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Updated on December 26, 2010

Eclecticism (Greek 'eklegein', to select) is the practice of borrowing ideas from different systems of thought without trying to form a new system. Eclecticism may exist in any field of thought, such as philosophy, religion, politics, or science. The purpose of an eclectic is the solution of a particular problem. Because he believes that there is no logical system that will apply to all problems, he takes useful principles from any systems of thought and overlooks their contradictions.

Eclecticism differs from syncretism, which tries to harmonize conflicting ideas. Eclecticism has often been criticized as superficial and unoriginal. However, some believe it to be a very useful practice.

Eclecticism developed in the Mediterranean world in the 2nd century B.C. as an attempt to adopt the best of various Greek philosophies. The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero wrote treatises that were influenced by the different ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Stoic philosophers.

In the 19th century, eclecticism won great popularity in France, owing to the teaching of Victor Cousin, Adolphe Garnia, and others. Cousin asserted that "Each system is not false, but incomplete, and in reuniting all incomplete systems we should have a complete philosophy, adequate to the totality of consciousness".

Eclecticism in Philosophy

A philosophical system is said to be eclectic if its heterogeneous doctrines are logically incompatible or otherwise antagonistic. Eclectic systems, as distinguished from syncretistic systems, which also combine diverse ideas, generally do not try seriously to reconcile opposing concepts or show an underlying unity of thought. They are thus vulnerable to the charge of inconsistency, and the term "eclectic" is frequently used unfavorably.

Philosophical eclecticism usually develops when there are several conflicting systems of thought. In the 2nd century B.C. the skeptical approach of Carneades to the established Greek schools of philosophy gave rise to an eclectic spirit among such Greek philosophers as Panaetius of Rhodes and Posidonius of Apamea. Most Roman philosophers, especially Cicero and such Neoplatonists as lamblichus, variously combined elements from Stoicism, Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and Cynicism.

Renaissance humanists were eclectic in their mixture of Christian and classical ideas, with the exception of Pico della Mirandola, who attempted to synthesize the doctrines of previous thinkers according to the Platonic theory that they were all faulty glimpses of a perfect truth. In modern times, major philosophers tend to be eclectic in their consideration of various traditions, such as rationalism and empiricism; but they generally go on, like Leibniz and Spinoza, to a syncretistic attempt at reconciliation. More specifically eclectic philosophers include Christian Wolff and Moses Mendelssohn in the 18th century and, in the 19th, Victor Cousin, who coined the term. Such speculative literary figures as Coleridge, Carlyle, Pater, Emerson, and Thoreau may also be considered eclectics.

Eclecticism in the Arts

In the arts the term "eclecticism" is applied to a school or trend that draws on many aesthetic styles to produce works that, if not harmonious or beautiful in the classical sense, are at least novel. (Victorian architecture, for example, is called eclectic because it drew on such past styles as classical and Gothic.) The word may be used unfavorably, as in the case of Saint-Saens, who is called eclectic in that his music draws indiscriminately from many aesthetically incompatible styles. Milton and other Mannerist poets are sometimes praised for their eclecticism in the sense that they have combined diverse styles with artistic success. Eclecticism is often associated with decadence, as in the case of the "decadent" school of such writers as J. K. Huysmans.


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    • philosophos profile image

      philosophos 7 years ago

      Now newer and more improveder!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you for an interesting hub, and an explanation.