Julius Bahnsen - Work and Thoughts

Early in his immersion in philosophy, Julius Bahnsen developed an interest in Hegelianism, which was in decline but still popular in early 19th century Germany. Based on Hegel’s teachings, Bahnsen found his panlogism and radical rationalism unsatisfactory. In Bahnsen’s opinion, there was a glaring discrepancy between the unconcealed irrationality of the world and the naive theories, rationalizations and explanations of various philosophers. Existence itself seemed harsh, confusing and downright contradictory. On the basis of these premises, Bahnsen found Hegel’s idea of dialectics appealing. Dialectics explained the world’s entrenched opposition to itself in a cycle of perpetual conflict (as Heraclitus had observed in his fragments centuries earlier). However, Bahnsen believed that Heraclitus’ postulate of an underlying Logos and Hegel’s idea of the rational mind had misled them and contaminated Hegel’s formulation of the dialectic with progressivism and historicism. In response to this “misunderstanding”, Bahnsen developed his own idea of the Realdialektik . In the Realdialektik, there was no notion of a synthesis between two opposing forces. Opposition only leads to the negation and consequent destruction of contradictory aspects. For Bahnsen, there was no rationality in being and therefore no teleological power that led to progress at the end of each conflict.

Yet Bahnsen’s philosophical system was still in its infancy. He accepted a “modified” form of Hegel’s dialectic, but by removing the metaphysical driving entity, there remained a gap to be filled in his worldview. This led to Bahnsen’s accidental discovery of the world as will and representation by Arthur Schopenhauer . After carefully examining this magnum opus and discussing it personally with the Frankfurt philosopher, Bahnsen realized that the metaphysical notion of an irrational will underlying all creation was exactly what he needed in his own system. After several years of study of Schopenhauer’s works, Bahnsen became highly skilled and knowledgeable in the “philosophy of the will. He was considered one of the most capable philosophers of the Schopenhauer Schule, rivaled only by Schopenhauer’s personal literary executor — Julius Frauenstädt. However, as Bahnsen’s own system matured, he began to deviate from Schopenhauer’s teachings considerably.

Bahnsen had always had an interest in psychology, especially the method of examining individual characters and temperaments. He regarded each person as unique and, as a result, could not fully accept Schopenhauer’s preference for monism (the idea that each person and each thing is only a modus of a singular metaphysical entity). Similar to his fellow German pessimist Philipp Mainländer, Bahnsen addressed ontological pluralism and asserted that there is no unified will, but only individual wills, with their own specific desires, goals and wishes. However, these individual wills (“henads” ) suffer from contradictory desires due to their irrational nature. This is the result of Bahnsen’s combination of Schopenhauer’s voluntaristic metaphysics and his own ideas of the Realdialektik . A crucial difference between Schopenhauer’s worldview, which offers salvation for some via the silence of the will of the liberated Intellect, and Bahnsen’s is that, in Bahnsen’s philosophical system, there is no salvation. For Bahnsen, without the will, the intellect is powerless. It cannot “will” nothingness, for a will-to-nothing is still a form of will, and not-willing to will is a contradiction. Yet it is not impossible for the intellect to have such ideas because, according to Bahnsen, all ideas generated by the intellect are contradictory because the desires of the will are irrational and eternally in conflict with themselves. This extremely pessimistic worldview, which offers no escape to the subject, differentiates Bahnsen not only from Schopenhauer, but also from the rest of his pessimistic contemporaries (Frauenstädt , Mainländer , Hartmann ). His ideas are probably more disturbing than Mainländer’s notion of the will to die, but strangely similar to Friedrich Nietszche’s idea of the eternal return.

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