Leonard Nelson (1882-1927)

Leonard Nelson, described by Karl Popper as an "outstanding personality," produced a great quantity of work (collected in the nine volumes of the Gesammelte Schriften) in a tragically short life. The quantity and the tragedy may have both happened because Nelson was an insomniac who worked day and night and exhausted himself into a fatal case of pneumonia.

Nelson's greatest contributions to philosophy were his rediscovery of Jakob Fries, his exposition, systematization, and expansion of Friesian philosophy, the use and theory of Socratic Method in his pedagogy, and his engagement with the mathematical issues of Kantian philosophy in relation to his personal and professional involvement with one of the great mathematicians of the Twentieth Century, David Hilbert (1862-1943). Hilbert's concern with the axiomatization of geometry and all of mathematics strongly paralleled Nelson's work in the Friesian theories of truth and justification. Nelson recognized the important parallel between Hilbert's conception of meta-mathematics and Fries' distinction between critique and metaphysics.

Hilbert is now often overshadowed by later mathematicians; and Hilbert's desire to complete mathematics by reducing it to a finished and closed axiomatic system is now often only mentioned in the context that this was shown to be impossible by Kurt Gödel (1906-1978). However, there would have been no Gödel if Hilbert had not proposed and pursued the axiomatization project in the first place, and the incompleteness of mathematics has in no way forestalled the continued construction of mathematics as an axiomatic system. Indeed, the original axiomatization of geometry in Euclid, elaborated and reformulated by Hilbert himself, is now supplemented by Axiomatic Set Theory, which accomplished the same kind of axiomatization for arithmetic -- serendipitously vindicating Kant, who had held that arithmetic was not analytic and so would require synthetic axioms (efforts to derive arithmetic analytically from logic alone, as in Russell & Whitehead's Principia Mathematica, failed).

Valuable aspects of Nelson's career and relationship with Hilbert are to be found in Constance Reid's biographies of Hilbert and his student Richard Courant (1888-1972) [Hilbert-Courant, Springer-Verlag, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, 1970, 1976, 1986]. What follows are some passages relevant to Nelson:

Courant's views illuminate one aspect of Nelson's personality:  he was a driven and extremely certain sort of man. Indeed, in some matters, Nelson verged on dogmatism, so confident was he of his results. This would have put off many people personally, as it nearly did Courant, but the overall effect, quite fortunate when Nelson's considered views influenced few in academic philosophy, was to attract dedicated students. The work of such students in perpetuating Nelson's memory was invaluable in Germany, where Grete Henry-Hermann and others brought to completion the publication of Nelson's works, in Britain, where the journal Ratio was published and the translation and publication of Progress and Regress in Philosophy [Basil Blackwell, 1970] was undertaken, and in the United States, where L.H. Grunebaum's "Leonard Nelson Foundation" arranged the translation and publication of both Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy [Yale 1949, Dover 1965, Kissinger Publishing, 2008] and the System of Ethics [Yale, 1956] (the Critique of Practical Reason, translated but never published, was made available in bound photocopy in 1970).

Besides his purely philosophical work, Nelson founded a would-be Platonic Academy, the still existing Philosophisch-Politische Akademie, that was the center for his own political party, the grandly (we could even say bombasticly) titled Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK, "International Socialist Battle/Struggle League"), which, however, did not have much of an independent existence. As a "non-Marxist socialist," in Popper's words, Nelson, who advocated something rather like a Führer Prinzip of political leadership, employed political and economic principles that actually no longer appear worthy. His disparagement of the free market as "anarchy" was part of the now exploded "fatal conceit," in F.A. Hayek's words, that command and control features would ensure macroeconomic efficiency and productivity. Although these issues are still matters of often intense political dispute, as socialist principles die hard in various redoubts, like American universities controlled by "tenured radical" dinosaurs, the economic case is all but settled in theory and practice.

In an age of dishonesty, nihilism, and relativism, the promise of Nelson's great work, both philosophically and personally, is yet to be fulfilled. His premature death blighted the promise of his thought. The unique principles of Friesian epistemology that he recovered were abandoned by his own students. 20th Century philosophy swung between the false alternatives of science and irrationalism, ignoring the promise of Kantian philosophy. And Nelson's own socialism obscured the proper direction and the best use in political economy of Friesian principles. In a new century, The Proceedings of the Friesian School, Fourth Series can at least maintain the hope of redeeming these disappointments.

The photograph above, with Leonard Nelson second from the left, was evidently taken at an unidentified, possibly Friesian, conference in Darmstadt in 1911, when Nelson would only have been 29 years old. This was found among the effects of Otto and Hedwig Meyerhof, who are present in the photo, with Otto fourth from left (adjacent to Nelson in the front row) and Hedwig as the only woman present. The photo is only identified with a notation, "L. Nelson Darmstadt, 1911," which I have added to the photo in type. We are trying to identify all the figures in it; but initially there seems little doubt that the older, bearded man slightly left of center is David Hilbert.

Below is another photo from the Meyerhof estate, with Nelson and Otto Meyerhof again recognizable at right. This is identified as from 1909, when Nelson would only have been 27. Yet my suspicion is that what we see are actually Nelson's own apartments, since the pictures on the wall include Kant (below, left) and Jakob Fries (above, center). A curious feature of this photo, as from many of the era, and earlier, is that not all the participants are looking on camera, violating what now is regarded as appropriate for a group photo. There is perhaps a certain intensity in Nelson's countenance. Whether I am reading that in or not, it was certainly Nelson's own personality, focus, and intensity that inspired and organized these manifestations of the Neo-Friesian School.

The Meyerhofs themselves happily escaped Germany in 1938 and made their way, via France and Spain, to the United States and to a prosperous life in Philadelphia.

K. Herrmann/ J. Schroth (Editors)

Leonard Nelson - Critical Natural Philosophy

Metaphysics as the foundation of science, philosophy as an exact method to discover this foundation: These are central themes in the Kant-Friesian philosophy which, at the beginning of the 20th century, Leonard Nelson, using the methods of mathematical axiomatics, further developed into interdisciplinary research programmes. Nelson carried out this research programme in his ethics but his untimely death prevented a systematic presentation of his natural philosophy and his doctrine of method. The present volume contains four transcripts of his seminars on natural philosophy which he held over a period of 15 years. The transcripts, which may be taken as a comparatively complete presentation of Nelson's natural philosophy, supplement the writings published during his lifetime and convey a representative picture of his natural philosophy.

The Socratic Method, by Leonard Nelson

The Impossibility of the Theory of "Knowledge," by Leonard Nelson

Grete Henry's "The Significance of Behaviour Study for the Critique of Reason," Ratio, Volume XV, No. 2, December 1973

Nelson's Proof of the Impossibility of the Theory of Knowledge, Dr. Kay Herrmann, 2011

Note on Nelson's Axiomatic Diagrams

History of Philosophy


Nelson on Home Page

Home Page

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