Vaihinger, Hans (1852–1933)

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Hans Vaihinger, the German philosopher of the "as if," was born in a devout home near Tübingen. Although he developed unorthodox religious views at an early age, he attended the Theological College of the University of Tübingen. Vaihinger wanted to be a man of action, but his extreme nearsightedness forced him into scholarly pursuits. He regarded the contrast between his physical constitution and the way he would like to live as irrational, and his defective vision made him sensitive to other frustrating aspects of existence.

Vaihinger eventually became a professor of philosophy at Halle, but failing vision necessitated his giving up his duties in 1906. He then turned to completing his most important work, Die Philosophie des Als-Ob (Berlin, 1911; translated by C. K. Ogden as The Philosophy of "As If," New York, 1924), which had been started in 1876. The volume went through many editions and made the philosophy of fictions well known. Vaihinger also achieved renown as an Immanuel Kant scholar and founded the journal Kant-Studien. He also founded (with Raymund Schmidt) the Annalen der Philosophie, a yearbook concerned with the "as if" approach. He was much interested in the theory of evolution and emphasized the biological function of thought. On occasion he expressed himself sharply. For example, when quite young he defined humankind as "a species of monkey suffering from megalomania." This resulted in considerable controversy, and Vaihinger later seemed to regret this definition, although he still found some merit in it.

General Point of View

In many ways Vaihinger was attracted to apparent inconsistencies. Although he held theological doctrines to be false in any literal or factual sense, Vaihinger, somewhat like George Santayana, found considerable aesthetic and ethical merit in Christian doctrines. Both idealism and materialism interested him, but he found either alone to be unsatisfactory. Indeed, he regarded the problem of the relation of matter to mind as logically insoluble. He was much influenced by Kant and emphasized the importance of categories supplied by the mind in the perception of objects; yet he wanted to modify Kant in a more materialistic and empirical direction.

Vaihinger's urge to absorb elements of apparently conflicting approaches is illustrated by the label he chose for his philosophy: idealistic positivism or positivist idealism. He was impressed by F. A. Lange's History of Materialism and respected both Lange's Kantian views and his great knowledge of the natural sciences. But even Lange's neo-Kantianism needed to be made more empirical and positivistic, in Vaihinger's view. This was to be achieved by recognizing the necessity and utility of acting on the basis of fictions that are known to be false.

Vaihinger praised Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimism and irrationalism. Too many philosophers (especially G. W. F. Hegel) had believed that the ideal of philosophy was to furnish a rational explanation for everything. But for Vaihinger both nature and history contain many irrational elements, and he regarded Schopenhauer as one of the few philosophers sincere enough to emphasize that irrationality.

Vaihinger maintained that pessimism gives moral strength, enables one to endure life, and helps to develop a more objective view of the world. He emphasized that in his opinion the difficulties of Germany, and especially its defeat in World War I, were largely attributable to the prevailing optimism of German idealism. He saw a close relation between philosophy and practical politics, arguing that a "rational pessimism" might have prevented the war.


The Platonic myths were the first stimuli to Vaihinger's eventual theory of fictions. Later, Kant's antinomies also were influential. Lange had said, "Man needs to supplement reality by an ideal world of his own creation"; Vaihinger expanded this view and applied it to science, metaphysics, theology, social ideals, and morality. Fictions are not to be mistaken for true propositions, for fictions are known to be false. They contradict observed reality or are self-contradictory, and so they falsify experience. Something can work as if true, even though false and recognized as false.

Vaihinger distinguished his philosophy from any pragmatism that holds that a statement is true if it is useful in practice. In contrast, he argued: "An idea whose theoretical untruth or incorrectness, and therewith its falsity, is admitted, is not for that reason practically valueless and useless; for such an idea, in spite of its theoretical nullity may have great practical importance" (The Philosophy of "As If," p. viii). Nevertheless, he admitted that in practice pragmatism and fictionalism had much in common, especially in their acknowledgment of the significance of heuristic ideals.

Nor can fictionalism be identified with any variety of skepticism. Vaihinger interpreted skepticism as the doubting of some view. Fictionalism does not doubt the correctness of its fictions; it knows them to be wrong. Vaihinger thought that the label "skepticism" was applied to his philosophy because of its views on God and immortality. He suggested that the label "relativism" (in the sense of opposition to absolutism) better fitted his views.

fictions and hypotheses

Vaihinger distinguished between hypotheses and fictions. Methodologically they are very different, but they are similar in form and hard to separate in practice. According to Vaihinger, a hypothesis is "directed toward reality" and is subject to verification, but fictions are never verifiable, for they are known to be false. In the case of a number of competing hypotheses, the most probable is selected, but in the case of a number of competing fictions, the most expedient is chosen. Vaihinger held that to treat "Man is descended from the lower mammals" as a hypothesis is to say that we believe that if we had lived at the appropriate time, we would have perceived the ancestors of man, that we may still find the remains of those ancestors, and so on. In contrast, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe's notion of an animal archetype of which all known animal species are modifications was a fiction. Goethe did not believe the archetype had ever existed; he was saying that all animals could be regarded as if they were modifications of the single type.

Goethe's fiction was of considerable value despite its falsity, since it suggested a new classificatory system and had heuristic value for Darwin's later theory. Hypotheses, then, are constructed with the hope of verification, but "the fiction is a mere auxiliary construct, a circuitous approach, a scaffolding afterwards to be demolished." Thus, what is untenable as a hypothesis, especially if exceptions to it are discovered, may be useful as a fiction. Hypotheses are verified by experience, but fictions are justified by the services they render, by their utility.

characteristics of fictions

Fictions have four general characteristics: (1) They either deviate from reality or are self-contradictory. (2) They disappear either in the course of history or through logical operations and are used only provisionally. (3) The users of a fiction normally are consciously aware that the fiction lays no claim to being true; frequently in the history of thought, however, the first users of a fiction mistake it for a hypothesis. (4) Fictions are the means to some definite end; fictions lacking that expediency are mere subjective fancies.

the utility of fictions

Vaihinger adopted a basically biological account of the utility of fictions and made lengthy comparisons of psychical and physical processes, holding that the same general notion of utility applies in both cases. He specifically mentioned "ready adaptation to circumstances and environment," the maintenance of a "successful reaction" to external impulses and influences, and "the adoption and acceptance or the repulsion of new elements." A Kantian emphasis also appears in this context. The psyche is not a receptacle into which sense impressions are poured but is, rather, a "formative force, which independently changes what has been appropriated." It is also assimilative and constructive. Logical thought, using fictions, "is an active appropriation of the outer world."

examples of fictions

Vaihinger discussed in great detail specific fictions used in diverse realms of discourse. God and immortality have already been mentioned. It may be a great convenience to act as if the cosmos were orderly and created by an all-powerful and all-good God and as if man were immortal. The virgin birth is another "beautiful, suggestive and useful myth." Vaihinger agreed with Kant that despite the scientific difficulties of the notion, it has practical utility as an excellent symbol of humankind triumphantly resisting evil and raising itself above temptation. In science the atom is a fiction. Both those who defended the literal reality of the atom and the early positivists who rejected its reality on the grounds that atomic theory was internally contradictory were mistaken. The atom is, rather, "a group of contradictory concepts which are necessary in order to deal with reality."

A materialistic notion of the world is false if taken as a hypothesis but is a necessary and useful fiction. Materialism, Vaihinger held, simplifies our notion of the external world and helps to bolster a scientific outlook. Natural scientists carry on their work as if an external material world existed independently of perceiving subjects, and thus science can "proceed on the basis of relations far simpler than those actually presented to a careful observation of reality itself" (ibid., p. 200). The notion of a vital force in biology, while full of difficulties, may have some use as a fiction. Vaihinger regarded such a fiction as "an abbreviation for the sum of all the causes that determine the phenomena of life" (ibid., p. 212). It enables us to express some matters in a simpler way than we otherwise could. To cite one final example, doctrines in social theory, such as the notion of an original social contract, may be helpful. An extremely complicated situation can be grasped by adopting a fiction that deliberately substitutes for "the complete range of causes and facts" a part of that range.

Vaihinger's theory of fictions can be regarded as a denial of the view of W. K. Clifford and others that belief should always be proportionate to the evidence. Intellectually, practically, and morally we need false but expedient fictions to cope with the world. Many traditional philosophic views are mistaken in that they confuse the human need for certain doctrines with the truth of those doctrines; but various forms of skepticism, positivism, and materialism are wrong in assuming that because certain doctrines are false, they should be eliminated.

Theory of Mind

According to Vaihinger, all knowledge "is a reduction of the unknown to the known, that is to say a comparison." He held that there are limitations to all thought, although he did not wish to lament them; we cannot leap out of our skins and somehow attain what we cannot attain. These limitations apply not only to man but also to "the highest Mind of all," and they come about because thought originated as a means to an end. The end is to serve the will to live.

the purpose of thought

Vaihinger held that "the test of the correctness of a logical result lies in practice, and the purpose of thought must be sought not in the reflection of a so-called objective world, but in rendering possible the calculation of events and of operations upon them" (ibid., p. 5). The purpose of thought is not correspondence with an assumed objective reality; nor is it the theoretical reconstruction of an outer world within consciousness; nor is it the comparison of things and logical constructs. It is pragmatic in the sense that successful logical products enable us to "calculate events that occur without our intervention. "

Vaihinger maintained that nature proceeds entirely according to "hard and unalterable laws but thought is an adaptable, pliant, and adjustable organic function." Very probably the most elementary physical processes contain certain strivings. In organic beings, those strivings develop into impulses. Man, in his evolutionary development from the animals, has had those impulses transformed into will and action. Thus ideas, judgments, and conclusions act as means of survival.

senseless problems

Vaihinger put great stress on what he termed the "Law of the Preponderance of the Means over the End." According to this law, the well-adapted means to a specific end everywhere have a tendency to become independent and ends in themselves. Thus the mind sets itself impossible problems that cannot be solved, even by "the highest Mind of all," just because no mind was developed for those purposes. Eventually "emancipated thought" sets for itself senseless problems, among which Vaihinger listed questions about the origin of the world, the formation of matter, the origin of motion, the meaning of the world, and the purpose of life. He gave particular attention to the relation of mind and matter. His philosophy was admittedly inconsistently dualistic; on the one hand it reduced all reality to sensations, and on the other it reduced all reality to matter. But Vaihinger insisted that no logical, rational unification is possible through any philosophy and that the question of the relation of mind to matter is as senseless as that of the purpose of existence.

However, a nonrational solution is possible to the various world-riddles: "in intuition and in experience all this contradiction and distress fades into nothingness." Experience and intuition, Vaihinger said, are "higher than all human reason," and we do not "understand the world when we are pondering over its problems, but when we are doing the world's work." Experience and intuition give us the harmonious unity that reason cannot supply. Philosophers are especially prone to torture themselves with unanswerable questions; the wise man is content if life is successful on the level of practice. Shifts, probably unwarranted, in the meaning of such terms as understand occur here, but Vaihinger's main point seems to be that there are nonrational solutions to questions which have no rational answers.

thought and reality

Subjective events alter reality either by adding to it or by subtracting from it. Yet correct practical results are frequently obtained, and in that sense "thought tallies with reality." Hence, both what Vaihinger called logical optimism, the assumption that thought mirrors reality, and logical pessimism, the assumption that thought is always deceptive, need to be avoided. Senseless questions will not be answered in the future by some new philosophic synthesis but, rather, are explained by "looking backwards," by discovering their psychological origin.


Vaihinger's views on religion illustrate his general reluctance to accept either alternative of some of the traditional philosophic polarities. His early rationalistic, ethical theism later developed into a variety of pantheism. His pantheism then became, during his stay at Tübingen, a kind of Kantian agnosticism and then something close to Schopenhauerian atheism. Vaihinger saw no need to adopt a negative view toward the historical forms of the church and its various dogmas. But even though he regarded many Christian doctrines as fictions of considerable ethical and aesthetic value, doubt entered. For example, although he thought it was a fiction satisfying to many to take the world as if created, or at least regulated, by "a more perfect Higher Spirit," he further insisted that a supplementary fiction was necessary, holding that the "order created by the Higher Divine Spirit had been destroyed by some hostile force."

Vaihinger believed Friedrich Carl Forberg's views on religion were overly neglected. He agreed with Forberg that "theoretical atheism" was harmless and that everyone should have "an attack" of such atheism at least once, in order to find out whether he desired the good for its own sake or merely for some advantage either in this world or in a future world. On the other hand, Vaihinger deplored "practical atheism," understood as the failure to act so as to make the world better. Religion became a mode of behavior rather than the acceptance of certain theoretical views.

Vaihinger held, in agreement with Forberg, that the striving toward the kingdom of God is what matters, not the achieving of it. In fact, it is very likely that the kingdom of God is an actual impossibility. The man who neglects none of his duties to his fellows and helps to further the common good, even though convinced that the world is filled with wickedness and stupidity, practices true religion. Religion is not the belief in the kingdom of God but the attempt to make it come about while recognizing its impossibility. Vaihinger argued that this was the general view of Kant. He believed that this religion not only had warmth and poetry but also "represents in its radical form the highest point to which the human mind, or rather the human heart, is capable of raising itself."

See also Clifford, William Kingdon; Fictionalism; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang van; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Lange, Friedrich Albert; Materialism; Neo-Kantianism; Pantheism; Pessimism and Optimism; Pragmatism; Santayana, George; Schopenhauer, Arthur.


Additional works by Vaihinger are Hartmann, Dühring und Lange (Iserlohn: J. Baedecker, 1876); Kommentar zu Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 18811892); Nietzsche als Philosoph (Berlin: Reuther and Reichard, 1902); and Die Philosophie in der Staatsprüfung (Berlin: Reuther and Reichard, 1906).

The English translation by C. K. Ogden of The Philosophy of "As If" was made from the sixth German edition, specially revised by Vaihinger for the English-speaking philosophical world; it also contains a lengthy and helpful autobiography of Vaihinger that emphasizes the intellectual origins of his views.

See also W. Del Negro, "Hans Vaihinger's philosophisches Werk mit besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Kantforschung," in Kant-Studien (1934): 316327.

Rollo Handy (1967)

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