Max Scheler

Max Scheler
Max Scheler

A pioneering German phenomenologist, ethicist, and social philosopher, Max Scheler was born in Munich in 1874. His father was Lutheran, his mother was Jewish; Scheler himself, ever independent, embraced Catholicism. After studying with Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel, he earned his doctorate in 1897 under Rudolf Eucken in Jena, where he taught until 1906. From 1907 he taught in Munich, where he met Franz Brentano and several disciples of Edmund Husserl, the father of the phenomenological movement.

He soon became acquainted with a growing circle of phenomenologists from Munich and Göttingen, including Moritz Geiger (1880–1937), Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977), Alexander Pfänder, Adolf Reinach (1883–1917), Edith Stein, and others. But as early as 1901, when he first met Husserl, Scheler had already taken an independent phenomenological direction of his own.

In 1910 Scheler lost his post in Munich after a divorce alienated him from the Catholic university administration. In 1912, he married Märit Furtwängler, sister of the noted conductor. From 1910 to 1919, he freelanced as an independent scholar, publishing a prolific number of works, particularly on ethics, but also on political issues of the day, including war, capitalism, feminism, the psychology of resentment, and various social issues. He served on diplomatic missions to Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Dietrich von Hildebrand - Nikita Willy
Dietrich von Hildebrand

After World War I, he actively promoted the causes of international reconciliation, moral renewal, pacifism, and European reunification based on ideals of Christian socialism. It was not until 1919 that Scheler received a full professorship, in Cologne, where his focus turned to religion, anthropology, metaphysics, and sociology of knowledge.

By 1922 he had fallen away from Catholicism in favor of a pantheistic conception of divine self-realization in history. He died on the eve of assuming his final post in Frankfurt in 1928, after repeatedly warning against the rise of German Nazism and Italian Fascism. His writings were suppressed by the Nazis in Germany from 1933 to 1945.

Scheler’s impact on the phenomenological movement was considerable, despite ambivalent relationships with Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Many prominent thinkers have acknowledged their debt to him, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gabriel Marcel, Nicolai Hartmann, Roman Ingarden, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Buber, and José Ortega y Gasset. Pope John Paul II wrote a doctoral dissertation on him. Scholars in the Spanish-speaking world, Japan, and Russia were well acquainted with Scheler long before he was known in the English-speaking world.

Gabriel Marcel - Alina Saraswati
Gabriel Marcel

Scheler’s most important phenomenological works were published during his prolific middle period. These include Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values (1913–1916), his seminal critique of Immanuel Kant’s ethics and outline of his own phenomenological ethics based on a theory of values. His 1916 essay Ordo Amoris develops his Pascalian conception of a faculty of cognitive feeling independent of reason, which apprehends a hierarchical array of values in its pure incontrovertible immediacy.

Between 1912 and 1913 he also published phenomenological studies of sympathy, love, and hate in The Nature of Sympathy, and a study of resentment and impotence in modern bourgeois morality in Ressentiment (1994) [1964])—a brilliant transmutation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that Judeo-Christian morality stems from resentment, eliciting Ernst Troeltsch’s famous characterization of Scheler as “the Catholic Nietzsche.”

While initially collaborating with Husserl, Scheler criticized Husserl’s “Cartesianism” and for giving inordinate primacy to reason. By contrast, Scheler insisted on the primacy of feeling and its independence from reason in apprehending values, which he considered the primordial phenomena of consciousness.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre

Scheler did not use Husserl’s terms noesis and noema to distinguish the act of thinking from the object of thought, yet he recognized that this polarity within consciousness, first investigated by Brentano, allows for two approaches in investigation. Thus he distinguished act-phenomenology from phenomenology of facts, the former focusing on persons as the source of the unifying intention animating acts, the latter analyzing three types of facts—natural, scientific, and phenomenological.

The preeminent phenomenological facts overlooked by Kant, according to Scheler, are values. Kant rightly denies that moral obligation can be defined by reference to empirical objects of desire without subordinating it to the relativizing contingencies of particular whims, ends, and purposes. But he fails to discern the distinctive nature of values as pure qualities or essences, distinct from empirical entities or objects of desire that might serve as their bearers.

Just as colors can be conceived independently of any colored surfaces or bearers, values can be intuited as pure, independent essences. Furthermore, values exhibit an objective hierarchical ranking, furnishing a material basis for ethics, in contrast to Kant’s empty formalism.

teleological theories
teleological theories

Accordingly, Scheler distinguishes four basic ranks of values. From highest to lowest, these include the
  1. religious, such as the sacred and profane;
  2. cultural, such as the true, right, and beautiful;
  3. vital, such as the noble and common; and
  4. sensory, such as the pleasant and painful. 
Scheler’s criteria for this classification are reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s hedonic calculus, including relative duration, depth of satisfaction, and so forth. He also held that this ranking reflects an a priori “logic of preference.”

As in teleological theories generally, Scheler defines moral values in terms of the nonmoral value realized or intended through an act. Accordingly, moral good is achieved as a by-product of realizing or intending a positive or comparatively higher nonmoral value, such as sacrificing the lower value of physical comfort for the higher value of one’s children’s education. His ethic, unlike Kant’s, is based not on “blind duty,” but on positive insight into the nature of values.

actual value
actual value

Scheler is unabashedly objectivist and absolutist in his value theory, but acknowledges the relativity of actual value judgments among societies and individuals. Someone suffering a pathological urge to sacrifice does not have the same obligation to be selfless as the self-centered egoist.

Differences of cultural ethos are also significant. Recognition of such relativities inform Scheler’s theories of virtue, conscience, and obligation, as well as his concepts of types of exemplary acts and exemplary persons— such as saints, geniuses, and heroes—that he proposes as vehicles for moral education. Yet he steadfastly maintains that such relativities do not undermine the absolute objectivity of values themselves.
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