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'A falling star' – the sovereign self in Otto Weininger

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Jointly hosted with CRASSH, and held in their seminar room at 17 Mill Lane

’Individuality is the fall of man, and its symbol is the falling star.’ (Weininger, OLT 149 )

My paper offers a case study of a one-dimensional view of the self, one that attempts to postulate the ideal of an autonomous, even sovereign, reflective self or ego that would separate itself from both the body and the social world. The theorist in question is Otto Weininger, a once-famous figure from fin-de-siècle Vienna whose notorious book, Sex and Character, appeared in 1903. Weininger influenced many luminaries of early 20th century culture, all of whom viewed him as having the qualities of genius – these include August Strindberg, D.W. Lawrence, Oswald Spengler, Hermann Broch, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

My focus will be on the most abstract and foundational level of Weininger’s theorizing, which is his post-Kantian or hyper-Kantian conception of the essential nature of human consciousness and the transcendental ego. I shall discuss Weininger’s affinities with as well as divergences from the thought of Kant, Fichte, and the German idealist tradition in general. My focus will be on the inherent contradictions, both logical and existential, which Weininger’s extreme, one-dimensional view seems to have entailed, and which may have contributed to his suicide at age 23. Weininger’s work and life can be seen as a fable of the impossibility, and ultimate unlivability, of a mode of being that would reject the embedded and embodied nature of human selfhood.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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