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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Judging a Book by Its Cover-


This is a fun post to write. When we moved I packed a number of 50s and 60s paperbacks into boxes, an d am just now unpacking them. This one caught my eye as interesting in a number of ways-

-to begin, we have that wonderful 1950s "American Family", a husband, wife (of the other sex) son and daughter (and all the same race- boring, but much admired back then).

-but then we have the huge test tube behind them, something of a fore-runner of later families, where science became an issue.

-and finally, we have the "moral life" thing, which I'll admit I viewed a bit skeptically, at first.

Still- it's a great cover, isn't it?

Then I Wikipedia'd Max Otto, and found... nuthin'.

So I Googled him, and found an extensive entry on something called "Philosopedia" which is now defunct, but still has a Google cache. I enjoyed reading this entry, and came to have great respect for Max Otto as a philosopher. I think some of you will also, so I will paste it in its near-entirety-

G. C. Sellery, of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, wrote the following for Notable American Unitarians:

Professor Max Carl Otto was born in the historic town of Zwickau, Saxony, in 1876, and was brought to America by his immigrant parents in his fifth year. He went to school, through the sixth grade, in Wheeling, West Virginia, where his father kept a restaurant. He studied the Lutheran catechism diligently under a stern, old-fashioned pastor, and also learned to concentrate so thoroughly on what he heard in church that he could repeat the essentials of the sermon to his Lutheran parents. The resulting development of the power of concentration has stood him in good stead ever since.

Young Max served as a waiter in the family restaurant until he was sixteen. Then he went off to Cincinnati and Chicago on his own. In Chicago he was employed as a messenger for the R. G. Dun rating agency, and did incidental human salvage work on Sundays for the Y.M.C.A. This latter avocation led to a regular quasi-religious post in the Milwaukee Y.M.C.A., where he worked with boys. But recognizing the need for further education if he were to "grasp this sorry scheme of things," he gave up his job in the Y.M.C.A. and filled in some of the many gaping holes in his preparation for college by study in local academies. This accomplished, he was admitted, somewhat irregularly, to Carroll College, Waukesha, by President Rankin, who was not averse to stretching the rules in favor of a young man of obvious ability and persistence. From Carroll, after a couple of fruitful years, he moved on to the state university at Madison, where he majored in history under the great Frederick Jackson Turner, and secured a distinguished B.A. in 1906, with election to Phi Beta Kappa. (At Wisconsin also the rules were stretched—or rather broken—in his favor, for he, whose prose is so simple and strong, had not taken the required course in freshman English.)

Otto took up graduate studies in philosophy, and won his Ph.D. in 1911. The philosophy which Max Otto developed did not involved the abstract, deductive systems which ingenious minds have invented through the ages to explain the universe and man in whole or in part; it was not the sort of philosophy one finds in the older histories of the subject. Of course, he knows these systems, and he has been heard to say that he would give his right arm—"well, at least a little finger"—to read the lost treatise of Protagoras on Truth, for its possible anticipation of pragmatism, of which he himself is a representative. Pragmatism is, in fact, essentially an American product—native, democratic, homespun, redolent of the soil. It grows out of and is rooted in the common problems and common sense of men and women—refined common sense, of course, but still common sense, whether at work in business, agriculture, politics, economics, science, or religion. The underlying purpose of this philosophy is the enhancement of human life for all. "Humane, warm, and in the best sense simple," President Burkhardt of Bennington said of Max Otto, "his wisdom is pervaded by a profound sense of dedication to the enrichment of man's intellectual and spiritual life."

Max Otto's philosophy was conceived—and born—in Wisconsin. Of course his native endowment of mind and heart, his experiences of life, and his struggles for clarity of purpose underlie the vision he caught at the university. One may also safely assert that the elder La Follette's program for social betterment had a part in Max Otto's philosophy, and that it was nurtured, enriched, and confirmed by the teachings of William James and John Dewey—especially of John Dewey, his good and great friend.

Within the broad reaches of his philosophy, Max Otto, a man of genuine religious temper, places stress on the need of our age for a nontheistic faith. The writer ventures to quote from his own review of The Human Enterprise, written when that important book was published: "The theistic foundation of truth, goodness, beauty, and humane feeling being seriously weakened, it is an urgent requirement of the times that an alternative foundation be found for those who do not accept the theistic foundation. This other foundation the author finds in practical sympathy for the needs of mankind as they progressively reveal themselves in the working out of the actual problems which confront humanity."

Max Otto's abandonment of supernaturalism, which he pushed to its extreme limits in the debate with Wieman and Macintosh, involved him in serious difficulties almost from the beginning of his career as a teacher at Wisconsin. For it inevitably colored what became his great and increasingly popular course, "Man and Nature," where he takes a frankly naturalistic view of the universe. The first attack came in 1912, when clerical critics and their sympathizers in Madison and elsewhere in the state demanded his elimination from the staff as an enemy of religion, and, strangely enough, as a violator of the state constitution, which forbids sectarian religious instruction in the university. The stamina of the young instructor was put to a very tough test. It would have been an easy way out to give up the course; but Max Otto, after prolonged reflection, declined to do so. His students and not a few of his colleagues—some of whom hardly knew him—stood by him, and Van Hise, the great president, irritated though he was by this additional disturbance, in effect backed him up in his forthright commencement address of that year (1912), entitled "The Spirit of a University."

Freedom of thought, Van Hise here declared, inquiry after truth for its own sake, adjustment of the knowledge of the past in the light of the newest facts and highest reason—"this is the essential spirit of a university, which under no circumstances should it yield."

This spirit, President Van Hise proclaims, "forever makes a university a center of conflict. If a university were content to teach simply those things concerning which there is practical unanimity of opinion . . . there would be quiet; but it would be the quiet of stagnation."

Max Otto's student following and influence grew steadily in the following decades, and many liberal theologians gave him their enduring friendship. Nevertheless, he was exposed to three more bitter attacks. In the latest and fiercest of these, that of 1932, he, a professor in politics, was used as a whipping boy for his friends, the LaFollettes, and was assailed in press and platform as an exhibit of the pernicious radicalism—and atheism—they were said to foster. But again students and colleagues, in increasing numbers, rallied to his side, and again the president of the university, now Glenn Frank, defended him—as his predecessors had done in each of the preceding attacks—and his opponents were thereafter reduced to occasional and ineffective sniping. Max Otto had won—the university had won—a veritable "Twenty Years' War."

Professor Otto's knowledge of scientific method and scientific achievements is wide and deep. It is conveniently shown in a pocket-size book entitled Science and the Moral Life (I949), which consists of selections from his writings. (It is one of the series called "Mentor Books," published by the New American Library.) Mr. Otto was not blind to some of the perilous fruits of science, notably the atomic bomb, and he did not exculpate their propagators. But scientific method, he is certain, must be extended to the social and, of course, to the religious field, to what he calls the search for the good life. Scientific method, he makes clear, is a way of investigation which relies solely on disciplined empirical observation and rigorously exact proof, proof that extends beyond inner or personal conviction to outer or public demonstration.

The search for the good life, to Max Otto, involves not only economic reconstruction in the interest of the fairest distribution of earth's bounties to all men, but also political action to promote this distribution. "Unless enough Americans," he declared in 1939, "are willing to invest their idealism in the project of remaking our social order into a positive means for utilizing our resources for the common good, it will not be long before there will be no idealism to invest."

(Abridged from The Cleavage in Our Culture. edited by Frederick Burckhardt

3 comments:

Malach the Merciless said...

Morality and Science? That is like trying to mix a canoe with a raincoat!

Mrs. Chili said...

"Under his wife's watchful eye" indeed...

Four Dinners said...

I have a cat called Max.

Re-incarnation is on my mind...;-)