Otto, Rudolf (1869–1937)

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Rudolf Otto, the German theologian, was born at Peine in Hanover. He studied at Erlangen and Göttingen, where he became a Privatdozent in systematic theology in 1897. In 1904 Otto was appointed professor of systematic theology at Göttingen. He accepted similar posts at Breslau in 1914 and at Marburg in 1917, where he remained until his death. In addition to his philosophical work, Otto published works on Christ, on Indian religious thought and its relation to Christianity, and on various theological topics.

Religious Feeling and Religious Knowledge

Otto's most significant philosophic contribution is to be found in his discussion of religious feeling and religious knowledgea discussion that begins with his earliest work and culminates in The Idea of the Holy.

In Naturalism and Religion (1904) Otto discusses the relation of religion to a naturalism that demands that everything be explained on the basis of mathematical-mechanical laws, thus excluding the beyond, purpose, and mystery, which are essential to religion.

cognitive claims of religion

Religion makes certain claimsthat the world is conditioned and dependent, that there is a providence, that there is a side other than that which appears to us. These claims are not put forward as poetry but as truths. They cannot, however, be justified by, nor derived from, a consideration of nature in any straightforward sense. Reason may show that science does not conflict with these claims and even that science is unable to consider their truth-value. Reason may also point out hints in nature that suggest that these claims are true; reason cannot, however, justify them. These truths differ in kind from those of science and common sense and have their own groundsthe heart and conscience, feeling and intuition. Correlations can be made between various feelings, on the one hand, and religious claims, on the other. Corresponding to the claim that the world is conditioned and dependent is the feeling of the dependence and conditionally of all things. The claim that there is a providence, or teleological order, in things implies that certain value judgments are true and these value judgments rest on feeling and intuition. Corresponding to the claim that there is a beyond is pietya feeling and intuition, which is bound up with our experience of the beautiful and the mysterious, that there is a reality behind appearances.

Religious Feelings and Intuitions

In Naturalism and Religion it is not entirely clear just what these feelings and intuitions are. Otto sometimes talks of them as if they were feelings in a straightforward sense. At other times he talks of them as if they were half-formulated judgments that carry with them an inescapable sense of conviction, and at still other times he talks of them as if they were cognitive experiences in somewhat the same way that visual experiences are cognitive.

categories and ideas

The notion of religious feelings and intuitions receives a more complete treatment in The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries (1909), in which Otto follows the position of Jakob Friedrich Fries. We have an immediate knowledge of reality, the noumenal world, which shows itself in "feelings of truth." These feelings can be brought to full consciousness as ideas. An idea is a concept that can be applied to reality. When temporally schematized, the categories of theoretical reason can be applied to appearances and can also, when schematized by the principle of completeness (a principle based on reason's "perception and knowledge" that real existence is necessary, one, and complete), be applied to reality itself. A category thus schematized is an idea. These ideas are essentially negative. In effect, they exclude certain characteristicstemporality, contingency, and so onfrom reality.

In the case of the practical reason the "feeling of truth" cannot be completely conceptualized. Practical reason does, however, derive the idea of reality as "the reign of purpose" from the principle of the dignity of the person that underlies the concept of duty. The idea is again presumably negative.

The negative judgments obtained through applying the ideas of theoretical and practical reason to reality must be supplemented by positive knowledge, which is gained through feelings or perceptions that cannot be adequately expressed although they can be communicated. These feelings, or perceptions, again seem to be, simultaneously, feelings in an ordinary sense, the ability to make judgments according to criteria that cannot themselves be formulated, and a direct perception of an objective existencein this case, reality. Otto distinguishes between the feeling of beauty and of the sublime, on the one hand, and religious feelings, on the other. Although the discussion is somewhat obscure, it would seem that all three of these feelings either directly or indirectly disclose reality.

Numinous Feelings

In The Idea of the Holy (1917), Otto attempts to make a clear distinction between numinous, or religious, feelings and feelings that might be confused with them, such as the feeling of the sublime. Numinous feelings have two primary aspectsa feeling of religious dread and a feeling of religious fascination. The closest analogue to religious dread, or awe, is the feeling of uncanninessthe feeling one has when the hair on the back of one's neck rises, the shudder or terror on hearing a ghost story, the dread of haunted places. The feeling of fascination by, attraction to, and prizing of the object that arouses the feeling in question creates both the desire to approach the object and the feeling that one possesses no value when considered in relation to the fascinating and prized object.

Otto's attempt to describe the various feelings must be distinguished from his theory about numinous feelings. Numinous feelings are unique; they cannot be analyzed as a complex of such nonnuminous feelings as love, fear, horror, a feeling of sublimity, and so on. Second, the capacity for numinous feelings is unexplainable; although the capacity may appear in the world only when certain conditions are fulfilled, the conditions do not constitute an adequate explanation of the capacity in question.

Numinous feelings are also cognitive. Two claims are made at this point. First, the feelings are the source of the concept of the numinousthe concept of something that is both a value and an objective reality. The numinous feelings are also cognitive in the sense that they are like visual experiences. They have "immediate and primary reference to an object outside the self"the numinous quality or object, which is an object of numinous feelings in somewhat the same way that visible objects and qualities might be said to be the object of visual experiences.


The relation between these two claims is not clear. At least two interpretations are possible. The first interpretation makes central the claim that numinous feelings disclose the numinous object. The encounter with the numinous object through numinous experiences gives rise to the concept of the numinous in much the same way that encounters with objects and qualities through visual experiences are thought to give rise to the concepts of those objects and qualities. The concept of the numinous is, then, a posteriori in the sense that it is derived from the experience of an object or quality. It is, however, a priori in the sense that it is not derived from any sense experience. In this interpretation the feeling is the source of the concept only in the sense that it discloses the object of the concept, the encounter with the object producing the concept of the object.

In the second interpretation the feeling gives rise to both the concept and the disclosure of the numinous object, yet it is not the encounter with the numinous that gives rise to the concept of the numinous. Rather, the feeling furnishes the concept in much the same way that Immanuel Kant's theoretical reason furnishes the various a priori categories. The concept of the numinous is, then, a priori in a standard sense. The feeling does more than this, however. The feeling that furnishes the concept also discloses the object to which the concept applies. How are these two functions of numinous feelings related? Neither the concept nor the object is, it would seem, given in isolation. Rather, the object is given through the concept or as structured by the concept. The two are given together although one is not derived from the other. In either interpretation Otto makes the claim that feeling puts us in contact with, discloses, is an awareness of, intuits something outside ourselves. In this respect feeling is like visual and auditory experiences. It has an objective referent whether this is structured by an a priori concept or whether it simply gives rise to a concept. Unfortunately, the difficulties involved in this claim are not discussed. Obvious disanalogies with ordinary perception (the absence of tests for "mis-seeing," the fact that no sense organ is tied to numinous experiences, the fact that nonpsychological predictions cannot be based on numinous experiences in the way in which they can be based on visual experiences, and so on) are ignored.

The Numen

Otto calls the object of numinous feelings the numen, something that is both value and object but which can be only indirectly characterized by means of "ideograms"that is, by designating properties which would appropriately call forth a feeling response analogous to that evoked in the encounter with the numen. For example, the encounter with the numen evokes religious dread. This is analogous to fear. Accordingly, we indicate the property of the numen that arouses religious dread by wrath, a term that refers to a property which often produces fear. In addition to this, however, we can and should "schematize" the numen by means of such rational concepts as goodness, completeness, necessity, and substantiality. That is, concepts of this sort may be predicated of the numen. The resulting judgment is synthetic a priori. It may be suggested that the cash value of the last claim is that we just "see" the connection to be appropriate if we possess numinous feelings.

The Holy

When the concept of the numinous and the schematizing concepts are brought together in this way, we have the "complex category of the 'holy' itself." The category is a priori in the sense that (1) the connection between the notion of the numinous and the schematizing concepts is a priori, (2) the concept of the numinous is a priori in that although it arises "amid the sensory data of the natural world, it does not arise out of them," and (3) the schematizing concepts are a priori.

The last claim is difficult to maintain, however, for Otto's examples of the schematizing concepts seem to make this impossible. It could perhaps be argued that schematizing concepts such as completeness, necessity, substantiality, and goodness are a priori. Otto also wishes to say, however, that the concepts of love, mercy, and moral will can function as concepts that schematize various aspects of the numinous. It is difficult to maintain that a concept such as love is a priori. What Otto maintains is that although "love" as applied to the numen and "love" as applied in ordinary situations have the same content, their form differs. When referred to the numen, the term is taken absolutely; when it is applied in ordinary situations, it is not. Otto seems to mean that love in the ordinary sense admits of degrees that can be arranged on a scale. The love of the numen is the limit of this scale. Since the limit (whatever this might be) is not given to us in sense experience, we may call it a priori.

Religious Feelings and the Numen

We can now explicate more fully the role that religious or numinous feelings play in religious knowledge. They disclose the numen to us. They are the source of the concept of the numinous. Finally, they appear to warrant the synthetic a priori judgments that link the schematizing concepts to the concept of the numinous.

The relation between the account presented in The Philosophy of Religion and The Idea of the Holy is, I think, clear. The ideas have become the "Idea of the Holy" (which breaks down into the concept of the numinous and the schematizing concepts), reality has become the numen, and feelings and intuitions have become numinous feelings.

Autonomy of the Spirit

Another theme, although less philosophically interesting, is of central concern to Otto himselfthe autonomy of the spirit and of the spirit's religious capacities. In asserting that the spirit is autonomous, Otto is claiming that the laws of the spirit are fundamentally different from those of the natural world. In effect, they are the prescriptive laws of logic and ethics (and of religion?) rather than the descriptive laws of physics and psychology. Insofar as a spirit determines itself by prescriptive laws, it is free. Otto is further claiming that spirit is the source of concepts, principles, intuitions, and valuations that cannot be derived from sense experience. And, finally, he is claiming that although spirit develops under the influence of external stimuli, it is something unique in its own right. Spirit cannot be explained by, nor can its occurrence be predicted on, the basis of a consideration of sense experience alone. Spirit and its operations "emerge" under certain conditions but are not explained by these conditions.

See also A Priori and A Posteriori; Fries, Jakob Friedrich; Kant, Immanuel; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Naturalism.


works by otto

Naturalistische und religiöse Weltansicht. Tübingen: Mohr, 1904. Translated by J. A. Thomson and M. R. Thomson as Naturalism and Religion. New York: Putnam, 1907.

Goethe und Darwin, Darwinismus und Religion. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1909. Darwinismus und Religion translated by S. G. Cole and E. M. Austin as "Darwinism and Religion" in Crozer Quarterly 8 (1931): 147161.

Kantisch-Fries'sche Religionsphilosophie und ihre Anwendung auf die Theologie. Tübingen: Mohr, 1909. Translated by E. B. Dicker as The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries. London: Williams and Norgate, 1931.

Das Heilige; über das Irrationale in der Idee des Gottlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen. Breslau: Trewendt and Granier, 1917; 25th ed. Munich, 1936. The later editions contain additional material. Translated by J. W. Harvey as The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Nonrational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. New York, 1958.

Aufsätze das Numinose betreffend. Gotha: Klotz, 1923.

West-Östliche Mystik. Vergleich und Unterscheidung zur Wesensdeutung. Gotha: Klotz, 1926. Translated by B. L. Bracey and R. C. Payne as Mysticism, East and West. A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism. New York: Macmillan, 1932.

Das Gefühl des Überweltlichen (Sensus Numinis ). Munich, 1932. The first part of the fifth and sixth editions of the Aufsätze with some added material.

Sunde und Urshuld und andere Aufsätze zur Theologie. Munich, 1932. The second part of the fifth and sixth editions of the Aufsätze with some added material.

Religious Essays. A Supplement to the "Idea of the Holy," by Rudolf Otto. Translated by B. Lunn. London: Oxford University Press, 1931. This consists primarily of translations of essays found in the Aufsätze and the two preceding works.

Freiheit und Notwendigkeit, Ein Gespräch mit Nicolai Hartmann über Autonomie und Theonomie der Werte. Tübingen: Mohr, 1940.

works on otto

Almond, Philip. Rudolf Otto: An Introduction to his Philosophical Theology. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Ballard, Steven. Rudolf Otto and the Synthesis of the Rational and the Non-Rational in the Idea of the Holy. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

Davison, R. F. Rudolf Otto's Interpretation of Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.

Feigel, F. C. "Das Heilige." Eine kritische Abhandlung über Rudolf Otto's gleichnamiges Buch. Haarlem, Netherlands, 1929.

Gooch, Todd. The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto's Philosophy of Religion. New York: de Gruyter, 2000.

Haubold, W. Die Bedeutung der Religionsgeschichte für die Theologie Rudolf Ottos. Leipzig, 1940.

Moore, J. M. Theories of Religious Experience with Special Reference to James, Otto and Bergson. New York: Round Table Press, 1938.

Poland, Lynn. "The Idea of the Holy and the History of the Sublime." Journal of Religion 72 (1992): 175197.

Proudfoot, Wayne. Religious Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Raphael, Melissa. Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Schlamm, Leon. "Numinous Experience and Religious Language." Religious Studies 28 (1992): 533551.

Schlamm, Leon. "Rudolf Otto and Mystical Experience." Religious Studies 27 (1991): 389398.

Siegfried, T. Grundfragen der Theologie bei Rudolf Otto. Gotha, 1931.

Sommer, J. W. E. Der heilige Gott und der Gott der Gnade bei Rudolf Otto. Frankfurt, 1950.

William J. Wainwright (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)