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Fritz Mauthner (22 November 1849 Horschitz, Bohemia.– June 29, 1923, Meersburg, Germany) was an Austro-Hungarian novelist, theatre critic, satirist and exponent of philosophical skepticism derived from a critique of human knowledge.
His father owned a small weaving factory in Hořice and at the age of six the family moved to Prague to provide a better education for the children. Mauthner's (1918) Erinnerungen provides a fascinating account of his early upbringing in Prague, portraying the situation of the family as Jews in relation to German and Czech cultures and languages and within the national conflict in Bohemia. As Gershon Weiler (1970) observes in Mauthner's Critique of Language, it is not by chance that Mauthner's early attention was directed to the problems of language as he found himself growing up in a linguistic crossfield where German, Czech and Hebrew were all part of the cultural mix and deeply intertwined with questions of identity and belonging - "I cannot understand how a Jew born in a Slavonic land of the Austrian empire could not be drawn to the study of language." Mauthner's agnosticism was also influenced by his early experiences. His parents were assimilated Jews but he did receive some religious grounding while at school. This smattering of knowledge eventually led him to develop a strong antipathy to religion which he came to associate with the empty rituals he had been forced to undertake as a youth in Bohemia.
Mauthner was frustrated by his educational experiences and after being held back for three years only earned his Matura at the age of twenty from Kleinseiter-Gymnasium in Prague. In accordance with his father's wishes, between 1869 and 1873 Mauthner studied law at the University of Prague, the Karolinum. In reality he regarded his legal training with little more than contempt and busied himself with miscellaneous subjects ranging from poetry to philosophy and the history of art. It was at the University of Prague that he attended the public lectures of the physicist Ernst Mach and he acknowledged that "Mach's epistemological positivism was alive in [his] subconscious" when he later developed his critique of language. He passed only the first state examination in jurisprudence and upon his father's death promptly left the university after which he was occupied for a short time in a lawyer's office in Prague. While there he published a collection of sonnets, under the title "Die Grosse Revolution" (1871), which almost brought him an indictment for treason. This was followed by "Anna" and several minor comedies, which were successfully produced. He then devoted himself exclusively to literature. After writing for a time for Prague publications, his fascination with Wilhelmine Germany led him to move, in 1876, to Berlin-Grunewald, where he wrote critical articles for various journals. Though his novels and popular parodies of German classical poems brought him moderate literary fame, he spent most of the time between 1876 and 1905 as a theatre critic for Berliner Tageblatt, where he became editor in 1895. As Vierhufe (1970) noted, analysis of his early works reveals that even at this stage he was a notable critic with insight into the age he lived in, the prevailing cultural climate, and above all linguistic style. It is thus possible to regard his early literary work as a precursor of his later epistemologically oriented critique of language and language usage.
Mauthner was largely an interloper in philosophy and in the climate of language-critical philosophy which emphasised teamwork and collaboration he was ostracised, reduced to drawing inspiration from the great outsiders of the discipline such as Spinoza and Schopenhauer. In the intellectual circles of the time he was regarded as a little more than a meddling journalist who concerned himself with affairs about which he knew nothing. He regarded academics with commensurate contempt and made endless fun of Philosophieprofessoren. Mauthner's polemical style did little to endear him to other philosophers and the second edition of Beitrage he lashed out against Friedrich Max Muller and described Ludwig Noiré's monism as "wörterglaubig" or caught in verbal superstitions. He did however have a long friendship with Gustav Landauer whom he met while serving on the board of the Freie Bühne and the two collaborated in his later years before ultimately falling out over their political differences. Landauer introduced Mauthner to his friend Martin Buber who was impressed by his mysticism and asked him to contribute to a series of social-psychological studies he edited, Die Gesellschaft. Buber encouraged Mauthner to make a contribution by saying "It needs you, you more than anyone else". Mauthner also had a lifelong friendship with Clara Levysohn to whom he covertly dedicated the Beitrage and it is apparent from their letters that a close relationship existed between the two. Clara's husband intervened in 1895 and from this time on Clara and Fritz agreed to communicate by correspondence only, with an occasional short meeting. Mauthner subsequently moved to Freiberg where he met Harriet Straub, a doctor in 1907. They married and moved to Meersburg in 1911 where Mauthner lived until his death at Lake Constance. He edited the Bibliothek der Philosophen for a time but retired from public life entirely just before World War I to pursue the philosophy and politics of language.
Following Friedrich Nietzsche and Ernst Mach, Mauthner launches an offensive against metaphysics and argues for the substitution of an ahistorical notion of truth with a more cautious conception of veracity. He is best known for his Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (Contributions to a Critique of Language), which took nine years to write. The Beitrage was published in three parts in 1901 and 1902 and saw Mauthner expand his work on philosophical ideas and subject more than 200 philosophical concepts to critical examination. Mauthner's work should be seen in the context of the post-Hegelian crisis in philosophy and his ideas reflect a fin-de-siecle pessimism in Austria that arose from the collapse of the Hapsburg monarchy and a distrust of positivist epistemology. Mauthner was influenced by David Hume's empiricism and Otto Ludwig's (1901) Shakespeare-Studien, and he admired Otto Von Bismarck for combining a life of action with a contempt for words and ideologies. He believed that Kant had grasped the immensely important idea that reason is something in need of criticism but had failed to acknowledge that reason is but language. His own work carries the work of Kant and the British empiricists to its logical conclusion in a critique of language.
Today, Mauthner is known for his major language-critical works and there has been a revival of interest in him over the last few years. However in his early days Mauthner lost hope and burned his first manuscript in despair at his ignorance of language philosophy. He spent the next twenty years labouring on the preliminaries of his critique. His philosophical endeavour deals with the psychology and science of language as well as the role of grammar and logic. It is a response to the perceived misuse of language and is preoccupied with the implications of language. He believed that words have pragmatic social value, but, because they are applied subjectively and are ever changing, they represent sense experience only (and that imperfectly). The word as such is a metaphor, a transposition of definite terms on indefinite impressions, and that it is enclosed within an image that can only refer to other images. Words cannot adequately express concepts, and they necessarily misrepresent reality by encouraging philosophers to anthropomorphise events through their use of language. He argues that philosophical endeavour is redundant as language cannot be used to create an overarching concept that is abstracted from a collection of distinct entities. In philosophy, doctrines are built out of abstract ideas that can often lead to nonsense if removed from their context.
According to Mauthner, thinking never allows access to reality but is always mediated by language. Language sanctions universal meanings, ideas whose validity seems to be due to a cause, to something real. In fact, it lends its protection to a metaphysics given over to what Mauthner calls “superstition” or “word fetishism” (Mauthner, 1901–1902). For the fact is that our vocabulary gives an illusion of a supernatural, ideal world. For example, he denigrates the metaphysical concept of being as "merely a word, a word without content" (Worterbuch der Philosophie, Vol. III p. 171) and extolls that "being is not a genuine concept as genuine concepts must be reducible to something representable" (Worterbuch der Philosophie, Vol. III p. 176). Mauthner advises epistemological caution when dealing with scientific concepts as words and the logic that orders them ultimately sustain a web of fiction – a “mythology” (Mauthner, 1901–1902) – which is managed by a specific interpretation of reality. The key to it is the rudimentary voluntarism and animism with which the human being faces the world in order to make it intelligible. Consequently, man's Weltanschauung is irremediably anthropomorphic or “hoministic”, as Mauthner says (Mauthner, 1901–1902)and in an exercise of “nihilistic scepticism” Mauthner ends by condemning language as a “useless device for knowledge”. Our dictionary cannot have any scientific utility, he claims though it can have a “high artistic value”. Such considerations led Mauthner to philosophical skepticism and the postulation of a criterion of truth based on personal experiences shaped by cultural influences. Mauthner applied linguistic analysis in both his major works: Wörterbuch der Philosophie, 2 vol. (1910; “Dictionary of Philosophy”), and Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande, 4 vol. (1921–23; “Atheism and Its History in the West”). His skepticism was not new, but his approach to epistemology through language was unique. He was emphatically committed to studying everyday language as opposed to logically-minded philosophers' search for idealised structures and formalised languages which correlate discourse and reality.
According to Bedreck (1992), Mauthner was one of the few philosophers and poets who still concerned himself with language origin at the turn of the century when linguists had abandoned the issue. Mauthner focuses on the scientific treatment of language origin to address the shortcomings in its treatment. He rejects what he calls the "alphabetism" of linguistics (Beitrage 2: 446) and suggests movement away from the historical-comparative approach of philology towards psychology. Mauthner suggests his own theory of a metaphorical beginning for language but only succeeds in redefining the problem and relates the problem of language origin to epistemological questions that are central to his critique of language.
As a militant agnostic, Mauthner was denied academic appointments because of his anti-religious stance and political views and this no doubt further contributed to his obscurity. He asserted polemically "in religion the power of language tyrannises us as the power of dead words" (Die Sprache, p. 19). He radicalized his skepticism in his last literary work, Der letzte Tod des Gautama Buddha (1913), preaching an areligious, skeptical mysticism without God. In his last encyclopedic, philosophical work, Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande (4 vols. 1920–23), Mauthner claimed that all dogmas – religious or scientific – were mere human inventions with the basis of their origin, flourishing, and decline lying in history. Mauthner sought to show how the West had begun to shake off the once dominant concept of God. His work was thus intended to trace the disintegration of this concept, an "anthropomorphic illusion" that had held peoples spellbound for several millennia. According to Mauthner, critique of language cannot transcend the limits of language but can only point to them. This leads to a secular mysticism by revealing a transcendent reality that has no limits. Mauthner rejects conventional mystical preoccupations with occultism and theosophy as ludicrous and unscientific and argued that mystics should not put forward theories positing privileged knowledge about the world. Mauthner regards Meister Eckhart and Goethe as true mystics. He interpreted Goethe's dictum "Man never knows how anthropomorphic he is" as meaning we can never really grasp the extent of anthropomorphism in language as we can never detach the concept of man from language. Mauthner had a particular affinity with Meister Eckhart's claims that God and his nature could not be understood in any way. He concludes that any attempt to express the feelings of the artist, the mystic, the philosopher destroys what only the silent ego feels - "nothing more can be said" (Die drei Bilder der Welt, Vol. III, p. 170).
Influence and legacy 
Mauthner's work acts as an important precursor of early twentieth century movements such as the Vienna Circle although his influence was not acknowledged by eminent thinkers such as Bertrand Russell. Mauthner might be entirely relegated to obscurity but for the notable exception of Ludwig Wittgenstein who took several of his ideas from Mauthner, although he pointedly rejects his views in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). Hans Sluga (2006) argues that Wittgenstein moved closer to Mauthner's views in his later work and Mauthner’s neo-Pyrrhonian view of language may thus be “responsible for the linguistic turn in Wittgenstein’s thinking and thereby indirectly for the whole linguistic turn in 20th-century analytic philosophy”. In Gescheiterte Sprachkritik: Fritz Mauthner's Leben und Werk, Joachim Kühn (1979) connects the work of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to the "skeptical school" of German writing that has, Kühn argues, its origin in the work of philosophers such as Fritz Mauthner. Jennie Skerl (1974) argues that in his novel, Watt, Beckett makes significant use of Mauthner's critique of language which he originally read in 1929 while undertaking research for Joyce for Finnegans Wake. Linda Ben-Zvi (1980) notes the similarities between the style in the Beiträge and Beckett's writing while James Knowlson and John Pilling (1979) noted "It would be difficult to overestimate the relevance of [Mauthner's ideas on language] for students of Beckett. The premises are the same: the conclusions are the same: only the realm of discourse...is different...Mauthner in fact provided Beckett with the ammunition to destroy all systems of thought whatever, even irrationalism" (Frescoes of the Skull, p. 128). The author Jorge Luis Borges was also fascinated by the work of Mauthner whose influence on stories such as Emma Zunz and Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote has been explored by Sylvia Dapia (1993).
- Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, three volumes, Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta, 1901–1902.
- Aristoteles, 1904
- Spinoza, 1906
- Die Sprache, 1907
- Wörterbuch der Philosophie, 1910–11, 1923–24
- Schopenhauer, 1911
- Der letzte Tod des Gautama Buddha, 1913
- Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande (4 books), 1920–23
- Muttersprache und Vaterland, 1920
- Anna, 1874
- Die große Revolution, 1872
- Nach berühmten Mustern, satirical, 1878, 1889
- Einsame Fahrten, 1879
- Vom armen Franischko, story, 1879
- Die Sonntage der Baronin, 1881
- Der neue Ahasver, 1882
- Dilettantenspiegel, satirical, 1883
- Gräfin Salamanca, 1884
- Xanthippe, 1884
- Berlin W. (trilogy of novels): Quartett, 1886; Die Fanfare, 1888; Der Villenhof, 1890
- Der letzte Deutsche von Blatna, novel, 1887
- Der Pegasus, 1889
- Zehn Geschichten, 1891
- Glück im Spiel, 1891
- Hypatia, 1892
- Lügenohr, 1892 (under the title: Aus dem Märchenbuch der Wahrheit, 1899)
- Kraft, novel 1894
- Die Geisterseher, novel 1894
- Die bunte Reihe, 1896
- Der steinerne Riese, novella, 1896
- Die böhmische Handschrift, novella 1897
- Der wilde Jockey, 1897
- Der letzte Tod des Gautamo Buddha, novel 1913
- Der goldene Fiedelbogen, 1917
- Essays and theoretical works
- Kleiner Krieg, 1879
- Credo, 1886
- Tote Symbole, 1892
- Zum Streit um die Bühne, 1893
- Totengespräche, 1906
- Gespräche im Himmel und andere Ketzereien, 1914
- Henriette Marechal, by Edmond de Goncourt, 1895
- Wochenschrift für Kunst und Literatur, 1889-1890
- Magazin für die Literatur des In- und Auslandes, 1991
- Bibliothek der Philosophen, from 1911
- Collected works
- Ausgewählte Schriften, 6 books, 1919
- Erinnerungen, autobiography 1918
- Selbstbiographie 1922, in: Philosophie der Gegenwart in Selbstdarstellungen, Bd. 3.
- Janik, Allan and Toulmin, Stephen Toulmin. Wittgenstein's Vienna. I.R. Dee, 1996 (first published 1973), pp. 119, 121–133.
- Wittgenstein L., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "4.0031 All philosophy is a 'critique of language' (though not in Mauthner's sense)."
- Arens, Katherine. Empire in decline: Fritz Mauthner's critique of Wilhelminian Germany. New York: P. Lang, 2001.
- Ben-Zvi, Linda. Samuel Beckett, Fritz Mauthner and the Limits of Language. PMLA. Vol. 95(2): 183-200. 1980.
- Bredeck, Elizabeth. Metaphors of Knowledge: Language and Thought in Mauthner's Critique. Wayne State University Press, 1992.
- Dapía, Silvia. Die Rezeption der Sprachkritik Fritz Mauthners im Werk von Jorge Luis Borges. Cologne, Weimar, Vienna: Böhlau, 1993
- Knowlson, James & Pilling, John. Frescoes of the skull. London: John Calder, 1979.
- Kühn, Joachim. Gescheiterte Sprachkritik: Fritz Mauthners Leben und Werk. Walter de Gruyter, 1979.
- Ludwig, Otto & Heydrich, Moritz. Shakespeare-Studien. Halle: H. Gesenius, 1901.
- Skerl, Jennie. Fritz Mauthner's "Critique of Language" in Samuel Beckett's "Watt". Contemporary Literature. Vol. 15(4): 474-487. University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.
- Sluga, Hans. Wittgenstein and Pyrrhonism. In Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.) Pyrrhonian Skepticism. Oxford University Press, 2006
- Vierhufe, Almut. Parody and Language Critique. Studies on Fritz Mauthner's »Nach berühmten Mustern. Niemeyer, 1999.
- Weiler, Gershon. Mauthner's Critique of Language. Cambridge University Press, 1970.
- Fritz Mauthner Collection at the Leo Baeck Institute
- Guide to the Fritz Mauthner Correspondence Collection 1765-1868
- Book review of Fritz Mauthner's Die Sprache