Alan Gewirth

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2372

Article abstract: Drawing his inspiration from Immanuel Kant, Gewirth attempted to provide a rational basis for a universal system of morality.

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Early Life

Alan Gewirth was born in Union City, New Jersey, on November 28, 1912, the son of Hyman and Rose Lees Gewirth. He attended Columbia University in New York, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After being awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts with honors in philosophy in 1934, Gewirth began his postgraduate work at Cornell University, where from 1936 to 1937 he was a Sage fellow in philosophy. In 1937, he left Cornell for the University of Chicago. There he was a research assistant and also taught, meanwhile continuing to work on his doctorate. During this period, Gewirth was also producing scholarly articles. In 1941, two of his essays appeared in scholarly journals, “Experience and the Non-Mathematical in the Cartesian Method” in the Journal of the History of Ideas, and “The Cartesian Circle” in the Philosophical Review. Gewirth’s continuing interest in the French philosopher René Descartes was also evident when a third article, entitled “Clearness and Distinctness in Descartes,” was published in Philosophy in 1943.

However, Gewirth’s academic career was interrupted when the United States entered World War II. In 1942, he became an officer in the United States Army. By the time he was discharged in 1946, he had risen to the rank of captain.

Gewirth lost no time in resuming his academic work. He returned to Columbia University as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow and completed the requirements for his doctorate in philosophy, receiving his doctorate in 1947. Gewirth’s outstanding work at Columbia was recognized the following year when he was presented with the prestigious Woodbridge Prize.

Meanwhile, Gewirth had returned to Chicago, which became his permanent home. In 1947, he became a member of the University of Chicago faculty and began rising through the ranks. Thereafter, he left the university for a significant length of time only when his duties as a visiting professor at another major institution made it necessary for him to do so.

Although Gewirth was still interested in epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, and especially in Descartes’s emphasis on the primacy of reason, he had also done extensive research on an important medieval Italian political theorist, Marsilius of Padua. In Defensor Pacis, published anonymously in 1324, Marsilius of Padua argued that the Church should have no authority over the state and suggested that the secular power should rest in the hands of the citizenry and their elected representatives. Marsilius and his ideas were the subject of Gewirth’s first published volume, Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy, which went through four editions in fifteen years, an impressive record for a first book by a scholar who was just beginning to establish his reputation. In 1956, Gewirth published a translation of Defensor Pacis, along with an introduction and appendices. This standard translation also went into several reprints.

Gewirth’s work on Marsilius of Padua marked the end of his apprenticeship, establishing him as both a painstaking scholar and a first-class analytical thinker. Gewirth now proceeded to make some important changes in his personal life. On March 18, 1956, he married Marcella Tilton, to whom his most famous work, Reason and Morality, would be dedicated. Their family would eventually consist of five children, James, Susan, Andrew Alan, Daniel Tilton, and Letitia Rose.

Life’s Work

Gewirth’s status as an authority on Marsilius of Padua and his work remained unchallenged over the decades that followed. He was the author of the entry on Marsilius of Padua in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) and of the essay on the Defensor Pacis in Scribner’s Dictionary of the Middle Ages (1984). In 1980, Gewirth lectured on Marsilius at the University of Padua in Italy. Gewirth’s research into Marsilius’s era was also the basis for his lengthy essay “Philosophy and Political Thought in the Fourteenth Century,” published in The Forward Movement of the Fourteenth Century (1961), edited by F. L. Utley. However, Gewirth also had two articles published in Journal of Philosophy that dealt with Descartes and his philosophy, Cartesianism, “The Cartesian Circle Reconsidered” (1970) and “Descartes: Two Disputed Questions” (1971).

Even though the two philosophers who so fascinated Gewirth were separated in time by three centuries, both of them believed that humans should rely on their own reason, rather than external authority, to guide them in choosing between courses of action. Marsilius rejected the idea that God spoke through popes and kings; he believed that the people had it in their power to ascertain the truth through the use of their own reason. Descartes, too, exalted reason, and though he was careful to exempt matters of faith from his system, in fact it left no room for Catholic dogma or for the Christian faith. Gewirth, too, thought that there should be some basis for the decisions human beings make, either as individuals or through their social and political institutions; but like Marsilius and Descartes, he had decided that reason was the only power on which humanity could depend.

The comprehensive nature of Gewirth’s investigations had already been indicated in 1949, when one essay in which he discussed politics and psychiatry, and another in which he considered “The Psychological Approach to Politics,” appeared in the journal Ethics. In 1954, Philosophy of Science published not only his article “Subjectivism and Objectivism in the Social Sciences” but also another one, in which Gewirth sought the answer to the more basic question, “Can Men Change Laws of Social Science?” From 1956 on, the titles of most of Gewirth’s publications contained words such as “ethics,” “morality,” “moral,” or “justice,” suggesting his concentration on ethical issues, whether they involved a single individual or the state. The application of ethics to institutions is the subject of his essay “Political Justice,” which was included in a collection he coauthored, Social Justice (1962). It is hardly surprising that he also produced an edited volume entitled Political Philosophy (1965).

However, in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, Gewirth was not merely analyzing the way ethics applied to human institutions; more basically, he was attempting to construct a system on which ethical decisions could be based. Thus an essay in a 1964 Philosophical Review was called “The Generalization Principle”; one in a 1967 Philosophical Quarterly, “Categorial Consistency in Ethics”; and still another, published in a 1971 Review of Metaphysics, “The Normative Structure of Action.” Included in the published Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association (1974) was Gewirth’s “The ‘Is-Ought’ Problem Resolved.” That same year, he wrote the entry on “Ethics” for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Gewirth’s stature in the academic community at this time is evident in his visiting professorships, at Harvard in 1957, at the University of Michigan in 1959-1960, at The Johns Hopkins University in 1966-1967, and at Indiana University in South Bend in 1972. He was also a Cooper Foundation lecturer at Swarthmore College in 1961, a Niebuhr lecturer at Elmhurst College in 1969, and a Lindley lecturer at the University of Kansas in 1972. His Lindley lecture, “Moral Rationality,” was published the same year as a book. In 1975, Gewirth delivered a Perspectives lecture at the University of Notre Dame and a Mellon Foundation lecture at Marquette University. Among Gewirth’s other honors during this period were his election to the presidency of the American Philosophical Association in 1973-1974 and his selection by the National Endowment for the Humanities as a senior fellow (1974-1975) and also as a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow (1975-1976). Gewirth’s own university recognized his achievements by naming him the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy, beginning in 1975.

By now, Gewirth was in his sixties. He had been a member of the University of Chicago faculty for almost thirty years, had published important works in several different areas, and had won more than his share of honors. However, he did not rest on his laurels. In 1978, he published the work for which he would be best known. In Reason and Morality, Gewirth presented what he believed was a valid, strictly rational foundation for ethics. For this publication, the University of Chicago Press awarded him the Gordon Laing Prize in 1980. In 1982, a related volume was published, Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Applications.

During the 1980’s, Gewirth spoke at various universities in the United States, including Wheaton College in Illinois, Westminster College, Wabash College, the University of California at Riverside, the University of Rochester, and St. Louis University. In 1981, he was the Hannah Arendt Memorial lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His lectures outside the United States, in addition to that presented at Padua in 1980, included the Bar-Hillel lecture at Tel Aviv University in Israel in 1987; an appearance at the World Congress of Philosophy in Brighton, England, in 1988; the Fabri lecture at the University of Tübingen, the Federal Republic of Germany, in 1989; and still another lecture that same year at the Twelfth Interamerican Congress of Philosophy in Buenos Aires.

In 1996, the University of Chicago Press published the long-awaited sequel to Reason and Morality. In The Community of Rights, Gewirth applies the abstract moral principles outlined in the earlier work to specific issues, balancing property rights against individual rights, for example, and insisting that government should be supportive, rather than oppressive, enabling citizens to acquire an education and to find employment, even assuring them a minimum income. This work was followed in 1998 by Self-Fulfillment, in which Gewirth used the principles outlined in Reason and Morality to examine various forms of self-fulfillment and their effects both on individuals and on society.

It has been pointed out that the second half of the twentieth century was characterized by increasing skepticism. Rejecting the idea of a supernatural power to guide and sustain them, more and more people found themselves adrift, lacking any basis on which they could make everyday decisions or formulate social, political, and economic policies. This pervasive skepticism led philosophers and literary critics alike to spend their time analyzing language rather than dealing with moral issues, ignoring the outcries against widespread offenses against human rights, denials of legal and social justice, and violations of the natural environment. Becoming convinced that what his era needed, above all else, was a solid moral system, Gewirth set about to construct one. Influenced by Marsilius, Descartes, and, most important, by the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, Gewirth based the system he constructed on a profound faith in reason. However, while Kant’s “categorical imperative” placed the emphasis on duties, Gewirth chose to think of fundamental principles in terms of “rights.”

Although Gewirth was not the first philosopher to suggest a new look at Kant’s theories or to argue for a “practical reason” approach to ethics, he has been one of the most influential. Reason and Morality is cited in every essay on the “neo-Kantians” or on practical reasoning, and both it and Gewirth’s later works are often mentioned in discussions of such concrete issues as property rights, civil liberties, capitalistic structures, and taxation. It seems obvious that Gewirth’s influence, both as a neo-Kantian theorist, who defended the worth of reason in a skeptical age, and as a citizen, who believed that social, economic, and moral issues could be sensibly approached through the practical application of his system, will not soon decline, but will continue to be felt for years to come.

Additional Reading

Allen, Paul. Proof of Moral Obligation in Twentieth-Century Philosophy. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. A monograph exploring the question of whether moral obligation itself can be proven. After analyzing several writers’ attempts to demonstrate such a principle, Allen utilizes Gewirth’s ideas in developing what he believes is irrefutable proof of moral obligation. An interesting publication, not least as a revelation of Gewirth’s importance as an influence on later writers.

Beyleveld, Deryck. The Dialectical Necessity of Morality: An Analysis and Defense of Alan Gewirth’s Argument to the Principle of Generic Consistency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. A formal analysis of the argument Gewirth presented in Reason and Morality is followed by the systematic refutation of every objection that has been raised. Most students will find the detailed discussion, with its sixty-six divisions, somewhat daunting. Gewirth’s foreword is useful, as are Beyleveld’s summary and his brief identification of “key issues.” Copious notes and a good bibliography. Indexed both by author and by subject.

Bond, E. J., and Alan Gewirth. “Symposium on Reason and Morality.” Metaphilosophy 11 (January, 1980): 36-53. In “Gewirth on Reason and Morality,” Bond briefly summarizes and questions Gewirth’s point of view. In the extensive “Comments on Bond’s Article” that follow, Gewirth accuses Bond of failing to understand his arguments. In his “Reply to Gewirth,” Bond again points out what he believes are flaws in Gewirth’s reasoning. The final article in this revealing “symposium” is contained in the next issue of the journal, in Gewirth’s “Reason and Morality: Rejoinder to E. J. Bond,” Metaphilosophy 11 (April, 1980): 138-142.

Brandt, Richard B., ed. Social Justice. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Consists of five essays on what the editor argues is a neglected subject, the issue of what is “just” and what is “unjust.” All are based on Cooper Foundation lectures delivered at Swarthmore College in spring, 1961. Includes Alan Gewirth’s “Political Justice.” Though identified in the preface as a student of “historic political philosophers,” presumably because of his research on Marsilius, Gewirth does not base his essay on history but proposes a system based on abstract principles, as he was later to do in Reason and Morality.

Boylan, Michael, ed. Gewirth: Critical Essays on Action, Rationality, and Community. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. An important collection of essays that address Gewirth’s political and ethical philosophies.

Regis, Edward, ed. Gewirth’s Ethical Rationalism: Critical Essays with a Reply by Alan Gewirth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Contains an incisive introduction by the editor, twelve essays, and Gewirth’s lengthy response, in which each section is preceded by the name or names of the authors to whom he is responding. Includes a list of Gewirth’s writings through 1984 and a useful index. The essays are not easy reading; however, because they represent all of the major responses to Gewirth’s ethical system and also include his response, the volume is considered essential for any student of Gewirth and his thought.

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