Max Scheler Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Scheler was one of the most brilliant and creative moral philosophers of the twentieth century. His system of ethics, in sharp disagreement with Kantian ethics as well as with positivism, attempts to give the emotional life its due as an epistemologically reliable response to objective values.

Early Life

Max Scheler was born into a family with considerable domestic tension. His father, Gottfried, died before Max entered high school, his will to live devoured by his own unhappiness and that of his wife. Although his father was of Protestant extraction and his mother was a Jewess, Scheler became a convert to Catholicism at age fourteen. He was attracted to the spirit of community that he found in the Catholic religious festivities.

While on vacation during the summer after his graduation from high school, Scheler met Amelie von Dewitz. She was married, had a small child, and was eight years older than Scheler. All this notwithstanding, she soon became his mistress. Eventually Amelie divorced her husband, and she and Scheler were married in a civil ceremony on October 2, 1899, in Berlin. The marriage was not a happy one, but it lasted for thirteen years. Amelie and Max had one child, Wolfgang, born in 1905.

In 1895, Scheler moved to Jena, where he completed a doctorate in philosophy with Rudolf Christoph Eucken as his adviser. In his dissertation, Scheler argued that values are not apprehended by the intellect but by a separate nonrational faculty in human beings that perceives values.

Scheler’s second work, Die transszendentale und die psychologische Methode (1900; the transcendental and the psychological method), showed the continuing influence of Eucken’s philosophy. This work earned for Scheler a position at Jena, where he taught ethics and the history of philosophy. Scheler was, however, gradually becoming dissatisfied with the transcendental, neo-Kantian approach of Eucken. A meeting with Edmund Husserl in 1901 sparked Scheler’s own search for an enlargement of the concept of philosophical intuition.

In 1906, Scheler moved from Jena to teach at the University of Munich. The move was precipitated by marital problems. Scheler’s professional life flourished in Munich, but his marriage continued to deteriorate. Within a year after the move, he was separated from his wife. Amelie avenged herself on her unfaithful husband by informing the Munich socialist newspaper that Scheler had gone into debt to support his affairs with other women, leaving her and his children in poverty. In 1910, Scheler was asked to resign from the University of Munich and was deprived of the right to teach at any German university.

Scheler moved from Munich to Göttingen, the center of the phenomenological movement in Germany, in the spring of 1911. There he quickly established himself as a phenomenologist of note and as a charismatic lecturer. Yet a falling-out with Husserl occurred at this time. Tension between Husserl and Scheler became so great that Scheler moved from Göttingen back to Munich.

Life’s Work

The personal resentment and pessimism that Scheler felt as he found himself isolated and jobless in Munich in 1911 enabled him to express the resentment and pessimism of many in Germany at the time. Wilhelmian Germany was seething with criticism of modern industrial society. It was at this time that Scheler began work on Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der Moralen (1912; Ressentiment, 1961) and other essays pointing to the need for modern society to return to precapitalistic Christian communal ideals. What the modern world was lacking, according to Scheler, was a metaphysics of community. It was only at the metaphysical level that true cooperation among human beings could take place.

Several years earlier, Scheler had met and fallen in love with Marit Furtwangler. Furtwangler’s mother had forced her to separate from Scheler after the scandal of 1910, but Scheler continued to correspond with Marit, who was living in Berlin. They decided to marry as soon as Scheler could secure his divorce from Amelie. Scheler and Furtwangler were married on December 28, 1912, in the Church of St. Ludwig in Munich.

World War I had a profound impact upon Scheler’s evolving political consciousness and inaugurated his years of intense literary productivity, which lasted from 1915 until his death in 1928. In Der Genius des Krieges und der deutsche Krieg (1915; the genius of war and the German war), Scheler praised the community-building powers of the German nation and welcomed war as a form of liberation from decadence. One year later, with the publication of Krieg und Aufbau (1916; war and rebuilding), he reversed both of these positions. By then he had come to see war as the evidence of decadence rather than as a means of liberation from it. He had also turned away from German nationalism to seek in the Church the community-building powers that he now failed to find in the German nation.

Most of Scheler’s thought and action during the remainder of the war years was related to his reconversion to Catholicism. From 1917 until the end of the war, Scheler proclaimed the need for a universal repentance. He now saw the war as God’s punishment for human greed. He lectured on such topics as “Germany’s Mission and the Catholic World View,” “The Contemporary Relevance of the Christian Idea of Community,” and “The Renewal of European...

(The entire section is 2261 words.)