David Luft argues that the explosion of literary, philosophical, and medical interest in sexuality that took place in Vienna at the Jahrhundertwende is the product of a specific meeting of scientific materialism and philosophical irrationalism that characterized late-nineteenth-century liberal Viennese culture. Out of this witch's brew emerged the fascinating and sometimes infuriating writings of Otto Weininger, Robert Musil, and Heimato von Doderer. Luft, an intellectual historian well known for his work on Musil and Central European culture, offers a spirited and educational reading of the writings on sexuality by these three men.
The introductory chapters in which Luft lays out his understanding of Viennese culture at the turn of the century will be of wide interest. They could easily be assigned in the classroom to explain the intellectual history of the period. Luft tackles the vexing question of liberalism as it developed in the German-speaking realm, seeing its technical formulation in the Kantian tradition as "the self-legislation of rational moral laws" (7). More broadly, he describes it as "primarily the liberation of the unbound man from the interference of the state in the development of capitalism and from the authority of [End Page 143] the Roman Catholic Church in education—and the new opportunities for men of property and education to participate in a representative political process" (7). With such an orientation it is no surprise that political Liberalism (with a capital L) became "class bound and conservative, oriented to property and education and indifferent to the experience of people in other social strata" (18). But even intellectuals who became disaffected with political Liberalism remained committed to a broad emancipatory notion of liberal thought based on the tradition of Bildung.
In Vienna such intellectuals, imbued with varying shades of liberalism, were confronted with a peculiar admixture of scientific materialism and philosophical irrationalism. Luft argues persuasively that the natural sciences were particularly strong in Austria as compared to Germany or France, where, respectively, idealism and the social sciences held sway. In particular, he notes that the Second Vienna School of Medicine, established as a separate, purely scientific institution (in contrast to Germany's humanistic Humboldtian university ideal), insured the prominence of Wissenschaft in liberal society. Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud are among the many men who were products of this medical training. Just as Liberalism became increasingly conservative in the course of the nineteenth century, so too did scientific materialism, which moved "from being the hard edge of revolutionary liberalism and democracy to a more conservative view that was sympathetic to the biological reductions of sex and race" (27).
Remarkably, philosophical irrationalism (coming from Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche) also flowered in this same intellectual climate of faith in science. Luft argues that the coincidence should not be so surprising—Schopenhauer had himself been a medical student, and a biologistic, materialist streak manifests itself in some of Nietzsche's aphorisms. "Philosophical irrationalism," declares Luft, "established sexuality and whatever the mind cannot control as philosophical issues; in this tradition, sexuality, women, religion and the unconscious appeared as threats to reason, usually negatively, but sometimes positively" (35). Such a philosophical predisposition, coupled with a magnificent scientific institutional infrastructure, led almost necessarily, according to Luft, to the preoccupation with sexuality that characterizes turn-of-the-century Viennese thought.
Luft turns first to Otto Weininger (1880–1903), a philosopher whose flame shone briefly and brilliantly until he committed suicide at a young age. His doctoral dissertation, "Geschlecht und Charakter" (Sex and Character), was greeted with applause throughout Europe by some of the most important writers and thinkers of the era. A 1925 edition indicates that there had been twenty-five reprints by that point. Weininger's writing seems to be characterized by extreme misogyny and anti-Semitism (because, according to his reasoning...