Leonard Nelson (1882-1927)

Leonard Nelson, described by Karl Popper as an "outstanding personality," produced a great quantity of work (collected in the nine volumes of the Gesammelte Schriften) in a tragically short life. The quantity and the tragedy may have both happened because Nelson was an insomniac who worked day and night and exhausted himself into a fatal case of pneumonia.

Nelson's greatest contributions to philosophy were his rediscovery of Jakob Fries, his exposition, systematization, and expansion of Friesian philosophy, the use and theory of Socratic Method in his pedagogy, and his engagement with the mathematical issues of Kantian philosophy in relation to his personal and professional involvement with one of the great mathematicians of the Twentieth Century, David Hilbert (1862-1943). Hilbert's concern with the axiomatization of geometry and all of mathematics strongly paralleled Nelson's work in the Friesian theories of truth and justification. Nelson recognized the important parallel between Hilbert's conception of meta-mathematics and Fries' distinction between critique and metaphysics.

Hilbert is now often overshadowed by later mathematicians; and Hilbert's desire to complete mathematics by reducing it to a finished and closed axiomatic system is now often only mentioned in the context that this was shown to be impossible by Kurt Gödel (1906-1978). However, there would have been no Gödel if Hilbert had not proposed and pursued the axiomatization project in the first place, and the incompleteness of mathematics has in no way forestalled the continued construction of mathematics as an axiomatic system. Indeed, the original axiomatization of geometry in Euclid, elaborated and reformulated by Hilbert himself, is now supplemented by Axiomatic Set Theory, which accomplished the same kind of axiomatization for arithmetic -- serendipitously vindicating Kant, who had held that arithmetic was not analytic and so would require synthetic axioms (efforts to derive arithmetic analytically from logic alone, as in Russell & Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, failed).

Valuable aspects of Nelson's career and relationship with Hilbert are to be found in Constance Reid's biographies of Hilbert and his student Richard Courant (1888-1972) [Hilbert-Courant, Springer-Verlag, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, 1970, 1976, 1986]. What follows are some passages relevant to Nelson:

Courant's views illuminate one aspect of Nelson's personality:  he was a driven and extremely certain sort of man. Indeed, in some matters, Nelson verged on dogmatism, so confident was he of his results. This would have put off many people personally, as it nearly did Courant, but the overall effect, quite fortunate when Nelson's considered views influenced few in academic philosophy, was to attract dedicated students. The work of such students in perpetuating Nelson's memory was invaluable in Germany, where Grete Henry-Hermann and others brought to completion the publication of Nelson's works, in Britain, where the journal Ratio was published and the translation and publication of Progress and Regress in Philosophy [Basil Blackwell, 1970] was undertaken, and in the United States, where L.H. Grunebaum's "Leonard Nelson Foundation" arranged the translation and publication of both Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy [Yale 1949, Dover 1965, Kissinger Publishing, 2008] and the System of Ethics [Yale, 1956] (the Critique of Practical Reason, translated but never published, was made available in bound photocopy in 1970).

Besides his purely philosophical work, Nelson founded a would-be Platonic Academy, the still existing Philosophisch-Politische Akademie, that was the center for his own political party, the grandly (we could even say bombasticly) titled Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK, "International Socialist Battle/Struggle League"), which, however, did not have much of an independent existence. As a "non-Marxist socialist," in Popper's words, Nelson, who advocated something rather like a Führer Prinzip of political leadership, employed political and economic principles that actually no longer appear worthy. His disparagement of the free market as "anarchy" was part of the now exploded "fatal conceit," in F.A. Hayek's words, that command and control features would ensure macroeconomic efficiency and productivity. Although these issues are still matters of often intense political dispute, as socialist principles die hard in various redoubts, like American universities controlled by "tenured radical" dinosaurs, the economic case is all but settled in theory and practice.

In an age of dishonesty, nihilism, and relativism, the promise of Nelson's great work, both philosophically and personally, is yet to be fulfilled. His premature death blighted the promise of his thought. The unique principles of Friesian epistemology that he recovered were abandoned by his own students. 20th Century philosophy swung between the false alternatives of science and irrationalism, ignoring the promise of Kantian philosophy. And Nelson's own socialism obscured the proper direction and the best use in political economy of Friesian principles. In a new century, The Proceedings of the Friesian School, Fourth Series can at least maintain the hope of redeeming these disappointments.

Part of the great heritage of the Friesian School is its philosophy of religion. Curiously, Leonard Nelson was not a very good exemplar of this heritage. He is a serious enough student of Fries himself, but then the view of religion in Fries suffers from defects that are not remedied until Rudolf Otto. Otto was a collaborator of Nelson and, thus introduced to Fries, corrected some of the problems in, as is the title of one of his books, Die Kant-Friesische Religions-Philosophie. But Otto's ideas were rejected by Nelson, and the two appear to have had a falling out as a consequence. Otherwise, we cannot say that Nelson made any positive contribution to Friesian philosophy of religion.

Just what was going on we may be able to tell from the first paragraph of Nelson's "The World-View of Ethics and Religion" [Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, Yale, 1949, Dover, 1965, p.62; Sittlich und religiöse Weltansich, 1922]:

ROMAIN ROLLAND says a beautiful and simple thing about Jean Christophe: "After all, he was for too religious to think much about God." We cannot say that of our time. Our time thinks much about God, but is not religious.

This is an extraordinary statement. Is it possible, for instance, to imagine St. Teresa of Ávila being "religious" without thinking about God? Or, what were the Sûfî dervishes doing who became intoxicated by hyperventilating on breathing in and out the word "God," , 'Allâh? Certainly, there are religions where in whole -- Buddhism -- or in part -- Hinduism -- one could spend a considerable amoung of time in religious practice without thinking about a personal God; but Nelson never mentions them and is clearly not thinking about them. He is thinking about his own contemporary Germany, where it is likely to be true that many people talked about God without being religious -- mainly because they were probably atheists, possibily with the sort of animus and obsession that one sometimes finds amongst lapsed Catholics -- Heidegger comes to mind.

No, what we expect from religions of intense personal devotion, like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is something that reflects the injunction we find at Matthew 22:37:

Love the Lord your God in all your heart
and in all your soul and in all your mind.

That takes up a lot of one's attention. But it obviously doesn't take up the attention of Leonard Nelson; for, not only do we see no references to anything like Buddhism or Hinduism in Nelson's essay, we really see no reference to any actual religions at all -- with perhaps the single exception of "a Jesuit moral philosopher of our time" [p.73].

Indeed, the key word there is "moral," as the key word in the title of the whole essay is "ethics." In religion, Nelson is a good Kantian, with little regard for religion beyond Kant's conception of the moral basis and substance of religion. Where Fries had added Ahndung, "aesthetic sense," to his theory of religion, which Nelson at least mentions [p.75], we see no connection between these "feelings" and the case of any real religion. Instead, Nelson clearly wants a "positive element of a religion free from all superstition" [ibid.]. And what, we might wonder, would constitute "superstition" in religion? Well, it almost certainly means the doctrine and practice of any historical religion that we might think of.

Thus, while able to say vaguely positive things about religion, Nelson obviously has no feel for it and belongs to the kind of rationalistic tradition of Kant and Fries, where he has no patience for the issues that as a matter of fact fill the interest and attention of people engaged in the doctrine and practice of actual religions -- issues for which the moral or aesthetic principles of Kant, Fries, and Nelson may really be irrelevant. Just as Nelson broke with Otto when Otto got interested in real religious questions, like the case, already famously addressed by Kierkegaard, of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son to God, Nelson had a falling out over religion in an even more intimate context. When Nelson's wife had their child baptized in the Lutheran Church, Nelson divorced her.

What kind of person would do this? Perhaps Nelson had other reasons for divorcing his wife; but if, as was reported to me, the baptism alone was the pretext, I do not think, for someone as openly concerned with morality alone as Nelson was, that this actually reflects well on his character. It betrays an intolerance, dogmatism, and callousness. It also, for our purposes, appears to betray a real hostility to religion, and not just the sort of vague and rarified unconcern that we might gather from Nelson's essay. Baptism, I would bet anything, is part of this distasteful "superstition" that we want to get rid off. If it is supposed to effect a real difference (i.e. cleansing us of Original Sin), isn't it just a bit of magic? It is otherwise impossible that Nelson, were he a Christian, would object to the baptism of his own child. The only complication among Christian churches is that some believe in "infant" and others in "adult" baptism -- with other twists like the question of "full immersion" baptism. Nelson never betrays the slightest interest, or even awareness, of such disputes. Nor does he ever give us a hint that he is a Christian or anything else. I think we can assert with some confidence that he had no religious affiliation, and never experienced any temptation to anything of the sort. In general, one might ask, what is a person like this doing writing about religion in a tradition that is supposed to place some value on it?

I was reminded of this some time ago when a correspondent wrote with the results of some research on people who sometimes overlapped the circles of Nelson and Jung. This was something I had not heard before, and it was a matter of some intense interest. However, when I remarked that Nelson, for all his apparently positive general statements about religion, had never met an existing religion that he liked, the correspondent answered with an endorsement of his attitude. I found this perplexing, since the writer otherwise denied any hostility to religion and could hardly attribute such an attitude to, say, Jung. I had never encountered anyone before who could simultaneously reject religion and yet profess not to do so. Of course, in a sense there are many people who do this, so long as one merely adds the term "institutional" or "organized" to "religion," clarifying that it is not religion as such, but institutional or organized religion that is rejected.

I thought, however, that there was something else going on. Whatever one's objections to religious institutions, and there can be many, one is not likely to apply to them as such the term "superstition." We might charge a religious institution with promoting superstitition; but then if this is a criticism of the institution, it rests on the independent identification and condemnation of such "superstition." Thus, if baptism is a superstition, then it is both valueless in itself and a reproach to any institution that features its practice.

Consequently, my suspicion is that the objection, whether of Nelson or anyone else, is not against institutions as such, but against ritual. We even find news commentator Bill O'Reilly saying that the ritual elaboration of Judaism (into 613 prohibitions and injunctions) was simply a way of the Priesthood to generate a need for its services. This is a very odd accusation to be made by a Catholic (as is O'Reilly) against Judaism, since the precise origin of such accusations is from Protestants against Catholics, as Hume cites the "mummeries" with which Catholics "are upbraided" [note]. The idea that a religious ritual accomplishes a religious function, from baptism to the te absolvo of absolution, is something that is logically simply not allowed in the philosophy of religion provided by Fries. So we can't say that Nelson has missed the point of his tradition. It is, instead, quite congenial to him; and the best an immediate disciple of Fries can say about religious ritual is that it is pretty, and hopefully promotes some moral purpose.

But Protestants were not first with this kind of thing. It is featured in Taoist criticism of Confucianism. The flashpoint is over the meaning of , which ranges from "etiquette," "courtesy," "manners," or "politness" to "ceremony," "worship," or the "rites." Taoism didn't like any of these things, regarding all as superficial, inessential to goodness, and probably a hypocritical mask for self-interested evils (as we see in a key passage of the Tao Te Ching). Sometimes Confucians assisted in this evaluation by actually not believing in the existence of the spirits for which things like the rites for ancestors were provided -- in one case we find a Confucian personally rebuked by the Hung-wu Emperor for unbelief. We even find Confucius saying, "You are not able to serve to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?" [Analects, XI:12]. Yet Confucius strongly endorses the observance of [Analects II:3]; and we have explicit instructions on rites for parents or other ancestors. Thus, Analects II:5 is concerned with filial piety, , expressed through the practice of :  Living parents should be treated with ; having died, parents should be buried with ; and the sacrifice, , to their spirits, should be performed with . This sequence nicely bridges the range in meaning of from manners and propriety to the "rites" of burial and sacrifice. Confucians never regarded any unbelief they might have as abridging their duty to perform the public and private Rites required by the State and by Family. A Confucian neglectful of the Rites would not have been simply rebuked by the Emperor, but dismissed -- if not worse. And they would have disgraced their Family by neglecting its graves and shrines.

This in itself reveals a divide in the evaluation of the nature of religion. Ancient religions had a mix of beliefs and a content of mythic representation, but none of them had any formal confessions, doctrine, dogma, or theology. Religion was practice, pretty much the base meaning of Latin religio; and this means ritual observance, such as offerings to gods and ancestors -- the pagan Romans, like the Confucians, had household altars to their ancestors and the lares, the household deities. In other words, the "Rites." Such altars, with "soul tablets" for deceased family members, and magnified with Buddhist interpretations and provisions, continue in East Asia in areas under Chinese cultural and traditional religious influence. Indeed, those with such things in their homes many deny that they believe in all that stuff; but they observe the proprieties because, as is often said of religion in Japan, it is just the thing to do.

In the monotheistic religions, as belief becomes the central issue, we get creed, orthodoxy, and all the other features missing from the earlier religions. This is nicely embodied in the ritual act by which one becomes a Muslim, which is simply to stand before the public in a mosque and give the Confession of Faith, that there is no God but God and that Muh.ammad is the Prophet of God. While ritual remains essential in Orthodox Judaism, Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, the modern development after the Reformation is to devalue all such things, rendering them theoretically superfluous, followed by actual abandonment. This is the logical development of the tradition. Yet even Protestants, however otherwise wild with what used to be called, disparagingly, "enthusiasm," hold strongly to the meaning and function of Baptism. A nice treatment of this is in the 1947 movie Life with Father, where Irene Dunne, the wife of William Powell (the eponymous "father"), is alarmed to learn that her husband has never been baptized. He sees no point in it, but the distress of his wife, that he cannot be Saved without it, finally moves him to consent to the ritual. It is hard to imagine Leonard Nelson in such a position.

The logical end of the tendency, of course, is the abandonment of all the outwards forms of religion altogether. People begin to say that they are "spiritual," but otherwise have nothing to do with any identifiable religious tradition or doctrine, let alone necessary ritual and practice.
I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.

And though worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Job 19:25-26

The philosophy of religion derived from Fries, and fully endorsed by Nelson, is part of that tendency. It is then not surprising that, before Otto, none of the Friesians paid more than minimal attention to actual religions, or they even voiced moral objections to them -- such as the rejection by Fries of the idea that Jesus could suffer for our sins on the Cross and redeem us therefrom. Yet that is close to the absolutely essential meaning and purpose of Christianity. The Rationlist may complain that it doesn't make any sense, morally or logically, but there is no doubt that there would not be much point to Christianity without it. The Rationalist may believe in wrong, or even evil, but not in sin.

Thus, as it happens, Nelson's strengths and weakness are evaluated differently, depending on who we ask. The revolutionary conception of non-intuitive immediate knowledge was rejected by Nelson's own students, whose complacency for his disregard of religion, and agreement with his socialism, otherwise coutenanced some of the weakest sides of his thought. These things can only be judged on their own merits; and we must directly defend Nelson's epistemology, even while recommending the corrections of Otto and Hayek for religion and political economy.

The photograph above, with Leonard Nelson second from the left, was evidently taken at an unidentified, possibly Friesian, conference in Darmstadt in 1911, when Nelson would only have been 29 years old. This was found among the effects of Otto and Hedwig Meyerhof, who are present in the photo, with Otto fourth from left (adjacent to Nelson in the front row) and Hedwig as the only woman present. The photo is only identified with a notation, "L. Nelson Darmstadt, 1911," which I have added to the photo in type. We are trying to identify all the figures in it; but initially there seems little doubt that the older, bearded man slightly left of center is David Hilbert.

Below is another photo from the Meyerhof estate, with Nelson and Otto Meyerhof again recognizable at right. This is identified as from 1909, when Nelson would only have been 27. Yet my suspicion is that what we see are actually Nelson's own apartments, since the pictures on the wall include Kant (below, left) and Jakob Fries (above, center). A curious feature of this photo, as from many of the era, and earlier, is that not all the participants are looking on camera, violating what now is regarded as appropriate for a group photo. There is perhaps a certain intensity in Nelson's countenance. Whether I am reading that in or not, it was certainly Nelson's own personality, focus, and intensity that inspired and organized these manifestations of the Neo-Friesian School.

The Meyerhofs themselves happily escaped Germany in 1938 and made their way, via France and Spain, to the United States and to a prosperous life in Philadelphia. Other members of Nelson's circle fled Germany the day the Hitler came to power, often because they were lawyers who had been fighting the Nazis in legal cases. They were obvious targets. Others, like the Meyerhofs, took a little longer to decide that they would not survive the regime were they to stay.

Nelson Conference, 2005

"The Socratic Method," by Leonard Nelson

"The Impossibility of the 'Theory of "Knowledge'," by Leonard Nelson

Grete Henry's "The Significance of Behaviour Study for the Critique of Reason," Ratio, Volume XV, No. 2, December 1973

K. Herrmann/ J. Schroth (Editors), Leonard Nelson - Critical Natural Philosophy

Nelson's Proof of the Impossibility of the Theory of Knowledge, Dr. Kay Herrmann, 2011

Note on Nelson's Axiomatic Diagrams

History of Philosophy


Nelson on Home Page

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Leonard Nelson (1882-1927), Note 1

While it does not reflect on Leonard Nelson, we should note that Bill O'Reilly's claim is undercut by the circumstance that the full elaboration and systematization of Jewish ritual observence occurred in the Middle Ages, long after the end of the Priesthood in Jerusalem. So this ritual discipline must have all held some meaning for Mediaeval Jews.

Also, many of the ritual requirements of Judaism, especially for food, look similar to those in Islâm. There has never been a priesthood in Islâm, and much of the ritual required of Muslims is already mandated in the Qur'ân. This was systematized and expanded later by jurists, but these figures generally had no positions of authority, often were challenged by other schools of jurisprudence, and relied on their own popularity for influence. Authority in Islâmic Law is established by consensus, and not even the Caliphs were able to make durable changes in terms of their own preferences, although they often tried.

The same tests cannot be observed for Catholics, since there has always been a Pope. Protestants remain free to say that Catholics have always been and continue to be hoodwinked by the imaginary needs of religion promulgated through the self-interest of the Papacy. They cannot comfort themselves in their judgment, however, if they look at other religions that do not have priests.

Thus, the thesis that religious ritual is part of the conspiracy of priests, something we also find in the scholarship of Elaine Pagels (in a much more serious and substantial treatment of religion that we can expect to find in Bill O'Reilly), fails when we take account of the counterexamples.

Return to Text

Leonard Nelson (1882-1927), Note 2

Return to Index

Leonard Nelson (1882-1927), Note 3

K. Herrmann/ J. Schroth (Editors)

Leonard Nelson - Critical Natural Philosophy

Metaphysics as the foundation of science, philosophy as an exact method to discover this foundation: These are central themes in the Kant-Friesian philosophy which, at the beginning of the 20th century, Leonard Nelson, using the methods of mathematical axiomatics, further developed into interdisciplinary research programmes. Nelson carried out this research programme in his ethics but his untimely death prevented a systematic presentation of his natural philosophy and his doctrine of method. The present volume contains four transcripts of his seminars on natural philosophy which he held over a period of 15 years. The transcripts, which may be taken as a comparatively complete presentation of Nelson's natural philosophy, supplement the writings published during his lifetime and convey a representative picture of his natural philosophy.

Kay Herrmann

Return to Index