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Otto Weininger

Otto Weininger (April 3, 1880October 4, 1903) was an Austrian philosopher. In 1903, he published the book Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character) which gained popularity after Weininger's suicide at the age of 23. Today, the book is generally viewed as misogynistic and antisemitic in academic circles; however, it continues to be held up as a great work of lasting genius and spiritual wisdom by others.

Life

Otto Weininger was born on April 3, 1880 in Vienna as a son of the Jewish goldsmith Leopold Weininger and his wife Adelheid. After attending primary school and graduating from secondary school in July 1898, Weininger registered at the University of Vienna in October of the same year. He studied philosophy and psychology but took courses in natural sciences and medicine as well. Weininger learned Greek, Latin, French and English very early, later also Spanish and Italian, and acquired passive knowledge of the language of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen.

In the autumn of 1901 Weininger tried to find a publisher for his work Eros and the Psyche - which he submitted to his professors Jodl and Müllner as his thesis in 1902. He met Sigmund Freud who, however, did not recommend the text to a publisher. His professors accepted the thesis and Weininger received his Ph.D. degree. Shortly thereafter he became proudly and enthusiastically a Protestant.

In 1902 Weininger went to Bayreuth where he witnessed a performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal which left him deeply impressed. Via Dresden and Copenhagen he made his way to Christiania (Oslo) where he for the first time saw Henrik Ibsen’s liberation drama Peer Gynt on stage. Upon his return to Vienna Weininger suffered from fits of deep depression. The decision to take his own life gradually took shape in his mind; after a long discussion with his friend Artur Gerber, however, Weininger realized that “it is not yet time”.

In June 1903, after months of concentrated work, his book Sex and Character - a fundamental investigation - an attempt “to place sex relations in a new and decisive light” - was published by the Vienna publishers Braumüller & Co. The book contained his thesis to which three vital chapters were added: (XII) The Nature of Woman and her Relation to the Universe, (XIII) Judaism, (XIV) Women and Humanity. While the book was not received negatively, it did not create the expected stir. Weininger was attacked by Paul Julius Moebius, professor in Leipzig and author of the book “On the Physiological Deficiency of Women”, and accused of plagiarizing. Deeply disappointed and tortured by doubts Weininger left for Italy.

Back in Vienna he spent his last five days with his parents. On October 3, he took a room in the house in Schwarzspanierstraße 15 where Ludwig van Beethoven died. He told the landlady that he was not to be disturbed before morning since he planned to work and then to go to bed late. This night he wrote two letters, one addressed to his father, the other one to his brother Richard, telling them that he was going to shoot himself.

In October 4, Weininger was found there wounded, and he died in Wiener Allgemeines Krankenhaus at half past ten that morning.

Otto Weininger was buried on the Matzleinsdorf Protestant Cemetery in Vienna. The epitaph by his father translates:

"This stone closes the resting place of a young man
whose mind never really found peace on earth.
And after imparting revelations of his mind and soul
he could not bear any longer to be among the living.
He searched for the death realm of one of the greatest minds
that dwelled in the house in Schwarzspanierstrasse
and put an end to his bodily existence."

Sex and Character

In his book Sex and Character, Weininger argues that all people are composed of a mixture of the male and the female substance, and attempts to support his view scientifically. The male aspect is active, productive, conscious and moral/logical, while the female aspect is passive, unproductive, unconscious and amoral/alogical. Weininger argues that emancipation should be reserved for the "masculine woman", e.g. some lesbians, and that the female life is consumed with the sexual function: both with the act, as a prostitute, and the product, as a mother. Woman is a "matchmaker". By contrast, the duty of the male, or the masculine aspect of personality, is to strive to become a genius, and to forego sexuality for an abstract love of the absolute, God, which he finds within himself.

A significant part of his book is about the nature of genius. Weininger argues that there is no such thing as a person who has a genius for, say, mathematics, or music, but there is only the universal genius, in whom everything exists and makes sense. He reasons that such genius is probably present in all people to some degree.

In a separate chapter, Weininger, himself a Jew who had converted to Christianity in 1902, analyzes the archetypical Jew as feminine, and thus profoundly irreligious, without true individuality (soul), and without a sense of good and evil. Christianity is described as "the highest expression of the highest faith", while Judaism is called "the extreme of cowardliness". Weininger decries the decay of modern times, and attributes much of it to feminine, and thus Jewish, influences. By Weininger's reckoning everyone shows some femininity, and what he calls "Jewishness".

Weininger shot himself in the house in Vienna where Beethoven had died, the man he considered one of the greatest geniuses of all. This made him a cause célèbre, inspired several imitation suicides, and turned his book into a success. The book received glowing reviews by August Strindberg, who wrote that it had "probably solved the hardest of all problems", the "woman problem".

Influence on Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein read the book as a schoolboy and was deeply impressed by it, later listing it as one of his influences and recommending it to friends (Ray Monk: Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, 1990). However, Wittgenstein's deep admiration of Weininger's thought was coupled with a fundamental disagreement with his position. Wittgenstein writes to G.E. Moore: "It isn't necessary or rather not possible to agree with him but the greatness lies in that with which we disagree. It is his enormous mistake which is great." The themes of the decay of modern civilization and the duty to perfect one's genius occur repeatedly in Wittgenstein's later writings.

Physiognomy

Weinigers friend Artur Gerber gave a description of Weiniger's physiognomy in "ECCE HOMO", preface to "Taschenbuch und Briefe an einen Freund" (E. P. Tal & Co., Leipzig/Vienna 1922):

Nobody who had once seen his face could ever forget it. The big dome of his forehead marked it. The face was peculiar looking because of the large eyes; the look in them seemed to surround everything. In spite of his youth, his face was not handsome, it was rather ugly. Never did I see him laugh or smile. His face was always dignified and serious. Only when he was outdoors in spring did it seem to relax, and then become cheerful and bright. At many concerts he would shine with happiness. In the most wonderful moments we spent together, particularly when he talked about an idea in which he was interested, his eyes were filled with happiness. Otherwise his face was impenetrable. One could never - except to the last few months - find in his face any hint of what was happening deep within his soul. The taut muscles would often move, and sharp wrinkles would appear on his face, as if they were caused by intolerable pain. I asked for the reason, he controlled himself at once, gave a vague or evasive answer, or talked about other matters, making further questioning impossible. His manners would occasionally elicit surprise, and often a smile, since he cared little for traditions and prejudices. The influence of his personality seemed strongest at night. His body seemed to grow; there was something ghostlike in his movements and there would be something demoniac in his manner. An when, as happened at times, his conversation became passionate, when he made a movement in the air with his stick or his umbrella as if he were fighting an invisible ghost, one was always reminded of a person from the imaginary circles of E. Th. A. Hofmann.

Weininger and the Nazis

Isolated parts of Weininger's writings were used by Nazi propaganda, despite the fact that Weininger actively argued against the ideas of race that came to be identified with the Nazis. On the other hand, Weininger's views on race cannot be reduced to a simplistic egalitarian liberalism: "A genius has perhaps scarcely ever appeared amongst the negroes, and the standard of their morality is almost universally so low that it is beginning to be acknowledged in America that their emancipation was an act of imprudence" (Sex and Character, New York: G.P. Putnam, 1906, p. 302). "Greatness is absent from the nature of the woman and the Jew, the greatness of morality, or the greatness of evil. In the Aryan man, the good and bad principles of Kant’s religious philosophy are ever present, ever in strife. In the Jew and the woman, good and evil are not distinct from one another ... It would not be difficult to make a case for the view that the Jew is more saturated with femininity than the Aryan, to such an extent that the most manly Jew is more feminine than the least manly Aryan." (ibid., p. 189). Nevertheless, Weininger's books were denounced by the Nazis, most probably because Weininger encouraged women to think for themselves, and to determine their own future, which went directly against the Nazi idea of the role of women in society..

Weininger's works

  • Weininger, Otto. Geschlecht und Charakter: Eine prinzipielle Untersuchung, Vienna, Leipzig 1903, translation online - original version in German
  • Weininger, Otto. Collected Aphorisms, Notebook and Letters to a Friend, Edited and translated by Kevin Solway and Martin Dudaniec, 2002, translation online
  • Weininger, Otto. Sex and Character: An Investigation Of Fundamental Principles. Ladislaus Löb (trans.) Indiana University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-253-34471-9
  • Weininger, Otto. A Translation of Weininger’s Über die letzten Dinge (1904/1907)/On Last Things. Steven Burns (trans.) Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. ISBN 0-7734-7400-5

Further reading

  • Nancy Harrowitz, Barbara Hyams (eds). Jews and Gender: Responses to Otto Weininger. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995 ISBN 1-56639-249-7 Table of Contents & Chapter 1
  • Abrahamsen, David. The Mind and Death of a Genius. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946.
  • Sengoopta, Chandak. Otto Weininger: Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna University of Chicago Press, 2000 ISBN 0-226-74867-7
  • Stern, David G. and Béla Szabados (eds). Wittgenstein Reads Weininger. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-53260-4

External links

References

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