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Things and Ideals

ISSUE:  Spring 1925

Things and Ideals.
By M. C. Otto. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

It would be perhaps more correct to say that a philosophy reflects an age than that an age reflects a philosophy. A philosophy is the reflection of an age not only because it is subject to the environing conditions and limitations of the society in which it arises, but also, and more particularly, because philosophy at its best has always sought to point out and then to fill the needs of that society. This is its aspirational character. That its voice has not ever been sufficiently heeded is usually a cause of considerable chagrin to philosophers! But the blame for philosophy’s ineffec-tuality does not by any means rest entirely with those who turn a deaf ear to its reasonings. For philosophers themselves are very largely responsible for all not being well with philosophy. To be sure, they have never been completely oblivious to the fact that it is the business of philosophy to redefine the higher life, so that even if it bake no bread, it can, in the words of Charles Kingsley, enable us to appreciate better the bread that we do bake and eat. But one has the suspicion that the erstwhile Queen of the Sciences has taken her high calling somewhat too much for granted, and that her devotees have slipped into a method of courtship that has not increased substantially the general “prosperity of experience” for that indefinable quantity commonly called the “average man.”

William James has remarked that the philosophy of any one of us is “our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.” In other words, a man’s philosophy is his lebensanschauung. But lebensanschauungs would seem logically to imply Weltanschauungs. And so professional philosophers with their passion for logic have considered it to be their special business to give us “close-ups” on the universe. And this intriguing occupation has seemed too often to be a sole and exclusive interest. Of course the philosophers, if pressed, are prepared to defend their course of action by the reply that when we are once in secure possession of the final truth about the universe we shall have a sure basis for thought and conduct. But ultimates must come first.

Meanwhile the “average man” has his patience sorely tried. Not only does there seem to be no unanimity of opinion about ultimates. There is but a merely languid interest in making a serious application to life of any of the final views. Needless to say there are exceptions, but the impression has gained ground among the “average” folk that the philosophers, so busily engaged in heaping one system upon another like Pelion on Ossa, have been more concerned to see what was going on in a remote Olympus than to busy themselves informedly with the earthly affairs of frail mortals. All of which is to say that philosophy cannot be acquitted of the charge that it has not had a sufficiently direct bearing upon life.

In recent years, however, there has been a noteworthy change in the direction of philosophical effort. In many quarters at least, a final Weltanschauung has come to be considered as of secondary importance to the guidance of life in all its concrete manifestations, and a “reconstruction in philosophy” is therefore being urged. In the words of Dewey, philosophers should “enforce a sense of social calling and responsibility.” Under his leadership the changed direction of philosophy is gathering momentum and the product of this altered approach may be described as “functional.” “Things and Ideals,” with the subtitle, “Essays in Functional Philosophy,” exemplifies the new method in so able a manner as to convince the reader of the fruitfulness of the new procedure. “The philosopher, if he will,” writes the author, “may be our friend and guide in this adventure. He may study man’s capacities and frailties, the sources of his power and the causes of his weakness, the ideals that move him to action, the social institutions he has adopted or dreamed of, the natural environment which is at once his obstacle and his opportunity, with the aim of projecting a vision of society in which men might hope to be most freely, fully, and joyously alive. In a word, he may be prophet of an appealing possibility, rather than judge of ultimate truth.” (p. 15) The philosopher’s “bent for comprehensiveness” is to be satisfied by such deep penetration in and through the issues of life.

In “Things and Ideals” we have a series of twelve essays on a variety of topics, such as the function of philosophy, the nature of right, science and the higher life, the self, the soul, and the concept of God. The unity between essays on such diverse subjects is provided by a certain basic view of the modifiability of human nature and by the concept of what has come to be called “creative intelligence.” Intelligence is creative because it is a phenomenon that has evolved as a function of desire and exists because it enables the organism to deal imaginatively and therefore more effectively with its environment, both material and social. Hence intelligence is “functional.” It is not a faculty of unique origin whose special duty it is to discover to us pre-existing ideals when the sensuous scales shall have fallen from the soul’s eye. It is an instrument of lowly origin which may enable us to mount from the slime to the stars, which sees, in the language of James, “the ideal and the real as dynamically continuous,” and which, by creating the ideal out of the actual, fashions in imagination a better future and applies a technique in the furtherance of that future. These words may have little meaning for those whose occupation is not with philosophy. But a clarification is to be found in the pages of “Things and Ideals.” Together with clearness of exposition and thoroughness of thinking the author has combined a literary style of charm and power. Where one finds so much to which he can give such cordial assent, minor points of dissent seem hardly to deserve mention. We therefore commend most heartily Professor Otto’s latest volume to all who believe that in philosophy there is still a guide for the perplexing intricacies of life.


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