Sex and Character (book)

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Cover of the book in German.

Sex and Character (German: Geschlecht und Charakter, 1903) is a philosophical work written by Otto Weininger. The work takes a philosophical and psychological approach to the subject of gender relations, representing Weininger's attempt to solve the "woman problem" and redefine the scientific study of gender differences. In it, Weininger argues for a view of gender differences as representing mixtures of two heterogeneous Platonic ideal forms, namely the masculine and the feminine.

The book is controversial because of the anti-Semitic and masculinist themes of the work, as well as the role it played in influencing the ideology of the National Socialist movement in Germany. Weininger frequently makes vitriolic attacks on what he perceives as "Jewishness".

General summary of work[edit | edit source]

In the book Weininger outlines a bi-sexual theory of gender that argues that sexual differences and gender are on a spectrum; with individuals of both sexes exhibiting masculine and feminine characteristics, and with the typical male being characterized by masculinity and the typical woman being characterized by femininity. This part of the work anticipated Sigmund Freud, in particular his bisexual theory of sex differences.

In an attempt to prove his thesis, he draws upon the science of biology, the science of psychology (which he ultimately fundamentally rejects), and the corpus of Western philosophy, particularly the works of Aristotle, Plato, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, with the strongest philosophical influences being Kantian ethics and German Idealism.

Weininger also dedicated a chapter to his view of the "Jewish question", with Weininger attacking "Jewishness", identifying it as a chaotic, subversive but ultimately passive and soulless force — in this manner, seeing it as identical to femininity. While Weininger largely rejects scientific racism—he conceived Jewishness as a spirit of the mind, a psychological tendency, and a materialist, atheistic worldview that needed to be opposed—he does also briefly touch upon contemporary racialist concepts.

Part of the work also ponders the nature of genius.

Bisexual theory of human sexual characteristics[edit | edit source]

Weininger speaks of sex/gender as a spectrum, with no human being fully male or female, psychologically or biologically. He says this in a number of different ways. He speaks of humans as a mixture of platonic ideals of male and female. Later, he speaks of people as a mixture of Arrhenoplasm and Thelyplasm.

Weininger speaks of how sexual characteristics are present throughout the whole body, through every inch of tissue, every cell. That gender variation determines brain size and many other physical states. He argued that every inch of a person provides a gender stimulus to another human. And that every inch of a person must be considered to determine where someone fits between male and female. Weininger speaks of cells being able to show how someone fits between male and female. He wrote his book in a time when chromosomes were simply a brash theory, and DNA had not yet been discovered. His theory also anticipated the discovery of the androgen and estrogen receptors in human cells, and indeed, the discovery of human sex hormones.

Weininger was arguing that anatomy, from the core, had a large part in determining gender. That feminine men should (usually) have smooth skin, wider hips, longer hair etc., and that tomboys should (usually) have more rough skin, broader shoulders, a deeper voice. Though there existed "sexually intermediate forms" that consisted of a bizarre mix of the various masculine and feminine traits. He argues this theory on the basis of the fact that typically masculine men can often exhibit certain feminine traits and vice versa for feminine women. Any anatomical deviations from overall gender were therefore caused by variations in individual cells.

Theory of sexual attraction[edit | edit source]

Weininger outlined a complementarian theory of sexual attraction, whereby individuals who exhibit more or less of the masculine or feminine essence were attracted to each other. For example, in Weiningers view, a very masculine man would be most attracted to a very feminine women as vice versa. An androgynous man would require an androgynous female. Weininger also claimed that this explained homosexuality, and called for more leniency to be extended to those found guilty of homosexual acts, criticizing the laws that were implemented throughout much of Europe at the time that often enforced strict punishments for those found guilty of involvement in homosexual acts (including in the Austro-Hungarian empire that Weininger was a subject of).

Thus each individual seeks their complement in terms of choice of romantic partners. Unions that violated this principle would be invariably unstable and would likely result in dissolution of the marriage. He describes children born from "unions of love" as the most vigorous and strongest, thus he claims that "marriages of convenience" generally were productive of "inferior" offspring, or were typically barren. He asserted that this theory of attraction represented a natural law, thus it did not only apply to mankind, but also the lower animals and even plants.

Masculinity and feminity[edit | edit source]

One of the core ideas of the work is the idea that there exists two Platonic essences, namely - the 'masculine (M)' and the 'feminine (W) ' - that are inherent in all individuals of both sexes to a greater or lesser degree. Overwhelmingly, in his view, men exhibit more of the masculine essence and women exhibit more of the feminine essence.

In Weininger's view, the masculine essence is active and energetic, and the feminine essence is passive and exists chiefly to be acted upon by the masculine. Thus only man is capable of employing Aristotle's logos, masculinity is the active, creative and rational agent. This means that only those women who are inherently more masculine than other women (and therefore are capable of genius, to some extent) can be truly 'emancipated', he argues, with the "typical" women being portrayed as fundamentally vacuous creatures that are solely concerned with the matters of reproduction and sexuality.

In sum, Weininger forcefully disparages femininity, which is consistently identified with passivity, vacuity, and animal lust, contrasting with what Weininger argued are the higher virtues which he judged only men were capable of expressing.

The nature of woman[edit | edit source]

According to Weininger, women have no ego, and therefore lack the capacity for true self-reflection, they cannot judge or form concepts in an objective manner. Thus he claims that all women are uncapable of genius, and identifies genius solely with the masculine essence. This also means that women are incapable of true guilt, with women only feigning this emotion when held to account for their misdeeds. Weininger asserts that women lack a sense of justice; therefore they are not suited to matters of state or leadership. He also accuses women of vanity, which he says is the result of a lack of true individuality, women's self-image is only based on how others perceive them, rather than stemming from their innate qualities or virtues.

Anticipating Freud's "Madonna-whore complex", he saw the true nature of woman as conforming to one of two types, the mother or the whore. This is due to woman's exclusive focus on sexuality, whereas Weininger promoted sexual continence as one of the highest virtues. The mother is portrayed as solely interested in her children; the whore as solely interested in her own sexual gratification and the effects of her sexuality on men. Men's idealization of the chaste woman reaches its apex with the religious figure of the Madonna—though Weininger states that this idealization is demeaning and unfair to women, being constructed on man's own values and perception of women—women's lack a similar archetype for men is stated as proof that they are incapable of love.

According to Weininger, women are a mixture of both archetypes; though he says there are more women that are near fully whores than those that are mainly mothers. In Weininger's view, the whore is typically more intellectually developed than the mother; and this explained the frequent association of women of this type with the great men of history. He states that this is because both the whore and the great man are egotists, they desire to be worshipped by the masses(of men in the whores case); in comparison to the genius, which he says represents a microcosm of the world in himself.

Fundamentally, Weininger perceives women as lacking agency, they are not immoral but rather amoral. Throughout all this, Weininger emphasizes that he is describing women as they are, in his own time, based on his own observations and reasoning, and not necessarily how they have always been. The author also argues against the concept of women wholly lacking individuality, stating this perception is due to a bias where men are drawn to a certain kind of woman, with this type coloring his perception of all women. He argues that the more feminine a woman is, the more likely she will be similar to other women, with the more masculine women exhibiting more variability, in a similar manner to men.

The emancipated woman[edit | edit source]

Weininger was opposed to women's emancipation, not because it contradicted traditionalist views of women's place being in the home, but because he saw is as an absurdity. Since in his view women are only passive creatures that desire to be acted upon by a male, they are naturally servile and obeisant to men. Therefore Weininger saw women as not being capable of emancipation in a moral sense, lacking any capacity for self-determination. He saw in the woman's movement a lack of any real desire on behalf on women for moral or political equality to men in any real sense. He states that only the masculine woman has the germ of a desire for freedom in herself.

Thus he perceives feminism as merely representing a desire on behalf of women to throw off the shackles of motherhood and responsibility and attain to what they see as the superior freedom of the "prostitute type", that is, the promiscuous woman. He stated there was nothing new in this desire, but he viewed men's response to it as the crucial novel element. That is, he saw men as beginning to accept women's valuation of them as being solely to be measured by their sexual prowess, which Weininger saw as representing a decline in true masculinity.

Weininger then goes on to advocate for anti-natalism, arguing that woman's servile condition in relation to man is the result of male objectification of women as sexual objects, but this treatment also largely stems from women's own desire for objectification.

Weininger concludes that: "education of woman must be taken out of the hands of woman; the education of mankind must be taken out of the hands of the mother." Thus he states that the only real emancipation for women is for them to begin to conceive of themselves as more then sexual objects, for them to see themselves as fully human. Though he states that it would take a miracle to achieve this.

Homosexuality and pederasty[edit | edit source]

Weininger briefly touches upon the topic of homosexuality. His theory is that homosexuality is caused by the magnetic attraction that he says exists between two "intermediate forms" (containing both the male and female essences). Weininger takes a (for the time) very liberal view of how society should treat homosexuality, deploring the homophobic sentiments of the masses of the time that held homosexuality was a mental condition. Instead, Weininger effectively argues for the decriminalization of homosexuality, arguing that it is natural and not necessarily 'degenerative' in character. The author also (similar to the later sex researcher Alfred Kinsey) argues that sexuality is essentially a spectrum, with all men and women possessing bisexual traits to a greater or lesser degree. Weininger claims that homosexuality is innate, and as such any efforts to 'treat' it are doomed to fail. He briefly mentions the argument that homosexuality in males finds its origins in sexual deprivation, with Weininger arguing that celibacy is not the cause of homosexual tendencies, but only serves to inflame a natural orientation towards these tendencies. Pederasty is largely glossed over and seen as an unresolved conundrum.

Feminism is identified as stemming from lesbian androgyny, with the author listing a series of contemporary eminent feminists as proof of this assertion. In the authors view, masculine women are superior to the 'typical' feminine woman, owing to what he views as the androgyne's greater dynamism and will for self-determination. He also argues that they clearly possess a greater capacity for intellectual and physical prowess than the average woman.

The nature of genius[edit | edit source]

Weininger extolled the genius as the highest form of man. This meant that, in his view, women were "incapable of genius", and the only women that were capable of any slight expression of genius were also the more masculinized ones. Genius in Weininger's view was universal, he stated that the genius was a monad that represented a microcosm of the universe in himself. In Weininger's view the entire history of human thought was exclusively shaped by genius, with the rest of humanity being more apelike and thus only capable of the imitation of the genius. The genius to Weininger attained immortality through his work, and transcended time and space. He stated a man could attain genius through "a supreme act of will", and that most men had a small element of genius in them.

Excerpts[edit | edit source]

Emancipation, as I mean to discuss it, is not the wish for an outward equality with man, but what is of real importance in the woman question, the deep seated craving to acquire man's character, to attain his mental and moral freedom, to reach his real interests and his creative power.

The condition of sexual excitement is the supreme moment of a woman's life. The woman is devoted wholly to sexual matters, that is to say, to the spheres of begetting and of reproduction. Her relations to her husband and children complete her life, whereas the male is something more than sexual.

A being like the female, without the power of making concepts, is unable to make judgments. In her “mind” subjective and objective are not separated; there is no possibility of making judgments, and no possibility of reaching, or of desiring, truth. No woman is really interested in science; she may deceive herself and many good men, but bad psychologists, by thinking so.

The male has everything in him ... It is possible for him to attain to the loftiest heights, or to sink to the lowest depths; he can become like animals, or plants, or even women, and thus there exist women-like female men.

It is very shortsighted of any one to consider the nurse as a proof of the sympathy of women, because it really implies the opposite ... Any one who has watched nursing sisters is astonished at their equanimity and “sweetness” even in the presence of most terrible death throes; and it is well that it is so, for man, who cannot stand suffering and death, would make a very bad nurse.

Most women, at least, delight to hear about discussions on their souls, although they know, so far as they can be said to know anything, that the whole thing is a swindle. The women as a Sphinx! Never was a more ridiculous, a more audacious fraud perpetrated. Man is infinitely more mysterious, incomparably more complicated.

As Schopenhauer put it, female sympathy is a matter of sobbing and wailing on the slightest provocation, without the smallest attempt to control the emotion; on the other hand, all true sorrow, like true sympathy, just because it is real sorrow, must be reserved.

From the side of empirical observation, no stronger proof of the soullessness of woman could be drawn than that she demands a soul in man, that she who is not good in herself demands goodness from him.

No men who really think deeply about women retain a high opinion of them; men either despise women or they have never thought seriously about them.

As a rule, the woman adapts herself to the man, his views become hers, his likes and dislikes are shared by her, every word he says is an incentive to her, and the stronger his sexual influence on her the more this is so.

Woman does not wish to be treated as an active agent; she wants to remain always and throughout—this is just her womanhood—purely passive, to feel herself under another's will. She demands only to desired physically, to be taken possession of, like a new property.

Her existence is bound up with the Phallus, and so that is her supreme lord and welcome master. Sex, in the form of man, is woman's fate; the Don Juan is the only type of man who has complete power over her.

Woman is merely the result of this affirmation; she is sexuality itself. Woman's existence is dependent on man; when man, as man, in contradistinction to woman, is sexual, he is giving woman form, calling her into existence. Therefore woman's one object must be to keep man sexual.

The Chinese from time immemorial have denied that women possess an eternal soul. If a Chinaman is asked how many children he has, he counts only the boys, and will say none if he has only daughters. Mahomet excluded women from paradise for the same reason.

The widespread honoring of the motherly woman, the type that is upheld as the one and only possible for women, is accordingly quite unjustified. Although most men are certain that women can have her consummation in motherhood, I must confess that the prostitute—as a phenomenon, not as a person—is much more estimable in my opinion.

What woman requires from man is not purity, chastity, morality, but something else. Woman is incapable of desiring virtue in a man.

Madonna worship itself is fundamentally immoral, inasmuch as it is a shutting of the eyes to truth. The Madonna worship of the great artists is a destruction of woman, and is possible only by a complete neglect of the women as they exist in experience, a replacement of actuality by a symbol, a re-creation of woman to serve the purposes of man, and a murder of woman as she exists.

Those men who claim to understand women are themselves very nearly women. Womanish men often know how to treat women much better than manly men. Manly men, except in most rare cases, learn how to deal with women only after long experience, and even then most imperfectly.

Women are human beings, and must be treated as such, even if they themselves do not wish it. Woman and man have the same rights. That is not to say that women ought to have an equal share in political affairs ... As children, imbeciles and criminals would be justly prevented from taking any part in public affairs even if they were numerically equal or in the majority; woman must be in the same way be kept from having a share in anything which concerns the public welfare.

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