Life Philosophies

views updated

LIFE PHILOSOPHIES

Historians of contemporary philosophy (I. M. Bocheński, J. Hirschberger) use the term "life philosophies" to designate the teaching of a group of German and French philosophers and historians including: W. Dilthey, G. Simmel, R. Eucken, E. Troeltsch, K. Klages,H. Bergson, and E. Le Roy. The German writers do not constitute a school. Most of them were neo-kantians at the start, but they were trained in a wide variety of disciplines: history, sociology, mathematics, psychology, and, in the case of Oswald Spengler, in journalism.

The common bond among these thinkers is the notion that the abstract use of the intellect gives rise to technical and formal conceptual structures that are artificial, and that these structures are, too often, assigned greater importance than the deeper source of life in man that generates them. If we are to understand man, they say, we must turn away from conceptualization and seek to coincide with the fresh, unspoiled upsurge of life before it becomes atrophied in a rigid network of scientific formulas, eternal truths, or metaphysical absolutes. Life is infinitely richer than the conceptual instruments that we invent to interpret it.

Dilthey. Wilhelm dilthey (18331911) held that the study of the history of culture (morality, art, science, poetry, religion) provides the best approach to the life principle. A reflective study of the past reveals life on the move in its concrete manifestations. Through history man becomes conscious of himself, for he is both subject and object of the study. Such study reveals that there are no absolute scientific laws governing man's progress through time. Each event or decision is unique; each epoch has its own character. The role of the historian or the philosopher of history is to examine the momentary structure of life as it is manifested at a given point of time. This moment can never be repeated, because every event or world view emerges out of a particular context with indefinite ramifications in time and space. Postivists and metaphysicians alike want to "explain" history in terms of scientific or eternalistic ideologies. But this is to interpret life by an offprint of life, by something that is derivative. Life is self-justifying; it does not need "explanation" but "understanding," that is, an immediate insight into what is happening. To acquire an understanding of this kind we must grasp the total situation, using all our human power of sympathy, not just the abstractive faculty that always tries to reduce the particular situation to a universal law or category.

Dilthey's sense of the uniqueness of events did not prevent him from recognizing that life, as manifested in history, is expressed in various moods: the rationalistic, which gives rise to positivist naturalism; the emotional, which tends towards objective idealism; the voluntaristic, which finds expression in idealistic freedom. But these attitudes with their structures well up from below, from life itself; they are not constructs to be imposed from above upon the ongoing flux of history.

Dilthey's insistence on context was one of his great contributions to the study of history; but his historicism, which includes a rejection of rational explanations, led him into a relativistic position, making any account of the past a maze of particular events with little connection between them.

Spengler, Toynbee, and Simmel. Oswald Spengler (18801936) shared Dilthey's skepticism regarding the permanence of values and human institutions. In his pessimistic but brilliantly written The Decline of the West (Monaco 191822, 2 v.), he distinguishes eight different types of civilization produced by the life principle. Each culture cycle flourishes and then loses its vitality. The technological civilization of the West, and with its democracy and Christian humanism, is already on the way to destruction. The tide of life that lifted it to preeminence has begun to ebb, leaving only a tragic sense of helplessness. History is governed, not by institutions and concepts, but by deeper organic energies that have little regard for the niceties of justice.

Spengler's morose biologism was, no doubt, colored by the disillusionment of an author who wrote after the German defeat in World War I and by a cynical attitude towards conventional morality. But the English historian Arnold Toynbee (b. 1889) in his A Study of History (London 193454, 10 v.), while covering some of the same ground as Spengler, worked in a far more scholarly manner. In his analysis of the dynamics of history, while dealing with culture cycles, he is less deterministic and leaves ample room for man's voluntary control over his own future.

Georg Simmel (18581918), like Dilthey, was impressed by the uniqueness of each historical situation. Every past event is compounded by an unlimited number of infinitesimal forces that we can never know or catalogue in their entirety. The Battle of Marathon, for example, is at best only a tag used to designate a certain unity of vital forces. All such events are fictions, wrenched out of the complex flux of life. If we cannot hope to recover the total situation, even by the most exhaustive analysis of the contributing factors, we can at least resolve events into a set of relations between individuals and societies and in this way discover the "form" of the situation. History, then, is not merely a headlong torrent of evanescent influences; it can be grasped partially in terms of these dynamic structures that express the deeper life principle. In spite of his willingness to concede that there is some immanent logic in history, Simmel's view remains a kind of nominalistic relativism.

Troeltsch, Eucken, and Driesch. Ernst troeltsch (18651923), on the other hand, found in his sociological study of history that the life-force receives its highest expression in religion and in the values that it releases. This objective world of religious values corresponds to a deep a priori within us that finds its fulfillment in the divine.

Rudolf Eucken (18461926) also recognized an intelligible world of religious values. These values, implicit in the life principle, we project before us as teleological ends for action; and they constitute the one world view that can offer some hope of unifying human striving.

Hans Driesch (18671941) was a noted psychologist whose vitalism was influential in turning many German philosophers away from positivism and physical determinism. He attacked scientism and its attempt to explain life in terms of chemical and mechanical complexity. There is in every living organism an entelechy, or vital principle, that controls its growth and accounts for its unity. If it is not yet spiritual, it cannot be reduced to the sum of the material parts that it rules.

Klages' Philosophy. Many regard Ludwig klages (18721956) as a new nietzsche. His principal work, Spirit, the Adversary of the Soul (Leipzig 192932, 3 v.), suggests by its very title his cult of the irrational. But he passes over Nietzsche's value theory and stresses the orgiastic, Dionysian outlook of The Birth of Tragedy (Leipzig 1872). For Klages, soul is opposed to mind or spirit (Geist ). The latter is an invention of the Greeks, canonized by Christianity with its postulate of a higher world of spirit. Life is a purely biological force that surges up in the organism. Man must remain passive to its promptings, obedient to its rhythms. Spiritual values curb the innocence and purity of this naked life principle; they are like barbed wire fences that hold vital energies in prison, Man is most true to life when carried along by blood, instinct, sensibility, feeling, and the surge of life. He becomes weak and pale, self-conscious and duty-bound when he lets the conventions of society curtail the unconscious drives of the biological instinct.

Therefore, it is not logic, reason, or calculation that will rule the world, but passion. The constructions of reason are alien to life; technology, economics, and speculation divorce man from his biological roots. We must live by the compulsive image, which engenders a sense of power. The "moral" man is a city divided; he is constantly trying to subject his vital and instinctive self to a world of spiritual values that he represents as an absolute order. But children and savages have no such inhibitions because they do not reason but feel. Theirs is the authentic life because it is experienced passively as something that "happens" to them, not as something they try to control or subdue.

There are similarities between Klages' views and the Nazi glorification of blood and power: the conquering barbarian lives according to nature, emancipated from artificial moral conventions. He is the avant-garde of an expansive life-force that must overthrow the superstructure of Christianity and democracy in order to release man from the spiritual framework that crushes joy and the zest for life.

French Thinkers. In France the life philosophies assumed an entirely different character (see bergson, henri; le roy, Édouard; blondel, maurice). Far from being a political danger or hostile to religion, they were almost uniformly rooted in a profound sense of the mystery of life, which never excluded but was completed by transcendence. It is true that they too made a sharp distinction between life and the abstract use of the intellect in its discursive operation. But this distinction has behind it a long tradition, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, up through St. augustine with his ratio superior and ratio inferior, and on to the intellectus and ratio of St. thomas aquinas. The French remained more solidly in the intellectual current of the past, recognizing the value of conceptualization with its constructions, but warning against the kind of dogmatic scientism that tended to overlook connatural knowledge, or lived rationality, in order to substitute for it notional symbols that owed their validity and usefulness to a more direct and immediate insight into life.

The French life philosophies have nothing of the Faustian demonism in their make-up. They did not constitute an attack on rationality, but on rationalism. During the modernist crisis, some Catholics feared that the French philosophers were moving in the direction of the German twilight of intellect with a corresponding emphasis on emotion and feeling (see modernism). But antiintellectualism and irrationalism are not congenial to the Gallic temperament. It was existentialism that made its appearance at the very end of the revolt against systematic philosophy, and it bears but slight resemblance to the earlier life philosophies. On the contrary, while existentialism rejects ready-made conceptual systems and all forms of essentialism, it calls on man to structure his own experience and to develop a system of values, whether Christian or agnostic, that engages the will in an almost heroic effort of creativity. Such activism is a far cry from the German emphasis on passivity to impulse such as we find in Klages.

See Also: history, philosophy of.

Bibliography: For brief summaries of life philosophies, see i. m. bocheŃski, Contemporary European Philosophy tr. d. nicholl and k. aschenbrenner (2d ed. rev. Berkeley 1956) 121128. j. hirschberger, The History of Philosophy, tr. a. n. fuerst, 2 v. (Milwaukee 195859) 2:565575. Among the English translations of the works of the Germans, one may consult: w. dilthey, Meaning in History, ed. h. p. rickman (London 1961); Philosophy of Existence, tr. w. kluback and m. weinbaum (New York 1957). h. a. hodges, The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey (London 1952). r. c. eucken, Life's Basis and Life's Ideal, tr. a. g. widgery (2d ed. London 1912); Main Currents of Modern Thought, tr. m. booth (London 1912). e. troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, tr. o. wyon, 2 v. (New York 1931).

[j. m. somerville]

About this article

Life Philosophies

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article