Spengler's Second Philosophy of World History

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* Article: The Transformation of Spengler's Philosophy of World History. John Farrenkopf. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1991), pp. 463-485

URL = https://www.jstor.org/stable/2710047


Spengler's Unpublished Work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."


A summary of his Second Philosophy

John Farrenkopf:

"Now let us turn our attention to analyzing the principal elements of what can be arguably called Spengler's second philosophy of world history, as pieced together here both from works published either in his lifetime or posthumously and from unpublished Nachlass material. In his major work he had boldly designated his comparative historical morphology as the most advanced approach to historical analysis of his era, tantamount to a "Copernican discovery." 19 Yet in the introduction to one of his final publications Spengler implied that he had recognized the necessity of striving to surpass the historical philosophy showcased in The Decline of the West. As he observed, "world-historical vision, only emerging among us during the last hundred years, has not yet attained its possible heights.

No longer does Spengler maintain, from the position of methodical, philosophical relativism set forth in his Hauptwerk, that his philosophy of world history is only valid for denizens of Western civilization.2

Now he asserts in bold Hegelian fashion that the process of world history has finally achieved the necessary stage of maturity, which permits the comprehension of its essence. "The twentieth century has finally become mature enough to penetrate to the ultimate meaning of the facts, out of whose entirety world history actually consists."22 Spengler, in approaching prehistory and early civilizational history and contemplating their place in the totality of human existence, is deeply interested in ascertaining the overall pattern of world history, the main forces which produce it, and the underlying meaning of world history concealed behind the phenomenal facade of historical events. As in his major work, he continues to sharply reject the utilization of cause and effect analysis. Indeed, the tradition of German historicism, in striking contrast to Western positivism, embraced the methodological position that the study of history necessitated intuitive approaches to understanding rather than causal explanation. Spengler goes further than mainstream German historicism in this regard, arguing that the creative act of immortal poets, like Aeschylus and Shakespeare, in applying the power of poetic insight to the dramatic exploration of the human condition, can be duplicated in historical philosophy. It is the enormous ambition of this thinker, who composed unfinished historical dramas on Christ, Tiberius, and Napoleon, to be the dramaturge of world history itself, to achieve full poetic consciousness of the terror and wonder of the entire range of human historical experience. The task of the philosopher of universal history is to capture the greatness and tragedy at the heart of humanity's historical destiny.

In The Decline of the West Spengler drew the distinction between two major periods in world history, that of the high cultures, commencing around 3000 BC, and that of primitive culture or prehistory, which, in his estimation, began with the onset of the last Ice Age. He considered early man as forming the largely undifferentiated foundation upon which the high cultures arose. "Primitive man only possesses history in a biological sense,"26 he had dogmatically asserted. Originally, with his relative disinterest in the cultural significance of prehistory and early civilizational history, Spengler had asserted that humankind, prior to the emergence of each of the successive high cultures, had manifested merely the "primeval spiritual condition of an eternal-childlike humanity."27 This is, to say the least, an unsatisfactory treatment of this vital phase in civilizational development. Nonetheless, it should be remembered in his defense that he went on to become one of the first historical philosophers to survey not only the realm of recorded history but the vast temporal expanse of prehistory as well.

Spengler, who was obviously not a professionally trained prehistorian, although he was well-read in the scholarly literature in German, English, and French in the field, viewed with disfavor the conventional approach prescribing the classification of periods of prehistory according to materials and objects collected from archeological finds.28 He contended that instead, prehistory should be studied as a succession of epochs of human spiritual or psychological existence.29 Spengler now divides world history into four instead of merely two distinct stages of cultural development, which sequentially unfold subsequent to the remote dividing line at which human beings spiritually emancipated themselves from the animal kingdom. The first three periods, which he had simply lumped together in The Decline of the West as one lengthy age of primitive culture, are labelled with Spartan economy of expression, "a", "b", and "c," corresponding to the Paleolithic, the Late Paleolithic and Neolithic, and the Late Neolithic and early civilization respectively. Spengler concentrated most of his research energy on the "c" phase of prehistory, which laid the foundation for the early civilizations. The final and fourth stage of world history is that of the high cultures or civilizations, the typology of which remains that unveiled in The Decline of the West.

Spengler's daring thesis in his Hauptwerk of the autonomous character of civilizations, their relative insulation from external civilizational influences, is a radical extension of the doctrine of individuality (IndividualitaItslehre) in German historicism. His problematic position continues to deservedly receive much criticism.30 Yet already in 1924, only two years after he finally wound up his work on The Decline of the West, in discussing his "Plan eines neuen Atlas Antiquus," Spengler manifested a pronounced interest in going beyond his key thesis of cultural individuality to explore the complex role of cultural interaction in universal history.

He visualizes primitive cultures composing a world of dynamic interplay "The primitive cultures encompass the entire earth, they have used all the seas along the coasts and island chains as go-betweens and form, with their spheres and currents a living whole, without which one is not able to survey the origin and prior history of the great cultures."

Civilizations themselves are now conceived to be involved in significant cultural interchange. Thus, the Sassanid Empire is characterized as "a most decisive creation at the crossroads of four high cultures."

Spengler, with his penchant for evocative nomenclature, conceives the symbols of lava, crystal, and amoeba to illustrate the character of the successive, prehistoric cultural periods. According to his chronology, the age of lava spans the years from approximately 100,000 to 20,000 BC, the era of crystal stretches from about 20,000 to 8000 BC, and the period of amoebas extends from roughly 8000 to 3000 BC.

The first two periods of primitive culture do not develop organically; consequently the onetime student of mineralogy assigns them names derived from that discipline instead of biology. The epoch of "a" culture or lava is one of first beginnings, when the first representatives of the human race are dramatically expelled upon the surface of the earth like lava during the eruption of a volcano. The age of "b" culture or crystal witnesses human psychological awakening, the birth of instinctual comprehension, the transition from formless into form, when light penetrates into the human soul. In the era of "c" culture this phase of coming-to-consciousness deepens, human beings become aware of themselves as individuals, languages arise, tribes of a couple thousand people take shape and collective human enterprise emerges. The "c" cultures, organic in nature, participate in, as wandering cultures, (Wanderkulturen), substantial cross-cultural interaction. Like amoebas they are extremely mobile, expansive, and flowing. Spengler differentiates between three "amoebic" cultures which stand out for their exemplary development in the prehistoric record in comparison with those which remain obscured by the passage of time. He declines to give them geographical names because of their mobility and changing boundaries,36 instead christening them with colorful names derived from ancient legend and mythology, Atlantis, Kasch, and Turan. They each have a comparatively short life-span of roughly 3,500 years.37 Just as Spengler emphasized the primacy of cultural pluralism in the history of civilizations, he underscored, in historicist fashion, the cultural variation of prehistory. "But actually, there has never existed a human culture in general, but only independent cultures of individual form, consequently also, at all times, separate developments."

The primitive Western culture of Atlantis, a maritime one which built megaliths,39 centered around Spain, Morocco, and the northern Sahara,40 flowing north to Orkney and Denmark, and eastwards to Egypt, Sudan, and Akkad.4" The early Southern temple-building culture of Kasch, had its center of gravity in the area demarcated by the Persian Gulf, Oman, Baluchistan, and Hyderabad.42 The primitive Northern culture of Turan, stretching from Scandinavia to Korea, is the heroic, martial culture of the three, the home of the war-chariot.

The high cultures, organisms like their primitive amoebic progenitors and with their diverse styles of magnificent urban culture, are rooted plant-like in a specific, geographical area. Atlantis and Kasch fuse to form the origins of the high cultures of Babylon and Egypt.43 The invasions of the nomadic warriors of Turan about 1500 BC, who swept down from the north upon the civilized peoples of Egypt, Minoan Crete, Babylon, the Indus valley, and early China, laid the foundations for the "half-Nordic" Graeco-Roman, Aryan Indian, and Chinese high cultures."4 Spengler's iconoclastic interpretation of prehistory suffers from three conspicuous deficiencies."