Rise of Cultural Relativism Revises Historiography

Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West posed a fundamental challenge to beliefs held by most professional historians of his time. By rejecting the ideas of progress, the inherent superiority of European civilization, and the possibility of any objective “scientific” knowledge of history, Spengler contributed to the rise of cultural relativism as a prominent characteristic of much present-day historiography.

Summary of Event

Belief in the permanent, linear progress of human society and the essential rationality of human nature derived from an eighteenth century European cultural movement known as the Enlightenment. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Enlightenment-based convictions spread throughout Europe, where they were nurtured by booming economies, by the bold new thrust of European colonial expansion into Asia and Africa, and by Charles Darwin’s stunning theory of natural selection. A few even speculated that, if peace could be maintained for another generation or so, prosperity and scientific advances could assure a virtually utopian existence for all. Decline of the West, The (Spengler)
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[kw]Rise of Cultural Relativism Revises Historiography (Summer, 1918)
[kw]Cultural Relativism Revises Historiography, Rise of (Summer, 1918)
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[kw]Historiography, Rise of Cultural Relativism Revises (Summer, 1918)
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[g]Germany;Summer, 1918: Rise of Cultural Relativism Revises Historiography[04510]
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Spengler, Oswald
Nietzsche, Friedrich
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
Foucault, Michel

Instead, the early twentieth century brought the cataclysm of World War I. From 1914 through 1918, Europe experienced a level of carnage and destruction without historical precedent. Virtually no one had foreseen the sheer extent of this disaster, although the brutal competition among the major European nations for power overseas had contributed directly to it. Among the Great War’s many casualties were the veneration of reason and the belief in social progress.

However, even before 1914, not everyone had subscribed to the optimistic cult of progress. Among the dissenters was a young German scholar named Oswald Spengler. After completing a doctorate in philosophy and mathematics in 1904, Spengler had taught high school history and geography in northern Germany before his poor health forced him to leave. In 1911 he moved to Munich, in southern Germany, where he wrote and survived on income from a modest inheritance. He had become increasingly alarmed by the political and military trends of his time, and sensing an impending calamity, he grew determined to place this threat within the broader context of world history.

By the outbreak of war in 1914, Spengler had completed the first draft of his book under the foreboding German title Die Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-1922; The Decline of the West, 1926-1928). Spengler’s thesis stretched beyond Europe’s borders to encompass the history of the world. For several years, however, no publisher would accept this unknown author’s sprawling philosophical history. The first volume finally reached print in the middle of 1918, only a few months before the war ended. Surprisingly, The Decline of the West became a best-seller across Germany and was often reprinted. A German populace devastated by war, humiliated by defeat, and afflicted by the onset of economic depression seemed to have found a grim satisfaction in the book’s prediction of the inevitable collapse of Western civilization (which would include the demise of Germany’s enemies).

In The Decline of the West, Spengler ridiculed the Enlightenment’s glorification of reason and progress. Instead, he saw a human history governed only by the irrational and the frequent reversal of human fortunes. Spengler acknowledged his great indebtedness to the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, especially the Nietzschean idea that all moral values have to be considered in the light of the people and communities in which they arise. Nietzsche had revived the ancient Greek concept of the “cosmic year,” a vast period characterized by the eternal recurrence of all living things. Like him, Spengler espoused a cyclical view of history that precluded the inevitability of a linear advance in human fortunes.

In his search for reality’s fundamental principles, Spengler was deeply affected by the work of another German philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. From Goethe, Spengler gleaned a cosmopolitan perspective that looked far beyond Europe, and he was inspired by Goethe’s concepts of organic growth and change, which said that an organism’s ability to change is the only true sign of its vitality.

Spengler blended Nietzsche’s cosmic cycles and relativistic outlook with Goethe’s global orientation and fascination with living nature, and the result was an original philosophy of world history. Adapting Goethe’s biological model, Spengler concluded that every civilization in history was an organism, a living thing, that unfolded through a predetermined cycle of birth, maturity, decline, and death. This organic analogy formed the core of Spengler’s historical thesis. The basic units of historiography, he said, could be found in all aspects of the great civilizations, not merely the narrow European political history preferred by most professional historians. Only by treating civilizations as successful manifestations of these life cycles could historians begin to answer significant questions.

Furthermore, Spengler claimed that the scientific method used by empiricist historians was suitable only for determining facts and collecting evidence to support explanations based on simple, cause-and-effect-based ideas. This method of study, Spengler insisted, could never penetrate to a civilization’s essence. The historian has to be able to use intuition, because the events of the past were not driven by reason and logic. Instead, they were caused by the unfolding of an inexorable and mysterious biological fate in which the life cycle of each organic civilization had been predetermined. This force of destiny was not God but was nonetheless beyond human comprehension.

In short, Spengler insisted that empathy and imagination are required for genuine historical understanding; one needs patience and creativity in order to comprehend, for example, certain unique symbols created by a particular society. Spengler believed Western civilization’s most unique identifying symbol to be its longing for the unattainable, which he called the Faustian spirit, after Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823). The Western tendency to strive for the infinite is best expressed in architectural wonders, such as the soaring vaults and spires of the medieval Gothic cathedrals; the fine arts of music, architecture, sculpture, and painting are the best mirrors of a society’s distinctive qualities.

According to Spengler, other civilizations have their own master symbols, and these can be studied using the intuitive method. Spengler identified a roster of eight civilizations in history, including modern Western civilization, that he considered worthy of serious attention. In focusing beyond Europe, Spengler stripped Western civilization of any claim to a privileged status among world societies. He denounced the conventional division of history into ancient, medieval, and modern segments, saying that the separation was too Eurocentric and irrelevant to the study of other civilizations. By condemning the extreme Eurocentrism of his day, he prepared the intellectual community for a fuller appreciation of the larger, non-Western world.

Spengler invented a new method of historical interpretation, one based not only on a society’s visible features but also on the analogies that could be drawn between two or more civilizations in comparable phases of their history. By broadening his perspective in this way, Spengler was able to predict the future course of an existing civilization by referring to past societies, and he found a direct parallel between the late Roman Empire of the caesars and Western European civilization. According to Spengler’s time line, civilizations typically do not rule for more than one thousand years, and so he calculated that a Western society born in the Middle Ages had only a couple of centuries left. These years, he predicted, would be times of great upheaval, and they would end with the collapse of Western civilization.


Not surprisingly, Spengler’s pessimistic philosophy sparked great controversy. In the decades since its appearance, The Decline of the West has been harshly criticized for its rigid dogmatism and for its mystical emphasis on biological determinism, including its attempt to compare cultures and civilizations to plants. Spengler became known as the “wild man of comparative history.”

What endured, however, was not the superstructure of Spengler’s philosophical system but his fervent commitment to the importance of cultural relativism in the study of history. The values and norms of a society, according to Spengler, can be understood only in relation to the milieu in which they originated. The relentless subjectivism and relativism of The Decline of the West clearly anticipated the work of later twentieth century historians such as Michel Foucault, whose Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961; Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1965) most fully expresses his subjective view of knowledge. According to Foucault, there are no facts, only interpretations; language is the only reality, and history texts are not sources of historical truth but only the subjective reflections of their authors. Decline of the West, The (Spengler)
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Further Reading

  • Farrenkopf, John. Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. Study based largely on newly available materials found in the Spengler archive in Munich. Comments on Spengler’s cultural relativism.
  • Hughes, H. Stuart. Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate. Rev. ed. New York: Scribner’s, 1962. One of the best overviews of Spengler’s achievement available. Particularly valuable for tracing the intellectual background behind The Decline of the West.
  • Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. Translated by Charles Francis Atkinson, edited by Arthur Helps. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962. Contains the essence of Spengler’s philosophy of world history.
  • Windschuttle, Keith. The Killing of History. New York: Free Press, 1997. Incisive critique of the impact of cultural relativism on the writing of history, especially in chapters 7 and 9.

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