Eclecticism (Gr. Ek, legein; Lat. eligere, to select), a philosophical term meaning either a tendency of mind in a thinker to conciliate the different views or positions taken in regard to problems, or a system in philosophy which seeks the solution of its fundamental problems by selecting and uniting what it regards as true in the various philosophical schools. In the first sense, eclecticism is a characteristic of all the great philosophers, with special development in some, such as Leibniz; an element of the integral method of philosophy more or less emphasized in the diverse schools. The term eclectics, however, is properly applied to those who accept Eclecticism as the true and fundamental system of philosophy. It is with Eclecticism in this strict sense that we are dealing here.
As a rule, in the history of philosophy, Eclecticism follows a period of scepticism. In presence of conflicting doctrines regarding nature, life, and God, the human mind despairs of attaining scientific and exact knowledge about these important subjects. Eclecticism then aims at constructing a system broad and vague enough to include, or not to exclude, the principles of the diverse schools, though giving at times more importance to those of one school, and apparently sufficient to furnish a basis for the conduct of life. In the latter period of Greek philosophy, during the two centuries preceding the Christian Era and the three centuries following, Eclecticism is represented among the Epicureans by Asclepiades of Bithynia; among the Stoics by Boethus, Panetius of Rhodes, (about 180-110 B.C.), Posidonius (about 50 B.C.), and later on by the neo-Cynics, Demetrius and Demonax (about A.D. 150); in the New Academy by Philo of Larissa (about 80 B.C.) and Antiochus of Ascalon (d. 68 B.C.); in the Peripatetic School by Andronicus of Rhodes (about 70 B.C.), the editor and commentator of the works of Aristotle, and later on by Aristocles (about A.D. 180), Alexander of Aphrodisias (about A.D. 200), the physician Galen (A.D. 131-201), Porphyry in the third, and Simplicius in the sixth, century of our era. The eclectic system was, by its character, the one which was best suited to the practical mind of the Romans. With the exception of Lucretius’s doctrine, their speculative philosophy was always and altogether eclectic, while Stoicism dominated in their ethical philosophy. Cicero is, in Rome, the best representative of this school. His philosophy is a mixture of the scepticism of the Middle Academy with Stoicism and Peripateticism. The School of the Sextians, with Quintus Sextius (80 B.C.), Sotion, and Celsus, was partly Stoic and Cynic, partly Pythagorean. Under the empire, Seneca, Epictetus the slave, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius combined the principles of Stoicism with some doctrines taken from Platonism. The neo-Platonic School of Alexandria, in the second and third centuries after Christ, is considered by some as eclectic; but the designation is not exact. The school borrows, indeed, many of its principles from Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, Peripateticism, and especially from Platonism; but all these doctrines are dominated by and interpreted according to certain principles of religious mysticism which make this neo-Platonism an original though syncretic system. The same may be said of the Christian writers of this school who take some of their philosophical principles from the dominant systems, but who are guided in their choice as well as in their interpretation by the teaching of Christian revelation.
In modern times Eclecticism has been accepted in Germany by Wolff and his disciples. It has received its most characteristic form in France in the nineteenth century from Victor Cousin (1792-1867) and his school, which is sometimes called the Spiritualistic School. Drawn away from sensualism by the teaching of Royer Collard, Cousin seeks in the Scottish School a sufficient foundation for the chief metaphysical, moral, and religious truths. Failing in this attempt, he takes up the different doctrines then current; he is successively influenced by Maine de Biran whom he calls “the greatest metaphysician of our time”, by the writings of Kant, and by personal intercourse with Schelling and Hegel; finally, he turns to the works of Plato, Plotinus, and Proclus, only to come back to Descartes and Leibniz. He then reaches the conclusion that the successive systems elaborated throughout the preceding ages contain the full development of human thought; that the complete truth is to be found in a system resulting from the happy fusion, under the guidance of common sense, of the fragmentary thoughts expressed by the different thinkers and schools of all ages. Four great systems, he says, express and summarize the whole development of human speculation: sensism, idealism, scepticism, and mysticism. Each contains a part of the truth; none possesses exclusively the whole truth. Human thought cannot invent any new system, nor can it neglect any of the old ones. Not the destruction of any of them, but the reduction of all to one, will put us in possession of the truth.
There is, indeed, something true in Eclecticism. It would be folly for each thinker to deliberately ignore all that has been said and taught before him; such a method would render progress impossible. The experience and knowledge acquired by past ages is a factor in the development of human thought. The history of philosophy is useful; it places at our disposal the truths already discovered, and by showing us the errors into which philosophy has fallen, it guards us against them and against the principles or methods which have caused them. This is the element of value contained in the system. But Eclecticism errs when it substitutes for personal reflection as the primary source of philosophy a mere fusion of systems, or the history of philosophy for philosophy proper. Eclecticism does not furnish us with the ultimate principles of philosophy or the criterion of certitude. We cannot say that philosophy has reached the highest degree of precision either in its solution or in its presentation of every problem; nor that it knows all that can be known about nature, man, or God. But even if this were the case, the principles of Eclecticism cannot provide us with a firm, complete, and true system of philosophy. Cousin says that there is some truth in every system; supposing this to be exact, this partial truth has evidently to be acquired at first through principles and a rule of certitude which are independent of Eclecticism. When Cousin declares that there is a mingling of truth and error in every system, he evidently assumes a principle superior and antecedent to the very principle of Eclecticism. The eclectic must first separate error from truth before building into a system the results of his discrimination. But this is possible only on the condition of passing a judgment upon each of these systems and therefore of having, quite apart from history, some rational principle as an ultimate criterion. In a word, Eclecticism, considered as a study of the opinions and theories of others in order to find in them some help and enlightenment, has its place in philosophy; it is a part of philosophic method; but as a doctrine it is altogether inadequate.
G. M. SAUVAGE