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Ancient eclecticism, according to the second century c.e. doxographer Diogenes Laertius, began with Potamon of Alexandria, who broke with traditions of discipleship and doctrinal loyalty by making a selection from the tenets of all the existing sects, including Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics. The Roman adaptation of eclectic attitudes was given legitimacy by the famous, often repeated motto of Horace (658 b.c.e.), "I am not bound over to swear as any master dictates." Eclecticism included women philosophers, especially (whatever her religion) the beautiful, intellectually peerless, and ill-fated Hypatia (c. 370415), whose death, according to Denis Diderot (17131784), marked also the end of ancient eclecticism. The Christian fathers also inclined to this view in their search for pagan anticipations of their wisdom, so that for example St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150between 211 and 215) celebrated the value of Greek and even "barbarian" philosophy according to this method, which he also called "eclectic" (eklektikon ). This approach, which was inadvertently comparative and necessarily historical, was a prototype of the more self-conscious ideas of eclecticism, German and then French, which emerged in modern times, especially in the search for a "new philosophy." Thus Petrus Ramus (Pierre de La Ramée; 15151572) claimed membership in the secta veritatis, "the sect not of Aristotle, of Plato, or of any man, but only of truth" (Aristotelicae Animadversiones, 1543; Aristotelian criticisms).

Modern Era

If the locus classicus of eclecticism was Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, the locus modernus was the Introduction to Stoic Philosophy (1604) of Justus Lipsius (15471606), who argued that the method of critical choosing or "election" was superior to the dogmas of particular schools and represented the true road to truth. From the second quarter of the seventeenth century the term and concept of eclectic philosophy gained currency, as did the associated idea of the liberty of philosophizing (libertas philosophandi ) that is, the freedom to choose between philosophical schools, or indeed a philosophy beyond the schools. Gerardus Johannes Vossius (Gerrit Jansz Vos; 15771649) served philosophical apprenticeships in various schoolsAristotelians, Platonists, Stoics, and Epicureansand concluded, "Clearly, I have become an eclectic." Later he defended eclecticism (secta electiva sive electrix ) as a permanent condition of philosophizing and urged, "How would it be in the future if we should be not Ionic philosophers, or Italians, Eleatics, Platonists, or Peripatetics, not Stoics, Epicureans, Skeptics, or any other such sects, but all of these?" (De philosophia et philosophorum sectis, 1658; Philosophy and the schools of philosophy).

The recognized founder of the eclectic school (eclectica philosophia; Wahl-Philosophie [Selective philosophy]) in Germany was Christian Thomasius (16551728), for whom, as for Vossius, philosophy was a collective enterprise not reducible to the teaching of one author or separable from learned tradition and succession of teachers. "I call eclectic philosophy," Thomasius wrote in his Introductio ad philosophiam aulicam (Einleitung zur Hof-Philosophie [Introduction to court philosophy]) in 1688, "not what depends on the teaching of an individual or on the acceptance of the words of a master, but whatever can be known from the teaching and writing of any person on the basis not of authority but of convincing arguments." For Thomasius the key to understanding was the alliance between history and philosophy. "History and philosophy are the two eyes of wisdom," he argued. "If one is missing, then one has only half vision" (einäugy ).

Other adherents to eclecticism included J. C. Sturm, J. F. Buddeus, C. A. Heumann, Nicolas Gundling, J. G. Heineccius, Ephraim Gerhard, Arnold Wesenfeld, J. J. Brucker, and their students in many dissertations written in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in theology, mathematics, and medicine as well as philosophy. Eclecticism was a method of separating truth from opinion and falsehood, science from superstition, and so a process of intellectual enlightenment and human progress. As Heineccius concludes in his Elementa philosophiae rationalis et moralis (1756; Elements of rational and moral philosophy), "one should not seek truth by oneself, nor accept or reject everything written by ancients and moderns, and so no other method of philosophizing is more reasonable than the Eclectic Method."

Eclecticism was thus given new life in early modern times, appearing at the confluence of several intellectual movements: the revival of ancient and patristic learning, evangelical religious reform, the "liberty of philosophizing," and the adoption of critical history as the basis for understanding.

The most lasting consequence of eclectic philosophy was the emergence of a new discipline, the history of philosophy, beginning with Georg Horn and Thomas Stanley (History of Philosophy, 1655) and culminating in the first journal dedicated to the history of philosophy, the Acta Philosophorum by C. A. Heumann and the survey of J. J. Brucker (Historia critica philosophiae, 17421744; Critical history of philosophy), which set the canon for the modern history of philosophy and which was the basis for Diderot's entry in the French Encyclopédie.

Nineteenth Century

It was in the nineteenth century, however, that eclecticism achieved its greatest notoriety, especially under the leadership of Victor Cousin (17921867), who proposed "to select in all systems what appears to be true and good, and consequently everlasting,this, in a single word, is ECLECTICISM." And Cousin added, "If this philosophy is to be Eclectic, it must also be sustained by the history of philosophy." In post-Revolutionary France philosophy was in great disarray, and Cousin looked back to the great schools of the earlier generationFrench, Scottish, and German, represented respectively by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (17151780), Thomas Reid (17101796), and Immanuel Kant (17241804). "It would be an interesting and instructive study," he proposed, "to examine the weaknesses of these schools by engaging one with another and by selecting their various merits in the context of a great eclecticism which would contain and surpass all three" (Lectures on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, 1858).

Over the next three decades this doctrine was publicized and extended by Cousin's many scholarly publications, by his lectures, by his many international contacts and disciples, by translations of his works, and by his public career as minister of education and as virtually the "official philosopher" of the July Monarchy. Historian though he was, he attached little importance to German precedents in the belief that "eclecticism is a French doctrine and peculiar to us" (Premiers essais de philosophie, 1862, p. 280).

Among philosophers, in fact, eclecticism lost much of its credit in the nineteenth century, and indeed Cousin's major significance was as a scholar and a founder of the "history of ideas," which had been pioneered by Brucker, whom he honored as "the father of the history of philosophy," and Giambattista Vico (16681744), whose work he was instrumental in introducing to nineteenth-century readers. In the long term, indeed, the principal contribution of Cousin and his school, as of the earlier German eclectics, was not the establishment of a viable philosophical doctrine but the exploration of the modern field of intellectual history.

See also Aristotelianism ; Epicureanism ; Ideas, History of ; Platonism ; Stoicism .


Hochstrasser, T. J. Natural Law Theories in the Early Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kelley, Donald R. The Descent of Ideas: The History of Intellectual History. London: Ashgate, 2002.

. "Eclecticism and the History of Ideas." Journal of the History of Ideas 62 (2001): 577592.

Kelley, Donald R., ed. History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1997. See especially Martin Mulsow, "Gundling and Buddeus: Competing Models of the History of Philosophy," 103126, and Ulrich Johannes Schneider, "Eclecticism and the History of Philosophy," 83102.

Donald R. Kelley

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A term deriving from the Greek κλέγειν, which means to pick out, to single out, or to choose. When eclectic is applied to a philosopher, it designates one who selects various doctrines from different thinkers and weaves them into a loose sort of unity. Whereas the classical schools and systems of philosophy are marked by rigorous adherence to the deductions and conclusions that follow from their fundamental positions, an eclectic philosophy is characterized by its acceptance of principles and attitudes that, in the parent philosophies, are either mutually exclusive or at least antagonistic. An eclectic philosophy is thus an attempt to find a workable combination of previously conflicting attitudes by regarding their principles in a less rigid and more conciliatory manner.

History. In Western thought eclecticism made its appearance as a result of the skepticism of Carneades (214?129 b.c.), founder of the New Academy. It influenced such Stoics as Panaetius of Rhodes (2d century b.c.) and Posidonius of Apamea (1st century b.c.), the Platonists Philo of Larissa (d. c. 80 b.c.) and Antiochus of Ascalon (1st century b.c.), and Peripatetics such as Andronicus of Rhodes (1st century b.c.) and Aristocles of Messene (2d century a.d.).

Early Thought. Roman philosophy, except that of lucretius, was mostly eclectic in spirit. seneca, epic- tetus, and marcus aurelius were partly Platonic and partly Stoic in their philosophies, while the School of the Sextianswhich flourished for a while at Rome during the beginning of the Christian Eracombined aspects of Pythagoreanism, Cynicism, and Stoicism. Cicero (10643 b.c.), the most influential of the eclectics of antiquity, had syncretized elements of Carneadean epistemology, Platonic theology, and Stoic ethics.

Because plotinus absorbed so much of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism into his own system, usually called neoplatonism, he has been regarded by some as an eclectic; those who know his Enneads, however, see there a synthesis that is decidedly different from any of its sources. One might designate several of his disciples as eclectic in that they interpreted his doctrine in such a way as to bring it more in line with Pythagoreanism, as did Iamblichus (4th century a.d.); or with Platonism, as did Proclus (a.d. 410?485); or with Aristotelianism, as did Simplicius (6th century a.d.). Another disciple, Plutarch of Athens (d. a.d. 431), might be called eclectic in that he desired his fellow Neoplatonists to be more concerned with the agreement between Plato and Aristotle than with their differences.

Historians in the past usually described Giovanni pico della mirandola as an eclectic because of his intense interest in, and apparent agreement with, the opinions of all thinkers of all eras. More recent studies, especially by Ernst Cassirer, suggest that Pico could well subscribe to seemingly incompatible doctrines because he viewed all human truths as imperfect images and symbols of the Perfect Truth that is God, as variable approximations to the absolute limit that is the Eternal Divine Truth.

Modern Philosophy. The eclectic attitude manifests itself in the thought of G. W. leibniz, with its constant attempts to reconcile divergent and conflicting viewpoints. Leibniz hoped to bridge the philosophical differences between the rationalists and the empiricists by his monadology and by his doctrine of preestablished harmony. In the domain of religion he also made efforts to mitigate dissensions among various Protestant sects and between Protestants and Catholics. This spirit of syncretism sometimes led him to neglect distinctions between mind and matter, faith and reason, determination and freedom, and grace and nature. The eclectic attitude is seen in other German thinkers of the 18th-century Enlightenment, for example in C. Thomasius, Moses Mendelssohn (172986), and Christian Garve (174298); this is especially true of C. wolff. Following the rationalist tradition of R. Descartes and B. Spinoza, Wolff agreed that philosophy should employ the mathematical method; at the same time, however, he had the empiricist's regard for factual knowledge, insisting that the facts of experience agree wiith the conclusions of reason. Like Spinoza, he viewed the world as a closely concatenated order of efficient causes, although he was also profoundly influenced by the teleological explanations of Leibniz. In explaining the position of Leibniz, he so modified its basic points that he failed to recognize fundamental inconsistencies.

Eclecticism marked the thought not only of followers of Wolff, such as Martin Knutzen (171351) the famous mathematician, Alexander Baumgarten (171462) the theorist in aesthetics, and Johann Lambert (172877) the psychologist, but also that of Wolff's opponents, such as Andreas Rüdiger (16731731) and Christian Crusius (171575).

But the best-known of the more modern eclectics is Victor cousin, who not only was convinced that the French Revolution made necessary new formulations in political life but also demanded a reconstruction in philosophical thought. This reconstruction, he was determined, should be founded upon the method of complete and total observation of consciousness and all its elements. In this way the new philosophy would avoid the imperfections of J. locke, T. reid, and I. kant, each of whom, in Cousin's judgment, had made only an imperfect analysis of consciousness. Because he was convinced that his method would discover all truths, some of which had been uncovered previously by past philosophies, Cousin called his philosophy eclecticism. Theodore Jouffroy (17961842), Étienne Vacherot (180997), Paul Janet (182399), and Jules Simon (181496), his disciples, carried on his work.

Because of the many changes in his philosophical outlook, often brought about by his readings in past and contemporary philosophers, F. W. J. von schelling is judged by some to have been an eclectic; one can nonetheless maintain that he remained an idealist throughout his long and prolific career as a professor of philosophy.

Recent Thought. Much of existentialism could be called eclectic in that it contains elements of Cartesian subjectivism, Kantian moralism, Nietzschean voluntarism, Husserlian phenomenology, and positivistic nominalism. These are held together in different ways by the various existentialists, most of whom deny any validity to systematic thought.

Critique. The history of philosophy shows that the origins of eclecticism are far from uniform. It has arisen, as in the case of the Romans, after a period of skeptical thought has made some men wary of fixed and consistent positions. It has also made its appearance when the human spirit became weary with continuing conflicts among schools of philosophy and was only too ready for a conciliatory approach. This was the case with some of the minor eclectics during the German Enlightenment. In other philosophers it has been engendered by the conviction that each philosophical system contains some truths that can be discovered or recovered by the sympathetic researcher. Leibniz and Cousin could be cited as examples of this attitude. Then, too, eclecticism can be very congenial to a thinker who is sufficiently shallow and superficial to feel at ease with principles that are mutually contradictory. Schelling has been so regarded by some.

As a philosophy, eclecticism makes no appeal to a truly creative spirit, for it lacks the unity and cohesiveness that such a mind demands. For the historian of philosophy it makes an unsatisfactory term of reference since it says nothing positive about the philosopher whom it is attempting to describe; for this reason there is a growing tendency to avoid its use.

Bibliography: f. barone, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 1:179496. h. kuhn, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 3:78788. k. goldammer and g. patzig, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:40809. f. ueerweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. k. praechter et al., 5 v. (11th, 12th ed. Berlin 192328) 1:34, 410, 486, 565. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 1:316. p. foulquiÉ and r. saint-jean, Dictionnaire de la langue philsophique (Paris 1962) 19596.

[v. m. martin]

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1. Design drawing freely on forms, motifs, and details selected from historical styles and different periods.

2. The practice of selecting from a wide range of sources what elements, styles, motifs, details, etc., that may appear to be sound, acceptable, functional, and beautiful, in order to create an architectural effect.


Porphyrios (1982)

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eclecticism. Term frequently used to describe a composer's conscious use of styles alien to his nature, or from a bygone era. Also used pejoratively when applied to mus. in which the composer, thought to be lacking originality, has freely drawn on other models.