U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Building a “Philosophy of Life”

Bryan McAllister-Grande is a fifth-year doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has interests in intellectual history, the history of education, and U.S. engagement with the world. He has previously written guest posts on Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club and contributed to the roundtable on Tim Lacy’s Dream of a Democratic Culture.

One of the things I’ve been most struck by in my dissertation research is the repeated use of the phrase “philosophy of life.” My dissertation, tentatively titled “The Crisis of the Western University and the Rebirth of Liberal Education, 1935 – 1950” examines a group of humanists and philosophers at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale who sought out to “restore” liberal education to its “rightful” meaning. Building an “adequate philosophy of life” was a central goal of their efforts.

A wide variety of academics at the time, including progressives, Christian college educators, idealist philosophers, and scientific humanists, used the phrase “philosophy of life” to designate the ultimate aim of education in the twentieth century, but they wrestled with the precise definitions of the term and the methods to reach it. One definition came from William Wishart Biddle, a leading progressive educator: “a scheme of values by which all experience and conduct take on meaning, are evaluated, and given direction.” Another educator, Harold Punke, described a philosophy of life as “a system of values or ideals which one consciously accepts as a guide for living, and according to which he strives to live.” Punke distinguished a philosophy of life from mere “habits.” A student might be a “slave to habit,” Punke wrote, if he or she had not “attained the higher level — adjustability based on understanding principles which may appear in many different situations.”[1]

One might think, by these examples, that building a “philosophy of life” was the sole province of progressive educators in the colleges, and therefore built upon the pragmatic philosophy of experience. Indeed, the progressive-oriented institutions — Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, the University of Minnesota’s General College, Bard, St. Stephens among them, which thrived in the 1930s — did explicitly pursue this goal. The culmination of a student’s individualized program in these colleges was often a course in the “philosophy of living” or “philosophy of life,” which drew together the student’s learning in broad areas of marriage, civic engagement, human development, world affairs, art and humanities, religion and the sciences. Robert Hutchins seemed to confirm the association of “philosophy of life” with pragmatism or the life adjustment movement when he opened the 1937 Convocation at the University of Chicago by stating:

I hope you will never have a ‘philosophy of life.’ As I understand that phrase it means that one who says he has a philosophy of life has got himself adjusted to his environment. He is now prepared to compromise on any issue at any time. Injustice is all right. Brutality is all right. Fraud and deception are all right. The only thing that is not all right is something that endangers the security of the individual in question, or that threatens his income, or damages his reputation. Peace in a vegetable sense and prosperity in a material sense are the aims of one who talks about his philosophy of life…[2]

Hutchins notwithstanding, educators of many different stripes and commitments used the phrase. Those associated with Christian colleges used it frequently. At the 1936 National Conference of Church-Related Colleges, one of the major themes was the “formulation of a Christian philosophy of life.” Theodore M. Greene, the Princeton idealist philosopher and a major figure in the educational debates of the time, taught students to distinguish between the “Christian philosophy of life” and those of materialists, Nazis, Communists, and secularists. Educators were often obsessed with discovering what a students’ philosophy of life was. Sometimes this was measured via “attitude testing,” while other times through other methods. The Cooperative Study in General Education (1947) used a method whereby students were taught to distinguish between 20 different philosophies of life. In 1932, O. Myking Mehus wrote that, “A good way to get at the students’ philosophy of life is not only to talk to with individual students, but to visit their rooms and see what kinds of pictures and mottoes they have hanging on their walls, for this will reveal their inner thoughts better than anything else.”[3]

In this sense, a philosophy of life was something more than a philosophy or even a worldview. It was also broader than a philosophy of history or a philosophy of culture. All of these had rational, abstract connotations. It was also different from “the” philosophy of life, which often meant a distinctive type of experimental philosophy associated with William James and John Dewey as well as with the German philosophers of Kloppenberg’s via media.

In the ’30s and ’40s, a philosophy of life better meant personality, or perhaps a secular form of religion. It implied a total, complete, integrated emotional and cognitive outlook on life, guiding one’s thoughts and actions, and integrating all empirical data. Although individualized in the student, a philosophy of life also meant something beyond the individual — a personality completely integrated with the world itself. In a sense, a “philosophy of life” was an update of the old moral philosophy course that capped off the Classical college.

That idea immediately brings up the German lebensphilosophie, or “life philosophy” movement associated with Spengler, Scheler, Klages, and sometimes with Dilthey, Nietzsche, Husserl, the vitalism of Bergson, and with French existentialism. To what degree was the American “philosophy of life” movement related to this seminal movement in Continental philosophy? I could use some help here, from those that have worked in this era, in thinking through some of the ideas and associations of the idea of a “philosophy of life.” On the one hand, the American movement seemed to be a reaction against the logical positivism then ascendant in the social sciences and in professional philosophy. On the other hand, it seems to be a reaction, too, against the opposite move to “irrationalism” and “life philosophy” which would have been associated with Germany and the Fascist philosophies.

American educators often spoke about the “secret strength” of the “Nazi philosophy of life” as “pure technique” or “organization” — all empirical knowledge was bended toward pure technique. They similarly spoke about the secret strength of Communism as the pure “economic philosophy of life” — all empirical knowledge bended toward economic order. There was wide agreement that the American, democratic way of life needed a secret strength. What was that secret strength?

I would love some help, too, from those with specialties in early American history. To what degree was a “philosophy of life” perhaps a revival of early Puritan ideas of living for and in the world? To what degree was it simply an expression of “humanitarianism”?


[1] William Wishart Biddle, “General Education in a Tragic Era,” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 16, no. 7 (October 1945), p. 375; Harold H. Punke, “Philosophy of Life for Teachers,” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 25, no. 6 (Feb 1943), p. 121.
[2] Quoted in Porter Sargent, “What’s the Matter with Hutchins?”, The Clearing House, vol. 12, no. 7 (March 1938)
[3] Francis J. Friedel, “Student Participation in Social Action and the Christian Life Ideal,” Christian Education, vol. 19, no. 4 (April 1936); O. Myking Mehus, “A Student’s Philosophy of Life,” The Journal of Education, Vol. 115, No. 10 (April 1932).

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