Hans Vaihinger Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.