- Ludwig Klages and the Philosophy of Life: A Vitalist Toolkit by Paul Bishop
Although he remains relatively unknown today, the German Lebensphilosoph (or "philosopher of life") and psychologist Ludwig Klages was tremendously influential throughout the mid-twentieth century. His preoccupation with the redemptive or revolutionary powers of collective mythic experience, grounded in the biological lifeworld of the human, attracted the interest of numerous figures ranging from Walter Benjamin and Herman Hesse to prominent members of the Nazi Party. Klages's thoroughgoing concern with political decay and its antidotes also meant that he was read widely by a popular audience—although, by the start of the 1940s, his popularity had waned dramatically. Ultimately, Klages was rejected vociferously by the very political allies he had spent time courting. In 1938, the prominent Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg delivered a lecture ("Gestalt und Leben"), explicitly attacking Klages for failing to contribute sufficiently to Nazi philosophy. After World War II, Klages descended into obscurity.
Indeed, Paul Bishop's Ludwig Klages and the Philosophy of Life: A Vitalist Toolkit is only the second monograph on Klages in English to appear from an academic press, the first being Nitzan Lebovic's The Philosophy of Life and Death: Ludwig Klages and the Rise of a Nazi Biopolitics.37 Accordingly, it is worth addressing—at least in part—the contestation over Klages, and who he was, that haunts this minor critical literature. Speaking bluntly, Lebovic positions Klages explicitly and almost exclusively in terms of his relationship to Nazism, whereas Bishop endeavors a little too earnestly to distance Klages from any possible ideological contamination that might attend his vitalism. My suspicion is that if we are to take Klages seriously in the manner Bishop prescribes, then we must avoid obscuring the biopolitical dimensions of his work. I return to this point below, but first, let us review how Bishop proceeds in this somewhat unusual book.
Principally, Bishop purports to provide us with what he calls a "vitalist toolkit." This toolkit, he clarifies, is intended to serve these two purposes: to help us understand Klages better and to help us "construct a life based on vitalist principles," if that is something we want to do (p. xx). On the face of it, this admixture of intellectual history and vitalist ethics appears rather out of the ordinary. Indeed, Bishop's book is a rare hybrid in this regard, a balancing act that he manages admirably. That being said, it remains unclear why Bishop largely refuses to engage with the recent renaissance of vitalist (or quasi-vitalist) literatures in critical and political theory. If part of the purpose of the book is to make the case for Klages's relevance to us today, then it would be nice to see how Klages speaks to contemporary new materialists like Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, or Samantha Frost. For example, in his Conditio moderna, Manfred Frank suggests that Klages is an important predecessor to Deleuze, but Bishop chooses not to pursue any such insight.38
Starting in chapter 1, Bishop offers us an intellectual biography of Klages, the man. Bishop's skill as a historian shines here, for the level of detail he provides is truly exceptional, especially insofar as it concerns Klages's intellectual development. In particular, Bishop's discussion of Klages in relation to Nietzsche clarifies much of the discussion that follows, for Klages is sometimes portrayed as a misguided Nietzschean [End Page 117] epigone. To the contrary, Bishop illustrates the degree to which Klages both reconstructs and critically differentiates his own philosophy from Nietzsche's. As I mention above, Bishop also takes great pains to distance Klages from his political errors. For example, writing about Klages's use of highly racialized categories such as Aryan and Jewish culture, or racial essence, Bishop notes the cultural prevalence of such terms in discourse at that time. He then goes on to conclude that "Klages's mistake, in this regard, is unthinkingly to have accepted the categories of the discourse of his day" (p. 33). He also specifies a number...