Oswald Spengler

Oswald Spengler (29 May 1880–08 May 1936)

Today is the 142nd anniversary of the birth of Oswald Spengler (29 May 1880–08 May 1936), who was born on this date in 1880.

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…”

This summary is worth more than most made by countless commentators upon Spengler. And on the opening page of The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), Spengler describes his project with admirable clarity:

“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. 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.”

Ernst Jünger and Oswald Spengler were together taken to be the leading figures of the German “conservative revolution,” Jünger because of his memoir of the First World War (In Stahlgewittern, Storm of Steel), and Spengler for The Decline of the West, written during the First World War and published as the war was coming to an end. While Spengler’s fortunes have risen and fallen over time, he remains among the most influential philosophers of history, rivaled only by Toynbee in terms of his popular impact. And The Decline of the West was, like Toynbee’s A Study of History, not really aimed at academic philosophers of history, but it is, at the same time, a demanding work that does not scruple to delve into metaphysical questions. Indeed, there is a sense in which Spengler’s philosophy of history is more metaphysical than, for example, Hegel’s philosophy of history, which has dominated the whole discipline of philosophy of history since the nineteenth century.

Spengler was not 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. I believe that 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 thus becoming eclipsed in academia. Spengler, working in 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.

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 these problems, 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.

Benedict is right that the complexities of the civilizations that Spengler discuss pose limitations upon what can coherently be said of them, but Spengler responds by formulating a complex account that seeks to do them justice. 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.”

It should be noted that while these cultural evolutionism themes are clearly present in Spengler, that is not the whole of his philosophy of history. Indeed, 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; they 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 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. 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 attribution to Spengler of a cyclical philosophy of history.

Not only is each culture unique, but each has its own unique science and mathematics — a claim that is often implicit, but rarely argued explicitly. There is some similarity here with Danilevsky, who argues for fewer “cultural-historical types” 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 different sciences, but he did not insist that all must have distinct sciences, all but incommensurable with the sciences of other societies.

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, but it is not the problem that we expect to find in Spengler.

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