Eucken, Rudolf

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Rudolf Eucken

German philosopher Rudolf Eucken (1846–1926) created an idealist school of thought that reestablished a connection between religion and intellectualism. He was honored with the 1908 Nobel Prize in Literature for his contributions to western thought. Presenter of the Prize, Harald Hjärne, who was director of the Swedish Academy at the time, explained that Eucken had been awarded the prize "in recognition of his earnest search for truth, his penetrating power of thought, his wide range of vision, and the warmth and strength of presentation with which in his numerous works he has vindicated and developed an idealistic philosophy of life."

Eucken was one of the most prominent philosophers in western thought at the beginning of the twentieth century. He helped establish the school of philosophy known as "actionism," which broke away from the schools of "naturalism" (the concept that the universe is ultimately understandable through the application of the disciplines of the natural sciences) and pure "idealism" (the concept that reality is shaped primarily through mankind's perception of it). Actionism suggests, instead, that mankind can transform its base nature through the exercise of the ability to make ethical choices. At the same time, Eucken opposed the Nietzschean concept of the superman who can bend moral and ethical law to his will. "While the author always appeals to human experiences for the grounds of his philosophical and religious convictions," wrote S. H. Mellone in the International Journal of Ethics two years after Eucken received the Nobel Prize, "he has in view a fully concrete and not an abstract estimate of experience." Eucken's philosophy helped revitalize the relationship between intellectual thought and religion that had largely lapsed a century before, at the beginning of the Romantic era.

Long Career as an Academic Philosopher

Eucken was born in January of 1846 in the town of Aurich, located in the province of East Friesland in the German state of Saxony. He attended the Universities of Göttingen and Berlin, where he studied philosophy, philology, and history under the guidance of the philosopher Adolf Trachtenberg. Trachtenberg, explained Armand Cuvillier in an essay on Eucken's life and work published in Rudolf Eucken, Anatole France, John Galsworthy, "was the originator of a neo–Aristotelian doctrine. Trachtenberg, with whom Eucken formed a close personal relationship, developed an organic conception of the universe, in which both the outer and the inner world combine to form a whole, moving constructively and purposefully toward a definite end. . . . [Trachtenberg's] belief in purpose and finality—what philosophers call the 'teleological' view—was probably a decisive influence on the thought of the future Nobel prizewinner." Eucken's graduate dissertation combined the different fields of study he had pursued under Trachtenberg in an analysis of the language of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. It was published in 1866 as De Aristotelis dicendi ratione.

In recognition of his talents Eucken was made a professor of philosophy at the University of Basle at the age of 26 in 1871. Three years later he took up the chair of philosophy at the University of Jena, where he remained for the next 46 years, from 1874 until his retirement in 1920. Among his few absences from Jena during the years between his appointment as a full professor and his death in 1926 were trips made to the United States in 1912 and to Japan in 1914, where he served as an exchange professor at Harvard and as a visiting professor at Tokyo University respectively.

Over his long career Eucken developed his flexible idealist philosophy in many books, which he revised and republished throughout his life. These books serve as an introduction to the ways in which his thought changed and evolved over time, and as a guide toward Eucken's perceptions of the truth. Within a few years of his appointment to the chair of philosophy at the University of Jena he had published a groundbreaking study of late nineteenth century philosophy, Die Grundbegriffe der Gegenwart (The Fundamental Ideas of the Present, 1878). Later titles in which Eucken developed his ideas included Der Wahrheitsgehalt der Religion (The Truth of Religion, 1901), Philosophie der Geschichte (Philosophy of History, 1907), Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens (The Meaning and Value of Life, 1908), Können wir noch Christen sein? (Can We Still Be Christians?, 1911), and Mensch und Welt (Man and World, 1918).

Developed New Ethical Theory

Eucken's philosophy dealt with problems surrounding belief and ethics in late nineteenth–century Europe. Generally speaking, the problem faced by the philosopher was this: Naturalism said that human thought was a product of the workings of the natural world, and therefore ethics was a product of the nature of human beings. Idealism, on the other hand, said that human thought was the ultimate creator of reality—but this implied that ethics was a product of perceptions of reality, and therefore not objectively real. Eucken, basing his thought on Aristotle's own ideas about ethics, devised a way to reassert the reality of ethics above the plane of human existence. "It is not the individual or the superman in his separate existence," wrote Hjärne, "but the strong character formed in the consciousness of free harmony with the intellectual forces of the cosmos, and therefore profoundly independent, that in Eucken's view is called upon to liberate us from the superficial compulsion of nature and the never completely inescapable pressure of the historical chain of cause and effect."

In fact, Eucken himself suggested that patterns of history tended to support the idea that adherence to morality was cyclical in nature. "There are times in the history of mankind when the moral idea, with its decree of duty, recedes into the background, and is even scoffed at as an irksome instrument of control," the philosopher wrote in "Ethics and Modern Thought," an essay included in the Nobel Prize collection Rudolf Eucken, Anatole France, John Galsworthy. "But such times, however, brilliant on the surface, cannot resist inner decay and hollowness, till at last they become unendurable. Then, if there is a return to morality, it is superior to, and triumphant over, all other interests." The philosopher suggested that it was the moral call of Christianity, which he felt was superior to the more powerful culture of Rome, that enabled Christianity to triumph over the pagan culture of ancient times. Similarly, it was the moral imperatives of the Reformation that allowed its culture to survive "while the soft and beautiful Renaissance perished because it lacked morality." "Look where we will," Eucken concluded, "we see that the moral task, if fully and clearly grasped, is stronger than anything else."

One of the implications of Eucken's statement is that morality and ethicality are based on human action, not on historical imperatives or on natural forces that dictate the environment and human response to it. Only through the lens of human experience—especially personal human experience—can we capture some idea of the supernatural reality revealed through religion. "Exhilaration, courage, and firm belief can arise only from such an acknowledgment of a binding necessity, not from a hankering after remote and alien goals," the philosopher wrote in his Nobel lecture, "but from a belief in life as it is active within us and makes us participate inwardly in the large context of reality." "Eucken's appeal to experience means something more than mere observation and analysis—it requires sympathy and active effort in the present, and a broad historical outlook on the past," said Mellone. "Our present experience is in part, but non the less really, made by ourselves; and this is above all true of moral and spiritual experience. Hence—he says in effect—if you want to believe in God, you must create much of the evidence for yourself."

Final Years

Eucken's faith in the power of action to shape moral and spiritual experience took a severe blow during the First World War (1914–1918). Although he was somewhat international in his outlook—his essay on "Ethics and Modern Thought," reprinted in the collection of works by Nobel laureates Rudolf Eucken, Anatole France, John Galsworthy, called upon Americans to develop "such moral strength as will successfully overcome all conflicts and lead to splendid results, for the benefit not only of the American nation, but of all makind"—he also had a strong tendency toward ethnocentricity. While the war was still going on he published a series of pamphlets designed to promote the status of German thought and, in at least one case, he signed a declaration that denigrated the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. During World War I and immediately afterward he continued to produce writings that asserted German leadership in philosophy and spiritual disciplines. In the second edition to Mensch und Welt, published just after the war in 1919, "he deplore[d] 'the tremendous catastrophe that has befallen the German people,' a catastrophe 'the like of which no one expected and the history of the world has hardly ever seen,' " wrote Cuvillier, "and he declare[d] that the responsibility for it does not lie with one nation, but 'involves all mankind.' "

Despite his nationalistic tendencies, Cuvillier stated, "Eucken undeniably made a major contribution to modern philosophy, fully justifying the award of the Nobel Prize in 1908." His thought helped link religious traditions, if not organized religion, with the ideology of the developing twentieth century. "To Eucken," Cuvillier concluded, "the Church is only a means of achieving the kingdom of God. It is even possible, he maintains, to be deeply religious without belonging to any formally organized religion; the main thing is religion as a personal experience."


Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, Humanities Press, 1980.

Herman, E., Eucken and Bergson: Their Significance for Christian Thought, Pilgrim Press, 1913.

Jones, W. Tudor, The Philosophy of Rudolf Eucken, Dodge Pub. Co., 1914.

Nobel Lectures: Literature 1901–1967, edited by Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Co., 1969.

Rudolf Eucken, Anatole France, John Galsworthy, A. Gregory, 1971.


International Journal of Ethics, October 1910; January 1926.


"Rudolf Eucken—Biography," Nobel Prize Website, (December 17, 2004).

"Rudolf Eucken, Nobel Lecture, March 27, 1909," Nobel Prize Website, (December 17, 2004).

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