Steinbeck's Philosophy

Essay © 2016 by Jeanette Rumsby 

Introduction | The Concept of the Free-Thinking Individual | The Phalanx Theory | Utilitarianism | Non-Teleology and "Is" Thinking | Works Cited

Steinbeck openly rejected philosophy. He spoke of it as something that could, when presented overtly, be very bothersome (Life in Letters 85). But any casual reader of Steinbeck’s works can detect elements of philosophy in his writing. In fact, Steinbeck developed many theories and ideas that are innately philosophical. But perhaps what Steinbeck meant in saying that philosophy was bothersome is that it tends to get in the way of a good story. First and foremost, Steinbeck was a storyteller. His background in journalism and creative writing taught him to deliver a plot, in detail, with minimal pontificating. However, there are four unique philosophies that are traceable through many of Steinbeck’s works: the free-thinking individual theory, the phalanx theory, utilitarianism, and the "is" theory. While these may not be fully developed philosophies, they are certainly threads that, when understood, can lend much more significance to Steinbeck’s works and establish connections across the various genres of his writing.

The Concept of the Free-Thinking Individual

Though not explained until later in his writing career, perhaps Steinbeck's clearest and most celebrated philosophy was that of the free-thinking and independent individual. He was regularly filled with awe of the human spirit, the vast independence and will of a man or woman with a goal in mind, be it to find a home, support a family, or simply to survive. This concept of the powerful individual is highlighted in each of Steinbeck’s works. In East of Eden he writes:

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. (132)

In his fiction, Steinbeck’s philosophy is often dictated not through narrative voice but through the conversations and speculations of his characters, individuals who possess either a deep understanding of the world or a strong longing to understand. Characters like Lee and Sam Hamilton of East of Eden, Jim Casy of Grapes of Wrath, and Doc of Cannery Row all expound great wisdom and ideology though they seem to be unaware of their own philosophical abilities. However, in the quote above, Steinbeck is writing in the first person, incorporating his own voice into the narrative. But moments like these are very rare in his works. It seems Steinbeck preferred to deliver his philosophy through the mouths of great characters because then not only could he highlight the anguish of philosophy, the mental struggle for answers and the obsessive need to tie up all loose ends of an idea, but also because in this way he showed that each "philosophy" is the result of a lived experience. Steinbeck enjoyed the ordinary, the daily grit and grime, the basics of human existence. It is far easier to tell a story, to extrapolate an idea, when it is the child of an experience, the offspring of a true moment, than when it is a feeling derived from cold and abrasive third person narrative.

The most effective example of Steinbeck's philosophy of the individual is found in another section of East of Eden, in which Lee, the Chinese servant, explains the concept of "timshel." This moment is fascinating for two reasons. First, because in it Steinbeck explores the notion that independence and individuality are the children of the Christian concept of free will, deriving from the Hebrew word "timshel," which means "thou mayest." Second, because Steinbeck insists on delivering this idea through a Chinese character. In his Journal of a Novel, Steinbeck writes of Lee, "And beyond all this he is going into the book because I need him. The book needs his eye and his criticism which is more detached than mine" (73). Lee’s explanation of "timshel" is, in itself, a lovely example of the concept of "timshel." Despite his social position, Eastern heritage and domestic responsibilities, Lee chooses to learn Hebrew, chooses to spend years of his life unpacking a concept simply because it fascinates him. And this is the true meaning of Steinbeck's glory in the individual: "the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected."

The Phalanx Theory

Steinbeck's preoccupation with the powerful and thoughtful individual is somewhat paradoxically the jumping-off point for his fascination with the group mentality. Both with the guidance of Ed Ricketts and on his own, Steinbeck explored marine biology and spent many hours observing a variety of creatures, mammalian, invertebrate, and otherwise. He applied his knowledge of micro and macro biology to his observation of the human race, and began to develop the concept that mankind is hardly exceptional, that humans are but another species of animal on this planet. Though his fascination with Christianity and Eastern religion prevented him from becoming too immersed in this idea, Steinbeck wrote extensively about the commonalities between humans and fish, insects, and so on. He did not shy away from degrading or dehumanizing comparisons; rather, he opened his mind to all similarities.

Through these comparisons Steinbeck developed his "phalanx theory," which attempts to explain how individual humans in a group act much like cells in an organism; each cell is an individual with a purpose, a job, so to speak. But the total of all cells in an organism, together, has a unique and individual purpose. As such, an individual human may have individual purpose and meaning, but when grouped with a number of other individuals, a new purpose arises; that of the group, the unit, the phalanx. Steinbeck writes:

We have thought of mankind always in terms of individual men. We have tried to study men and movements of men by minute investigation of individual men units. We might as reasonably try to understand the nature of a man by investigating the cells of his body. Perhaps if we observe the phalanx, knowing it is a new individual, not to be confined within the units which comprise it, if we look back at the things it has done in an attempt to correlate and analyze its habits under various stimuli, we may in time come to know something of the phalanx, of its nature, of its drive and its ends, we may even be able to direct its movements where now we have only great numbers of meaningless, unrelated and destructive phenomena. (Argument of Phalanx 3)

Essentially, Steinbeck is suggesting that a group of men with a common purpose make up a unit, an unstoppable and fixed force in one direction. Furthermore, that mankind is impossible to understand if this group dynamic is not considered. As Steinbeck suggests, to try to understand mankind without considering the unifying power and influence of a group is as difficult as trying to understand the human body merely through the analysis of the white blood cells. 

Perhaps the clearest example of the phalanx theory in Steinbeck’s fiction is in a 1936 short story called The Vigilante. The story, based on a lynching that took place in San Jose, California in 1933, briefly illustrates the power of the "mob," and man’s ability to perform heinous deeds when cheered on and supported by a group. However, instead of focusing on the lynching itself, most of the story is one man’s reflection on the event:

Half an hour before, when [Mike] had been howling with the mob and fighting for a chance to help pull on the rope, then his chest had been so full that he had found he was crying. But now everything was dead, everything unreal; the dark mob was made up of stiff lay-figures. (The Long Valley 134)

Steinbeck’s notes on the plot of the story very clearly explain that Mike is searching for a group, craving a movement to join. He wrote in his initial synopsis of The Vigilante, "Wanders lost on his farm looking for a phalanx to join and finds none. Is nervous and very lost. Finally finds the movement in a lynching… Hunger for the group. Change of drive. What does it matter. The mob is not a wasteful thing but an efficient thing" (The Long Valley, Explanatory Notes, 230).

While this particular story is indicative of the very negative potential of a phalanx, it serves as a clear example of Steinbeck’s understanding of the group or mob mentality. Not only is mankind capable of great or terrible things when part of a group, but mankind craves that sense of togetherness, needs the support and community that a mob provides. And from this desire to be a part of a larger group, the group’s own needs and desires spring forth. The group, or mob, becomes its own entity, or phalanx.

It is important to note that the phalanx is not a purely negative concept--that mobs/groups do not always lead to violence or danger. Rather, Steinbeck’s understanding of the craving for community suggests that the phalanx can have very positive effects. In Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck uses a school of fish to explain how the phalanx can affect the survival of a species:

 The schools swam, marshaled and patrolled. They turned as a unit and dived as a unit… Their functions in the school are in some as yet unknown way as controlled as though the school were one unit. We cannot conceive of this intricacy until we are able to think of the school as an animal itself, reacting with all its cells to stimuli which perhaps might not influence one fish at all. And this larger animal, the school, seems to have a nature and drive and ends of its own. It is more than and different from the sum of its units… In the little Bay of San Carlos… There was even a feeling… Of a larger unit which was the interrelation of species with their interdependence for food, even though that food be each other… And perhaps this unit of survival may key into the larger animal which is the life of all the sea, and this into the larger of the world. There would seem to be only one commandment for living things: Survive! (240-1)

This lengthy quote summarizes what Steinbeck understood as the true commonality among species: the necessity of survival. And while this observation seems obvious, it's worth noting that Steinbeck was criticized for suggesting that men and fish have a shared purpose. However, the intention of this passage is truly to illustrate the power of the phalanx, the importance and relevance of strength in numbers. 


Apart from Steinbeck’s direct explanation of the phalanx theory in his letters to Richard Albee, his phalanx philosophy is often presented under a different name. Many readers identify the phalanx theory as utilitarianism. But utilitarianism, simply defined as the social doctrine that advocates for the "greater good," does not seem to cooperate with Steinbeck's appreciation of the individual. However, Steinbeck was interested in the biological tendency of humans to form organized groups, and it seems this interest led him to grapple with utilitarian ideas in many of his works. Of course it was this "utilitarian" categorization of his writing that landed Steinbeck in an investigation regarding his association with the Communist party. While Steinbeck openly denied any association, the utilitarian themes in stories such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men do cast some suspicion on his political philosophy. However, Steinbeck’s "utilitarian" interests seem to be less social, and more biological.

Because of his staunch interest in morality, there is little evidence in his writings to show that he believed "rightness" was determined by majority rule. Rather, it was his interest in the group mentality, the phalanx, that led to his discussion of things utilitarian, such as the revolt, the union, the uprising. It has been said that "Steinbeck was never interested in moral theory divorced from actual, lived experience" (Hart 16). This assertion is consistent with the idea that Steinbeck is not engaged in philosophy for philosophy’s sake, but is far more invested in philosophy as the backbone of a story. As such, Steinbeck’s varying philosophical "moments" are all rooted in reality, in biology, in the observation of mankind and his patterns.

This idea is very important when considering the political background of texts such as The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck was not necessarily writing these fictional works as a method of conveying his personal political opinion, but following the journalistic trend of his career and narrating a true experience, building a story from situations he had observed while reporting on the lives of the migrants during the Dust Bowl. Perhaps the discussion of Steinbeck as a utilitarian is less important than that of Steinbeck as an advocate for community. While the utilitarian method is to blur the desires of the individual in order to highlight the needs of the group, the community mentality witnessed in many of Steinbeck’s novels suggests that the desires of the individual couple with the needs of the group and, in a sense, lend more meaning to both entities: "The community becomes the way that the individual can, by his participation in, and his devotion to, find himself in relation to the Whole" (Shively 33). This analysis of the community is in accordance with the way Steinbeck suggests communities are formed. In The Grapes of Wrath, he writes of the many families migrating to the West:

[T]hey huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country. Thus it might be that one camped near a spring, and another camped for the spring and for company, and a third because two families had pioneered the place and found it good. And when the sun went down, perhaps twenty families and twenty cars were there. In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. (193)

This quote beautifully exemplifies the sense of community found among those who share the same goals, aspirations, and journey. It seems to advocate for a utilitarian type of lifestyle, as families share their food, perhaps sacrificing their own satiety so that everyone might have something to eat. However, it also highlights the concept of the phalanx, in that the families are drawn to each other, they set up their camps near one another because they crave company. They become one. They find a sense of unity in their communal destitution.

This concept of communal destitution is a common theme in Steinbeck's writing. Both Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men highlight the importance of the group for survival. Cannery Row's unemployed gang of "boys" led by Mack is a perfect example. This group, known as "Mack and the boys," plant their roots at the Palace Flophouse and exist only by the generosity of their friends, the few hours of odd jobs they can pick up here and there, and a strange alcoholic mix made from remnants of other peoples' drinks that they call "punch." While they are destitute, each individual lacking the finances to support himself let alone the rest of the group, they exist happily because they have each other for support, both material and mental. In a way, they become their own family unit. And underneath the protection of the family that is "Mack and the boys," each individual "boy" finds his purpose. 

But perhaps Steinbeck's most poetic and memorable example of communal destitution is found in Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck illustrates the need for a family, or at least companion, through the gripping relationship of Lennie and George. George acts as Lennie's caretaker and guide through life, and does so willingly. Lennie provides George with a familial sense of purpose loyal friendship. The men who work at the ranch are openly apprehensive of Lennie and George's arrangement. Slim says, "It just seems kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart little guy like you travelin' together" (39). However, George responds very insightfully: "I seen the guys that around on the ranches alone. That ain't no good. They don't have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin' to fight all the time" (41). This idea that loneliness leads to meanness sheds some light on why, as each of the men from the bunkhouse learn about Lennie and George's plan for the future, want to be involved. Though they are uneasy seeing Lennie and George relying on each other so heavily, they crave to be apart of the relationship, to have a stake in their future. They crave not just the dream of land, resources, and rabbits, but the companionship that would ensue. 

Non-Teleology and "Is" Thinking

Steinbeck’s concept of non-teleological thinking is not only his most complex idea, but also his most developed. Also known as "is" thinking, Steinbeck’s understanding of the world through a non-teleological lens asserts that "an answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions" (Sea of Cortez 166). He felt that teleology, which attempts to understand various things and concepts by examining their purpose, is not sufficient to answer even the simplest of questions, but merely exemplifies the human inability to process the rest of the world. He writes in Sea of Cortez of non-teleological ideas:

They imply depth, fundamentalism, and clarity -- seeing beyond traditional or personal projections. They consider events as outgrowths and expressions rather than results; conscious acceptance as desideratum, and certainly as an all-important prerequisite. Non-teleological thinking concerns itself primarily not with what should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually "is" -- attempting at most to answer the already sufficiently difficult questions what or how, instead of why. (135)

While this concept comes across as perhaps a little out there for a man who proclaimed philosophy "bothersome," Steinbeck felt that his "is" thinking was actually a simpler approach to life’s questions than the socially accepted teleological reasoning. Essentially, Steinbeck attempts to explain that when faced with a difficult question, "is" thinking offers a much more correct response than teleology can provide. While teleology often results in a "cause and effect" methodology, non-teleology allows for a world of evidence to inform our understanding of our surroundings. This general yet more extensive view of the world fits directly with Steinbeck’s phalanx theory, as it suggests that everything is part of something larger, is an individual unit that contributes to a whole, is more complex and complete than a simple "cause and effect" answer can explain. "Steinbeck's approach recognized that all that "is" is really one. Reality is, in fact, a whole or an Absolute, composed and unified by the presence and actions of the individual parts to Steinbeck" (Shively 29). The great irony of Steinbeck's wildly complex explanation of non-teleology is that Steinbeck was truly trying to explain something he found very simple. That humankind simply does not comprehend the "whole," the world with all its intricacies. That as a people, we do not understand the world enough to reason accurately how things came to be the way they are. He writes: 

Seeing a school of fish lying quietly in still water, all the heads pointing in one direction, one says, "It is unusual that this is so" -- but it isn't unusual at all. We begin at the wrong end. They simply lie that way, and it is remarkable only because with our blunt tool we cannot carve out human reason… It is not enough to say that we cannot know or judge because all the information is not in. The process of gathering knowledge does lead to knowing. A child’s world spreads only a little beyond his understanding while that of a great scientist thrusts outward immeasurably. An answer is invariably the parents of a great family of new questions. So we draw worlds and for them like tracings against the world about us, and crumple them when they do not fit and draw new ones. (165-6)

Steinbeck, the journalist, novelist, and storyteller, gathered knowledge voraciously. And in his gathering up of information, he learned that there is so much more to the world than what we as humans can describe in brief explanations. He felt that to say "some men are taller than others because of the underfunctioning of growth-regulating ductless glands" (136) or "some men become leaders because they happen to be moving in the direction behind which will be found the greatest weight" (138) was irresponsible, was to ignore a thousand other factors and proclaim indifference toward a world of knowledge not yet possessed. Non-teleology, "is" thinking, was Steinbeck’s answer. It was his justification of "it’s so because it’s so" (144) as a more thorough, open-minded and understandable explanation of the world in which he lived.

Works Cited 

Hart, Richard. "Steinbeck on the Individual and Community: Implications for Moral Philosophy." John Steinbeck's Global Dimensions, edited by Kyoko, Ariki. Li, Luchen. Pugh, Scott. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2008. Print.

Shively, Charles. "John Steinbeck: From the Tide Pool to the Loyal Community." Steinbeck: The Man and His Work: Proceedings of the 1970 Steinbeck Conference, edited by Astro, Richard. Hayashi, Tetsumaro. Corvallis: Oregon State UP, 1971. Print.

Steinbeck, John, and Edward F. Ricketts. Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research: With a Scientific Appendix Comprising Materials for a Source Book on the Marine Animals of the Panamic Faunal Province. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.

Steinbeck, John. "Argument of Phalanx." Photocopy at Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, SJSU. 1935. Print.

-- Cannery Row. New York: Penguin, 1994. Print.

-- East of Eden. New York: Penguin, 1992. Print.

-- The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.

-- The Long Valley. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

-- Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.

-- Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: Penguin, 1976. Print.