Oswald Spengler

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From Encyclopedia.com :

"Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), German universal historian, was born in Blankenburg, in the Harz mountains. Of Protestant parentage, he was descended on his father’s side from a line of mining engineers; his mother’s family was artistically inclined. Both inheritances came together in Spengler—in his scientific interests on the one hand and his stylistic ability and talent for bold, intuitive theoretical formulations on the other.

After attending a humanist Gymnasium in Halle, he studied mathematics and the natural sciences at the universities of Munich, Berlin, and Halle. He obtained his doctor’s degree at Halle with a dissertation on Heraclitus. Spengler’s preoccupation with this pre-Socratic Greek philosopher foreshadowed some of the main ideas of his major work: he was to translate “everything flows” into historical relativism and “war, the father of all things” into a self-consciously tough, “heroic” world view. Spengler was a lone wolf—a bachelor, and also an outsider to the German world of learning. Having taught at a number of schools, the last a Hamburg Realgymnasium, he moved to Munich as a private scholar in 1911, at which time he conceived the idea for the work which was to stir up the entire historical profession."


The influence of Spengler's work, The Decline of the West

" the 'influence' of Decline on the literature of the 20th century can be felt far and wide: D.H. Lawrence, Carl Jung and Henry Miller all expressed their debt to the book, with the later expressing regret that he didn't write certain passages of it himself; T.S Eliot cites the book as a major influence on his The Waste Land; Scott Fitzgerald said that Spenglers book had a tremendous impact upon him, along with The Waste Land, while writing The Great Gatsby; W.B. Yeats, in light of the parallels between his A Vision, which was written before Decline had been translated into English, and Spengler's book, postulated a hypothetical common 'instructor' or 'muse' to explain the similarities in the results they seemed to arrive at quite independently of each other, recognizing in Spengler a 'kindred spirit'; Joseph Campbell recalled that he read the book seven times, and said that Spengler had become for him a "major prophet"; Arnold Toynbee's magnum opus A Study of History can be read, in large part, as a responce to Spengler's book, a protracted effort to surmount its conclusions; Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg held 'private readings' of the book and developed their friendship around it; Henry Kissinger, who, in a speech he gave in the 1950's, warned Americans about the need for a "heroic and deliberate effort" to "arrest narcissism" and "the collapse which starts at the moment of seemingly greatest achievement", is said to have given Richard Nixon a copy of the book, in an apparently ironic gesture, weeks before his resignation in 1974, the very same book he had been urging Nixon to read for years (Kissinger's honors thesis was called The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant, and develops a 'historicity' through a synthesis of those writers); when Michel Foucault was asked during an interview whether he would like his own efforts being situated alongside that of Spengler's he produced only a wry smile, and Terence Mckenna had a copy in his famous library that burnt down at the Esalen institute in Big Sur.

Decline belonged to a massive body of literature which took shape between the first and second world wars on the 'Crisis of Civilization', and which includes, among others, works like Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920), Guenon's The Crisis of the Modern World (1927), Freud's Civilization and its Discontents (1929), Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1932), and is often seen, retrospectively, as a kind of manifesto of the pessimistic spirit which plagues Civilization like a demonic double; but it has also acquired the reputation for being not just an embodiment of doubts about the very project of Civilization, but a masterful work of metaphysical poetry (Miller once described it as a "stupendous morphological, or phenomenological, tone-poem"), and thus itself a product of the high culture of the West, and thus, like Foucault, carrying "out, in the noblest way, the promiscuous aim of true culture". It is certainly noteworthy that its author has gained the reputation, rare among 'historians', for being a 'prophet'.

In a biography of the author that he wrote in the midst of the Cold War, the American historian Stewart Hughes saw the reading public of Decline divided into two very distinct camps: one hostile and the other enthusiastically receptive. Viewing the book "in the broadest possible perspective," from a position in the very middle of the century, Hughes described it as "a manifestation of an enormous effort of intellectual re-evaluation that has characterized our century." From this point of view, "the passage of time has permitted us to make a judgement: with fifty years of history behind us, with the rise of totalitarianism, the advent of mass culture, the experience of two world wars and the prospect of a third, we are at length in a position to evaluate Spengler as political controversialist, as prophet, and as diagnostician of our time."

Spengler's morphological 'physiognomy' of history stands between Nietzsche's geneology and Foucault's archaeology: seen in retrospect, Decline appears like a missing link between Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Geneology of Morals, and Foucault's Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason."




(1918-1922) 1926-1928 The Decline of the West. 2 vols. Authorized translation with notes by Charles F. Atkinson. New York: Knopf. → Volume 1: Form and Actuality. Volume 2: Perspectives of World History. First published as Der Untergang des Abendlandes.

(1920) 1942 Preussentum und Sozialismus. Munich: Beck. → Reprinted in Spengler (1933a).

1924 Der Neubau des Deutschen Reiches. Munich: Beck. → Reprinted in Spengler (1933a).

(1931) 1932 Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life. New York: Knopf. → First published as Der Mensch und die Technik: Beitrag zu einer Philosophic des Lebens.

1933a Politische Schriften. Munich: Beck.

(1933b) 1934 The Hour of Decision. New York: Knopf. → First published as Jahre der Entscheidung.

Reden und Aufsdtze. 3d ed. Munich: Beck, 1951. → Published posthumously. Contains Heraklit and other writings first published between 1904 and 1936.

Letters, 1913-1936. Translated and edited by Arthur Helps. New York: Knopf, 1966. → First published in German.

Spengler's Unpublished Work

John Farrenkopf:

"In 1924, approximately two years after completing the second volume of his Hauptwerk, the ambitious thinker, except for brief intervals when his passion for politics reasserted itself, increasingly and ultimately almost exclusively focused his attention on the vast period of civilizational development which preceded that of the rise of cultures.6 The excitement generated by some of the greatest discoveries hitherto made in the allied fields of archeology, prehistory, and ethnology and his friendship with the unorthodox ethnologist, Leo Frobenius, fueled Spengler's enthusiasm for the study of prehistory.

Spengler pursued two related projects. In the second volume of The Decline of the West he had already declared his intention to produce a tome on metaphysical questions relating to the human experience of world history. The second project involved the composition of a major work on prehistory and early civilizational history. In his sedulous study of this immense subject Spengler sought to illumine the onrgins of the cultures whose cyclical qualities and different cultural styles he had investigated in his Hauptwerk. Moreover, despite his continuing awareness of the discontinuities in world history exemplified by the recurrent phenomenon of civilizational growth and decay, he strove, in sharp contrasto the relativistic perspective he had championed in The Decline of the West, to ascertain the direction and significance ofhistory for the whole of mankind. Spengler, who had emphatically denied in his Hauptwerk that mankind had a collective historical destiny, publicly voiced in 1931 his aspiration to fathom "the great secret of the destiny of man."10 He entertained the hope that his projected works, in combination with his already published Hauptwerk, would constitute a bona fide universal history. Unfortunately, Spengler was unable to finish either of these parallel projects, not only because of his worsening health but more likely because they were extraordinarily ambitious. Thus, the new vision of world history he conceived in his later years unfortunately never achieved the kind of detailed, systematic exposition his original philosophy of history had attained in his chef d'oeuvre. However, the Spengler specialist Anton M. Koktanek diligently collated and edited his extensive notes on prehistory and early civilizational history and his metaphysical speculations about world history, publishing the material in the mid-sixties in two separate volumes, Urfragen (Primary Questions) and Fruhzeit der Weltgeschichte (Early Period of World History). Both tomes are structured in conformance with provisional outlines found in Spengler's Nachlass. Before his death in 1978 Koktanek also produced an authoritative biography of Spengler and a large edited volume of correspondence. These four products of his years of painstaking research in the Spengler Archivell are indispensable for scholarly inquiry into Spengler's historical universe.

Scholars writing in English on Spengler, including some who have authored critical works dealing solely with his thought, were unaware that the philosophy of history he had showcased in The Decline of the West, underwent a metamorphosis after he simultaneously absorbed the criticism of the work13 and significantly expanded the scope of his inquiry."



Contextual Quote

"That Oswald Spengler, one of the most famous philosophers of history in the twentieth century, profoundly changed his ideas on world history after publishing his major work, The Decline of the West,1 is virtually unknown to scholars contributing to the literature in English on his thought.2 Yet it is not unheard of for speculative philosophers of history to experience a sea change in how they formulate their bold answers to the riddle of history. Indeed, Spengler's renowned successor, Arnold Toynbee, went so far as to transform his philosophy of world history in the middle of his massive work, A Study of History."

- John Farrenkopf [1]

Henry Kissinger on Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant

Excerpted from the website, 'Madness and Civilization', which paraphrases the content of the Honor's Thesis by Kissinger:

"Kissinger adopts a novel methodology by trying to convey the essence of each author's work in that individual's own style. (This is especially significant in the section on Spengler because of the latter's poetic and metaphysical passages.) Kissinger argues that purely analytical criticism of Spengler and, to some extent Toynbee, "falsifies the real essence of [their] philosophy." Kissinger's pairing of Spengler and Toynbee, contemporaries who share a cyclical view of history, with the [eighteenth] century German philosopher Kant is central to his thesis. His historicism develops from this union.

Kissinger begins "The Meaning of History" by posing its central question as a paradox-- i.e., actions in retrospect appear inevitable, yet we act with the conviction of choice. Kissinger asks how we can reconcile our knowledge that events seem to occur irrevocably with our inward experience of freedom.

Kissinger confronts a second question in his introductory chapter-- the question of historical understanding. [...] Kissinger poses this epistemological question: Is history an open book... that contains in itself all the asperations of mankind as well as the key to the world's purpose? Or does history reveal a series of meaningless incidents, a challenge to our normative concepts, only through conformity to which it can obtain significance? Is meaning, in short, an attribute of reality or a metaphysical construction attendant on our recognition of significance?

How Kissinger answers this question of historical understanding is significant. He concludes that the meaning of history cannot be derived empirically from the facts themselves. He rejects the principle of verifiability proposed by the logical positivists; the latter maintain that facts are true if they correspond to reality. Kissinger argues that anthropological research shows that different cultures create their own views of reality-- facts are by no means absolute. [...] Kissinger writes that "an inward experience cannot be proved by empirical data. A philosophy of history without a profound metaphysics will forever juxtapose surface data and can never satisfy the totality of man's desire for meaning." Instead, we must approach history philosophically, because the questions we ask of it will determine the answers it yields.

Thus meaning represents the emanation of a metaphysical context. Just as every man in a certain sense creates his picture of the world, just as the scientist can find in nature only what he puts in it in the formulation of his hypothesis, just as every question determines at least the range of answers, so history does not exhibit the same portent to everybody but yields only the meanings inherent in the nature of the our query. Therefore, too, the philosophy of history is inseparable from metaphysics, and involves a deep awareness of the mysteries and possibilities not only of nature but of human nature.

Meaning in history lies in the philosophical approach we take toward it. Kissinger equates the philosophy of history with metaphysics, describing it as "metaphysics of a very high order." The question he then confronts is: how did Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant address the problem of necessity and freedom in history? How did their metaphysical beliefs resolve this paradox? "In the reaction of the various thinkers to the problem of human necessity and human freedom, in their capacity to experience depths inaccessible to reason alone, lies the answer to the meaning of history."

Kissinger next presents an extended commentary on the philosophy and works of each thinker. [...] He discusses Spengler's Decline of the West, Toynbee's A Study of History, Kant's Idea for a Universal History, Essay on Eternal[/Perpetual] Peace, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Pure Reason in detail. The contrast between the views of Spengler and Toynbee and those of Kant provides the key to Kissinger's thesis.

Paraphrasing Spengler, Kissinger explains that "the history of each culture [consists of] a ripening and deepening of its soul-picture."

Returning to the central paradox of necessity and freedom, he finds that both Spengler and Toynbee emphasize the necessity of historical occurrence-- i.e., the cyclical recurrence of historical patterns. Their metaphysical approaches diminish the... element of human freedom in history. It is on this basis that Kissinger ultimately judges their philosophies of history as inadequate explanations of history's meaning.

Kissinger is attracted to the poetical lyricism of Spengler's work and to his tragic vision. He takes from Spengler a feeling for history's "becoming"-- a feeling that Spengler attributes in his philosophy to the influence of Goethe. History is life and development, movement and destiny. [...]

Kissinger observes that:

Purely analytical criticism of Spengler will, however, never discover the profounder levels of his philosophy. These reside in his evocation of those elements of life that will ever be the subject of an inner experience, in his intuition of a mystic relationship to the infinite... . Spengler's vision encompassed an approach to history which-- whatever our opinion of his conclusions-- transcended the mere causal analysis of data and the shallow dogmatism of many progress theories. [...] After all has been said, the conviction remains that Spengler has found a poetry in life which rises above the barren systematization of its manifestations.

Yet Kissinger faults Spengler's philosophy... for the view that great cultures develop organically in a determined pattern. Spengler sees a fatedness in historical occurrences that attracts Kissinger... . This fatedness, however, leaves out the inner dimension of freedom and the role of choice in history.

Similarly, Kissinger finds elements to admire in Toynbee's scholarship. His own writings are heavily influenced by Toynbee's analysis of civilizations-- particularly the factors involved in their breakdown. [...] But overall, Kissinger finds Toynbee's philosophy lacking, because it does not address the element of freedom in history either.

Gap. p. 34

Against this background, Kissinger turns to Kant. He sees in Kant's thought as counterbalancing the determinism of Spengler and Toynbee. Kant's metaphysical and epistemological idealism provides Kissinger with an understanding of the element of freedom in history. The contrast between the determinism of Spengler and Toynbee and the indeterminism of Kant is central to Kissinger's argument."


Source: Kissinger's honors thesis was called The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant,

“Organic” View of History

by Annie Pfeifer (Modernist Lab):

"In his self-described “organic” theory of history, Spengler labels “cultures as organisms,” a concept which he derives from Goethe’s idea of “living nature” . Living nature encapsulates the “the idea of becoming” from a standpoint of “the phenomenal world in motion,” which is best studied through “erfühlen” or “living into” rather than by dissection. He writes, “I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms” (18)way “cultures spring with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle”. By appealing to biological and organic forms, Spengler seeks to naturalize his theory of history in a way that recalls Herbert Spencer’s attempts to extend evolutionary biology into sociology and ethics.

His method of studying history draws heavily on analogy, through which “the form and duration… can be calculated from available precedents” (30). Northrop Frye suggests that Spengler’s analogical method regarding cultures rests “on a further analogy between a culture and an organism.”[18] Curiously, however, one of Spengler’s major critiques of existing historical scholarship is that “History was seen as Nature (in the objective sense of the physicist) and treated accordingly, it is to this that we must ascribe the baneful mistake of applying the principles of causality, of law, of system” (39). Yet, this “baneful mistake” seems to be precisely what Spengler is in danger of committing by uncritically using the organism as an analogy for society, thereby treating history like nature. Paradoxically, as I will later suggest, under Spengler’s microscope, history becomes a study of “things-become,” where even the “things-becoming” are transformed into lifeless forms. The discipline of history, like other forms of inquiry, risks killing “things-becoming” in order to classify and analyze them.

Spengler’s organic analogy breaks down when he tries to assert that each culture is “self-contained… like a peculiar blossom or fruit,” a claim which has little basis in reality. After all, Spengler himself describes the ways that various cultures impact others through empire and trade, propagating their influence long after their declines. This complex network of influences seems to complicate his naturalistic analogy; a butterfly or orchid does not continue beyond its physical existence in the same way that Plato or Greek philosophy does. At times, Spengler undermines his own argument by forcing historical developments into his “organic” paradigm."


A focus on becoming, rather than being

by Annie Pfeifer (Modernist Lab):

"In his emphasis on “becoming” instead of “being,” Spengler’s philosophy of history has a curiously modernist tenor; he is keenly aware of the radical instability and flux of life that cannot be captured through static forms. He recalls Henri Bergson’s concept of duration, which can only be grasped through simple intuition of the imagination rather than objective science or logical analysis.[14] Spengler writes: “I see, in place of the empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of fact, the drama of mighty Cultures” (17). For Bergson, no two moments can be the same; for Spengler, no two cultures or cultural moments can be the same. He writes, “Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return”. Underscoring the ephemeral, inimitable nature of each culture, Spengler’s view of history and temporality is colored by a profound sense of unrecoverable loss, much like Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

Perhaps at his most modern, Spengler privileges cultural relativity and renounces the Eurocentric vantage point of other historians in a way that strongly resonates with his contemporary reader. Spengler criticizes Western philosophers, such as Nietzsche, for failing to consider vantage points outside of a narrow linear frame of Western history, suggesting: “It is this that is lacking to the Western thinker, the very thinker in whom we might have expected to find it—insight into the historically relative character of his data, which are expressions of one specific existence and one only” (18). Ironically, Spengler seems to have inherited this idea from Nietzsche’s concept of perspectivism, which holds that there is no absolute, “God’s eye” standpoint from which one can survey everything that is. In a way, Spengler outdoes Nietzsche in his own relativism. Paradoxically, the thinker who has often been co-opted by the right berates Nietzsche for his lack of historical and cultural relativity.

Conservative appropriations of Spengler’s ideas have often prompted historians to overlook Spengler’s opposition to imperialism and biological definitions of race. Implicit in Spengler’s analysis of civilization is a critique of imperialism, “which is civilization unadulterated” because it petrifies and disseminates a dying or dead culture to all parts of the globe. An empire disregards the historically contingent and individual status of world-history by blindly imposing its own forms onto other cultures. Empires, such as the Roman, Egyptian, and Chinese, become phantom civilizations or “dead bodies” that live on for hundreds of years after their deaths through their imperial domains."


Spengler's critique of race

by Annie Pfeifer (Modernist Lab):

"Spengler dismisses 19th century ideas of race as a biological phenomenon as well as pseudo-anthropological claims about the phrenology of cultures. Instead, he suggests that the idea of race derives largely from a geographic location and that “race-expression is completely transformed” in the migration and movement of peoples (254).

“…’race’ in this connexion must not be interpreted in the present-day Darwinian sense of the word. It cannot be accepted, surely, that a people were ever held together by the mere unity of physical origin, or, if it were, could maintain that unity for ten generations. It cannot be too often reiterated that this physiological provenance has no existence except for science—never for folk-consciousness—and that no people was ever stirred to enthusiasm by this ideal of blood purity… It is the incoordination of this (wholly metaphysical) beat which produces race hatred” (265).

His ideas about race fundamentally opposed National Socialism, which predicated its policies on a biological distinction between the “Aryan” and Jewish race. Due to his opposition to the racist biology of Nazism, Spengler’s books were eventually banned during the Third Reich. Spengler’s rebuttal of 19th century and Nazi race theories positions him as a modern, if not modernist thinker, who sought to break with the outdated methods of his predecessors and conservative contemporaries by renouncing Western claims to universality and supremacy."


How the late Spengler accepts the acceleration of time leading to a global apocalypse

John Farrenkopf:

"Fundamental to every philosophy of history, whose distinguishing characteristics change, is the concept of historical time. Spengler revolutionizes in his Spatwerk his concept of historical time. In The Decline of the West he argued that each cultural cycle was endowed with its distinctive historical tempo. Thus, while the classical world leisurely moved along in its historical development in andante; the dynamic West pressed onward in allegro con brio. In his attempt to develop a unified vision of world history which integrates within it the various, independent, civilizational traditions, he moves beyond his earlier idea that each high culture possesses its own distinctive tempo. He propounds the new thesis that the process of world history since around 5000 BC flows in an accelerating tempo, which is clearly observable with the emergence of the first high cultures. The quickening pace of world history takes on tragic dimensions as it rushes towards its climatic end.

- "At the latest, two millennia later, the high cultures in Egypt and Mesopotamia already begin. One sees, the tempo of history assumes tragic dimensions. Earlier, millennia played scarcely arole, now every century becomes important. The rolling stone approaches in tearing leaps the abyss".


World history now manifests for the "late" Spengler an over-arching line of development which spans the individual cultures. The high-cultural plurality surveyed in The Decline of the West is emplaced within a larger framework in which world history forms to a significant degree a unified process. The very fact of the emergence of the genus of high culture as a civilizational stage was adjudged to be a mere accident in his main work; now, it is seen as a necessary act in the awesome spectacle of humanity's revolt against the natural world. Integrating the two historical philosophical paradigms of The Decline of the West and his Spatwerk, he emerges with an upward-spiralling model of the world-historical process which climaxes in apocalypse. World history is characterized by an accelerating tempo of development, an increase in the dimensions of the catastrophe, and a tragic intensification of human consciousness. Thus, the decline of the West is no longer to be understood as merely an isolated event, a macro-historical phenomenon without earth-shaking ramifications for the course of world history, but as its ultimate phase.


Spengler's philosophy of world history in the twilight of his life emerges as a remarkable vision of tragedy. World history soars upward, spiral-like, straining to reach ever higher stages of spiritual and mental refinement (Durchgeistigung), until the crescendo disintegrates in an apocalyptic finale. The greatness of the human race resides not in its purported capacity to use its intellectual abilities to form enduring "rational" modalities of civilization, but in its transitory, Nietzschean, heroic experience of extreme vitalism and creativity.


Spengler's reflections on world history constitute a masterful two-stage critique of the idea of progress. This problematic thesis, delivered in diverse forms by a chorus of intellectual luminaries, has virtually dominated modem Western historical philosophy, having succeeded for the most part in drowning out the occasional dissenting voices of Vollgraff, Lasaulx, Gobineau, Burckhardt, and Brooks and Henry Adams. In The Decline of the West Spengler critiqued the idea of progress by advancing an imaginative model of essentially independent civilizations undergoing a cycle of rise and decline. Yet, he overreached himself in his daring effort to thoroughly discredit the widely accepted thesis of historical progress by denying the elements of civilizational continuity and the consciousness, which has become a fundamental part of the Western historical outlook since the Enlightenment, of the profound, onward movement of world history. In his Spatwerk Spengler recaptures the idea which he originally negated, that world history, despite its diversity and complexity, may be profitably conceived as a largely interrelated series of events. Yet he simultaneously markedly improves his critique of the idea of progress, not by relying exclusively upon the argument of civilizational decline, but by ingeniously fashioning avision of world history as a largely integrated, upward-spiraling process climaxing in catastrophe. By virtue of the transformation of his philosophy of world history, Spengler has arguably succeeded in helping to illuminate what may ultimately prove to be the awful blackness of the demise of modem civilization. In a century compelled to be more conscious of the ofttimes irrational nature of historical forces by the hammer blows of two world wars, genocide, global economic depression, and the specter of nuclear incineration, his vision of world history is a powerful one and of great timeliness despite its relative obscurity "


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