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Felix Adler

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Felix Adler, c. 1913
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Felix Adler (1851–1933) was a German-born American philosopher, rationalist, and social reformer.[1] Although the son of a rabbi, he wanted to replace existing faiths with a new, humanistic religion that would be based on principles of morality and concern for others, rather than on the supernatural; this became known as the Ethical Culture movement. He also campaigned on various social and political issues, including for better public housing and civil liberties, and in opposition to poverty, child labor, and imperialism.[2]


He was born in Alzey, now in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, but when Felix was six, his father moved the family to New York to take up a position as a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, a flagship of Reform Judaism. Initially he was destined to follow his father's profession, and studied at Columbia University in New York and at Heidelberg, Germany. But his ideas about religion did not match with the demands of his father's temple: in 1873 he delivered a sermon on "The Judaism of the Future", which reportedly did not mention God once, instead focusing on the social role of religion. Rather than a career as a rabbi, his father's congregation paid for him to get him a job at Cornell University teaching Hebrew and Oriental literature, but the university didn't like his ideas and dismissed him after a couple of years. He returned to New York City and continued to give lectures at his father's synagogue.[3]

He spent much of his life campaigning on social issues, and he held the chair of political and social ethics at Columbia University from 1902, where he taught until his death. As well as exemplifying his moral philosophy through social activism and education, he set out his ideas in books such as An Ethical Philosophy of Life (1918).[4]

Ethical Culture[edit]

He wanted to unite all people, whether theist, deist, agnostic, or atheist into a single religious cause, with a focus on good deeds. His Society of Ethical Culture was incorporated in 1877.

The movement had several principles.[5]

  • Morality is independent of theology
  • Industrial society brings new moral problems that traditional religions have not addressed
  • The duty of philanthropy
  • Self-reform and social reform must proceed together
  • Ethical societies should be republican (democratic)
  • Educating the young is the highest priority

The movement welcomed both atheists and theists, seeking to offer a home for all. He opposed ritual and ceremony, believing they led to division. However the movement gradually adopted rituals like regular Sunday meetings and ceremonies for major life events, albeit in a humanistic way.

In 1893, the New York Society for Ethical Culture merged with other similar bodies to form the American Ethical Union. It declined in the early 20th century, reviving somewhat after World War Two, albeit chiefly providing alternative Sunday schools for children rather than Adler's larger social reform agenda. In the 21st century, the movement remains small although not extinguished, and is still involved with other humanist organisations.[2]

It spread to England in 1885, where the American-born Stanton Coit became its chief proponent in the late 19th century, and the British organisation eventually became the British Humanist Association in 1967, which is now known as Humanists UK.

Moral philosophy[edit]

He was originally influenced by neo-Kantianism in Heidelberg, although he later rejected much of Kant, particularly Kant's abstract intellectualism and scientism. Adler tried to relate morality to a "supreme ethical rule", given such forms as "So act as to elicit the unique personality in others, and thereby in thyself", or "Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in thyself".[2] He believed that while facts may be conceived as independent of each other, a value only had meaning within a value system, and therefore the task was to construct a value system.[4]

His philosophy is sometimes linked to the trancendentalist school, popular in 19th century New England (e.g. influential on Henry David Thoreau and Unitarianism), which believed in people's innate goodness and the importance of individual intuition and personal independence. However he rejected an individualistic philosophy, believing people had to act as part of a wider ethical or spiritual universe, seeking to individuate themselves but also aid others in eliciting their own individuality.[4] While far from a hedonist (who believes pleasure or happiness is the only value), he believed that improving other people's material conditions was the way to personal fulfilment in the absence of an afterlife or any other external source of human value.

Political causes[edit]

His early causes with Ethical Culture included a team of district nurses to visit the poor and housebound sick, in 1877. One of his first causes was to establish a free kindergarten for the children of working people, in 1878; it also provided clothing and meals; it later became the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private independent school in New York City.

He was one of the founders of the Civil Liberties Bureau, a precursor of the American Civil Liberties Union.[3]

He served on the New York State Tenement House Commission, worried about overcrowding, contagious disease spreading in bad housing, and high rents. He was one of the founders of the Tenement House Building Company formed in 1885 which built model tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

At the same time, he had larger ideas about a better society, favouring a state organised based on vocational groups, somewhat along the lines of medieval guilds.[4] This doesn't seem to have ever been seriously on the agenda, as he focused on smaller interventions rather than utopian schemes.

External links[edit]


  1. Felix Adler, Richard H. Popkin, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jewish Virtual Library
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 See the Wikipedia article on Felix Adler (professor).
  3. 3.0 3.1 This Day in Jewish History 1851: A Maverick Social Activist Is Born, Ha'aretz, Aug 13, 2013
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Felix Adler's Philosophy of Life, Warner Fite, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 16, No. 6 (Mar. 13, 1919), pp. 141-151 (11 pages)
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Ethical movement.