1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eclecticism

ECLECTICISM (from Gr. ἐκλέγω, I select), a term used specially in philosophy and theology for a composite system of thought made up of views borrowed from various other systems. Where the characteristic doctrines of a philosophy are not thus merely adopted, but are the modified products of a blending of the systems from which it takes its rise, the philosophy is not properly eclectic. Eclecticism always tends to spring up after a period of vigorous constructive speculation, especially in the later stages of a controversy between thinkers of pre-eminent ability. Their respective followers, and more especially cultured laymen, lacking the capacity for original work, seeking for a solution in some kind of compromise, and possibly failing to grasp the essentials of the controversy, take refuge in a combination of those elements in the opposing systems which seem to afford a sound practical theory. Since these combinations have often been as illogical as facile, “eclecticism” has generally acquired a somewhat contemptuous significance. At the same time, the essence of eclecticism is the refusal to follow blindly one set of formulae and conventions, coupled with a determination to recognize and select from all sources those elements which are good or true in the abstract, or in practical affairs most useful ad hoc. Theoretically, therefore, eclecticism is a perfectly sound method, and the contemptuous significance which the word has acquired is due partly to the fact that many eclectics have been intellectual trimmers, sceptics or dilettanti, and partly to mere partisanship. On the other hand, eclecticism in the sphere of abstract thought is open to this main objection that, in so far as every philosophic system is, at least in theory, an integral whole, the combination of principles from hostile theories must result in an incoherent patchwork. Thus it might be argued that there can be no logical combination of elements from Christian ethics, with its divine sanction, and purely intuitional or evolutionary ethical theories, where the sanction is essentially different in quality. It is in practical affairs that the eclectic or undogmatic spirit is most valuable, and also least dangerous.

In the 2nd century B.C. a remarkable tendency toward eclecticism began to manifest itself. The longing to arrive at the one explanation of all things, which had inspired the older philosophers, became less earnest; the belief, indeed, that any such explanation was attainable began to fail. Thus men came to adopt from all systems the doctrines which best pleased them. In Panaetius we find one of the earliest examples of the modification of Stoicism by the eclectic spirit; about the same time the same spirit displayed itself among the Peripatetics. In Rome philosophy never became more than a secondary pursuit; naturally, therefore, the Roman thinkers were for the most part eclectic. Of this tendency Cicero is the most striking illustration—his philosophical works consisting of an aggregation, with little or no blending, of doctrines borrowed from Stoicism, Peripateticism, and the scepticism of the Middle Academy.

In the last stage of Greek philosophy the eclectic spirit produced remarkable results outside the philosophies of those properly called eclectics. Thinkers chose their doctrines from many sources—from the venerated teaching of Aristotle and Plato, from that of the Pythagoreans and of the Stoics, from the old Greek mythology, and from the Jewish and other Oriental systems. Yet it must be observed that Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and the other systems which are grouped under the name Alexandrian, were not truly eclectic, consisting, as they did, not of a mere syncretism of Greek and Oriental thought, but of a mutual modification of the two. It is true that several of the Neoplatonists professed to accept all the teaching both of Plato and of Aristotle, whereas, in fact, they arbitrarily interpreted Aristotle so as to make him agree with Plato, and Plato so as to make his teachings consistent with the Oriental doctrines which they had adopted, in the same manner as the schoolmen attempted to reconcile Aristotle with the doctrines of the church. Among the early Christians, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Synesius were eclectics in philosophy.

The eclectics of modern philosophy are too numerous to name. Of Italian philosophers the eclectics form a large proportion. Among the German we may mention Wolf and his followers, as well as Mendelssohn, J. A. Eberhard, Ernst Platner, and to some extent Schelling, whom, however, it would be incorrect to describe as merely an eclectic. In the first place, his speculations were largely original; and in the second place, it is not so much that his views of any time were borrowed from a number of philosophers, as that his thinking was influenced first by one philosopher, then by another.

In the 19th century the term “eclectic” came to be applied specially to a number of French philosophers who differed considerably from one another. Of these the earliest were Pierre Paul Royer-Collard, who was mainly a follower of Thomas Reid, and Maine de Biran; but the name is still more appropriately given to the school of which the most distinguished members are Victor Cousin, Théodore Jouffroy, J. P. Damiron, Barthélemy St Hilaire, C. F. M. de Rémusat, Adolphe Garnier and Ravaisson-Mollien. Cousin, whose views varied considerably at different periods of his life, not only adopted freely what pleased him in the doctrines of Pierre Laromiguière, Royer-Collard and Maine de Biran, of Kant, Schelling and Hegel, and of the ancient philosophies, but expressly maintained that the eclectic is the only method now open to the philosopher, whose function thus resolves itself into critical selection and nothing more. “Each system,” he asserted, “is not false, but incomplete, and in reuniting all incomplete systems, we should have a complete philosophy, adequate to the totality of consciousness.” This assumes that every philosophical truth is already contained somewhere in the existing systems. If, however, as it would surely be rash to deny, there still remains philosophical truth undiscovered, but discoverable by human intelligence, it is evident that eclecticism is not the only philosophy. Eclecticism gained great popularity, and, partly owing to Cousin’s position as minister of public instruction, became the authorized system in the chief seats of learning in France, where it has given a most remarkable impulse to the study of the history of philosophy.