Ethical Culture is a properly religious approach to life.  Accordingly, its intellectual and philosophic aspects are heterogeneous and only part of the larger religious approach.  Although we talk about philosophic neutrality, we do occupy a certain space in the spectrum of human thought. There are three philosophical trends that have played a major role in shaping the movement’s intellectual fingerprint.

Historically the movement built on or reexamined Adler’s thought in the light of John Dewey and pragmatism.  While we do not adopt Pragmatism as an official philosophy, its emphasis on the relational, subjective nature of reality offers an intellectual foundation for our religion.  Pragmatism rejects the meaningfulness of absolutist language and thought, and while it accepts that the nature of reality is objective, it claims that the subjective human element is the basis of our collective understanding thereof. Crucially, pragmatism’s focus on action as the purpose of philosophic thinking offers a foundation for our emphasis on deed.

Existentialism is the second intellectual movement that grounds our religious approach.  While existentialism depicts personal life as an individual and internal struggle to confront the inherent meaninglessness of existence, its appreciation of the individual’s role in and responsibility for creating her world offers new ways of interpreting what Ethical Culture can mean for life.  According to existentialism, true belief is manifested in action, and so professed belief is meaningless if the individual does not act out her beliefs in the real world.

Finally, process thought, exemplified by philosophers such as Henri Bergson, rejects Western philosophy’s traditional emphasis on static things and substances with unchanging natures in favor of a view of life as an interrelated flow of experience and change.  There is no dualism between mind and body, and all experience, including the organic, is a part of the ongoing process of reality forming itself. Reality is not made up of static things interacting, not linear cause and effect; it is an ongoing and continuous process that is both mental and physical. Life is a process of participation in events.  At each moment everything comes together to create the next moment. This supports Ethical Culture’s view of the relational nature of human reality. Ethical living is not just a case of choosing between clear-cut principles and values or making periodic significant decisions. Ethical living is the experience of being a presence that affects, for better or worse, the wellbeing of all individuals and that of the whole.  We are all related points in the web of life, presences in the flow. Each presence is essential to the whole; everything is part of one overarching dynamic process.

Without arguing about the fine points of these philosophies, Pragmatism, Existentialism and Process Thought offer an intellectual foundation for the core ideas of Ethical Culture.  Pragmatism’s rejection of the philosophic search for absolute ideas of truth and goodness in favor of finding meaning in participation, existentialism’s emphasis on life as an act of self-creation, and process thought’s understanding of our reality as an interrelated flow of events not only offer clarity as we try to explain our approach but also a starting point from which to interrogate that approach.

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