Otto Weininger


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Otto Weininger, the son of a wealthy Jewish artisan, was born on April 3, 1880 in Vienna. Showing particular brilliance in a variety of subjects from natural sciences and mathematics to the humanities, Weininger’s strength was in languages. By the age of eighteen, in addition to his native German, Weininger was fluent in both Spanish and Norwegian and could speak French, English and Italian quite well. He also knew Latin and Greek, by which at age sixteen, he attempted to publish an etymological essay on particular Greek adjectives that could only be found in Homer’s works. His academic success however, was surpassed only by his precocious nature in the classroom. He did not see fit to follow the prescribed school curriculum and often created his own.

In 1898 Weininger entered the University of Vienna as a student of philosophy. Quite serious and passionate about his studies, he would often barrage his fellow students with philosophical questions in discussion groups and at parties. During this time Weininger was preparing his infamous work, Sex and Character. He gave an outline of it to Sigmund Freud in 1901, who was seemingly unimpressed with the document, citing that he should conduct more research to gain empirical evidence for his assertions. Despite Freud’s comments, Weininger published Sex and Character in 1903, the year after receiving his Ph.D. In his book, Weininger constructs definitions of masculinity and femininity, believing that all living things have varied proportions of these traits. Placing them at opposite ends of the spectrum-- masculine being positive and moral, feminine negative and amoral-- he creates a dichotomy that can be interpreted as misogynistic. In turn, he claims that Judaism is most closely related to femininity, whereas Christianity holds more masculine traits. It is not surprising to find secular Jews denouncing their religion during fin-de-siecle Vienna, but Weininger’s book baldly criticized Judaism. While his father, too, was anti-semitic, Weininger solidified his feelings toward his Judaic background with the symbolic gesture of converting to Christianity the day he received his Ph.D.

Throughout his life, Weininger battled many suicidal tendencies. It was not long after the publication of his book, though, that this battle came to a close. Possibly suffering from manic-depression, his moods became dark and sinister during this time. He had hoped his book would achieve a greater reception, thus catapulting him into fame. Unfortunately, it did not come quickly enough, and Weininger’s condition worsened to such a degree that on October 4, 1903, he shot himself. Weininger’s fame would come later in the form of many books, newspaper articles and conversations criticizing and trying to rationalize his assessments of women and Judaism. During his short life, he stirred up a tremendous amount of controversy that opened up new and controversial discussions among the intelligentsia in both Vienna and beyond. Sadly, all we know of Weininger is this work of dubious merit. He was unable to further his ideas and we are left with only his one book and scattered letters and diaries to try to understand the workings of the mind of this fragmented genius.

-Christina Weber-