The Enlightenment by Rudolf Eucken 1909

Rudolf Eucken won the Nobel Prize in Literature for the year 1908. That year his book Main  Currents in Modern Thought was translated into English.

“In examining the life and thought of today it is impossible not to be struck in the first place by the extreme confusion which prevails and the accompanying painful insecurity as to the real aim of life. On every side we perceive not only a division of humanity into factions, but often a division within the individual himself.”

Enlightenment: The Life of the Spirit, an Introduction of Philosophy, by Rudolf Eucken, 1846-1926 Published 1909 P. 307-316

Eucken-im-Alter.pngWhen the Enlightenment took the thinking subject as the starting-point of the struggle for truth, it would have gained very little by doing so if it had not discovered in this subject a definite content and a moving force. It found these in the “innate ideas,” the” eternal truths,” which seemed to form an absolutely certain original endowment of the human spirit. When these truths unfold themselves, seize upon the surrounding world and shape it conformably to their own demands, a realm of reason arises and vouch-safes man an apparently universally valid and unassailable truth. But neither the representation of nature nor the sphere of man can reach the state of truth except by toilsome labour of an intellectual nature.

The object to be aimed at is a thorough purgation and sifting, which must get rid of everything that refuses to be illuminated by thought, while everything that stands the test is more effectively revivified, and more firmly coordinated. This gives rise to natural science, with the exactitude of its mathematical methods, and also to a culture based on reason, which makes a problem out of everything handed down by historical tradition, and lets nothing pass which cannot clearly and distinctly prove its rights at the bar of reason.

This attempt, however, derives its self-confidence and its power chiefly from the conviction that reason is not a matter of mere man, but controls the universe; hence what man recognizes as truth can have a limitless validity beyond him; he himself, however, gains a high life- task and a completely satisfying happiness by participating in this universally valid truth and in the building up of a kingdom of reason.

Thus Leibniz is of opinion that the whole earth “cannot serve our true perfection unless it gives us opportunity of finding eternal and universal truths, which must be valid in all worlds, indeed in all periods, and, in a word, with God Himself, from whom they continually proceed.” Both with Leibniz and in the Enlightenment generally, faith in the possession of universally valid truth rests on the conviction that the human reason is grounded in a divine world-encompassing reason. It was sought first of all to find a basis for this conviction in close connection with the traditional transcendent conception of God; faith in the veracity of God may then enable us to trust our own reason with complete confidence if it conscientiously observes the rules prescribed to it.

Spinoza, however, with his philosophy of immanence, goes so far as to conceive that a cosmic thought is immediately present in us, that it is not so much we who think as it which thinks in us; the only important point, therefore, is to make sure of such a cosmic thought, and we can do so, according to Spinoza, if we free our intellectual work from the influence of human conditions and aims, and allow it * to be determined purely by the inner necessities of thought itself. For what makes the usual representation of the world inadequate and erroneous is that man is treated as the centre and goal of all reality, that in particular the oppositions which belong merely to human modes of feeling, such as the antithesis of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, etc., are imported into the universe, and have grossly distorted its image. The first condition of truth is, therefore, a modest self- repression on the part of man, a willing submission to the necessities of things as thought reveals them ; man must remove the centre of gravity of his own being from the confused whirl of the passions into a passionless thought, into a contemplation of things which is unmixed with volition and desire.

Pure thought of this nature can place man in the stream of a cosmic life, deliver him from everything that is pettily human, and by the opening up of an eternal and infinite life, vouchsafe him complete rest and blessedness.

But, however high may be the position which Spinoza thus assigns to thought, and however strongly he represents it as self-moving and progressing in accordance with its own necessities, he does not deprive it of all relation to objects existing outside itself; he holds fast to the position that, while thought unfolds its own nature and necessities, it corresponds at the same time to a being which exists alongside it ; in place of agreement we have here a parallelism of thought and being, and it seems thus to become possible that one and the same fundamental process of the universe should embrace both series and come to expression in them.

But, on this solution, not only is the above presupposition of an all-embracing world-basis open to attack, but also the relation between – the two series leads to the gravest complication. It must at once arouse misgivings that Spinoza nowhere puts the two series on the same level but always subordinates one to the other; either thought becomes a mere mirroring of nature, whose laws thus widen till they become laws of the universe, or thought forms the core of reality and nature is nothing more than its manifestation and environment.

But doubt cannot be suppressed on the further question as to whether, if the two sides are incommensurable, the idea of a parallelism is not an absolutely unthinkable thought, whether it is not essentially self-contradictory. But whatever doubts of this description may arise, they cannot obscure the greatness and inevitability of Spinoza’s endeavour to discover a cosmic nature in man himself, to distinguish in him the merely human from the cosmic; at least we do not see how the modern man could find his way to truth by any other path.

But was Spinoza right in placing this cosmic nature solely and entirely in intellectual activity, and in imagining that every other kind of life ought necessarily to be degraded to a lower stage? In this way he reached only a reality of logical forms and formulae, whose emptiness and soullessness must have been immediately evident, were it not that a mystic and religious intuition, entirely different in its nature, had infused life and warmth into the whole. In spite of the vigorous energy of his thought in certain directions, there is no other philosopher who, in the fundamental texture of his system, is so compound of contradictions as the thinker who is praised by many as the supreme example of the quest for unity.

The struggle for truth reaches a new stage with Kant. He is the first to recognize clearly that truth, in the sense of the agreement of thought with an existence external to it, is an absolute absurdity. But since at the same time the existence of some truth or other is insisted upon with the utmost vigor, the conception of truth must undergo essential modifications; in reality a complete revolution is brought about in the relation between thought and being.

It is now taught, not that thought has to conform to being but that being has to conform to thought, that is, we are acquainted with reality only so far as things enter into the forms of our intellectual organization; truth thus ceases to be for us the knowledge of things, and becomes the self-knowledge of the human spirit, which prepares for itself a world of its own — acting, it must be admitted, on an impulse independent of itself.

This self-knowledge, however, surpasses everything which earlier epochs possessed of a like kind, and gains an incomparably richer content through the coming to light of an inner structure, a comprehensive web of spiritual life, in the course of that construction of a world. In the gaining of this knowledge there arises a new kind of investigation, the transcendental, which is concerned with the inner possibility of knowledge, as opposed to the empirico-psychological method, which treats of its origin and growth in the individual man. Our view of reality is thereby fundamentally transformed, for henceforth all the coherence which it presents, in particular all the assertions which it includes about ultimate grounds, have to be regarded not as belonging to reality itself but as imported into it by man. Thus man in his struggle for truth does not transcend himself, he does not reach in knowledge a point where a universal life springs up in him, but remains always confined to his own circle of thought, the contents of which cannot be universally valid, since they have arisen under special conditions and have not proceeded from an original creation. For Kant regards it as beyond question that human thought is non-creative.

But if the Kantian movement from the object to the subject thus puts human knowledge on a much lower level and threatens to make truth merely relative, it brings us into an incomparably happier position in the domain of the practical reason, in morality. For here, according to Kant, the subject can rise to creative activity, eliminate everything specifically human, and thereby press forward to an absolute truth. Hence the thinker has no doubt that the ultimate meaning of the world is moral, and that man, by participation in it, attains a universally valid truth, a superhuman life, and at the same time an incomparable greatness and dignity. He reaches these heights, indeed, only in this special direction, and not so much by scientific knowledge as by an inner appropriation which is of the nature of faith, and which cannot be forced on anyone, but requires a free recognition, an inward up-striving of life. Hence this philosophy does not by any means fail to transform preexisting reality and to grasp a cosmic nature in man, and thus possesses a metaphysics, but of a kind completely different from all earlier systems.

Enlightenment: The Life of the Spirit, an Introduction of Philosophy, by Rudolf Eucken, 1846-1926 Published 1909 P. 307-316

Main Currents in Modern Thought 1908



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