Waggish

Robert Musil on Oswald Spengler

Progress itself is not something that unfolds in a single line. Every present period is simultaneously now and yet millennia old. This millepede moves on political, economic, cultural, biological, and countless other legs, each of which has a different tempo and rhythm. One can see this as a unified picture and elaborate it in terms of a single cause by always keeping to a central perspective, as Spengler does, but one can also find satisfaction in the exact opposite….

It is now perhaps possible to understand what I mean when I ask that such theories (insofar as they are not explicitly true or false) be treated as nothing more than experimental intellectual principles for forming the inner life, instead of–as always happens today–ascribing an emotional quality to theory in such a simple and clumsy way. What people refer to as intellectualism in the negative sense, the fashionable intellectual haste of our time, the withering of thoughts before they ripen, is caused in part by the fact that we seek depth with our thoughts and truth with our feelings without noticing that we have it backwards, and are often disappointed at not getting anywhere. Sweeping ideological attempts like Spengler’s are quite beautiful, but they suffer today from the fact that far too few of the inner possibilities have had the ground prepared for them. One simply explains the World War or our collapse first by this, then by that cluster of causes; but this is deceptive. Just as fraudulent as explaining a simple physical event by a chain of causes. In reality, even in the first links of the chain of causality the causes have already flowed and dissolved beyond the scope of our vision. In the physical realm we have found an accommodation (the concept of function). In the spiritual realm we are completely helpless. Intellectuality leaves us in the lurch. But not because intellect is shallow (as if everything else had not left us in the lurch as well!) but because we have not worked at it.

Robert Musil, “Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who Have Eluded the Decline of the West,” 1921

Musil is attacking Spengler’s Decline of the West, and specifically its treatment of the so-called social construction of reality, which keenly anticipates a good deal of the postmodern project that would start up three decades later. Musil also goes after Spengler’s castles-in-the-sky methodology, which also afflicted so much continental philosophy. I don’t know that Musil ever fully explained the alternative to which he alludes here, but as the gentleman of Shallot says, “Half is enough.”

(Thanks to U.O. for originally bringing this to my attention.)

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