holds a special causal relationship with emotions. But just what might this mean?

As a first pass, we could say that for any emotion e, e is reducible to some feeling f where f is the cause of some cognitive content c. This definition does a nice job of explaining both why our emotions always seem to be accompanied by cognitive content, as well as how it is that we learn to differentiate between emotions and sensations. Furthermore, this conception does away with a series of problems I’d like to call Emotional Magic (EM).

It is a well-documented psychological fact that exercise often produces positive emotions. In the case of a runner who has just completed a (routine) 5K, the runner experiences a feeling of happiness which does not seem to be predicated upon any prior ‘happy thoughts.’ The emotion, rather, seems to have arisen, in a sense, ex nihilo. Other examples of EM include: waking up on the wrong side of the bed or even ingesting an antidepressant. In each of these cases, the subject experiences an emotion which arises (and subsides) completely independently of any cognitive content. EM is possible because emotions do not depend upon cognitive content, but rather vice versa.

Unfortunately, however, by defining emotions in this way we run into another, perhaps larger, problem. To repeat, I am proposing that (1) emotions are reducible to feelings and (2) emotions are different than sensations just insofar as emotions are those feelings which cause some cognitive content.

However, defining emotions in this way ignores one of the most obvious characteristics of emotions! More often than not, they are caused by thoughts, rather than the other way around. Take the following example: Imagine you win a new Honda Civic in some sort of online marketing campaign. What emotion do you feel? Well, if you’re like me, you’d be very happy to receive a car for free. But what if you’re a billionaire? Wouldn’t you instead feel slightly annoyed, thinking of how you must now dispose of the vehicle? Or how about an Amish family? They would meet such a useless gift with indifference. The cause of our various emotions, then, cannot be found in the physical stimulus itself (seeing, feeling, driving, smelling that new car smell), but rather in the particular cognitive associations we each have with this car. Of course, this is far from the only example; on the contrary, most of our emotions seem to be caused by some set of cognitive judgements, desires, and intentions. This feature of our emotions is so prevalent that an entire discipline, Cognitive Therapy, has arisen around this insight.

But if our emotions seem to be so easily manipulated by our thoughts, it would be strange to have an account of emotions which completely ignores this critical element in favor of resolving the relatively minor issue of EM. It would seem far more satisfying to tweak our definition as follows: for any emotion e, e is reducible to some feeling f where f is caused by some cognitive content c.

By reformulating it in this way, we capture the common-sense conception of emotions (as dependent on some non-constitutive cognitive content), while still preserving the difference between sensations and emotions.

But in revising the formulation in this way, and making emotions dependent on some prior cognition, we must once again return to the problem of Emotional Magic. It’s tempting to say that even in EM cases there may still be some prior cognitive content, perhaps in the form of unconscious judgements. However, I think there may be a cleaner, less controversial, and hopefully more compelling solution to be found in one final reformulation:

For any emotion e, e is reducible to some feeling f where f holds a causal relationship with some cognitive content c.

The secret ingredient of emotions is not to be found in either their causes or effects taken in isolation, but rather in the bi-causal relationship emotions hold with our thoughts. Unlike emotions, ‘simple’ sensations are only very indirectly related to our thoughts. The room I am sitting in right now is very warm, but does this have any noticeable effect on the thoughts, beliefs, and judgements that are presently running through my head? Not really. Countless sensations continuously run through my body without my paying the slightest attention to them. Of course, my train of thought may change in response to the warm environment (I may begin to consider taking off my jacket, for example), but, even so, the thoughts themselves in no way become ‘warm’.

Conversely, do the thoughts, beliefs, and judgements that I am currently experiencing have much of an effect on my body temperature? Again, no. But consider the give-and-take between our emotions and our cognitions, and it will become immediately clear just why so many have insisted that emotions themselves are a form of thought. One of the reasons why emotions are so hard to fit into a phenomenological hierarchy is precisely because of this insight: emotions are what you get when you place a physical phenomenon in cyclical dialogue with mental experiences.

But we’re not done yet. One other option still remains on the table. It has recently been argued, by Dewalque (2017) and others, that attempts to construct a physical reduction of emotions are completely unnecessary simply because emotional phenomena inhabit their own basic phenomenological category, irreducible to either mental or physical experiences (or any combination thereof). In the following section we’ll consider the evidence for and implications of such an assertion, and why I believe that a non-reductivist route inevitably leads to a dead end.


Option 4: Emotions are neither pure mental nor physical phenomena

The non-reductive approach to emotional phenomenology posits that we ought to create a new phenomenological category called Emotional Phenomena which sits entirely alongside both Physical and Mental Phenomena.

My response is two-fold. Firstly, as long as emotions can be accommodated within the existing (more concise) schema, I see no reason to create a third category. The main argument for creating a new category, after all, is because non-reductivists believe that emotion simply cannot be accommodated within either feelings or cognitions, at least not satisfyingly so. However, having offered what I believe to be a compelling reductivist option, I must rule in its favor.

But more importantly, when considering non-reductive views, I find myself returning to the epistemic thought experiment considered above: that is, how exactly are we made aware of our emotions?

Consider the following: At this moment, I am sitting at my desk. I notice that I am experiencing the emotion of relief (as I wrap up the present essay). If I close my eyes and mentally ‘poke’ at the various elements of this experience, I encounter cognitions (my thoughts seem less rapid, I have mental presentations of sending the essay off in an email later today) and I encounter feelings (my heart rate slows, my forehead relaxes, my shoulders relax, a rush of warm pleasure flows through my body). Try as I might, I nowhere encounter anything that is neither a mental nor a physical phenomenon. Not only do I not encounter some third, emotional thing, I can’t even imagine what such a non-mental/non-physical thing could even be like.

And so, if the only things I know about my emotions are what they feel like and what they ‘think like’, well then, why should I think that they’re anything other than just that? In other words, my challenge to non-reductivists is the following: show me the third variable. If it is there, then I will accept it. If not, then I find that I can only work with what I can ‘see’, that is, feelings, cognitions, and their infinite permutations.

Daniel Rhodes holds an MA in Philosophy from the Université du Luxembourg and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. He currently lives in NYC, where he works in cybersecurity, runs a blog, and continues to consider his options.

Works Cited

Brentano, Franz, and Tim Crane. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. Routledge, 2015.

⎯ . Descriptive Psychology. Translated by Benito Müller. London: Routledge, 1995b.

Dewalque, Arnaud. “Emotional Phenomenology: Toward a Nonreductive Analysis.” Midwest      Studies In Philosophy, vol. 41, no. 1, 2017, pp. 27–40., doi:10.1111/misp.12067.


This is indeed Brentano’s own position. For a reconstruction and analysis of his arguments, see Dewalque, 2017.


Again, the present analysis assumes that the experience which we refer to as an emotion, does in fact exist. However, I will leave the option open that emotions as commonly understood do not actually exist, and our mistaken conception of emotions is merely predicated upon a misunderstanding of another, actual experience, which itself may contain constitutive mental elements.


For our purposes, sensations will refer to any non-emotional feeling, such as heat, pleasure, sharp, and so on, while emotions will continue to refer to, well, emotions.


April 2021


Gabriel Marcel’s 'Being and Having': An Interpretation of Embodiment and Being

by Jacob Saliba

Emotional Phenomenology: Franz Brentano and Feeling Theory

by Daniel Rhodes

Inverting Philosophy: A Commentary on Henri Bergson’s ‘An Introduction to Metaphysics’

by Rowan Anderson

Pre-Individual Intensities: Revisiting Hume's Identity Problem

by John C. Brady