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An “Attack on Jewdom,” or what?

Notes on Steven Beller, Vienna and The Jews 1867-1938: A Cultural History

Editor’s note: Rare praise from Luno for a writer on the subject of Otto Weininger. See related notes on Barbara Hamann and upcoming commentary on George Steiner and Elie Wiesel. (Featured in this post is one of Luno’s sermons to the profession of philosophy.)

Contrasting Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s view of Jewishness as something that could be “overcome,”—in essence, a philosophy, and Theodor Lessing’s racialist view of Jewishness as “a matter of blood,” Beller resists both, preferring a more historical and cultural understanding of the formation and persistence of Jewish identity.

[It makes sense that Otto Weininger would find Chamberlain’s view attractive because of its philosophical aspect and because Weininger was, above all, a moralist and concerned with “overcoming.” It also makes sense that Lessing would find no alternative but to pathologize Weininger. Lessing’s was the Jewish counterpart to Nazi theories of race distinction. The allegiances here also demonstrate how distant Weininger was from Aryan racialist theories, despite superficial resemblances (and consequent appropriations: Dietrich Eckhart, Hitler, et al.*), as well as how easily the moralist—who, by definition, never does power politics—is so easily drafted by one partisan or another. Weininger’s ideas were not Chamberlain’s, nevertheless, Weininger could perceive what was morally right in Chamberlain. Had both Lessing and anti-Semitic developments in the German and Austrian world of the 1930s been available to him, Weininger might have drawn lessons from those, too, but the forces that hardened Zionism were not yet in Weininger’s time as ascendant as they would become.]

* Editor’s note: See Hamann for more on the Hitler connection. We should mention Weininger’s rejection by other elements of National Socialism for daring to suggest that women ought not to be kept busy making babies. Presumably, the concern was that Aryan women might take this to heart. Steven Burns (p. 11) alludes to Weininger’s book as among those banned by the Nazis, notwithstanding that Hitler took it to bed with him, if Eckhart is to be believed.

An ancient Jewish tradition of ethical individualism, of the notion that “God is conscience,” of the moral seat of the self as impervious to external vagary, converged with elements of Kantian stoicism to provide the basis for one reaction to the Baroque decay and anti-Semitism of Weininger’s Vienna. [Compare this with Wittgenstein’s remarks on ethics where he refers to feeling “safe,” ensconced in at least a minimal internal certainty afforded by religious experience. This is also clear in Weininger with his notion of the moral genius as microcosm of the world, a microcosm in which there is a will to value in contrast to the world as we find it: normatively antiseptic. The common theme is that the seat of accountability lay in a world of our own making.]

Kant, Protestantism, and the Enlightenment all served as beacons for assimilating Jews, not just because, in theory, they seemed more open than Catholicism with its promotion of political hierarchy, but because of the many points of contact and deep consonance with what was essential in Jewish teaching: faith in the individual, in reason, in the possibility of moral progress. Beller interestingly cites Freud’s greater sympathy with Lamarckian over Darwinian evolution: the former theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics could imagine that “among humans, …the Jewish race would one day become just like the German, that it would change for the better.” And Freud, of course, was far less assimilationist than Weininger. [But Weininger, almost ironically, had greater reverence for Darwin precisely because of his greater material determinism. Weininger was happy enough to accept Darwin’s impossibly slow—hence, morally irrelevant—pace of development because Weininger’s metaphysics had room for moral change (the only kind that mattered) in a wholly other world. Freud could only grasp at material hope where he could find it—a strategy which eventually led him to a pessimism Weininger may have died young enough to avoid. That despite his suicide!]

One of the leading theoreticians of Jewish assimilation, Theodor Gomperz, could write, “Everything which makes men different separates them from each other as well.” (Gomperz, Essays, p. 198.)

[Politics is about empowering differences between people. So differences suit it to a tee. Politics is non-natural factionalism. As such it is anathema to morality.

There is, however, one natural difference and it has profound moral consequences: sex.]

What Weininger, in particular, was up against:

The feuilletoniste Kürnberger summed up Vienna thus: ‘laziness, frivolity, vulgarity, moral degradation, unmanly childishness, wicked lust after pleasure, panting after smut, worship of filth, hatred of culture [Bildungshass], callous, dissolute, self-glorifying, absolute shabbiness’. This does not sound like the seat of high culture that it was supposed to be. There was hedonistic enjoyment of music and the arts, but there was also ‘Bildungshass’. Vienna was an especially aesthetic environment in the sense of sensuousness alone, for to contemporaries the reputation of Vienna was of a place where culture was an opiate, to be enjoyed, not taken seriously. It needed outsiders to do that.

And in the final chapter of his book, Beller suggests that Otto Weininger was the consummate outsider (masquerading as insider).

[Wasn’t Kürnberger also the author of the epigraph Wittgenstein chose to head the Tractatus?: “…und alles, was man weiss, nich bloss rauschen und brausen gehört hat, lässt sich in drei Worten sagen.” (But spelled “Kürnburger.”)]

“The Jews are like everyone else, only more so.” —Dorothy Parker

Beller describes Gustav Mahler’s struggle with assimilation—despite the trappings of success, it was far from complete.

The Viennese Jew retreated into the world of Geist, of Bildung, of the future [of the empyrean, Weininger] an ancient tradition among Jews enforced by their perennial outsider status.

Schnitzler expressed the moral crisis of turn of the century Vienna and the Jewish one in particular. In Der Weg ins Freie, Bermann asks (as quoted in Beller),

What use is it to me, in the end, that the lights are shining on all levels of my psyche? What use is my knowledge of men and my wonderful understanding? Nothing…less than nothing.

The great and undeniable cultural accomplishment of Jewish Vienna was—to those sensitive to human limitations—ultimately empty and lacking. The outsider in all his perspicuity was free but in an important way lost.

But, as Beller goes on to argue, the answer was not, as a true anti-Semite is tempted to think, that the Jew was somehow intrinsically deficient. Exactly what role the Jew had in the moral crisis of the time was still to be worked out and it was not to be descried so easily by anyone not a Jew.

Beller writes,

It was another Jew, Otto Weininger, who at the beginning of the century gave the clearest answers to the questions Schnitzler was raising, and in his work can be seen the intimate way in which the attempt to solve the Jewish problem intermeshed with the general cultural crisis.

[In the next few pages, Beller offers, I think, the best insight I have encountered anywhere into the appearance of anti-Semitism in Weininger. I am, no doubt, predisposed to Beller’s view because I sensed something like this was going on in Weininger from my first acquaintance with his writing—coming at it, as I was, from a perspective steeped in the Kierkegaardian/Diogenean tradition of subversion and reductio.

Weininger, it seemed to me, was up to something quite distant from the common fear-inspired opportunism of more garden varieties of Jew- or self-Jew-hating. (Something similar yet different, I gathered, was happening with his apparent agenda concerning women, which I address elsewhere.) He was not so won over with the Aryan that he wanted to be one. Read him with any amount of care and one comes away with more pity than the sycophantic admiration of an assimilant for the one so “fortunate” as to have been born into the fold. But neither was he impressed by the moral mire that the immediate Jew seemed to want to call home. Weininger was at heart a reforming prophet, as Beller astutely notices. (There are hints of awareness of this in others, but rarely so clearly as in Beller.) Weininger was the Jewish Kierkegaard. He was compelled to attack what at a deep level he knew and valued and this always involves the danger of being perceived as traitorous (Elie Wiesel), self-defeatingly treacherous, or worse, pathological (Theodor Lessing, Sander Gilman, et al.). It involves the risk of being co-opted by the forces of cowardice and fear (Hitler, Mussolini, and their recurring avatars) and of plain stupidity. Perhaps, worse—because the effect is more long-lived and can long delay much needed but disturbing comprehension, Weininger risked becoming a perplexing knot or “pandemonium” of ideas (LeRider) that may entertain professional scholars for the duration of a career…

Beller’s is a rare genuine insight into Weininger. And it doesn’t even come from a philosopher.

A philosophical aside

There is a species of dialectic in which the participant must inhabit whole his position. This contrasts with the typical modern philosophical paper in which a claim is disputed or put forth by parsing premise, inference, objection, and response in 20 to 30 pages or so. Such an approach may serve to keep at a respectable arm’s length any commitment or conviction on the part of the philosopher. Figuring out what the writer really believes or even appears to believe becomes a parlor game, for despite their pretense to clarity, analytical philosophers are typically anything but clear about what matters. One actually comes to fear they have so impoverished their imaginative resources by a regimen of tease and restraint that they become no more and no less than the totality of their professional expressions. They have become not even bundles of perception and ideas but of hems and haws.

I confess I have learned a few things from the hemming and hawing. The exercise has its virtue. It helps ferret out run of the mill impudence. But when philosophy is compelled to get really serious, when it has not this or that academic point to make or popular muddle to set out perspicously but an entire way of looking at the world to revise or overturn, another form of philosophical discourse is in order, one that takes great risks which most philosophers are too faint-hearted to conceive. Moral courage is as rare among them as any where else. (At times, I have fancied this not to be the case, but I have kidded myself.) One may need to embody for the course of volumes, even a lifetime, a view one knows is on its face absurd but whose evident power to captivate must be exploited against itself. This is not in the rule book of professional philosophy.

The embodiment must do two very difficult things simultaneously: it must lure abuse and it must quietly subvert it. It must make no secret of where the trap is so its intended victims will fall for it. (Yes, no one falls into secret traps: the ones squarely in your path are most effective.)

It is a trap, not an argument. It does not assume that “thinking” people are so rational that they can be apprised of the error of their ways by mere reason, as in pettier matters, in circumscribed environments and when convenient, it may suit them to be so seduced. Their investment in error is so great that reason is mere quibble. The vehicle of their conversion will need teeth.

Again, let me be clear, very rarely is the enormity of a claim appropriate to such treatment. Philosophical Philistines and hecklers do perform a useful function. They are the fire in a trial by fire. But Otto Weininger has and will survive them.


In line with Beller’s account, one strongly suspects that the pathologism in the many Jewish ad hominem dismissals of Weininger was symptomatic of an internal struggle between religious and secular currents, between those who echoed ancient prophets and those looking to a brave new future, its memory wiped of antique hangups. It was less that Weininger appeared to hate Jews than that he unmistakably hated what the Jew had become: the very thing he was accused of. The Jew was becoming someone else’s self-fulfilling prophecy, not even his own. Jewish stereotypes were in danger of being realized. Weininger dared to suggest that there were worse things than being persecuted such as deserving it. He struck a nerve and got a reaction.]

Beller quotes Kraus, Weininger’s champion and also a “self-hating” Jew: something he wrote in 1934 as the forces of darkness were closing in, just when it would have been prudent to have been more modest about one’s Jewish affinities. Kraus writes that he

thankfully recognizes in the spiritual scorn which he possesses in liberal measure, in the veneration for desecrated life and defiled language, the natural force of an incorruptible Judaism, which he loves above everything: as something which, untouched by race, money, class, ghetto or the masses, in short by any sort of hatred between troglodytes and profiteers, exists in and of itself.

[It has come to seem that anybody worth anything is obliged to self-hatred.**]

** Editor’s note: In a margin, Luno writes: “When your world is crumbling, when you realize it was never yours to begin with and your dreams for it were misplaced, when it occurs to you it will be taken away, there remains what you did for the time you took up in it.” He doesn’t mean any material accomplishment, nor any fossil record in the memory of the culture, but something more akin to Kantian purity of will—whose cosmic memory may die with you. Weininger, like the early Wittgenstein, like Pico della Mirandola (as expressed in the passage the former two admired), either believed or behaved as though they believed there was a heterocosmic accounting. We are unsure where Luno would stand on that.

Beller tells a similar story about Schoenberg, another Weininger admirer.

In the eyes of many of the most perceptive Jews of his time, and since, Weininger came to stand for, a modern reminder of, something very ancient and durable in Judaism: the notion that the ethical is the highest (as in Kant).

Posted by luno in anti-Semitism, Weininger (Friday February 15, 2008 at 2:56 pm)

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