Research Note: The “Philosophisches Wörterbuch”

I am currently evaluating several editions of the “Philosophisches Wörterbuch” from Kröner Verlag. The current edition is, I think, the 23rd. The edition I am mainly using here is the 1957 14th edition edited by Georgi Schischkoff. It contains a lot of hints on the philosophical schools and currents I am interested in here.

Most of this material has been removed in later editions, so the current edition, while containing lots of stuff on current developments in philosophy, does not show the chapter of the history of philosophy I am currently researching. What is remaining (I think there is an article on Oswald Spengler still inside the current edition) appears as isolated fragments whose context is missing.

I am planning to write a series of short research notes based on articles in that dictionary. I am going to add material from other sources as well. In doing so, I am going to use this blog as a kind of public research notebook. At the moment, I don’t expect much interest in these articles but I prefer to make my results public, however preliminary they might be. As far as my time allows, the materials collected in these research notes might then form the basis for some extended articles or essays.

It is interesting to compare subsequent editions of the dictionary. The dictionary was established by Heinrich Schmidt. Schmidt was the director of the Ernst Haeckel-Archiv in Jena. He edited the dictionary from the first to the 9th edition. The earliest edition I currently have is the 8th, from 1931. This is the last edition Schmidt did alone. A lot of the material I am interested in here is not yet contained in it. The 9th edition (1934) was done with the help of one Dr. Friedrich Blaschke. In the preface, Schmidt seems to distance himself slightly from Blaschke, he writes that Blaschke was helpful “with the articles about the newest philosophy and the history of ideas […] A certain contrariness of our views forced me again and again to deepen and broaden the basis of the epistemic foundations and to a more pregnant version of the presentation.” It is possible that Blaschke was forced upon Schmidt by the Nazi authorities. Influences of Nazi ideology start to appear in the 9th edition. Schmidt died in 1935.

The 10th edition was prepared, in 1943, by Werner Schingnitz and Joachim Schondorff. A lot of material was removed, a lot was added and a lot was totally rewritten. This 10th edition is completely steeped in Nazi ideology.

I do not currently have the 11th to 13th edition, edited by Justus Streller. I am going to try to get these editions as well as earlier editions before the 8th.

The 14th edition I have seems to be based on the editions prepared by Streller, which in turn is based on the 9th edition. Most of the ideological material has been removed (although some things have slipped through, obviously unintentionally (for example, there is an article for “Degeneration” that just points to an article “Entartung” which, however, no longer exists in the 14th edition. In the 9th edition that article is still present, with racist content. It also exists in the 8th edition. It must be noted here that Schmidt was a follower of Haeckel who was not only a Darwinist but also a racist). There are some articles that are interesting for my current research that where not there yet in the 9th edition, so this edition is a particularly rich source. However, I do not know if this material was added by Schischkoff or by Streller.

It would be interesting to find out when this material (like, for example, articles about Breysig or Frobenius) was removed from the dictionary. There seems to have been a paradigm shift, perhaps at the end of the 1960s or in the early 1970s. I have not yet found out when these articles were removed from the dictionary. Using a current edition would give a rather impoverished or depleted view of the history of 20th century philosophy. One could also say: it is a cleaned view. But I think removing this material from such a dictionary is a mistake. While it might be irrelevant for current philosophy it should be there as part of the history of philosophy, especially since a lot of these thoughts – although they have been removed from the academic environments of philosophy, history, social sciences and cultural anthropology, are still out there in the public and are strongly resurfacing in recent times in right-wing movements.

I think this is the current edition:

Research Note: Kurt Breysig

According to (Schischkoff 1957), Kurt Breysig is a representative of culture morphology.

The article on Breysig in that dictionary reads (translation by me):

Breysig, Kurt: Historian, Sociologist and Philosopher of History [Geschichtsphilosoph]. *July 5th 1866 Posen, † June 16th, 1940 Rehbrücke bei Potsdamm. 1896 to 1934 Prof. in Berlin; created a theory of history that, starting with the established facts [vom Boden der erforschten Tatsachen] seeks to rise to ever-higher and more comprehensive overall observations, views the history of culture in the way of culture morphology as a history of the soul and the development of humanity as a development from natural processes [Naturgeschehen] to processes of spirit [Geistesgeschehen]. Main works: Die Geschichte der Seele [The history of the soul] 1931. Naturgeschichte und Menschheitsgeschichte [Natural history and history of humanity] 1933. Der Werdegang der Menschheit vom Naturgeschen zum Geistesgeschehen. 1934 [The development of humanity from natural processes to processes of spirit].

[secondary literature:] E. Hering. Das Werden als Geschichte, Kurt Breysig in seinem Werk. 1939.


The (German) Wikipedia article ( is in a mediocre condition, its content has to be taken with reservation, but it looks interesting.


 (Schischkoff 1957): Philosophisches Wörterbuch. 14th Edition, ed. by Georgi Schischkoff, est. by Heinrich Schmidt, Alfred Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart.

(The 8th edition of that dictionary (1931) did not yet contain an article on Breysig. It appears for the first time in the 9th edition (1934), again edited by Heinrich Schmidt, with the assistance of one Dr. Friedrich Blaschke. This first version of the article might have been written by Blaschke. In the preface, Schmidt seems to distance himself slightly from Blaschke, he writes that Blaschke was helpful “with the articles about the newest philosophy and the history of ideas […] A certain contrariness of our views forced me again and again to deepen and broaden the basis of the epistemic foundations and to a more pregnant version of the presentation.” In this ninth edition, the first signs of Nazi ideology are entering the dictionary, in the form of articles missing in the previous version (e.g. there is an article “völkisch”, missing from the 8th edition. Schischkoff or his predecessor as editor, Justus Streller, who edited the 11th to 13th editions, then obviously shortened the article on Breysig and added the hint on Kulturmorphologie.)

Research Note: Karl Friedrich Vollgraff

Karl (or Carl) Friedrich Vollgraff (1794 – 1863) seems to have had ideas that are similar to those of Kulturmorphologie. It remains to be seen if there is a connection or just a parallel.


Especially the following title seems to be interesting in this respect:

  • Erster Versuch einer Begründung der allgemeinen Ethnologie durch die Anthropologie und der Staats- und Rechtsphilosophie durch die Ethnologie oder Nationalität der Völker, 4 Bde. (1851-1855)

The current (German) Wikipedia article about him ( about him is in a very unsatisfactory condition (e.g. violating the Wikipedia principle of neutral point of view), but hints at interesting content here.

Kulturmorphologie (“Culture Morphology”)

File:Leo Frobenius.jpg

In a narrower sense, Kulturmorphologie  is a paradigm of cultural anthropology developed by the German Leo Frobenius. In the wider sense it is a current in German cultural anthropology and philosophy of culture and of history in the first half of the 20th century.

A note on the English translation of the term: there is no Wikipedia article on the topic yet in the English Wikipedia. The “Dictionary of Philosophical Terms” (Elmar Waible, Philip Herdina, Vienna, 2011) translates “Kulturmorphologie” as “cultural morphology” but I find this translation unsatisfactory because it is not a morphology that is cultural but a morphology of culture, so let me propose the term “culture morphology”.

The central idea of culture morphology is the view that cultures are organism-like entities of their own. They develop through a sequence of stages comparable to the stages of a human life. Frobenius even seems to postulate a soul-like essence of cultures that he calls “Paideuma”.

A culture, according to Frobenius, moves through several stages. The first one, he calls the stage of “Ergriffenheit” (a hard to translate term designating strong emotions, a state of being moved or touched). This early stage is the stage of youth of a culture in which its basic ideas and forms are emerging. The second stage, the stage of maturity, is called the stage of “Ausdruck” (expression), in which a culture is reaching its highest flourishing. This is followed by a late stage of “Anwendung” (application) in which the original creativity is lost and the culture starts to degenerate, before it finally dies.

According to (Rössler 2007), some ideas of Frobenius’ culture morphology were inspired by Friedrich Ratzel. According to (Rössler 2007), there is also some similarity to the idea of the “superorganic” in the work of the American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.

Kulturmorphologie in the wider sense consists of the ideas of several other people who developed similar ideas. According to (Schischkoff 1957), the main representatives of Kulturmorphologie are Frobenius, Oswald Spengler, Eduard Spranger, Kurt Breysig and, in England, Arnold Joseph Toynbee.

In his article on “Kulturmorpholoie” in (Schischkoff 1957) we can read (translation by me – the article first appears in the 9th edition of that dictionary (1934), edited by Heinrich Schmidt with the assistance Friedrich Blaschke, it might have be written by the latter):

The science of the “form” and the change of the form of cultures as an organism independent of the human being, with a regular course of its development (birth, age, flowering, age, death). Culture morphology presupposes that both the inner unity and independence as well as the transition of the cultures into the individual stages is caused by internal forces acting in the culture itself.

German Text:

Die Wissenschaft von der “Gestalt” und dem Gestaltwandel der Kulturen als selbständiger, vom Menschen unabhängiger Organismen mit gesetzmäßigem Ablauf ihrer Entwicklung (Geburt, Jugendalter, Blütezeit, Greisenalter, Tod). Die K. setzt voraus, daß sowohl die innere Geschlossenheit und Selbständigkeit wie auch der Übergang der Kulturen in die einzelnen Stufen durch innere in der Kultur selbst wirkende Kräfte verursacht ist.

(Note that the translation oft he German term „Wissenschaft“ as „Science“ is problematic here since the German term has a much wider meaning.)

Spengler is known for his influential book “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”. Spengler and Frobenius influenced each other. Frobenius mentions Spengler in his book “Paideuma” (Frobenius 1921, 1925). According to (Rössler 2007) Spengler was in turn influenced by Frobenius.

Besides these people, several students of Frobenius, especially those working at his “Institut für Kulturmorphologie” belong into this direction, notably Adolf Ellegard Jensen (see Rössler 2007) and Kurt von Boeckmann. All of these people will probably receive their own articles in this blog.

Kulturmorphologie seems to have been quite influential for some time. The writer Wilhelm Schäfer, a “völkisch”-nationalist author of the pre-Nazi and Nazi years, shows some connections to ideas of Kulturmorphologie, as can be evidenced, for example, by Schäfer’s speech “Der Dichter und sein Volk” (The poet and his nation), published 1931. I am going to publish a separate article on Schäfer. After the war, literature scholars did not work much about him, probably because of his Nazi connections. His speeches, with their philosophical/ideological content seem to have been mostly overlooked by literature scholars. Philosophers, historians of ideas or of philosophy, or general historians also seem to have overlooked him, so he seems to be generally under-researched, although he was an influential figure at the time, whose speeches were broadcast in the radio and seem to have a large following.

I think it is people like Schäfer who translated the ideas of culture morphology into right wing ideology. The literary remains of Schäfer (in Heinricht-Heine-Institut Düsseldorf) contain a letter from Leo Frobenius to Wilhelm Schäfer from 1930, see I am not aware of any previous research on this connection. I am going to write more on Schäfer on this blog.

Sources and Literature:

(Frobenius 1921, 1925): Paideuma. Second, revised edition 1925. Third edition, 1953, Eugen Diederichs-Verlag, Düsseldorf (note that the Institut für Kulturmorphologie also edited a journal by the name “Paideuma”).

(Roessler 2007) Rössler, Martin: “Die Deutschsprachige Ethnologie bis ca. 1960“ (“German language cultural anthropology up to about 1960“). Cologne Working Papers in Cultural and Social Anthropology No. 1, Cologne 2007, available online here:

(Schäfer, 1931): Schäfer, Wilhelm: Der Dichter und sein Volk. Bärenreiter Verlag zu Kassel, 1931.

(Schischkoff 1957): Philosophisches Wörterbuch. 14th Edition, ed. by Georgi Schischkoff, est. by Heinrich Schmidt, Alfred Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart. Article “Kulturmorphologie“, p. 333 – 334.

(The picture, showing Leo Frobenius, is from

Vitalism N-Grams

Charting the terms Darwinism, vitalism and creationism in the Ngram Viewer shows that vitalism never played an important role in the English literature. Creationism is a relatively new fashon. There is a lot of literature on Darwin and evolution before this time (you can view these terms in the Ngram Viewer for yourself), but the term “Darwinism” seems to have caught on around 1900.

Vitalism EnglishIn French, charting “Darwinisme” and “Vitalisme” shows that here, some form of vitalism existed first. After “Darwinisme” is introduced around 1860, vitalism starts to dwindle. We cannot distinguish here between works promoting one or the other school of thought from those just talking about them, but it seems obvious that Darwinism won the debate.

Vitalism French

The situation is quite different in the German literature. It looks like here, the concept of vitalism also appears early, probably as a result of the reception of French literature (that is, however, just a hypothesis at the moment). “Vitalism” then starts to rise after Darwinism has been introduced. It looks like here vitalism develops as a reaction to Darwinism. During the wars, both drop (probably since book publications and research generally dropped). If you add “Evolution” to the chart, you will see it really taking off only after 1940 (not shown). Darwinism seems to have been dominant but vitalism was strong and played an important role up into the 1950s. “Kreationismus” or “Creationismus” are practically non-existent on this scale, never playing a role in Germany.

Vitalism German

Encountering Vitalism

My grandmother gave me a small cut out newspaper ad, announcing that the well-known biologist Adolf Portmann would be giving a public lecture. I remembered having seen a book before, about apes and babies, something about ethology. My grandmother said something like he was one of the few who still said something different (or something along such lines, I cannot recall exactly). I did not really understand what she meant. I think this must have been in the second half of the 1970s, maybe 1977 or 1978 or so. The lecture was announced to take place one evening in a school in Hamburg Blankenese, not far from the Blankenese train station. Public lectures by scientists or scholars are now, I think, a more or less extinct form of entertainment and even back then, they were not as popular as they might have been maybe 50 years earlier, but being a science nerd as a teenager, I liked the idea and went there.

The lecture took place one evening in a class room, maybe the biology room of the school. I think I was one of only very few, if not actually the only young person in the audience. Strangely, the audience consisted mostly of elderly people.

I remember that the lecture was quite interesting. Showing some slides, Portmann explained the concepts of Darwinian evolution. Then, however, showing slide of some butterflies, he claimed that such structures could not be explained by Darwinian evolution alone and where instead the result of the “self-expression” of the organism. I thought this was nonsense. I have a memory of leaving the school after the lecture, stepping out of the school’s gate out to the street, feeling actually annoyed.

Only much later did I understand that this must have been what my grandmother had meant. Without knowing, I had become witness to one of the last, already withering, offshoots of scientific vitalism, a current in biology that held that there was more to life than what could be captured by physical and chemical science. After the discovery of the structure and function of DNA, vitalistic theories had largely collapsed and had lost their place in the academic world. Portman is generally a respected biologist and Vitalism did not play a very central role in much of his work. He also did not hold a central place inside the vitalistic movement, but the particular set of ideas he presented in the lecture I witnessed as a teenager can clearly be attributed to the vitalistic current of thought. It looks like Portmann could no longer present his vitalistic views in an academic context. Had he given the lecture in a University’s lecture hall, he might have met with fierce opposition by younger students. So like an aging pop singer who had once played in the large and famous halls and was now singing his way through provincial pubs, he had started giving lectures in places like this school, in a quarter inhabited by well-off, educated and often older lay people. Vitalism was in the process of degrading from an academic discipline to an esoteric one.

The presence of evangelical religion in the United States has channeled most anti-materialist sentiments into religious paths there, so criticism in the theory of evolution takes on mostly the form of creationism. Germany, on the other hand, is, and has been for a long time, by far more secular. Evangelicals or other dogmatic Christians are small minorities: Most people who were thinking like that seem to have emigrated (most often towards the United States) during the 19th century. So instead of a development that parallels creationism in the US, the anti-materialistic current of the 19th century that came out of romanticism, faced with the theory of evolution and the connected attempts to explain life in terms of physics and chemistry, generated various brands of vitalism. As a result, vitalistic theories played an important role in European and especially German academic biology and philosophy in the first half of the 20th century.

In my philosophical diggings, my first “field season” of philosophical excavations is about philosophical currents in the first decades of the 20th century that contributed to the rise of the Nazis. So I am planning to dig a second trench to investigate vitalism on its own, adding another “field season” here. The two “trenches” intersect in figures like Karl Faigl. The first “trench” not only contains biology, and some of the biology there is non-vitalistic Darwinian. In the “vitalism field season” on the other hand, we are going to see some things as well that have nothing to do with the Nazi movement, so the two topics are intersecting, but different.

Following the scientific revolution, enlightenment philosophers developed a program of explaining all of reality in terms of science. During the 19th century, several scientists and philosophers developed materialistic views of reality and of life. These views undermined traditional views or society and religion. There are several counter-currents to this, like romanticism and several forms of conservatism. Of course, this is a strongly simplified description and it needs to be worked out in more detail. But broadly speaking, vitalism is positioned in this romantic and often conservative counter-current against enlightenment theories and materialism. In the absence of the dogmatic form of Christianity so characteristic of the US situation, this counter-current lead to the emergence of a view of biology that claimed to be scientific but tried to create a niche for something beyond mere matter in the realm of life.

For some people, this must have taken on a quasi-religious function. I think this is the reason that mostly elderly people attended that lecture I had witnessed. The very statements that had annoyed me in Portmann’s lecture were exactly what these elderly people had been coming for to hear.

As a scientific paradigm, vitalism is dead, but it still exists in sub-scientific forms. Like other sciences before it that where disproved, its ideas became part of a quasi-religious, unscientific, often anti-scientific sub-culture (another example of such a former science that turned into an esoteric discipline, a couple of centuries earlier, is astrology). There is, for example an idea of “nature” and “naturalness” that pops up in several “natural” and “alternative” methods of healing, nutrition and agriculture, etc. The environmental movement has an esoteric (and I think, harmful) undercurrent that has one of its roots in vitalism. This current of anti-scientific views of living nature can be traced back in Germany to the early 20th or even to the late 19th centuries. Some of the movements that can be put here are also strongly connected to right-wing ideology.

As far as my time allows it, I will, on one hand, look into vitalistic theories in the narrower sense and then dip into the swarm of cultural phenomena swirling around it. I probably cannot dig very deep here, but I can, at least, point out some connections I see or suspect. As a phenomenon of European culture and of European history of science and history of ideas, I think vitalism is under-researched. American historians of science mostly concentrate of the Darwinism-creationism debate. That there where different theories besides Darwinism and creationism often seems to be overlooke. I am not in the position to produce the detailed, in-depth history I think should be written here, but at least I can scratch the surface a little bit.

Back in my teenage years, I was mainly interested in modern science and, as a result, Portmanns lecture annoyed me. Looking back now, after my interests have shifted towards the history of ideas, science and philosophy, and towards the interaction of these ideas with general history and culture, I am happy I was there.

(The picture is from

Is “The Singularity” Near?

The seed for a second “field season” on this blog, investigating futuristic ideologies and philosophies. Following the archaeologic metaphor of this blog, each current of thinking explored here will form another “field season” of philosophical digging. Field season 1 (on which I am currently concentrating) is about nationalist, racist etc. (mainly German language) philosophy of the 1920s and adjacent times, that paved the way for National Socialism. Field season 2, opened with this article, will be about transhumanism, singularitarianism and other futurist and sci-fi-ish directions of thought currently flourishing in some corners.

Creativistic Philosophy

File:The sun1.jpg

Some people are believing in the coming of something they call “The Singularity”, and they believe it is only a few decades or even years away. For some (who may be viewed as belonging to a larger current of ideas sometimes referred to as the “transhumanist” movement), this seems to have some quasi-religious significance.

Instead of explaining what the “Singularity” is, let me just cite from the current version of the Wikipedia article on the topic (

The technological singularity is a hypothetical event in which an upgradable intelligent agent (such as a computer running software-based artificial general intelligence) enters a ‘runaway reaction’ of self-improvement cycles, with each new and more intelligent generation appearing more and more rapidly, causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful superintelligence whose cognitive abilities could be, qualitatively, as far above humans’ as human intelligence is above ape intelligence.[…].

The “Singularity”…

View original post 936 more words