Hans Vaihinger 1852-1933
One of the foremost early twentieth-century scholars of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Vaihinger also conducted extensive philosophical investigations into the role that "fictions" play in various aspects of human life. His major work, Die Philosophie des Als-Ob (The Philosophy of "As If") (1911), stresses the usefulness and value of false ideas for both individuals and social groups. Influenced by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Vaihinger espoused a thoroughly pessimistic view of the world and famously defined mankind as "a species of monkey suffering from megalomania."
Vaihinger was born in Nehren, now known as Baden, just outside Wuerttemberg in Germany. He was educated in theology in nearby Tubingen and later received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Leipzig. In 1877 he began his long career as a teacher at Strasbourg, where he would remain for seven years, and then moved on to the University at Halle in 1884. During his tenure there, he founded the periodical Kant Studien, and the Kant Gesellschaft (an academic society) in 1904. Poor health, notably extreme nearsightedness, eventually drove Vaihinger into retirement in 1906 at the age of fifty-four. It was in the period immediately following that he completed the work for which he is most famous, The Philosophy of "As If," published in Germany in 1911. He continued to involve himself in academic matters later in life, preparing a yearbook of philosophy and philosophical criticism in 1919. Vaihinger died in December 1933.
Vaihinger distinguished himself with a number of works on Kant, including a two-volume critique entitled Commentar zu Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1881-1892), as well as a study of Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche als Philosoph. Vaihinger's own philosophical work revolved around his notion of "fictionalism" or the "As-If": based on the Kantian assertion that the human mind tortures itself with insoluble problems, searching for truth where no possibility of achieving the truth exists. The "As-If," for Vaihinger, is the necessary fiction of human thought, the assumption of truth even in the face of clearly false ideas, which, he postulated, made thought and indeed life itself possible. He went on to argue that ideas like "immortality" or "freedom" were meaningless, but that humanity still manages to make use of them in beneficial ways. Vaihinger developed his "fictionalism" in two substantial works, The Philosophy of "As-If" and Der Atheismusstreit gegen die Philosophie des Als Obs und das Kantische System (1916). In both, he stressed the value and usefulness of clearly false statements, and worked to unseat "the truth" from its discursive prominence, claiming that certain aspects of the world are inherently irrational and incomprehensible, that the "truth" of these aspects, if it exists at all, cannot be grasped by the human mind.
Vaihinger set himself against the skeptics, positivists, and materialists of his time by asserting that doctrines should not be evaluated by their truth, but by their utility and ethical affect. As such, many prominent figures in opposing schools of thought, including materialist H. L. Mencken, took a dim view of Vaihinger's work and criticized his books publicly. Nevertheless, Vaihinger was generally well received both in Germany and abroad, especially in America. While he never managed to draw as much attention to himself as some of his contemporaries, the ideas associated with the "As-If," as well as Vaihinger's accomplished Kantian criticism, found and maintained a broad base of sustained interest in academic circles.
Gothe als ideal universeller Bildung (lecture) 1875
Hartmann, Duhring, und Lange: Zur Geschichte der deutschen Philosophie im XIX Jahrhunderts (philosophy) 1876
Commentar zu Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft (philosophy) 1881-1892
Nietzsche als Philosoph (philosophy) 1902
Die transcendentale Deduktion der Kategorien (philosophy) 1902
Die Philosophie in der Staatsprufung (philosophy) 1906
Die Philosophie des Als-Ob: System der theoretischen, praktischen, und religiosen Fiktionen der Menschheit auf Grund eines idealistischen Positivismus, [The Philosophy of "As-If": A System of the Theoretical, Practical, and Religious Fictions of Mankind, translated by C.K. Ogden] (philosophy) 1911
Der Atheismusstreit gegen die Philosophie des Als Obs und das Kantische System (philosophy) 1916
Zu Kants Gedachtnis [editor, with B. Bauch] (philosophy) 1904
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SOURCE: "The World as Fiction," in The Nation, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, 1920, pp. 134-36.
[In the following essay, Ellis reviews The Philosophy of "As If."]
It is noted of the young men of to-day—the after-war generation as they already regard themselves—that they suffer from disillusion. The world has not turned out as they had expected it would turn out, or, the weaker ones might say, as they had been taught to expect it to turn out. They feel home-sick wanderers in the Universe, new Werthers or new Obermanns, as the case may be, searching the horizon for the apparition of some new Romanticism to solace their sick souls.
The world is, as it has ever been, infinitely rich. We hang on to it by a thread here and there, among innumerable threads, and the thread snaps, and we cry out that it is a rotten world. But the thread was of our own choosing; it was our business to test it and to prove it. If we were deceived we were only deceived in ourselves. The world remains infinitely rich.
It is possible that some to-day may turn with interest to a book—it happens to be a German book—which they never turned to before or probably never heard of although its significance was recognized even when it appeared three years before the war. It was written many years earlier than that. Dr. Hans Vaihinger the author of The Philosophy of the As If (Die Philosophic...
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SOURCE: Review of The Philosophy of 'As If,' in The New Statesman, Vol. XXIII, No. 588, July, 1924, p. 472.
[In the following essay, the reviewer finds Vaihinger's theory in The Philosophy of "As If" to be "indistinguishable from Pragmatism."]
In the slow crystallisation of the amorphous mass of thought which we label "Modern Realism," one of the most significant developments has been the reinterpretation of Kant. Hans Vaihinger has been the genius of this movement. To him more than to any other is due the credit of rescuing the philosophy of his great fellow-countryman from the gentle tyranny of his Hegelian paraphrasers. His keen and sympathetic understanding of English philosophy aided him in this work to no slight extent; as it helped to make him, in the years before the War, a far-sighted critic of his country's policy and a prophet of the disaster which has overtaken her. The translation into English of his greatest contribution to constructive thought—The Philosophy of "As If"—will find a warm welcome from all who have followed the tendencies of modern metaphysics.
The centre of gravity in Vaihinger's philosophy lies in an exuberant emphasis upon the constructive activity of the mind in all scientific procedure. His thesis has its source in those passages of the Critique of Pure Reason which stress the logical function of the imagination,...
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SOURCE: "Philosophers as Liars," in The American Mercury, Vol. 111, No. 10, October, 1924, pp. 253-55.
[The following review offers a negative opinion of The Philosophy of "As If," finding Vaihinger to be a "dull" writer and his ideas "obvious."]
This is a work that has had a great popular success in Germany, and is now gradually penetrating to foreign parts. It was first published in 1911 and is at present in its sixth edition; there is also a somewhat shorter Volksausgabe. Havelock Ellis, always alert for intellectual novelties, wrote an article about it four or five years ago, and there is already a small but active body of Vaihingeristas in England.
Like his master, Kant, and most other German philosophical writers (let us not forget the brilliant exceptions, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche!), Vaihinger is an extremely dull author, much given to long and complex phrases and to laborious repetitions. Nor has his translator, Mr. Ogden, done anything to rescue him from the labyrinth in which he wanders. On the contrary, the English version of the book is often even more vexatious than the original German. I point to one dreadful example: the translation of Vorstellungsgebilde as mental constructs. Is construct, then, an English noun? I doubt it. The noun, I believe, is structure. But even structure, in this place, would be clumsy, for what...
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SOURCE: "With Benefit of Fiction," in The New Republic, Vol. XL, No. 518, November, 1924, p. 254.
[In the following essay, Ayres finds Vaihinger's views to be a valuable supplement to the body of Pragmatist works.]
Truth, we have been told again and again by the philosophers, is the object of all thinking. But is it? Thinking is part of living. It would be strange indeed if the object and the reward of thinking were at odds with the necessities of life. A broader definition must take account of the contribution of thinking to living: the object of thinking is to facilitate living. This does not mean that whatever does so is true; but it may mean that any thinking which safeguards or enhances life is successful thinking, to which questions of truth are quite subordinate.
Indeed, that is precisely the contention of this book. Vaihinger's idea, at bottom as simple as it is startling, is that many of the most prominent and fundamental conceptions of human thought are consciously false. As conceptions they have a meaning and a value; but the things they represent do not exist. Nobody supposes that they exist. They are deliberate fabrications which men employ to facilitate their other dealings with actual reality. Vaihinger does not mean hypotheses. Neither does he mean myths. He means acknowledged falsehood. When he insists that far off, divine events are fictions in the minds of thinking...
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SOURCE: "Autobiographical" in The Philosophy of 'As If': A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, translated by C. K. Ogden, Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc. 1924, pp. 23-48.
[In the following essay, Vaihinger explains his reasons for and method of writing The Philosophy of "As If."]
I was born in a Swabian parsonage near Tubingen in 1852 and so I grew up in a very religious atmosphere. It was not exactly bigoted, but it had a limited horizon, for instance, the names of the Liberal Hegelian theologian Baur of Tübingen, the so-called "Heathen Baur" and his disciple, David F. Strauss, were spoken of with horror in our home. My father, who was the author of a good many theological works, had written a pamphlet against Strauss. When I was twelve years old I was given into me charge of an excellent master and teacher in Leonberg, Sauer, who was at that time a tutor and who became many years later one of the prominent figures at the Stuttgart Grammar School. Sauer awakened the ambition of his pupils by telling them how Kepler in the 17m century and Schelling in the 18th century had sat on the benches of that ancient school of Latin. I was his favourite pupil and he used to tell me too about his Sanskrit studies, which he carried on under the influence of Professor Roth of Tubingen University. He was especially interested in the great Mahabharata epic and occasionally at the...
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SOURCE: "Reviews of Books," in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, 1926, pp. 370-75.
[In the following essay, Jordan reviews The Philosophy of "As If," noting the work's significance to philosophical methodology.]
This translation of the Philosophy of 'As If' is "based upon the definitive Sixth Edition of the original, revised for the purpose by the author, who himself undertook the task of abbreviating various passages of purely historical interest or otherwise superfluous in an English version. In response to many suggestions, Professor Vaihinger's own account of his Life-work and of the spirit in which The Philosophy of 'As If' was written has been added by way of General Introduction, and this, together with an Analytical Table of Contents and a double Index, should add considerably to the interest and utility of the volume" (Translator's Note). In the Autobiography the author explains that the ideas incorporated in the volume were in process of development through the long period between 1876 and 1911.
The result is a solid and exhaustive, even if not perhaps finally conclusive, contribution to the discussion of the basic problems of philosophical methodology. As the work was originally published as early as 1911, it may be taken for granted that the author's point of view and the fundamentals of his philosophy are generally known. The book...
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SOURCE: "Vaihinger," in Physical Order and Moral Liberty: Previously Unpublished Essays of George Santayana, edited by John and Shirley Lachs, Vanderbilt University Press, 1969, pp. 305-14.
[In the following essay, which remained unpublished during the author's lifetime, Santayana discusses Immanual Kant's influence on Vaihinger.]
In the year 1888 at the University of Berlin, I remember hearing Georg Simmel delicately describe ten different philosophies, each of which professed to distil the central and only valid meaning of the Kantian revolution. Of these systems perhaps the most incisive was that of Vaihinger, which has now been re-edited and sensationally set before the public as the "Philosophy of the As If," or as we might say in modern English, or rather American, the Philosophy of Bluff.
Vaihinger admits that in the wisdom of the Sage of Koenigsberg bluff was not the only ingredient; but he collects a hundred pages—by far the most interesting in his book—of quotations from Kant's writings; and if these passages could be allowed to stand alone they would seem to establish a curious paradox: that in that famous philosopher's meagre little body there had lived a desperately romantic soul, and that those labyrinthine paragraphs hid the most pessimistic of doctrines. Probably the truth is that Kant, the man, began by possessing the humane virtues and sanity of the Eighteenth...
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Flewelling, Ralph Tyler. "Our 'As If' World." The Personalist VI, No. 2 (April 1925): 133-135.
Notes the materialist reaction to The Philosophy of "As If," stating: "We recently ran across such a screed of misunderstanding from Mr. Mencken." Flewelling nonetheless concludes that Vaihinger's book "seems one of the very few real contributions to the literature of philosophy in recent years."
House, Floyd N. Review of The Philosophy of "As If," by Hans Vaihinger. The American Journal of Sociology XXXI, No. 5 (March 1926): 684-685.
Concludes that The Philosophy of "As If" "is a book of one idea, but that one idea is a very important one for the social scientist."
Porter, Alan. "As If." The Spectator 133, No. 5011 (12 July 1924): 61-62.
Hostile review asserting that The Philosophy of "As If" is "Right in detail, wrong in emphasis—the worst one could say of a philosopher." The reviewer makes extensive reference to Buddhist scriptures.
Additional coverage of Vaihinger's life and career may be found in the following source published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 116.
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