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Eucken, Rudolf Christoph (1846–1926)


Rudolf Christoph Eucken, the German philosopher of life, was born in Aurich, East Friesland. He studied philology and philosophy at the University of Göttingen; after attaining his doctoral degree, he taught several years at Frankfurt Gymnasium. In 1871 he became professor of philosophy at the University of Basel, and in 1874 at Jena, where he remained until his death. In 1908 he received the Nobel Prize in literature.

Eucken was not a systematic philosopher. He began with life as man experiences it. Life inevitably tends to organize into "systems of life" that are organic or institutional. The function of philosophy is to make the meaning of each system explicit and, by explicating each, to raise the question, Which is to be preferred? But philosophy does not merely explicate; it also helps to transform existing life systems. Men assess these explications practically, in terms of their fruitfulness for life or for a particular life system. Each man chooses a life system, but he does not choose one simply for himself. Every act of such choosing inevitably involves other men. There is no escape for any man from this social involvement.

Life is a process, an evolution; it cannot be contained within the boundaries of any philosophy or life system. The strains and stresses created when life breaks its established boundaries raises the deep need for a new philosophy or new philosophies, and inevitably men develop them. Eucken believed that every significant new philosophy is more comprehensive and clearly defined than any past philosophy.

The elaboration of new philosophies comes only through action (i.e., activism), through man's relentless affirmation of lifean affirmation which recognizes both the good and evil inherent in life. No significant philosophy is ever purely intellectualistic, for life is more than an idea or a theory. At its best, life is creative energy bursting into expression and molding past and present experience into a higher, more spiritual unity and order. For Eucken, life is neither noological nor psychological nor cosmological; its basis and meaning are to be found in man.

Life in man is self-conscious; as such, it goes beyond the subjective individual to bind together all conscious beings. Through this transcendence, it becomes the "independent spiritual life," or man reaching through action toward the absolute truth, beauty, and goodness. This "independent spiritual life" is attained only as personality is developed, but it is never a final achievement, since it is always a process that evolves as history. It is not rooted in the external world but in the soul, and it manifests itself more and more completely as the soul becomes independent of this world, self-willed yet subordinate to the ultimate trinity of truth, beauty, and goodness. These ultimates are not theoretical abstractions; they are concrete human experiences that push man beyond cosmic nature to something transcendentally spiritual.

Man has his beginning in nature, but through his soul evolves beyond it. His soul raises questions such as "Why?" and "Whence?" and opposes nature at all points. His soul seeks to become timeless and above nature, even as it feels helpless in the grasp of nature. In spite of this feeling of helplessness, it continues to seek freedoma freedom realized through the creation of a consistent philosophy that makes possible man's physical and spiritual survival. For Eucken, thought is not something intrinsic to itself but a means, or organ, of life itself.

The need for a new philosophy, Eucken felt, arises from two social conditionsmodern man's drive for a "broader, freer, cleaner life, a life of greater independence and spiritual spontaneity" and his drive for a "naturalistic culture which limits all its activity to the world around us" (Can We Still Be Christians?, p. 51).

The first drive provides modern man with a basis for radically transforming classical Christianity. Man's new problems, created by science, transcend the theological and ritualistic solutions that Christianity offered for millenniums. The eternal contribution of Christianity is its religious affirmation of universal redemption. But redemption must be combined with new elements of faith (science as the true complement of religion; religious democracy, or the political equality of all religions before man; complete separation of church and state) if Christianity is to help give birth to the new spiritual philosophy needed by man.

Eucken was very critical of naturalism. A naturalistic culture imposes false limitations upon man's essential spirituality. The conception of a naturalistic culture is a result of the impact of science upon man's lifean impact that is essentially good, but dangerous if it leads to the restriction of man's potentialities to the realm of nature only. In two works, Individual and Society (1923) and Socialism: An Analysis (1921), Eucken clarified the grounds of his criticism of naturalism. The naturalistic approach opens the door to individual freedom, but it is unable to guide man in the proper use of his freedom, since it lacks an overarching conception of unity. It fails to understand the necessity of social cooperation and social cohesion. Intellectualistic idealism understands the necessity for cooperation, cohesion, and unity, but fails to understand the need for individual freedom. The only proper answer, Eucken believed, is spiritual autonomy. Autonomy gives primacy to the whole of which the individual is a part, but it never reduces him to a state of utter subordination to that whole. The individual realizes his own unique freedom through this whole.

In Socialism: An Analysis Eucken also offers six criticisms of socialism: It cannot give unity to the life process; it fails to understand man's need for an inner life; it makes the present the only significant moment in man's life and thus cuts him off from the past and future; by reducing men to mathematical equality, it fails to appreciate genuine cultural and spiritual differences among men; espousing no higher faith than naturalism, it reduces social life to a struggle of man against man; and by considering man in purely economic terms, it stunts and aborts his true nature.

Eucken illustrated the attainment of freedom in terms of science and the peaceful society. In science the primary objective is to give man control over nature, but this task can be accomplished only when scientists cooperate by working together. Science, in other words, is essentially social, but it accomplishes its task through the freedom to investigate that is given to scientists. The peaceful society, although not yet attained, plainly depends upon human cooperation, upon no man raising his hand against another.

However, spiritual autonomy is not possible in a naturalistic culture. It rests upon a faith that goes beyond naturalismthe spiritual belief that man can produce a better and a freer world for all of humanity. Such a belief cannot find support in external circumstances alone. It requires the presence in each man of an inner life, a life constantly struggling to attain the good.

See also Beauty; Determinism and Freedom; Naturalism; Truth.


works by eucken

Geschichte und Kritik der Grundbegriffe den Gegenwart. Leipzig, 1878.

Die Einheit des Geisteslebens in Bewusstsein und Tat der Menschheit. Leipzig, 1888.

Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens. Leipzig, 1908. Translated by Lucy Judge Gibson and W. R. Boyce Gibson as The Meaning and Value of Life. London: A. and C. Black, 1909.

Grundlinien einer neuen Lebensanschauung. Leipzig, 1907. Translated by Alban G. Widgery as Life's Basis and Life's Ideal. London: A. and C. Black, 1911.

Können wir noch Christen sein? Leipzig, 1911. Translated by Lucy Judge Gibson as Can We Still Be Christians? New York: Macmillan, 1914.

Erkennen und Leben. Leipzig: Quelle and Meyer, 1912. Translated by W. Tudor Jones as Knowledge and Life. London: Williams and Norgate, 1913.

Sozialismus und seine Lebensgestaltung. Leipzig, 1920. Translated by Joseph McCabe as Socialism: An Analysis. London: T.F. Unwin, 1921.

Lebenserinnerungen. Leipzig, 1921. Translated by Joseph McCabe as Rudolf Eucken: His Life, Work and Travels. London: T. F. Unwin, 1921.

The Individual and Society. Translated by W. R. V. Brade. London, 1923.

works on eucken

Gibson, W. R. B. Rudolf Eucken's Philosophy of Life. London: A. and C. Black, 1907.

Jones, W. T. An Interpretation of Rudolf Eucken's Philosophy. London: Williams and Norgate, 1912.

Rubin Gotesky (1967)

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