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By Eucken, Rudolf
Translated by Lucy Judge Gibson and W.R. Boyce Gibson
London: A&B Black, Ltd, 1916

Published originally in German in 1908
155 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2013

The book is about the struggle for a spiritual existence without which the author claims one can’t have a life with real meaning and value. Rudolf Eucken uses key terms without much of a clear definition. I will try to expand on his view. He does make clear that the spiritual life one must seek exists objectively and independent of any one human and is significantly rooted in the history of the human species. I.e., we are rooted in human history.

In their brief introduction the translators tell us:

“Eucken’s philosophy of life, being at root a philosophy of experience, is also a philosophy of reality. It is as truly a Weltanschauung (world view) as well as a Lebensschauung (view of life), though the former is determined by the latter and not vice versa.

What Eucken presents in this work seemed to me much more than what the translators’ indicated and further, the bulk of the book aggravated me a great deal. At least ¾ the book is an attack on what both Christian religion and western philosophy have been up to now. I kept waiting for him to finish his negative critique, a modestly easy task, and to get to his “contribution” which I kept expecting. Toward the end of the book I was rather frustrated and wondering why in the world this man was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. I was seeing no notable contribution.

However, that all changed in the last 50 to 60 pages, and I have come away from the book convinced that Eucken has much of enormous value to tell us and I wish I had known of his work in the days when I was teaching philosophy, but I had never heard of him until recently.

I have decided to present my notes below in the order I took them while reading the book. I think they should give an accurate picture of how his argument develops and also some of the frustration I had along the way with where he WASN’T going – toward a positive solution to the problems he poses. But in the end, for me, he really delivered and my building criticisms and upsetness disappeared. I think this book would be a marvelous contribution to western philosophy as it exists today and perhaps even specially in our age of the internet and the ease of global communication.

The path of my reading and responses along the way follows.

Rudolf Eucken recognizes that in all history no fundamental agreement has been reached on the “true” meaning of life and reasonable people strongly disagree. He believes a central problem is to unite a notion of truth with the fact of happiness, something he thinks humans have never done. The problem as he sees it is a conflict between the old and the new. The old view is rooted in religion and idealism and “. . . proclaims the authority of the invisible world.” The newer view “. . . seeks to explain life without drawing in any way upon the resources of another world.”

Ironically this conflict seeks almost the paradigm case of our world of 2013. The problem is as central to our time as his. The religious world relies primarily on faith and focusses on the individual’s struggle toward God. The world opposed to religion he calls Immanent Idealism. The human has this inner capability of reason which can understand and reveal to humans the fundamental, but hidden, structure and meaning of the world, and work toward its ideal fulfillment. The human species, on this view, must create the world of future possibility. It is a project of knowledge, discipline and universal, not individual, struggle.

“It is a life which can only be won through contempt of ease and enthusiasm for work. The supreme condition of insight is to be spiritually fruitful, notably in the spheres of science and art.”

Goethe’s life’s work is an important example for Eucken as is ancient Greece.

But there is a problem:

“And yet as regards its claim to be the sole guide and interpreter of life, Immanent Idealism fares no better than religion.”

The main blocks are:

  1. More stress “. . . has been laid on the blind inevitableness of the universe.”
  2. The irrationality of humans.
  3. The indifference of humans to really lofty aims.
  4. The limitation of the human faculty.

Both religion and Immanent Idealism seem to fail.

“Both seem to show that the effort to reach a new world only leads us astray . . .” and lead to a pessimistic doubt:

“Could it be possible that nature should have endowed man with hopes and wishes which he is bound to cherish but which no amount of effort can enable him to realize?”

Modern Realism, a contemporary response to both religion and Immanent Idealism, is satisfied with the successes and triumphs of the moment, turning away from inner life to external life. The modern world has seen a new relationship to work. Work has been connected to progress rather than merely survival. Humans begin to wonder if they cannot find fulfillment via work “. . . steadily avoiding religious and metaphysical complications.”

Human inner life is increasingly left void by work, especially for the masses. Development is often accompanied by a personal sense of loss.

“Thus, in the conflict between work and soul, life is torn asunder, and we find ourselves in a position which we cannot possibly regard as final.”

Eucken then attacks these naturalistic and intellectualistic solutions to life-problems.

“There has been a continually growing tendency to identify science with nature.”

. . .

“That which above all else gives to modern movements their power and passion is the fact that they embody a struggle for the realization of principles. Even the effort to raise the level of material prosperity gathers its main force and influence from the ideas and principles which inspire it. Our whole sense-life is sustained and controlled by the realm of ideas.”

There is a conflict of two fundamental realities:

“. . . the immediacy of sensation on the one hand and on the other, the immediacy of thought . . . and the pendulum swings from one side to the other.”

The Inadequacy of Mere Humanism

Another path on this road of discovery is Humanism. Here the strategy is to focus all activity on furthering the interests of the human community rather exclusively. But this too is limited.

Does one focus on the individual or the community and why one or the other? The world of his day and our own is: the individual’s good versus the communal good. Each focus assumes that if only it held sway all would be fine. Neither pole, as a dominant aim, arrives at a satisfactory end.

The home for humans is in neither radical individualism nor socialism. Other aims are needed.

The problem he arrives at here at the near midpoint of the book is where to go next. The old religious or Idealistic views have been shown to fail and then he has attacked any hope in either Socialism or Individualism as too limited to humans alone. Where are we then? Despite the great problems facing humans he sees hope.

“No unprejudiced observer of our present situation can fail to be impressed with the fact that behind all the struggles and confusions there is a fuller, richer life seeking to realize itself in them, filling them with power and passion, and then, it must be confessed, coming back from them unsatisfied.”

At attempt at Reconstruction – (his main thesis)

What sounds like a critical argument seems utterly gratuitous:

“If it is to be independent of man, it cannot be part of his specifically human equipment. On the contrary, he must find in it the medium through which he may win participation in a universal life; it must introduce a new stage of reality in contradistinction from that of nature, a reality which, it is true, only becomes manifest to us in man, but which does not originate with him, and is therefore not subject to his limitations. In other words, the spiritual life in man comes to nothing at all, and all our concern for it is only a catching at phantoms, unless it has behind it a spiritual world from which it draws its power and its credentials.”

. . .

“. . . The assertion just advanced is obviously axiomatic in character: it cannot be proved in the same way as a proposition which forms a mere link in a chain of thought.”

He gets there by a negative proof. Two positives don’t work, thus:

There are three needs:

  1. A need of a firm basis, a spiritual base.
  2. A need of release from sordid motives.
  3. Life must be great and magnanimous.

The growth of freedom and initiative requires a choice and commitment. Man needs an independent spiritual life.

His notion is coming to pass as this process toward unity seems quite similar to modern science seeing an objective (but always tentative) growth of a higher and truer knowledge. It’s also reminiscent of many thinkers out of the Hegelian tradition even such as the atheistic Karl Marx or the Roman Catholic Teilhard de Chardin.

In general at this point of his “solution” I am very disappointed in his lack of concrete and clear examples. It is all much too abstract.

He finds the question for the Spiritual Life is problematic:

“Men have discovered that that which they cherish as the supreme good, the Power which extracts from their deepest devotion the fullest measure of labour and self-sacrifice, seems utterly powerless to direct the movement of the world; and it is this simple perception which from time immemorial has excited their concern and dismay, and driven them not infrequently to despair.”

This seems to say the Ultimate Power may simply not be the “good.” What we experience, at our best, is a very partial reality.

“If this whole earth-conditioned existence of ours is but a fragment of a vaster Order, it would be foolish to expect that it should clear up its own puzzles, and there remains the possibility that much which appears meaningless to us will be understood when seen in the light of a larger context.”

He contrasts what he calls the Greek and Christian approaches to the ultimate goal. Greeks, he argues, celebrated knowledge, as we know it, and knowledge of life and world was the highest good. Christians, on his view, saw an unknowable power beyond humans, and humans had to simply acquiesce to this power.

Must one, on this view, embrace hindrances and suffering as useful? Not at all, in fact he sees that view as a grievous error. They may do so since by dealing with them we may move to higher knowledge (the real goal), but they may not too. Plagues, for example, on his view, would be morally neutral.


Theme then is: “. . . the question as to life’s meaning and value . . .”

“A spiritual content, as we have seen, cannot originate in the human subject nor in the world that lies over against it, nor yet in any interaction of these two factors. It demands that world and subject shall both be enveloped within an inclusive life. Only in so far as this larger life is active in our experience, realizing itself therein, and finding in it the medium of its own development, can life win for itself a substantial content, of a cosmic life that develops from within outwards.”

This involves:

“. . . the gradual upbuilding of a coherent spiritual world. . .” (Individually and culturally/historically).

He cites a claim of Luther as a model of his view:

“There is no finished achievement; all is in the making. We do not see the end, but only the road. The full splendor is not yet, but the refining work goes on.”
He sees an application to modern life for “today” (his 1908 today).
  1. It should increase our discontent with life and mediocrity.
  2. It should help us with confusions of our social life.
  3. It should give a theory to rally forces.
“We must (in the sense of have no choice) take things as they are. In this sense, the age into which we are born is our fate. As things are at present (1908) – spiritual chaos around and no sure spiritual basis – it becomes eminently necessary for the Spiritual Life to withdraw into itself.”

Ironically I would argue, and I think Eucken would agree, that in our time (2013) with the magic tools and spirit of global communication, the modern perspective would be to participate in the contemporary dialogue from within his perspective.

Eucken’s book is extremely abstract, excessively worried about a critique of his own time, but nonetheless an exciting and strong intellectual challenge to the history of western philosophy, science, the arts and religion. It was exasperating at times, but well worth the struggle to follow him toward his optimistic conclusion of some hope. Perhaps “conclusion” is too strong and hopeful a term. Perhaps “path toward the future” would be more accurate.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett