Three Kantians

These three very different men, from different backgrounds, all born in the second half of the nineteenth century, made somewhat different uses of Kant. None of them were professional philosophers; one was an orientalist, one a mathematician, and the other a freelance genius living in the era and milieu of Freud. One was Russian, one an Englishman who emigrated to America and the other an Austrian Jew, unhappy with his ethnicity.

The analytical revolution in philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century, initiated by Moore and Russell in Cambridge, looked back to empirical and logical traditions which had developed independently of Kant . Growing out of this were radically anti-metaphysical movements associated with the two philosophies of Wittgenstein. Kant’s own metaphysics were dismissed as much as those of his predecessors. One critic , has claimed that Wittgenstein himself was Kantian from beginning to end. This seems a refusal to take seriously his claim to have dissolved metaphysics. If we do accept it we may be happy to regard Kant as having produced a system of errors. Nevertheless many of those ideas continue to have a compelling plausibility, even if it is ultimately that of illusion.

Each of these three represents a separate strain of Kant’s influence, Stcherbatsky stood for the Schopenhauerian-Buddhistic, Weininger the Fichtean ethical, and Hinton for a more analytical and scientific interpretation. All touched on what has been called his mystical side. Kantian themes that are developed are the thing in itself, the foundation of morality, the nature of causation and the possibility of freewill. All these overlap.

Kant initiated an exciting era of speculation. As for rational coherence, how much his philosophy was an advance on that of his predecessors has often been questioned. However, his concept of the unknowable thing in itself opened the door to rational accounts of what had previously been the preserve of dogmatic religion. He argued that some of the sceptical difficulties raised by Hume and other empirical philosophers could be overcome by limiting the scope of intellectual understanding and speaking of things in themselves, or noumena, as unknowable substrata of the phenomenal world. By suggesting that in some circumstances we might nonetheless have direct experiences of these things in themselves , Kant opened up the type of ‘practical’ explanation that had not been allowed for in an empiricist type of philosophy.

While making room for religion, he also cleared the ground for materialistic science. Long before Darwin he purged science of teleological explanations , while supposedly leaving room for religion in an entirely separate realm. In his Critique of Judgement he writes:-
For even now that it is recompensed for this loss by the prospect of a proportionately wider scope of action from a practical point of view, it is not without a pang of regret that it appears to part company with those hopes, and to break away from the old ties .
Hans Vaihinger wrote of Kant :- “In him (as in many other great men e.g. Luther) two tendencies are revealed, a critical and a dogmatic, a revolutionary and a conservative. Kant’s two minds are at variance with each other and accordingly we find many passages in which he fails to maintain his critical standpoint.”
Georges Sorel wrote that “the frequently imposing obscurity”, to which we may add importance, of Kant lay in his fusion of the scholastic (what we might call analytical) and the mystical philosophical traditions. Kant’s undoubted ability as the former type of philosopher lent authority to his so called ‘mystical’ idea that it is possible to have direct experience of ‘noumenal’ reality. As the thought of an undeniably great philosopher its influence was enormous, opening up new vistas, which led, as might have been expected, in different directions.
Kant’s aim was not to open new questions but to resolve old ones and his solutions introduce a potentially coercive element which intensifies in Hegel and Marx. Where we cannot have knowledge, according to him, we can yet have ideas which make sense of our experience. From his interpretation one path led to what can seem like secularised religion, and the other to more scholarly explanations of religious phenomena. Taking his philosophy as a whole, while one line of development led from Fichte to Hegel another led through Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. Kant made rational religion possible again. What this did, from one point of view was to expose for intellectual examination a whole new range of phenomena and relations between them.


Fyodor Ippolitovich Stcherbatsky, was a Russian Indologist who stayed in Russia after the revolution. He studied in the University of St Petersburg. He did not suffer persecution from the Bolsheviks, having the protection of his Professor, Sergey Oldenburg, who was a friend of Lenin. The communists were actually proud of his work, though he was little known in his own country. He was one of the main pioneers in the scholarly study of Buddhist philosophy in the west. His most famous work was in English, the two volumes of his Buddhist Logic (1930–32).

In this book part of his purpose seems to have been to demonstrate the truth of certain Buddhist ideas, or at least their superiority to similar western ones. From our point of view no longer preoccupied with same solutions, this objective may be irrelevant; but his philosophical excursions into what he understands these Buddhist philosophers to have been actually saying are fascinating in themselves.
If the parallels between Buddhism and western philosophy are pushed too far the whole religion may come across as just a philosophical mistake. Buddhism is a form of mystical experience as well as a philosophy, always it has in mind the possibility of achieving what Christians call the pearl of great price , the hidden source of a rare and total satisfaction. Accordingly nearly all Buddhist teaching is a form of esoterism. Keeping sight of this we see how the Buddhist might avoid the extremes of pedantry to which the western philosopher sometimes sinks.

For Kant it had become evident that Humean sceptical analysis was by no means as exhaustive as it aspired to be. Traditional empiricism analyses experience atomistically into 'ideas' as if they are things. It was noted that when we make a judgement a lot of basic categories are already presupposed; it is already theoretical. A great deal of possibility is presupposed that goes far beyond the immediately given. The assumption is that we cannot justify this, and yet we cannot do without it.
In Kant’s philosophy, behind all phenomena is the noumenon, or thing-in-itself. Uncategorisable as this is, we still think about it. There are different ways in which it has been imagined. It appears to be involved in paradoxes. How can what Kant calls the supersensible substrate, cause anything if it is quite outside the category of causality? Do we imagine it as singular or plural? Is it to be conceived as like Locke’s matter, or something more like the God of the scholastics, or even that of the mystics?

Much of Kant is pedantic and tedious, dry as dust . Schopenhauer has some strong criticisms of it. He points out how Kant ignores the rich world of perception, referring to it simply as 'given', and how he treats concepts as if they exist prior to experience rather than deriving from it. (But this is a great deal of Kant's originality). Then there is the doctrine of the antinomies, contradictory metaphysical theses that can apparently both be proved. As Schopenhauer shows this is mostly sophistry. Kant’s categorical imperative , he says, is the hangover from a theological view of ethics and does not really make sense outside that. Much of what is original in Kant may strike us as bizarre and unnecessary. Nevertheless, according to Schopenhauer there was genuine progress brought about through Locke and Kant, to do with attachment to reality. He invokes Kant to legitimise his own thought. A modern writer would probably be less likely to expound his own position by running through a catalogue of old errors.
Schopenhauer felt able to identify the thing in itself with will, which he understood as evil and doomed to frustration. This identification is usually related to his interpretation of Kant’s ethics, something of which he was strongly critical. It is said that he took this identification from Fichte, a philosopher to whom he was generally hostile. He was also strongly inspired by his acquaintance with newly translated documents of Indian religion and philosophy. They did not include those on which Stcherbatsky was to draw.

Schopenhauer’s idea of the will was not the only route into Buddhistic pessimism, and the point instant suggests another. Buddhistic pessimism may be seen as rooted in its extreme atheism. Philosophical speculation had produced the conclusion that only the present moment really exists. The past has gone and is nothing, the future is not yet anything. With no permanent divine mind to guarantee their reality. any state of present and immediate suffering and frustration becomes intensified into a hell. In such circumstances the vital necessity is to find a means of escape. This is a philosophy of damnation, but it leaves open the possibility of salvation. There is a resemblance to Christianity is that both have as entry point a state of extreme suffering from which escape is sought. In Christianity this is sin consciousness.

Allowing for differences of terminology, the saved, the sanctified, the holy in Buddhism, as well as in Christianity, have become free. Could Schopenhauer have been right, did Buddhism crucially influence Christian doctrine, perhaps via Persian priestcraft? Such suggestions had some currency a hundred years ago but fell out of favour. Lately the origins of religions have all been subject to such radically revisionist interpretations that it might conceivably be ripe for a comeback. Christianity could appear as Judaised Buddhism. The Judaic contribution would be the fascination with temporal history.

Something like redemption also has a place in analytical philosophy. Wittgenstein, in his appeal to ordinary language, offers a refutation of scepticism. He might seem to be showing a way of justifying commonsense beliefs which go beyond the immediately given. The given may be an unpleasant belief or idea which we are unwilling to accept but which seems inescapable. The real danger of scepticism is not in doubting the reality of the external world, or that of other minds, these are not hard to believe. It is in being unable to repudiate what seems omnipresent but which repels us; failing to advance beyond any immediately given, such as whatever happens to possess authority at the moment; as, for instance the popular prejudices of the current zeitgeist.
People who think Kant was right may see him as uniquely great. We may not feel he puts us especially in touch with the nature of things, perhaps we find Leibniz, Spinoza or Hume more interesting. Kant's thing in itself involves many difficulties. However the Buddhist point instant is highly suggestive. It can seem that this is one way of making sense of this idea.

For Stcherbatsky a central theme of Buddhist philosophy was the very same problem that preoccupied Kant, the relation of world of appearance to ultimate reality.

He says of a passage from Dharmakirti’s Short Treatise on Logic that it:-

“is of extreme importance as evidence of that Kantian spirit which prevailed in the school of Dignaga and Dharmakirti. The Categories of Causation, Substance, Quality, Negation etc. are logical mental constructions …. superimposed upon the absolute reality… of point instants… or the extreme particular ‘things in themselves incognizable in discursive thinking.”

In Buddhist dialectic, Stcherbatsky explains, a thing is described by what it is not. This suggests an approach to the thing in itself by a logic of negativity. Such an approach might hope to avoid some of the apparent paradoxes involved with Kant’s concept.

The Yogacaras, who emerged in about the 4th century AD, are known as the mind only school of Buddhist philosophy. They were the successors to the Madhyamika philosophy of Nagarjuna, and arose from criticism of it. Nagarjuna, with his concept of the Void, has been compared to the later Wittgenstein . The school with which he is identified, the Madhyamika, was anti-metaphysical; so the rise of the mind only school meant a revival of metaphysics. Unusually, their greatest philosopher, Dharmakirti, was not a monk. He was a teacher at the university of Nalanda. Stcherbatsky relates Dharmakirti to his own understanding of Kant. He compares Dharmakirti’s ‘point-instant’ to Kant’s thing in itself. He writes:-
The fundamental difference between the Kantian Thing-in-Itself and Dharmakirti’s ‘Own essence’ consists in the clear identification of the latter with a single point instant of reality which corresponds to a moment of sensation.

As Kant presents it, the thing in itself is not clearly definable, and it lays itself open to many understandings and interpretations. The Yogacaras, Stcherbatsky says, took analysis further than anyone before or since. His suggestion in Buddhist Logic is that the Kantian thing in itself is the infinitesimal point instant.
“The conception of Ultimate Reality as it is established in the critical school of Buddhism implies that it represents 1) the absolute particular, 2) pure existence, 3) a point instant in the stream of existence, 3)it is unique and unrelated, 5) it is dynamic, not extended and not enduring, 6) it possesses the faculty of stimulating the intellect for the production of a corresponding image, 7) it imparts vividness to the image, 8) it constitutes the assertive force of judgements, 9) it is the Thing-in-Itself, unutterable and incognizable.”

One modern scholar complains about viewing Buddhist philosophy "through the categories of another system — Stcherbatsky's Kant, Murti's Vedanta, Gudmundsen's Wittgenstein — which (as with earlier interpretations of nirvana) reveals more about the interpreter than the interpreted."
This initially reasonable view may be disappointing in its results. Often these turn out to be less illuminating than the views that are being dismissed. What is presented as the authentic view of the oriental philosopher may not be very inspiring. If we are looking for truth in Buddhism we need to relate it to what we ourselves can understand as the best and truest philosophy.

There are constant references to Kant throughout the book. Stcherbatsky picks out six points of strong resemblance . For him these are not merely parallels but a demonstration that Kant and the Buddhists were thinking along essentially the same lines. He also believes that we have much to learn from the Buddhist solutions. They go beyond Kant’s own philosophy. Behind the point instant on the translogical plane is the dissolution of subject and object which is the final Absolute personified as the of the Buddha in his cosmical body.


1853 to 1907

Charles Howard Hinton studied at Oxford while teaching at Cheltenham Ladies College. He was a mathematician whose speciality was the fourth dimension. He first published on this subject in 1880. He married the daughter of George Boole, the famous logician, then later, without getting divorced, he married someone else, and was convicted of bigamy in 1885, for which he served one day in prison. He then moved to Japan and then to the US where he pursued a successful career as academic and inventor. He died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage on being asked to propose a toast to female philosophers.

His major work The Fourth Dimension was published in 1904. His earlier Scientific Romances came out as a series of nine pamphlets between 1884 and 1886. These are all concerned with applications of his ideas about the fourth dimension, even where as in the story of the Persian King, this is only implied and the concept is not explicitly mentioned.

Scientific speculation in the later nineteenth century was as metaphysically diverse as Christianity before the creeds were fixed. The exciting era of speculation is behind us, killed off by scientific discoveries and the consolidation of orthodoxy . After H G Wells and Einstein the fourth dimension is usually thought of as time.

‘The Persian King’ is one of his Scientific Romances. In this story ideas of freewill are ingeniously defended against a standard determinist argument. Some people feel they have an overwhelming intuition that the will is free. Others feel with equal certainty that free will is a mere superstition, the will like everything else, being involved in a necessary chain of cause and effect. Determinism is itself a metaphysical belief, even if a very plausible one.

In Hinton’s story a Persian king finds himself lost in a valley where the inhabitants are prone to apathetic torpor. The reason is that their actions are governed by a simple pleasure pain mechanism, which balances itself out, leaving no motive for action . The king is able to help the people to move by voluntarily taking on some of their pain and so restoring the imbalance, meaning a small quantity of sensation leaks out in a manner suggestive of entropy in our own world.

By the law of entropy, any motion involves a loss of energy in the form of heat, which means the motion of tiny particles. This motion in turn we imagine as losing some energy in the same way, and so ad infinitum. The end result or ultimate medium, not exactly conceivable by this method, we may understand as the real cause of all the motion of the universe. Hinton makes an analogy with algebra. What is only expressible algebraically as an infinite series may find precise expression in terms of trigonometry. And if we look for another way in which to conceive the ultimate medium he suggests we might imagine it as will. Hinton pictures it as suffering, unselfish will, like that of the king in the valley.

The inhabitants of the valley are completely unaware of the real nature of their motivation, and develop their own theories to account for it. As the tale develops it includes an ingenious take on some central ideas of Christianity. There is a student who comes to understand something of the principle on which the life of the valley operates and performs what appear to be miracles by imitating the unselfish pain bearing behaviour of the king. He is misunderstood and executed.

After the story Hinton adds a chapter of explanation.

On one level, it appears the pleasure driven cause effect mechanism is complete within the bounds of acceptable human understanding; but there is nevertheless another cause which operates in another dimension, and actually offers a more complete explanation, namely the will of the king. This can illuminate what Kant says about morality.

Hinton proposes an idea of the will which suggests a four dimensional space. In this way he gives sense to Kant’s idea of a moral life as the higher life of unselfishness. He shows a logical way in which this might be understood. In relation to the valley’s inhabitants, the King’s will can work as if not subject to the normal laws. He is not ruled by pleasure and pain, that essentially eighteenth century calculus. Kant may appear almost as the discoverer of the fourth dimension.

Hinton’s conception enables us to make rational sense of Kant’s peculiar interpretation of the freedom of the will, as something somehow outside the laws of nature. As applied in the story, what this freedom amounts to is only will, that is its power conceived as sovereign. It means the possible irrelevance of the normal appetitive causal network. Hinton follows Kant in calling it moral, but it has wider implications. There is a clear sense of being free from natural laws. Being able to disregard pain is like being in another dimension. It suggests the scientist’s power to control nature.

Kant’s ethical theory is not universally admired. One modern critic writes scathingly of “such worthless works as Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, surely the most shattering disappointment in philosophy, coming after the Critique of Pure Reason, one of its greatest glories.” Kant's morality can seem to be about pride in being superior to normal humanity, above the natural laws of cause and effect. Seeing it like this one might be reminded of Gurdjieff or Colin Wilson's Outsider. Laws of nature are there, but they are of secondary importance, mere phenomena.

The attempt to make sense of Kant’s understanding of morality shines a powerful light onto the limitations of ordinary psychology. This affects a number or rationalist projects for improving the general welfare of humanity. It ties up with the limitations Nietzsche was getting at with his idea of will to power.

For John Stuart Mill, the author of Utilitarianism, there was apparent conflict between his commitment to liberty and some other political ideas to which he was sympathetic. This may be explained by the tensions in the philosophy he had inherited and was unwilling to abandon.

Underlying the utilitarian programme is the mechanistic psychological theory of associationism which his father James Mill took from David Hartley. As a description of human nature it is comprehensive. A combination of laws of association with the pleasure pain mechanism supposedly explains where any desire comes from, and how it might be different. From this comes the idea that the human will may be indefinitely moulded by education and training. This in turn suggests eudemonistic programmes of reconditioning which can dispense with considerations of human liberty. To enthusiasts objections to their programmes on freedom grounds can seem merely perverse.

Beginning with the sense of oppression that comes from being forced to disregard our feeling about this we may explore whether this expresses any fact that has been ignored in the model. Kant’s conception of freedom interpreted in terms of the will to power offers a rational basis for resisting the utilitarian programme. The idea of the will to power gives a viewpoint from which we could say any such theory is demonstrably wrong if presented as a whole account of the mind.

This is the case even if we grant the associationist scheme to be its own terms correct. The account of motives and where they come from may be theoretically complete, but there is still room for a further motive which can be thought of as operating in a higher dimension. My own will may be formed by nature, but as will it still forms a part of the picture. The perfect conditioning proposed expresses a desire for the triumph of one scheme over another possible one; and therein lies an insuperable weakness. For the scheme is not just intellectual idea, it is will driven throughout, however much that fact is played down. One essential unstated condition for reconditioning to work is that of ignorance. If we are to be successfully conditioned we must not be aware of the process. If we are not ourselves ignorant, we have to recognise this factor. As soon as we do this, power comes in as a conscious motive.

The will to power is conceived in terms of an omnipresent purpose that is obstinate and innate. In the utilitarian account we may locate this in the theory itself. The associationist picture leaves itself out, even though it is meant to be covered by the explanation. Obviously the origins of the desire behind it might be explained in terms of experience of pleasure and pain. Nevertheless the whole doctrine is will driven. Associationism explains desire in terms of something other than desire. It suggests its theoretically unlimited malleability. However there is in the theory some desire that may be explained but cannot be explained away, namely what sustains this thought. Even if I make everybody desire what I want them to desire all I have done is to set up some despotic system. One will has been made to prevail over another, possible or actual, and that is an inescapable fact.

Bypassing the particular object of desire, and concentrating on what appears to be the ultimate objective, the satisfaction gained from its realisation, it may come to seem that everyone is motivated solely by a drive for pleasure. As an explanation of one’s own motives and objectives this picture is incomplete, and therefore by extension, so is its projection into the minds of others.

While other people’s desire may seemingly be accounted for by a combination of the pleasure principle and some law of thought like association, serious difficulties arise when you try to apply this explanation to yourself. There is a false innocence about a claim to be purely motivated by an automatic drive for satisfaction, as if you would be as happy to desire and think quite otherwise than as you do. It is implausible to treat the object of your present desire as if it were as contingent as you mean to treat other people’s.

If the objective of your own desire is for pleasure, it is for pleasure reached through a particular path. To have to take your satisfaction according to the will of another would be a loss of power. Admit your own desire is for power, and you necessarily find yourself in conflict with everyone else. Your desire is for your own will to prevail. Everything that obstructs this is, at least potentially, the desire for another will to prevail. Everywhere is conflict, competing wills to power.

When we speak of power willed we may mean this as a contingent fact, or a necessary one, following the logic of all desire. The will to power works as the king’s will does in the valley, driving all human activity. Every desire has its own objective but is also a will to power, implicitly a desire for the suppression of competing possibilities.

Obviously my present state of mind is the product of a long chain of cause and effect that might theoretically be identified, but it would be misleading to hold my will as determined by that, because the very knowledge of it gives me the power to change it.

The Persian king takes on quantities of pain. His will acts outside the cause effect nexus. There is freedom from a particular chain of cause and effect. This presents no problem if that chain amounts to no more than constant succession, like that of day and night. The obvious and inevitable criticism is that the king must surely be subject to the same rule, that is his will surely has the same sort of cause. Hinton has a ready answer to this objection. For what is this notion of cause when we take it apart? He writes:-

We are the cause of the actions we will. The notion of cause is derived from our ‘will’ action, and the action of cause ought to be kept to this connection.

So even if associationism were true, it would not present a real cause effect nexus, at best but a pattern of constant conjunction (like day following night) , as according to Hume is anyway the only idea we can form of causality. Our knowledge of cause comes from our own will. If we take a deterministic psychological scheme and feel that our knowledge gives us the power to circumvent it, there will be an element of will of which the scheme has not taken account. It may have appeared that this is an aspect of reality which a full description can rationally ignore.

The fourth dimension may be invoked to reconcile us to apparent contradictions. More reasonably it can be employed to fit Kantian ideas into a conceivable natural order, where only natural causes operate. This seems superior to Vaihinger’s solution of treating freewill and other Kantian ideas as necessary or useful ‘fictions’.

It also offers a way of drawing attention to clear facts which some see it as their interest to deny. Implicit in the utilitarian scheme is the demand for the suppression of certain objectives. It leaves out the satisfaction involved in holding to what is within your power, the theory itself, and the joy in crushing your opponents.

1880 - 1903

Otto Weininger’s father was a very successful Viennese goldsmith who was Jewish but sympathetic to antisemitic views. Leopold Weininger was a craftsman of the highest creative skill , and also a Wagner fanatic, seeing Wagner’s achievement as the consummation of art and aesthetic experience, an intensely moral man who refused to see his brother on his death bed because he had left his wife. Otto grew up in a Vienna with cultural life largely Jewish, and dominated by Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's philosophies. Otto is famous for one book, Sex and Character, which was highly praised by Wittgenstein among others. He committed suicide at the age of 23. Oswald Spengler counted his book one of the landmarks of “the actual and effective philosophy” of the epoch. This not a view that would find much acceptance nowadays ; the wide extent of his influence is little recognised or appreciated.

Weininger was accused of plagiarism by the early psychoanalysts, who said he took the idea of the bisexuality of all life from Freud’s friend Wilhelm Fleiss. Weininger’s application of this concept to genius, and his understanding of original genius as the expression of the essential male principle is provocative and interesting. The same goes for what he says about memory. We may begin to lose sympathy when he brings in his Kantian/Fichtean concept of ethics.

While invoking the Critique of Practical Reason, he saw morality very differently from the way in which it is normally understood. Usually one would interpret Kant as teaching a variety of ordinary Christian ethics, restraint of selfish impulses for the greater social good. From this point of view he arguably overvalued the place of morality in human life, turning what is mostly a way of living conveniently among others into a source of metaphysical pride. Seen like this it may get detached from its orthodox Christian roots.

The Kantian commits himself to an unselfish ethical principle. The principle purports to offer a motivation for action different from, and often contrary to, direct inclination or self-interest. There is no appeal to an emotional impulse like benevolence. As a motive for behaviour it is called reason. It may look like pride. Even self-denial that strikes others as the product of convenience, if not of weakness or cowardice, may come to understand itself as the creative assertion of the rule of reason. There is a self consciousness about the so called Golden Rule, constant demonstration of freedom and meaning, and the less it fits in with non-morally understood self interest the better.

For Weininger all duty is duty to self:-
"There remains a most important point in which the Kantian system is often misunderstood. It reveals itself plainly in every case of wrong-doing. Duty is only towards oneself; Kant must have realised this in his earlier days when first he felt an impulse to lie. Except for a few indications in Nietzsche, and in Stirner, and a few others, Ibsen alone seems to have grasped the principle of the Kantian ethics (notably in "Brand" and "Peer Gynt")."

In writing his Brand Ibsen himself had been influenced by Kierkegaard, on whom a Kantian influence has been traced, via Schelling. The hero of this dramatic poem is an uncompromising Protestant preacher, who strikes most modern readers as a fanatic, though Ibsen apparently intended him to be admired.

Kant is usually understood as making room for the principles of religion on a sceptical basis. If religious dogma cannot be established, it cannot be refuted either, and may therefore be adopted for practical motives. It is in a no worse case than ordinary perception, which no less depends upon a mysterious thing in itself. His idea of duty is taken for what is understood as such in ordinary Christian ethics.

Weininger links maleness, via genius, with an acceptance of the Kantian categorical imperative. He rejects empirical psychology from the point of view of Kantian freewill, suggesting a line of argument later made much of by existentialists. The assertion of freewill can be like a subjective interpretation of the will to power. If some psychological system lays down the supposed path to happiness I am of course free to reject it, but might need to explain why I should feel motivated to do so. Freewill seems an unhelpful explanation unless it is understood as a confession of a relativistic refusal to judge or classify people's ideas about themselves.

Weininger views memory in relation to genius. The genius has a perfect understanding of the coherence of his own life, and there lies the source of his creativity. His is the most developed form of the human male memory. In woman the memory of her own life is episodic. Between the genius and the woman is the mediocre man. Animals have recognition but not memory. Much of what Weininger says about memory is insightful; even his idea of the polarity of male and female is brilliant in its way, however unacceptable. We may willingly concede his own genius.

Faced with the great central question as to the purpose of life, and seeking something beyond the transient satisfaction of the everyday, some are tempted by Buddhist ideas of redemption, nirvana, escape from the wheel of birth. For others the opposite principle has more appeal. From the story of Indian art it appears that when Buddhism disappeared from the sub-continent, life negation yielded to a more positive ideal, identification with the active principles of nature. Instead of the passive image of the meditating Buddha we get the dynamic portrayal of Shiva as Lord of the Dance.

Christianity has sometimes been seen as offering an active ideal contrasting with Buddhistic quietism. Fichtean ethics seems to suggest a Christian, western approximation to the dance of Shiva. It is an ideal of activity, alternative to the passivity of nirvana. Western thinkers rarely related openly to Shiva’s ultimate symbol of the will to live, which was the phallus.

Weininger’s linking of maleness with acceptance of categorical imperative, appear tendentious and dogmatic. In saying what genius must be like he arguably manages to curtail the freedom he claims for it.
There is intrinsic intolerance in this application of an ethical imperative. In attempting to define the good so closely, a purportedly virile and life giving idea is transmuted into something coercive and repressive. Wittgenstein noted how Weininger puts the whole of human character in a hierarchy of valuation, failing to accept that there is simply variety, diversity, and different forms of fulfilment. Phallic worship he sees as satanic. He points out that the phallus was Dante's central pillar of Hell.

It is hard to concede Weininger implicit claim to see closely into the hearts of men. Many an admitted genius might find his own conscience leads him to formulations very different from Weininger’s. The energetic genius may well be in search of forms of religious satisfaction which do not necessarily involve the renunciation of the senses.

With dogmatic pronouncements on the supreme greatness of Kant and Wagner he sets himself up as an authority on matters of taste. Wittgenstein observes this is a fault to which the young are prone . It colours the whole of his thought.

For Weininger man is form and woman is matter; man is moral and woman amoral. To be moral is to be master. The master wants to be lawgiver. He needs to be in charge of the value he sets upon his actions and experiences. Consequently he will not delight in transgression after the fashion of a child. Guilt to him is something hardly to be borne. His power and freedom are constrained by moral principles. Weininger has a Kantian view of lying. There are lies to oneself and lies to others, and it is not entirely clear from Weininger’s own principles why the latter should be so abhorrent. Surely there can be different escapes from the devilish female matter than the moralistic one he espouses? To limit the escape route to one narrow path shows the influence of Christianity.

Christianity he sees as a manly doctrine, unlike Judaism . Weininger says that Jewish attachment to the commonplace results from the slavishness inculcated by their religion. For him the Jewish means the feminine, with an added ingredient of aggression. There is a pull back to normality, to family and childhood. Woman will only represent something higher for a brief phase of her existence, as when looking for a mate. In opposing the deviance of the male she opposes his originality.

Unlike the woman, who lives entirely for her sexuality, the man has a choice how to use his own. He may will to become either a Don Juan, a monk or something in between. Weininger felt he had to reject woman and the senses, even while recognising woman as man’s sexual complement. By impressing the man with her view of things, woman weakens him in his true work. This embracing of chastity may appear paradoxical in the light of the essential egoism of his outlook. We normally hope satisfaction to be possible without the threat of such slavish engulfment .

Spengler understood Weininger as part of a much larger movement.

“The actual and effective philosophy of the nineteenth century, then has as its one genuine theme the Will-to-Power. It considers this Will-to-Power in civilized-intellectual, ethical or social forms and presents it as will-to-life, as life-force, and practical-dynamic principle, an idea as dramatic figure.”

Others also saw Weininger’s ideas about genius as a promising development of this vital principle, inadequately expressed as the polarity of life affirmation (will to live) and negation. His moral puritanism though, by which he judged others as harshly as himself, found fewer admirers. The difficulty of stating objective conditions of conscious affirmation has inspired a number of efforts. The theme was far from exhausted and, purged of its Kantian ethics, found late expression in some of Aleister Crowley’s writings on Magick. In one of the chapters on The Three Schools of Magick, in Magick without Tears , Crowley remarked on Weininger’s understanding of the negative forces, which he classified as the black school of Magick . In attempting to describe the antithesis of this, he gave a definition of the doctrine of what he called the white school .

In 1931 Wittgenstein wrote to G E Moore about Weininger :-

“It is true that he is fantastic but he is great and fantastic. It isn’t necessary or rather even possible to agree with him but the greatness lies in that with which we disagree. It is his enormous mistake which is great i.e. roughly speaking if you add a ‘not’ to the whole book it says an important truth.”

He was interested in Weininger as one who wrote about the springs of creative genius and was himself an original one. Weininger produced a fascinating system which was a starting point for thought, and according to Wittgenstein treats of profound moral and psychological questions whatever we think of his answers. Wittgenstein’s attitude to Freud was not dissimilar . Once he described himself as a ‘follower’ of Freud, yet in his criticism he tore him to pieces. Actually he happily took on board some of Weininger’s generalisations, and tried to understand his own Jewishness in Weiningerian terms.

Wittgenstein’s correspondent, G E Moore, presiding philosopher of the Bloomsbury Group, had obvious limitations, though he was allegedly characterised by a spotless integrity that made people think of him as a saint. He was not at all receptive to Weininger, he could not even accept Nietzsche. The values of the Bloomsbury group may be thought a poor substitute for much of the brilliance that came out of continental Europe at that time, especially Vienna. Moore was himself once hailed as a genius by his Cambridge colleagues, though few today would endorse that judgement. Wittgenstein inherited that role and better fitted it. Nevertheless Moore was representative of much British intellectual culture, its virtues as well as its failings. His attack on Hegel was a substantial achievement . Wittgenstein learned much from Russell and Moore as well as from Weininger and other Viennese contemporaries. In this sense he bridged two cultures.


Awoken from his dogmatic slumbers by Hume’s sceptical philosophy, Kant had set out to rehabilitate religion and freewill, which meant finding intellectual space for a sense of guilt. But his solution led on to further thoughts, to new forms of religion, and a revolutionary interpretation of morality. Behaving morally became associated with a consciousness of power, of being above and beyond natural laws. With the idea of the unknowable thing in itself language is disconnected from ordinary experience. This gives a clue to the mystery of how one got from the thing in itself to the philosophy of Fichte, which was convincing to so many people two centuries ago a and opened many new opportunities for thought.

When the thing in itself is identified with will, the object of will may come to seem more important than the whole of nature. From there comes the idea that reality is constructed and may ideally be put together according to human desire. This was post-Kantian idealism, a new form of metaphysics, influentially developed by Hegel and his successors. This was not the path taken by the three thinkers discussed here. Their various conceptions did put some boundaries on metaphysical ambition. Stcherbatsky Buddhism, Hinton’s unorthodox Christian mysticism and what Spengler called Weininger’s Magian dualism all led in different directions from the new ideologies which were growing up and establishing themselves.

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