By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

Jumping Over Fire

What can we learn from Othmar Spann?

Ohad Reiss-Sorokin

Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock.

Fire is no longer a reality for science.

—Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire

“It’s so funny,” the economist and political thinker Friedrich Hayek told his interviewer in 1978.11xFriedrich A. Hayek, “Nobel Prize–Winning Economist,” interview by Earlene Craver, ed. Armen Alchian, 1978, Oral History Transcript no. 300/224, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University Library, University of California, Los Angeles. Then he burst into laughter. What was so funny? Hayek had recalled an anecdote from his student days, about his former teacher, Othmar Spann, a legendary figure in post–World War I Vienna. Spann’s name is now all but forgotten, but in his glory days he led what historian Janek Wasserman has called “the most influential intellectual group in interwar Vienna.”22xJanek Wasserman, Black Vienna: The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918–1938 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 76.

On the face of it, there was nothing funny about Spann. Students and colleagues remembered him as an intense person, a charismatic lecturer, and a dedicated mentor. They never failed to mention his “remarkable” eyes. John Haag, the first Anglophone historian to emphasize Spann’s importance to the antimodernist pan-German “Conservative Revolution” that flourished during the Weimar era, described his eyes as “piercing and penetrating,” and said they “seemed transfigured as if they glowed from an inner spiritual force.”33xJohn Haag, “Othmar Spann and the Politics of ‘Totality’: Corporatism in Theory and Practice” (PhD diss., Rice University, 1969), 52–53. Spann’s ideas were controversial indeed. Economist Fritz Machlup, another former student, observed that “economics would certainly have lost nothing had Spann never written a line.”44xFritz Machlup to John Haag, letter, July 17, 1967, Fritz Machlup Papers, Box 310, Folder 2, Hoover Institution Archive, Stanford, CA. Although Hayek was less dismissive of Spann’s ideas than his friend Machlup, the future Nobel Prize winner and author of The Road to Serfdom could not keep a straight face when it came to Spann’s practice of taking his students on “a Midsummer celebration in the woods.”55xFor more details, see Bruce Caldwell and Hansjoerg Klausinger, Hayek: A Life, 1899–1950 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 135. As part of that ceremony, Hayek recalled, the students “jumped over fires and….” There the account stopped, and the laughter began.

The transcript does not specify what kind of laugh it was. A wholehearted roar or an embarrassed giggle? Most likely it was an ironic chuckle, intended to signal to the interviewer, Earlene Craver, and through her to the world, that he no longer identified with the youngster who, as part of his academic training, had jumped over fire.

Young Hayek and his peers would not have laughed back in the summer of 1920. There was nothing ironic about Spann’s exercises: The fire was real, and so was the sense of danger. Such a pedagogical stunt is hardly imaginable today. Tenure would not protect a professor who took his Econ 101 students to the woods for a similar ordeal. Yet as unthinkable as it seems to us, Spann’s bonfire was integral to his theory. The flames were intended not to burn his students but to warm their souls—even to ignite them.

Hayek laughed not just to distance himself, the esteemed professor, from his younger self, but to show that he knew that his story described a foreign intellectual planet, that people no longer, in the name of theory, leapt over flames.

“Hidden in Secret Like All Science”

Born in Vienna in 1878, Spann was raised in the suburbs of the Habsburg capital, studied philosophy at the University of Vienna, pursued his doctorate in political science at the University of Tübingen, and taught economics and statistics in the Bohemian city of Brünn (now Brno, Czechia) until the war broke out in 1914. Wounded in action in one of the Great War’s first major battles, at Lemberg (now Lviv), he worked for the Austro-Hungarian war ministry in Vienna before being appointed professor of economics at the University of Vienna in 1919. An overnight sensation, he attracted hordes of students to his lecture courses, particularly the one titled “Der Wahre Staat” (“The True State”).

Amid the confusion and social turmoil of postwar Vienna, Spann’s auditorium became a political battlefield. Socialist students scraped and shuffled their feet to interrupt his lectures, sometimes even pelting him with rocks. Rightist students cheered for him as he spelled out his political philosophy. In class, Spann presented a blueprint for a corporatist political order that he argued would stitch back together the organic Germanic community that modern materialism (produced by both liberal individualism and socialism) had torn asunder. “The True State” lecture course, turned into a book by that name in 1921, was the realization of Universalismus (Universalism)—a complex philosophical system of Spann’s devising that extracted out of Platonism, Hegelian idealism, and German Romanticism one central tenet: the primacy of the “whole” over its “parts.”66xOthmar Spann, The True State: Lectures on the Demolition and Reconstruction of Society, trans. Ellery Edwards (London, England: Taxiarch Press, 2020), 5. First published 1921 as Der Wahre Staat.

The modern social sciences, Spann argued, had declined into a mechanistic and materialistic discipline, betraying what he and his theoretical idol Adam Müller believed was its original mission: to describe, explain, and protect the spiritual integrity of the nation. The social sciences had succumbed to practices such as “weighing and measuring,” and worked with metaphorical “levers and screws” in an effort to imitate the natural sciences, Spann wrote.77xOthmar Spann, Gesellschaftslehre [Social sciences], 2nd ed. (Leipzig, Germany: Quelle & Meyer, 1923), vii. The collection of dry statistical facts and the insistence on establishing “causality,” he argued, had blinded the social sciences to the most obvious of truths: The objects of the social science could not be understood as compounds made of “parts” but only as “wholes.” It is not the citizens who, through their actions and beliefs, create the state; rather, it is the true state (which for Spann meant the spiritual community) that makes them citizens in the first place. The social scientists’ attempts to learn about the state by looking at the individual citizens, to understand the whole by looking at each part individually, is doomed not only to fail but to abet the destructive forces of modernity: materialism, individualism, liberalism, and socialism.

The Viennese philosopher and legal scholar Felix Kaufmann had a privileged perspective on the ongoing debate about the foundations of the social sciences. As a member of four prominent intellectual circles—the Vienna Circle of logical positivism; the circle of Hans Kelsen, the renowned liberal jurist and the author of the Austrian Constitution of 1920; the circle around the liberal economist Ludwig von Mises; and the less-known interdisciplinary group the Geistkreis—Kaufmann was more than familiar with the different sides of the parts-and-whole debate. In a witty poem, based on “Der Kuckuck und der Esel” (The cuckoo and the donkey), a famous nursery rhyme, Kaufmann conveyed the gist of the argument:

“Priority Dispute”

The Whole and the Parts
They had a big fight,

Who has precedence
In terms of logic, not of time?

Full of pathos the Whole shouted:
“Ugh, that you still don’t know
That each of you take part
In the power of my Wholes.”

The Parts spoke boldly:
“We put you together,
And nowhere to be found a Whole
That does not consist of Parts.”

A logician heard it
And said: “This argument is wrong

Because none of you is prior,
You are correlative.”88xDas Ganze und die Teile
Die hatten großen Streit,
Wer wohl das Frühre wäre
In Logik, nich in Zeit?

Voll Pathos rief das Ganze:
“Pfui, daß Ihr noch nicht wißt,
Daß jeder von euch Teilen
Kraft meiner Ganzheit ist.”

Es sprachen keck die Teile:
“Wir setzen dich zusamm
Und nirgends gibt Ganze,
Die kein Teile hamm.”

Ein Logiker der hört es
Und sprach: “Der Streit ist schief
Denn keines ist das Frühre,
Ihr seid korrelative.”

For Kaufmann, the entire debate seemed misguided. When considered from the perspective of the participants in that debate, however, the stakes could not have been higher. Spann’s holism, which should be understood in the context of a greater “holist” turn in German science and philosophy (described brilliantly by historian of science Anne Harrington), was the last defense of nothing less than the “German spirit” itself.99xAnne Harrington, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture From Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

By the time Spann entered the intellectual scene, decades of relentless industrialization had already wreaked havoc on the traditional structures of German society. In the name of material progress, liberal individualism (which encouraged incessant competition) and materialist socialism threatened to sacrifice what Spann and other conservatives considered the values and ideals of Deutschtum (Germanness). The forces of progress threatened the German “soul.”

No wonder, then, that Spann sought to associate himself with the most reactionary political forces, joining the Nazi Party around 1930 and even proposing to serve as a mentor to Adolf Hitler. Hitler, however, was not interested in having a philosopher-mentor. Jealous members of the upper echelons of the Nazi Party appreciated Spann’s offer even less; none of them were willing to give up their hard-won proximity to the Führer to make room for a pretentious philosopher.1010xJohn Haag, “The Spann Circle and the Jewish Question,” The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 18, no. 1 (1973): 93–126.

For all his efforts to ingratiate himself with the Nazi leadership, Spann was arrested soon after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and found himself among the first prisoners to be sent to Dachau. There, he was interrogated and tortured, and when, after several months, he was released, suffering from permanent eye damage, he learned that his Venia Legendi (the official professorial license) had been revoked. The “philosopher of fascism,” as Karl Polanyi once described him, never taught again.

Long before his ill-fated alliance with Hitler and Nazism, however, Spann was already committed to the cause. His calling was to reorient the social sciences away from methodological individualism, materialism, and evolutionism and toward idealism and holism. In order to grasp the differences between the two worldviews, we need to appreciate how they applied to the most heated issue of the interwar period: the Jewish question.

One particular episode is illustrative. After finishing his doctorate in economics, in 1923 Fritz Machlup sought to become a Privatdozent (nonsalaried lecturer). But brilliant as he was, he suffered from an inherited disadvantage—he was Jewish. Spann told Machlup that he could not “expect me to vote for you with my beliefs [i.e., his anti-Semitism].” This was hardly surprising. More surprising was that Spann came to what must have struck him as a gentlemanly compromise: He would step out of the room when Machlup’s name was discussed in order not to harm his chances of getting to the lecturer’s license.1111xFritz Machlup, “Interview on the Austrian School Conducted by Axel Leijonhufvud, 16 March 1977,” Fritz Machlup Papers, Box 113, Folder 6, Hoover Institution Archive, Stanford, CA. On this topic see also: Hansjoerg Klausinger, “Academic Anti-Semitism and the Austrian School: Vienna, 1918–1945,” Atlantic Economic Journal 42 (2014), 191–204.

If Spann’s anti-Semitism appears inconsistent, even halfhearted, it is only because we associate anti-Semitism with the “scientific” racism infamously promoted by the Nazis. In turn-of-the-century Vienna, “idealist” anti-Semitism was more in vogue. Sometimes it was merely a form of opportunism, as in the case of the populist Viennese mayor Karl Lueger (served 1897–1910), who rose to power largely through his anti-Jewish fulminations. “Who is a Jew,” he famously quipped, “is for me to decide.”

Spann’s anti-Semitism, in contrast, was philosophically grounded. He believed that justice meant “to each his due” according to one’s “spiritual worth.” Therefore, even though the “Jewish spirit” was obviously inferior to the “German spirit,” not all “Germans” adequately embodied the German spirit themselves, and some Jews could even be considered “decent” (anständig) because they rejected the Jewish spirit and embodied German “values.” As the scientifically presented notion of “Race and Blood” anti-Semitism took hold in Viennese society, Spann began paying a price for his heterodox beliefs. He was often scolded by anti-Semitic student groups for treating some of his Jewish students (the “decent” ones) fairly.

Machlup never succeeded in becoming a Privatdozent. Another professor, economic historian Ferdinand Graf von Degenfeld-Schönberg, disapproved. “The Jews are precocious,” he told Machlup, “and with this precociousness they appear much brighter at an earlier age.” Picking a young Jewish candidate, therefore, would discriminate against the presumably late-blooming “Aryans.”1212xFritz Machlup, “Interview on the Austrian School Conducted by Axel Leijonhufvud, 16 March 1977,” Fritz Machlup Papers, Box 113, Folder 6, Hoover Institution Archive, Stanford, CA.

The fundamental epistemological paradox inherent in Spann’s anti-Semitism reflected an ambivalence that permeated his entire oeuvre. “Scientific” anti-Semitism relied on the methods of the natural sciences. The “scientific” anti-Semite saw the signs of race written all over the Jewish body. The semiotics of race was taught in schools and universities. Jewishness was both visible and identifiable. In other words, the question “Who is a Jew?” seemed to call for an empirical answer.

Spann’s “Universalism,” however, eschewed conclusions arrived at by such materialist-inductive methods. He was not interested in the Jewish body. He was looking for the Jewish soul (the bearer of liberalism, materialism, and socialism). How, then, did one capture the Jewish soul as a whole without arriving at it inductively, from the individual cases? “Such a procedure [Spann’s methodology],” he wrote in The True State, “is based on faculties other than the logical nature of thought, or the observation and deconstruction of the tangible, which may be achieved by natural science but not by social science.… It must be perceived in terms of realities and truth felt beneath the human breast which constitute the inner essence of social processes” (emphasis added).1313xSpann, The True State, 5.

Modern science fancies itself beginning from the most egalitarian premise: It builds on what is readily observable to anyone (a claim that has been questioned and problematized by generations of historians of science). Spann’s theory, however, celebrated an “aristocratic” epistemology: Only the chosen few have access to the “Whole” qua whole. Perception of the Whole is unmediated, unlike the “observation of the tangible.” Yet it is not readily accessible. Spann had many names for the faculty that apprehends “Wholes” and for the acts of apprehension. There were, for example, “realities and truth felt beneath the human breast” or by “the inner heart.”

Spann’s methodology is a performance of authority. It works not on the level of persuasion and evidence but on that of charisma and trust. It is what might be called, in logic, a vicious circle. Spann’s social status, as a professor and intellectual, allowed him to argue for a privileged access to the “Whole.” The same privileged access justified his elevated social status. Spann was not, of course, the first to rely on this socioepistemological privilege. Critics at the time, for example, complained about a new generation of thinkers who had misappropriated Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology to argue that they could simply “view” (schauen, erschauen) the “essence” (Wesen) of things. The cynics would say that there had never been an easier way to support a theory. Instead of burdening themselves with the rigorous demands of scientific methodology, this new generation of theorists could base their theories on their idiosyncratic “intuitions” (or the power of their cathedra)—no further argument required.1414xSee Fritz Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890–1933 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 363.

Between Logos and Eros

Spann was not a prophet—he was a teacher. He was an exemplary member of the cohort of German-speaking academics whom historian Fritz Ringer dubbed “The German Mandarins.” As custodians of state power threatened by the torchbearers of progressive industrialism—the politicians and businessmen—the mandarins joined forces with the most reactionary forces of society. According to Ringer, they used their epistemology (and their often arcane jargon) as a weapon in the war for the spirit of the nation.1515xIbid., 1–13. The professors, at least in principle, had one advantage in this struggle: direct access to the minds of the next generation.

No student in social sciences in interwar Vienna could have escaped Spann’s reach. Yet Spann himself struggled with a pedagogical conundrum: an alleged contradiction between his theory and the practice of teaching. How could one teach what cannot be explained either by the “logical nature of thought” or by the “observation and deconstruction of the tangible”? At least in theory, the inductive character of the natural sciences prescribes its own pedagogy: from details to rules, from simple to complex. But how could one teach someone else how to “see,” not with the eyes but with the “inner heart”—or how to feel “beneath the human breast”?

Spann was neither the first nor the last to tackle this problem. One canonical example of the effort is found in the famous line 6.54 of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (published in 1921, the same year as The True State), in which Wittgenstein expresses doubt about the meaning of the discursive method he employs in the Tractatus: “Anyone who understands me eventually recognizes [the Tractatus’s propositions] as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them.”1616xLudwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), line 6.54. First published 1921. Spann’s solution to the problem was perhaps not as sophisticated as Wittgenstein’s, yet he also had to do away with what we would recognize today as university instruction. He had to go beyond the constraints imposed by Logos.

In The True State, Spann quoted Otto Willmann, a German Catholic pedagogue: “Whoever wants to instruct must be able to do something, whoever wants to educate must be something.” To that Spann added that “out of the spirituality of the teacher, the student must construct something into his soul.”1717xSpann, The True State, 40. When asked about their experiences as Spann’s students, many reported the same thing: On the one hand, they praised his charisma, his breadth of learning, his imposing figure; on the other, they emphasized how little they learned from him.

Oskar Morgenstern, the economist and co-creator of game theory, never forgot the disservice Spann did to him as a student. Decades after Morgenstern had left Vienna and settled at Princeton, he filled his diary with fulminations against Spann. Calling him a “fool,” Morgenstern described his own intellectual trajectory as an escape from the intellectual backwaters of Vienna (represented by Spann and Spann’s archenemy Hans Mayer). Had he not fallen for Spann as a young student, “what a plague I could have spared myself,” Morgenstern lamented. He described Bertrand Russell’s work as “an antidote to Vienna (Spann, Metaphysics).” Relating a conversation he had had with his friend from Vienna, economist Gottfried von Haberler, Morgenstern noted that, like himself, Haberler expressed deep gratitude for the Rockefeller Fund fellowships that had released them from figures such as Spann. Their Vienna background, Morgenstern continued, was nothing but a dead weight. “What an effort it was for us,” he noted in his diary, “to get in with true science.”1818xOskar Morgenstern’s diary is stored with his papers in the David M. Rubinstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University. It can be accessed online at Oskar Morgenstern Tagebuchedition,

The same Morgenstern, however, offers an insight into the power of Spann as a teacher. Almost fifty years before the conversation with Haberler, Morgenstern, then an economics student at the University of Vienna, wrote, in his diary that Spann was “really looking after me.” Indeed, Spann showered the young Morgenstern with attention, and Morgenstern seemed to enjoy it. “Looking at my papers, work and reading,” he wrote, “one would think I were a student of philosophy and not of economics.” Spann, it seems, brought Morgenstern into his orbit, and nudged him toward his own intellectual interests.1919xIbid.

This was Spann’s power, as described by many of his students. He attracted young students by presenting himself as Philosophy incarnate and encouraging them to project onto him their own desire for knowledge. What seemed to be a bug—how little “theory” his students reported learning from him—now appears as a feature. “Out of the spirituality of the teacher,” Spann emphasized, “the student must construct something into his soul.”2020xSpann, The True State, 40. Social theory, Spann argued, is not math or physics. One cannot teach it discursively, from parts to whole, from simple to complex, relying on the naturally endowed intellectual or perceptual faculties of the students. Social theory requires one to develop the ability to “see” essences. Therefore, the teacher is called on to step beyond the limits of the discursive method, to summon the erotic aspects of knowledge, to awaken the affective capacities of his students. And in some cases, to order them to jump over fire.

Hayek laughed. I imagine him laughing the same way we laugh when our parents, siblings, or childhood friends remind us of how intensely we felt, as young people, about an idea, a political party, a high school sweetheart, a sports team. The inability to bring together the intensity of past emotions and the sober, reflective mood of hindsight, to square passions of the past with present disinterestedness, can lead to embarrassment, to laughter. But Hayek’s story is not only a coming-of-age narrative; it reveals more than the mixed feelings of an older, experienced man of science looking back on his youth. We, as an intellectual community, have not simply matured beyond those days of jumping over fire, and Spann’s pedagogy is more than a youthful folly. Hayek’s laughter emphasizes the tension at the heart of all learned activities: the tension between the meaning-seeking, ego-affirming, boundary-shattering Eros and the order-imposing self-denying, and disinterested Logos. At times it may seem as if the scales tip one way or the other. They might have seemed to do so at the time of Hayek’s interview, when the disciplined and professionalized production of knowledge seemed to have curbed Eros’s energies. Today, however, we can say for sure that nothing was truly settled—that the epic struggle carries on.

I would like to thank D. Graham Burnett and Richard Spiegel for their helpful comments on this essay, which draws on my doctoral dissertation for Princeton University, prepared under the guidance of Katja Guenther, Michael D. Gordin, Anthony T. Grafton, and Joel Isaac.