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Otto Weininger

From Academic Kids

Otto Weininger (April 3, 1880 - October 4, 1903) was an Austrian philosopher. In 1903, he published the book Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character); it gained popularity after Weininger's theatrical suicide at the age of 23. Today, the book is commonly dismissed as sexist and anti-Semitic, however it continues to be held up as a great work of lasting genius and spiritual wisdom by some.

Born in Vienna, he was a gifted student and enrolled at the philosophical faculty of the University of Vienna in 1898, receiving his doctorate in 1902.

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 women", 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, no doubt written from personal experience. 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. And 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. It is important to remember that by Weininger's reckoning literally all people contain some elements of both 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".

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. Indeed, Weininger's quote "Logic and ethics are fundamentally the same, they are no more than duty to oneself" could have been written by Wittgenstein. The themes of the decay of modern civilization and the duty to perfect one's genius occur repeatedly in Wittgenstein's later writings.

Isolated parts of Weininger's writings were used by Nazi propaganda, despite the fact that Weininger actively argued against the ideas of race upheld by the Nazis. Adolf Hitler is reported to have said something to the effect of "There was only one decent Jew, and he killed himself." 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.

Further reading

  • Otto Weininger: Geschlecht und Charakter: Eine prinzipielle Untersuchung, Vienna, Leipzig 1903, translation online (http://www.theabsolute.net/ottow/schareng.pdf) - original version in German (http://www.k-faktor.com/files/geschlecht-und-charakter.pdf)
  • Otto Weininger: Collected Aphorisms, Notebook and Letters to a Friend, Edited and translated by Kevin Solway and Martin Dudaniec, 2002, translation online (http://www.theabsolute.net/ottow)
  • Nancy Harrowitz, Barbara Hyams (eds). Jews and Gender: Responses to Otto Weininger. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995 ISBN 1566392497 Table of Contents & Chapter 1 [1] (http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1064_reg.html)
  • 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 0226748677
  • Stern, David G. and Bla Szabados (eds). Wittgenstein Reads Weininger. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0521532604de:Otto Weininger

he:אוטו ויינינגר sr:Ото Вајнингер

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