Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860–1900 by Frederick C. Beiser
Frederick Beiser continues to unfold the German philosophical tradition, refusing to let a static and narrowly construed canon of "big names" obscure important philosophical debates in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany. Weltschmerz focuses on the pessimism controversy, the debate over "the thesis that life is not worth living, that nothingness is better than being, or that it is worse to be than not be" (4).
The most important philosopher in the book is Arthur Schopenhauer. Chapters 1–4 are devoted to Schopenhauer's legacy, metaphysics, pessimism, and "the illusion of redemption." Chapter 1 lays out important information about Schopenhauer's central role in German philosophy in the latter half of the nineteenth century, while chapters 2–4 combine an overview of Schopenhauer's philosophy with important, if controversial, contributions to contemporary Schopenhauer scholarship. For example, Beiser defends a reading of Schopenhauer that "involves a form of transcendental realism, that is, the assumption of the independent reality of the world of experience" (40). With respect to Schopenhauer's pessimism, Beiser emphasizes Schopenhauer's broadly hedonic and even egoist arguments based on the fact that "life consists in suffering" (49). Oddly, despite his helpful recognition of both eudemonic and idealistic reasons for pessimism in general, Beiser basically ignores Schopenhauer's own moral arguments for pessimism based on our sympathy with other living beings.
Succeeding chapters unfold the pessimism controversy with an excellent blend of historically sensitive introductions to unfamiliar philosophers, a sense of intellectual drama, and attentiveness to still-relevant philosophical issues at stake. Chapter 5 turns to the first of many "Independent Disciple[s]," Julius Frauenstädt, who popularized Schopenhauer's pessimism while giving it a distinctively Frauenstädtian spin. Chapter 6 concerns Eugen Dühring, whom Beiser calls an "optimist," but for whom the title "activist" seems more appropriate. Dühring emphasized a central objection to Schopenhauer's pessimism, its tendency to passive quietism. While realistic about the miseries of the world, Dühring shifted the nature of "the" question of pessimism, seeing it as "not theoretical but practical" (95), not about whether life is now worth living, but about developing a practical "strategy for making life worth living" (89). Chapter 7 lays out what Beiser calls the "Optimistic Pessimism of Eduard von Hartmann." As Beiser puts it, "To many, Hartmann seemed to offer not only a more rigorous and systematic pessimism than Schopenhauer, but also a kinder and gentler version, one which combines pessimism about human happiness with optimism about cultural progress" (123).
Chapter 8 gives an overview of a wide range of debates over pessimism, 1870–1890, which by then was essentially Hartmann's pessimism. Beiser wisely focuses on Hartmann's wife, [End Page 180] Agnes Taubert, and on Olga Plümacher, who emerges as a particularly forceful proponent of pessimism and, in my view, Hartmann's best defender. While they are the major actors in this chapter, their sharpness of intellect and wit was directed against attacks by little-known philosophers and theologians such as Johannes Huber or Hugo Sommer and better-known neo-Kantian philosophers such as Wilhelm Windelband or Jürgen Meyer.
Chapter 9 turns to "the heroic pessimist," "the most radical pessimist," who "alone was willing to take pessimism to its ultimate conclusion: suicide" (203, 201). Philipp Batz, or "Mainländer," preached the "gospel . . . that salvation from the misery of life lies only in death, which is nothingness" (201). Chapter 10 lays out Julius Bahnsen's worldview alongside exchanges with Hartmann. In my view, Bahnsen is the real radical pessimist. While Mainländer took the "ultimate" step in practice, this arguably provided a sort of redemption and peace that Bahnsen refused to allow. In Bahnsen's view, "the essence of reality lies in the inner conflict of the will" (229); "reality itself is self-contradictory" (231). The best we could hope for is "some relief from all the suffering and tragedy of life," particularly in "humor" (267).
An unfortunate quirk of the book is that it lacks any overarching conclusion, ending simply with an assessment of Bahnsen as deserving "much greater attention" (284). I would have liked to see something more synthetic, something like the introduction, that could tie together the themes of the book and highlight their continuing relevance today.
Overall, this is another excellent book by Beiser, unearthing another major, overlooked controversy in the history of philosophy, with a cast of insightful philosophers making arguments that deserve continued attention. Throughout, Beiser balances accessibility to non-specialists and substantive engagement with important secondary literature on Schopenhauer. He not only explains the views of the participants in this great philosophical drama, but inserts himself—and his readers—into that drama. He describes systems, arguments, and objections so richly that I often found myself interjecting my own thoughts about how one or another philosopher might respond to various objections. He shows how pessimism was part of other important philosophical controversies, among which I found particularly striking the near-drumbeat refrain of ongoing attempts to articulate a meaningful and secular philosophy of life: "Summa summarum, pessimism is the rediscovery of the problem of evil after the collapse of theism" (7). The need to develop a post-theistic philosophy of life persisted amongst all the philosophers—pessimist or not—in the book; this need helps crystallize the ongoing challenges for philosophers aware of the problem of evil, but unwilling to accept theistic resolutions to find meaning in life.