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Otto Weininger


Otto Weininger (April 3, 1880 - October 4, 1903) was an Austrian philosopher. In 1903, he published the book Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character) which gained popularity after Weininger's suicide at the age of 23. Today, the book is often dismissed as misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic by most academic circles;1 however, it continues to be held up as a great work of lasting genius and spiritual wisdom by others, most notably the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.2 Its applications of the categories of masculine and feminine are broad and out of step with most contemporary attitudes, especially in an era that rejects categories in favor of radical individualism.


Otto Weininger was born the son of the Jewish goldsmith, Leopold Weininger, and his wife, Adelheid. Weininger was a gifted student. Upon graduating from secondary school in July 1898 he registered at the University of Vienna. He studied mainly philosophy and psychology but also the natural sciences and medicine. He was fluent in many languages.

In the autumn of 1901 Weininger tried to find a publisher for his work "Eros and the Psyche"-which he submitted as his thesis in 1902. He met Sigmund Freud who, however, did not recommend the text to a publisher. His professors accepted the thesis and Weininger received his Ph.D. degree. Shortly thereafter he became proudly and enthusiastically a Protestant.

After travelling around Europe for some time he returned to Vienna. At the time he began to suffer fits of depression.

In June 1903, after months of concentrated work, the Vienna publishers Braumüller & Co. published his book Sex and Character - a fundamental investigation-an attempt "to place sex relations in a new and decisive light."

While the book was not received negatively, it did not create the stir he expected.

On October 3, he took a room in the house in Schwarzspanierstraße 15 where Beethoven died. The next morning Weininger was found lying fully dressed on the floor, unconscious, with a wound in the left part of his chest. He was rushed to hospital, where he died, at the age of twenty-three.

Sex and Character

In his book Sex and Character, Weininger argues that all people are composed of a mixture of the male and the female substance, and attempts to support his view scientifically. The male aspect is active, productive, conscious and moral/logical, while the female aspect is passive, unproductive, unconscious and amoral/alogical. Weininger argues that emancipation should be reserved for the "masculine woman," e.g. some lesbians, and that the female life is consumed with the sexual function: both with the act, as a prostitute, and the product, as a mother. Woman is a "matchmaker." By contrast, the duty of the male, or the masculine aspect of personality, is to strive to become a genius, and to forego sexuality for an abstract love of the absolute, God, which he finds within himself.

A significant part of his book is about the nature of genius. Weininger argues that there is no such thing as a person who has a genius for, say, mathematics, or music, but there is only the universal genius, in whom everything exists and makes sense. He reasons that such genius is probably present in all people to some degree.

In a separate chapter, Weininger, himself a Jew who had converted to Christianity in 1902, analyzes the archetypical Jew as feminine, and thus profoundly irreligious, without true individuality (soul), and without a sense of good and evil. Christianity is described as "the highest expression of the highest faith," while Judaism is called "the extreme of cowardliness." Weininger decries the decay of modern times, and attributes much of it to feminine and thus Jewish, influences. By Weininger's reckoning everyone shows some femininity, and what he calls "Jewishness."

It was certainly no accident that Weininger shot himself in the house in Vienna where Beethoven had died, the man he considered one of the greatest geniuses of all. This turned him into something of a cause célèbre, inspired several imitation suicides, and turned his book into a success. The book received glowing reviews by August Strindberg, who wrote that it had "probably solved the hardest of all problems," the "woman problem."


Influence on Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein read the book as a schoolboy and was deeply impressed by it, later listing it as one of his influences and recommending it to friends (Ray Monk: Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, 1990). However, Wittgenstein's deep admiration of Weininger's thought was coupled with a fundamental disagreement with his position. Wittgenstein wrote to G.E. Moore: "It isn't necessary or rather not possible to agree with him but the greatness lies in that with which we disagree. It is his enormous mistake which is great." The themes of the decay of modern civilization and the duty to perfect one's genius occur repeatedly in Wittgenstein's later writings.

Weininger and the Nazis

One of the more dubious aspects of Weininger's legacy is that isolated parts of Weininger's writings were used by Nazi propaganda, as had some of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, despite the fact that Weininger actively argued against the ideas of race that came to be identified with the Nazis. On the other hand, Weininger's views on race cannot be reduced to a simplistic egalitarian liberalism: "A genius has perhaps scarcely ever appeared amongst the negroes, and the standard of their morality is almost universally so low that it is beginning to be acknowledged in America that their emancipation was an act of imprudence."3 "Greatness is absent from the nature of the woman and the Jew, the greatness of morality, or the greatness of evil. In the Aryan man, the good and bad principles of Kant's religious philosophy are ever present, ever in strife. In the Jew and the woman, good and evil are not distinct from one another… It would not be difficult to make a case for the view that the Jew is more saturated with femininity than the Aryan, to such an extent that the most manly Jew is more feminine than the least manly Aryan."4

Although likely apocryphal, Adolf Hitler is reported to have said something to the effect of "There was only one decent Jew, and he killed himself."5 Nevertheless, Weininger's books were denounced by the Nazis, most probably because Weininger encouraged women to think for themselves, and to determine their own future, which went directly against the Nazi idea of the role of women in society.


  1. ↑ Nancy Harrowitz, Barbara Hyams (eds.), Jews and Gender: Responses to Otto Weininger, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995, ISBN 1-56639-249-7).
  2. ↑ "Otto Weininger on the Internet", produced by the translator of Weininger's "Notebook and Letters to a Friend" Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  3. Sex and Character (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1906), 302.
  4. Sex and Character (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1906), 189.
  5. ↑ Hitler said, "Dietrich Eckart told me that in all his life he had known just one good Jew: Otto Weininger, who killed himself on the day when he realized that the Jew lives upon the decay of peoples" - Adolf Hitler, Monologe im Führerhauptquartier. 1941-1944, ed. Werner Lochmann (Hamburg. 1980), 148. There is no evidence that Eckart has tried be factual in his account of Weininger's death.

Weininger's Works

  • Weininger, Otto. Selection of works available for download Works of Otto Weininger Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  • Weininger, Otto. Geschlecht und Charakter: Eine prinzipielle Untersuchung. Vienna, Leipzig 1903. translation online - original version in German Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  • Weininger, Otto. Collected Aphorisms, Notebook and Letters to a Friend, Edited and translated by Kevin Solway and Martin Dudaniec, 2002. translation online Retrieved February 7, 2008.
  • Weininger, Otto. Sex and Character: An Investigation Of Fundamental Principles. Ladislaus Löb (trans.) Indiana University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-253-34471-9
  • Weininger, Otto. A Translation of Weininger's Über die letzten Dinge (1904/1907)/On Last Things. Steven Burns (trans.) Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. ISBN 0-7734-7400-5


  • Abrahamsen, David. The Mind and Death of a Genius. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946. OCLC 531871
  • Harrowitz, Nancy, and Barbara Hyams (eds.). Jews and Gender: Responses to Otto Weininger. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. ISBN 1-56639-249-7
  • Sengoopta, Chandak. Otto Weininger: Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna. University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN 0-226-74867-7
  • Stern, David G., and Béla Szabados (eds.). Wittgenstein Reads Weininger. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-53260-4

External links

All links retrieved January 8, 2019.