Background:

Born in the Czech town Horice or Horschlitz in 1849, Fritz Mauthner is an important, yet neglected Austro-Hungarian philosopher whose work symbolizes the early 20th century shift in German thought. The arch enemy of many philosophers at the time was Hegel's idealism. This was a man whose philosophy told the mythical like story of spirit coming to find itself in nature. The empirically and scientifically minded philosophers were pretty certain that he was speaking nonsense and wanted to call him out on it. Now, the critique about Hegel and many other obscure philosophers centered on their misuse of language to create non-existing concepts that weren't backed up by any evidence. Influenced by philosopher of science and experimental physicist Ernst Mach, Mauthner's three-volume Contributions to a Critique of Language (published in 1901-1902) criticizes many previous philosophical ideas for their inaccurate reliance on cultural quirks of language rather than on reasonable thinking. He especially makes fun of "law of a nature" as a distorted concept to be dispensed with. The impression that nature is some kind of a purposeful mechanism acting upon regular rules just like laws is a bad idea that stems from religious thought of the Scholastics. He traces the origin of the term to the pagan Roman era where nature was personalized in the guise of Gods on Olympus. Thus philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius inadvertently anthropomorphized nature into a being that decreed the physical properties of life by setting down laws. It's not that they were particularly religious; they were merely obeying the cultural convention of referring to nature as an existing entity that was embedded in language. The Scholastic philosophers of the middle ages that were Christian did however mean the "laws of nature" in a religious sense. They believed in a universe arranged by God and thus harped on the "natural law" of a providentially-ordered world.

Anthropomorphizing language:

Mauthner emphasized that, religious or not, philosophers got trapped into anthropomorphizing purely empirical events by their use of language. He circles out Schopenhauer for doing that. Schopenhauer derived the idea of "a will", an impetus to action, that inheres in everyone from a collection of individual consciousnesses that are all driven to take action. Mauthner believes this kind of thought move to be illegal. There is really nothing that justifies collapsing thousands of individual consciousnesses into the idea of consciousness as an existing entity much like light or water. Mauthner's point is that it's wrong to use language to create a superarching concept that is abstracted from a collection of things that are in fact different. Now of course, you may object that most hands are alike enough to generate the concept of a hand that applies to all them of validly. That is a reasonable point, but only for anatomy and physiology. In philosophy, doctrines are built out of abstract things and that's what bothers Mauthner. Abstract ideas, when mashed together, can often lead to nonsense if removed from their context. In the case of Schopenhauer, the concept of the will may not bother in isolated instances. You bought ice cream of your own will but my will drove me to buy a smoothie. These two uses of will are in a concrete context and do not produce nonsensical statements. However, if I were to say: Joe, Jane, and Tom each went to the movies of their own will so we can conclude that the will of Joe, Jane, and Tom was to go the movies, that would be problematic... You see each of them may have their own individual will, but are we entitled to derive a general will for all of them? Mauthner would find objection to that. Because in this case we would be positing a metaphysical force that impels a group of people to do things.

Faulty Logic in Politics and Culture

In political discourse, such faulty logic is common. Think about TV news anchors that say: America has nurtured liberty since its inception. This sentence collapses generations after generations of millions of American people into one common being that has been alive since the 1700s up until now and that has been active in promoting liberty. It is this type of political discourse that drove Mauthner, who worked as a journalist, to write his Contributions to a Critique of Language. After his work at the Berliner Tagesblatt, he switched from writing editorials and short stories to satirizing well-known authors in the magazine Parodies. His love of parodying the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of writers made him sensitive of how language was abused. Being a Jew, he was probably sick of the nationalist rhetoric employed in news papers since the xenophobes and radical nationalists loved to talk of Volk and Geist - words that mean People and Spirit. This type of terminology was popular not only in political discourse but also in music reviews. Gustav Mahler's music was criticized for not being consonant with the German spirit that required clear and stable melody lines. His jumpy and bombastic style was lambasted as a reflection of either a Jewish or a Slavic consciousness. One only has to watch the film Mephisto about Nazi era theater to witness how French plays were derided for having a frivolous playful style and thus banned for being inconsistent with the "German spirit." Of course, cultural generalizations exist nowadays too, but they hardly make it to newspapers or academic publications. Whereas nowadays we laugh off Arnold Schwarznegger's remark that Latinas are hot-blooded, back in those days it would be normal to see that kind of belief prominently featured in newspapers. "Hot-blooded Latina shows off the wild ways of her race" could be the title of a music review from the early 20th century.

Theorizing the Limitations of Language:

Mauthner says that metaphorical language is fine in poetry but not in any serious publication that aims to talk in a truthful or serious way. He makes the point that many words in our language are not meant to communicate truth and are there to evoke certain actions in response. For example when we talk about pain sensations, we don't actually communicate how we feel. We may use the words throbbing and prickling to describe a pain sensation, but the words don't represent our actual feelings but only a general concept of them. But why do we use terms in language that are so imprecise and not fully appropriate to our experience? Mauthner says that while language does not communicate our internal world, the only use in talking about sensations lies in making others respond in certain ways. When I complain to a waitress that the soup is too sour, she may suggest to replace with a less sour-tasting soup. While my comments about taste have led her to take the appropriate action to resolve my problem, she probably did not really understand my taste sensations. She cannot know how this soup or others soups taste to me. Hence, she can only recommend a replacement soup that seems non-sour to her. Whether our notions of sour correspond to each other is a matter of chance.

The overlap in this case is likely to occur, however less so in the case of words like "polite", "friendly", and "competent." These words evoke different concepts among different people. Mather's theory that metaphorical/conceptual words do not communicate meaning but merely express the desire for a certain response certainly applies to those 3. When my friend asks me whether person A is friendly before approaching him or her at a party, the goal of the word friendly is not to establish any concrete information about the person. The word "friendly" does not communicate what that person has ever done in his life. Instead the word is action-oriented and seeks a given response from me. My friend uses it to find out from me if I believe that the stranger will engage him in conversation. Thus, in this case friendly has no stable meaning as a word but is merely used as a prompt to invite me to make a show of confidence towards an acquaintance

Parting Thoughts:

Mauthner's idea that terms of language have no stable meanings but are codes that signal towards certain actions would go on to influence the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But as Mauthner himself would say, it is appropriate to collapse the ideas of two philosophers into one movement, so it's best to read the work of this man on its own terms rather than seeing it as an incomplete and faulty precursor of the other philosopher's ideas.

P.S: If this writeup didn’t catch your fancy, look on the bright side. At least now you know that there is a famous Jew named Fritz. That could be quite a punch-line to start up a comedy routine:”The other day I was reading about this Jew named Fritz.” Now, poor Fritz Mauthner may think that I am making fun of him, but far from it. He is just not as laugh-inducing as the anti-semitic Austrian-Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger.


Related Reading:

If you are interested in learning more about the abuse of language for political purposes, read redbaker's write-up Politics and the English Language about George Orwell's essay of the same name. The source of my information for this writeup comes from the book Wittgestein's Vienna by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin.

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