Hans Vaihinger (September 25, 1852 – December 18, 1933) was a German philosopher, best known as a Kant scholar and for his Philosophie des Als Ob (Philosophy of As If, 1911). He is largely responsible for shaping the modern institution of Kant scholarship, and his Commentary on Kant remains an important work.
Vaihinger’s positive philosophy, “philosophy of as if,” concerns the status of certain ideas whose veridicality cannot be confirmed, but which nevertheless play an important role in our thought and action. Vaihinger presented a middle ground for the validity of knowledge in between the two contrasting views of skepticism and verificationism. His philosophy opened up new perspectives for the concept of truth and knowledge, which is pertinent to a wide range of knowledge including mysticism, imaginative literature, and religion.
Vaihinger was born in Nehren, Germany, near Tübingen, and raised in what he himself described as a "very religious milieu." He was educated at Tübingen, Leipzig, and Berlin, became a tutor and later a philosophy professor at Strasbourg before moving to the university at Halle in 1884. Aside from brief military service, Vaihinger led a quite, academic life. His career was cut tragically short by his deteriorating eyesight.
Vaihinger is today known for two works, his Commentary on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (first volume 1881, second 1892), and his Philosophy of As-If (1911). The former is an extremely thorough commentary on the first 75 pages of Kant's central work, including lengthy discussions of other interpretations of Kant. The latter, inspired by Kant's notion of 'regulative ideas', advanced a mature philosophical view that is today seen as an early form of 'fictionalism.'
In addition to his own commentary on Kant's work, much of Vaihinger's effort went into moving forward Kant scholarship on a larger scale. As the most fervid decades of German Idealism (as exemplified by the work of Hegel and Schopenhauer) came to an end, a revival of interest in Kant spread throughout Germany. Nevertheless, scholars differed widely on how Kant should be understood, and the debates often took highly unpleasant tones. In light of this, Vaihinger founded the journal Kant-Studien with the aim of providing a focal point for Kant scholars (to this day, Kant-Studien is the most important philosophical journal for work on Kant). Later, he founded a society that would be associated with the journal, the Kant-Gesellschaft.
Though Vaihinger made a close study of all of Kant's philosophy, one suggestion that made a particularly deep impact on him was Kant's description of what he called 'regulative ideas'. In the Dialectic to his monumental Critique of Pure Reason, Kant discussed what he saw as an important consequence of the limitations of our knowledge of the world. For Kant, human knowledge is limited by the possibilities of sensory experience; thus when we form ideas of certain things (such as God) that extend beyond sensory experience we are forming ideas of that which is unknowable. Unlike the empiricists, however, Kant did not conclude from this that such ideas are entirely without epistemic value. Rather, he concluded that humans can employ such ideas to help guide our thought and action. In this sense, such ideas play a 'regulative' role.
Vaihinger's Philosophy of As-If is largely an attempt at clarifying this notion, but he also expanded its application to more specifically religious ideas such as the virgin birth. Among the regulative ideas listed by Kant (which included God, the soul, and the totality of the universe), Vaihinger attached particular importance to the idea of freedom. The motivating idea is that, when humans set about to make a decision or pursue some course of action, we simply cannot operate under the assumption that we are causally determined (an early version of this thought is found in the so-called 'Gorgon' paradox in ancient philosophy). Because of that, we must assume that we are not causally determined, despite not having any evidence for this.
In contemporary thought, a close relative of this general philosophical position is what is referred to as 'fictionalism.' The basic claim of fictionalism about some region of discourse is that the claims of that discourse are not strictly true, but rather that they provide a sort of useful fiction. For instance, when someone claims that "Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street," they do not mean to be saying that there is an actual person of that name who lives in London. What they mean is perhaps closer to, "According to a certain story, Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street." Philosophers have found such cases highly suggestive, and have attempted to find or impose a similar structure on other domains of discourse where the entities apparently referred to are mysterious (a particularly striking example of this is Hartry Field's fictionalism about mathematical discourse).
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