Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Book Review of Otto Weininger's "Sex and Character"(1903)

Book Review of Otto Weininger's “Sex and Character”
by Ryan Haecker

Otto Weininger (1880-1903) was a brilliant young Viennese Jew who converted to Protestantism upon receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Vienna and shortly thereafter took his own life in Beethoven's house at the ripe young age of 23. Weininger published only a single work, Geschlecht und Charakter or Sex and Character (1903), in which he sought to solve the “woman question” by demonstrating both the metaphysical connection between genius and masculinity and the moral and intellectual inferiority of women and Jews. The book is an astonishingly comprehensive combination of contemporary science, Schopenhauerean misogyny, and Kantian metaphysical speculation synthesized together with the ultimate aim of resolving the “woman question”. His work has been described by his critics as an “apotheosis of misogyny” (Harrowitz, 1995) and by his admirers as a work of “lasting spiritual genius”. While Sex and Character is generally dismissed today as misogynistic and anti-Semitic, it received glowing reviews upon its initial publication. The great Swedish playwright August Strindberg wrote that Weininger “had probably solved the hardest of all problems, the woman problem”. Although Weininger's life was brief, his influence on the writers, philosophers, and artists of his generation was immense. Karl Kraus, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, and Ludwig Wittgenstein were among the many intellectuals who Weininger's life had a lasting impact on.

Weininger's unique life and work have cast a spell on generations of Germans. Doctoral dissertations, plays, operas and movies have all been made on the subject of Weininger’s unique life and untimely death. Weininger’s sensational suicide had no small effect on the astonishing popularity which his writings enjoyed after his death. In attempting to demonstrate the metaphysical connection between masculinity, logic, memory and ethics, Weininger wrote extensively about his subjective experience with genius madness and insanity, giving the reader an unparalleled insight into the psychology of the now deceased and possibly mentally unstable author. Additionally, his writings on the subject of Protestantism and Judaism have been seen as reflective of both his own personal struggles with his Jewish identity and his rebellion against the Catholic culture of Vienna. Finally, it is often assumed, and perhaps mistakenly, that his vitriol against effeminacy is indicative of his own personal self loathing of his Jewish identity. For all these reasons, Weininger’s single work of philosophy and science can be, and often has been, read as an autobiography of a deeply insecure, anxious, spiteful, yet brilliant young student who would shortly thereafter tragically take his own life.

His biographer David Abrahamsen described him as follows: “The man came as a meteor and disappeared as suddenly. It was only when he had passed that his ideas started to sparkle, electrifying the world. Some regarded him as a biologist, others as a psychologist; still others called him a mystic. Though generally considered a realist, he was at the same time strongly suspected of dealing in fantasies. He was praised for his invincible logic and attacked for his crusade against women. He was full of contradictions. His name became the signal for dispute and controversy in a thousand cities...Weininger's nature forced his mind on long expeditions into psychology, biology, literature, and philosophy, journeys from which he never returned. Dissatisfied with scientific research, discontent with his own restless nature, he went farther and farther along the paths of speculative thought until he was, at the end, quite alone...It would be hard to find another man who showed even in mild form the characteristics and the mental processes that Otto Weininger revealed in the extreme.”

The great Viennese analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was deeply impressed by Weininger, so much so that he would routinely recommend the book to his friends and colleagues. While Weininger's influence was great, it shouldn't be imagined that many people wholly accepted Weininger's conclusions. While Wittgenstein admired Weininger, he distanced himself from Weininger's thought, and upon questioning about Weininger's conclusions on women he was reported to have exclaimed “How wrong he was, my God he was wrong”. Wittgenstein wrote to G.E. Moore to explain his views: “It isn't necessary or rather not possible to agree with him but the greatness lies in that with which we disagree. It is his enormous mistake which is great.” Wittgenstein was fond of using the metaphor that he had “thrown away
Weininger's ladder after using it to climb up beyond Weininger's world.”

As novel and horrific as Weininger's conclusions were its enthusiastic acceptance in early 20th century Europe has continued to puzzle and intrigue scholars. Nancy Harrowitz explains the historical milieu into which Weininger's thought entered and was so highly praised: “The prevailing image of Jewish male sexuality at the turn of the century in Central Europe was closely linked to images of the femme fatale and women's emancipation. The culture as a whole harbored fears of Jewish reproduction, since Jews were assimilating so well that their representation in the professions far outnumbered their percentage of the population. By vilifying Jews as more lascivious than non-Jews, the Christian host culture also expressed fears that the emancipation of the Jews had unleashed a competitive labor force and a rival cultural voice. By likening male Jews to sexually or politically aggressive non-Jewish women, the patriarchal dominant culture insulted male Jews by underscoring their relative powerlessness as a social group.”(Harrowitz, 1995)

Sex and Character is composed of two sections; one scientific and the other philosophical. In this book review I will deal primarily with his scientific work with only brief allusions to his much longer and more complex philosophical work. Although Weininger’s conclusions about women and Jews may at first seem vulgar and obscene, even a cursory familiarity with his text quickly reveals the surprising extent of Weininger’s scientific acumen. As a gifted doctoral student, Weininger displays an astonishingly erudite familiarity with the biological and psychological sciences which were current at the turn of the century. However, Weininger is by his own admission selective and unscientific in his both his method of inquiry and the presentation of his theories. Weininger’s haughty contempt for science is revealed when he writes: “it is to be observed that the investigations of the scientific are always in definite relation to the knowledge of their day…On the other hand, we can ascribe to the work of the great philosopher, as to that of the great artist, an imperishable, unchangeable presentation of the world.” (p.140) and “The scientist takes phenomena for what they obviously are; the great man or the genius for what they signify” (p.170). Chandak Sengoopta writes “Weinginer rarely used scientific notions without in some way revising, extending, or modifying the original arguments. Sometimes for strategic reasons, he transformed them entirely. More frequently, he simply extracted an isolated point from a scientific work while ignoring the larger context in which that point had been made.” This characteristic of “Sex and Character” presents the reader with a contradiction: a work of contemporary science which is itself self-consciously unscientific in method and intent. However, it is because of Weininger’s attempt to use the façade of science to demonstrate empirically indemonstrable claims that I believe that Weininger’s work may properly be called a work of pseudoscience.

Overview of “Sex and Character”
In the introduction to “Sex and Character”, Weininger considers the difficulties associated with assigning bivalent sexual categories of male and female to all persons on the basis of divergent genitalia alone. Weininger writes “”two general conceptions have come down to us from primitive mankind, and from the earliest times have held our mental processes in their leash…we have still to reckon with the primitive conceptions of male and female.”(p.1-2) Among the problems associated with these bivalent categories are the occasions of “unmanly men” and “unwomanly women”. Because women have pelvises of greater with for the purpose of parturition, anthropologists commonly use pelvic bones to determine a person’s sex. Weininger challenges this by mentioning the unusual cases of men with wide hips and women with narrow hips. Weininger attempts to show the problems associated with these conventions in order to convince the reader that biology currently insufficient in defining strict rules with which to determine sexual categories. Weininger argues that a new, non-scientific means of determining sex is required. Weininger writes: “Are we then to make nothing of sexual differences? That would imply, almost, that we cannot distinguish between men and women…If the received ideas do not suffice, it must be our task to seek out new and better guides.”(p.4)

In the first chapter, after briefly problematizing common assumptions about the strictly bivalent categories of sexual differentiation, Weininger then enters into an attempt to reconstruct sexual categories along a biological basis. Weininger offers the reader an embryological account of sexual differentiation when he writes: “In the fifth week of fetal life processes begin which, by the end of the fifth month of pregnancy, have turned the genital rudiments, at first alike in the sexes, into one sex and have determined the sex of the whole organism.”(p.5) However, despite the appearance of sexual differentiation in the earliest stages of embryonic development, Weininger reminds us that this process is never complete when he writes “It can be shown that however distinctly unisexual an adult plant, animal or human being may be, there is always a certain persistence of the bisexual character, never a complete disappearance of the characters of the undeveloped sex. Sexual differentiation, in fact, is never complete. All the peculiarities of the male sex may be present in the female in some form, however weakly developed; and so also the sexual characteristics of the woman persist in the man, although perhaps they are not so completely rudimentary.”(p.5) Weininger informs his reader that despite the appearance of complete sexual differentiation in the embryonic stage, vestigial genitalia remain undeveloped in the developed male or female form.

However, Weininger argues that despite the apparent impossibility of isolating a “complete male” or a “complete female”, the purpose of science is to determine the characteristic of these ideal types. Weininger writes “such types not only can be constructed, but must be constructed. As in art, so in science, the real purpose of is to reach the type, the Platonic Idea.”(p.7) Weininger writes: “male and females are like two substances combined in different proportions, but with neither element ever wholly missing.” For Weininger, all persons are comprised of an unequal admixture of the male and female substances. When there exists a preponderance of one substance over another we may speak of a either a male or a female “condition” in which the admixture is decidedly one or the other. Weininger offers the following formula [fig. 1] to clarify his conclusions.

[fig. 1]A= {aM, aW} B= {bW, bM}

Weininger criticizes statistics and empirical sciences as insufficient means in obtaining the understanding of pure types. Weininger writes: “knowledge must be obtained of male and female by means of right construction of ideal man and woman, using the word ideal in the sense of typical, excluding judgment of value.”(p.9)

In the second chapter, Weininger attempts to give a scientific basis for his ideal male and female types by advocating what was, at the time, an acceptable idea of male and female cellular plasmas. Weininger doesn’t claim to have evidential support for this view, instead he leaves the phenomena to be observed and investigated by future scientists. Weininger writes: “Were I to attempt to reach the sexual types by means of the probable inferences drawn from his collected results, my work would be a mere hypothesis and science might have been spared a new book. The arguments in this chapter, therefore, will be of a rather formal and general nature; they will relate to biological principles, but to a certain extent will lay stress on the need for a closer investigation of certain definite points, work which must be left to the future, but which may be rendered easier by my indications.”(p.11)

To support his assertions, that there exists a an ideal male and female type, Weininger argues in support of a theory, first proposed in 1840 by J. J. S. Steenstrup, that “sexual characters are present in every part of the body.”(p.12) He cites the evidential investigation of numerous biologists to demonstrate what he claims are the “universal presence of sexual differentiation”. From this evidence Weininger concludes: “The direct logical inference may be drawn, and is supported by abundant facts, that every cell in the body is sexually characteristic and has its definite sexual significance.”(p.12) Weininger combines this conclusion with his previous speculation in chapter one to come to the conclusion that “There may be conceived for every cell all conditions, from complete masculinity through all stages of diminishing masculinity to its complete absence and the consequent presence of complete femininity.” (p.13) Weininger considers the effects of internal bodily secretions on the sexual differentiation of cells and concludes that “The internal secretions of the genital glands must be regarded as completing the sexuality of the individual. Every cell must be considered as possessing an original sexuality, to which the influence of the internal secretion in sufficient quantity is the final determining condition under the influence of which the cell acquires its final determinate character as male or female.”(p.16)

Weininger now moves to define what constitutes the sexually divergent character of cells. He cites the work of three cellular biologists to claim that every cell contains the unique “combination of the characters of its species and race.”(p.16) With this in mind, Weininger jumps to the conclusion that every cell must possess a sexually differentiated plasma. Weininger writes: “In a similar fashion I have been led to the conception of an “Arrhenoplasm” (male plasm) and a “Thelyplasm” (female plasm) as the two modes in which the idioplasm of every bisexual organism may appear” (p.16) Plasmas are essential to Weininger’s theory as they create the biological foundation of Weininger’s essentialist masculine-feminine dichotomy. Weininger admits that his theory of ideoplasms is not currently accepted but he appeals to future scientists to discover what he has hypothesized. Weininger writes: “The theory of an idioplasm, the presence of which gives the specific race characters to those tissues and cells which have lost the reproductive faculty, is by no means generally accepted.”(p.21) From all of this, Weininger concludes that “Every cell, every cell-complex, and every organ have their distinctive indices on the scale between thelyplasm and arrhenoplasm.”(p.23) Finally, Weininger criticizes science for its perceived inability to inductively determine what he has shown deductively. Weininger writes: “This source of error, the careless acceptance of sexually intermediate forms as representative subjects for measurement, has maimed other investigations and seriously retarded the attainment of genuine and useful results…without the conception of ideal male and ideal female he lacks a standard according to which to estimate the real causes.” (p.24)

The third chapter of “Sex and Character” examines what Weininger calls the as yet “unknown natural law” of sexual attraction. However, any discussion about the unity of male and female types would be a necessary abstraction. This presents Weininger with a difficulty which he explains as follows: “It has been recognized from time immemorial that, in all forms of sexually differentiated life, there exists an attraction between males and females, between the male and the female, the object of which is procreation. But as the male and the female are merely abstract conceptions which never appear in the real world, we cannot speak of sexual attraction as a simple attempt of the masculine and the feminine to come together.”(p.26) Weininger argues that every person, as a unique instantiation of masculine and feminine types, has a unique sexual attraction which he describes in the following way: “Every one possesses a definite, individual taste of his own with regard to the other sex.”(p.27)

Weininger claims that sexuality, like gravity, is always reciprocal and so every type of person has a sexual counterpart of the opposite sex. Weininger explains that “for a true sexual union it is necessary that there come together a complete (M) and a complete (F), even though in different cases the M and F are distributed between individuals in different proportions.”(p.29) Weininger gives the following equations to demonstrate this principle:

Mu + Wu = Ordinary Male Mw + Ww = Ordinary Female
Mu + Mw = Ideal Male Wu + Ww = Ideal Female

Weininger tests this principle by asking his friends which of many photographs they are sexually attracted to and predicts the outcome in advance. Here again, Weininger shows his disdain for the scientific method, claiming that it is not so much his aim to demonstrate these principles as it is his desire to “incite others to study”(p.32). Weininger attempts convince his reader by asking for the reader’s recognition of it by asking how much it would explain if it were true. Weininger claims that sexual attraction is analogous to a chemical reaction, which he terms “chemotropism” (p.39). He claims that this is the very same force which drives the sperm towards the ovaries within the uterus. Weininger hypothesizes that “the force of this reaction is in proportion to the mass of the substance involved” (p. 41) Weininger says that the same is true with the sexual types of (M) and (W). He claims that “sexual desire increases with the time during which two individuals are in propinquity” (p. 42). With this he is able to explain the slowly growing love of arranged marriages.

In the fourth chapter, Weininger examines the subject of “Homosexuality and Pederasty”. Weininger writes: “The law of Sexual Attraction gives the long-sought-for explanation of sexual inversion, of sexual inclination towards members of the same sex.”(p. 45) Weininger argues that homosexuality or “sexual inversion” is a result of “sexually intermediate types”. As a result, these persons display characteristics of the opposite sex. Weininger writes: “I may say at once that it is exceedingly probable that, in all cases of sexual inversion, there will be found indications of the anatomical characters of the other sex.” (p.45) Weininger weighs into the contemporary, and still disputed, controversy of whether homosexuality is a result of either inherited or environmental factors. Weininger instead explains that because of the lack of uniformity of sexual differentiation throughout the entirety of the body, a person who is assigned to one sex on account of their genitals may in fact be sexually attracted to the sex to which they were nominally assigned. Weininger explains: “individuals in whom there is as much maleness as femaleness, or indeed who, although reckoned as men, may contain an excess of femaleness, or as women and yet be more male than female…Homosexuality is merely the sexual condition of these intermediate sexual forms that stretch from one ideal sexual condition to another sexual condition” (p. 47-48)

Surprisingly, Weininger argues that there exists some degree of bisexuality in all persons. Weininger writes: “That the rudiment of homo-sexuality, in however weak a form, exists in every human being, corresponding to the greater or smaller development of the characters of the opposite sex.” (p. 48) Weininger contends that these intermediate sexual states create a condition of bisexuality, in which a person may be attracted to members of either sex. This leads Weininger to identify friendship as inherently homosexual, writing “A person who retains from that age onwards a marked tendency to “friendship” with a person of his own sex must have a strong taint of the other sex in him…There is no friendship between men that has not an element of sexuality in it… there can be no friendship unless there has been some attraction to draw the men together.” (p. 49) Weininger notes in support of his theory of biological determinism that homosexual attraction appears among animals. He then briefly weighs into the current controversy surrounding the acceptance of homosexuality in society, arguing that because homosexuality is biologically determined it should be tolerated.

In the fifth chapter, Weininger argues that there exists a “close correspondence between matter and mind” (p. 53). In this chapter, Weininger argues in support of the now discredited science of physiognomy, writing: “congruity between bodily and mental sexuality is more common than incongruity.” and “readily enough followed by those who believe in the parallelism between mind and matter, fur they will see in psychology no more than the physiology of the central nervous system, and will readily admit that the science of character must be a sister of morphology.”(p. 53, 59) Weininger here makes the startling and confusing assertion that human beings “oscillates” between one sex and another. This leads Weininger to another criticism of science when he argues that “bi-sexuality cannot be properly observed in a single moment, but must be studied through successive periods of time.” (p. 55) This criticism allows Weininger to indict science for failing to account for the dynamic nature of character, which he argues has inhibited science from coming to an understanding of physiognomy. Weininger writes: “The problem of physiognomy is the problem of the relation between the static mental forces and the static bodily forces, just as the problem of physiological psychology deals with the dynamic aspect of the same relations… None the less it will be long before official science ceases to regard the study of physiognomy as illegitimate.” (p. 59-60) Why Weininger makes these claims about the correlation between the morphology and psychology will become clear later when he seeks to demonstrate the psychology of women from the anatomical differentiation of the female sex.

In the sixth and final chapter of Weininger’s scientific exposition, he leaves the realm of science and enters into a discourse on contemporary politics. Here he addresses, what is the aim of his book, the resolution of the “woman question” in a chapter entitled “Emancipated Women”. Here the physiognomic and plasma claims which Weininger has made in the preceding chapters bear fruit in a practical understanding of contemporary discussion about women and politics. Building on what Weininger has already claimed, he writes: “a woman’s demand for emancipation and her qualification for it are in direct proportion to the amount of maleness in her.” (p.64) It is important to understand specifically what Weininger means when he speaks about “emancipation”. Weininger explains it as follows: “Emancipation, as I mean to discuss it, is not the wish for an outward equality with man, but what is of real importance in the woman question, the deep seated craving to acquire man's character, to attain his mental and moral freedom, to reach his real interests and his creative power. I maintain that the real female element has neither the desire nor the capacity for emancipation in this sense.” (p. 65)
With this definition in mind, Weininger claims that all women of talent have invariably been masculine women. He enters into a long listing of historical and contemporary women who have either advocated for equality or had some admirable talent, concluding that all of them were masculine and prone to homosexuality. Weininger writes: “we find that the degree of emancipation and the proportion of maleness in the composition of woman are practically identical.” (p. 66) and “It is only the male element in emancipated women that craves emancipation”. (p. 68) Weininger anticipates his critics accusation that he is merely glorifying the males sex by ascribing all talent as indicative of maleness and writes that he has “no caprice, no egotistical wish of a man to associate all higher manifestations of intelligence with the male sex.” (p. 66) Among Weininger’s most misogynistic remarks on the subject of the female sex is his condemnation of the capacity of female intellectuals. Weininger writes: “It is enough to make the general statement that there is not a single woman in the history of thought, not even the most masculine that could be truthfully compared with men of a fifth or sixth rate genius.” (p. 68) Weininger explains this statement later by claiming, without explanation, that “even the malest woman is scarcely more than 50% male.” (p. 71)

At the conclusion of this chapter, Weininger speaks about the “emancipation of women” in the historical context. Weininger claims that emancipation movements are a result, not of industrialization, but of the periodic variations in the masculinity and femininity of the female and male sex respectively. Weininger critiques both historians and modernity when he argues that the current women’s movement has resulted from the feminization of modern man. Weininger writes: “the connection between industrial progress and the woman question is much less close than it is usually realized.” and “it is not the true woman who clamors for emancipation, but only the masculine type of woman.” (p. 74, 72) Weininger concludes this chapter with a claim that will reverberate throughout the remainder of his book, that “the greatest, the one enemy of the emancipation of woman, is woman herself.” (p. 75)

Weininger’s Science:
Allan Janik has subdivided the arguments of “Sex and Character” into “4 reciprocally
interactive ‘analytic movements’: the biology of sexuality, an idiosyncratic version of Neo-Kantian ethics, Nietzschean cultural criticism, and a Diltheyan psychology of ‘lived experience’” (Sengoopta, 2000 p.45) In this book review, I will analyze only the biological claims that pertain to sexual differentiation. These claims form the scientific foundation many of Weininger’s later conclusions on the subjects of the biological, psychological, cultural, and ontological meanings of masculinity and femininity. The 19th century produced an enormous literature on the subject of the biological determinism of sexuality. Weininger’s theories of ideosplasms and cellular sexual differentiation were in many ways a product of the biological determinism which prevailed at the turn of the century. Sengoopta writes: “Weininger went far beyond this minimal requirement, engaging at great depth with the scientific theories of sex. His knowledge of the discourse of contemporary biomedical science was impressive, and his own text and theories were profoundly influenced by it.”(p.45)

Weininger draws on a long tradition of biological texts which have attempted to biologically account for sexual differentiation. His distinction between primary reproductive and secondary morphological sexual characteristics was first delineated in the 18th century by the British surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-93) and later expanded upon by Havelock Ellis(1859-1939) who Weininger mentions in his text. Ellis defined secondary sexual characteristics as “one which, by more highly differentiating the sexes, helps to make them more attractive to each other, and so to promote the union of sperm-cell with the ovum-cell.”(Sengoopta, 2000 p.70) European biologists and physicians had produced volumns of literature on the subject of secondary sexual characteristics with the often implied intent of demonstrating biological reasons for gender appropriate roles. Weininger attempted to move beyond the examination of secondary sexual characteristics, by attempting to show that every cell of the body was sexually differentiated. Weininger drew on a variety of biomedical sources including J. J. S. Steenstrup (1813-97) and the Munich Botanist Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli (1817-91). “Japetus Steenstrup had argued in the mid-nineteenth century that the sex of an organism was not localized in any particular anatomical zone: each and every part of the organism was endowed with sex.”(Sengoopta, 2000 p.72) However this view of sexual differentiation at the cellular level was not universally shared. Rudolf Leuckart(1822-98) criticized Steenstrup’s sexually polarized model as redolent and quasi-mystical. He argued that Steenstrup’s denial of the possibility of hermaphroditism followed logically from his mistaken presupposition that masculinity and femininity were equal and opposed forces that could not co-exist without neutralizing one another.(Sengoopta, 2000 p.72) Weininger seems to recognize how this mystical view of sexual polarization has come down to us from earliest times in his introduction, but nonetheless accepts Steenstrup’s idea, all the while ignoring Steenstrup’s conclusion that “diffuse sexuality ruled out the possibility of hermaphroditism”. (Ibid. p. 72) Here it is apparent that Weininger was using contemporary science selectively, while ignoring both the context and the counter-arguments, in order to achieve his larger non-scientific objective of demonstrating the ontology of sexual types.

In support of his utilization of Steenstrup’s idea that sexual differentiation occurred in every cell, Weininger adopted Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli’s theory of ideoplasm. Nägeli was among the foremost botanists of the 19th century. “In the last decade of his life, he had published the voluminous work, Mechanisch-Physiologische Theorie der Abstammunglehre (1884) in which he had attempted to explain phylogeny and the basis of heredity… coining the term ‘idioplasm’ for the portion of the protoplasm carrying the hereditary material, Nägeli attributed hereditary differences between individuals and species to molecular differences in their idioplasms… Since the idoplasm bore all traits of the species to which the individual belonged, each cell of every organism, too, contained the rudiments of every trait of its species.”(Ibid. p.74) This theory was widely popular in the decades preceding Weininger’s work, and as an early form of gene theory it was a widely held consensus among biologists that “the nucleus contains the physical basis of inheritance”. Sengoopta points out that Weininger appropriated one specific notion from Nägeli’s theory for his own use: that biological difference between individuals was a result of idioplasmic differences. Although Weininger was familiar with an opponent of this theory, August Weismann, he nevertheless dismissed these criticisms and moved on to his “entirely speculative formulation relating sex and sexual intermediacy to idioplasmic differences between individuals.”(Ibid. p.75)

Weininger speculates that Nägeli’s idioplasm could theoretically occur in two ideal-typical forms: male (arrhenoplasm) and female (thelyplasm). Weininger argues that it is the case with both biology and ontology that absolute masculinity or femininity is impossible. Weininger argues that localized asymmetries of sexual differentiation could occur within any organism, which would account for masculine men without beards, and feminine women with narrow hips. Weininger ignored the contemporary approach which characterized these differences as a result of sex gland secretion and instead argued in support of Nägeli’s hypothesis that these differences were the result of idioplasmic differences. Among the many reasons for the ambiguity of the scientific establishment on the question of the origin of sexual differentiation was the inability of scientists until 1910 to conduct experiments which would study the development of organisms after extirpating the earliest fetal rudiments of the sex glands. No consensus on this subject was reached until long after Weininger’s death. In this respect, Weininger may be applauded for “competently adding his own hypothesis and some sensible suggestions for future research” to a biological debate that was far from resolved at the turn of the century. (Ibid, p.76) The importance of these microscopic speculations was to deconstruct the common macroscopic understanding of sexuality in which a person was divided into simple bivalent categories. Weininger challenged this conventional notion by arguing that microscopic features which contained the rudiments of ideal masculinity and femininity were the origin of sexual differentiation.

Throughout “Sex and Character”, Weininger misappropriates contemporary research to create the appearance of a scientific work while at the same time criticizing the inductive nature of science as insufficient to realize the deductive goals to which it hopes to examine. Weininger’s speculation about ideoplasm, while it was currently discussed in biomedical literature, was not grounded in experimental data, but instead, in the lofty scientific speculations of Weininger himself. Weininger presumes to be able to rationally deduce universal natural laws from preceding hypothesis, while ignoring counter-arguments and the context in which these investigations have been made. Weininger’s goal throughout his “scientific section” was simply to provide a plausible scientific basis for his further philosophical examination of the ontological character of the ideal man and woman. While this section of Weininger’s work is an attempt to show a correspondence between his philosophy and contemporary science, which reflects his early enthusiasm for scientific positivism, it is ultimately a charade meant to hoodwink the reader into believing that his Neo-Kantian metaphysical speculations have the support of the scientific establishment.

Weininger’s science is an excerpt of his doctoral dissertation and successfully maintains the façade of a moderately respectful and impartial scientist. However, his purpose in this biological treatise becomes increasing clear as the text comes to fruition in the final chapter of the first section when he attempts to apply his speculation to the political subject of “the woman question”. Weininger’s larger philosophical aim is described by Sengoopta as follows: “Weininger’s argument, of course, was philosophical only in its terminology and rhetoric. Based largely on medical discourse, which Weininger displaced, reinscribed, and transformed in order to align his ‘data’ with his profoundly political ontology, Weininger’s much-vaunted resolution of the Woman Question consisted of the demonstration that since Woman did not possess an individual identity and intelligible self, she could not demand freedom and autonomy. Her only valid identity was that of a sexual object of Man.”

As reprehensible as Weininger’s conclusions may seem, it should be noted, in his defense, that when Weininger writes of “Woman” he is neither speaking of all women or even an individual woman but instead of the ‘ideal’ or ‘absolute’ abstract platonic woman which contains all those aspects of femininity which could never be actually instantiated within any individual woman. This has been a notable cause for confusion among Weininger’s critics, who have mistakenly assumed (and with some textual support) that Weininger was condemning the entirety of the female sex and soulless automatons lacking in an indivisible and imperishable ego. If we are to be charitable to Weininger, which the scientific and philosophical acumen of his texts demands, we should interpret his text as merely asserting that woman contains a greater proportion of femininity which Weininger argues is lacking in an intelligible ego. Both Weininger’s popularity among his readers and what Wittgenstein called his “great mistake” should be seen in relation to the difficulties of interpreting the extent of Weininger’s apparently monstrous conclusions.

Harrowitz, Nancy A., and Barbara Hyams, eds. Jews and Gender : Responses to Otto Weininger. New York: Temple UP, 1994.
Weininger, Otto. Sex and Character. Grand Rapids: Kessinger, LLC, 2006.
Sengoopta, Chandak. Otto Weininger : Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna. New York: University of Chicago P, 2000.
Abrahamsen, David. The Mind and Death of a Genius. Columbia University Press, 1946
Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein : The Duty of Genius. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics), 1991


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