Imagination and Evaluation in History: Spengler and Adorno

Oswald Spengler: “Once again, therefore, there was an act like the act of Copernicus to be accomplished, an act of emancipation from the evident present in the name of infinity. This the Western soul achieved in the domain of Nature long ago, when it passed from the Ptolemaic world-system to that which is alone valid for it today, and treats the position of the observer on one particular planet as accidental instead of normative.”

The first step is to recognise that you have a standpoint, and then you can see that there are different standpoints you might have taken up. And that these different possible standpoints go all the way to infinity, making yours quite accidental. With this knowledge, you can state your “prepossessions” consciously and methodically, without labouring under the illusion that you’re being objective.

“Contemplation or vision, on the other hand –– I may recall Goethe’s words: ‘vision is to be carefully distinguished from seeing’ ––, is that act of experience which is itself history because it is itself a fulfilling. That which has been lived is that which has happened, and is history.”

The task then isn’t to acquire a god’s eye view of all the objects of history, since this is impossible. Instead, notice how the objects of history affect you. Objects become symbols for you, as you assimilate them according to your own cultural needs. Notice the process of assimilation –– the presuppositions that shape the material –– and state it. It’s difficult, and you can only go so deep: there are always deeper presuppositions. But in your attempt you will be expressing a life: your life, and the life of the culture you belong to. (For example, what looms over everything in Western culture today? Perhaps the most terrible is the symbol of the Holocaust, a symbol so horrifying that it seems impossible to assimilate, and it lives for us as a reminder of the inhuman depths that mankind can sink to . . . An object: the gates of Auschwitz, and the words: “Arbeit macht frei”, which stand in mockery of our own glorification of work, praise for the “hardworking”, the fascism in our own culture . . .)

“In the presence of the same object or corpus of facts, every observer according to his own disposition has a different impression of the whole, and this impression, intangible and incommunicable, underlies his judgement and gives it its personal colour.”

What seems evident to you is in fact only accidentally so. Whatever is most obvious to you is never a necessary standard by which you can judge the whole of history. Your undeniable truths are in fact merely the colour you give to things. They are secondary qualities, and inessential. But they are real and irrefutable: you’ll always see historical objects through such qualities.

“We have before us a symbol of becoming in every bar of our music from Palestrina to Wagner, and the Greeks a symbol of the pure present in every one of their statues. The rhythm of a body is based upon a simultaneous relation of the parts, that of a fugue in the succession of elements in time.”

A culture announces itself in its “vision”. Vision is not the sum total of facts that the culture has gathered about the world, but what it has made out of those facts. Don’t look just at historical textbooks: look also at poetry, architecture, music, political discourse . . . in order to see what a culture has made out of what it has inherited, what presuppositions it has created for itself.

“The darkness encompassing the simple soul of primitive mankinds, which we can realise even today from their religious customs and myths –– that entirely organic world of pure wilfulness, of hostile demons and kindly powers –– was through-and-through a living and swaying whole, ununderstandable, indefinable, incalculable.”

There are two aspects to historical work: fact-gathering, then interpretation. The truth of the cultures you study will not be found in the facts alone. A culture is something organic and must be lived. This requires an imaginative leap, into the once living culture so distant and dark, “going on” from the facts. (Not ignoring the facts, but going further, in a direction not wholly determined by the facts. See what Theodor Adorno does in his Minima Moralia: he looks at the “mental structures” created by a culture. For example the mental structures created by the Third Reich are “stupid”, a mockery of existing practices, and nothing of lasting value. Adorno is making a value judgement, and this kind of judgement is really the essence of historical work, it lets us get our teeth into history –– and as disciplines, history and philosophy aren’t so far apart. In the same chapter, Adorno goes on to mention Spengler: he says we need to re-evaluate what the decline of the West means, now that we have the fact of fascism to consider. We’re given new facts, and we adjust our evaluations in response to them.)

“Tendencies towards a mechanistic idea of the world proceeding wholly from mathematical delimitation and logical differentiation, from law and causality, appear quite early.”

And, says Spengler, the “systematic” way of thinking hardens, becomes the default method, so that it seems impossible to think in any other way. Only in the minds of children and artists does the organic, imaginative method remain. But imagination is essential for discovering what is at work in the symbols that exist in our culture, since it shows how the past has been assimilated into our culture, how it affects our thinking: for example, not just what caused the rise of fascism in the early part of the 20th century, but how these symbols continue to live, so that we can be alert to the ways that fascism continues to threaten us today, existing in the very machinery of our own culture.

(I’ve been reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, translated by Charles Francis Atkinson, and Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno, translated by E. F. N. Jephcott.)

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