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

Jumping Over Fire

What can we learn from Othmar Spann?

Ohad Reiss-Sorokin

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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.

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