Frank, Erich (1883–1949)

views updated


Erich Frank studied philology and classics at the universities of Vienna, Freiburg, and Berlin. In 1907 he turned to philosophy, which he studied in Heidelberg under Heinrich Rickert and Wilhelm Windelband. His philosophical career in Germany was brief but distinguished. In 1923 he became professor at Heidelberg, and five years later he was appointed Martin Heidegger's successor in Marburg. Three years after his dismissal from Marburg in 1936, he came to Harvard on a research fellowship and made America his second home. Almost all of Frank's works reflect his double interest in philosophy and history and his efforts to combine historical knowledge and philosophical thought: Plato und die sogennanten Pythagoreer (Halle, 1923); Wissen, Wollen, Glauben (Knowledge, will, belief), a collection of English and German historical and speculative essays, edited with an appreciation by Ludwig Edelstein (Zürich, 1955), of which the title essay represents Frank's most original contribution to philosophy; Philosophical Understanding and Religious Truth (New York, 1945).

As a student, Frank felt dissatisfied with current attempts to model philosophy on science and to eliminate the traditional questions of metaphysics, ontology, and religion. Nor was he long satisfied with the post-Kantian idealism that was offered as an alternative and which for a time attracted him. When in 1914 he discovered Søren Kierkegaard, at that time almost unknown in philosophical circles, he thought he had found the beginning of a new and fruitful approach to the problem of the subject-object dialectic. He shared his discovery with Karl Jaspers, and five years later, with the publication of Frank's essay Wissen, Wollen, Glauben and Jaspers's Psychologie der Weltanschauungen the foundations of German existentialism were laid. The major theme of Frank's essay is that the unity of the subject in self-consciousness is achieved not in the act of knowing or in the act of willing, but only in the act of faith. This knowledge of the self is logically unprovable but is also incontrovertible. The act of faith is neither blind belief nor a "will to believe," but arises out of the immediate awareness both of oneself as free and of a transcendence of oneself. Faith is thus both the condition and the result of the subject's freedom, and all theoretical and practical activity has its source in this freedom. Frank believed he had found in the act of faith the unity of the subject that Immanuel Kant sought but could not find in the act of judging.

Later Frank came to question the subjective direction in which existentialist philosophy was developing. In his review of Jaspers's Philosophie (1933) he not only criticized what he called the "atheistischer Nihilismus " (atheistic nihilism) of Heidegger, but also pointed out the insufficiency of Jaspers's existential ontology (the Chiffre ), which, he claimed, bears no analogical relation to Being. Existentialism, he argued, has not succeeded in combining existential concerns with metaphysical objectivity. The freedom of the subject is not threatened by his encounter with the objective. Indeed, that freedom which does not express, historically and analogically, a truth concerning objective Being, is an empty, irrational freedom.

In Philosophical Understanding and Religious Truth, which grew out of the Flexner Lectures he gave at Bryn Mawr in 1943, Frank considered the question of analogical terms through which alone, in his view, philosophy could adequately express the subjective, existential experience of objective reality. All philosophical truth, he argued, is analogical in that it recounts, in and for each historical period, the relation of man to Being. Philosophical analogy is possible only because there is an objective reality to which our thinking bears a relation. Just as in Knowledge, Will, Belief Frank argued that the freedom of the subject always presupposes a transcendence of it, so he now maintained that philosophical thought presupposes an object beyond itself that is its content and its substance. Thus, philosophy shares with religion the belief that there is an objective reality to be known; the task of philosophy is, in part, the rational elucidation of religious truths. However, philosophy must not take the place of the revealed mystery of religion. In every historical period philosophical truths have a different starting point and find a different expression, but their contentBeingis eternal. Philosophical analogy is possible only because there is Being; and Being becomes part of our thinking only in analogy. The purpose of philosophy is to present in rational terms the existential dialectic of the subjective and the objective, the temporal and the eternal.

See also Being; Existentialism; Faith; Heidegger, Martin; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Jaspers, Karl; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Rickert, Heinrich; Windelband, Wilhelm.


In addition to the works cited above, the reader may wish to consult Frank's "Das Prinzip der dialektischen Synthesis und die Kantische Philosophie," in Kant-Studien, Ergänzungsheft No. 21 (1911), and his "Mathematik und Musik und der griechische Geist," in Logos 9 (2) (1920): 222259. See also his editions of Fichte's Die Anweisung zum seligen Leben (Jena, 1910) and of the so-called Nachtwachen von Bonaventura by Clemens Brentano (Heidelberg, 1912), and his literary and philological studies of Schelling and Brentano in Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, PhilosophischeHistorische Klasse, 1 Abh. (1912); and GermanischRomanische Monatsschrift 4 (1912): 417440.

Eva Gossman (1967)

About this article

Frank, Erich (1883–1949)

Updated About content Print Article