John Elof Boodin

This page is built and maintained by Michael A. Flannery and Randall E. Auxier

Links to Boodin’s works are below the biography.


by Randall E. Auxier

John Elof Boodin (1869-1950)

John Elof Boodin was born 14 September 1869 on the Barsedt homestead in Pjätteryd parish, Småland, Sweden. He was the fifth of ten children and had other half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage. Boodin’s parents were pious Lutherans and his keen intellect was recognized early by two of the local pastors, who advised that young Elof should receive a university education. Up to the age of sixteen he worked on the family farm and explored the countryside of Småland. From this he gained a firsthand appreciation for nature, both the beautiful and the harsh aspects. Between 1885 and 1887, he attended the respected Fjellstedt Gymnasium in Uppsala. Upon the death of his father in 1887, financial need led Boodin to emigrate to the United States and he settled in Colchester, Illinois. He was following several older siblings already in the US, who planned that he should receive his advanced education there, in spite of his not knowing a word of English.

Thus began a remarkable climb through American academia. Boodin adapted quickly to his new country, attending first Macomb Normal and Commercial College (now Western Illinois University), then Augustana College, followed by the University of Colorado in 1892, the University of Minnesota in 1893, and finally Brown University, from which he received a BA in 1895 and an MA in 1896 in philosophy, studying under James Seth. From there he went to Harvard University in 1897 for doctoral work, where he studied with William James, Josiah Royce, and George Santayana, among others. The effort to blend and synthesize these influences provided the impetus for Boodin’s thought. He received his Ph.D,. in 1899, writing his dissertation on “A Theory of Time.”

Boodin served as a lecturer at Harvard in 1899-1900, and then was a professor of philosophy at Iowa College (now Grinnell College) from 1900 to 1904, follwed by the University of Kansas from 1904 to 1912.  At Kansas, Boodin fought the university’s president on a matter of principle, perhaps winning the moral high ground but losing the professional battle. After a year back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was professor of philosophy at Carleton College in Minnesota from 1913 to 1927, then at the University of Southern California 1928-29, and finally at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) from 1929 until his retirement in 1939. His mpapers are held at UCLA. Boodin died on 14 November, 1950 in Los Angeles.

Boodin at Carleton College, from the collection of Michael A. Flannery

There were travels and visiting lectures in London and Oxford as his reputation grew, but Boodin was always disappointed not to have been called back to Harvard, and at being obliged to create philosophical works in the spare time he could find between teaching and heavy administrative responsibility. Nevertheless he published nine substantial books and close to a hundred scholarly articles. During his lifetime Boodin was well respected, widely reviewed, , and often cited and anthologized. A sign of esteem from his colleagues came when he was elected early in his career to the presidency of the Western Philosophical Association (today’s Central Division of the American Philosophical Association) in 1912-13. Then, at the height of his powers. Boodin was elected President of the Pacific Division of the APA in 1933-34.


Boodin is known for his command of both contemporary science and the history of philosophy, for his creative ideas, and his poetic style of writing. Time has tended to confirm many of his philosophical hypotheses, although he has been rarely read in recent years. Some interpreters read Boodin’sd philosophy as an effort to temper Royce’s absolutism with James’s realism. He is often classified with the idealists in the philosophical literature. This classification seems to derive largely from Boodin’s willingness to embrace and elaborate Royce’s social philosophy, especially as set out in The Problem of Christianity (1913), and Royce’s logic of relations, and also in part because of Boodin’s conception of God. Others have seen James as Boodin’s primary influence, and his life’s work as an effort to work out the theory of energistic fields in a pluralistic metaphysics, a project James was never able to complete to his own satisfaction. Boodin had a greater talent for metaphysics than James, making the task more manageable for him.

Boodin’s epistemology was a type of pragmatic realism, very much guided by and connected to the findings of empirical science. But Boodin was critical of aspects of both pragmatism and scientism. Pragmatism was weak in logic and metaphysics, he thought, while science provides at most some good analogies for metaphysics, and he warned against taking those analogies literally. Even a perfected science would not answer some of the most serious philosophical demands, particularly that the universe must be comprehended not just rationally in terms of truth, but also aesthetically and morally in terms of beauty and goodness. Yet Boodin kept up with the best science of his day, especially physics, and strove to conform his philosophical vocabulary and viewpoint to its findings.

Others see Boodin as a process philosopher, even though he was often critical of Henri Bergson. Indeed, one of Boodin’s principal criticisms of both absolute and empirical idealism was that these philosophies ignore process. Still others see Boodin as a kind of theistic naturalist, on account of his view of the relation between God and nature, a pan-experientialist and pantheist view.

All of these assessments of Boodin, as an idealist, pragmatist, realist, theistic naturalist, and process philosopher are correct. At a mature stage in his career he described his philosophy as “empirical realism and metaphysical energism with a functional conception of qualities and values.” (Nelson, 1987, p. 24) Ne4lson adds to this description that Boodin defends also a “cosmic idealism,” which is uncontroversial in that Boodin subtitled one of his books in 1925 (when he was 56) with that phrase. Understanding what is meant by all these terms a basis for understanding Boodin’s whole philosophy.

Boodin’s philosophy really began with a theory of time that is entirely his own, first published in 1904. Noting that both the Bergsonian qualitative view and the scientific quantitative view of the serial character of time have a number of failings, he argues that our thinking about time may be improved by seeing it as a “real dynamism” in which “truth [is] relative to process, not process to truth. . . . If process is real, then reality is infinite and truth can never exhaust reality . . . it will take an infinite number of truth universes to register or symbolize a universe of process.” (1904, p. 80) Time is, for Boodin, “dynamic non-being” tha acts within being, as a limit, as a mode of existence without content, as possibility, identifying process with reality twenty-five years ahead of Alfred North Whitehead, and time with real dynamism following Bergson, prepared Boodin as few others for the philosophical encounter with the theory of relativity and the quantum revolution. Boodin was already able to deal with the idea of energy philosophically, just before it became the very center of natural philosophy.

Following Royce, Boodin argued that “to be is to be uniquely related to a whole,” but he departed from Royce’s criticisms of realism. Royce had defined realism as the conception that “to be is to be independent,” while Boodin granted that there is no such thing as complete metaphysical independence, individuals musty be conceived as metaphysically discrete, and hence, some metaphysical relations are not internal to any overall totality. The totality is rather a cosmos, an order in process, and the notion of energy “serves as a convenient name, however thin, for the whole world of process.”* (1911, p. 303) Boodin held that the cosmos consisted of “a hierarchy of fields.” Such hierarchies of of nested and mutually dependent fields are found in organisms of all sorts, in our daily experience. For example, in the human organism “there are fields of the lower centers of the nervous system; there are also cerebral fields and psychological fields. The cerebral fields give definiteness and organization to the lower neural fields.” (1932, p. 212)  The nested (physical) dependence of higher patterns of organization upon lower ones continues to the very top of our intellectual and imaginative capacities, but they reciprocate by making the order of the lower fields organized and definite. The universe itself must be conceived by analogy to the organic structure, if any adequate metaphysics is to be offered, since explanations must satisfy not only our logical and empirical demands, but also our aesthetic and moral demands. At the height of our imaginative and intellectual life, we find the logical order of thought itself. Arguing that we may be assured of the universal applicability of logical laws, because mind is fully at home in nature, Boodin reasons that the study of science discovers exemplifications in natural processes of a broader orderliness. “The cosmos must be conceived not merely as a dynamic equilibrium, but as a living dynamic of such a structure or ‘curvature’ that the loss of available energy in one part is compensated for by an equal increase elsewhere, for only a living equilibrium can be self-sustaining.” (1932, p. 200). The universe is conceived by Boodin as being alive, as a sophisticated arrangement of interdependent energistic fields, dynamically encountering possibility.

Prior to developing this cosmic idealism, Boodin erxpended significant effort on issues of method and knowledge to formulate an empirical realism. His realism is grounded in arguing that discrete metaphysucal individuals have “reference to an object existing beyond the apperceptive unity of momentary individual consciousness.” (1911, p. 251) There is a felt sense of the encompassing whole from any given perspective, but no realistic basis on which to bind that whole in a single account of “truth.” Hence, reality always exceeds truth. Truth concerns relations that make a practical difference in the universe. Thus, one might ask how nested energistic fields that are organically internal to the metaphysical individuals can have a discoverable relation to energistic fields from which metaphysical individuals are discrete. This is the way the mind-body problem appears in Boodin’s terms. To solve the mind-body problem realistically and empirically, Boodin points out that the concept of energy, as empirically defined, is the capacity to do work in the real universe, a difference that makes a difference in the universe. Whether we have yet learned the details or not, we can safely assume that ideas, consciousness, and mind, or whatever term we use for those groups of relations internal to individuals, do make a difference in the universe. For all their mysteriousness, it can easily be seen that ideas are a kind of energy, by definition, , because they alter the universe. To deny this is commit oneself to an equivocal definition of energy. Hence it is both empirical and realistic to conceive of energy as existing in fields that possess genuine interdependent but discrete forms. The forms of energy fields are dynamic, contingent, active, and evolving. Time and energy are, then, the complementary agencies of creative becoming: energy is dynamic being and time is dynamic non-being.

This may not be a standard form of metaphysical and empirical realism, but Boodin insists upon its classification as a kind of realism. In the second edition (1931) of his major work, A Realistic Universe, Boodin was quick to capitalize on the notion of quantum indeterminacy to argue that realism no longer meant giving one’s philosophy to determinate laws of nature as the ground of form. Knowable form and structure in nature are consistent with a process conception of energy within a realist epistemology.

The topic of God in relation to nature played a large role in Boodin’s mature work. Arguing that the first and most basic mistake in human thinking about God is the habit of severing the natural from the super-natural, Boodin argues that these are really two perspectives on all reality: the perspective of the part or individual, and the perspective of the living and developing whole. A human conception of God must be derived empirically from the way each and every part is suffused with the meaning of the whole. We know that we live in an empirically real “community of minds” that is not wholly rationalizable, but we often fail to recognize that our relation to the divine is analogous. Rejecting “proofs” for the existence of God, Boodin sought an apt way to fill out this relation of part to whole, arguing that “we have an analogy in the human personality. The events in the life of the organism are guided by a whole pattern –the field of the individual soul– which gives a unique quality to the individual. . . . It is through this soul that energy is directed so as to find its place where it is needed in the life of the whole.” (1934, p. 33). Alluding to the first law of thermodynamics, Boodin continues, “nothing is lost which is significant to the life of the whole. The light that goes out here is rekindled yonder . . . . only the trivial, insignificant and bad dies, not to rise again to life.” This is the second death, the death of the individual –not the loss of energy, but the loss of pattern, the suicide of personality.” (1934, p. 33) Thus, Boodin conceives of God as a kind of natural, cosmic personality, “the spiritual field in which everything lives and moves and has its being –the field which guides the cosmic process, though the parts must adapt themselves to the structure of this field in their own way, according to their own relativity in their moving finite frames of reference.” (1934, p. 34) Boodin conceives of God as the soul of the whole, its center of personal energy.

Although he had been working out his theory of social mind for many years, Boodin’s last major development came to fruition of on the eve of World War II. He attempted to set out along democratic lines the notion that “mind” (recalling this is a kind of energy) is not an idea that can be limited to atomic individuals. In the shadow of both communistic collectivism and fascistic nationalism, Boodin sought to articulate a social philosophy that respected individuality while recognizing that there is more to “mind” than “subcranial or solipsistic” individual psychology. Thus, he outlines a social ontology on “the analogies between the organism and society.” (1939, p. 130) Boodin’s analogy is, as always, more careful than the scientistic and reductionistic versions found in communist and fascist ideologies. “The social organism is merely a metaphor, a vague analogy.” (1939, p. 131)

Given the intimacy and immediacy of personal selves with the personal divine, it is not easy, Boodin realizes, to explain how the “social” can be anything more than an abstraction. He solves the problem with an account of intersubjective continuity  and response that follows Royce and is critical of James while bearing a close resemblance  (without explicit reference) to the social ontology of William Ernest Hocking (who was two years ahead of Boodin as a student at Harvard, and had been called back in 1912 to fill James’s place in the department; one wonders whether Boodin might have been put off by the choice; his letters make his desire to be at Harvard very clear). Arguing that the idea of social companionship is a pervasive, intuitive feature of all experience, Boodin reasons that absolute discontinuity among discrete individuals is an abstraction at best. Social continuity of metaphysically discrete individuals is the only warranted idea. The overall thrust of creative development is in the direction of creative synthesis, the creation of larger and more complex energistic fields. But our intuitive response that points to intersubjective continuity, although it is prior to the development of the individual, is insufficient for “social mind.” Boodin says, “in order to have a social mind there must be a sense of reciprocal or sympathetic response to the situation. On the lower levels this means the abandon to a common impulse, on the higher levels it means the leading of a common purpose.” (1939, p. 157) In proportion as a group can be fused in pursuit of an ideal purpose, there is a social mind in the personal sense. This fusion is not the result of individual personalities choosing rationally (as Kant would hold), it is what creates individual personalities and provides the measure of their rationality (a position very close to Royce’s). In terms of forming normative judgments about better and worse purposes, Boodin embraces Royce’s notion of loyalty and develops it further.

*As of June 2023, it appears that Boodin’s general hypothesis is empirically advanced by studies at Stanford University from the laboratory of Josef Parvisi, who has identified an area of the brain, the anterior precuneus, that by stimulation with electrical impulses affects the grounding of a sense of self in the physical body. See the article here. Boodin would have insisted on such an empirical basis for confirming his general view.



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