Austrian social philosopher; b. Altmannsdorf, near Vienna, Oct. 1, 1878; d. Neustift, Burgenland, July 8,1950. After study at the universities of Vienna, Zurich, Bern, and Tübingen, Spann received his doctorate from the last in 1903. Employment in a center for private social work at Frankfurt am Main led to statistical, economic, and sociological publications. He was admitted to teach at the technical institute at Brünn (Moravia) in 1907 and was promoted to ordinary professor in 1911. In 1919 he was called to Vienna as professor of economics and sociology. The Nazi regime deprived him of his title in March 1938, and he was imprisoned on political grounds; he was not permitted to return to his position at the end of World War II.
Spann's theories were in sharp contrast to dominant scientific tendencies. Appealing to Plato and Aristotle, Meister Eckhart and St. Thomas Aquinas, and to German idealism and romanticism, he opposed empiricism, positivism, and materialism in philosophy, and atomism, individualism, and collectivism in social science. His system of "universalism" lent itself to use by proponents of social reconstruction and—partly misunderstood—became the object of political controversy. Spann himself had no political ambitions.
The problem Spann set for himself was to confront contemporary empiricism on its own ground with a new, nonempirical method. Moreover, he sought to establish the applicability of this method to broader scientific fields and to philosophy itself. He began with a concept of society as "spiritual and acting totality," affirming that no member of society can be isolated from other members, but that he can develop only in spiritual community with others. Spann proposed as fundamental concepts: (1) the existence of partial wholes or subtotalities in all spheres of finite being, (2) a mutuality between parts that links them with the whole and, in the realm of the infinite, with the highest totality, (3) reorganization of the everchanging subtotalities in time, and (4) the ordering of totalities according to content, degree, and precedence as discerned in reality. To Spann this concept of order was not based upon value judgments but upon analysis; he thought that, far from precluding empirical research, it elucidated and illuminated its results. Further, since the actual could always be compared to the norm—the systematically perfect totality—the method could lead to knowledge of the degree of perfection attained in concrete reality. Given the variety of his sources and the difficulty of their identification, it is not surprising that the adherents of his universalism are to be found more outside than within the realm of the social sciences.
Bibliography: Gesamtausgabe der Werke von Othmar Spann, ed. w. heinrich et al. (22 v. in preparation). b. landheer, "The Universalistic Theory of Society of Othmar Spann and His School," An Introduction to the History of Sociology, ed. h. e. barnes (Chicago 1948) 385–399. d. vikor, Economic Romanticism in the Twentieth Century: Spann's Attempt to Revolutionize Economic Theory (New Delhi 1964).