The Metaphysics Of Oswald Spengler

spengler

Most of the (tragically) fewer and fewer references to Oswald Spengler’s great work, Decline Of The West, appear to be made by those seeking an authority to support their own disapprobation of Western Culture’s pronounced bias in favor of materialism, self-centeredness, objectification of Nature, and extolation of Reason over Intuition (or magic, or myth, or good vibes or what-have-you). Some of these pissed-off pessimists even seem to take a perverse joy in predicting the demise of such an obviously rotten civilization. These Spengler-referencers make sure to mention the provocative title of Spengler’s book and may cherry-pick a few of his more ostentatiously negative comments.

Nothing particularly wrong with this… It’s an excellent book for precisely this sort of thing.  Spengler’s book is perhaps one of the three most erudite and comprehensive attempts at an explanation of why civilizations, including that of the West, rise and fall (Gibbon and Paul Kennedy are up there, too).

In his great work, Spengler cites numerous events from the declining phases of various cultures in history– most especially Classical history– and he describes how these events parallel situations in our own time. He contends that these parallels demonstrate that all declining civilizations share a similar trajectory of deterioration, and that the indications are that the West is well into the downward slope of its own life-span.

However, what gets lost– and lost near completely so far as I can tell– in citations of Decline Of The West is Spengler’s quite impressive Metaphysics. This is a shame, not only because Spengler’s metaphysical cogitations are thought-provoking in their own right, but because his philosophy forms the foundation of his history.

To give an overview of Spenglerian metaphysics, I will start with his explanations of Space and Time, then follow his line of reasoning through his ruminations upon Cause-and-Effect and upon Extension, and discover how this relates –not just to the activities of individual Souls– but (and here’s the tie-in) to the “Soul” of each Civilization.  Yes, Spengler claims to believe that every Civilization possesses a Soul– but the Civilizational Soul is most certainly NOT eternal… hence, the whole rise and fall thing.  Interesting stuff. Let’s jump to it! —

Spengler asserts that when a human Soul emerges into the world it is dumped into the Chaos– an infinity of what we may call proto-sensations (to use my own term). This is what Spengler calls “the statue not yet carved out of the block.”  The Soul then must narrow down this infinity of possibilities into a manageable number of sensations. The creation of the body is the manifestation of this need, the body’s sensory-receptors splitting-up the Chaos into digestible chunks and slivers.  Thus, before we are even conscious, our MODE (to use my word) of consciousness is already determined by our MANNER of taming, splitting, combining, and reducing the Chaos surrounding us.  Says Spengler, “Cognition, itself, involves in all cases choice, direction, and inner form.”

In this way, from its inception, Consciousness is an expression of Soul.  In a sense, from the largess of the Chaos, each Soul CREATES its own world.  We may not choose the block of wood, but do choose how to carve it. “I am endowing that which is outside me with the whole content of that which is inside me,” writes Spengler.

The process of this Creation involves “splitting-up” the Chaos into oppositional qualities.  To put it in my terms, at the heart of human understanding is a sort of binary code. The way– the only way– human understanding comprehends sense-stimuli is through the interplay of opposites.  At the most basic level of cognition, incoming sensory data must be judged and sorted according to this-not-that valuations.  Spengler, writing before the age of computers, does not go so far as suggest that the body assigns ones or zeroes to its perceptions, but we could easily extend his thought and talk here about the firing of sensory and brain neurons in the body, and about how they must “decide” to fire or not to fire their signals depending on the stimulus.

“Any understanding that is genuine critical activity,” writes Spengler, “is only made possible through the setting-up of a new concept as Anti-Pole to the one already present.”  We are incapable of understanding anything unless we have its opposite to compare it to. For instance, we cannot discern the form unless we can simultaneously discern what is not-the-form.  And we cannot create the category of “warmth” without also creating the category of “coolness,” of “front” without “back,” of “up” without “down.”

Personally, I agree with this contention at a gut-level, although I’m not entirely sure whether the opposite of “warm” and “front” are “cool” and “back”– or “not-warm” and “not-cool.” Nevertheless, there does appear to me to be a fundamental need for polarity or “opposites” (however best defined) for critical thinking to occur.

Perhaps the most fundamental perceptions we possess (or the emerging Soul imposes) are the concepts of Space and Time, along with the intertwined concept of Cause-and-Effect.  In this area, Spengler lands on the same continent of thought generally explored by his predecessors: Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Einstein.  Basically, for Spengler, Time and Space are flipsides of the same coin…

Spengler states that– because human understanding requires opposites to function– our minds, when attempting to grasp the concept of “Space” had to create Space’s opposite, “Time.”  All the properties of Time are thus “formed and ordered in the intellect as inverses to the properties of Space.”

To use my own example, consider someone jogging an intentionally steady-paced mile. The jogger knows that, at the pace he has set, he will complete the mile in eight minutes.  At the beginning of his run, the distance to cover equals one mile, and time elapsed equals zero. After two minutes has elapsed, the distance still to cover will be down to three-fourths of a mile.  After four minutes, 1/2 a mile is all that is left to go.  We can spot here the inverse relationship between Time and Space. As Time goes up, Distance goes down. They are two polarities describing one, more fundamental relationship (or perhaps complex of relationships) existing between the jogger and the endpoint of his jog. Perhaps we cannot comprehend the deeper reality giving rise to this relationship, but we can sense the SYMBOLS of it… Those symbols being Space, and its mentally constructed opposite, Time.

“Time arose out of the feeling of the direction-quality possessed by an ever-mobile Life,” writes Spengler.  Time as… “a conceptual negative to a positive magnitude [Space]” … “an incarnation of that which is NOT extension.”  Time has been “formed and ordered in the intellect as inverses to the properties of Space.”

To riff off an example Spengler, himself, gives… Consider the year-long orbit of the Earth… As the Earth moves around the Sun, the distance covered increases, but the Time of the orbit decreases– the year is used-up, as it were. The accretion of Space is the diminution of Time. This is why Spengler can declare that “Space gives death to Time.”  And just as validly that, “Time gives birth to Space” (at the beginning of the orbit, the orbit is the full Time and zero Space, but Space emerges from Time as Time submerges into Space).

I like to picture the Time of the orbit as a loop of fuse. Once the fuse is lit, its progressing flame can represent the orbiting object. As the object increases distance-covered, Time is burnt-up. The postivizing of Space is the negativizing of Time.

CAUSE-AND-EFFECT

Once we realize that Time is a mental construct created to enable us to contemplate Space, the whole notion of Cause-And-Effect becomes muddled.  In order for something to be the Cause of something else (the Effect), the Cause must precede the Effect in Time.  A Cause cannot, according to human understanding, occur after the Effect.  Neither can they both occur exactly simultaneously.  But if Time is of our own making, where does this leave Causality?

According Spengler, “Causality has nothing whatever to do with Time.”  How can he say this?

When dealing with Cause-and-Effect, Spengler separates the qualities of “How” and “How Long.”  Causality is about How.  How Long is something WE create; it “lies within the act of understanding, itself” and “not within the thing or things understood.”  To put it in my own words, there may be out there some relationship between two entities, but the duration between the two is a human-supplied quality.

To state another way…  One may ask, “How the Universe?”, but the question “How LONG the Universe?” has no objective answer.  According to Spengler, the “web” of what we call “Cause-and-Effect” is spread in “timeless duration.”  Spengler goes so far as to imply that we stubbornly cling to a “How Long” view of Cause-and-Effect in a desperate act of defense against “the death which cannot be evaded.”

LANGUAGE AND IDIOSYNCRATIC WORLDVIEWS

The notion that we create the world by splitting Unity into polarities applies not only to Space and Time (with the above-mentioned ramifications for Cause-and-Effect), but also has great implications for Language…

Spengler asserts that no root-word in human language has ever been created without the simultaneous creation of its antonym (we can grant this, I think, without being overly strict; that is, the concept of the opposite “word” could exist phantom-like for awhile before a particular term is finally adopted to symbolize it).

Due to each Soul’s individualized process of choosing realities, Spengler contends that there are “as many worlds as there are waking beings” and that “the supposedly single, independent, and external world that each believes to be common to all is really an ever-new, uniquely occurring and non-recurring experience in the existence of each.”

Because we are each creating a world unto ourselves, no two people experience precisely the same life, the same history. Even in the most simplified interpretation of this idea, we can readily see that no other creature looks out upon the world from the same physical location as we, ourselves, do.  Each person’s perspective upon the world is unique. This difference in personal worlds has implications for those things we attempt to share– for example, Language…

Each of us possesses a different history of associations with every word. Thus, even when people appear to be using the same vocabulary, they can be speaking different languages.  No wonder communication is such an issue in human society!

Now, to throw a wrinkle upon the fabric Spengler is weaving… In addition to these individualized worldviews, Spengler also maintains that there is a SECOND LEVEL of created worlds, worlds which exist as SHARED states by “like-living, like-feeling groups of beings.”  These shared worldviews would include those held by Civilizations (Spengler views a Civilization as a sort of super-organism).

In this way, individualized language also occurs at the Second Level of consciousness, the shared level.  Each of the great Civilizations, according to Spengler, “has arrived at a secret language of world-feeling” which is only fully comprehensible to a person belonging to that Civilization. 

In fact, not just language, but ALL characteristics resulting from a individualized worldviews are equally applicable to Civilizations as to individuals.  For instance, just as with individuals, Spengler asserts that each Civilization possesses its “own STYLE of knowledge of men and experience of life”— giving rise as well to different cultural psychologies.

“There are as many moralities as there are Cultures,” writes Spengler, each equally valid. Ethics, writes Spengler, are determined by how a people views its Destiny.  For example, if a nation thinks its destiny is conquer, than the mass murder which some call “war” will be seen as something ennobling, not despicable.  As a consequence, “there is no general morality of humanity.” 

And the same goes for historical outlook…

“Each of the different great Cultures has pictured world history in its own special way,” says Spengler, seeing both the past and the future through its own special lens.

Furthermore, “no observer can ever step outside the conditions and the limitations of his time and circle.”  For this reason, Spengler contends that one Civilization cannot truly understand another Civilization. “The best judge of men in the Western world goes wrong when he tries to understand a Japanese, and vice versa,” he says.  Likewise, “the man of learning goes equally wrong when he tries to translate basic words of Arabic or Greek by basic words of his own tongue.”  Language and worldview are intricately bound.

The different worldviews of different Civilizations manifest themselves as SYMBOLS. These symbols are ubiquitous. “Everything that ever existed and will become existent, are physiognomic traits of high symbolic significance,” states Spengler. “Festivals and Roman Catholic masses, blast furnaces and gladiatorial games, dervishes and Darwinians, railways and Roman gods, Progress and Nirvana– newspapers, mass-slavery, money, machinery– all these are equally signs and symbols.”  It is no coincidence, says Spengler, that the pocketwatch was invented by the West… The watch is both manifestation and symbol of Western Civilization’s obsession with relatively small measurements of time.

Spengler writes that, as he studied history, he came to recognize Symbols representing what he calls “Deep Relations” between cultural ideas.  “The forms of the Arts linked themselves to the forms of war and state policy.”  For Spengler, “everything whatsoever that has Become is a Symbol.”  Everything is significant.

THE UNFOLDING OF THE SOUL

Spengler imagines a Soul as the sum of possibilities existing before the beginning of an entity’s actualized existence.  The unfolding of such a Soul into the Universe is its Destiny.  When the unfolding is complete, the entity has achieved its fate or purpose, and it is finished.  For Spengler, such an entity may be an individual… or an entire Civilization.

Let’s go back for a moment to the orbit example I used for discussing the reciprocity of Time and Space…. Before completing its circuit (its “Destiny,” if you will), the orbiting object possesses “Directedness.” During its journey, however, the closer it comes to the end of its “Destiny,” the closer it comes to annihilating its Directedness.  At the completion of its orbit (pretending for our purposes that the object is making only a single orbit), the object’s Extension into Space is at an end, and it no longer will be moving in a direction.  Thus it is that Spencer can say, “it is the Essence of the Extended that it overcomes Directedness.”  A fully extended entity is no longer directional.

And if I may push Spengler’s thought just a little farther (in a direction I’m convinced he implies, even if he never explicitly states it)… a non-moving object can be said to be inert, and an inert object can be characterized as being un-alive, as being “dead.”  In this way, we can describe an entity in the process of achieving its full extension — of fulfilling its “Destiny”– as being in the process of “dying” even as it lives.

So it is that, as the “Soul” of an “organism” (a man, a civilization, etc) extends itself into reality, it turns possibility into actuality.  In this way, the Soul (the sum of possibilities) dissipates itself more, the more it extends. The greater the Extension achieved, the less Soul remaining. Thus, Spengler can say that “the Soul is the complement of its Extension” — similar to how Time is the complement of Space.  When full Extension is actualized, the Soul “dies” or ceases to exist– or at least achieves dormancy via its fully unfolded (and thus now-frozen, now-petrified) Extension.

An active Civilization for Spengler is a living entity which is in the process of actualizing its potentialities– of fulfilling its Destiny. Once the potentialities inherent in its particular Civilizational Soul are near to being completely actualized/extended, the Civilization can be said to be dying… to be in declineBecoming achieved the state of Become. 

You can now see why I keep insisting that a decent comprehension of what Spengler is truly about requires an understanding of his metaphysics.  He’s not just some pessimist bemoaning the doomed direction of Western Civilization… Although Spengler dedicates many a paragraph to venting his spleen concerning the current state-of-deterioration of society as compared to what he perceives as its glory days, he is, when operating under his own highest ideal, fundamentally approaching the decline of the West without judgment.   Western Civilization, like all civilizations before and after it, is simply reaching the point of full extension, of the complete fulfillment of the ideas contained within its embryonic Soul.  To condemn the West for reaching its inevitable endpoint, for achieving its Destiny, would be akin to condemning an ancient and fruitful tree for finally dying.

More posts on Spengler’s Philosophy Of History from Hammering Shield:

Culture vs Civilization In Spengler

Spengler On Decline In Art & Philosophy

Spengler On The Will To Power

Spengler: Thumbnail Sketch The Last 2,000 Years

Spengler On The Pre-Determination of History

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2 thoughts on “The Metaphysics Of Oswald Spengler

  1. I recall studying Spengler as part of my post-grad course work, years ago. I thought he over-constructed his cyclic history notion, which seemed very determinist. For me the main stumbling block was his plant metaphor.

  2. Yes, it is an extremely thought-provoking book, but, for me at least, he fails to convince that History is as cyclical as he would have us believe– though the similarities between the Roman and the modern worlds (which he cherry-picks, of course) are intriguing! Even as a “failure,” I consider it one of the most profound books I’ve ever read.

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