Hans Vaihinger Essay - Critical Essays

Vaihinger, Hans

Introduction

Hans Vaihinger 1852-1933

German philosopher.

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Havelock Ellis (essay date 1920)

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 des Als Ob) had been known as one of the profoundest students of Kant. It was in Kant that he discerned the core of his own philosophy concerning the practical significance of fiction in human life. It is by no means the idea that has traditionally been found in Kant—for Kant was himself not clear about it and his insight was further darkened by his reactionary tendencies—but it is that which under various disguises has inspired some of the most influential philosophers of recent times, and it was Vaihinger first of all who, secretly and unknown, elaborated it. He was not only the first but the most thorough-going exponent of this vision of the world. Nietzsche, the Pragmatists, Bergson, Croce, Bertrand Russell, have all expounded some aspect of a conception which finds its unadulterated essence in a book they had never seen until their own systems had been formulated.

Vaihinger certainly had his first stimulus from Kant, in whose philosophy (he is perhaps the chief living exponent of it) he found that the "as if" view of belief and conduct played an extraordinarily large though overlooked part, and was even his special and personal way of regarding things; he was not as much a metaphysician, Vaihinger argues, as a metaphorician. But Vaihinger soon found almost the same attitude more or less expressed or implicit in various other thinkers, notably in F. A. Lange, of the famous "History of Materialism," whose view of the value of poetic conceptions for science and for life made him the immediate precursor of Vaihinger.

It was in 1876-7 that Vaihinger wrote his book, a marvellous achievement for so youthful a thinker, for it would appear that he was then only about twenty-five years of age. A final revision it never underwent, and there remain various peculiarities about the form into which it is cast. A serious failure in eyesight seems to have been the main reason for delaying the publication of a work which the author felt to be too revolutionary to put forth in an imperfect form. He preferred to leave it for posthumous publication.

But the world was not standing still, and during the next thirty years many things happened. Vaihinger found the new sect of Pragmatists coming into fashion, with ideas resembling his own, though in a cruder shape, which seemed to render philosophy the meretrix theologorum. Many distinguished thinkers were working towards an attitude more or less like his own, especially Nietzsche, whom (like many others even to-day) he had long regarded with prejudice and avoided, but now discovered to be "a great liberator," with congenial veins of thought. Vaihinger realized that his conception was being independently put forward from various sides, often in forms that to him seemed imperfect or vicious. It was no longer advisable to hold back his book. In 1911, therefore, Die Philosophic des Als Ob appeared. Therewith the author's life-work was done; he still lives, in blindness and retirement, at Halle, and is still able to preside over the meetings of the Kant Society.

The problem which Vaihinger set out to solve was this: How comes it about that with consciously false ideas we yet reach conclusions that are in harmony with Nature and appeal to us as Truth? That we do so is obvious, especially in the "exact" branches of science. In mathematics it is notorious that we start from absurdities to reach a realm of law, and our whole conception of the nature of the world is based on a foundation which we believe to have no existence. For even the most sober scientific investigator in science, the most thorough-going positivist, cannot dispense with fiction; he must at least make use of categories, and they are already fictions, analogical fictions, or labels, which give us the same pleasure as children receive when they are told the "name" of a thing. Fiction is indeed an indispensable supplement to logic, or even a part of it of equal rank; whether we are working inductively or deductively, both ways hang closely together with fiction, and axioms, though they seek to be primary verities, are more akin to fiction. If we had realized the nature of axioms, the doctrine of Einstein, which sweeps away axioms so familiar to us that they seem obvious truths, and substitutes others which seem absurd because they are unfamiliar, might not have been so bewildering.

Physics, especially mathematical physics, Vaihinger explains in detail, has been based, and fruitfully based, on fictions. The infinite, infinitely little or infinitely great, while helpful in lightening our mental operations, is a fiction. The Greeks disliked and avoided it, and "the gradual formation of this conception is one of the most charming and instructive themes in the history of science"—indeed one of the most noteworthy spectacles in the history of the human spirit; we see the working of a logical impulse first feeling in the dark, gradually constructing ideas fitted to yield precious service, yet full of hopeless contradictions, without any relation to the real world. That absolute space is a fiction is no new idea. Hobbes had declared it was only a phantasma; Leibnitz, who agreed, added that it was merely "the idolum of a few modern Englishmen," and called time extension, and movement choses ideales. Berkeley, in attacking the defective conceptions of the mathematicians, failed to see that it was by means of, and not in spite of, these logically defective conceptions that they attained logically valuable results. All the marks of fiction are set on the mathematician's pure space; it is impossible and unthinkable; yet it has been proved useful and fruitful.

The tautological fiction of "Force"—an empty reduplication of the fact of a succession of relationships—is one that we constantly fall back on with immense satisfaction and with the feeling of having achieved something; it has been a highly convenient fiction which has aided representation and experience. It is one of the most famous, and also, it must be added, one of the most fatal of fantasies. For when we talk of, for instance, a "life-force" and its elan, or whatever other dainty term we like to apply to it, we are not only summarily mingling together many separate phenomena,...

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The New Statesman (essay date 1924)

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...

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The American Mercury (essay date 1924)

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....

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C. E. Ayres (essay date 1924)

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...

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Hans Vaihinger (essay date 1924)

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,...

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E. Jordan (essay date 1926)

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...

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George Santayana (essay date 1952?)

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...

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