Keyserling, Hermann Alexander, Graf von (1880–1946)

views updated


Hermann Alexander, Graf von Keyserling, a German philosopher of life and man, was born in Könno, Estonia. He studied geology and other natural sciences at the universities of Dorpat, Geneva, Heidelberg, and Vienna. In 1902 Keyserling received his doctorate at Vienna, where, under the influence of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, he turned to philosophy. He spent the next few years in Paris, interrupting his stay, however, by several trips to England. In 1908, after two years in Berlin, Keyserling returned to Estonia to take over his ancestral estate at Rayküll. He traveled frequently and in 1911 and 1912 took a trip around the world. The loss of his property after the Russian Revolution led to Keyserling's immigration to Germany. In 1920 he founded the School of Wisdom in Darmstadt. Further journeys to North and South America followed. The last years of his life were spent in the Austrian Tyrol.

Keyserling was not a systematic philosopher; instead, he presented brilliant observations, suggestive generalizations, and in vague outline, an image of man. To measure his work by traditional philosophy is to reject his view of the philosophic enterprise. Keyserling wanted to replace the traditional philosopher with the sage, to replace critical examination with immediate appreciation, and to replace the university with his School of Wisdom. He held that, instead of criticizing another position, one should try to empathize with it. His own Travel Diary furnishes an example of this approach. Keyserling reduced philosophy to an exercise with the thoughts of other ages and cultures in the hope that such play would lead the reader to an awareness of the spirit that underlies these thoughts. Truth, in the sense of adequacy to fact, was of little concern to Keyserling; intuitive appreciation alone counted. Keyserling used the word polyphonic to distinguish his thinking from "homophonic," traditional philosophy. Polyphonic thinking has no definite point of view and presents no definite theses. It is essentially rootless, an exercise with possibilities, designed to reveal a meaning that escapes all philosophic systems.

Keyserling's approach to philosophy bears witness to his understanding of man. Following Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, and Eastern thought, he asserted the rights of life in the face of the modern overemphasis on the intellect. His insistence on the protean nature of man anticipated the existentialists' claim that existence precedes essence. Keyserling asked us to intuit, amid cultural and natural diversity, the spirit that finds only inadequate expression in each definite form. Those matters that are truly important cannot be thought clearly but can only be intuited. Critical philosophy was renounced; the philosopher had become an artist. The success of Keyserling's works, particularly of the Travel Diary, was symptomatic of the spiritual situation following World War I. Keyserling lent expression to the feeling that many of the traditional answers had become meaningless. But instead of deploring this spiritual homelessness, Keyserling made it a necessary condition of the full life: Ideally, man is a traveler.

See also Bergson, Henri; Chamberlain, Houston Stewart; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Essence and Existence; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Schopenhauer, Arthur.


works by keyserling

Unsterblichkeit. Munich: J. F. Lehmanns, 1907. Translated as Immortality. London: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Das Reisetagebuch eines Philosophen, 2 vols. Darmstadt: O. Reichl, 1920. Translated as The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925.

Schöpferische Erkenntnis. Darmstadt: O. Reichl, 1922. Translated as Creative Understanding. New York: Harper, 1929.

Wiedergeburt. Darmstadt: O. Reichl, 1927. Translated as The Recovery of Truth. New York: Harper, 1929.

Das Buch vom Ursprung. Baden-Baden: Roland, 1947.

Reise durch die Zeit. Vaduz, Liechtenstein, 1948.

Kritik des Denkens. Innsbruck: Palme, 1948.

Die Gesammelten Werke. Darmstadt, 1956.

works on keyserling

Feldkeller, Paul. Graf Keyserlings Erkenntnisweg zum Übersinnlichen. Darmstadt: O. Reichl, 1922.

Noack, Hermann. "Sinn und Geist." Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung (1953): 592597.

Parks, Mercedes G. Introduction to Keyserling. London: J. Cape, 1934.

Röhr, Rudolf. Graf Keyserlings magische Geschichtsphilosophie. Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1939.

Karsten Harries (1967)