Philosophy of Life

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Philosophy of Life


(also Lebensphilosophie), an irrationalist philosophical movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that takes “life” as its starting point—life being defined as an intuitively comprehended integral reality that is neither spirit nor matter. This movement, which reflected the crisis of classical bourgeois rationalism, arose in opposition to the methodological and epistemological trends predominating in the idealist philosophy of the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries—specifically, in neo-Kantianism and positivism. Proponents of the philosophy of life held very diverse sociopolitical views, ranging from bourgeois liberalism to conservativism; in its extreme form, as represented by biological naturalism, the philosophy of life played a part in shaping the ideology of national socialism in Germany.

The concept of “life,” with its multiple meanings, has been given different interpretations in one or another variant of the philosophy of life. The biological-naturalist interpretation characterizes a trend dating back to F. Nietzsche; L. Klages and T. Lessing are representative of this trend, which emphasizes the “vital” as something natural, in contrast to what is mechanically constructed and “artificial.” Typically, followers of this school of thought are opposed not only to materialism but also to the “spirit” and “reason” of idealist rationalism. Their philosophy, which leans toward the primitive and the cult of force, attempts to reduce all ideas to the “interests,” “instincts,” and “will” of individuals or social groups; their treatment of morality and cognition is pragmatic (the good and the true being defined as that which strengthens the primary vital principle, and evil and falsehood as that which weakens it); their sociological thinking is marked by organicism; in their view, the person as a basic principle is replaced by the individual, and the individual by the human race—that is, the larger whole.

In the “historical” variant of the philosophy of life, as exemplified by W. Dilthey, G. Simmel and J. Ortega y Gasset, “life” is interpreted directly from internal experiences, such as are manifested in the history of nonmaterial culture. In contrast to the variants that regard the vital principle as the eternal and immutable foundation of being, the historical variant focuses on the individual forms in which life is realized—its nonrecurrent and unique cultural-historical forms.

In effect, the philosophy of life is incapable of overcoming the problem posed by the relativist position—namely, the dissolution of all moral and cultural values in the stream of “life” and history. A characteristic feature of the philosophy of life is its rejection of a mechanistic natural science; the historical school, opposing any interpretation of spiritual phenomena from the natural-science point of view, attempts to work out a specific methodology for cognition of the spirit (see, for example, Dilthey’s herme-neutics, Spengler’s morphology of history, and the ideas of Verstehende Psychologie). In the historical school, the antithesis between the organic and the mechanical is represented as the juxtaposition of culture and civilization.

In still another variant of the philosophy of life, “life” is interpreted as a kind of cosmic force—H. Bergson’s élan vital, or vital impetus—whose essence lies in continuous self-reproduction and creation of new forms; the essence of life is pure “duration,” and life’s essential changeability can be comprehended intuitively.

In the philosophy of life, the theory of knowledge is a variation of irrationalist intuitionism. The individual nature of an object—its vital dynamics—cannot be expressed in general concepts; it is accessible to direct intuition, which is akin to the gift of artistic insight. Thus the philosophy of life resurrects the pan-aesthetic notions of German romanticism and leads to a revival of the cult of creativity and genius. The followers of this school of thought emphasize the fundamentally different and mutually exclusive nature of the philosophical and the scientific view of the world: science seeks to establish mastery over the world, while philosophy is inherently contemplative and thus akin to art. In the philosophy of life, the artistic symbol is regarded as the most congruent of cognitive forms, revealing both the organic and the spiritual entities. A concept that has been cited in support of this view is Goethe’s primal phenomenon, or prototype, which reproduces itself in all the components of a living structure. In the scheme proposed by Spengler, the great cultures of antiquity and of modern times are presented as “unfolding” from the proto-spirit, or “prime symbol,” of each culture—each culture growing out of this primal phenomenon as a plant grows out of a seed. Simmel’s ideas are presented in terms analogous to Spengler’s. In Bergson’s view, all philosophical conceptions are expressions of the fundamental and profound intuition of their creator, or author; such intuition, like the author’s individual nature, or “personhood,” is essentially inexpressible and unreproducible.

The philosophy of life regards creativity, in essence, as synonymous with life. For Bergson, creativity means giving birth to the new, or expressing the richness and abundance of life-giving nature; for Simmel, as well as for F. Stepun, it assumes a tragic duality: the product of the creative act is seen as something that has grown inert and stagnant and that in the final analysis becomes inimical to the creator and the creative principle. Hence Simmel’s tone of unresolvable anguish, echoed in Spengler’s fatalism and traceable to the very roots of the philosophy of life and its world view; it is a world view marked by a fatalist bent (Nietzsche’s amor fati) and seeking a resolution in life’s elemental irrationalism.

The tragic motifs lying at the root of the philosophy of life were adopted in art, and especially in symbolism, in the late 19th and early 20th century. The period of greatest influence of the philosophy of life was the first quarter of the 20th century, when it was held in regard by some in the neo-Hegelian and pragmatist schools. Thereafter its ideas were incorporated or transformed in the various idealist schools of 20th-century philosophy; existentialism and personalism are among the currents that have borrowed from the philosophy of life and have taken its place.


Rickert, H. Filosofiia zhizni. Petrograd, 1922.
Sovremennaia burzhuaznaia filosofiia. Moscow, 1972. Pages 112–75.
Messer, A. Lebensphilosophie. Leipzig, 1931.
Lersch, P. Lebensphilosophie der Gegenwart. Berlin, 1932.
Bollnow, O. F. Die Lebensphilosophie. Berlin, 1958.
Mirsch, G. Lebensphilosophie und Phänomenologie, 3rd ed. Berlin, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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