The Life & Work of Ludwig Klages
Ludwig Klages was the undisputed master-spirit of the “vitalist” school of German philosophy.
The following is excerpted from the Introduction by Joseph Pryce to , which was published by Arktos. Arktos has also published Cosmogonic Reflections: Selected Aphorisms from Ludwig Klages.
During the closing years of the nineteenth century, the limitations and inadequacies of the superficial positivism that had dominated European thought for so many decades were becoming increasingly apparent to critical observers. The wholesale repudiation of metaphysics that Tyndall, Haeckel, and Büchner had proclaimed as a liberation from the superstitions and false doctrines that had misled benighted investigators of earlier times, was now seen as having contributed significantly to the bankruptcy of positivism itself. Ironically, a critical examination of the unacknowledged epistemological assumptions of the positivists clearly revealed that not only had Haeckel and his ilk been unsuccessful in their attempt to free themselves from metaphysical presuppositions, but they had, in effect, merely switched their allegiance from the grand systems of speculative metaphysics that had been constructed in previous eras by the Platonists, Medieval scholastics, and post-Kantian idealists whom they abominated, in order to adhere to a ludicrous, ersatz metaphysics of whose existence they were completely unaware.
The alienation of younger thinkers from what they saw as the discredited dogmas of positivism and materialism found expression in the proliferation of a wide range of philosophical schools, whose adherents had little in common other than the will to revolt against outmoded dogma. “Back to Kant!” became the battle-cry of the neo-Kantians at Marburg. “Back to the things themselves!” proclaimed the “phenomenologist” Edmund Husserl; there were “neo-positivists,” “empirio-critical” thinkers, and even the invertebrate American ochlocracy lent its cacophonous warblings to the philosophical choir when William James proclaimed his soothing doctrine of “pragmatism,” with which salesmen, journalists, and other uncritical blockheads have stupefied themselves ever since.
A more substantial and significant revolt, however, emerged from another quarter altogether when several independent scholars began to re-examine the speculative metaphysical systems of the “philosophers of nature” who had flourished during the Romantic period. Although the astonishing creativity of these men of genius had been forgotten whilst positivism and materialism ruled the roost, of course, men like Nietzsche, Burckhardt, and Bachofen had preserved elements of the Romantic heritage and had thereby, as it were, already prepared the soil in which younger men would sow the precious seed of a Romantic revival. By the turn of the twentieth century the blossoms had emerged in the form of the philosophers of the “vitalist” school. In France, Henri Bergson became the leading proponent of philosophical vitalism, and his slogan of élan vital as well as his doctrine of évolution créatrice thrilled audiences in the salons as well as in the university lecture halls. In Hungary, the astonishingly gifted philosopher and physicist, Melchior Palágyi—a thinker of an altogether higher order than the superficial Bergson—conducted profound research into celestial mechanics, which clearly anticipated the theory of relativity; he developed the theory of “virtual” movement; and his critical powers enabled him to craft a definitive and withering refutation of Husserl’s pseudo-phenomenology, and his insights retain their validity even now in spite of the oblivion to which the disciples of Husserl have consigned them.
In the German-speaking world the doctrines of Lebensphilosophie, or “philosophy of life,” achieved academic respectability when Wilhelm Dilthey became their spokesman. Sadly, candor demands that we draw the reader’s attention to the troubling fact that it was Dilthey who inaugurated a disastrous trend that was to be maintained at German universities for the next hundred years by such able obfuscators and logomachs as Heidegger and his spawn, for, to put it as charitably as possible, Dilthey was the first significant German philosopher to achieve wide renown in spite of having nothing significant to say (that is why, perhaps, Dilthey and Heidegger furnish such mountains of grist for the philosophical proles who edit and annotate and comment and publish and—prosper).
Finally, and most significantly, we encounter the undisputed master-spirit of the “vitalist” school in the German world, the philosopher and polymath Ludwig Klages, whose system of “biocentric” metaphysics displays a speculative profundity and a logical rigor that no other vitalist on the planet could hope to equal.
Ludwig Klages was born on December 10, 1872, in the northern German city of Hannover. He seems to have been a solitary child, but he developed an intense friendship with a class-mate named Theodor Lessing, who would himself go on to achieve fame as the theorist of “Jewish Self-Hatred,” a concept whose origins Lessing would later trace back to passionate discussions that he had had with Klages during their boyhood rambles on the windswept moors and beaches of their Lower Saxon home.
In 1891 he received his abitur, and immediately journeyed to Leipzig to begin his university studies in chemistry and physics. In 1893, he moved to Munich, where he would live and work until the Great War forced him into Swiss exile in 1915.
Klages continued his undergraduate studies in Chemistry and Physics during the day, but at night he could usually be found in the cafés of Schwabing, then as now the Bohemian district of Munich. It was in Schwabing that he encountered the poet Stefan George and his circle. George immediately recognized the young man’s brilliance, and the poet eagerly solicited contributions from Klages, both in prose and in verse, to his journal, the Blätter für die Kunst.
Klages also encountered Alfred Schuler (1865-1923), the profoundly learned Classicist and authority on ancient Roman history, at this time. Schuler was also loosely associated with George’s circle, although he was already becoming impatient with the rigidly masculine, “patriarchalist” spirit that seemed to rule the poet and his minions. Klages eventually joined forces with Schuler and Karl Wolfskehl, an authority on Germanistics who taught at the University of Munich, to form the Kosmische Runde, or “Cosmic Circle,” and the three young men, who had already come under the influence of the “matriarchalist” anthropology of the late Johann Jakob Bachofen, soon expressed their mounting discontent with George and his “patriarchal” spirit. Finally, in 1904, Klages and Schuler broke with the poet, and the aftermath was one of bitterness and recrimination “all compact.” Klages would in later years repudiate his association with George, but he would revere Schuler, both as a man and as a scholar, to the end of his life.
The other crucial experience that Klages had during this last decade of the old century was his overwhelming love affair with Countess Franziska zu Reventlow, the novelist and Bohemian, whose Notebooks of Mr. Lady provides what is, perhaps, the most revealing—and comical—rendition of the turbulent events that culminated in the break between the “Cosmic Circle” and the George-Kreis; Wolfskehl, who was himself an eyewitness to the fracas, held that, although Franziska had called the book a novel, it was, in fact, a work of historical fact. Likewise, the diaries of the Countess preserve records of her conversations with Klages (who is referred to as “Hallwig,” the name of the Klages surrogate in her “Mr. Lady”: she records Klages telling her that “There is no ‘God’; there are many gods!” At times “Hallwig” even frightens her with oracular allusions to “my mystical side, the rotating Swastika” and with his prophecies of inevitable doom). When the Countess terminated the liaison, Klages, who suffered from serious bouts of major depression throughout his long life, experienced such distress that he briefly contemplated suicide. Fate, of course, would hardly have countenanced such a quietus, for, as Spengler said, there are certain destinies that are utterly inconceivable—Nietzsche won’t make a fortune at the gambling tables of Monte Carlo, and Goethe won’t break his back falling out of his coach, he remarks drily.
And, we need hardly add, Klages will not die for love…
On the contrary: he will live for Eros.
After the epoch-making experiences of the Schwabing years, the philosopher’s life seems almost to assume a prosaic, even an anticlimactic, quality. The significant events would henceforth occur primarily in the thinker’s inner world and in the publications that communicated the discoveries that he had made therein. There were also continuing commitments on his part to particular institutions and learned societies. In 1903 Klages founded his “Psychodiagnostic Seminars” at the University of Munich, which swiftly became Europe’s main center for biocentric psychology. In 1908, he delivered a series of addresses on the application of “expression theory” (Ausdruckskunde) to graphological analysis at one such seminar.
In 1910, in addition to the book on expression theory, Klages published the first version of his treatise on psychology, entitled Prinzipien der Charakterologie (Principles of Characterology). This treatise was based upon lectures that Klages had delivered during the previous decade, and in its pages he announced his discovery of the “Id,” which has popularly, and hence erroneously, for so long been attributed to Freud. He came in personal contact with several members of rival psychological schools during this period, and he was even invited—in his capacity as Europe’s leading exponent of graphology—to deliver a lecture on the “Psychology of Handwriting” to the Wednesday night meeting of the Freudian “Vienna Society” on October 25, 1911.
In his Heidnische Feuerzeichen (Pagan Fire-Signs), which was completed in 1913, although it would not be published in book form until 1944, Klages has some very perceptive remarks on consciousness, which he regards as always effect and never cause. He cautions us to realize that, because our feelings are almost always conscious, we tend to attribute far too much importance to them. Reality is composed of images (Bilder) and not feelings, and the most important idea that Klages ever developed is his conception of the “actuality of the images” (Wirklichkeit der Bilder). He also savages the insane asceticism of Christianity, arguing that a satisfied sexuality is essential for all genuine cosmic radiance. Christ is to be detested as the herald of the annihilation of the Earth and the mechanization of man.
The pioneering treatise on “expression theory,” the Ausdruckskunde und Gestaltungskraft (Expression Analysis and Formative Force), also appeared in 1913. The first part of his treatise on the interpretation of dreams (Vom Traumbewusstsein) appeared in 1914, but war soon erupted in Europe, swiftly interrupting all talk of dreams. Sickened by the militaristic insanity of the “Great War,” Klages moved to neutral Switzerland. In 1920 he made his last move to Kilchberg, near Zurich, Switzerland, where he would spend the rest of his life.
The first substantial excerpt from the treatise that would eventually become his Hauptwerk, Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele, was published as Geist und Seele in a 1916 issue of the journal Deutsche Psychologie. He soon turned his attention to the more mundane matter of the contemporary world situation, and in 1918, concerned by the spread of “One World”-humanitarianism and other pernicious forms of “humanism,” Klages published the classic Brief über Ethik (Letter on Ethics), in which he re-emphasized his opposition to all ethical and individualistic attempts to improve the world. The modern world’s increasing miscegenation has hatched out a horde of mongrels, slaves, and criminals. The world is falling under the dominion of the enemies of life, and it matters not a bit whether the ethical fanatic dubs his hobbyhorse Wille, Tat, Logos, Nous, Idee, Gott, the “Supreme Being,” reines Subjekt, or absolutes Ich: these phrases are merely fronts behind which spirit, the eternal adversary of life, conducts her nefarious operations. Only infra-human nature, wherein dwells a principle of hierarchical order in true accord with the laws of life, is able to furnish man with genuine values. The preachers of morality can only murder life with their prohibitive commands so stifling to the soul’s vitality. As Klages’ disciple Hans Prinzhorn cautions us, the vital order “must not be falsified, according to the Judæo-Christian outlook, into a principle of purposefulness, morality, or sentimentality.” The Letter on Ethics urges us to avoid all such life-hostile values, and to prize instead those moments when we allow our souls to find warmth in the love which manifests itself as adoration, reverence, and admiration. The soul’s true symbol is the mother with her beloved child, and the soul’s true examples are the lives of poets, heroes, and gods. Klages concludes his sardonic Letter by informing the reader, in contemptuous and ironical tones, that if he refuses to respond to these exemplary heroes, he may then find it more congenial to sit himself down and listen, unharmed, to a lecture on ethics!
In 1921, Klages published his Vom Wesen des Bewusstseins (On the Nature of Consciousness), an investigation into the nature of consciousness, in which the ego-concept is shown to be neither a phenomenon of pure spirit nor of pure life, but rather a mere epiphenomenal precipitate of the warfare between life and spirit. In this area, Klages’ presentation invites comparison with the Kantian exposition of “pure subjectivity,” although, as one might expect, Klages assails the subjectivity of the ego as a hollow sham. The drive to maximize the realm of ego, regardless of whether this impulse clothes itself in such august titles as “the will to power” (Nietzsche), the “will to live” (Schopenhauer), or the naked obsession with the “ego and its own” (Stirner), is merely a manifestation of malevolent Geist. Klages also ridicules the superficiality of William James’ famous theory of “stream of consciousness,” which is subjected to a withering critical onslaught. After James’ “stream” is conclusively demolished, Klages demonstrates that Melchior Palágyi’s theory more profoundly analyzes the processes whereby we receive the data of consciousness. Klages endorses Palágyi’s account of consciousness in order to establish the purely illusory status of the “stream” by proving conclusively that man receives the “images” as discrete, rhythmically pulsating “intermittencies.”
Shortly after the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) assumed power at the beginning of 1933, one of Klages’ disciples established the Arbeitskreises für biozentrisches Forschung (Workgroup for Biocentric Research). At first the German disciples of Klages were tolerated as harmless philosophical eccentrics, but soon the Gestapo began keeping a close eye on members and contributors to the biocentric circle’s house organ Janus. By 1936 the authorities forcibly shut down the journal and from that time until the fall of the regime, the Gestapo would periodically arrest and question those who had been prominent members of the now-defunct “circle.” From 1938 onwards, when Reichsleiter Dr. Alfred Rosenberg delivered a bitter attack on Klages and his school in his inaugural address to the summer semester at the University of Halle, the official party spokesmen explicitly and repeatedly condemned Klages and his friends as enemies of the National Socialist worldview.
In December of 1942, the official daily newspaper of the NSDAP, the Völkischer Beobachter, published a vicious and ungracious attack on Klages in the edition that appeared on the philosopher’s seventieth birthday. During the war years, Klages began compiling notes for a projected full-dress autobiography that was, sadly, never completed. Still, the notes are fascinating in their own right, and are well worth consulting by the student of his life and thought.
When the war ended, Klages began to face true financial hardship, for his market, as well as his publishers, had been devastated by the horrific saturation bombing campaign with which the democratic allies had turned Germany into a shattered and burnt-out wasteland. Klages also suffered dreadfully when he learned that his beloved sister, Helene, as well as her daughter Heidi, the philosopher’s niece, had perished in the agony of post-war Germany. Although Klages had sought permission from the occupying authorities to visit his sister as she lay dying, his request was ignored. This refusal, followed shortly by his receipt of the news of her miserable death, aroused an almost unendurable grief in his soul.
His spirits were raised somewhat by the Festschrift that was organized for his 75th birthday, and his creative drive certainly seemed to have remained undiminished by the ravages of advancing years. He was deeply immersed in the philological studies that prepared him to undertake his last great literary work, Die Sprache als Quell der Seelenkunde (Language as Source of Psychology), which was published in 1948. In this dazzling monument of twentieth century scholarship, Klages conducted a comprehensive investigation of the relationship between psychology and linguistics. During that same year he also directed a devastating broadside in which he refuted the fallacious doctrines of Jamesian “pragmatism” as well as the infantile sophistries of Watson’s “behaviorism.” This brief but pregnant essay was entitled “Wie Finden Wir die Seele des Nebenmenschen?”
During the early 1950s, Klages’ health finally began to deteriorate, but he was at least heartened by the news that there were serious plans afoot among his admirers and disciples to get his classic treatises back into print as soon as possible. Death came at last to Ludwig Klages on July 29, 1956. The cause of death was determined to have been a heart attack. He is buried in the Kilchberg cemetery, which overlooks Lake Zurich.