Robert Musil

From a review

The piece in question turns out to be an omnibus review from September 1913 of some essay volumes by people I've never heard of, probably with good reason: "Hermann Bahr, Taking Stock. Felix Poppenberg, Masquerades. Franz Blei, The Powderpuff. Miscellaneous Writings, Six Volumes: Imaginary Occurences, God and Women, The Rococo, The Black Heart, The Work that Serves, Life and the Poet." Once Musil gets into the particulars of the essays it gets less interesting, but the beginning is fine stuff....
- Paul Kerschen

In life the most agonizing insecurity can be preferable to certainty; it is generally the piquant temperaments who, as thinkers, become unpleasant figures. For wishing not to know something that might well be an indisputable fact, simply in order to have a beautiful thought, is at root just as grossly philistine 1 as wanting to deny facts for the sake of one's emotional peace. The most insignificant mathematical dissertation unquestionably has a better spiritual bearing than Schelling's arbitrary work, or Eucken's for example, or any of Mischer's brains with feelings.

Despite this, it is the hallmark of the essay that its inner core is as little translatable into conceptual thought as poetry into prose. This raises it above popular science, the flowery headmaster's speech, above miscellanous and brief and posthumous professorial writings. Its thoughts are inextricably rooted in a soil 2 of feeling, desire, personal experiences and connections between complexes of ideas which give and receive their full light only in the mental atmosphere of a particular internal situation. They lay claim to absolutely no general validity, but rather work like people who grab hold of us and slip away without our being able to rationally record them, and who mentally infect us with something that cannot be proved. They may also contain contradictions; for what has the form of judgment in an essay is nothing but a snapshot of something only graspable in snapshots. They are governed by a more flexible, but no less rigorous logic.

The goal of scientific thought is the unambiguous expression and correlation of facts. It is most admirable where it permits one to travel nakedly through its splendid hardness. Essayistic thought can give no contrast to this but should rather be a continuation, authorized to go where scientific thoroughness finds no foundation 3 that will hold firm with the strength essential for its application; for it then loses all virtue and turns into pointless pedantry. One sees this in the philosophic attempt to conceptually pull something out of the great essayists that can be scientifically systematized, something from Emerson or Nietzsche. They dredge with great machines down to the beds of these flowing rivers and pull out a ripped-up old shoe, a discarded tissue of thought, any absurdity at all. Little-investigated boundaries lie there between methods of thought, and one must take care with them. Conversely, one can set to any essay, any metaphysics, even any mysticism the question: what remains if one looks at them only under the aspect of reality? Do they shrivel up, or is their effect undiminished? Do they divide up the intellect consciously, technically, according to the great variety of subjects, or does the intellect split apart through the simplemindnedness of the author? I have seldom heard the question asked in this way, addressing the very right to the method, although in this time of mental reform work and artistic-spiritual thought, one is forced every day to play dumber than one actually is in order to get down from the desired heights of feeling.— Let the schoolroom nature of this introduction be excused. Today the artistic thinking person is threatened by inartistic thinking people and by unthinking artists; it will become necessary to reflect on boundaries, rights and duties.

Bahr says of Goethe: "... he knew that to every yes belongs a no, and that only from both together does the truth, hidden behind both and identical in both, ever result." This is the theory of knowledge which can be inferred from the thought practice of artists and which, in the vicinity of problems that interest them, is most often correct. Bahr expands it into a generality and concludes: truth stands firm, but somewhere over there and not for us here. And at times he is even more doubtful. He writes with Pascal that our life goes from natural to learned ignorance. That we always know only that we can know nothing. And that but one final truth remains, that there is no truth. I understand such skepticism. It translates the experiences of one area into the whole. And that is its error.

The book makes reference to a number of philosophers. Doubt concerning knowledge is almost as old by now as the desire for it, and the history of our philsophy is a struggle of over two thousand years between the two, with advances and retreats. And if at times there has been a ride of Hussars here and there over inkpots and tomes, so that everything seemed at times knowable, as for the conceptual Goths of scholasticism, at times unknowable, as for dear manly Epicurus or the divinely blessed and cunning Bishop Berkeley, at root it always remains an amicable struggle over boundaries which stretch somewhere or other, and which today are ascertained without pathos and with apparent success. But no thinker has ever seriously believed in radical skepticism; it would have been contrary to his beloved habits. Its negative absolutism was always a mere gesture, and its worth always lay in its positive sharpening of conscience; it was never anything other than a non-Euclidean geometry of the intellect, a more geometrico like any other.

And naturally Bahr, this general proven in a thousand disputations, does not intend otherwise. There are passages in the book which contradict those cited, and the thinkers to which it refers Mach, Mauthner, Vaihinger, James and those known as the pragmatist school are not remotely in agreement, nor do they constitute a line of development. In all seriousness Bahr actually means simply that the intellect is insufficient for certain questions, that we cannot live internally by it alone, and what we really need is the certainty of an emotional approach. And that again is entirely correct.

[1] Dickbürgerlich, literally "fat bourgeois"; not a word that shows up in dictionaries and presumably a product of its time and place.

[2] Mutterboden; topsoil, literally "mother-ground."

[3] Not easily translatable, very German pun: wo die wissenschaftliche Gründlichkeit keinen Grund findet.