DOOYEWEERD: Radical Historicism of ‘The Decline of the West’ by Oswald Spengler.


(Excerpt from 1964 lecture by Herman Dooyeweerd, entitled ‘Center and Periphery: The Philosophy of the Law-Idea in a changing world’ – translated by Dr J. Glenn Friesen.)

“Oswald Spengler’s important book was published in Germany: Der Untergang des Abendlandes [The Decline of the West]. This book was not written with the First World War in mind, for according to his own testimony, [the decline] was already there in principle before the outbreak of that war.

In its catastrophic and impressive background there could already be seen a prophecy of its (ie the West’s) downfall. This book set out the logical consequences of a way of thinking about history that had become absolutized by a radical historicism, which reduced the whole human horizon of experience into its cultural-historical aspect.

According to Spengler, man has no vantage point from which he can direct his view to that which is found outside the stream of historical development in which he is placed. If man has no view outside of the stream of historical development, then he also can no longer obtain any distance or perspective, no final goal that world history is to serve. And that was exactly what Spengler meant.

[…] And in this view, Western civilization, which previously had been regarded as central, and as giving direction, and in which all classical values – including those for other cultures – had been united, was wholly forced from out of its central position. Western culture was viewed as one culture alongside of others.

[…] He said that Western culture has for a long time been past the period of manhood; it is in its last phase of old age. And now as an irrevocable fatum, a “Schicksal” [destiny] as Spengler called it, the decline of the West would follow.

In this view of history, there was missing a true idea of historical development.

That is to say, it lacked a guideline to direct the cultural-historical for us in a process of unfolding and deepening, a process that is directed to a final goal, a final perspective. This final goal is something that itself transcends the historical aspect of our experiential world.

[…] Yes, this was historicism at its most logically consistent. A consistency that ends in nothing, in decline.

And it is not often noticed that Spengler already made use of all kinds of terms and categories of modern existential thought. For example, he used terms like ‘Sorge’ [concern], ‘Geschick’ [fate], and ’Schicksal’ [destiny], which today have been worked out by Martin Heidegger in an extensive, systematic whole.”

(“Center and Periphery: The Philosophy of the Law-Idea in a changing world” by Herman Dooyeweerd. Lecture given on Thursday, January 2, 1964). TRANSLATED BY DR J. GLENN FRIESEN

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Herman Dooyeweerd: Humanism’s historicist swing from classical fixed values to a radical relativism.