Klages, Ludwig (1872–1956)

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Ludwig Klages, a German psychologist and philosopher, was the leading figure in the field of characterology. Born in Hanover, Klages studied chemistry, physics, and philosophy at Munich, receiving his doctorate in chemistry in 1900. As a member of the Stefan George circle, he collaborated with George in the editing of the Blättern für die Kunst. In 1905 Klages founded at the University of Munich a Seminar für Ausdruckskunde, which soon became Germany's main center of characterological psychology. In 1919 the seminar was moved to Kilchberg, near Zürich, where Klages remained until his death.

Klages was the principal representative in psychology of the vitalist movement that swept Germany from 1895 to 1915. His most important work was directed toward the formulation of a science of character that would reestablish the undifferentiated union of the life forms that had been ruptured by the emergence of ego in the human species. To this end he explored some of the more bizarre pseudo sciences, such as graphology, and attempted to use their insights as the bases for auxiliary disciplines in his study of character types.

In addition to the literary influences of the romantic poets, of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and of Stefan George, Klages was also influenced by the physiologist E. G. Carus and the psychologist Theodore Lipps and, most important, by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. All of these strands of thought converged in Klages to make of him a major spokesman of a generation of intellectuals consciously dedicated to the repudiation of reason in the name of instinct, and of civilization in the name of life. In short, his work was similar in content and general effect to that of Ernst Jünger, Oswald Spengler, and Martin Heidegger in providinghowever unintentionallyan intellectual basis for Nazism.

According to Klages, Nietzsche had perceived correctly that man was distinguished from the rest of animal nature only by his ability to clothe in images the reality given by the senses. But Nietzsche had been wrong, Klages maintained, to regard this image-making ability as necessarily acting in the service of vital forces. In fact, he argued, man's ability to conceive a world in the imagination and to present this imagined world as a project or possible attainment against lived experience was unnatural and, in the end, profoundly hostile to life itself. Human life, for Klages, differed from animal life in general by virtue of the emergence in man of spirit (Geist ); man's capacity to think and to will provided the source of his estrangement from the world and the cause of his peculiar psychic illnesses.

Animal life is possessed of both body (Leib ) and soul (Seele ), whose functions constitute "genuine processes." "The Body finds expression in the process of sensation and in the impulse towards movement, the Soul in the process of contemplation and in the impulse to formation (that is, to the magical or mechanical realization of images)." The processes of body and soul express the "eternal" life force, which is characterized by spontaneous creativity and flows beneath individual duration. In man, however, spirit appears, characterized by the "act of apprehension and the act of willing," which are in turn the origin of ego, utterly lacking in animals and impelling man to the "unnatural" desire for immortality "or, more briefly, the urge to self-preservation."

This unnatural urge to self-preservation in man creates the tensions of human life. Man is a field whereon animal consciousness and human consciousness vie for supremacy. The former promotes the impulse to return to nature, expressed in the quest for "eternal life," while the latter promotes the life-destructive impulse to transcend the animal condition, reflected in science, religion, philosophy, and even art. The different quanta of soul and spirit present within an individual account for differences in character. Characterology, which is the study of these differences, constructs a typology of attitudes and structural forms as manifested in different egos. Most men live in the middle range of a spectrum of characterological types that runs from an almost total repression of spirit, as in primitive peoples, to an almost total repression of bodily forces, as in the asceticism of the redemptive religions. But in the science of character, Klages hoped, the true nature of the struggle between life and spirit raging in the individual would be clarified, the disastrous consequences of the triumph of spirit over life would be revealed, and science, art, and religion would be turned upon the spirit, destroy it, and lead to the dissolution of the individual ego in the undifferentiated nature out of which it had unnaturally emerged.

See also Carus, Carl Gustav; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Heidegger, Martin; Jünger, Ernst; Lipps, Theodor; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Psychology; Spengler, Oswald; Vitalism.


Works by Klages include Prinzipien der Charakterologie (Leipzig, 1910), of which the 4th and subsequent editions are titled Grundlagen der Charakterkunde (11th ed., Bonn, 1951). The Science of Character, a translation of the 5th and 6th editions of this work, was prepared by W. H. Johnson (London: Allen and Unwin, 1929). Other writings are Handschrift und Charakter (Leipzig, 1917); Die psychologischen Errungenschaften Nietzsches (Leipzig: J. A. Barth, 1926); Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele, 3 vols. (Leipzig: J. A. Barth, 19291932); Graphologie (Heidelberg, 1931); Geist und Leben (Berlin, 1935); Ursprünge der Seelenforschung (Leipzig: P. Reclam, 1942) and Die Sprache als Quelle der Seelen-Kunde (Zürich, 1948).

For works on Klages see Max Bense, Anti-Klages (Berlin, 1937); K. Haeberlein, Einführung in die Forschungsergebnisse von Klages (Kampen, 1934); Herbert Hönel, ed., Ludwig Klages: Erforscher und Künder. Festschrift zum 75. Geburtstage (Linz: Österreichischer, 1947); Hans Kasdorff, Um Seele und Geist: Ein Wegweiser zum Hauptwerk von Ludwig Klages (Munich, 1954); Hans Prinzhorn, ed., Die Wissenschaft am Scheidewege von Leben und Geist: Ludwig Klages zum 60. Geburtstag (Leipzig, 1932); Ernest Sellière, De la déesse nature à la déesse vie (Paris, 1931); and Jean Toulemonde, La caractérologie (Paris: Payot, 1951).

Hayden V. White (1967)