Laas, Ernst (1837–1885)

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Ernst Laas, the German philosopher, was born in Förstenwalde. From 1872 on, he was professor in Strasbourg. His first important book, Kants Analogien der Erfahrung (Berlin, 1876), was a critical study both of Immanuel Kant and of "the foundations of theoretical philosophy"; but in his main work, Idealismus und Positivismus (3 vols., Berlin, 18791884), he launched a general attack on idealism, including Aristotle, René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and especially Plato as its founder, as well as Kant. His purpose was to provide a remedy for the "discontinuity of philosophy"; that is, its failure to make progress over the centuries and its want of any clear standards. The remedy lay first of all in a new critical approach to the history of philosophy, which in the past had usually been at best merely scholarly and accurate. This new analysis revealed a basic dualism throughout the history of philosophy between the outlooks of Plato and Protagoras; and this revelation, in turn, permitted a revision of the judgment rendered in favor of Plato that had ever since benefited his followers at the expense of their opponents, such as the British empiricists. Laas referred specifically to J. S. Mill and cited approvingly a review of his own book on Kant that had compared it to Mill's Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy.

By "positivism" Laas meant, as was usual in Germany at the time, the tradition of Protagoras and the British empiricists, not the doctrine of Auguste Comte, whom Laas mentioned rarely and with little sympathy. Laas's position might more accurately, especially in English usage, be called neo-empiricism. It proposed to limit knowledge to the data of sense experience, thereby denying both a consciousness independent of the content of perception (insisting on the correlation of subject and object) and objects independent of the process of perception (asserting the instant changeability of objects of perception). At the same time Laas avoided the conclusions drawn by some empiricists, such as George Berkeley, by rejecting any version of subjective idealism (which would assert the superiority or exclusive reality of the perceiver vis-à-vis the objects of perception or sensation) even more vehemently than he rejected the objective idealism originated by Plato. He identified this idealistic tradition in logic with conceptual realism, in epistemology with a priori deductive rationalism, and in metaphysics with both spontaneous human creativity and superhuman teleology. He associated idealism with a mathematically inspired desire to attain to the knowledge of absolutes and with the doctrines of innate ideas and final causes.

However, in his anxiety to escape from the "monstrous" notions of subjective idealism, as well as from "skepticism," "frivolity," and the "banal philosophy of common sense," Laas came close to a neo-Kantian position in postulating an ideal or total consciousness. Recognizing, with Mill, that the sum total of actual objects of sensation is insufficient to construct an intelligible world, he asserted that the world consists of the sum total of possible contents of perception, which would be vouchsafed to an ideal consciousness and which it is the task of philosophy to construct. Since facts (objects) exist independently of consciousness (although not of perception), including this ideal consciousness, Laas claimed in this way to have saved the possibility of scientific investigation of the physical world from "skepticism," even though that world is relative and variable.

Just as he quite openly sided even with idealism (particularly with Kant, whom he often cited sympathetically) rather than with epistemological skepticism, Laas also seeks to defend his ethical doctrine (mainly in Vol. II of Idealismus und Positivismus ) against any imputation of relying on egoism. Here again, however, his main concern was to overcome what he saw as the Platonic tradition of asceticism founded on a set of absolute and transcendental ideals. For this he proposed to substitute a "positive" ethics for this world, based on its values as revealed by "enlightened self-interest." Laas acknowledged the founders of this ethical doctrine to be Epicurus, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, and Jeremy Bentham, but he diverged from them on the crucial point of egoism. He denied the identification of self-interest with egoism and held, rather, that self-interest dictates the performance of duties and the fulfillment of demands and expectations imposed on the individual by his environment. In this way, ethical values are the consequences of a particular social order. They acquire validity when they are judged, in the long run and by a considerable number of people, to be worthwhile. Laas characteristically listed as ethically desirable values security of employment, social harmony, the laws and institutions of the state, and cultural progress. These ethical teachings were the most influential part of his philosophy, affecting, in particular, the ideas of Theobald Ziegler and Friedrich Jodl.

See also Aristotle; Bentham, Jeremy; Berkeley, George; Comte, Auguste; Descartes, René; Empiricism; Epicurus; Ethical Egoism; Ethics, History of; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; Idealism; Innate Ideas; Jodl, Friedrich; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Mill, John Stuart; Plato; Positivism; Protagoras of Abdera; Realism; Teleology.


In addition to the works cited in text, see Laas's Literarischer Nachlass, edited by B. Kerry (Vienna: Deutschen Worte, 1887).

For material on Laas, see Nikolaus Koch, Das Verhältniss der Erkenntnistheorie von Ernst Laas zu Kant (Würzburg, 1940) and Ludwig Salamonowicz, Die Ethik des Positivismus nach Ernst Laas (Berlin: H. Lücker, 1935).

W. M. Simon (1967)