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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction



Otto Weininger

by
Chandak Sengoopta


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Otto Weininger



Title: Otto Weininger
Author: Chandak Sengoopta
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000
Length: 156 pages
Availability: Otto Weininger - US
Otto Weininger - UK
Otto Weininger - Canada
  • Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna
  • Part of "The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society"

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good introduction to the life, work, and influence of Weininger, interesting overview of aspects of turn of the century Viennese life, and a useful resource.

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Historical Review . 6/2001 Gerald N. Izenberg
Isis . 6/2001 Hannah S. Decker
New Statesman . 21/8/2000 Jason Cowley

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) fascinating study." - Jason Cowley, New Statesman

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Otto Weininger was a fin-de-siècle phenomenon. Born in Vienna in 1880 he was a young suicide in 1903, staging his death in the Beethoven-house. Born a Jew he converted to Protestantism after receiving his doctorate. A precocious talent, he was especially gifted in languages. He read widely and pursued a broad course of study at university, though concentrating on philosophy and psychology. And he authored the notorious tome, Geschlecht und Charakter (1903) (Sex and Character (Eng.: 1906)).
       It was the suicide that brought him his initial renown, but his fame soon rested on the bizarre Geschlecht und Charakter, a mammoth work of psychological-philosophical theorizing about the human -- and especially the male and female -- condition. Misogynistic and anti-Semitic, the work has nevertheless made a lasting impression. Its arguments and conclusions often sound absurd (and certainly offensive) to the modern reader, but the work can not be completely dismissed. In his own time Weininger was taken fairly seriously, and among his most enthusiastic supporters were Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and August Strindberg -- admittedly not the most woman-friendly thinkers, but leading lights in their own right.
       Chandak Sengoopta's study offers a solid introduction to the man and specifically his infamous work. Usefully, Sengoopta examines the work within the historical context of turn of the century Vienna. Sengoopta convincingly uses Geschlecht und Charakter as a gloss on the cultural, social, and intellectual life of the Austrian capital of that time, suggesting how and why Weininger came to many of the conclusions he did, and why there was an audience receptive to these ideas. Otto Weininger is thus more than just a study of the man and his work, offering also a fascinating look at the science, psychology, and philosophy of turn of the century Vienna.
       The title of Sengoopta's introduction asks a pertinent question (well, two questions): "Why Read Otto Weininger Today ? and How ?" The much maligned Geschlecht und Charakter has been critically ripped to shreds often enough, and, indeed, the book -- taken literally -- must appear fairly ridiculous to modern readers. Nevertheless, the study of it is not necessarily a worthless exercise. Sengoopta explains part of the ambition of Otto Weininger:

Without eliminating, let alone exculpating, its immaturity and virulence, I show that Weininger's treatise was a serious, comprehensive, and emotionally charged ideological critique of modernity in general and of women's emancipation in particular.
       Sengoopta also sees Weininger's views as "securely rooted in his epoch", and so study of them provides a good deal of insight into that period.
       The first two chapters of Otto Weininger give a brief biographical introduction, as well as a general survey of the intellectual and cultural climate in the Vienna of that time. Sengoopta does a good job of providing the backdrop to Weininger's work, pointing out that the localized Austrian world differed markedly even from other German-speaking areas (so, for example, regarding the dominant schools of philosophy). Attitudes towards women (and nascent feminism) and Jews are also placed in their Viennese context.
       Most of the book then analyzes Weininger's text, Geschlecht und Charakter, considering many of the relevant aspects of the far-reaching treatise. Sengoopta sums up: "The fundamental aim of Geschlecht und Charakter, simply stated, was to analyze the biological, psychological, cultural, and ontological meanings of masculinity." As such, Weininger's work allows for (or demands) careful consideration of the prevalent theories and beliefs in all these areas. Sengoopta does this very well, and among the more entertaining parts of Otto Weininger are the descriptions of the "scientific" theories about sex (in the biological sense) that were in circulation at the time.
       Weininger's often wild theories are thoughtfully parsed by Sengoopta: there may be little truth to them, as is clear in the light of modern science, but Weininger's reasoning is, indeed, often instructive, especially when the competing ideas of the day (often equally harebrained) are known.
       Weininger claimed that no one was entirely male or female, but rather that each individual was a mix of the two sexes, a proposition he believed had a solid scientific foundation (based on the notion that each cell of the body was part male and part female). The basic idea was, in fact, not entirely far-fetched, given the knowledge and beliefs of the time. On this notion Weininger built a theoretical framework that dealt with issues of sex, gender, homosexuality, and finally the big question -- the "Woman Question". Here Weininger "proves" the natural inferiority of women, focussing strongly on the notion of women, regardless of whether they are the Mother-type or the Prostitute-type, as sexual creatures. As such he believed them, like Jews, to be incapable of genius -- something only the superior (Aryan) male was capable of.
       As Sengoopta shows, Weininger's arguments and theories strayed far and wide, using any evidence that might fit his conclusions, with little concern for contradictions. Where science served him Weininger used it, where it did not he dismissed it. Geschlecht und Charakter is not a soundly reasoned, clearly presented treatise, but Sengoopta provides an excellent gloss on the main thrusts of the unwieldy text.
       The book closes with a chapter of "Responses to Weininger", from Freud (touching upon the notorious Freud-Fliess-Weininger-Swoboda affair) to literary figures as varied as Karl Kraus, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce, to his influence on 20th century feminism and philosophy. Though only a survey of the effect Weininger and his work had, it nevertheless is a useful overview.

       Though clearly an academic book, Otto Weininger is an approachable text. It reads well, and Sengoopta's arguments and claims are presented well. It is, in fact, a fairly compact text, covering a great deal of ground in an admirably concise manner. Sengoopta's text is an excellent introduction to Weininger and his monumental work, and a valuable work in the area of the history of science. Given the paucity of material on Weininger there are few alternatives that one can turn to if one seeks information about the man and his work; fortunately Sengoopta's work is a more than satisfactory (and quite far-reaching) survey.
       With 788 endnotes (covering over seventy pages) for a text that itself only has 156 pages, Otto Weininger provides a great deal of documentation and serves as a valuable resource for those interested in any of the many aspects of Weininger, his work, and his times that a reader might wish to pursue.
       Geschlecht und Charakter may be "disjointed and chaotic", but Sengoopta has done an admirable job of explaining its main arguments and showing how Weininger came to his ideas and conclusions. Recommended for those interested in Weininger, turn of the century Viennese intellectual life, or some of the wildest theories about sex and gender you'll ever come across.

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Links:

Otto Weininger: Reviews: Otto Weininger: Chandak Sengoopta:
  • Homepage at the University of Manchester
Other books by Chandak Sengoopta under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chandak Sengoopta is a lecturer in the History of Medicine at the University of Manchester

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© 2000-2009 the complete review

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