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Otto, Max (1876-1968)

Max Otto

The Life of Max Otto

Professor Max Carl Otto was born in the historic town of Zwickau, Saxony, in 1876, and was brought to America by his immigrant parents in his fifth year. He went to school, through the sixth grade, in Wheeling, West Virginia, where his father kept a restaurant. He studied the Lutheran catechism diligently under a stern, old-fashioned pastor, and also learned to concentrate so thoroughly on what he heard in church that he could repeat the essentials of the sermon to his Lutheran parents. The resulting development of the power of concentration has stood him in good stead ever since.

Young Max served as a waiter in the family restaurant until he was sixteen. Then he went off to Cincinnati and Chicago on his own. In Chicago he was employed as a messenger for the R. G. Dun rating agency, and did incidental human salvage work on Sundays for the Y.M.C.A. This latter avocation led to a regular quasi-religious post in the Milwaukee Y.M.C.A., where he worked with boys. But recognizing the need for further education if he were to “grasp this sorry scheme of things,” he gave up his job in the Y.M.C.A. and filled in some of the many gaping holes in his preparation for college by study in local academies. This accomplished, he was admitted, somewhat irregularly, to Carroll College, Waukesha, by President Rankin, who was not averse to stretching the rules in favor of a young man of obvious ability and persistence. From Carroll, after a couple of fruitful years, he moved on to the state university at Madison, where he majored in history under the great Frederick Jackson Turner, and secured a distinguished B.A. in 1906, with election to Phi Beta Kappa. (At Wisconsin also the rules were stretched—or rather broken—in his favor, for he, whose prose is so simple and strong, had not taken the required course in freshman English.)

Otto took up graduate studies in philosophy, and won his Ph.D. in 1911. The tutorship or direction of the studies of another young American enabled Mr. Otto to spend a summer and a semester in Europe, with a term under Windelband at Heidelberg. He had been appointed assistant in philosophy at Wisconsin in 1908 and instructor in 1910, and there he rubbed shoulders and sharpened wits with Boyd H. Bode and Horace M. Kallen, and other promising fledglings in philosophy, while beginning his ascent of the academic ladder to a full professorship in 1921. A year earlier he was married to Rhoda Owen, a graduate of Wisconsin and a history teacher; and later on they spent seven productive months of travel and study in Europe. The family grew to include a son and a daughter.

Mr. Otto also produced, under his wife’s critical eye, three books with significant titles: Things and Ideals (1924), Natural Laws and Human Hopes (1926) and The Human Enterprise (1940), together with a large sheaf of periodical articles, public lectures, reviews, and contributions to other critical volumes. His share in the controversial Is There a God? (1932), originally a running debate in The Christian Century with H. N. Wieman and D. C. Macintosh as his antagonists, reveals with clarity the antitheistic position he reached, as does his chapter in Religious Liberals Reply (1947). His address in the centenary volume, William James: The Man and The Thinker (1942), naturally discloses much of his own philosophical position, which is briefly but cogently set forth in his chapters in Philosophy in American Education (1945), a report by Brand Blanshard and four other members of the commission appointed by the American Philosophical Association to investigate the subject.

Mr. Otto’s service as a teacher of philosophy, and as chairman of the department of philosophy at Wisconsin since 1936, came to an end in 1947, when he became a professor emeritus. He has been honored with the presidency of the Western branch of the American Philosophical Association.

The philosophy which Max Otto developed did not involved the abstract, deductive systems which ingenious minds have invented through the ages to explain the universe and man in whole or in part; it was not the sort of philosophy one finds in the older histories of the subject. Of course, he knows these systems, and he has been heard to say that he would give his right arm—”well, at least a little finger”—to read the lost treatise of Protagoras on Truth, for its possible anticipation of pragmatism, of which he himself is a representative. Pragmatism is, in fact, essentially an American product—native, democratic, homespun, redolent of the soil. It grows out of and is rooted in the common problems and common sense of men and women—refined common sense, of course, but still common sense, whether at work in business, agriculture, politics, economics, science, or religion. The underlying purpose of this philosophy is the enhancement of human life for all. “Humane, warm, and in the best sense simple,” President Burkhardt of Bennington said of Max Otto, “his wisdom is pervaded by a profound sense of dedication to the enrichment of man’s intellectual and spiritual life.”

Max Otto’s philosophy was conceived—and born—in Wisconsin. Of course his native endowment of mind and heart, his experiences of life, and his struggles for clarity of purpose underlie the vision he caught at the university. One may also safely assert that the elder La Follette’s program for social betterment had a part in Max Otto’s philosophy, and that it was nurtured, enriched, and confirmed by the teachings of William James and John Dewey—especially of John Dewey, his good and great friend.

Within the broad reaches of his philosophy, Max Otto, a man of genuine religious temper, places stress on the need of our age for a nontheistic faith. The writer ventures to quote from his own review of The Human Enterprise, written when that important book was published: “The theistic foundation of truth, goodness, beauty, and humane feeling being seriously weakened, it is an urgent requirement of the times that an alternative foundation be found for those who do not accept the theistic foundation. This other foundation the author finds in practical sympathy for the needs of mankind as they progressively reveal themselves in the working out of the actual problems which confront humanity.”

Max Otto’s abandonment of supernaturalism, which he pushed to its extreme limits in the debate with Wieman and Macintosh, involved him in serious difficulties almost from the beginning of his career as a teacher at Wisconsin. For it inevitably colored what became his great and increasingly popular course, “Man and Nature,” where he takes a frankly naturalistic view of the universe. The first attack came in 1912, when clerical critics and their sympathizers in Madison and elsewhere in the state demanded his elimination from the staff as an enemy of religion, and, strangely enough, as a violator of the state constitution, which forbids sectarian religious instruction in the university. The stamina of the young instructor was put to a very tough test. It would have been an easy way out to give up the course; but Max Otto, after prolonged reflection, declined to do so. His students and not a few of his colleagues—some of whom hardly knew him—stood by him, and Van Hise, the great president, irritated though he was by this additional disturbance, in effect backed him up in his forthright commencement address of that year (1912), entitled “The Spirit of a University.”

Freedom of thought, Van Hise here declared, inquiry after truth for its own sake, adjustment of the knowledge of the past in the light of the newest facts and highest reason—”this is the essential spirit of a university, which under no circumstances should it yield.”

This spirit, President Van Hise proclaims, “forever makes a university a center of conflict. If a university were content to teach simply those things concerning which there is practical unanimity of opinion . . . there would be quiet; but it would be the quiet of stagnation.”

Max Otto’s student following and influence grew steadily in the following decades, and many liberal theologians gave him their enduring friendship. Nevertheless, he was exposed to three more bitter attacks. In the latest and fiercest of these, that of 1932, he, a professor in politics, was used as a whipping boy for his friends, the LaFollettes, and was assailed in press and platform as an exhibit of the pernicious radicalism—and atheism—they were said to foster. But again students and colleagues, in increasing numbers, rallied to his side, and again the president of the university, now Glenn Frank, defended him—as his predecessors had done in each of the preceding attacks—and his opponents were thereafter reduced to occasional and ineffective sniping. Max Otto had won—the university had won—a veritable “Twenty Years’ War.”

Professor Otto’s knowledge of scientific method and scientific achievements is wide and deep. It is conveniently shown in a pocket-size book entitled Science and the Moral Life (I949), which consists of selections from his writings. (It is one of the series called “Mentor Books,” published by the New American Library.) Mr. Otto was not blind to some of the perilous fruits of science, notably the atomic bomb, and he did not exculpate their propagators. But scientific method, he is certain, must be extended to the social and, of course, to the religious field, to what he calls the search for the good life. Scientific method, he makes clear, is a way of investigation which relies solely on disciplined empirical observation and rigorously exact proof, proof that extends beyond inner or personal conviction to outer or public demonstration.

The search for the good life, to Max Otto, involves not only economic reconstruction in the interest of the fairest distribution of earth’s bounties to all men, but also political action to promote this distribution. “Unless enough Americans,” he declared in 1939, “are willing to invest their idealism in the project of remaking our social order into a positive means for utilizing our resources for the common good, it will not be long before there will be no idealism to invest.”

— By G. C. Sellery, Dean Emeritus, College of Letters and Sciences, University of Wisconsin. Abridged from The Cleavage in Our Culture, edited by Frederick Burckhardt.


Unitarian Humanist Who Feared a Creed

Prior to 1933, Max Otto (professor of philosophy), Horace M. Kallen, and V. T. Thayer (a signer of the manifesto) were all young men on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. V. T. Thayer was an educator and editor who wrote extensively on church-state separation. At one time, Max Otto and Horace Kallen roomed with the Thayers. According to Dr. Thayer, there was an occasion when the three young men were the lone dissenters on an issue before the campus. This position would not be unusual for anyone whose thinking was generally categorized as radical, as was the case with this group.

Unfortunately, the manifesto editors did not contact Dr. Kallen in 1933 to seek his signature and advice. However, because he was continuously important to humanism, I have included him in this history. When asked in 1973 why he had not been invited to sign “A Humanist Manifesto” in 1933, Kallen wrote to me that John Dewey had once asked him to sign the document. He explained that he had responded to Dewey by saying that he had had stronger objections (left unspecified) to signing the 1933 document than “Humanist Manifesto II” in 1973.

Max Carl Otto, although he declined to sign “A Humanist Manifesto,” never wavered in his humanism and was the author of a series of important books and reference material on church-state and educational issues. In response to the request for his signature on the manifesto, Dr. Otto replied on April 4, 1933:

I cannot believe that publishing the “Humanist Manifesto” will in the slightest degree “clarify the public mind” or “constitute a constructive work” in any significant sense. It will, on the contrary, I fear, be one of those theoretical gestures which leave with some persons a feeling that something has really been done when all that has been done is that something has been said. I am of the opinion that Humanism, as I understand the philosophy of it, cannot be “sold” to men and women; it must be attained by them, and that means slow, painstaking work. Much as I regret to say, No, to your request that I join you in a general announcement of ideas and aims, I do so with real conviction. Why must we, too, advertise?

We published his subsequently amplified comments in the same issue of The New Humanist in which the manifesto appeared:

Publication of the “Humanist Manifesto” will, in my opinion, serve no sufficient purpose. I cannot believe with you that it will clarify the public mind, or do constructive work for the cause. A set of fifteen principles, detached from the living experience which precipitated them and lacking the life and warmth of the interests they represent, can do little to inform the mind and nothing to stir the heart. Humanism—if I understand the philosophy of it—cannot be “sold” to people. If the “Manifesto” were a rallying cry issuing with glowing conviction from a group on the march together, or if it gave promise of gripping men and women of humanistic leanings, drawing them into closer, more understanding and more active unity, it would be a desirable signal. Unfortunately, I see no such service in it. And experience has taught me to beware of deceiving myself into thinking something has really been done when all that has been done is that something has been said. It would be easier for me to write, “Sure, go ahead, put me down.” If I take the harder course and do not sign the document which I know will carry the names of men I greatly admire and respect, it is because of a deep conviction that the “Manifesto” will prove to be an ineffectual gesture, and a tactical error.

It is not surprising that Otto refused to sign, given his view on humanism. In his 1949 book, Science and the Moral Law, he said: “All Humanisms have one thing in common. It is the ideal of realizing man’s completest development. From here on they diverge.”

— From The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto by Edwin H. Wilson.


A Brief Note on Unitarian Connections

Dr. Otto was a lifelong member of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin.



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