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Constantin Brunner: The Philosopher who returned from the cold

By Martin Rodan. Translated by Tamar Rodan.
Originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz, September 19, 2003

As we gradually move forward from the overwhelming tragedy of the Shoa, it becomes easier to make a complete and accurate assessment of the full extent of the physical and spiritual destruction suffered during the Nazi era. Now, at last, it is perhaps possible to fully evaluate the cultural achievements of European culture in the first half of the twentieth century, and to compare them with those of the second half. Such comparison shows that the revolutionary innovations in the fields of philosophy, literature and plastic arts during "la belle époque" and between the two world wars make the cultural achievements after WWII seem quite modest. Berlin, Vienna and Paris did not resume as the "capitals of culture" that they had been before Hitler occupied them. Much that was of vital interest was forgotten in the destruction of Europe, and it may be to our advantage now to rediscover some of this lost cultural treasure.

The German Jewish philosopher, Constantin Brunner, is part of this lost culture. One hundred and forty years have passed from his birth, and 65 years from his death. This philosopher, who developed his highly original theories in many voluminous books, became one of the most celebrated and discussed thinkers at the end of Wilhelmian Germany and during the Weimar Republic. After the Holocaust, his admirers, among them the Jewish violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, were scattered all over the world, most of them immigrating to Israel. Brunner was almost forgotten in Germany. His followers did regroup after the upheavals of the war and its aftermath, undertaking as their priority the republishing of his books, which had been burned by the Nazis. The immigrants from Germany and Central Europe in Israel organized groups for the discussion of Brunner's philosophy. From 1946 to 1954, supporters published a periodical in Tel Aviv entitled The Constantin Brunner Community (Die Constantin Brunner Gemeinschaft). Dr. Aharon Berman, one of the founders of the well known college "Tichon Chadash" in Tel-Aviv, translated into Hebrew excerpts from some of Brunner's works which were then put together and published in 1957 in a book, Constantin Brunner's Philosophy. Prof. Michael Baraz published a book in French, La revolution inesperée: Constantin Brunner, that remains the best monograph about Brunner. In the meantime, most of Brunner's circle passed away, but the "last of the Mohicans," Sigfried-Shalom Meron, engages even now, at the age of 98, in research on Brunner.

Until recently, it seemed that with the disappearance of the generation of German-speaking immigrants, Brunner's work would be completely forgotten. It is therefore quite remarkable that in recent years interest in his work has sprung up again. Recently, several books on Brunner have been published, among them, in English, is To live is to think, by Hans Goetz. Another sign of revival is the existence of no fewer than three internet sites devoted to Brunner.

Arjeh (Leo) Wertheimer, known under the literary name Constantin Brunner, was born in a prominent Jewish orthodox family in the town Altona, near Hamburg. His grandfather was the chief rabbi of Schleswig-Holstein, and he himself studied in the Jewish seminary in Cologne. At the age of twenty he abandoned the religious way of life and began studying comparative religions and philosophy. In these years he made the acquaintance of some of the most important German artists, thinkers and statesmen; he was a close friend of the philosopher and revolutionary Gustav Landauer, as well as of Walter Rathenau, who served as the German Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In 1895, Brunner moved to Berlin, severed his social ties, shut himself at home and devoted 13 entire years to produce his main philosophical work, Die Lehre von den Geistigen und vom Volk (The Doctrine of the men of the spirit and of the men of the people). He continued to write for the rest of his life, producing a considerable number of books dealing with many aspects of human existence: the benefits and dangers of science, the relationship between language and thought, sexuality, medicine and health, scientific foundations of psychology and more. All these books dealt with these subjects on the basis of clearly-defined philosophical principles. Brunner also wrote on the Jewish question and anti-Semitism. He rejected the use of the term "anti-Semitism," which appears to confer upon the phenomenon an academic seal, and preferred to speak simply about "hatred toward Jews."

Brunner was probably the first thinker in Germany to warn, even before the foundation of the National-Socialist Movement, of the danger in that country of hatred toward Jews. He prophesied that the Germans, who felt humiliated after World War One, needed to use the Jews as an outlet for their hate. In his book, Hear Israel and hear not-Israel, he compared anti-Semitism to earlier persecutions of "witches," with the warning that the same disaster might befall the Jews: to be burned on the scaffold. However, this historical analysis did not bring Brunner to adhere to Zionism. He appreciated some Zionist leaders, such as Herzl and Zabotinski, and vice versa some Zionist thinkers like Max Nordau admired his doctrine. But, like many German Jews, Brunner was of the opinion that the Jewish people had "progressed" so much in the way of emancipation that they had come "to a point of no return," and could no longer become the people they were in ancient times. Brunner perceived also that the Arabs would not agree to the establishment of a national homeland for the Jews in the land of Israel, and therefore he believed that the Jews had no other choice but to act together with the enlightened public in different countries against hatred toward Jews and in favor of tolerance.

Brunner's apprehensions proved to be more justified than his anticipations. He himself had to leave Germany in haste in 1933, and spent the last years of his life living in exile in Holland, where he died in 1937. After the Nazi occupation of Holland his wife and daughter were taken to the Sobibor extermination camp, from which they never returned.

Brunner's philosophy may be applied to all aspects of human life. He was probably the last systematic philosopher after Hegel; nevertheless his aim was not to build another "transcendental model" to explain that which has no need of explanation, but to break the "routine" of our thought, and to inspire in us a new thinking, lucid and creative, which is the means to a life rich in spirit and happiness. In this sense, Brunner is close to philosophers like Kirkegaard or Nietzsche, who maintained that the aim of philosophy is not to build "philosophical systems," but to always choose the best way to approach the ins and outs of our lives. Of all the philosophers the one whom Brunner appreciated most was Spinoza. He often repeated his contention that his doctrine was only a new version of his teacher's and rabbi's philosophy. However, Brunner's philosophy stands on its own, and it is difficult to find parallels to him in other philosophers.

His system is based on the thesis that human thought unfolds in several strata. Following Descartes and Spinoza, Brunner conceives the process of thinking as a unitary, integrated activity of the whole human consciousness, and consists of sensations, knowledge and volition. Sensations consist of data transferred to us through our senses from the world of objects surrounding us. Knowledge is the processing of these data on the basis of precedents (memory). Volition is our responsiveness, expressing our existential interests in a world where we, objects among other objects, long to live and thrive.

According to Brunner, thought does not lead us to an impossible and unnecessary "objective knowledge of the world." Thinking is merely our existential "weapon" (Lebensfürsorge), and essentially is not different from the instincts of other animals serving their existential interests, ie. egoism.

Egoistic thinking is common to all human beings, though mental disturbances may interfere with it. Brunner maintained that even science, with its huge scope and impressive practical achievements, is no more than the manifestation of the egoistic goals of human beings. Its aim is to ease our life and not to "know" it. The development of science was made possible thanks to some philosophers who correctly understood the relativity of human understanding. According to Brunner, the different branches of natural science are nothing but practical applications of the philosophical principle that "everything moves" (panta rei). Whereas in daily life we generally "rely" on our senses, which perceive the objects around us, scientific thought "deconstructs" these objects into the constitutive factors that determine their motion. Accordingly, for Brunner, atomic theory is merely "pragmatic conjecture," and not absolute truth, ie., while it is useful to assume indivisible particles in order to understand the movement of the components of matter and to exploit them for the benefit of man, to believe that there are any "last, tiny" particles which do not lend themselves to further division is a mistake. As has been subsequently shown by modern physics, science is ultimately not capable of making a clear distinction between substance and movement.

Identical with the interminate movement of matter around and within us, our thoughts exist within the never-ending complex of causes and consequences, without ever attaining any "permanent true knowledge." To Brunner the search for the "beginning" of the universe or the "initial" cause for creation is vanity and nonsense derived from a lack of understanding of human thought and its practical goals. From this point of view, there is, according to him, no essential difference between traditional religious beliefs and modern "scientific" theories that are actually just "metaphysical narratives," such as the theory of evolution; the attempt to explain by it "progress in the universe" is a manifestation of the vanity of man, who claims in his naivety that nature has some purpose and that man is the ultimate goal of creation.

Brunner asks how it is possible that our thinking, correct in itself in its formal-logical functioning, leads us so often to unfounded conclusions on the essential questions regarding our being. He concludes that the reason always lies in the same fatal mistake in our judgment: we tend to interpret as "absolute" the relative world of objects in which we live. This "mis(s)-take," expressed by vain beliefs, metaphysical speculations and unjustified feelings of superiority, is called by Brunner "superstitious thinking" (Abergläubisches Denken). This distorted thinking is the real cause of many of the disasters that befall men, both as individuals and as collectivities.

Brunner draws many correspondences between his own thought and that found in Jewish sources. His approach to these sources is, however, completely different from that of traditional rabbinical Judaism. In his opinion, the true biblical message is clearly expressed in the Shema Israel (Deut. 6:4), provided that we understand this text literally, translating it thusly: "Hear Israel, 'Being' (=Hebrew meaning of the biblical tetragrammaton) is our God, 'Being' is 'One.'" According to Brunner, upon this "One" is built our consciousness and our practical thinking of "many." Even though "One" is not an object, and therefore no definition derived from logic applies to it, our openness to it radically transforms our life and grants us security, serenity and "acceptance" of the "other" and of the "different." The Biblical Commandment, "And thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," should not be understood, according to Brunner, as a "moral commandment," but as establishing a true relationship with our fellow man through the certain conviction that his "self" is ultimately united with our own "self."