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The Zeitgeist (/ˈztɡst/;[1] spirit of the age or spirit of the time) is the dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivate the actions of the members of a society in a particular period in time. For example, the Zeitgeist of modernism motivated the creation of new forms in the fields of architecture, art, and fashion during much of the 20th century. Zeitgeist is a powerful force embedded in the individuals of a society.[2] The German word Zeitgeist, translated literally as "time mind" or "time spirit", is often attributed to the philosopher Georg Hegel, but he never actually used the word. In his works such as Lectures on the Philosophy of History, he uses the phrase der Geist seiner Zeit (the spirit of his time)—for example, "no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit."[3]

Other philosophers who were associated with such ideas include Herder and Spencer and Voltaire.[2] The concept contrasts with the Great Man theory popularized by Thomas Carlyle, which sees history as the result of the actions of heroes and geniuses.

Hegel believed that art reflected, by its very nature, the culture of the time in which it is created. Culture and art are inextricable because an individual artist is a product of his or her time and therefore brings that culture to any given work of art. Furthermore, he believed that in the modern world it was impossible to produce classical art, which he believed represented a "free and ethical culture", which depended more on the philosophy of art and theory of art, rather than a reflection of the social construct, or Zeitgeist in which a given artist lives.[4]

Theory and leadership[edit]

As mentioned, zeitgeist theory of leadership is often contrasted with Thomas Carlyle’s great man theory.[5] In his theory, Carlyle stresses that leaders do not become leaders by fate or accident. Instead, these individuals possess characteristics of great leaders and these characteristics allow them to obtain positions of power.

However, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy disagreed with Carlyle’s perspective.[5] Tolstoy believed that leadership, like other things, was a "zeitgeist" and was a product of the social circumstances at the time. Thus, it was not the characteristics of the individual that resulted in a leadership, but societal factors of the time that are out of the individuals’ control.

Great man theory and zeitgeist theory can be included in two main areas of thought in psychology.[5] For instance, great man theory is very similar to the trait approach. Trait researchers are interested in identifying the various personality traits that underline human behaviors such as conformity, leadership or other social behaviors. Thus, they agree that leadership is primarily a quality of an individual and that some people are pre-dispositioned to be a leader whereas others are born to follow these leaders. In contrast, situationist researchers believe that social behavior is a product of society. That is, social influence is what determines human behaviors. Therefore, situationism is of the same opinion as zeitgeist theory—leaders are created from the social environment and are molded from the situation. The concept of zeitgeist also relates to the sociological tradition that stems from Émile Durkheim and recently developed into social capital theory as exemplified by the work of Patrick Hunout.

These two perspectives have been combined to create what is known as the interactional approach to leadership.[5] This approach asserts that leadership is developed through the mixing of personality traits and the situation. Further, this approach was expressed by social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, by the equation B = f(P, E) where behavior (B) is a function (f) of the person (P) and the environment (E).

Examples in sciences[edit]

  • Errors of illusion are not readily apparent because the shared beliefs and assumptions of a particular era that support them come from the zeitgeist. An example can be seen with Henry H. Goddard and Lewis Terman. The consensus in the 20th century was that existing psychology tests adequately measured basic intelligence in diverse groups of people. The more recent consensus is that "culture-fair" tests need to be developed - which may or may not be true. But because of the zeitgeist, in those times, the cross-cultural validity of existing tests was not questioned.[6]
  • Failure to question research findings that agree with prevailing political and philosophical ideology represents one of the effects of the zeitgeist.[6]
  • The zeitgeist does not always have negative effects. It can stimulate new ideas and creative solutions to problems. An example is seen in the different models and metaphors chosen to describe behavior and consciousness.[6]
  • Charles Darwin's proposition that evolution occurs by natural selection has been cited as a case of the zeitgeist, since his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, was outlining similar models to Darwin during the same period (ideas that were jointly presented to the public).[6] This view is disputed, however, by accounts that emphasize the relative simplicity of Wallace's model, and which highlight a supposed novelty within Darwin's likewise simplistic contribution.[7]
  • The zeitgeist of the 1920s revolved around logical positivism. Due to this, the great men and women of that time were able to impact psychology, such as Watson, Tolman, and Guthrie. This is important because their work on behavioral psychology was able to work against eugenics. Before this time behavioral psychology was not able to impact the field since it did not fit with the spirit of the times. For example, Twitmyer Edwin B. Twitmyer wrote a paper on the patellar reflex in 1902, but it came too early to have the impact it deserved.[6]
  • B F Skinner being unseated during the cognitive revolution is another example of the zeitgeist in psychology. The zeitgeist was changing during this time, people wanted to show more interest in humans, and more people were becoming interested in personality psychology. However, in the 1950s his new experimental approach to psychology using inductive reasoning and descriptive behaviorism was seen as novel and practical. Especially in contrast with psychoanalysts, whose assertions and interpretations were largely immune to rigorous, empirical inquiry, thus making validation a rather problematic task.[6]
  • In medical practice clinicians should be aware of the current zeitgeist when making a decision regarding a patients care or treatment.

Examples of models in business[edit]

Executives, venture capitalists, journalists and authors have argued that the idea of a zeitgeist is useful in understanding the emergence of industries, simultaneous invention and evaluating the relative value of innovations. Malcolm Gladwell argued in his book Outliers that entrepreneurs who succeeded often share similar characteristics—early personal or significant exposure to knowledge and skills in the early stages of a nascent industry. He proposed that the timing of involvement in an industry and often in sports as well affected the probability of success. In Silicon Valley, a number of people (Peter Thiel, Alistair Davidson, Mac Levchin, Nicholas G. Carr, Vinod Khosla[8]) have argued that much innovation has been shaped by easy access to the Internet, open source software, component technologies for both hardware and software (e.g., software libraries, software as a service), and the ability to reach narrow markets across a global market. Peter Thiel has commented: "There is so much incrementalism now."[9]

In a zeitgeist market, the number of new entrants is high, differentiation in high value products (the strongest predictor of new product success) is more difficult to achieve, and business models emphasizing service and solution over product and process will enhance success. Examples include innovation in product experience, legal rights and bundling, privacy rights, and agency (where businesses act on behalf of customers).[10][11][12][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com
  2. ^ a b Eero Saarinen (2006), Shaping the Future, Yale University Press, p. 15, ISBN 978-0-972-48812-9 
  3. ^ Glenn Alexander Magee (2010), "Zeitgeist (p. 262)", The Hegel Dictionary, London: A & C Black, ISBN 978-1-847-06591-9 
  4. ^ Hendrix, John Shannon. Aesthetics & The Philosophy Of Spirit. New York: Peter Lang. (2005). 4, 11.
  5. ^ a b c d Forsyth, D. R. (2009). Group dynamics: New York: Wadsworth. [Chapter 9]
  6. ^ a b c d e f Hothersall, D., "History of Psychology", 2004
  7. ^ Bowler, Peter J., The Non-Darwinian Revolution (1988)
  8. ^ "Silicon Valley's Trouble with Innovation". MIT Technology Review. 
  9. ^ "Peter Thiel". Bloomberg. 
  10. ^ "Max Levchin". MIT Technology Review. 
  11. ^ Nicholas Carr (6 July 2012). "Why Modern Innovation Traffics in Trifles - WSJ". WSJ. 
  12. ^ Vinod Khosla. "Vinod Khosla: Maintain the Silicon Valley Vision". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ "The Book - Innovation Zeitgeist". eclicktick.com. 

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