Wahle, Richard (1857–1935)

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Richard Wahle, the Austrian philosopher and psychologist, was born in Vienna. He was appointed Privatdozent in philosophy at the University of Vienna in 1885. A decade later he was called to a professorship in philosophy at the University of Czernowitz, where he taught until 1917. From 1919 to 1933 he again lectured at the University of Vienna. Possessed of originality and an unusually lively style, he published a number of books in the fields of psychology, general philosophy, and ethics.

Wahle is known especially for his relentlessly sharp critique of traditional philosophy, particularly of metaphysics, which he regarded as "one of the most dangerous breeding-places of empty phrases." An absolute, true knowledge, of the sort to which metaphysics aspires, cannot exist. For all knowledge consists in nothing more than that "an image (or idea) is given in dependence on the self"; a reality existing in itself can never be known. Against the traditional philosophical and metaphysical "delusion of knowledge," Wahle set his own positivistic "philosophy of occurrences," according to which the "given" constitutes the sole admissible point of departure for philosophical thought. What are empirically given to us, however, are only freely suspended, surfacelike, passive, powerless "occurrences" (the contents of perception and imagination) that are the effects of unknown "really operative, powerful substantial primitive factors," which remain forever hidden and are in principle unknowable. Wahle's epistemological standpoint, described also as "antisubjectivist product-objectivism" or "agnostic product-realism," lies beyond the antitheses of materialism and spiritualism, realism and idealism (or phenomenalism), objectivism and subjectivism. He regarded all of these positions as false because things are neither essence nor appearance but simply complexes of "occurrences," and the subjective and the objective are identical inasmuch as only neutral "occurrences" are given to us. Thus Wahle's antimetaphysical and skeptical agnosticism leads from illusory knowledge to genuine ignorance, which is the only attainable goal for philosophy.

As a psychologist, Wahle firmly rejected any kind of metaphysics of the soul, as well as faculty psychology and the depth psychology of the unconscious (psychoanalysis). A satisfactory explanation of mental processes, he held, can result only from connecting them with the corresponding physiological prerequisites. There are no independent psychical unities (like the ego), forces, acts, or powers; they appear to exist only because of an inexact style of expression. For example, the ego is neither substance nor force; it is not an independent, simple, active thing at all but only a designation for a certain sphere of occurrences. Similarly, the will is said to be "the reflex action become stable under the accompaniment of images following a concurrence of reflex movements" (Über den Mechanismus des geistigen Lebens, p. 371).

Wahle attached special value to obtaining as penetrating an analysis as possible of those mental happenings that proceed essentially in "additive series." In such happenings, besides association, the "constellation" (the state of excitation of the brain at the given moment) is particularly significant. Organic sensations and bodily determinations, as well as the motor system, also play an important part in the processes of thinking, feeling, and willing. Wahle saw in the operations of the brain the antecedents or representatives of conscious processes; to the momentary molecular change of an entire specific brain region corresponds a concrete peculiarity of the given image. The brain, however, is not the "cause" of the mental occurrences or experiences but only the "necessary co-occurrence" of any such occurrence. Both psychopathological phenomena and the origin and formation of character can be understood only physiologically, more particularly from the more or less disturbed (in the case of psychopathology) or undisturbed (in the case of character formation) combined action of a very few elementary brain functions.

Wahle's reflections on the philosophy of culture and history were tinged with skepticism and pessimism, as was his conception of the intellectual capacity and ethical worth of man. Whatever meaning there is in life derives from the existence of love, joy, and pain. Life's highest wisdom is embodied in fulfilling the challenge to be happy with a modesty that is noble, free of illusion, and resigned.

See also Agnosticism; Ethical Subjectivism; Idealism; Metaphysics; Objectivity in Ethics; Pessimism and Optimism; Phenomenalism; Psychoanalysis; Psychology; Realism; Skepticism, History of; Unconscious.


works by wahle

Das Ganze der Philosophic und ihr Ende. Vienna and Leipzig, 1894.

Über den Mechanismus des geistigen Lebens. Vienna and Leipzig, 1906.

Josua. Munich, 1912. A second edition was published in 1928.

Die Tragikomödie der Weisheit. Vienna and Leipzig, 1915; 2nd ed., 1925.

Entstehung der Charaktere. Munich: Drei Masken, 1928.

Grundlagen einer neuen Psychiatrie. Vienna, 1931.

Fröhliches Register der paar philosophischen Wahrheiten (Cheerful catalog of the few philosophical truths). Vienna and Leipzig, 1934.

works on wahle

Flinker, Friedrich. Die Zerstörung des Ich. Eine kritische Darlegung der Lehre Richard Wahles. Vienna and Leipzig, 1927.

Hochfeld, Sophus. Die Philosophie Richard Wahles und Johannes Rehmkes Grundwissenschaft. Potsdam, 1926.

Franz Austeda (1967)

Translated by Albert E. Blumberg