Rudolf Christoph Eucken Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111200541-Eucken.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Eucken characterized the malaise of his age as spiritual confusion. His philosophy attempted to bring people out of this state of depression by stressing activism and spirituality as a renovating force. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1908.

Early Life

Rudolf Christoph Eucken was born in Aurich, a town in western Hannover, on January 5, 1846. Because his father died when Rudolf was very young, he was reared primarily by his mother. One of the earliest influences on Eucken’s life was an orthodox Lutheran schoolteacher named Wilhelm Reuter, who had himself been a student of a prestigious philosopher named Karl Christian Friedrich Krause. Reuter instilled in Eucken an experimental interest in religious problems.

As a university student, Eucken studied at Göttingen under the German thinker Rudolf Hermann Lotze. While at Göttingen, Eucken was influenced more by the books he read, possibly because of Lotze’s frigidity of mind. When Eucken transferred to the University of Berlin, he was greatly impressed by Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg, whose ethical tendencies and historical treatment of philosophy attracted him. His belief in purpose and finality—what philosophers call the “teleological” view—was probably a decisive influence on the development of the future Nobel Prize laureate. Trendelenburg also introduced Eucken to the study Aristotle.

Life’s Work

After leaving the University, Eucken taught in various secondary schools in Germany. In 1871, he was appointed full professor of philosophy at the University of Basel. His primary concern at first was with philology and the history of philosophy, especially Aristotle’s philosophy. One of his earliest works, De Aristotelis dicendi ratione, Pars Prima: Observations de particuliarum usa (1866), combined both fields in a study of Aristotle’s vocabulary. The three essays that followed this work—Die Methode und die Grundlagen der Aristotelischen Ethik (1870), Die Methode der Aristotelischen Forschung in ihrem Zusammenhang mit den philosophischen Grundprinzipien des Aristoteles (1872), and Über die Bedeutung der Aristotelischen Philosophie für die Gegenwart (1872)—were also Aristotelian studies. This latter work can also be viewed as a critical introduction to Eucken’s own philosophy.

In 1874, Eucken left the University of Basel to become professor of philosophy at the University of Jena, where he taught until his retirement in 1920. In 1878, one of Eucken’s central works appeared: Geschichte und Kritik der Grundbegriffe der Gegenwart (history and critique of the basic concepts of modern thought). This book was essentially a review of the main categories of modern thought: theory and practice; thought and experience; civilization and culture; and society and the individual. The third revision of this book marks a transition period in Eucken’s thinking. In this edition, Eucken tailored the concepts that he had formulated in the first edition to fit in with the “new idealism,” a concept that he had introduced in 1890, in what many believe to be his classical work: Die Lebensanschauungen der grossen Denker: Eine Entwicklungsgeschichte des Lebensprobleme der Menschheit von Plato bis zur Gegenwart (The Problem of Human Life as Viewed by the Great Thinkers from Plato to the Present Time, 1909). Going beyond the purely intellectual approach to philosophy which had been taken by previous philosophers, Eucken focused his attention on actual human experience. He maintained that since nature and spirit come together in man, it is man’s duty to overcome his nonspiritual nature by striving after the spiritual life. This ethical activism is especially dependent on man’s will and intuition. He went on to say that it is man’s duty to work toward a course of human betterment that recognizes the primacy of the spiritual element in his dual nature.

All of Eucken’s subsequent works were concerned with the spiritual life as an answer to the spiritual void of our age. The first of these was entitled Der Kampf um einen geistigen Lebensinhalt: Neue Grundlegung einer Weltanschauung (1896; the struggle for a spiritual content of life). In 1901, he published his most important work on religion: Der Wahrheitsgehalt der Religion (The Truth of Religion, 1911). This work, which gives the surest insight into Eucken’s characteristic interpretation of religion, was supplemented six years later by Hauptprobleme der Religionsphilosophie der Gegenwart (1907; main problems of contemporary philosophy of religion). In 1908, Eucken published Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens (The Meaning and Value of Life, 1909), which is a work that lies at the core of all of his writings because it addresses itself to the essential problems of philosophy: What are the meaning and value of life? In this book Eucken also contrasts those concepts that bear the stamp of a single moment in history with the creation of a new concept that possesses the eternal, timeless characteristics of life.

In 1908, Eucken returned to the same theme in Einführung in eine Philosophie des Geisteslebens (The Life and the Spirit: An Introduction to Philosophy, 1909). During that same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, although he was regarded by many persons as a weak selection. Erkennen und Leben (Knowledge and Life, 1913) appeared in 1912 and is a book that places life above knowledge and draws a distinction between two kinds of knowledge: the true knowledge (intuition) and the superficial knowledge (subjective knowledge of the world).

Eucken’s philosophy was profoundly influenced by World War I. As early as 1913, he tried to lay the foundations of a new German idealism, urging its acceptance by all who were searching for stability amid the confusion and strife of the day. During the war, Eucken signed the “Manifesto of German Intellectuals.” He showcased his ethnocentric approach to philosophy in a series of pamphlets beginning in 1914 with Die weltgeschichtliche Bedeutung des deutschen Geistes (the significance of the German spirit for world history), continuing in 1915 with Die Träger des deutschen Idealismus (the representatives of German idealism) and ending in 1919 with Die deutsche Freiheit. He also injected his nationalistic fervor into the preface to the second edition of Mensch und Welt: Eine Philosophie des Lebens (1918). In this work, he places the blame for the terrible devastation that had occurred in Germany not on Germany’s enemies, but on all mankind.

After retiring in 1920, Eucken remained in Jena and continued to publish. He wrote his memoirs, entitled Lebenserinnerungen: Ein Stück deutschen Lebens (1921) and Der Sozialismus und seine Lebensgestaltung (1920), during this period. He died in Jena on September 15, 1926, but the propagation of his ideas was continued by the Eucken Society, which was founded in 1920.


Rudolf Christoph Eucken’s impact on modern philosophy is the result of a combination of factors. During his lifetime, he enjoyed a cosmopolitan reputation unlike that of any German professor before him. Students from all over the world, including such remote regions as Iceland, flocked to sit at the feet of the man whose idealism served as a philosophical rallying point for all those seeking a concrete spiritual experience. In addition, he expressed his ideas at a time when people were tiring of the cynical message of the naturalistic philosophers. Eucken’s lifelong crusade against the naturalistic contention that man’s life and actions are determined by his environment was welcomed as a breath of fresh air by the Nobel Prize Committee, which awarded him the prize in literature in 1908.

Admittedly, Eucken’s work presents many obstacles to modern audiences. Many students find the first approach to Eucken a little less than smooth on account of his comparatively severe and bare style. He was also not a systematic philosopher in the sense that some of his contemporaries were, such as Henri Bergson. Despite a certain lack of precision and occasional obscureness, it cannot be denied that Eucken made a major contribution to modern philosophy.


Booth, Meyrick. Rudolf Eucken: His Philosophy and Influence. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913. This study of Eucken by a former student strives to bring Eucken’s philosophy to lay readers.

Gibson, W. R. Boyce. Rudolf Eucken’s Philosophy of Life. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1906. A follower of Eucken, Gibson writes a straightforward book on Eucken’s philosophy, though not without some criticism.

Herman, Emily. Eucken and Bergson: Their Significance for Christian Thought. 2d ed. London: James Clarke, 1912. While this book serves as a general introduction to Eucken’s life and career, it is primarily a study of the theological implications embedded in the works of both Eucken and Bergson. Accessible to the general reader.

Rudolf Eucken, Anatole France, and John Galsworthy. New York: Alexis Gregory, 1971. The best introduction in English to Eucken’s life and career. The three-page biography is followed by a six-page explanation of his theories. The article clarifies some of his most complicated concepts.

Slosson, Edward E. “Rudolf Eucken.” In Six Major Prophets. Boston: Little, Brown, 1917. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972. A chapter on Eucken in a book about major thinkers of the time. Delves into Eucken’s thought as well as his daily existence in Jena.