Département de philosophie

Emotions and literature – Musil and Philosophy

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Emotions and literature – Musil and philosophy

Swiss Centre of Affective Sciences
University of Geneva



 Project leader: Kevin Mulligan

The sub-project Emotions and Literature – Musil and Philosophy is part of the Philosophy project (Project 10); it will run for 3 years (2005-2008)  and lead to the publication of a monograph. The goal is to understand the accounts of emotions and related phenomena given by Robert Musil, the Austrian writer and essayist, and his Austro-German contemporaries. There is a growing interest in the project of increasing our understanding of emotions by looking at fiction and other works of art. Musil’s writings, unlike those of many novelists, are informed by a deep grasp of the philosophy of emotions, values and norms.

Robert Musil, the author of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, has been called the greatest non-Irish novelist of the twentieth century.  Like Stendhal and Proust, he is one of the great literary anatomists of the human heart. Like Stendhal, he is also the author of essayistic reflections on the nature of emotions and sentiments.

Musil’s understanding of emotions and sentiments belongs to a complicated intellectual context – the descriptive psychology of his teacher, Stumpf, the first major critic of the James-Lange account of emotions, and of Meinong, who offered Musil a university career; the Gestalt Psychologists in Berlin, the collaborators and pupils of Stumpf such as Koffka, Lewin, von Allesch, von Hornbostel; early realist phenomenology - Husserl, Pfänder, Geiger, Scheler, Ortega y Gasset.

Musil shares more assumptions and problems with the German phenomenologist Max Scheler than with any other twentieth thinker. In 1937, after reading or re-reading Scheler, Musil writes “Scheler has not yet killed me, but were he a little better, he would be fatal”.

Musil and Scheler systematically employ the word “Geist” in a way that is all their own. The word is often used to refer to higher intellectual capacities only. Musil and Scheler use the word also for sentiments such as love. Among their contemporaries the word was also used in a third way: to refer to intellectual capacities and the will, but not to any affective phenomena. This third usage is confined to a once influential group of thinkers who are the common enemies of both Scheler and Musil, a group Scheler describes as the “Pan-Romantics” - the German capitalist, philosopher and politician, Walter Rathenau; the German graphologist and philosopher, Ludwig Klages; Theodor Lessing; the German pedagogue and pacifist, Wilhelm Foerster; Oswald Spengler and the Expressionists, for example, Franz Werfel. The “Pan-Romantics” are the precursors of what is today called “Continental Philosophy”. Perhaps the most fundamental claim of the Pan-Romantics is that Life, a category to which all affective phenomena are assigned, is the enemy of Geist, as they conceive it. Life, they preach, is good; Geist is bad.

Musil and Scheler argue at great length against the Pan-Romantics. It is, they claim, always wrong to try to adapt Geist to Life; the Pan-Romantics’ misunderstanding of the relation between Geist and the sentiments is, they argue, at the root of a variety of contemporary irrationalisms.

One of the most intriguing, positive, intellectual projects common to Scheler and Musil is their attempt to understand love, sympathy, amour propre, egoism, egocentrism and affective identification. They argue for similar versions of a number of unpopular theses. They reject the “property theory” of love. Although admiration is admiration in virtue of certain properties of the admired object, love is not at bottom love in virtue of properties of the beloved but a relation to possible values and possibilities. They reject the common identification of self-love (Selbstliebe) and amour propre (Eigenliebe). Amour propre, unlike love, is an attitude we have in virtue of properties we think we possess. Self-love is intimately related to one’s vocation but knowledge of one’s vocation is invariably negative. We typically discover that a certain way of life is the wrong one. A person’s vocation is not to be identified with his fate. Indeed, the concept of fate is, Musil argues, a merely statistical notion. Similarly, it is wrong to identify the sentiments which make up a person with his character, which is merely a disposition. Egoism is a fundamentally social phenomenon. It is therefore wrong to oppose love to egoism. One important part of Musil’s examination of these claims is provided by the presentation of Ulrich, the hero of Musil’s great novel. Ulrich does not love himself, most forms of sympathy are foreign to him and he is sceptical about much of what is said about the role of sympathy, but he comes to know a form of self-love in his love for his sister, Agathe.

Perhaps the earliest philosophical analysis of affective identification is given by Scheler in 1922. He argues that it is a limit case of affective contagion but is not to be identified with sympathy (Mitgefühl or Miteinanderfühlen) The phenomenon of identification is at the heart of Musil’s accounts of the “other state”. Musil’s account of the relation between identification and love is incompatible with that given by Scheler, for whom distance is central to love. The disagreement can perhaps be traced back to Musil’s conviction of the importance of provisional, “hovering” sentiments and emotions, a category unknown to Scheler. Musil’s exploration of the priority of the provisional, of the priority of possibilities and probabilities over actuality and truth, is one of his most important and original achievements.

What Musil and Scheler have to say about affective phenomena underlies many of the other claims they make – their distinction between values and norms and arguments to the effect that values are more fundamental than norms, that norms have a merely “statistical” character. But whereas Musil has nominalist and naturalistic inclinations, Scheler is an out and out Platonist and spiritualist. One of the many instances of their disagreements concerns a fundamental question in the philosophy of emotions and sentiments. Scheler is an “essentialist” about affective phenomena, for example, about love. Musil came to think that the concept of love is what his Austrian contemporary Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance concept”: between the different types of love, fraternal, nationalist, erotic, maternal etc., there are only partial similarities. Every philosophy of emotions and sentiments must choose between the positions of Musil and Scheler.

Links to related articles:

[12] Mulligan, K. (2006). Geist (and Gemüt) vs. Life. Max Scheler and Robert Musil, to appear in E.Calcaterra (ed), Naples, Bibliopolis.

[14] Mulligan, K. (200?). Selbstliebe, Sympathie usw., to appear in K. Mulligan and A. Westerhoff (eds), Proceedings of the 2005 International Colloquium, Robert Musil – Ironie, Satire und falsche Gefühle, Berlin: de Gruyter, submitted.

[15] Mulligan, K. (2006c). Was sind und was sollen die unechten Gefühlen?, to appear in Ursula Amrein (ed), Das Authentische. Zur Konstruktion von Wahrheit in der säkularen Welt, Zürich: Chronos Verlag, submitted.


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