Edward Conze and The Principle of Contradiction

Edward Conze 1930
Edward Conze (circa 1930)

Edward Conze (1904–1979) is well known for his prolific writings on Buddhist philosophy and his many translations of key Buddhist texts. Most of of writings were published in English and few knew about his German background. Because of this, Conze’s major philosophical work, Der Satz vom Widerspruch (The Principle of Contradiction) may come as a surprize. Conze published his monograph in December 1932 in Hamburg, during the final days of the Weimar Republic, with great urgency and under considerable risk to both author and printer alike.  Less than six months later, almost the entire first edition of Conze’s work was destroyed during the Nazi book-burnings in the spring of 1933. Conze’s first major philosophical work, and his hopes for an academic appointment in Germany, had been crushed.

Conze’s academic career began in the 1920’s in Germany. He received his PhD from the University of Cologne  in 1928—only a few months after he celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday! In his dissertation, Conze develops a critical analysis of the medieval philosopher Francisco Suárez’ concept of metaphysics (Conze 1928).

But Conze’s early philosophical interests were not limited to scholastic philosophy, as his thesis might suggest. Conze’s interests encompassed the full spectrum of the Western tradition, ranging from ancient and medieval philosophy to modern and contemporary early twentieth-century philosophy—culminating in what Conze thought of, at that point in his life, as philosophy’s latest (and necessary) stage of development: Marxism and the theory and practice of dialectical  materialism.

In addition, Conze’s studies included more esoteric authors and topics—at least from the perspective of mainstream 1920s German academic philosophy. His interests ranged from the study and practice of astrology, on the hand, to obscure agnostic philosophical texts and fragments, on the other. In his student years, Conze also developed an interest in the works of Arabic, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese philosophers, as well as Buddhist literature in general. The latter, of course, became the focal point of his philosophical work after WWII.

Original German edition of The Principle of Contradiction
Der Satz vom Widerspruch: Zur Theorie des dialektischen Materialismus (Conze 1932).

However, Conze’s most important philosophical work, his Hauptwerk  or magnum opus, and the work that establishes the foundation for all his later work, is his 1932 monograph on the principle of contradiction.

In this work, as Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) remarks in his 1934 review, Conze makes the attempt “to apply historical materialism to logic”— a difficult undertaking because in doing so Conze introduces a dialectic and materialist critique to an “area of theory that is far removed from the social ‘base-structure’ and access to this area can only be gained through a series of mediating stages” (Marcuse 1934).

From a Marxist perspective, the analysis and critique of the principle of contradiction is a crucial and necessary step toward a dialectical understanding of philosophical (and political) theory and practice. Conze’s 1932 work, which attempts to clear the ground for a deeper understanding of the very foundation of classical Marxist thought, the theory of historical and dialectical materialism (DIAMAT), may very well be the most comprehensive Marxist critique of the Aristotelian principle of contradiction available to this day.

Bookburnings in Hamburg, 1933

When the young Conze published The Principle of Contradiction  in December 1932, during the dark and final days of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, he may still have harboured some faint hopes that this work may come serve as his Habilitationsschrift  and in this way open the doors to an academic appointment in Germany. But less than six months later, Conze’s book was among the thousands of works reduced to ashes during the book-burning spectacles that the Nazis staged on university campuses and public squares all over Germany in the spring of 1933. In Hamburg, the Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist  (Action against the un-German Spirit), as the book-burnings were called, took place on the evening of May 15, 1933. A local newspaper reported on the spectacle the following day:

A throng of people stood in a wide circle around the pyre that had been piled up by the Hamburg Student Association on the Kaiser-Friedrich Ufer. They all wanted to participate in the burning of all those writings that have poisoned our nation for decades . . . The flames rose high as book after book from any un-German sphere was torn to pieces and destroyed. (Hamburger Tageblatt, May 16, 1933)

In his memoirs, Conze recalls the barbaric event, noting that his book was thrown onto “the bonfire by which the SA in Hamburg testified to their devotion to German culture” (Conze 1979).

A few copies of the first edition survived, scattered across Europe as gifts to libraries, personal friends and prospective reviewers. Conze’s hopes for an academic career in Germany, however, had come to naught with the Nazis’ rise to power. In addition, because of Conze’s active engagement in the Communist resistance to the National Socialists, his life was increasingly in danger. Only a few weeks after the book burnings, in early June 1933, Conze escaped Nazi Germany and settled in England.

Edward Conze
Edward Conze

Reflecting on the fate of his book on the principle of contradiction, Conze remarked not without bitterness that it had been “still-born” (Conze 1975, ix). Except for a review by Herbert Marcuse in the Zeitschrift fürSozialforschung  (Marcuse 1934) and an unauthorized reprint of 600 copies in 1976 by the German Socialist Student Association’s publishing house Verlag Neue Kritik, the work failed to attract much attention. In Conze’s own estimate, public indifference to the book “has been total, unrelieved by any kind of interest anywhere at any time” (Conze 1975, ix).