Christian von Ehrenfels (also Maria Christian Julius Leopold Freiherr von Ehrenfels; June 2, 1859 – September 8, 1932) was an Austrian philosopher, and is known as one of the founders and precursors of Gestalt psychology.
On June 20, 1859 Christian von Ehrenfels was born in Rodaun near Vienna and grew up at his father's castle Brunn am Walde in Lower Austria. He joined secondary school in Krems and first studied at the Hochschule für Bodenkultur in Vienna and then changed to the Universität Wien.
There he studied philosophy, was a pupil of Franz Brentano and Alexius Meinong, promoted under supervision of Meinong, following him after his move to the Karl-Franzens-Universität (Graz), in 1885 on the topic of Größenrelationen und Zahlen. Eine psychologische Studie ("Relations of magnitude and numbers. A psychological study"). He obtained his habilitiation in 1888 in Vienna with the work Über Fühlen und Wollen ("On feeling and willing"). From 1896 to 1929 he was professor of philosophy at the German university of Prague. Interested in his lectures were among others Max Brod, Franz Kafka and Felix Weltsch.
The idea of Gestalt has its roots in theories by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernst Mach. Max Wertheimer is to be credited as the founder of the movement of Gestalt psychology. The concept of Gestalt itself was first introduced in contemporary philosophy and psychology by Ehrenfels in his famous work Über Gestaltqualitäten (On the Qualities of Form, 1890). Both he and Edmund Husserl seem to have been inspired by Mach's work Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen (Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations, 1886) to formulate their very similar concepts of Gestalt and Figural Moment respectively.
His analysis of the transition of a melody to another key became famous. Ehrenfels explained that a melody consists of individual sounds, but that it is considerably more than the sum of these notes. The individual notes would be able to join themselves for completely different melodies, while the melody would remain the same, if transposed into another key and containing single tones. This new opinion, that came up to a “perception of the whole” compared to its “parts” Ehrenfels called Gestaltqualitäten (Figure qualities).
(Compare with: Aristotle (trans. 1952) “In the case of all things that have several parts and in which the whole is not like a heap, but is a particular something besides the parts, there must be some such uniting factor”.) In the 1890s, Ehrenfels-who was a passionate fan of Richard Wagner-befriended a fellow Wagnerite, the British born German völkisch thinker Houston Stewart Chamberlain, "the Evangelist of Race". Ehrenfels, who despite being a Wagnerite and a friend of Chamberlain's did not generally associate himself with the more extreme racist and anti-Semitic wing of the Wagner movement that Chamberlain came to be the leader of. Ehrenfels never accepted Chamberlain's anti-Semitism, but he was influenced by Chamberlain's theory that the Aryan race was the greatest and best race of them all.
Ehrenfels argued in numerous cultural-scientific and sexual-political writings against the cultural harmfulness of monogamy and for the utopia of a polygynian social order. He defended the opinion that monogamy would hinder a Darwinistic reproduction-logic and procreation-selection, which would have a devastating effect on society in a cultural-biological way and therefore monogamy should be combated. With those theories, Ehrenfels exposed himself to massive criticism, because he offered with his theories unimaginable thoughts to contemporary Western conventions. The basis of Ehrenfels's thinking about a new sexual order were expressed in a series of essays published in several academic journals in Germany and Austria between 1902-1910. In his essays, Ehrenfels began with the argument that men are not naturally monogamous, and that monogamy was something that had come to Europe with Christianity. Ehrenfels stated through monogamy had some useful functions such as the "iron discipline" it imposed on European men, on the whole Europeans had suffered terribly from the unnatural condition of monogamy, which had seriously interfered with the Darwinian progress of ensuring the survival of the fittest (Ehrenfels was an avid Social Darwinist). Ehrenfels believed polygamy was what nature had intended for men as it allowed the "fittest" men to father as many children as possible with as many as women as possible in a process of "virile selection". Ehrenfels wrote with disgust that monogamy was "that type of sexual life...that corresponded to the needs and capacities of women, at the cost of men". By contrast, Ehrenfels believed that women were naturally monogamous, and that all that women desired was one good husband to look after them. Ehrenfels further believed that all social problems were caused by unnatural state of Christian monogamy, which caused a "splitting" between a man's "day consciousness" when he professed to believe in Christian marriage, and his "night consciousness", when a man's naturally aggressive, animistic sex drive come into play. Ehrenfels argued that this "splitting" within men between their "day consciousness" and "night consciousness" caused men all sorts of psychological trauma, and led to men acting in irrational, often violent ways. The specific example of the sort of male irrationality brought up by Enrenfels concerning this "splitting" was that of men abusing the prostitutes they visited. Additionally, Ehrenfels argued this psychological "splitting" led to men to treat their wives badly as men were forced into the unnatural condition of monogamy, and that the feminist movement and the entire "Women's Question" had arose as a response; Enrenfels believed the "Women's Question" would naturally resolve itself if only husbands would learn to treat their wives better. Finally, Ehrenfels argued that the monogamy was at the root to the "Social Question" (by which meant Ehrenfels meant the rise of the Austrian Social Democratic Party) as it encouraged men to leave their fortunes to their children, something that Ehrenfels believed to be natural, but also something that "very often contradicts the demands of social justice". As a result of wealth being spread by "privilegistic" means as opposed to "meritocratic" means, the poor felt resentment and were voting for socialist parties, which promised to abolish inequality. Ehrenfels believed that humanity was naturally unequal, and the demand for universal human equality had to be fought as it totally unnatural. In a 1908 essay, the proud aristocrat Baron von Enrenfels called the demand for universal equality being made by the Social Democrats "preposterous".
Moreover, Ehrenfels was obsessed with the fear of the "Yellow Peril", and believed that Asian peoples were a deadly threat to European civilization. Ehrenfels believed that Asians were especially dangerous enemies of the Europeans because in East Asia, polygamy was accepted as a natural part of the social order. Ehrenfels warned that this process of "socially victorious" Chinese men taking as many wives as possible was ultimately a grave threat to the West. As a result of polygamy, genetically superior Asian men were fathering as many children as possible with as many women as possible while genetically superior European men were fathering children by only one woman. As a result of European monogamy and Asian polygamy, the Europeans were losing out to the Asians, and it was only a matter of time before this genetic edge allowed the Asians to destroy European civilization. As a Social Darwinist and a racist, Ehrenfels saw all history as an endless racial struggle with the fittest "races" surviving. Ehrenfels took it for granted that the whites and Asians were natural enemies, and always would be. In Ehrenfels's viewpoint, the fact that Chinese were capable of working hard while eating less than Europeans were an important sign that the Asian "race" was thanks to polygamy was starting become the stronger "tougher race". Ehrenfels wrote with alarm that: "the average constitutional strength of the Chinese, their resistance to overwork and...noxious and prejudicial influences of all kinds...exceeds that of the civilized peoples of the West to an astonishing degree".. Ehrenfels warned that it this progress was allowed to continue, then the "beautiful Aryan race" to whom Ehrenfels compared to "clear mountain streams" and "purest white milk" would be swept away by the Asian "torrents of mud". Ehrenfels stated that racist anti-Asian immigrant laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States were a good first step, but were insufficient to stop the rise of the "tough, fecund Mongol race".
Ehrenfels proposed solution was to do away with monogamy, and create a new social order based on polygamy. To begin with, the state would take complete control of human sexuality. In Ehrenfels's new society, the "highest goal" would the "improvement of the human constitution" by allowing only the fittest white men to breed. In Ehrenfels's new society, only those white men who proved themselves to be social "winners" would be allowed to marry, and the number of wives a man could have would be based upon his degree of success. The more successful the man, the more wives he would have. The state would assign a man his wives after determining his social success and other features such as health, looks, morality and intelligence. Woman by contrast would be allowed only one husband at a time. All women would be forced to live in communal barracks at the expense of the state, where they would help other each raise their children and where their husbands would visit for sex. In this proposed new society, romantic love would be done away with, and relations between men and women would be only sexual. Since in Ehrenfels's viewpoint, all that men really wanted from women was sex, not love, in this new society men would not suffer the psychological problems caused by monogamy, thus ending the "splitting". Since this new society would be meritocratic, this would solve the entire "Social Question". Furthermore, in this new society, women living in their communal barracks would help each other with raising children, women would have more time for leisure, and as such Ehrenfels believed that women would come to see this new society as a huge improvement over the previous monogamist society. Their husbands now free of monogamy would treat them better, and so the entire "Women's Question" would dissolve as women would lose interest in feminism (which Enrenfels saw as very unnatural). To end the "Yellow Peril" once and for all, Ehrenfels suggested that the "white nations" band together to conquer all the Asian nations before it was too late, and create a new world racial order with a hereditary, racially determined "caste system". In Ehrenfels's vision, whites would serve as the oligarchic "Aryan" military and intellectual castes and the Asians and blacks as the slave castes supporting the whites. To prevent Miscegenation, interracial sex would be a capital crime with offenders to be publicly hanged.
Until the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-05, Ehrenfels believed that these sort of radical changes would only happened sometime in the far-future, or as Ehrenfels put it in 1902: "the Aryan will only respond to the imperative of sexual reform when the waves of the Mongolian tide are lapping around his neck". After Japan's victory over Russia in 1905, Ehrenfels wrote "the absolute necessity of a radical sexual reform for the continued existence of the western races of men has... been raised from the level of discussion to the level of a scientifically proven fact". In a 1907 essay, Ehrenfels wrote that radical sexual reform was "now a question of 'to be or not to be'...We have no time to lose." Ehrenfels suggested as a starting point, the Austrian government begin to allow soldiers upon completing their military service to have polygamous marriages, with those soldiers who proven themselves especially intelligent, brave and physically fit to have the largest number of wives. Subsequently, Ehrenfels made a public appeal to "manly Aryan men" who had proved themselves to be both "social winners" and "studs" to disregard monogamy and marriage, and to start impregnating as many women as possible to give the "white race" a genetic edge in the coming war against the "Yellow Peril".
Ehrenfels's ideas were not widely accepted by the public, but the very fact that he was allowed to publish essays on his new society in intellectually prestigious, learned academic journals in Germany and Austria show that his ideas were part of the intellectual mainstream in the first years of the 20th century. Social Darwinism and racism were part of the intellectual mainstream in the West as was the widespread belief that white men were starting to become "soft", and if white men continued to lose their masculine "hardness", inevitably this would led to process of "racial degeneration", which would end with the whites becoming enslaved to the "Yellow Peril".
However, Ehrenfels's ideas did meet with disagreement. In December 1908, Sigmund Freud invited Ehrenfels to give a lecture on his proposed new society. The audience generally offered polite dissent from Ehrenfels with one participant calling his new society an "adolescent sexual fantasy". The American historian Edward Ross Dickinson wrote the "pieces" of Ehrenfels's thinking were all mainstream, but the way he brought them together was "idiosyncratic". Dickinson suggested that these ideas were rooted in Ehrenfels's own tormented sexuality as he was both fascinated/repulsed by sex. Ehrenfels had been brought up in an extremely conservative, sexually repressive Roman Catholic family, and from his teenage years onwards, always felt deep shame and guilt about his sexual desires. Despite his obsession with sex, Ehrenfels was enraged by pornography (which he wanted to see ruthlessly stamped out) and by the "indecent" popular culture of Vienna, which he saw as far too sexualized. Dickinson wrote that when Ehrenfels wrote about men suffering from what he called the "tortuously shackled animal personality" created by monogamy, he almost certainly writing about himself. Dickinson suggested that based upon a reading of Ehrenfels's private letters, that his concerns about psychological "splitting" within men were based upon his own visits to prostitutes, where he saw johns abusing the prostitutes, and that he may himself had badly treated the prostitutes he had sex with (his letters are somewhat ambiguous on this point). The frequently which Ehrenfels brought up the example of how psychological "splitting" was causing men to abuse prostitutes may very well had reflected a guilty conscience on his part about past abuse that he had inflicted on the prostitutes whose services he had used. In a 1908 essay entitled "The Yellow Peril", Ehrenfels wrote that 13 years earlier in 1895, he "arrived, on the basis of personal experience, which it would be superfluous to recount here, at the following two alternatives: "Either I am an individual of totally corrupt sex instincts, or our monogamous sexual order is an institution with completely corrupting tendencies.""
In the late 19th century, what the British historian John Tosh called the "flight from domesticity" novels became very popular, which were a major influence on Ehrenfels″. The "flight from domesticity" novels typically dealt with a ruggedly tough male who lived life on his own terms, usually alone and always in some remote frontier place, and who almost never had a relationship with a woman or children. The heroes in the "flight from domesticity" novels were usually a frontiersman, a hunter, a cowboy, a scout or some other suitably adventuresome, manly occupation. Because the heroes in the "flight from domesticity" novels lived in the wild in harmony with nature, they were always portrayed as being more morally purer and authentic then the people who lived in modern civilization. The hero in the "flight from domesticity" novel was always the "strong silent type", the taciturn tough guy who lived uncompromisingly by his own code of honor and who embodied typical male values like courage and self-reliance far better then did the men who lived in civilization. Typical of the "flight from domesticity" novels were the Allan Quatermain novels by the British novelist H. Rider Haggard dealing with the adventures of a British frontiersman in 19th century South Africa; the Western novels by the German novelist Karl May dealing with the adventures of the German immigrant cowboy Old Shatterhand and his Apache best friend Winnetou in the American Old West; the Scott Allen Cameron novels by the Canadian novelist Ralph Connor about a Mountie singly-handily upholding the law in the Rocky Mountains; and Western adventure novels by the Irish-American novelist Thomas Mayne Reid. The typical hero in Reid's novels which were extremely popular in the United States and Europe was described as being: "gallant, skillful at arms, far more at ease around men than around women, has lots of time for trappers and soldiers but little for the upper classes and intellectuals, and is much happier hunting and killing than thinking." Tosh argued by the end of the 19th century, the burdens of being a husband and a father in a modern, industrialized, urban society were such that many men fantasized about "chucking it all" to escape domesticity; to live a life unburdened by the demands of a job, children, a wife or any other social obligation. Hence the popularity of the "flight from domesticity" novels, which celebrated the "masculine primitive". Ehrenfels's ideas about his new society where men would live apart from women and children, would not participate in raising their children and whose relationships with their wives would be entirely sexual bear a very strong resemblance to the themes in the "flight from domesticity" novels. Significantly, Ehrenfels believed that in his new society where men would not be burdened by the demands of family life would allow them to live more fuller and adventuresome lives like the type depicted in the "flight from domesticity" books. Ehrenfels's own fantasies about manly Aryan heroes battling the "Yellow Peril" who would single-handily kill hundreds of the "evil" Asians while sleeping with every white women in sight, but never having a relationship or raising children appeared to be a sexualized version of the macho fantasies found in the "flight from domesticity" novels. It should be noted that not all of the "flight from domesticity" writers took the same racist line as did as Ehrenfels, with May in particular being very sympathetic towards the plight of Native-Americans in his Old Shatterhand novels. In many of the "flight from domesticity" books, non-white peoples like the Zulus and the Apache were depicted admiringly if rather patronizingly as "noble savages" who in their primitive state had preserved certain spiritual qualities that people in the industrialized West had long since lost. What Ehrenfels like many other men at the time seemed to have liked in the "flight from domesticity" novels was the celebration of the "masculine primitive"; a purer, rawer, tougher form of masculinity that was alleged to exist in the wild than that found in civilization.
In September 1895, the German Emperor Wilhelm II had a nightmare where all the nations of Europe appeared as "prehistoric warrior goddesses" who were protected by Germany which took the form of the Archangel Michael. To the East, they were threatened by a dark, stormy cloud in which a Chinese-style dragon carried a Buddha wreathed in fire under which marched millions of Asians who destroyed all in their path, killing all whites. After his nightmare, which Wilhelm regarded as a message from God about the coming, apocalyptic great "race war" between Europe and Asia which decide the future of the 20th century, and a painting of his nightmare done by his court painter Hermann Knackfuss. The painting, which was known as the Yellow Peril painting was very popular in its time. Ehrenfels saw the Yellow Peril painting in December 1895 and was greatly impressed. From 1895 onwards, Ehrenfels was greatly influenced by the "Yellow Peril" propaganda put out by the German government, in which Wilhelm repeatedly warned of the alleged Asian menace to the West. More broadly, Ehrenfels's "Yellow Peril" anti-Asian racism was part of an environment in which non-white men were depicted as threatening to rape white women. In this racist viewpoint, to protect their women from being raped, white men would have to wage a "primitive" and "primordial" racial war against the "Yellow Peril", which justified both white supremacy and male supremacy.
Dickinson noted that for Ehrenfels, the fear of the "Yellow Peril" was always expressed in water imagery; noting how Ehrenfels warned of a "flood" of Chinese coming to the West, that the Chinese were a "torrent of mud" in which Europe was drowning in, that the Japanese were a "polluting liquid", and that Europeans would not respond to this menace until the "waves" of Asians were up to their neck. The German historian Klaus Theweleit wrote that the same threatening water imagery was frequently used in the writings of Freikorps men during the interwar period, but only the threats were the Jews and the Communists (usually the same thing in these writings) rather the Asians which threatened to subsume German men. Theweleit wrote that right-wing German men who had served in the Freikorps during the interwar period were obsessed with proving their masculinity by establishing their "hardness", and that the water imagery reflected their fear of women, the erotic, love, intimacy, and of dependence, all things that threatened to make them less than manly. Theweleit argued in his 1977 book Männerphantasien (Male Fantasies) that the water imagery was associated with sexuality and a loss of self-control. Reviewing Theweleit's book in 1987, the American historian Paul Robision wrote that "...one can't read it without feeling that Mr. Theweleit is onto something: the piling up of examples eventually begins to take its toll on even the most skeptical." Dickinson argued that men like Ehrenfels felt the same sexual anxieties about their masculinity as did the writers examined by Theweleit, but only he projected these anxieties onto the "Yellow Peril" rather than "Judeo-Bolshevism". To be in love can often mean a certain loss of self-control as those in love often invoke the images of being "swept away" or "swallowed up". Dickinson argued that for Ehrenfels, a self-proclaimed macho "manly man" and Aryan alpha male, the prospect of being in love with someone was terrifying as it meant the possibility of losing control, and he projected those fears-which were always expressed in the water imagery-onto the Asians. Dickinson further noted the great irony of Ehrenfels's life, namely that his own biography disapproved his theories about men as sex-crazed animals incapable of love for either the women in their lives or their children. By all accounts, Ehrenfels did indeed deeply love his wife and his two children.
His wife Emma was befriended by Houston Stewart Chamberlain. His daughter was the author Imma von Bodmershof and his son Rolf, a professor of anthropology who converted to Islam in 1927 and assumed the name Omar. Omar Rolf's wife, Elfriede von Bodmershof, was a literary person. As well, she registered the pseudonym "Kurban Said" as belonging to her for the novels "Ali and Nino" as well as "Girl from the Golden Horn." However, Lucy Tal whose company E.P. Tal had published "Ali and Nino" wrote her lawyer saying, "I had never heard of the Baroness... Also my late husband's right hand and secretary knew nothing of the Baroness. Only much later, when for some reason, we looked at Buchhaendler Boersenblatt, we discovered the Baroness as Kurban Said. Of course, under the Nazis pseudonyms were born, people unrightful had themselves as authors ..."
The Czech Zionist, philosopher and friend of Kafka Felix Weltsch wrote many essays and memos about Ehrenfels, who himself was of partly Jewish descent. Weltsch was one of Ehrenfels's most important pupils.Show more Show less | More at Wikipedia