Bitten by the love geist

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Scheler by Francis Dunlop
    Claridge, 97 pp, £9.95, October 1991, ISBN 1 870626 71 0

Max Scheler had a great deal to say. He would start philosophising, his last wife said, as he dressed. The public lectures which the Chancellor invited him to give in Berlin in 1927 often went on for four hours at a time. The question is whether this garrulous, romantic, reactionary Bildungsbürger who, like most of the Weimar mandarins, despaired at what he saw as the triumph of practicality over value – the victory of civilisation, as Spengler had famously put it, over culture – has anything to say to us. Francis Dunlop and, one assumes, his publishers, Roger Scruton and Jessica Douglas-Home, have no doubts. Scheler, Dunlop suggests, was addressing ‘a political situation not unlike our own ... a breakdown of the old order, loss of the sense of community, triumph of material values, depersonalisation, anarchy in the spheres of education, culture and thought. He was, like us, especially aware of the loss of authority in modern society.’

Germany after its defeat in 1918 was a very political place. But Scheler, like Thomas Mann, whose Considerations of an Unpolitical Man caught the mood of many intellectuals in the Weimar years, hated the fact. He despised the interest-mongering in the new parties, disliked the interests themselves, and was contemptuous of the newly-enfranchised ‘masses’. He was not willing, as Max Weber was, to make the best of the disenchantment by calling for a charismatic führer to raise the moral tone; or convinced, like Georg Lukacs, that the triumph of the philistines could be transcended with a Hegelianised Marx. But nor would he, like Theodor Adorno, resign himself to a cultural criticism that could at best reflect the dreadful fractures; or, like the academic phenomenologists, accept the purely private contemplation of essence. He had a picture of an Absolute, and he thought that, together, men could reach it. To try, however, was to take a risk; to succeed was to succeed with something that was inherently unstable; and authority did not come into it. His was an alternative to politics, not a contribution to it.

Scheler was born in Coburg in 1874. His mother found the town boring and persuaded his father, who administered the Hungarian estates of the King of Bavaria, to move to Munich, where there was more society and she had a wealthy brother. Here, she brought about her husband’s decline, the suicide of her daughter, and her son’s conversion from her own Judaism to Catholicism. (It was the first, but not the worst, of Max’s unfortunate connections with women.) Scheler started at the university in Munich, but in order to be near Amélie von Dewitz-Krebs, who was older, and married, and for whom he’d conceived a passion on holiday after leaving school, he moved to Berlin, and then, because the philosophy was more interesting, to Jena. The thesis he wrote while he was there was wholly negative – an attack on Kantian transcendentalism and on the reductive psychologism which some were suggesting should replace it. It was only two years later, in 1901, when he met Edmund Husserl, that he saw that there might be a way forward: a phenomenology which would enable one to get behind sense-data and beyond the synthetic a priori, or the contingencies of one’s psyche, to the essence of things.

The thesis was nevertheless a success. Scheler was at once appointed to a lectureship at Jena, married to the now divorced Amélie, and received into the Church. In 1906, however, he was sacked. Amélie had caused a scandal by publicly accusing the wife of a well-known publisher of having an affair with her husband. Husserl, who was always a generous man, helped Scheler to get a post at Munich, but there, too, there was a fuss – this time. Amélie and her mother encouraged the popular press to expose Scheler’s vagaries, and he had also incurred an embarrassing debt. His fellow professors lost patience, and in 1910 recommended that his licence to teach in Germany be withdrawn. There was talk of going to Egypt, or Japan, but nothing materialised. Scheler spent the rest of the pre-war years living as he could from a little journalism and occasional lectures. He also divorced Amélie to marry Märit Furtwängler, the sister of the conductor, who’d been a student of his at Munich. (Amélie’s price for her consent was the money that the still under-age Märit was to inherit from her father’s estate.)

In 1914, Scheler, like other Bildungsbürger, was asked to write for the War Ministry. He was thought especially suitable to direct propaganda at the Catholic populations of Switzerland, Austria and Holland. After the peace, he was recruited to the sociological faculty which Konrad Adenauer, then Mayor of Cologne, was setting up in that city. The new subject, however, was not to Scheler’s taste, and he spent the rest of his life trying to escape from it. A call once again to teach philosophy (in Frankfurt) came only at the end, in 1928. Meanwhile, almost as soon as he’d arrived in Cologne, he’d fallen for another younger woman, Maria Schau. To add to his difficulties, Amélie transferred the custody of their mentally-ill son to him and Märit. In 1923, he left Märit and married Maria. His letters suggest that this also was an unhappy liaison; acquaintances remarked on his incessant cigarettes and his inclination now to talk without stopping; and the son that he and Maria had wanted, Max Georg, was born after his final, fatal heart attack. The admiring Maria and, later, Max Georg, set about trying to collect his writings. With help from others, 12 volumes have so far appeared.

There is still no full account of them in English. Indeed, Dunlop’s book is the first to appear in Britain. And it is, given the chaos of what Scheler left behind, remarkably clear and brief. Intellectually, however, it’s marred by Dunlop’s simple-minded characterisation of the opposition: a style of philosophising he variously describes as analytic, positivistic, reductive and utilitarian, which, where it doesn’t altogether rule out the humanly interesting questions, distances them by suggesting that issues of metaphysics should be treated, if they have to be treated at all, as regrettably necessary hypotheses, and that issues of morality should be regarded as matters of mere taste and practical calculation. (He writes as though the whole of Anglo-American philosophy in the 20th century is contained in A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, T.D. Weldon’s The Vocabulary of Politics, and textbook parodies of Jeremy Bentham.) Morally, the book is marred by Dunlop’s radically under-informed and reactionary sentimentalism. Politically, it’s otiose.

In all these respects, however, it’s at one with its subject, who had an unqualified dislike for empiricists, positivists, pragmatists, materialists, liberals, socialists, Englishmen and Americans. In one or another combination, Scheler believed, these people had handed victory to the philistines and all but extinguished culture. There were also enemies within. The German neo-Kantians were happy to accept only what was given to the senses, to reduce cognition to the question of categories, to elevate a universalising reason, and to make morality merely a matter of this reason in practice. Scheler agreed that ‘there is no knowledge which does not presuppose cognition.’ But there’s ‘no cognition’, he insisted, ‘which does not presuppose the actual presence and self-givenness of things’. Philosophy, as he once expressed it, is a ‘soaring’, in which the entire person seeks to be at one with the essences of things in their essential relations. This was not to say that there was no place at all for Leistungswissen, knowledge for practical control. There was, and ordinary Kantians, even positivists and pragmatists, the tradesmen of thought, might deliver it. Nor was it to say that there was no place for Bildungswissen, knowledge for personal cultivation. There was. Nor was it to say that the phenomenology to which he’d once been attracted was a mistake. It was rather that beyond all these, there was the possibility of Heilwissen, knowledge for salvation. This was the ultimate aim, and what Scheler himself set out to capture.

Dunlop agrees that he did not deliver on the ‘strict proofs’ he promised. He nevertheless assumes that because Scheler was a philosopher, he must have had arguments, that these can be reconstructed, and that they hang together. I’m not persuaded. At least, I’m not persuaded that Scheler proceeded in the way in which the philistines do, defending premises, making inferences, and drawing conclusions, in a clear and challengeable order. What he did do, in a flow of talking and writing which was often extended and rarely finished, was develop a vision which he merely cast in the rhetoric of argumentation. In what some call his ‘middle period’, from about 1911 to 1921, this was a vision of God; not, Dunlop insists, the ‘childish’ God that Western intellectuals have found it easy to dismiss, but a God who, for reason, was the necessary First Cause, and for religion, He to whom one reached in prayer and worship. Later, as Scheler became distanced from the Church – his American biographer suggests, because of his repeated requests for divorce – this God became an It, an eternal, self-positing (setzend) substance. This It, however, Geist or Spirit, prior to all else, was mere being. It was Sosein, not Dasein. It did not actually exist. To slake what Scheler called its ‘thirst’ to do so, it had, in Dunlop’s happy phrase, to ‘de-inhibit’ its self-positing.

This is to say that, initially, Spirit is inert. It’s bemused in self-contemplation and self-love, becalmed in mere potentiality. It needs to get going. God, who had much the same problem, solved it by actualising one of the possible worlds He had in His head. Unlike Him, however, Spirit has no will of its own, merely, as Scheler suggested, a force, a Drang, which needs to be released, and which, being released, has to be brought to fulfilment. In early history, he thought, the release was effected by Eros, a sublimated sexual energy. But Eros was not conscious of itself, and was also somewhat haphazard in its operations. It was not until the arrival of reflecting Man, who could purposely direct his metaphysical love, that Drang could activate Geist and the two actualise themselves together in a fully-conscious ‘interpenetration’.

The best thing therefore is love, the disposition, Scheler said, which Plato and Augustine and Pascal had been talking about, the aspiration to Einsfühling, a feeling-at-one-with, not the thin ‘sympathy’, reasoned ‘altruism’, and formal ‘obligation’ of the Enlightenment. This love fixes itself on ideals or models of value, Vorbilder. Individually, the highest of these is the saint. Socially, the aspiration is to what Scheler called sometimes a Gesamptperson, a corporate or collective person, sometimes a Liebesgemeinschaft, a love-community. In this, men would transcend their merely practical association in Gesellschaft and become conscious of their unity in a way that they aren’t in the mere ‘feeling-infection’ of the herd or the modern mass. Dunlop draws what he takes to be the conclusion for us. ‘Selfless dedication to higher values is essential to humanity, but the only way to it is through love of the individuals and social persons who conspicuously embody them. The existence of a value hierarchy counts for nothing in the real world unless there are social hierarchies, models and élites.’

Scheler has had admirers before. In its picture of what it is to have a relation with God, his vision has attracted Christians. The present Pope, indeed, wrote a thesis on it, and there’s been some enthusiasm for it in Catholic quarters in Central and Eastern Europe and in Latin America. In its deployment of the distinction between being and existence, it excited Martin Heidegger and affected existentialists. In conceding the partiality of mundane perception but allowing the possibility of communion with an Absolute, it engaged those ‘sociologists of knowledge’ who wanted to have things both ways. But neither Scheler himself, who had no interest in public affairs, nor anyone else has ever taken it seriously as a political vision.

It can never appeal to even the most metaphysical of liberals. For them, values are plural, and constructed rather than found. But it can’t satisfy conservatives either. For Scheler’s Liebesgemeinsechaft is not stable. Drang, the divine force, is always with us, and activates us in different ways at different times. Sometimes it does so, as in the pre-conscious past, as Eros, uncontrolled in its operation and uncertain in its outcome; sometimes as the drive for pure power; sometimes as the impulse to wealth; and sometimes – but only sometimes – as love, when it will take us to full interpenetration. Indeed, it’s always at risk of collapsing back into what Scheler – ever ready to invent another entity – called the Alleben, the primal swirl of force from which new forms of life repeatedly arise.

Dunlop’s book is accordingly encouraging. If our reactionaries have to reach for a Bildungsbürger; if, having done so, they misread him; and if they reveal that they haven’t a political clue; then we have nothing to fear. (Scruton and Douglas-Home do prudently have their books printed by the Short Run Press.) The rest of us, muddling along in ‘feeling-infection’ and making the best we can of our practical life, are free to do what we will, in our own way, against what the Dunlops deplore: the conversion of citizens into consumers, the destruction of communities, the contempt for high culture, disorder in education and false authority – that’s to say, the legacies of Conservatism.