Theodor Sternberg and the Closet of Conceptualism

Katharina Isabel Schmidt is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University and a JSD candidate in law at the Yale Law School. She is currently writing a history of German legal modernism from the left-wing, German-Jewish free law movement before WWI to Nazi jurists like Carl Schmitt. She looks forward to receiving your questions and comments at kis2@princeton.edu.

Sometime in the mid-1930s, German jurist Theodor Sternberg (1878-1950) concluded that law and love were incompatible.[1] In one of his “erotosophical” fragments, he claimed that affective bonds thrived under anarchy. Love, for Sternberg had to be free from egoism and compulsion, eschew both duty and obligation. “Coitus,” especially, was divine in origin—God’s love for the world incarnate—and just like God’s love was limitless, sexuality knew no law.

Sternberg wrote his fragment in Japan, where he lived as an independent scholar for almost forty years.[2] As a Jewish socialist yearning for femininity in all its forms, he had struggled to make a living in the German Empire. He had moved to Tokyo before WWI where he turned his attention to the human sciences. In 1935, he was invited to give a series of sexological lectures at Keio University. Around the same time, he started developing a program for humanity’s transition from an order of law to an order of love.[3]

A look at Sternberg helps us see that modernism in sex and in law overlapped. Historians have shown that, by the turn of the century, law had become the language in which sexual rights activists articulated their demands. Simultaneously, sex emerged as a site for critiquing law itself—a process less frequently noted. Legal modernists looked beyond formal rules to alternative sources of order. And Sternberg’s preferred alternatives were desire and intimacy.

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