Zwischenstufen (Abstract)

Zwischenstufen: Epistemic Revolution in Science and Culture

Ralph Leck, Indiana State University

My lecture will build upon my forthcoming book, Vita Sexualis: Karl Ulrichs and the Rise of Leck_coverSexual Science (University of Illinois Press, Spring 2016). Here I argue that Ulrichs initiated a revolution in science and European culture. He did so by rejecting the starting point of traditional classificatory sexual science. In opposition to the classificatory binary male/female, Ulrichs argued that science must acknowledge a fact of natural science; Varietät, not the male-female binary, is natural. This new a priori revolutionized sexual science and sexual morality. Similarly, my lecture in Hannover will demonstrate the revolutionary connotations of the concept of Zwischenstufe („intermediary“, plural Zwischenstufen). This concept naturalized diversity and banished the male/female binary—around which the culture of the Christian bourgeoisie was organized—from scientific and moral legitimacy.

This lecture will focus on the concept of Zwischenstufen in works of Karl Ulrichs (1825-1895) and Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). Much of my attention will be devoted to examining the various meanings of Zwischenstufen in Ulrichs’s Forschungen über mannmännlichen Liebe. Hirschfeld was so convinced by the scientific importance of Ulrichs’s neologism that he established a journal by that name: Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen. It was published from 1899 to 1923. In addition to the numerous articles comprising this journal, Hirschfeld formulated a synthetic theory of intermediaries in Sexuelle Zwischenstufen: Das männliche Weib und der weibliche Mann (Bonn: Marcus & Webers, 1918). Here Hirschfeld expounded upon five subgenres of Zwischenstufen:

(1) Hermaphroditismus

(2) Androgynie

(3) Transvestititismus

(4) Homosexualität

(5) Metatropismus

Zwischenstufen will be analyzed as an explicatory form with multiple contents.

Two lines of argument will guide this lecture. First, the science of Zwischenstufen will be presented as an epistemic revolution in science and culture. However, this essay will also highlight conceptual recidivisms. For example, despite the revolutionary implications of the science of Zwischenstufen, neither Ulrichs nor Hirschfeld were entirely able to totally free themselves from the normalization of the male/female binary. For instance, neither Ulrichs nor Hirschfeld jettisoned the dichotomy between male activity and female passivity. Hirschfeld’s concept of “der normale Tropismus” is a case in point.

Bezeichnen wir das normale Verhalten der Geschlechter untereineinder als sexuellen Tropismus, so können wir ein derartig abnormales Verfahren, in dem das Weib die aktive, der Mann die passive Rolle spielt, Metatropismus nennen (…wie in Metamorphose im Sinn von umgekehrt).1

Seen from the distance of history, Zwischenstufen appears incompatible with the normalization of the male/female binary. However, Ulrichs and Hirschfeld were not able to completely free themselves from the gender assumptions of their Zeitgeist.

Second, the underlying assumption of Ulrichs and Hirschfeld’s science was that diversity was natural. By extension, they argued that naturalness was synonymous social virtue. G.E. Moore referred to this analogic as the naturalistic fallacy. Ulrichs and Hirschfeld’s social philosophy rested upon this fallacy. Ulrichs and Hirschfeld’s philosophy of Zwischenstufe, then, failed to diagnose the moral deficiencies of natural science. As a philosophy of life, Zwischenstufen was characterized by problematic assumptions and unresolved moral tensions.


1 Magnus Hirschfeld, Sexuelle Zwischenstufen: Das männliche Weib und der weibliche Mann (Bonn: Marcus & Webers, 1918), 229.

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