Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Watching the Sunset

We have a large bush in the front garden that I have to trim back every fall. I go outside, usually on one of the first cool Saturday mornings, grab the shears and the stepladder, and start on the front. The trimming here usually goes quickly and smoothly. Evenly distributed, leafing branches have sent out shoots during the spring and summer, and these thin additions come off without much effort, leaving a full, symmetrical, rounded body of green. But then I move to the back, and eventually to the top. In these places, the foliage on the old surface is sparser, making room for thick limbs that have thrust through to steal the light. I don't know just how this works: many of these massive runners come from near the bottom of the central trunks, passing without branch or leaf through many feet of the core before exploding at the surface. Apparently these interlopers don't know and don't care that the thinner twigs can expand in these areas with much less effort; the aggressors just see an opportunity and grab it.

Last Friday, I started Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. I expected some kind of rather linear chronology of recent events in Europe, with praise for whatever epoch or structure Spengler saw as the pinnacle of history and blame for whatever trends he saw as causes for departure from the zenith. Instead, I found first an attempt to describe a new philosophy of history. But his new philosophy apparently includes the tenet that history can't be explained, only intuited. And so he can't really explain it and instead just talks around and around it. His language reminds me of the wild, self-promoting branches in my holly. With seemingly little regard for order or traditional definitions of words and little respect for the risks of unbroken streams of abstract statements, Spengler's prose finds one idea after another bursting to the fore begging for what attention it can grab before its sudden eclipse. Here's an example, chosen completely randomly:
       Systematic philosophy closes with the end of the eighteenth century. Kant put its utmost possibilities in forms both grand in themselves and -- as a rule -- final for the Western soul. He is followed, as Plato and Aristotle were followed, by a specifically megalopolitan philosophy that was not speculative but practical, irreligious, social-ethical. This philosophy . . . begins in the West with Schopenhauer, who is the first to make the Will to life ("creative life force") the centre of gravity of his thought, although the deeper tendency of his doctrine is obscured by his having, under the influence of a great tradition, maintained the obsolete distinctions of phenomena and things-in-themselves and suchlike.
This passage leaves me with more questions than answers: What makes a philosophy systematic? What are its utmost possibilities? How does Spengler know the utmost possibilities of philosophy? How can Kant give the final word when philosophers such as Hegel claim to build on Kant? If Kant is the last philosopher of the earlier school and Schopenhauer the first of the new, what is Hegel? How does Goethe, who lived between Kant and Schopenhauer and whom Spengler elsewhere calls a philosopher, fit in? What is a megalopolitan philosophy? How can he categorize Plato, Aristotle, and Kant as speculative philosophers in contrast to the supposedly ethical philosophies that followed them, when each wrote books on ethics? What is the deeper tendency of Schopenhauer's doctrine? What makes a tradition great? The only thing I actually understand in the passage is the "distinctions of phenomena and things-in-themselves," and they are declared obsolete. Yet how can the tradition be obsolete while Schopenhauer maintains it?

Despite the overwhelming effusion of abstract, unsupported statements, though, I'm enjoying the read so far. He seems to be saying that history does not proceed on a single, millennia-long path of progress, and I have no trouble agreeing. Rather, he says, the world teems with cultures that pursue a destiny, following a determined story arc told over and over again: cultures rise on a wave of creativity shaped by local relationships, then become civilized (by which he means both stultified and national or even imperial) and ebb. Every aspect of culture -- art, religion, politics, science, trade, technology, and so on -- works together to symbolize the culture. As a result of this view, Spengler's treatment races between topics and across eras. After the rather long introduction, which mentions each of the topics just listed, Spengler moves to a treatment of mathematics, which, he says, always represents a philosophy. The part of the chapter I've read so far makes reference to the Egyptian Ahmes, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Euclid, Aristarchus, Al-Khwarizmi, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal, Newton, and many others. Along the way, Spengler lights momentarily on architecture, religion, astronomy, painting, and musical instruments.

In an interesting coincidence, I just read today a passage in which Spengler talks about Euclid's dependence on natural numbers even though hypotenuses can't always be measured by them, a topic I blogged about recently. Spengler credits Euclid's view to a fear of the infinite. As with everything else in the chapter, Spengler doesn't say anywhere near enough to convince me he's right or even to suggest how I might decide whether he's right. But he sure has me thinking.

Given Spengler's firm belief in predetermined unfolding of history, I'm amazed by his slight of Hegel. But then maybe he saw Hegel as a rival claimant to his throne. Because, for all his insistence that truths are relative to culture, Spengler, like Hegel, declares himself the first to provide mankind with the right view of the universe. His book, he says, "is laden . . . with all the defects of a first attempt . . . . Nevertheless I am convinced that it contains the incontrovertible formulation of an idea which, once enunciated clearly, will (I repeat) be accepted without dispute." It's almost a self-parody. But, like Monty Python's soccer game between the ancient Greek philosophers and the modern Germans (most of which players Spengler mentions in the first thirty pages of the book), so far Decline of the West provokes thought even while it entertains.

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