German, b: 25 September 1852, Nehren. d: 17 December 1933, Halle, Germany. Cat: 'As-If philosopher; metaphysician; Kant philologist. Educ: Theology, Philosophy and Classics at Tübingen, Leipzig and Berlin. Infls: Hermann Avenarius, Eduard von Hartmann, Friedrich A. Lange and Friedrich Nietzsche. Appts: Lecturer in Strasbourg; Professor at Halle.
Vaihinger is perhaps best known for his fictionalism, or his philosophy of'as if. He endorsed the principle that an 'idea whose theoretical untruth or incorrectness, and therewith its falsity, is admitted, is not for that reason practically valueless and useless; for such an idea, in spite of its theoretical nullity, may have great practical importance'. Thought was, he believed, always in the service of the biological struggle for existence. It was therefore a merely biological function for him. Yet thought has for him a tendency to formulate problems which it cannot possibly solve, such as the question of the meaning of life. This problem cannot be answered (because it is a meaningless question). We can only show its psychological sources. Yet, some of the answers that have been given to this question, while clearly false, are just as clearly quite useful. Thus the fiction of a higher spirit that created and rules the world has been quite satisfying to many. Even mathematics and science rely on fictions that are self-contradictory (such as the concepts of the infinitely small and the atom). They are employed because they have proved themselves to be eminently fruitful. Moral values and ideals especially serve 'life'. Even if they are irrational, we should employ them. We must act 'as if they were true because they have biological utility.
Vaihinger himself contrasted his principle with the pragmatic principle that truth in theory is proved by what is useful in practice, admitting that there is a similarity in practice, although the two are diametrically opposed in principle. Vaihinger was most deeply influenced by the pessimism, irrationalism, and voluntarism in Schopenhauer, although he also cites Hume and John Stuart Mill as important for his early development. When he got to know Nietzsche's works relatively late in life (1898), he found him to be a kindred spirit and fully endorsed his works. Vaihinger rejected the labels of 'scepticism' and 'agnosticism' for his theory, claiming that 'relativism' would be a more appropriate term for it. Vaihinger's work as a Kant scholar was perhaps more important than his fictionalism. His commentary on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is still a standard work of Kant scholarship. His theory of the composition of the Prolegomena (Blattversetzungshypothese) is to-day accepted as essentially correct by most, and his 'patchwork theory' of the first Critique has been found compelling by Norman Kemp Smith and others. As a cofounder of both the Kant Society and of Kant-Studien, he had a great influence on the direction it took towards neo-Kantianism. Another journal he founded, the Annalen der Philosophie, was more concerned with the spread of his own fictionalism.