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  • Authenticity in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities
  • Kelly Coble


How is a man without qualities even possible? The question, also a translation of the title of a recent essay mining the philosophical sources of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, has been a perennial one. The Austrian novelist's portrayal of an existence without the density of particularity has been an object of interminable conjecture.1 In the search for an interpretive foothold, the bulk of Musil's commentators has identified Ernst Mach's "doctrine of elements," with its implication of the anonymity of perception, as the chief inspiration of Musil's portrait of a dispossessed inner life.2 Against this view Cambridge philosopher G. H. von Wright has asserted that Mach's influence was "incidental and without deeper significance to the content of Musil's later thoughts."3 Von Wright notes that Musil rejected Mach's skeptical and phenomenalist theses in his 1908 dissertation on Mach's theories, defending instead a realist position in the philosophy of physics. Yet another commentator has adduced evidence of Musil's persistent engagement in the sort of act-object analysis of states of consciousness that one would expect from a follower of Franz Brentano.4

In the following pages I will show that Musil's literary masterpiece rests on a synthesis of Machian and Brentanist motifs. But the main impetus of Musil's presentation of an interior with substitutable qualities was not one or another claim in the domain of modern epistemology, "realism" versus "idealism," "phenomenology" versus "phenomenalism," but a crisis in moral reflection ensuing from a commitment to the standpoint of value-neutral objectivity. This standpoint gains its [End Page 337] appeal when both of the known pathways to moral certainty—both the conservative-traditional one of allegiance to enduring practices and institutions and the liberal-enlightenment one of deference to the universal requirements of reason—appear as blind alleys, as they did to inhabitants of Central Europe after the turn of the century and especially in the aftermath of the Great War. To exist without qualities is to abandon oneself to the purely theoretical outlook, and so to be unable to construct a narrative rendering the episodes of one's life as parts of a process with cumulativeness and direction. To live "without qualities" is to live the loss of moral narrative. Accordingly, the intent of Musil's literary investigations is both to illuminate the conditions of this loss and to assay the conditions of ethical life regained.


According to Mach's doctrine of elements, the isolable sensations that constitute the ultimate points of psychological analysis are the very elements with which the physical sciences also have to deal, albeit the physical sciences deal with these elements in abstraction from their relations to our sense physiology. The core thesis of the doctrine is thus that the "sensations" isolated in psychological analysis are not mental events, ontologically speaking, but rather points of perfect convergence of the domains of psychology and physics. What psychologists call "sensations," namely "colors, tones, warmths, pressures, spaces, times, and so on," constitute "the actually real elements of the world"—albeit before the world has been banished to a shadowy realm of pure substances beyond the limits of perception.5 The ultimate, irreducible constituents of reality are not unanalyzable substances and subjects but associations and complexes of elements that compose the luminous fabric of experience.

Mach's doctrine of elements replaces substance dualism with a brand of monism that analytical philosophers have tagged "ontological phenomenalism." Mach believed that widespread subscription to phenomenalism would have a liberating effect on the sciences, enabling empirical researchers to get on with the business of subjecting relatively permanent, relatively stable complexes of perceptual elements to the mathematical formalism that is the goal of the exact natural sciences.

There is a widespread assumption that Mach was a sense-datist—an epistemological "pointillist" who replaced substances with dots of pure sensation that, in their aggregation, compose our perceptions. The [End Page 338] assumption is false. In Mach's view the sensations of which we can possibly be conscious are irreducibly features of wholes: "The single sensation is neither conscious nor unconscious. It...


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