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," the meta-language, and metaphysics [note].

Nelson was a descendant, in the fifth generation, of the philosopher Moses Mendelsson. Not just philosophy but also art and music figure in his ancestry, including the great composer Felix Mendelsson. After Nelson divorced his wife, as we will see, she actually married another philosopher, Paul Hensel, who was also a descendant of Moses Mendelsson.

Nelson's Jewish descent may be what qualified him to be buried in a Jewish cemetery (the Jüdischer Friedhof), in Melsungen. Certainly, he had no interest in Judaism as a religion -- it is impossible that he had the slightest regard for kašrûth, , or prayer -- but his particular alienation from Christianity, for whatever reason, seems to have precluded any desire for a Christian burial. We may see a similar phenomenon today, when those hostile to religion, often intensely so, nevertheless give ʾIslām a pass, as a political ally, despite its possessing all the features they despise in other religions.

Moses Mendelsson himself was buried in the Große Hamburger Straße Cemetery in Berlin, which was used by the Berlin Jewish community from 1672 until 1827. In 1943, the Nazis destroyed all the graves and the monuments. After the War, the site has been restored as much as possible, and a monument to Mendelsson created, initially from fragments of gravestones. Meanwhile, Nelson's cemetery in Melsungen seems to have escaped the attention and the desecration of the Nazis, who were already being caught up by the nemesis of history in 1943.

In addition to 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. Indeed, there was nothing "international" about it, and the Kampf largely conisted of endorsing the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei).

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. At least Nelson was not impressed, unlike others, when he visited the new Soviet Union.

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 economics are really settled in theory and practice. But Nelson had a bad case of the disease, and his recent followers in Germany have continued with his misconceptions, still using Leftist terms like "social justice," which Hayek pointed out mean nothing, however alive in political discourse. Even the economic nightmares and dictatorships of Cuba and Venezuela, once praised as the true exemplars of the "American dream," are not enough to disillusion the true believers (e.g. Bernie Sanders) in their folly.

Nelson's Academy was not just a school and the headquarters of his political party. It worked like a Utopian commune and even a cult, with students contributing all their money and abandoning external social and family ties. Nelson was a vegetarian and so that was the cuisine of the Academy. This whole business was not unlike other movements in Germany at the time, one of the more benign being the Bauhaus, a center for architecture and other design founded by Walter Gropius. Like Nelson's Academy, the resident students were fed a vegetarian diet -- which many found so tasteless that only large doses of garlic made it tolerable. Tabasco sauce (introduced in 1868) might have helped more, but I doubt they would even have heard of it. And they might not have been able to take it -- in Dracula [Bram Stoker, 1897], Jonathan Harker has trouble with the Hungarian paprika, which I find pretty mild -- I add cayenne to it.

Thus, both Nelson's Academy and the Bauhaus were founded on the idea of a way of life, with a life ethic that involved food, politics, and other details of living (i.e. furniture, tableware, etc.). The politics of Gropius's organization was put into effect through his ideas about architecture and design, but this did involve Marxist ideas about the perfection of life for the workers. That sterile and uncomfortable buildings and furniture would perfect the life of the workers was absurd, but it nevertheless pretty much created modern architecture. Much the same thing happened with the architect called "Le Corbusier" (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, 1887-1965), who would build these awful apartment blocks (fortunately not many) and then rage at the (comfortable) furniture that the residents bought. Nelson's political ideas were more explicit and their implementation more direct.

Unfortunately, the ambitions of these kinds of places were more or less totalitarian, with very much a totalizing program of life for the schools and their members. This was a bad idea, and it took the ugliest turn in Germany when its Nazi version became the program of the State. Suddenly, the vegetarianism of Nelson and Gropius was to be found in the Führer himself, with the same justification of good health and clean living.

This is not to discredit vegetarianism, but the very idea that one's food, one's politics, and all the other details of one's life should all be part of the same program is appallingly common to Nelson, the Bauhaus, the Nazis, and others -- e.g. we shouldn't forget the actual Communists, whose program was of the same form, with all the private details of one's life subject to the same "Revolutionary" ethos -- to the point where we find the Khmer Rouge threatening people with death, or actually killing them, for expressing affection to relatives.

At Nelson's death, the leadership of the ISK passed to his secretary, Willi Eichler (1896-1971). Eichler was enough of a nuisance to the Nazis that he thought it prudent to leave Germany as soon as Hitler came to power, as did other Nelson associates, like Minna Specht (1879-1961), who had cofounded the ISK. Eichler's anti-Nazi activities were then embarrassing enough to France that he was expelled from there in 1938, finally finding refuge in Britain during World War II, as did Specht, who nevertheless was interned as an "enemy alien" for a year.

They both returned to Germany after the War, with Specht active in education and Eichler in the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Indeed, Eichler became a serious influence in the Party and may be credited with a role in the formation of the democratic form of government assumed by the Federal Republic. Although this was the program of the Social Democrats, West Germany did not prosper under the kind of socialism envisioned by Nelson. In July 1948, Ludwig Erhard, as "director of economics" in the American and British zones of Occupation of Germany, ended rationing of food and all price controls. This was not what the socialists wanted; but it did allow for German prosperity.

Quite by chance, through my own high school in Los Angeles, I discovered a connection to Nelson's Academy. Soon after we graduated in 1967, my best friend, neighbor, and classmate, Lee Herman, who went on to teach for the Empire State College of the State University of New York, was out looking for books about Socrates and Socratic Method. What he found was the Dover edition of Nelson's Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, which contained Nelson's classic essay, "The Socratic Method." I obtained my own copy, and then a curious thing happened.

My German teacher from high school, Ola Vorster (1911-1998), had invited many of her old students over for a party. While talking with her at the party, I happened to mention that I had gotten interested in philosophy. She then asked if I had ever heard of "Leonard Nelson"! It turned out that when she was a child in Switzerland, her family had rented a room to a man who was contributing money to Nelson's Philosophisch-Politische Akademie. This eventually led to her older sister, Mascha Oettli (1908-1997), joining the Academy. Mrs. Vorster herself was briefly at the Academy but decided that medical school would be easier.

After World War II, disgusted with the Swiss showing a friendliness to Nazi refugees that they had not shown to earlier Jewish refugees, she came to America; but in her home in Los Angeles she still had an old German pamphlet of Nelson's Die Socratische Methode. She was also still a vegetarian and always provided for us this awful pink glop (a kind of lumpy Bepto-Bismol) called Birchermüesli, which had been introduced by a Swiss health food advocate, Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner (1867-1939), around 1900. Looking at recipes of it now, I am not sure why her's was pink; but it always was. It was not popular at the parties, so Mrs. Vorster was always urging people to try it.

After this surprising connection turned up, I got into contact with Mrs. Vorster's sister, who was still alive, and obtained German editions of Nelson's Kritik der praktischen Vernunft and Fries's Neue oder anthropologische Kritik der Vernunft from Germany. My connection with the German Nelsonians, however, remained tenuous. After reading Nelson, Kant, some Kant scholarship, and other philosophy, it was clear to me that I was going to be working many things out for myself and that I had no intention of merely being a scholar or a disciple of Nelson, or of anyone else. I was also spreading myself far afield through interests in Islamic philosophy and the Middle East, where I actually spent my Junior Year at the American University of Beirut.

I was not enough of a linguistic genius to perfect my German, Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Persian all together (I'm not sure I ever perfected any of them, but I enjoy translating Greek). Later, at the University of Hawai'i, I developed similar interests in the Eastern Philosophy. Apart from these diversions (or broadening interests), there was also the awkwardness that, although I didn't agree with Nelson about everything, I did agree with him on a number of issues where Nelson's surviving philosophy students, like Grete Henry-Hermann (1901-1984) and Gustav Heckmann (1898-1996), had abandoned the Friesian position.

My last serious contact with them was in 1974-75 when we exchanged letters over an essay I had submitted to their Prize Essay contest on Nelson. This exchange was mainly with Heckmann, whose English was not good; and so the letters were in German, despite my German being not that good either. I think that is the most I have ever tried writing in the language.

Just having devoted considerable study to Nelson's Critique of Practical Reason and Progress and Regress in Philosophy, my essay defended the Friesian conception of non-intuitive immediate knowledge and criticized Henry-Hermann's own recent evaluation of it in her "Significance of Behaviour Study for the Critique of Reason" [Ratio, Volume XV, No.2, December 1973, pp. 206-220]. They were surprised that anyone still believed in that stuff. Certainly nobody else did.

Yet Nelson spoke of himself thus:  Als ein getreuer Schüler des SOKRATES und seines großen Nachfolgers PLATON..., "As a faithful disciple of Socrates and his great successor Plato..." ["Die sokratische Methode," Die Schule der kritischen Philosophie und ihre Methode, Gesammelte Schriften in Neuen Bänden, Volume I, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg, 1970, p.269].

Henry-Hermann would not see much point in mentioning Plato; but that may be because the theory of non-intuitive immediate knowledge is the functional equivalent of Plato's theory of Recollection, whose terms become inconvenient for a "behaviour study." The practice of Socrates and the theory of Plato cannot be construed as such a thing. This may be the clue for us how far Nelson's students had strayed from their teacher. They are not getreue Schüler des PLATON.

This all discouraged me about trying to pursue graduate study in Germany or Britain. I ended up making my way academically through American philosophy departments that had not been overwhelmed by analytic and linguistic orthodoxy, as at the University of Hawai'i and at the University of Texas. In the dissertation I eventually wrote, under the patient help and tolerance of Doug Browning at Texas, I tried to extend Nelson's thought with the help of complementary ideas, not just from Kant, but also from Schopenhauer, Otto, and Jung.

My last happy contact with one of the surviving early figures of Nelson's group was with Paul Branton. I met Paul in Guadalajara, Mexico, in November 1985, where he was attending a philosophy conference that a friend of his at the University of Guadalajara, Fernando Leal Carretero, was putting on. Fernando himself had discovered Leonard Nelson while in school in Germany just by stumbling across the Gesammelte Schriften in a library! This was pretty much the way Nelson himself had discovered Fries. From that start, Fernando had gotten in touch with the people who were still running Nelson's Philosophisch-Politische Akademie.

I had myself just happened to find out about Paul's connection to Ratio; and since Paul was coming to Guadalajara anyway, he offered to pay my way (I was in post-dissertation unemployment) so we could meet. The result was stories about the Nelson people over the years and a personal connection that I had missed developing with Nelson's students in Germany -- all of whom, of course, have now passed away.

Paul thought that their attitude as Keepers of the Flame was a bit "precious," and he was pleased to find a fan of Nelson, even one of apparently unorthodox ("Old Believer") ideas. Indeed, despite receiving formal notices from the Academy, I have never been approached with any personal interest by the people there, despite having Leonard Nelson and Jakob Fries pages on the Internet for twenty-five years. Instead, I hear from independent Nelson scholars in Germany, like Kay Hermann.

While visiting Guadalajara, I had asked Fernando what substantive areas of Nelson's philosophy he thought were important and had continued promoting or working on. To my dismay, he answered there there were none. He saw Nelson only as an example of philosophical commitment and a philosophical life. I continue to find this perplexing; but this may tell us a lot about the climate at Nelson's Academy today. The actual content and tradition of Friesian philosophy seems to be irrelevant. "Philosophy" is what everyone else is doing in the sterile, irrelevant, and autistic, if not illiberal and totalitarian, venues of academic philosophy departments. The academic echo chamber is an infinite distance from the "reformation of philosophy" that was envisioned by Leonard Nelson.

Le mot religion ne signifiait pas ce qu'il signifie pour nous; sous ce mot, nous entendons un corps de dogmes, une doctrine sur Dieu, un symbole de foi sur les mystères qui sont en nous et autour de nous; ce même mot, chez les anciens, signifiait rites, cérémonies, actes de culte extérieur. La doctrine était peu de chose; c'étaient les pratique qui étaient l'important; c'étaient elles qui étaient obligatoires et impérieuses. La religion était un lien matériel, une chaîne qui tenait l'homme esclave.

The word religion did not signify what it signifies for us; by this word we understand a body of dogmas, a doctrine concerning God, a symbol of faith concerning what is in and around us. This same word, among the ancients, signified rites, ceremonies, acts of exterior worship. The doctrine was of small account: the practices were the important part; these were obligatory, and bound man (ligare, religio). Religion was a material bond, a chain which held man a slave.

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, La cité antique, 1865, Préface par François Hartog, Introduction par Bruno Karsenti, Champs Classiques, Flammarion, Paris, 1984, 2009, p.237; The Ancient City, A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, translated by Willard Small, 1874, Doubleday & Company, 1955, Dover Publications, 2006, p.167

Vade Retro Satana, Nunquam Suade Mihi Vana;
Sunt Mala Quae Libas, Ipse Venena Bibas.

Get thee behind me Satan!
Never tempt me with your vanities!
What you offer me is evil.
Drink the poison yourself!

Medal of St. Benedict

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. Indeed, we discover that he clearly rejected the meaning and value of actual religions.

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.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), "L'Estasi di Santa Teresa," 1647-1652, Cornaro Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, 2019
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 Sûfī dervishes doing who became intoxicated by hyperventilating on breathing in and out the word "God," أَلله, ʾAllāh?

But St. Teresa was, of course, a mystic, and Nelson displays little sympathy, understanding, or tolerance for mysticism. Among other things, Nelson says, "Mysticism destroys ethics" [p.76], which is quite false. Whether St. Teresas's visions were divine in origin or a delusion of the devil was judged by the criteria of Church doctrine and of morality -- where the Catholic Church accepted the principle of St. Thomas Aquinas that morality is based in Reason, something with which Nelson could not disagree.

But Nelson wishes to preclude the whole point of mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, and ʾIslām, which is direct contact with God:

After all that has been said, it is clear that the mystical doctrine of the immediate contact of the soul with God, which soars to the vision of God, must be at variance with ethics, just as it is not consistent with Ahndung, the essence of which is that the eternal is unfathomable. [ibid.]

However, it is precisely the essence of Ahndung to represent a sensible connection with the transcendent "unfathomable" (ineffable, ἄῤῥητον). while it was the conviction of mystics like ʾal-Ghazālī that mystical insight confirms the moral and doctrinal teachings of religion, in his case ʾIslām. The Church decided that this was what St. Teresa found also.

Nelson, like Fries, wants to confine Ahndung to an "aesthetic sense" (Nelson actually says, "what is beautiful and sublime" [p.75]) that cannot represent, not just mysticism, but any of the numinous features of religion -- which is why Nelson broke with Rudolf Otto (who nevertheless is referenced in the Yale edition, in a footnote on page 75, without any warning the Nelson rejected Otto's ideas).

Nelson says, "The really mystical experience of illumination falls to the lot of only a chosen few" [p.76]. This is quite correct. But there are also degrees of illumination. Mystics are rare isolates, but others have more limited experiences, which they did not seek through practice. The experience of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus was also rare, but it was sought through no practice and cannot be said to be the fruit of mysticism. The prophets would fit in the same category; but we might begin to suspect that Nelson does not believe in religious prophecy.

ʾInnahu laqawlu rasūlin karīmin.
Wamā huwa biqawli šāʿirin; qalīlam mā tuʾminūna!
Walā biqawli kāhinin; qalīlam mā taðakkarūna!

This is indeed the word of a noble messenger.
It is not the word of a poet: how little is your belief!
And it is not the word of a seer: how little you reflect!

ʾal-Qurʾān, Sura 69, Verses 40-42 [translation, Arabs, A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, p.130, translation modified]

Even more limited is the "touch of God" felt by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Ficton. Although fictional, such a limited experience, which effected a moral and religious conversion, is likely to be more common in fact. Nelson never considers anything of the sort; for conversion experiences, or any divine contact, are not accommodated by this theory. He seems contemptuous of them.

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 ʾIslām, is something that reflects the injunction we find at Matthew 22:37:

ἀγαπήσεις Κύριον τὸν Θεόν σου ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ καρδίᾳ σου
καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου.

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 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 [as we have seen, 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. Instead, historical religions are apparently always dismissed as "superstition," as when Nelson says:

People approve the separation of church and state, and see in its realization an advance toward freedom of the spirit -- an aim certainly worthy if it is meant thereby that the state should break off its alliance with superstition. [p.81]

The implication here is that the "church," once separated from the state, will disappear. Most shocking, however, is that what Nelson regards as a proper role of the kind of religion he does not want separated from the state at all:

Only where the independence of the ethical task is recognized, and hunger and thirst after justice lays hold of men, can true life unfold itself afresh and prepare the soil for a strong and decent public life, a public life which forces the state, with all its powers, into the service of justice, a state beside which there is no need of a church because such a state is itself the stronghold of the religious life in all its fullness. [p.82, translation modified]

This is vicious nonsense that leaves Nelson with a statism little different from Hegel. The State might as well be God on earth, as Hegel said. The creeping implication of the whole essay is here exposed, that actual religions should evaporate, leaving der Hort des religiösen Lebens in seiner Fülle, "the stronghold of the religious life in all its fullness," as part of political life. This is not just shocking, but terrifying; and it all but annihilates any positive contribution Nelson might make to philosophy of religion. It is about the ugliest thing I am aware of Nelson ever saying, and it sounds much too much like Mussolini's Fascism.

Giacché, per il fascita, tutto è nello Stato, e nulla di umano o spirituale esiste, e tanto meno ha valore, fuori dello Stato.

Therefore, for the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the State.

Benito Mussolini & Giovanni Gentile, La Dottrina del Fascismo, "Doctrine of Fascism," 1932.

This shocking statism also calls into question Nelson's honesty. He obviously has no interest in actual religions, or respect for them. He should say so, and should have said so, up front, whenever the question of religion would ever come up. There is no religion that suits his definition of religion. It isn't just that Romain Rolland (1866-1944), like his literary character, didn't think much about God; chances are he was engaged in no actual religious practice at all. Instead, after Nelson's death, we find Rolland expressing unbroken admiration for Josef Stalin, with whom he became friendly. His dabbling in Indian philosophy ended up as no more than admiration for the politics of someone like Gandhi. This certainly means that it was not Rolland's religion that attracted Nelson's attention and admiration, but his politics.

Actually, there has always been a lot of that, where religion doesn't measure up to my standards, going around among philosophers, some of whom are more honest about it than others. This serves to impeach philosophers in an area that should be of serious interest to them: Curiosity.

Is there just nothing about actual religions that interests or intrigues someone like Leonard Nelson or, for that matter, Immanuel Kant? Apparently not. Instead, almost everything that figures in religious practice is dismissed as "superstition" by Nelson, or as "idolatry" by Kant. And, of course, religions with real "idolatry" probably outnumber those without it. I would love to see the reaction of Nelson or Kant to a Jizô shrine on a Japanese street corner. There are similar small shrines to saints in many European countries. It is hard to miss them, say, walking through Venice. So we see very strong, and very uncritical, biases and hostility at work.

Against the rites, do not look; against the rites, do not listen;
Against the rites, do not speak; against the rites, do not act.

Confucius, Analects XII:1, translation after James Legge [1893], Arthur Waley [1938], D.C. Lau [1979], and Joanna C. Lee [2010]

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.
Baptism in Kansas, 1928,
John Steuart Curry (1897–1946), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

What kind of person would do this? Perhaps Nelson had other reasons for divorcing his wife; but if, as was reported to me (by Paul Branton), 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 actively a Christian or anything else. I think we can assert with some confidence that he had no sincere religious affiliation, and never experienced any temptation to anything of the sort.

Indeed, in 1919 Nelson is said to have resigned from the Evangelical Church in which he had presumably been enrolled when baptized himself at age five. 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 [note].

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 superstition; 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:11/12].

Yet Confucius strongly endorses the observance of [Analects II:3 and see XII:1 above]; 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 Muḥammad is the Prophet of God. While ritual remains essential in Orthodox Judaism, Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, and ʾIslām, 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.

Valuable aspects of Nelson's career and relationship with David 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).

Nelson was a philosophical heretic of the twentieth century, and his heresies were of such an outspoken and universal character that they earned him the sworn enmity of the dominant philosophical schools in Germany and brought him into conflict with her whole cultural atmosphere...

Nelson's fundamental heresy was his conviction that there is one, and only one, philosophical truth, and that it is attainable by thinking.

Julius Kraft, "Introduction," Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, Selected Essays, by Leonard Nelson, Yale University Press, 1949, Dover Books, 1965, p.x

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, at 45, blighted the promise of his thought. The unique principles of Friesian epistemology that he recovered were abandoned by his own students. 20th Century philosophy subsequently swung between the false alternatives of science, which was poorly and self-destructively championed by Logical Positivism, and irrationalism, which was the implicit alternative staked out by Wittgenstein, ignoring the promise of Kantian philosophy. And Nelson's own socialism obscured the proper direction and the best use in political economy, as discerned by F.A. Hayek, 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.

Who now is the most faithful to Nelson's inheritance? The followers of Nelson's Academy in Germany and Britain, the modern "Nelsonians," accept the abandonment of the unique principles of Friesian epistemology and its doctrine of justification. Yet much of their activity revolves around Nelson's pedagogical technique of Socratic Method. Unfortunately, Nelson's conception of Socratic Method was founded on Friesian epistemology -- itself rejected by the Nelsonians. So if Socratic Method is productive of knowledge, as Nelson thought and is apparently still accepted by its practitioners, where does that knowledge come from and upon what is it founded?

Without non-intuitive immediate knowledge, modern epistemology defaults to pretty much the same Cartesian/Empiricist muddle it represented in Nelson's day, with the poisonous addition of "deconstruction," "post-modernism," and their nihilistic, Marxoid kin, where knowledge is simply determined by power, not by reason, evidence, or logic. Even the more sober surviving versions of Analytic Philosophy are still, with little beyond Hume as a real exemplar, often unable even to properly understand him and get his ideas straight. Otherwise, they may naively presuppose metaphysical doctrines that are far beyond what is allowed by their epistemology.

In abandoning Nelson, what did Grete Henry-Hermann have to replace Friesian epistemology? As we have seen, her form of Critical Philosophy was reducing it to "behaviour study" (and the implicit materialism of the rest of recent philosophy). What is that supposed to mean? Gibert Ryle and B.F. Skinner? But if "reason" means no more than a form of human behavior, apparently arising from neural evolution, then the Neo-Kantian accusations about Friesian "psychologism" (against which Nelson wrote his whole doctoral dissertation, and literally pursued the rest of his life) are accepted and Friesian philosophy abandons any claim to truth, objectivity, or, indeed, genuine rationality, in human knowledge. Nelsonian "Socratic Method" only exposes the kind of self-referential and autistic exercise that Wittgenstein called a "language game," which has no claim on truth, reason, or reality.

Thus, despite, after a fashion, preserving Nelson's work and carrying it forward, Nelson's students nevertheless destroyed the purpose of his life's work and demolished much of what he thought was the most valuable in it. In doing this, they also rendered it all irrelevant to the rest of philosophy. There is no reason recommend Nelson as a faux Analytic philosopher to actual Analytic philosophers, if they are merely told that he, or at least as much of his work that is not worthless, already agreed with them on essentials. "OK. That's interesting," is about the most we could expect; and, indeed, it is about the most that they got. There is nothing there that would motivate Nelson's own ambition, which was for a "Reformation" in philosophy. Only Friesian epistemology would justify a "Reformation," just as only Friesian epistemology could explain how Socratic Method would be productive, as in Plato, of genuine knowledge. No shred of Platonism, as metaphysics or epistemology, remains after Henry-Hermann's "behaviour study."

I think that Nelson would be furious about this and would feel deeply betrayed, but perhaps not that surprised, by his students:

Disciples of a great philosopher, however, who lack a sure feeling for truth are often misled into relying on the consistency of the system alone. The discovery of inconsistencies in the master's system and the endeavour to eliminate them easily leads these disciples to a world-view quite opposed to that of their teacher. ["What is the History of Philosophy?" Ratio, Vol. IV, No. 1, June 1962, p. 28]

On the other hand, the continuing socialism of Nelson's followers, newly popular in the 21th century among the ignorant and clueless, the old fools and the young fools, would not be a "world-view quite opposed to that of their teacher." I have no sense that any of Nelson's followers have corrected his errors in political economy, let alone in the paradoxical philosophy of religion which doesn't seem to notice, except to disdain, actual religions. I have had to supply these corrections through Rudolf Otto, Karl Popper, who was at least respected by the Nelsonians, and F.A. Hayek, who was probably entirely off the radar of the Nelsonians, although he not only used Popper's ideas but got him his life-saving teaching job in New Zealand during World War II, where Popper wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies [1944], with a tribute to Hayek:

I am deeply indebted to Professor F.A. Hayek. Without his interest and support the book would not have been published. [The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume I, The Spell of Plato, Princeton University Press, 1962, 1966, 1971, p.x]

In practice, Nelson's rationalism was of a dogmatic sort, already placing too much confidence in his form of Socratic Method -- a confidence perpetuated, with even less justification, by the later followers. His proudest achievement in that respect, his System of Ethics, nevertheless produced a principle of morality with a defect and fallacy identified by Nelson himself, namely, moralism -- where a doctrine applies moral judgment to matters that are not morally relevant and extends moral discourse into non-moral issues -- this despite Nelson himself, again, distguishing, as most ethics does not, between moral and non-moral issues in ethical value.

While Nelson had no time to notice the economics of people like F.A. Hayek, who responded to ideas that Karl Popper developed and stated only after Nelson's death (in reaction to the "Vienna School" of Positivism in the 1930's), he cannot be excused from failing to recognize the achievement of Rudolf Otto in philosophy of religion. Indeed, even people who later found Otto valuable, nevertheless, as in the Analytic use of Hume, had difficulty understanding the nature of his theory, assuming that it was all about mysticism. Otto's ideas were put to better use by Mircea Eliade, but more in a context of history of religion than philosophy of religion, which provides for philosophers of religion more an idea of the phenomena of religion than of the theory to describe them. This would also be completely off the radar of Nelsonians, while Nelson himself was hostile to the whole nature of Otto's work, which had too much to do with actual religions and did not observe the reductionistic approach, not just of the moralistic Kant, but of a Fries who only allowed aesthetic value to modify Kant's moralism.

Thus, I must plead guilty to not always following the "world-view" of Leonard Nelson. But neither did Karl Popper, who did not help Nelson's heritage when he rejected a confused formulation of Friesian epistemology. Yet Nelsonians cannot simply blow off Karl Popper, who was a cousin of Julius Kraft (Nelson's most faithful, perhaps last faithful, student), who participated in the founding of Ratio, and who argued with Kraft about Nelson for years (until Kraft's untimely death in 1960). But Popper's skeptical attitude is important, and its spirit calls for emulation in the treatment of Nelson's Friesian heritage. Popper himself did not appreciate the best use to which Hayek had put his own ideas, which were about uncertainty and the limitations of (economic) knowledge.

But this brings us full circle; for Nelson, despite his use of and reverence for Socrates, skipped over the purpose of that philosopher's own Method, which was no more than to engender awareness of our own ignorance. A principle of Socratic Ignorance was not recognized by Nelson, yet it unites a critique of many of Nelson's failings in philosophy of science, politics, and economics, and is then productive of valuable insights and results. Of all the figures involved in these matters, F.A. Hayek probably had the best sense of the meaning of limited knowledge in political economy. As such, a Friesian should recognize in Hayek the best representative of Nelson's own ideal philosopher in Socrates, as I do here.

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 (like that an admirer sees in a photo of Wittgenstein?). 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.

The Sources and Influence of the Kant-Friesian School

The Principles of Friesian Philosophy

The Curse of the Friesian School

The Kant-Friesian Theory of Religion and Religious Value

"The Socratic Method," by Leonard Nelson

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

Note on Nelson's Axiomatic Diagrams

Nelson Conference, 2005

Non-Intuitive Immediate Knowledge, Ratio, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, December 1987

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

History of Philosophy


Nelson on Home Page

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Leonard Nelson (1882-1927), Note 1

Hilbert is now often overshadowed by later mathematicians; and his 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).

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Leonard Nelson (1882-1927), Note 2

The Master said, "While they are living, serve parents according to the rites; when they die, bury them according to the rites; and at their graves sacrifice to them according to the rites."

Confucius, Analects II:5, translation after James Legge [1893], Arthur Waley [1938], and D.C. Lau [1979]

The exchange with this correspondent curiously developed into a heated argument over whether Confucianism was a religion. Indeed, it is customary to distinguish between religious and philosophical Confucianism, as between religious and philosophical Taoism. Confucius says enough that distances him from gods, spirits, and ghosts that it would motivate a distinctly anti-religious strain in Confucianism, which can be discerned in the tradition, leading to a pointed rebuke by the Hung-wu Emperor.

However, what Confucius says about , "propriety" and the "rites," cannot be ignored. I have quoted two key passages as epigraphs above. The burial of parents and rites for the dead are essential to Confucianism as a religion. Rejection of is precisely what is recommended by Taoism.

I continue the discussion of these issues above. Here I reflect on the curious circumstance of the open hostility of the correspondent to religious Confucianism. This reminds me of the Star Trek episode where the Enterprise finds a planet whose relatively primitive civilization is nevertheless so intellectually advanced that it is already atheistic. My correspondent in this case apparently wanted to see Classical Chinese civilization as just like that. But how one can then express any regard for any religion then seems mysterious.

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Leonard Nelson (1882-1927), Note 3

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 ʾIslām. There has never been a priesthood in ʾIslām, and much of the ritual required of Muslims is already mandated in the Qurʾān. 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 Islāmic 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.

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Leonard Nelson (1882-1927), Note 4

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Leonard Nelson (1882-1927), Note 5

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

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