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Rudolf Eucken (1846-1926)


German philosopher, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1908. Eucken was an idealist philosopher who saw that man has an inner spiritual life, which soars beyond everyday life and the physical world. In his work Eucken transformed idealism into a quest toward elevated spiritual level. Eucken's fame was short-lived and today Eucken's writings are more or less forgotten. Besides philosophical studies, he also published works in religion. Eucken's award was in tune with the partly incomplete will of Alfred Nobel, in which he had intended the literary award to recognize "excellence in works of an idealistic tendency".

"Naturalism cannot give to literature an inner independence or allow it an initiative of its own; for if literature is only a hand of life on the dial of time, it can only imitate and register events as they happen. By means of impressive descriptions it may help the time to understand its own desires better; but since creative power is denied to it, it cannot contribute to the inner liberation and elevation of man." (from Eucken's Nobel lecture, 1909)

Rudolf Christoph Eucken was born in Aurich, in the province of East Friesland. His childhood was shadowed his poor health and the death of his father, Ammo Becker Eucken, who worked in the postal service. Also Eucken's only sibling, his younger brother, died. Eucken's mother, the former Ida Maria Gittermann, was a deeply religious woman. Her father was a liberal-minded clergyman. To support the family, she took lodgers, and was able to provide her son a good education.

At the gymnasium in Aurich, Euchen became under the influence of the theologian and philosopher Wilhelm Reuter, a pupil of the philosopher K. Ch. F. Krause, who argued that "against the hurry and loud show of the daily round, a philosophy of history should uphold the calm strength of the eternal. A spirit of rest would then settle upon the life of humanity and inwardly pervade it." This thought became one of the guiding principles of Eucken's own philosophy.

Eucken studied philosophy, philology, and history at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin, where he was attracted to the ideas of F.A. Trendelenburg, especially his ethical concerns and historical treatment of philosophy. Hermann Lotze's philosophical classes and rationalist teachings left Eucken dissatisfied. Gustav Teichmüller, Lotze's colleague, introduced him to the study of Aristotle. While in Berlin he absorbed Adolf Trendelenburg's idealism and his views about interconnections between philosophy, history, and religion. Eucken took his doctor's degree at Göttingen in classical philology and ancient history. His dissertation dealt with the language of Aristotle.

After graduation Eucken worked as a high school teacher for five years. He published two pamphlets on Aristotle and in 1872 appeared Die Methode der aristotelischen Forschung, dealing with Aristotelian logic. In 1871 Eucken was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Basle. From 1874 on Eucken held the chair of philosophy at Jena, succeeding Kuno Fischer. Academic philosophers viewed with suspicion Eucken's ponderous style, his careless use of philosophical terms, and the lack of clear definitions. In 1882, Eucken married Irene Passow; they had a daughter and two sons. He remained in Jena until his retirement in 1920.

Eucken's own system of philosophical thought, which he called ethical activism, was rejected by the British philosopher Bernard Bosanquet, who defended the Older Idealism against personalist heresies. "There is in Eucken's immense literary output," he wrote in the Quaterly Review in 1914, "no really precise and serious contribution to philosophical science. Free cognition has been submerged by moralist rhetoric." Though philosophy was for Eucken a question of the whole of life, he welcomed the achievements of modern science. He contrasted naturalism's mechanic view of human nature with free spiritual activity. Like Nietzsche, he distrusted abstract intellectualism. He was not a system builder in the spirit of Hegel and his followers, or an empiricist, reducing human experience to sensations and impressions. Eucken emphasized actual human experience as it is "lived." This Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) was a part of currents which anticipated some central ideas of phenomenology.

After receiving the Nobel prize Eucken enjoyed a remarkable international popularity, and received invitations to lecture at several universities. Especially The Problem of Human Life as Viewed by the Great Thinkers (1890) was widely read in its time. In 1911 Eucken delivered a series of lectured in England and in 1912-13 he spent six months as an exchange professor at Harvard University in the United States, where he met among others Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt. He also spoke at Smith College, the Lowell Institute at Boston, and Columbia University.

During World War I Eucken wrote the pamphlet Wir "barbaren"; anekdoten und begebenheiten aus dem weltkriege (1915) and patriotically argued that Germany should not be blamed for the hostilities. "We were attacked on all sides and we had to protect out country," he said in 1916 to the American journalist S.S. McClure. "Why did Americans want to travel on a ship that was bringing ammunitions to kill our soldiers? Our Emperor always worked for peace." Eucken took McClure around the town and showed the houses where Goethe had stayed, the street where Humboldt had lived, and the cathedral in which Luther had preached. Eucken died on September 15, 1926, at Jena.

Eucken used to revise his major works, Grundbegriffe der Gegenwart (1878, rev. ed. Geistige Strömungen der Gegenwart in 1908), Die Lebensanschauungen der grosser Denker (1890, The Problem of Human Life as Viewed by the Great Thinkers), and others, and update them over a period of several decades. Some of his works ran into more than a dozen editions. Eucken developed his philosophy of history in an essay entitled 'Philosophie der Geschichte' (1907). The Main Currents of Modern Thought was an attempt to stimulate a new sense of spiritual life  defined as "a self-contained life, itself giving rise to reality, a life which our human activity is far from penetrating, but towards which it strives as a great goal." "Wir Menschen sind keineswegs von Haus aus Persönlichkeit, sondern tragen in uns in die Anlage dazu, ob sie Wirklichkeit wird, darüber entscheidet unsere eigene Lebensarbeit."

In Socialism: an Analysis (1921) Eucken attacked Socialism for its naturalistic view of human beings and their place in the world. Philosophically Socialism was far from Eucken's emphasis on "the great goal" behind everyday life. Eucken saw that Socialism represented the political expression of naturalism which downplays spiritual values. In its narrower circles the Socialist movement recognises no freedom, truth, or goodwill outside of itself. While individual is conditioned by physical processes, the soul is something that could not be explained only by reference to natural processes. He maintained that an individual is a mixture of nature and spirit and that one must work to overcome nonspiritual nature by actively striving after the spiritual life. This pursuit requires especially efforts of the will and intuition.

Eucken regarded Christianity as the truest type religion it was not the opium of the people, like Marx said, but answered the central question, What can Religion do for life? However, he did not consider the orthodox religion, which leaves the salvation of man entirely to God's mercy, the right vehicle in the search for meaning in one's own life. Jesus was not God but "merely an incomparable individuality which cannot be directly imitated". As members of the spiritual life, we are immortal. To achieve spiritual autonomy, one must adopt a higher form of religious faith. Eucken like Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) saw life as the historical totality of human experience.

For further reading: Rudolf Eucken's Philosophy of Life by W.R. Boyce Gibson (1907); Eucken and Bergson by E. Hermann (1912); An Interpretation of Rudolf Eucken's Philosophy by W. Tudor Jones (1912); Rudolf Eucken: His Life and Influence by Meyrick Booth (1913); Rudolph Eucken: His Life, Work and Travels - by Himself by R. Eucken (1922); Eucken und seine Philosophie by E. Becher (1927); Ein Nachruf auf Rudolf Eucken by M. Wundt (1927); Spekulativer und Phänomenologischer Personalismus. Einflüsse J. G. Fichtes und Rudolf Euckens auf Max Schelers Philosophie der Person by Reinhold J. Haskamp (1966); 'Rudolf Eucken' by G. Wilhelm, in Die Literatur-Nobelpreisträger (1983); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by Tyler Wasson (1987); Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers, ed. by Sturat Brown et al. (1996) 

Selected works:

  • De Aristotelis docendi ratione, 1866
  • Über den Gebrauch der Präposition bei Aristoteles, 1868
  • Über die Methode und die Grundlagen der Aristotelischen Ethik, 1870
  • Über die Bedeutung der Aristotelischen Philosophie für die Gegenwart, 1871
  • Die Methode der Aristotelischen Forschung in inrem Zusammenhang mit den philosophischen Grundprincipien des Aristoteles, 1872
  • Über der Werth der Geschichte der Philosophie, 1874
  • Geschichte und Kritik der Grundbegriffe der Gegenwart, 1878
    - The Fundamental Concepts of Modern Philosophic Thought (tr. M. Stuart Phelps, 1880)
  • Geschichte der philosophischen Terminologie, 1879
  • Über Bilder und Gleichnisse in der Philosophie  Eine Festschrift, 1880
  • Prolegomena zu Forschungen über die Einheit des Geisteslebens in Bewusstsein und Tat der Menschheit, 1885
  • Die Philosophie des Thomas von Aquino und die Kultur der Neuzeit, 1886
  • Die Einheit des Geistesleben in Bewusstsein und Tat der Menschheit, 1888
  • Die Lebensanschauungen der grosser Denker, 1890
    - The Problem of Human Life as Viewed by the Great Thinkers from Plato to the Present Time (tr. Williston S. Hough and W. R. Boyce Gibson, 1909; rev. & enl. ed., 1914)
    - Suurten ajattelijain elämänkatsomukset: ihmiskunnan elämän probleemin kehityshistoria Platonista nykyaikaan asti (suom. Kaarlo Forsman, 1905)
  • Der Kampf um einen geistigen Lebensinhalt, 1896 [The Struggle for a Spiritual Content of Life]
  • Der Wahrheitsgehalt der Religion, 1901
    - The Truth of Religion (translated by W. Tudor Jones, 1911)
  • Gesammelte Aufsätze zur philosophie und Lebensanschauung, 1903
  • Wissenschaft und Religion, 1905 (in Beiträge zur Weiterentwicklung der Christlichen Religion)
  • Grundlinien einer neuen Lebensanschauung, 1907
    - Life's Basis and Life's Ideal (2n ed., translated, with introductory note, by Alban G. Widgery, 1912)
  • Die Hauptprobleme der Religionsphilosophie der Gegenwart: Drei Vorlesungen, 1907
    - Christianity and the New Idealism (tr. Lucy Judge Gibson, 1909 )
  • 'Philosophie der Geschichte', 1907 (in the series Die Kultur der Gegenwart)
  • Einführung in eine philosophie des geisteslebens, 1908
    - The Life of the Spirit (2nd ed., tr.  F. L. Pogson, 1909)
  • Geistige Stromungen der Gegenwart, 1908
    - Main Currents of Modern Thought (tr. Meyrick Booth, 1912)
  • Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens, 1908
    - The Meaning and Value of Life (tr. Lucy Judge Gibson and W. R. Boyce Gibson, 1909)
    - Elämän tarkoitus ja arvo (suomentanut Lauri Hendell, 1910)
  • Religion and Life, 1911 (the Essex Hall lecture)
  • Können wir noch Christen sein?, 1911
    - Can We Still Be Christians? (tr. Lucy Judge Gibson, 1914)
  • Erkennen und Leben, 1912
    - Knowledge and Life (tr. W. Tudor Jones, 1913)
  • Back to Religion, 1912 (tr. anon.)
  • Zur Sammlung der geister, 1913
  • Present Day Ethics in their Relation to the Spiritual Life, 1913 (the Deem Lectures given at New York University in 1913; tr. Margaret Von Legdewitz)
  • Collected Essays of Rudolf Eucken, 1914 (edited and translated by Meyrick Booth)
  • Die sittlichen kräfte des krieges, 1914
  • Die Träger des deutschen Idealismus, 1915
  • Wir "barbaren"; anekdoten und begebenheiten aus dem weltkriege, 1915 (with Ernst freiherrn v. Wolzogen, ed. by Karl Quenzel)
  • Neutrale stimmen; Amerika--Holland--Norwegen--Schweden--Schweiz, 1916
  • Geistesprobleme und Lebensfragen, 1918 (ed. Otto Braun)
  • Mensch und Welt; eine Philosophie des Lebens, 1918
  • Der Sozialismus und seine Lebensgestaltung, 1921
    - Socialism: An Analysis (tr. Joseph McCabe, 1921)
  • Lebenserinnerungen; ein stück deutschen lebens, 1921
    - Rudolph Eucken: His Life, Work and Travels (tr. Joseph McCabe, 1922)
  • Der Kampf um die Religion in der Gegenwart, 1922
  • Das Lebensproblem in China und in Europa, 1922 (with Carsun Chang)
  • Prolegomena und Epilog zu einer Philosophie des Geisteslebens, 1922
  • The Spiritual Outlook of Europe Today, 1922 (tr. W.R.V. Brade)
  • The Individual and Society, 1923 (tr. W. R. V. Brade)

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