There are philosophical works that when they are published are met with silence and disinterest, only to be acclaimed later for their greatness.
And there are those that are heralded almost immediately as important and influence their generation, only to be lost to oblivion later.
David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, which the author famously lamented as “stillborn” on its publication in 1739, is an example of the first category.
Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of “As If”, is an example of the second. The original German version, Die Philosophie des Als Ob, was published first in 1911 and there were more than ten editions of the work by the time Vaihinger died in 1933.
Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933) was born near Tübingen in Germany. He made important contributions to epistemology, the philosophy of science and mathematics, and to the historiography of philosophy.
He was an important and fascinating figure in German philosophy in the early twentieth century, founding the wellknown journal Kant-Studien. Yet he was overshadowed by the burgeoning movements of phenomenology and analytical philosophy, as well as hostility towards his work because of his defense of Jewish scholars in a Germany controlled by Nazism.
However, it is widely acknowledged today that his The Philosophy of ‘As If’ is a philosophical masterwork, published in 1911 although its statement of basic principles had been written more than thirty years earlier.
Vaihinger argues that in the face of an overwhelmingly complex world, we produce a simpler set of ideas, or idealizations, that help us negotiate it. When cast as fictions, such ideas provide an easier and more useful way to think about certain subjects, from mathematics and physics to law and morality, than would the truth in all its complexity.
We assume that the world will exist tomorrow, but do we know for certain?
Even in science, he wrote, we must proceed “as if” a material world exists independently of perceiving subjects; in behaviour, we must act “as if” ethical certainty were possible; in religion, we must believe “as if” there were a God.
In Die Philosophie des Als Ob, Vaihinger argued that human beings can never really know the underlying reality of the world, and that as a result we construct systems of thought and then assume that these match reality: we behave “as if” the world matches our models. In particular, he used examples from the physical sciences, such as protons, electrons, and electromagnetic waves. None of these phenomena has been observed directly, but science pretends that they exist, and uses observations made on these assumptions to create new and better constructs.
Vaihinger acknowledged several precursors, especially Kant, but had been unaware of Jeremy Bentham’s Theory of Fictions until it was brought to his attention by his translator, C.K. Ogden, at the very end of his life. In the preface to the English edition of his work, Vaihinger expressed his principle of fictionalism1: “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.” Moreover, Vaihinger denied that his philosophy was a form of skepticism2 because skepticism implies a doubting, whereas in his ‘as if‘ philosophy the acceptance of patently false fictions is justified as a pragmatic non-rational solution to problems that have no rational answers
This philosophy, though, is wider than just science. One can never be sure that the world will still exist tomorrow, but we usually assume that it does. Alfred Adler, the founder of Individual Psychology, was profoundly influenced by Vaihinger’s theory of useful fictions, incorporating the idea of psychological fictions into his personality construct of a fictional final goal.
1 Fictionalism is the view in philosophy according to which statements that appear to be descriptions of the world should not be construed as such, but should instead be understood as cases of “make believe“, of pretending to treat something as literally true (a “useful fiction“).
2 Philosophical skepticism; from Greek σκέψις skepsis, “inquiry”) is a family of philosophical views that question the possibility of knowledge. Philosophical skeptics are often classified into two general categories: Those who deny all possibility of knowledge, and those who advocate for the suspension of judgment due to the inadequacy of evidence. This distinction is modeled after the differences between the Academic skeptics and the Pyrrhonian skeptics in ancient Greek philosophy.