Posts Tagged ‘Oswald Spengler’

I admit (again) to being bugged by things found on YouTube — a miserable proxy for the marketplace of ideas — many of which are either dumb, wrongheaded, or poorly framed. It’s not my goal to correct every mistake, but sometimes, inane utterances of intellectuals and specialists I might otherwise admire just stick in my craw. It’s hubris on my part to insist on my understandings, considering my utter lack of standing as an acknowledged authority, but I’m not without my own multiple areas of expertise (I assert immodestly).

The initial purpose for this blog was to explore the nature of consciousness. I’ve gotten badly sidetracked writing about collapse, media theory, epistemology, narrative, and cinema, so let me circle back around. This is gonna be long.

German philosopher Oswald Spengler takes a crack at defining consciousness:

Human consciousness is identical with the opposition between the soul and the world. There are gradations in consciousness, varying from a dim perception, sometimes suffused by an inner light, to an extreme sharpness of pure reason that we find in the thought of Kant, for whom soul and world have become subject and object. This elementary structure of consciousness is not capable of further analysis; both factors are always present together and appear as a unity.


Intellectual history is sometimes studied through themes and symbols found in novels with the writers of those novels being manifest about their intent. This is the second of two blog posts exploring truth-telling in fictional narrative. The first one is here.

Although I watch exactly zero TV, I see a fair number of movies (usually at home on DVD), which fulfills my need to stay in touch with the Zeitgeist of mainstream culture. Periodically, I go to iTunes Movie Trailers to see what’s coming out. In my experience, most offerings are interchangeable genre films with themes, stories, and effects drawn from the same worn-out bag of tricks. Actors, directors, and screenwriters repeat themselves with predictable regularity, which I’ll admit doesn’t necessarily stop their films from being entertaining or making money. If I’m drawn to any particular genre, it’s science fiction, which typically presents some provocative ideas, though they are promptly sacrificed to cinematic convention.

Considering the way the world is going, it was only a matter of time before yet another film explored transhumanism, though no one ever says transhumanism, if indeed they are aware of their underlying themes or merely express themselves through an inchoate artistic sensibility. The latest (due out in mid-April) renames the phenomenon Transcendence and stars Johnny Depp as a terminally ill mad scientist whose mind is up- or downloaded into a computer only to go power-hungry and berserk. (I’ve only seen the trailer and a couple featurettes.) Maybe it’s a cautionary tale, but not before luring credulous viewers into technophilia over the wildly imaginative possibilities of minds housed in computers. Michio Kaku, a science explainer/popularizer and author of the book The Future of the Mind, also teases initiates with the ridiculous potential to, say, reduce consciousness to a collection of data points to be “preserved” on a CD-ROM. Thus, through storytelling of consciousness disembodied and gone haywire, the controversy is taught, yet the inevitability of this future is plainly assumed. The scientists in the featurettes, by the way, say we’re only about 30 years away from being able to accomplish the wonders portrayed in the film.


Let me continue book blogging on The Decline of the West with the following caveat: I’ve struggled to read and understand Spengler’s chapter on the meaning of numbers. His writing style is often opaque and even quasi-mystical. Plus, my familiarity with the times, people, and places cited is sometimes limited. So even after traversing the chapter more than once, I feel my grasp is, well, a little feeble.

Spengler conceals his conclusion until the final paragraphs, namely, that the world-sense derived from mathematical thought, after its initial elucidation, takes approximately 300 years to exhaust itself through refinement, decay, and perhaps replacement. Although he mentions Egyptian, Arabian, Indian, and other mathematics in passing, the bulk of the chapter contrasts the Classical number of Greek antiquity with the modern number of the scientific era commencing just after the Enlightenment. The fullness of each sensibility is limited to adepts in the respective historical period, but the effect is foundational — enough in fact to define the deep culture of an era. This reminds me that in some undeveloped cultures, number sense is limited to 1, 2, a few, and many, and for that matter, how zero was not initially part of many number systems. Spengler does not discuss these facets in detail. The foundational effect also reminds me (à la Edward T. Hall) of divergences in appreciation of time and proxemics from place to place and era to era, which may be merely subsets of the numerical world-sense Spengler describes.


To orient oneself in life, a person chooses from among myriad narratives, typically assembling a hodgepodge worldview out of diverse parts. According to Oswald Spengler, cultural artifacts (e.g., the arts, humanities, and sciences) arise “needing the guidance of inspiration and … developing under great conventions of form.” The very same can be said of our origin and orientation stories, ancient or contemporary. Narratives intertwine and need not necessarily be discrete, mutually exclusive, or competing, even though that’s what’s often implied by time-worn tensions underlying science vs. religion, sometimes understood more philosophically as logos vs. mythos. Indeed, they cohere despite conflicts of logic and their being ahistorical. The power of subscription and consensus overcomes all objections.

If a master narrative exists, it ought to be simply reality obtained, though that is probably visible to only a small percentage of people able to apprehend the world clearly. For the rest, scales not yet having fallen from the eyes, the considerable benefit of hindsight can help clarify the view, but only if one has sufficient nerve to behold it honestly. Instead, our dominant inspirational narratives promulgate a wide variety of incompletely fulfilled hopes and desires. Few such promises bear much resemblance to reality, those of economists, politicians, and clerics demonstrating the most striking discontinuities from the actuality experienced by ordinary folks. A Chris Hedges article at called “The Folly of Empire” discusses this departure from reality in his characteristically erudite style (apologies for the long nested quote):


Returning at last to Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the first chapter, following several prefaces and an introduction, begins with several terms helpfully defined, or more properly, redefined, as they differ subtly or substantially from their standard meanings. The definitions appear to be an interpolation from somewhere in the original 2-vol. German work other than the start of Chap. 1. The preface (can’t recall which one) indicates that to condense the larger work into one volume, many passages were dropped and some were shifted, moved material typically being shown using either brackets or italics.

Some philosophies distinguish between being and becoming, whereas Spengler prefers Goethe’s terms: become and becoming. Several of Spengler’s ideas thus far hinge on temporal distinctions between past, present, and future, which was the germ behind my preliminary book-blogging post on Decline called “Past and Prospect.” I observe that the fleetingness of the momentary present, always shifting forward, inevitably yields to both the (relative) fixity of the past and the unboundedness of the future. Spengler doesn’t really say it manifestly, but I sense his awareness that human experience and thus philosophy is hopelessly time-bound, which he calls at different points directedness and extensibility. Spengler also uses proper and alien to distinguish between inner life (or inwardness) as opposed to perception (or outer life). I’ve yet to read far enough beyond these definitions to see them deployed consistently, but the subtleties are not lost on me.

Spengler also discusses the world as history as distinct from the world as nature, where historical understanding is intuitive and inward but an understanding according to nature is mechanistic, cognized, and reduced to a system, meaning abstracted in thought. These categories are perhaps familiar to readers of this blog from my previous book-blogging on The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. The main difference is that McGilchrist finds that the intuitive and inward form into a Gestalt or whole. It’s worth mentioning, too, that the world as nature carries a meaning nearly opposite from what eco-warriors and doomers might suspect.

Curiously, considering my primary interest with this blog, Spengler takes a crack at defining consciousness:

Human consciousness is identical with the opposition between the soul and the world. There are gradations in consciousness, varying from a dim perception, sometimes suffused by an inner light, to an extreme sharpness of pure reason that we find in the thought of Kant, for whom soul and world have become subject and object. This elementary structure of consciousness is not capable of further analysis; both factors are always present together and appear as a unity.

This compact paragraph hits upon several of the features of consciousness I have brought forward and discussed at admittedly modest length. For instance, I have referred repeatedly to the subject-object distinction as being one of the primary attributes of modern consciousness, which began to coalesce sometime around the third century BCE. It’s not something I want to revisit here, but it is curious that this particular understanding of modern consciousness follows Spengler by some 50 years, initially in the work of Julian Jaynes, the latter of whom seems to have launched a psychological-anthropological-philosophical subscience called historical consciousness. To the uninitiated, the bullet is that we humans did not always think the way we do now with respect to time, place, identity, ego boundaries, etc. Consciousness adapts, and it took time for the mind and culture to develop to where we now are.

Dissatisfaction with my provisional definition of consciousness — provided under challenge — in the comments to this post are echoed by Spengler when he asserts that subject and object are indivisible and lie beyond analysis. While this is probably true, it seems pointless to first assert that “consciousness is identical with …” and then punt, handily placing the subject beyond further inquiry. This rhetorical trick is familiar in other contexts, such as where hope and faith substitute for real understanding at the same time that concentrated study is endlessly fascinating and can award considerable expertise. To abjure, placing some of the most interesting areas of intellectual inquiry beyond approach considering our present infantile state of understanding, might seem judicious, but then we would never develop our understanding of anything. Perhaps that is ultimately better, since we’ve used our meticulous (though still partial and woefully short-sighted) understanding of material processes rather unwisely (to say the least). But understanding history, culture, philosophy, or consciousness invites far less unscrupulous manipulation than with, say, fossil fuels or fiat currencies.

I’m about to embark on another longish project in book blogging. A last post on Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary is due before I’m done, so there will be some overlap. That previous project didn’t exactly provoke a lot of interest or commentary, which is understandable if readers of this blog aren’t also reading the book I’ve chosen. The new project will be on Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West in the abridged English translation (Oxford University Press, 1991). Readers preoccupied with grand, sweeping, historical summaries typically recommend (with the strange implication of possession) Toynbee and Tainter, as in “Have you read your Toynbee?” Less typical recommendations go to Gibbon and Diamond. Of those, I’ve read only Diamond. For reasons I can’t explain, I suddenly find myself interested enough in Spengler to pick up his book, which was recommended to me several years ago.

Spengler’s original German work, published in two volumes (1918–1922), lies outside my language skills, and I note that at least one Amazon reviewer claims this edition is warmed-over Spengler, not quite the real deal. That may be, but it’s not especially concerning for me. Having read already its four (!) prefaces and now Spengler’s own introduction, there is some value to be found in our remove from the original publication date as Spengler’s insights can be reassessed in light of what has transpired since.

For instance, in his 1990 preface to the edition I’m reading, H. Stuart Hughes recommends reading Spengler more as poetics and/or philosophy than straight-up historical summary. He also uses the term “private scholar” to describe Spengler, which is a calling almost no one hears of or aspires to anymore, now that time is so thoroughly commodified. What we have instead is careerism rather than erudition and functional savants (if that …) in the professions rather than a roundly educated population. Hughes also introduces (to me at least) a German word that may well become my new favorite $5 term: Zusammenhang, which means “the wider context in which events or expressions alone acquire meaning.”

Spengler sets out his task early on: to describe world-historical forms and uncover the patterns in which they unfold. Like the seasons of nature or the human body, Spengler sees history in terms of growth, maturity, and decline (and perhaps rebirth, but I’m reading in on this last phase). He further indicates that civilizations are built inevitably on cultures and are indeed expressions of a culture’s late stage of maturity, which is to say, its decline:

Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing-becoming, death following life, rigidity following expansion, intellectual age and the stone-built, petrifying world-city following mother-earth and the spiritual childhood of Doric and Gothic. They are an end, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again. [p. 24]

This formation is not so extraordinary by itself, but the manner in which Spengler expresses it (even in English translation) and the evidence he brings to bear are quite interesting. For instance, he characterizes some civilizations as having been quite ahistorical, unaware of themselves as occupying a unique period and therefore unconcerned with preserving themselves or their artifacts:

After the destruction of Athens by the Persians, all the older art-works were thrown on the dustheap (whence we are now extracting them), and we do not hear that anyone in Hellas ever troubled himself about the ruins of Mycenae or Phaistos for the purpose of ascertaining historical facts. In the West, on the contrary, the piety inherent in and peculiar to the Culture manifested itself in Petrarch — the collector of antiquities, coins and manuscripts, the very type of historically sensitive man, viewing the distant past and scanning the distant prospect … living in his time, yet essentially not of it. [pp. 10–11]

Being situated within the flow of time, as opposed to standing outside it, might also be characteristic of childhood, which normally lacks the ability to objectify itself. Adulthood suffers no such failure, as we tend to our personal histories and legacies almost as steadfastly as the lives we’re living. The special case of adult children, or the so-called manchild, who never grows up and keeps his infantile desires intact, may suggest some reflection. However, I will disdain to judge which point of view is superior, as both have their positive and negative attributes. If we had not developed the tools to destroy ourselves and the world several times over, I might recommend the charms of innocence, but that’s not the reality we have. Instead, we have a culture of permanent adolescence, with its tantrums and sense of burgeoning power — a dangerous combination of the worst of both points of view.

These two quoted passages are typical of Spengler’s writing throughout. Most writers today have far less style and authority, even if they have novelty and a compelling thesis. In fact, I’m tempted to quote Spengler again and again, trusting that even short passages are rich in depth and sensitivity that are foreclosed by today’s impossibly hectic pace. So as I proceed glacially through the book, pausing at great length to consider its arguments, don’t be too surprised if this blogging project takes more than two years, as did the previous one on McGilchrist (not yet even complete).