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.

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