Carl Lotus Becker

American historian Carl Lotus Becker (1873-1945) was a proponent of the doctrine of historical relativism. He is best known for his book "The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers."

Carl Becker was born on a farm near Waterloo, lowa, on Sept. 7, 1873. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1896, where he had studied history with Frederick Jackson Turner, and stayed on for 2 years of graduate work, followed by a year at Columbia University with H. L. Osgood and J. H. Robinson. He took his doctorate under Turner in 1907; in his thesis, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (1909), he contended that the American Revolution was fundamentally a conflict over "who should rule at home."

In 1901 he married Maude Hepworth Ranney, a widow with a young daughter, and they had one son. Becker taught at Pennsylvania State College, Dartmouth, and Minnesota, and spent 14 years at the University of Kansas before he was appointed professor of modern history at Cornell University in 1917. His career was thereafter identified with Cornell.

In The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922), Becker examined the central ideas of the Declaration, particularly the notion of natural rights, treating them as neither true nor false in any absolute sense but as prevailing assumptions of the age to be judged in terms of their functional effectiveness. The concept of a "climate of opinion, " a phrase borrowed from A. N. Whitehead, Becker made famous in The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932). Here Becker advanced the paradox that the philosophes who had undermined the traditional intellectual world in the name of science were themselves dominated by a nonscientific faith in a rational universal order (a secular version of the Heavenly City). This thesis has been severely criticized, but the book remains a monument to Becker's literary artistry, a tour de force of high aphoristic with, written in a spirit of masterful detachment.

As early as 1910 Becker had rejected the claim that the writing of history involved the recovery of discrete facts which were waiting to be discovered; the "facts" of history, he noted, were present images and must necessarily partake of present experience to have meaning. This was a favorite Becker theme, most memorably formulated in "Everyman His Own Historian, " Becker's presidential address to the American Historical Association (1931); in it he argued the subjectivity and relativity of historical knowledge, considering historians as "story-tellers … to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths."

With the rise of 20th-century totalitarianism Becker found himself somewhat in the dilemma of those philosophes he had so keenly dissected; for if history verged on being transitory propaganda and if objective values were not to be sought for, then what basis was there for a morally grounded defense of democracy? Deeply committed to democracy, Becker now concluded that democratic values were indeed "Some Generalities that Still Glitter" (published in 1940) and that they had "a life of their own apart from any particular social system or type of civilization." In the war years he revised his pragmatic relativism so as to give some positive answer to the question, "What Is Still Living in the Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?" (published in 1943).

Becker died in Ithaca, N.Y., on April 10, 1945.


Further Reading on Carl Lotus Becker

A rounded portrait of Becker as man, teacher, philosopher, and historian is provided by Charlotte Watkins Smith, Carl Becker: On History and the Climate of Opinion (1956). Raymond O. Rockwood, ed., Carl Becker's Heavenly City Revisited (1958), brings together criticisms and recollections by a number of historians, including distinguished former students who knew Becker well. Becker's ideas and his significance in the history of American thought are treated in detail in Cushing Strout, The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard (1958), and Burleigh Taylor Wilkins, Carl Becker: A Biographical Study in American Intellectual History (1961).