The Conservative Moral Philosophy of Scheler and Kolnai

By McAleer, Graham | Modern Age, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Conservative Moral Philosophy of Scheler and Kolnai


McAleer, Graham, Modern Age


EDMUND HUSSERL was the source of the principal philosophical movement of the twentieth century: phenomenology. The most important continental European philosophers of the century just past were all linked to the phenomenological movement to some degree or other. The greatest of these, Martin Heidegger, is infamous for cutting his ties with Husserl in order to curry favor with the Nazis. Heidegger in turn has been roundly criticized by such phenomenologists as Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas for his failure to develop any kind of ethical theory. This intellectual failure, they argue, explains Heidegger's own moral failure of sympathizing and actively collaborating with the Nazis.

Although phenomenology was still a very young philosophical school when Heidegger first flashed across the world of academic philosophy, ethics and phenomenology had nonetheless already come together in a remarkably fertile way. What is often referred to as the Munich School of phenomenology had concentrated from the start on moral and legal theory, and most famously so in the figure of Max Scheler, a man of brilliant intellect but febrile character. (1) It is widely acknowledged that Scheler (1874-1928) was the premier phenomenologist to have developed an ethical theory, a distinctive and highly original value theory. He presented his ideas in 1913 in his enormous and difficult work, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values. (2)

It is an interesting fact that those phenomenologists who developed original moral theories all created conservative ones. A superb phenomenologist like Merleau-Ponty, who is extremely popular in philosophy departments today, simply grafted his Marxist political and ethical commitments onto his phenomenology; the same can be said of thinkers more loosely related to phenomenology, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. But where truly original ethical thinking is found among phenomenologists, it always takes on a conservative hue. Today, Levinas is far more studied than is Scheler: of all the phenomenologists Levinas is certainly the most "popular" in the contemporary university. This is quite remarkable, for his biblically oriented ethics is undoubtedly conservative, centering as it does around issues of maternity and paternity. Despite all his sophistication, Levinas uses these ideas in a quite straightforward way to talk about the duties and responsibilities of parents. For a conservative philosopher, it is a delight to watch liberal and feminist commentators on Levinas--and they are legion--trying to hold on to his post-Heideggerian ethical reasoning while gutting his thinking of its essentials lest he unsettle their basic commitments.

Though eclipsed today by Levinas, Scheler remains a tremendous resource for conservative ethics. It is probably fair to say that until the mid-1960s Scheler's star was still rising, especially in Christian circles. He was foundational to the development of personalism as a philosophical anthropology, and personalism remains basic to Catholic social thought. Although Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II was often identified as part of the Munich School, already by the mid-1960s he was distancing himself from Scheler; late in his life, he spoke very favorably of Levinas. This, however, has nothing to do with Scheler's having become an apostate--as some maintain--and much more to do with the centrality of biblical norms in contemporary Christian ethics.

Scheler, though very much a Catholic when he wrote his ethics, always stood in the tradition of Catholic realism, his vigorously objective value ethics standing as an elaboration of an autonomous moral law. He did not aspire to be a moral theologian, but rather, a moral philosopher. If interest in Scheler is to be re-freshened, it might be sparked by putting him in contact with another member of his school, the Hungarian phenomenologist Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973).

Like Scheler, Kolnai was born a Jew and converted to Catholicism. …

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