Spann, Othmar (1878–1950)

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Othmar Spann, the Austrian philosopher and sociologist, was born in Vienna and educated at the universities of Vienna, Zürich, and Tübingen. He was a professor at Brünn from 1909 to 1919, when he was appointed to a chair of economics and sociology at Vienna.

Spann contrasted his "neoromantic universalism"called neoromantic by Spann to indicate his debt to Adam Müllerwith "individualism," that is, with the doctrine that society derives its character from the independently existing qualities of the individual men composing it. He classified as individualist such allegedly erroneous doctrines as the economic liberalism of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, utilitarianism, the various "social contract" theories, "natural law" theories of social life, egalitarianism, anarchism, Machiavellianism, and Marxism. As this heterogeneous grouping suggests, Spann was less interested in discussing the individual merits and faults of these doctrines than in placing them with respect to his total intellectual system. Such an aim was entirely consistent with his universalistic tenet that wholes are logically prior to and more real than their parts. Particular intellectual doctrines, on this view, can be understood only in relation to the total worldview to which they belong.

Spann's main application of universalism was in his theory of society, widely acclaimed by fascists. What is spiritual (das Geistige ) in an individual is never due to himself alone but is always "an echo of what another spirit excites in him." The development and persistence of spirituality must be understood in the context of personal relations falling under the heading of what Spann called Gezweiung. Individuals so related form a genuine whole, the reality of which is presupposed by, rather than a result of, the spiritual characteristics of the related individuals. Examples of Gezweiung are the relations between artist and public, mother and child, teacher and pupil. Spann was not merely making the formal logical point that if, for instance, one calls a man "a teacher," one implies that he has a pupil, and vice versa. He was saying something about the quality of the teacher's and the pupil's experiences; the teacher "learns by teaching," and the pupil incorporates some of the teacher's spiritual qualities into his own soul.

Spann held that it is the prior existence of such institutions as art, the family, and education that makes possible relations of Gezweiung. These institutions have both a higher degree of reality and a higher value than do individuals. One does not understand what education is unless one understands that there can be more and less satisfactory instances of the teacher-pupil relationship and that there could be no actual instance beyond conceivable improvement. Therefore, a knowledge of the ideal must precede understanding of particular cases, and the study of social institutions must be normative.

An institution is itself only a partial whole (Teilganz ) belonging to a higher reality, society. Society, too, has a normative aspect; it involves a hierarchy of values in terms of which the Teilgänze are mutually related. There must be a corresponding hierarchy among the social sciences; particular social institutions and aspects can be studied only in the context of a general theory of society.

Spann's emphasis on hierarchy was reinforced by his insistence that all Gezweiung involves a relation between a leader and one who is led. It belongs to the nature of society that there should be "obedience of those low in the spiritual scale toward those more highly developed." In Spann's theory distributive justice, based on the idea of inequality of function, replaces liberty as the fundamental social value.

Spann's stress on inequality is reflected in his political program. His doctrine of estates (Stände ) was intended to combine decentralization with a strengthening of authority in order to check socially deleterious individualist tendencies. Each industry would be directed by the "mentally most highly developed individuals" from labor unions and employers' unions, which would send representatives to a central representative Ständehaus. Property would be owned communally by the various estates, and each industry's legal problems would be handled by its own special courts.

See also Equality, Moral and Social; Holism and Individualism in History and Social Science; Smith, Adam.


works by spann

Die Haupttheorien der Volkswirtschaftslehre auf lehrgeschichtlicher Grundlage. 1910. Translated from the 19th German edition by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul as Types of Economic Theory. London, 1930. This translation also appeared under the title History of Economics. New York: Norton, 1930.

Kurzgefasstes System der Gesellschaftslehre. Berlin, 1914.

Fundament der Volkswirtschaftslehre. Jena, Germany, 1918.

Der wahre Staat. Leipzig, 1921.

Gesellschaftsphilosophie. Jena, Germany, 1932.

Kämpfende Wissenschaft. Jena, Germany: Fischer, 1934. Collected papers.

Erkenne Dich selbst! Eine Geistesphilosophie als Lehre vom Menschen und seiner Weltstellung. Jena, Germany, 1935.

Naturphilosophie. Jena, Germany, 1937.

Kategorienlehre, 2nd ed. Jena, Germany, 1939.

works on spann

Gerber, Carl. Der Universalismus bei Othmar Spann in Hinblick auf seine Religionsphilosophie. Berlin, 1934.

Haag, John. "Othmar Spann and the Quest for a 'True State.'" Austrian History Yearbook 1213 (2) (19761977): 227250.

König, Albert. Emil Brunners Staatsauffassung und der Universalismus Othmar Spanns. Bleicherode, 1938.

Räber, Hans. Othmar Spanns Philosophie des Universalismus. Darstellung und Kritik. Jena, Germany: Fischer, 1937.

Riha, Thomas J. F. "Spann's Universalism: The Foundation of the Neoromantic Theory of Corporative State." Australian Journal of Politics and History 31 (2) (1985): 255268.

Vikor, Desider. Economic Romanticism in the Twentieth Century: Spann's Attempt to Revolutionize Economic Theory. New Delhi: New Book Society of India, 1964.

Wagner, H. G. Essai sur l'universalisme économique. Othmar Spann. Paris, 1931.

Wrangel, Georg. Das universalistische System von Othmar Spann. Jena, Germany, 1929.

Peter Winch (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)