In political science, the Cyclical Theory states that societal attitudes (Liberal-Conservative spectrum) move like a pendulum moving from one extreme to the other.

Are there any philosophers who observed this?

Also, is it perhaps possible to apply this to the field of philosophy itself?

Additionally, what are societal dimensions (historical examples) where we can observe said "cycles"?

4 Answers 4


To answer your question about applying cyclical theory to philosophy itself, one philosopher who observed a repeating cycle in the history of philosophy was Franz Brentano. He thought that the same four phases (one ascending, three of decline) have repeated in the same order: pure theoretical interest and then decadence into pragmatic applications and popular divulgation, followed by skepticism, and finally mysticism. According to Brentano, we witness these four phases in ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy: Aristotle represents the peak of the theoretical phase, stoicism and epicureanism the practical one, then classical skepticism of Pyrrho, and neo-Platonic mysticism. The next ascending theoretical phase begins in the middle ages with Thomas Aquinas, followed by Scotism, Ockham, and Cusanus/Lullius, then modernity with Descartes and Bacon up to Locke and Leibniz, decadence sets in with the Enlightenment, the skepticism of Hume, and in Brentano's opinion the mysticism of German Idealism. Brentano himself would spearhead the new ascending theoretical phase. His students tried to apply this model to other sciences as well, and some recent commentators have sought to extend it to the present time (e.g. Simons and Smith). A translation of Brentano's text with extensive commentary is available.

  • +1 Great answer! Commented May 13, 2018 at 18:59
  • Thanks so much for this. I had independently observed the same four phase cycle and never realized it had been already formulated. Commented May 14, 2018 at 18:50
  • 1
    A scathing comment: Gilson E., F. Brentano's Interpretation of Mediaeval History, Medieval St. 1939, p.1-11 ( brepolsonline.net/toc/ms/1939/1/+ )
    – sand1
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 15:18

The interest about (any) cycles in human society and/or history is deep and lasting: the wikipedia article Social cycle theory is a brief summary with some refs and links to some notable names.

One should note however that it is historians (e.g. Ibn Khaldun, Vico, Korotaev) and economists (Kondratieff) who consider seriously cycles, while no notable philosophers endorse such views. Actually ideas about perennial truth(s) and/or progress are major counter arguments. Also more archaic views about the universe in general are contrasted with religious attitudes that promote an end to history. At a level above mythology the Greek Stoics are probably the most famous example of philosophers who embrace an overall cyclic cosmology.

Vilfredo Pareto perhaps deserves a mention as it might be argued that from his economic studies he derived a sociology which used to be seen as a philosophical discipline. Oscillatory population dynamics seem to underlie his theory about "lions" and "foxes": Cycles of Interdependence (and more) is online'; the anthropologist Jerald B. Brown in The Wave Theory of American Social Movements /City and Society, June 1992, v6. p.26-45/ offers a brief historical sketch of such society related ideas.

  • 1
    What about Hegel?
    – user20253
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 12:33
  • Not so long ago Hegel's announcement of the End of History was rather popular; his fetish is the spiral (or the helix) while circles (cycles) present, according to him, a "bad" infinity, seen in the natural world not in society/history..
    – sand1
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 18:25
  • I see spirals and circles as form of pendulums but with evolving arcs. .
    – user20253
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 8:40

Socionomics studies spirals using market charts and other “sociometers” to estimate where we are in a particular “Elliott wave” in order to make predictions. Although a spiral is not a cyclical pattern, it is close to one and allows for expanding evolutionary behavior.

The main use of these predictions is for market timing, but they can also be used for any type of social mood trends and trend changes including when ideas, such as the idea of socionomics itself, are more likely to be accepted by a population.

The people who developed these ideas in the 20th century, such as R. N. Elliott and Robert Prechter, were traders rather than philosophers. Market data provided and continues to provide the most detailed sociometer available for social mood. It is here where the patterns used by the Elliott Wave Principle were first identified.


We have a strong impulse towards seeing cycles, giving decades identities with a rise and fall, similarly with generations, centuries (fin de siecle is an idiom that reflects the idea of an inevitable cycle in them), and longer. Many a cient cultures saw history as cyclical, generally without evidence. So we should be wary of our bias toward seeing causes and patterns.

Hegel, and Marx, took up the idea of a historical dialectic, which could certainly manifest as successive turns towards the left and right, each integrating previous turns into a new synthesis; this is like a pendulum, but also accounts for change. Marxists held that a definite analysis of history could be derived scientifically from looking at events in the past. This is obviously rubbish, and their tenacity in holding this view shaped Popper's work on political theory and the problem of demarcating science, and made speculative philosophies of history disreputable. In general, that means people want quite evidence-based analysis of history, that at least attempts to be impartial, and this has tended to see study of historical cycles and historical causation move out of philosophy.

Social cycle theories of the 19th C gave rise to sociology https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_cycle_theory

Kuhn looked at the development of scientific revolutions, in practice, and devloped the idea of paradigm shifts between them. So philosophy of science.

Demographic shifts, from the hunter-gatberers to agrarian stone age revolution, to the black death, to the baby boom, to the Arab Spring, have driven social changes which have certainly extended to political and economic changes, which indirectly shape philosophies.

There is a startlingly regular cycle to international trade, driven by successive industrial revolutions https://www.economist.com/node/186628

As well as the dialectic, there are spiral and helical models, that also attempt to explain how a cyclical change can still be going somewhere. Otherwise a steady state would be implied, like the ancients' eons or kalpas of progress and then decay. Our bias has been away from stasis, towards the 'manifest destiny' of progress - and arguably is now shifting towards only imagining dystopias for the future. Used warily, consideration of cycles could perhaps be an antidote to these.

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