Oswald Spengler and the Incommensurability of Civilizations

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
16 min readMay 30, 2024

Wednesday 29 May 2024 is the 144th anniversary of the birth of Oswald Spengler (29 May 1880–08 May 1936), who was born in Blankenburg, Germany, on this date in 1880. It is also the 571st anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, which was on 29 May 1453. Spengler was born on the 427th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. There is a kind of poetic appropriateness to Spengler being born on the same day as the end of the last trace of an ancient civilization, since Spengler was to go on to write about the decline of Western civilization.

In The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) — the first volume was published in 1918 and the second volume in 1922 — Byzantium does not play a large role, but in the second volume we find this interesting observation:

“Here layer after layer has to be carefully separated. In 326 Constantine, rebuilding on the ruins of the great city destroyed by Septimus Severus, created a Late Classical cosmopolis of the first rank, into which presently streamed hoary Apollinism from the West and youthful Magism from the East. And long afterwards again, in 1096, it is a Late Magian cosmopolis, confronted in its last autumn days with spring in the shape of Godfrey of Bouillon’s crusaders, whom that clever royal lady Anna Comnena portrays with contempt. As the easternmost of the Classical West, this city bewitched the Goths; then, a millennium later, as the northernmost of the Arabian world, it enchanted the Russians. And the amazing Vasili Blazheny in Moscow (1554), the herald of the Russian pre-Culture, stands ‘between styles,’ just as, two thousand years before, Solomon’s Temple had stood between Babylon the Cosmopolis and early Christianity.”

For Spengler, Byzantium hovers between what he calls the Apollonian and the Magian, that is to say between the ancient West and the east. Throughout the book, Spengler’s interest is in an exposition of three fundamentally different outlooks on life, the Apollonian, the Magian, and the Faustian. The Apollonian is essentially that of classical antiquity; the Magian is Persian and Arabic civilization; the Faustian is modern Western civilization. Many other outlooks on life and many other civilizations are mentioned, but these three are at the center of Spengler’s account of history.

Given this way of laying things out, there is a fundamental difference between ancient and contemporary Western civilization. Since Spengler cleaves Western civilization in two, it counts as two in his catalog of civilizations. Spengler is often said to distinguish a discrete number of civilizations, or rather high cultures that decline into civilizations. Fennelly’s book on Spengler, Twilight of the Evening Lands: Oswald Spengler — A Half Century Later, lays it out like this:

“Spengler presents the story of eight separate High Cultures of the human race, no one of which is considered more important than any of the others. These eight are: the Babylonian, the Indian, the Chinese, the Egyptian, the Classical (the Culture of Greece and Rome), the Arabian (also called the Magian by Spengler), the West European (or Faustian) Culture, and finally the Mayan-Aztec Culture of Mexico.” (Fennelly, p. 30)

Spengler doesn’t really reel off a list of civilizations in any kind of explicit way. Spengler is the antithesis of a schematic writer. That’s not how he presents his account to the reader. Spengler’s exposition is dense, detailed, and sometimes repetitious — what anthropologists would call a “thick description.” It wouldn’t be too far off to say that the whole the The Decline of the West is a thick description of Apollonian, Magian, and Faustian civilizations and the peoples who built these civilizations.

Because Spengler’s exposition is dense and difficult to understand, he has attracted not only admirers, but also expositors. Farrenkopf’s book about Spengler, Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, locates Spengler within the traditions of positivism and historicism:

“Spengler denied the capacity of the historical philosopher to derive scientific laws in imitation of the natural scientist. ‘Real history is heavy with destiny, but free of laws.’ However, his daring project to uncover the master pattern of world history certainly bears some resemblance to the enterprise of historical positivists to discover historical laws. While German historicism was essentially idiographic in orientation, Spengler, his own protests to the contrary, with his methodical systematization and patternization of history, was largely nomothetic in approach, as were positivist historians. His aspiration to predictive powers also certainly places him in proximity to the positivist tradition.” (Farrenkopf, p. 84)

When we think too much in terms of labels we tend to tie ourselves into knots, and to little or no purpose. Farrenkopf’s exposition of Spengler is weakened in this way by his reliance on familiar categories. For example, Farrenkopf claims that Spengler belongs among the positivists. Were there positivists who sought to discover historical laws? Yes, there were. Carl Hempel came from the tradition of logical empiricism and he formulated the covering law model of historical explanation. But there are good reasons that we do not associate this school of thought with the kind of substantive philosophy of history that Spengler represents.

Otto Neurath, who was a leader among the logical positivists, one of the Vienna Circle, and an editor of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Sciences, wrote an entire book against Spengler. In Anti-Spengler, Neurath wrote:

“It is not the individual wrong results, the wrong facts, the wrong proofs, that make Spengler’s book so dangerous, but above all his method of conducting proofs, and his reflections on proof as such. Against this one must defend oneself. Anyone who wants to shape a happier future with hope and striving should know that none of Spengler’s ‘proofs’ is enough to prevent him; and whoever wishes to come to terms with the idea of ‘decline’ should know that he does so on the basis of a resolution, and not a proof!”

This is what one positivist himself had to say, in part, about Spengler, but it should suffice to read one paragraph out of Spengler to be clear that he is not any kind of positivist. Neurath was, after all, the epitome of a schematic intellect, which was why he cooked up the idea of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Sciences and his graphical symbol system called ISOTYPE, which is familiar to us today on traffic signs. It would be difficult to find two men more temperamentally divergent than Spengler and Neurath. Spengler did not see himself as a positivist, and the positivists did not count him as one of their own.

Farrenkopf at one point appeals to Iggers’ book on historicism, so I looked to see what Iggers had to say about Spengler, and Iggers wrote this:

“…the path from the classical idea of progress to Spengler’s conception of doom is not as great as it might appear. There is a degree of continuity in the very different analyses of the dominant trends of history and of the character of the age by thinkers as diverse as Condorcet, J. S. Mill, Weber, and Spengler. All saw the irresistible scientification and technicalization of life and thought. Only rationality and Enlightenment, which for Condorcet had been absolutely positive factors in the liberation of man, now increasingly appeared as a threat to human values. For Spengler they became the very antithesis to life and spirit: the ‘heroic’ qualities of the knight and the priest replaced the humanistic and humanitarian values of the West. To Troeltsch the Decline of the West seemed an invitation to barbarism and itself an ‘active contribution to the decline of the West.’ Nevertheless, Troeltsch’s cumbersome essays were read by few. Spengler’s book, however, became a Bible, and a source of inspiration for tens of thousands.”

Iggers’ discussion of historicism is among the best to be found, but he doesn’t especially tie Spengler to historicism. However, here the label is somewhat justified if we understand by historicism the taking of each age on its own terms. This is most definitely central to Spengler’s method. But most labels don’t work well with Spengler.

The nomothetic and idiographic labels that Farrenkopf uses don’t work well with Spengler. The linear and cyclical history labels also don’t work well with Spengler. It’s better to set aside familiar labels and any attempt at a schematization when reading Spengler, and try to enter into the labels that Spengler himself furnishes, as with his Apollonian, Magian, and Faustian civilizations.

More than most philosophers of history, Spengler belongs to no philosophical school, except the school he built for himself. In a letter to Georg Misch Spengler wrote,

“I am not the product of any school of philosophy, rather these ideas have somehow condensed from mathematics, history, painting and literature into a metaphysical whole.”

Being the product of no extant school of thought, he didn’t have to please anyone except himself. And like Toynbee’s A Study of History, The Decline of the West was not really aimed at academic philosophers of history, but it is, at the same time, a demanding work that does not hesitate to delve into metaphysical questions. In a letter to Albert Erich Brinkman, Spengler wrote of his recently published book, a copy of which he sent to Brinkman:

“Although the book is concerned with the philosophy of history in general, and is therefore basically physical abstract and even metaphysical, yet as the result of a new method and the posing of the problems, it is always in close connection with the most concrete facts, and has dealt specially with Art in the details of its form and development more thoroughly than hitherto has been usual or possible. It is my conviction that in this an important new turning has been taken…”

On the opening page of The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), Spengler describes his project with admirable clarity, and does so by asking questions:

“Is there a logic of history? Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of the separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity, something that is essentially independent of the outward forms social, spiritual and political which we see so clearly? Are not these actualities indeed secondary or derived from that something? Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions? And if so, what are the limits to which reasoning from such premisses may be pushed?”

Spengler embraced the philosophical and metaphysical dimension of his work, contrary to the rising positivism of era, but he was not giving an exposition of a particular philosophical doctrine or school.

Spengler was not himself an academic, though he worked as a teacher until he received a small inheritance, upon which he lived modestly for the rest of his life. He was an outsider, and he remains an outsider even today. There is no article on Spengler in either the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I think Spengler’s being an outsider had something to do with the success of his book.

The social sciences in his time were increasingly coming under the influence of Franz Boas’ cultural relativism, which decisively rejected the earlier cultural evolutionism of Edward Burnett Tylor, Lewis H. Morgan, and Marx, which was becoming eclipsed in academia as a result of Boas’ influence. Spengler, working in near isolation, produced a philosophy of history that employed some familiar ideas of cultural evolutionism just as this space was being abandoned by others, so that the book fell on the fertile ground of those who find cultural evolutionism to an intuitive way of looking at history. Of course, cultural evolutionism is another label, and it is an awkward label for what Spengler was doing. There is another side of Spengler’s thought, such as the incommensurability of civilizations, which is closer to Boas’ cultural relativism, and that is a reason to avoid these familiar categories in describing Spengler’s project.

Whether or not I am right about this, Boas’ student Ruth Benedict nevertheless discussed Spengler in her influential study Patterns of Culture:

“The confused impression which is given by Spengler’s volumes is due only partially to the manner of presentation. To an even greater degree it is the consequence of the unresolved complexities of the civilizations with which he deals. Western civilizations, with their historical diversity, their stratificaton into occupations and classes, their incomparable richness of detail, are not yet well enough understood to be summarized under a couple of catchwords. Outside of certain very restricted intellectual and artistic circles, Faustian man, if he occurs, does not have his own way with our civilization. There are the strong men of action and the Babbitts as well as the Faustians, and no ethnologically satisfactory picture of modern civilization can ignore such constantly recurring types. It is quite as convincing to characterize our cultural type as thoroughly extrovert, running about in endless mundane activity, inventing, governing, and as Edward Carpenter says, ‘endlessly catching its trains,’ as it is to characterize it as Faustian, with a longing for the infinite.”

Benedict discusses Spengler for several pages. By the time she published Patterns of Culture in 1934 the Spengler wave had already crested, but he had become so widely discussed that it was more-or-less obligatory to mention Spengler in relation to the problems of civilization, even if only to dismiss him. Note that Benedict writes of the “confused impression” that Spengler’s book leaves. It has become a kind of pro forma obligation not only to mention Spengler, but also to portray his work as confused, or overly complex, or “turgid,” and not really meant to be understood.

We find a similar dismissal of Spengler in Henri Frankfort’s The Birth of Civilization in the Near East, which is a fascinating mixture of accuracy and invective:

“Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West was first published in 1917 and bears the sub-title, Outline of a Morphology of World History. This indicates that the aspect of form (as we have called it) is fully considered in his work. In this resides, as a matter of fact, the element of lasting worth of his sensational, arrogant, and pompous volumes. They were written as a reaction against the prevalent view of history which was prejudiced in two respects: it considered world history exclusively from the western standpoint; and it presumed, with evolutionary optimism, that history exemplified the progress of humanity. For Spengler the word ‘humanity’ is merely an empty phrase. The great civilizations are unconnected. They are self-contained organisms of so individual a nature that people who belong to one cannot understand the achievements and modes of thought of another. He maintains that not even in science does knowledge show accumulations transcending the limits of one civilization.”

This is largely on point, both in terms of where it agrees with his work, and as an accurate summary. Benedict, too, is often on point with Spengler. She is right that the complexities of the civilizations that Spengler discussed pose limitations upon what can coherently be said of them, but Spengler responds by formulating a complex account that seeks to do them justice. This is what I earlier called a “thick description,” and my guess is that Benedict, as an anthropologist, was drawn into Spengler by this aspect of his work.

I said above that Spengler’s account employs many familiar ideas of cultural evolutionism. Here is now Benedict expresses these ideas in Spengler’s work:

“…these cultural configurations have, like any organism, a span of life they cannot overpass. This thesis of the doom of civilizations is argued on the basis of the shift of cultural centres in Western civilization and the periodicity of high cultural achievement. He buttresses this description with the analogy, which can never be more than an analogy, with the birth- and death-cycle of living organisms. Every civilization, he believes, has its lusty youth, its strong manhood, and its disintegrating senescence.”

These cultural evolutionism themes are clearly present in Spengler, but, as I said, there are elements in Spengler that could be assimilated to the cultural relativist model, insofar as Spengler characterizes each civilization in strongly idiographic terms, such that civilizations are essentially incommensurable, which is the point that Frankfort emphasizes. Civilizations rise up out of a population, pass through their stages, and then recede again, but each such episode is unique, even if the stages of development are repeated in each and every civilization. In the following paragraph from Spengler we can see themes of cultural relativism and cultural evolutionism entwined together:

“‘Mankind,’ however, has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids. ‘Mankind’ is a zoological expression, or an empty word. But conjure away the phantom, break the magic circle, and at once there emerges an astonishing wealth of actual forms the Living with all its immense fullness, depth and movement hitherto veiled by a catchword, a dryasdust scheme, and a set of personal ‘ideals.’ I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can only be kept up by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of the facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle, each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will, and feeling, its own death Here indeed are colours, lights, movements, that no intellectual eye has yet discovered. Here the Cultures, peoples, languages, truths, gods, landscapes bloom and age as the oaks and the stone-pines, the blossoms, twigs and leaves but there is no ageing ‘Mankind.’ Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay, and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline. These cultures, sublimated life-essences, grow with the same superb aimlessness as the flowers of the field. They belong, like the plants and the animals, to the living Nature of Goethe, and not to the dead Nature of Newton. I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms. The professional historian, on the contrary, sees it as a sort of tapeworm industriously adding on to itself one epoch after another.”

Unlike Hegel, there is in Spengler no development of Absolute Spirit as it passes through stages of development embodied in different civilizations. There isn’t even any cumulative scientific knowledge or technological expertise. For Spengler, all the civilizations are the same in the sense that each is unique; each develops according to its own internal principles, but none contributes to any overall development in history. History on the whole has no direction, it does not exhibit progress, and for the same reason it does not consist of any overall cycle, notwithstanding the frequent attribution to Spengler of a cyclical philosophy of history. Neither it is linear.

Not only is each culture unique, but each has its own unique science and mathematics — a claim that is often implicit in others, but rarely argued explicitly. There is some similarity here with Danilevsky, who argues for a few familiar “cultural-historical types” rather than Spengler’s unfinished and unaging Mankind, which does not seem to be limited by the number of Danilevsky’s cultural-historical types. Danilevsky also allows that different cultures can have different sciences, but he did not insist that all must have distinct sciences, all but incommensurable with the sciences of other societies.

For Spengler, philosophy, like science, is the expression of a culture:

“There is no such thing as Philosophy ‘in itself,’ Every Culture has its own philosophy, which is a part of its total symbolic expression and forms with its posing of problems and methods of thought an intellectual ornamentation that is closely related to that of architecture and the arts of form. From the high and distant standpoint it matters very little what ‘truths’ thinkers have managed to formulate in words within their respective schools, for, here as in every great art, it is the schools, conventions and repertory of forms that are the basic elements. Infinitely more important than the answers are the questions the choice of them, the inner form of them. For it is the particular way in which a macrocosm presents itself to the understanding man of a particular Culture that determines a priori the whole necessity of asking them, and the way in which they are asked.”

And so with every aspect of human life and experience. One might ask how Spengler can formulate a theory that applies to a multiplicity of cultures when every culture is unique, philosophically and scientifically distinct from every other culture. This is a problem for all relativisms, and it is a problem for Spengler if we try to translate Spengler into a schematic doctrine of civilization. But that’s not how Spengler worked, and not how Spengler thought. We have to take Spengler at his own terms, as though his is one of those culturally-bound philosophies that is an intellectual ornamentation that is closely related to architecture and the arts of form. Spengler gives us an architectonic of civilization, and it is a vision particular to Spengler, if not peculiar to Spengler.

Many writers have had many things to say about Spengler, which is one reason I have emphasized the need to avoid labels. Many say his history is cyclical, while some say it is linear; some say Spengler’s method is nomothetic, others that it is idiographic; some say his book is unscientific, and others say that it is wrong because it tries to be scientific. The Decline of the West is like the Quito doubloon nailed to the mast of the Pequod in Moby Dick. Melville has Captain Ahab pause and reflect on the coin:

“…this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.”

Spengler’s The Decline of the West mirrors back to every man his own mysterious self. The book itself is mysterious. It not only avoids summary and schematism, it resists any attempt at summary and schematism. In this way, Spengler’s book is true to the cultures and civilizations he studied and believed to be unique, incommensurable, and irreducible to any other. In this respect it also resembles ibn Khaldun’s The Maqqadimmah, which is difficult to extricate from its historical, social, and cultural context, being a unique record of its time while at the same time a timeless work of scholarship.