Three Strands of Austrian Thought
The Even More Austrian Program
People know that there is an Austrian school of social and economic thought that runs from Carl Menger through Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, Kirzner, Lachmann and others.

Another strand of Austrian thought runs through the philosophy of science to yield the critical rationalism and the theory of conjectural knowledge that we associate with Popper. Extra bits of the Popper package are a set of metaphysical ideas (indeterminism, non-reductionism and realism) and the theory of metaphysical research programs which is a bit like a shopping  trolley to carry them to the checkout. An overview on the second strand.

The third strand is not so well known as an Austrian heritage although in some of its forms it has exerted a great deal of influence, not all of it helpful. The key figures include Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Hesserl and Martin Heidegger - the latter being widely regarded as the most influential (or posibly the most profound) philosopher of the 20th century, matched only by Wittgenstein (a fourth strand of Austrian thought if you like). Actually Husserl and Heidegger were not Austrians but some of their central ideas can be traced to Brentano and Meinong.

Brentano on intentionality and the contents of thought

Brentano’s key ideas were the intentionality of  mental processes and the objects of thought. You can see how the idea of intentions came through in Austrian economics as purposeful thought, planning and action. In addition, thinking is about something and Brentano joined a tendency shared by some others like Bolzano and Frege to look at the contents of thought as things with more than fleeting existence, things that could be communicated to other people, something like objective or real contents of subjective thought processes.

Brentano (1838-1917)  taught at the University of Vienna from 1874 to 1895. Among his students were Edmund Husserl, Alexius Meinong, Rudolf Steiner, Sigmund Freud and Anton Marty (who with his student Karl Bühler developed a detailed theory of language). Popper was a student of Buhler and so can be seen as a great grandchild of Brentano.

Meinong on imaginary objects

Meinong  (1853-1920) sat in on some of Carl Menger’s lectures. He started in psychology but moved in a different direction when he picked up Brentano’s line of work on the contents of thought. He worked on the distinction between three aspects of a psychological phenomenon (1) the mental act, (2) its content and (3) its object. He wanted to establish a new philosophical discipline concerned with the theory of objects, a discipline which would not be reducible to the existing natural sciences but is empirical rather than metaphysical. John Passmore in his History of Western Philosophy suggested that the 20th century vogue of creating new philosophical schools of thought (theory of objects, phenomenology, semantics, analysis, logical syntax) was a move to keep some territory for philosophy from the grasping hands of the rising social and human scientists.

Meinong and other second and third generation students of Brentano such as G F Stout, Bertrand Russell, Roderick Chisholm, George Moore, Gilbert Ryle and John Searle carried Brentano’s influence to analytic philosophy. Russell was especially influenced by Meinong and for a time in the early 1900s he talked quite happily about a realm of objective contents of thought which he called “universals” rather than “ideas” to minimise the connotation of subjectivism.

Edmund Husserl and the quest for certainty in “essences”

Husserl (1859-1938) also followed Brentano in psychology and his first book was an attempt to derive arithmetic from psychological principles. Later he turned in the same direction as Meinong to reject psychologism in search of a foundation for logic that would be free from the risk of the errors that infect empirical and psychological studies. [Bookmark this as the intrusion of the quest for certainty or “certain justification” along the lines of the Platonic and Aristotelian quest for essences which in turn led to the error of essentialism].

This all gets rather complicated and people who are interested can get into Wik or some other site for more information.

In  brief, Brentano wanted  his study to be empirical (like science as we know it), but Husserl went in search of essences, the ideal, essential structures of consciousness. This launched phenomenology with the ultimate objective of getting to the ultimate ground of something, perhaps the Absolute, which is a foundation for knowlege that is beyond all criticism. The significance of this for the human sciences is the doctrine that mental and spiritual reality possess their own reality independent of any physical basis, and that a science of the spirit (’Geisteswissenschaft’) must be established on a foundation that is certain and secure, like the natural sciences (but not the same foundation!). [Does this include the principles of praxeology?]

“It is my conviction that intentional phenomenology has for the first time made spirit as spirit the field of systematic scientific experience, thus effecting a total transformation of the task of knowledge.” (Husserl)

Martin Heidegger, from essences to Being in the world

Heidegger (1889-1976) reaped the whirlwind of phenomenology that was sown by Husserl. Randall Collins has an interesting account of the way this happened in his book The Sociology of Philosophies. This is a historical and ecological account of the major schools and influences in philosophy from Ancient China, India, Japan and the West. The historical account indicates the sweep of ideas over time, the ecological part traces the particular groupings, masters, apprentices, and crucial local influences that determine which ideas find carriers and which are overlooked, and who out of a generation of students ends up becoming a Master while others just make up the numbers and are forgotten.

Heidegger had a Catholic peasant background and he was educated on Church scholarships to the point of starting in a Jesuit seminary as a novice. In 1909 he left the seminary and entered the Catholic theological faculty at Frieburg university where he enlisted on the conservaive side of the conflict with the reformist movement in Germany. The reformists including none other than Brentano who left the priesthood in protest at the conservative reaction against science and secular culture. Heidegger’s neo-Kantian teachers introduced him to the crisis in the foundation of mathematics and he started a thesis on the logical essence of number until his career plan to acquire a chair in Catholic theology prompted him to change track to study the 14th century scholastics.

In 1916 he had a “bad luck, good luck” experience when he was passed over for a Catholic chair and he met Husserl, who took him on as an assistant when Heidegger transferred from the Catholics to sign up with the new Protestant team which was starting to show some form with the likes of Bultman (who became a close friend), Paul Tillich (Christian-socialist), and Karl Bath (who launched the neo-orthodox reaction of 1919 against the liberal tendencies in Protestant theology. This was the central topic in Bill Bartley’s book Retreat to Commitment which launched his development of critical rationalism).

Nobody has time to read the full account of Heidegger's progress and I don’t have time to describe it (this was originally a blog post), but as Collins tells the tale Heidegger’s 1927 book Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) made his reputation by synthesising in abstract and general form the key ideas from several networks of thought that were active at the time and so he was catapulted into the leadership (the striker if you liked) in the team that dominated much of the philosophical and theological world at least up to his death in 1976. It is essentially about “being in the world” which is something that ordinary dull people like scientists and secular humanists tend to take for granted but it assumes massive and problematic proportions for certain kinds of intellectuals. Being and Time was supposed to be the first part of a project that was to be completed by a second book that never got written. So Heidegger’s project was a failure, an arch with one pillar. He was a striker who only kicked one goal, but since nobody else in the team kicked any, that was enough.

Sartre was supposed to pick up the  thread with his book Being and Nothingness but insiders say it never really did the job.

How the third Austrian strand played out

Actually the third strand unravelled into different threads. Philosophers in the Austrian school of economic thought have different theories about the impact of Brentano, whether it was his Aristotelianism that was important, or his emphasis on intentionality.

The idea of objective contents of thought turned up as a part of the second strand in the 1960s when Popper started to write about biology and objective knowledge. This article describes the way that Popper modified Buhler's theory of language and how the theory of objective knowledge supports the views of Wellek on the nature of literary texts. This piece describes a number of applications of the theory of objective knowledge from philosophy to lit studies, sociology and sociololgy. This is Popper's lecture on the three worlds in the Tanner Series of lectures on morals.

The transcendental hermeneutic thread running through Husserl and Heidegger informed a lot of theological debate and also leaked in strange ways into postmodernism (although it is a form of foundationalism).  It also fed into the Frankfurt School where it sustains the anti-science and anti-positivist stance that enabled Habermas and others to dismiss Popper as a positivist. It has also been suggested that it fed into the praxeology of Mises where it provides the philosophical justification for certain kinds of truths about the world that do not need to be (and perhaps cannot be) verified by empirical means. That is an intriguing idea that calls for further investigation.


See A hundred Years of Philosophy For John Passmore’s account of the ‘movement towards objectivity’ up to the point where Heidegger took up the running from Husserl. Passmore wrote about Heidegger in his chapter on Phenomenonology.

For Buhler’s career and his pivotal role in 20th century linguistic theory.

Unfortunately his scientific approach which located psychology in between biology and the social sciences was bypassed by the semiotics movement that ran through Saussure and others to contribute to the confusion of postmodernism.

For an introduction to the Buhler/Popper theory of language in the context of biological evolution. With some talk about Russell and Meinong. Also a mention of Durkheim’s attempt to formulate an epistemology in between classical rationalism and empiricism, and a reference to the shared concerns of Popper and Wittgenstein.