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Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science

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He characterizes it not as an emotion. It is a longing for life, for maximal participation in being. Webb observes that Voegelin is hardly the first to note the tension of existence, citing parallel accounts in Augustine, T.

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Elliot, and C. Lewis while also arguing that other examples could be drawn from outside the Christian tradition e. The existence of the experience can only be verified by reference to the experience itself, and for those who have not partaken of the experience, its very existence will seem debatable at best.

Having conscientiously acknowledged that there is no common, universal ground in experience from which to attempt an intersubjective verification of the tension of existence, Webb proceeds to offer a superb description of the tension as understood by Voegelin. From the point of view of his own experience, this was not a subjectively created idea but an imperative that grips the soul, a passion to which one may submit or which one may resist but which one does not dream up. It manifested itself not as a proposition to be proved but as an appeal to be responded to and a force to be trusted.

As an experience it had an immediacy that made it palpable, even if this was an immediacy that could never be arrived at once and for all but would have to be endlessly pursued through a lifelong process of critical self-appropriation. The reality that disclosed itself was not an object to be looked at but a life to be entered. The answer it promised to one who entered would not be simply intellectual but existential: the philosopher would have to live in the truth and participate in the reality of which he was in search.

He was presented not with a simple fact but with an invitation, a call to decision. If he decided to withhold his trust, the life he was invited to would never become real, at least for him. If he did decide to trust it, he could live in its truth, but he would know it only in the dark glass of trust, hope, and love. Due to the prestige enjoyed by the modern natural sciences, experience tends to be reduced to mere sensory data in the manner of Locke. This is not existence as known from without—as would accord with the scientistic ideal—but existence as known from within by a person fully involved in it, who has to struggle to understand it and to live up to the calling that this understanding makes explicit.

His rebellion was not an assertion of some purportedly radical new take on philosophy, but rather a restorative effort that sought to rekindle authentic forms of philosophy from the pre-modern past. Lewis and T. According to Webb, Voegelin seeks not only to restore occluded dimensions of experience to our attention, but also to restore language that is adequate to the task of symbolizing experience in its full amplitude. The loss of adequate language is the result of a process that has been underway for centuries, emerging fully for the first time in the late middle ages in the form of nominalism in the work of William of Ockham and becoming more pervasive ever since.

Such language has…what might be called a vertical dimension by which it reaches into the heights and depths of existence. This dimension is needed if we are to do justice to the fullness of experienced reality, as Voegelin understands it. Webb describes this fullness with clarity, precision, and more than a little poetic capability:. That segment of the experiential continuum constituted as reflective consciousness is characterized by intentional structure, the division into subject and object; those both beneath and beyond this are not so structured.

On all its levels—the human, the infrahuman, and the superhuman—being, as Voegelin conceives it, is characterized by immediacy of self-presence, but on the human level this immediacy becomes refracted through the medium of human intentional consciousness. Here there is admittedly a supposition that there is more to reality in its fullness than is contained within the limits of human thought. The chapters are devoted largely to problems treated conventionally under the heading of epistemology, though Webb following Voegelin neither employs this rubric explicitly nor draws rigid boundaries between epistemological issues and those we might associate with, say, ontology or metaphysics or spiritual psychology.

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Both approaches have their advantages. Nevertheless, the book is remarkably successful as an introductory text despite the steep grade of ascent that it requires of readers.

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Webb is a highly gifted writer who provides powerfully illuminating formulations on almost every page. Theoretical reflection is the elucidation of this experience through its self-explication as it seeks language that will analogically represent its discernable features and essential structure and so bring them into focus…. What is required is fidelity to the order of being. To the hard-nosed, skeptical reader, this may seem like an overly sanguine approach to historical research.

However, Webb immediately tempers this discussion of why discovery of the truth of existence is possible with another discussion that shows why it is nevertheless difficult. He may, through his own entry into existential truth and the record he has left of that process, have become a source of luminosity for subsequent thinkers, or he may have become an example of existential closure and disorder. The philosophical historian who studies him must be more than a chronicler or a doxographer. To fulfill his own obligation to truth, he must seek not only correct opinions about what the thinker of the past meant or did not mean, said or did not say, but also the same truth of existence to which every human being in history has been called.

This, of course, makes for problems, both philosophical and historical…. This points immediately to the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of the problem, which are two in number. There are two reasons why transitions of this sort seem so abrupt. One is that the scholarly literature on this subject is already massive, and Voegelin assumes his readers have some familiarity with it. He does not feel it necessary to spell out all of the links between the thinkers he discusses.

The linguistic or conceptual problem here is that we cannot know whether any or all of these three men are to be regarded as gnostics only by analogy in a categorical sense or whether we should regard them as closeted adherents of historical Gnostic doctrines. This is not to say that there are no commonalities running between modern ideologists, medieval millenarians, ancient Gnostics and, indeed, pre-Gnostic individuals who anticipate or seek to initiate a fundamental transformation of the conditions of human existence.


Such commonalities do exist, but they cannot be established in a satisfactory way by suggesting chains of literary influence. I have tried elsewhere to show that this can indeed be accomplished by reference to a common pattern of revolt in reaction to four fundamental experiences of the human condition: uncertainty, contingency, imperfection, and mortality.

That is, Voegelin seems to be reverting here from his more developed analytical approach to one still cast in the mold of the history of ideas. Webb follows Voegelin in locating the various problems and instabilities associated with religion when viewed sympathetically from a perspective informed by philosophy in the dynamics of faith itself. This is relatively thin gruel, when measured against the intensity of human longing for certainty regarding the ultimate questions of existence, and many seekers find that it is insufficient to sate their hunger.

At its most authentic, religious language is not simply description of religious experience, but is that experience itself in articulate form in consciousness…. Religious language, however, cannot always be used and understood at its most authentic, because it has the responsibility of bearing the living truth from generation to generation and from higher existential levels to lower. This observation introduces a whole complex of problems associated with the communal character of religion, which requires communication of experienced truth among members of differing maturity and rational caliber, who will have partaken of the engendering experiences to differing degrees.

To these considerations we must add that those with lesser allotments of maturity, independent experience, and rational control nevertheless have—as members of a religious community—at least an equal claim to its ministrations. The religious community, on its side of the equation, depends for its viability on some degree of cohesiveness like any other sort of community , and in practice this will not only impose a dogmatizing imperative, but also press dogmas toward a lowest common denominator.

Webb goes on to consider a range of problems associated with the establishment of dogmas and doctrines, which protect but also imperil the experiential truths lying at their core. Along the way, he correctly observes that Voegelin was not an anti-institutional thinker as has sometimes been supposed and also that Voegelin was clearly aware of the preservative functions of doctrine.

As examples of the immanentizing version of derailment, Webb analyzes ecumenic imperialism and modern liberalism. Glenn Hughes, currently Professor of Philosophy, St. The apperception and acceptance of elemental mysteries is a necessary condition, in his view, for the proper formation of individual character, as well as for the development of adequate social viewpoints and political policies.

Understood as such, the book is highly successful despite its brief length of pages. This is, however, a virtue rather than a shortcoming, as the discipline shown by Hughes in avoiding digressions or extensions from his specific task permits him to weave a remarkably lucid and illuminating account by following the red thread of mystery. This fact may occasion disappointment for readers whose interest in Voegelin is focused tightly within these other disciplines, as Hughes resolutely keeps his exposition on the rails by avoiding discussions of, say, alternative historical theories, or problems of Christology, or modern political ideologies.

However, the compensations afforded by his approach are considerable. Hughes asserts—and then demonstrates—that. Hughes shows very effectively that consciousness for Voegelin fundamentally involves elements both of experience yielding knowledge, on one hand, and mystery requiring mythic symbolization, on the other. Consciousness begins from a questioning restlessness, or an awareness of ignorance out of which the desire to know develops.

The compact or primary experience of the cosmos. Hughes offers an exceptionally clear explanation:. On the side of being, reality splits into 1 the things of the cosmos and 2 their ultimate origin, which is not another cosmic thing, but somehow beyond all cosmic things. On the side of the thinker, correlative to this bifurcation of reality, human beings discover themselves not only to be things in the sense-perceived cosmos but also to be engaged in transcending it. Hughes handles this problem with admirable dexterity. For this is not an easy task.

Reality is, for every human being, initially and overwhelmingly the cosmos of the primary experience, into which we are born and which even the relatively rare achievements of articulate experiences or transcendence do not annul but supplement. Of course such a ground is known only in the interiority of meditation and reflection, and so is nothing in the world that can be pointed to.

Such understandings could be seen, in turn, as lying adjacent to Feuerbachian conceptions in which the divine is considered a simple projection by humans of their own characteristics or aspirations. As Hughes expresses the point,. It is that the true nature of the ground comes to be known as something radically distinct from earth and sun, king and Pharaoh, so its hiddenness, its genuine unknowability, is revealed. The human beings who find in their own finite intellectual and spiritual capacities clues to the divine being do so only by recognizing that such being transcends incomprehensibly all manner of being with which they are familiar.

To know of a Beyond is to acknowledge, to discover a mystery—the basic, primal mystery of the originating ground of all reality. Hughes offers the most extended and illuminating account of this complex of problems available in the secondary literature on Voegelin. The differentiating leaps are great triumphs in human history. Since the advent of the philosophy of history in the eighteenth century and its heyday in the nineteenth, this branch of inquiry has generally come to be regarded as an enterprise that considers the flow of meaningful events in time and concludes by issuing in a thesis regarding the meaning of history as a whole.

On one level, this approach to history is quite clearly dictated by some basic considerations that are readily acknowledged by most theologians and many philosophers. Since history must ultimately be concerned with how meaning is revealed by the passage of events in time, and since any such lines of meaning must include one that extends beyond a contingent, spatiotemporal realm that cannot serve as its own ground to that origin from which both existence and its meaning stem, there is considerable theoretical force behind the notion that historical studies must incorporate a transcendent dimension.

However, as Hughes observes, the introduction of such a dimension carries implications that seriously complicate our approach to historical studies—implications that pull theological and philosophical concerns toward the very core of history:. For the historian, whose concern is the development of human self-understanding, this renders the overall pattern of history extremely complex, since meaning in history must now be conceived as constituted not only by diachronically and synchronically related temporal structures, but also by the eschatological line of meaning that runs, so to speak, between the entire historical field of unfolding meaning and the ground of reality beyond time.

And as the eminent reality of the ground must dominate any interpretation of meaning in existence, the historian, in the interpretation of the human developments with which he or she is concerned, must accord special significance to those discoveries through which that eschatological line of meaning has come to be known and to the consequences of those discoveries. Of course, there would be no history without the advances in self-interpretation that unfold as a process in time. The process of history, and such order as can be discerned in it, is not a story to be told from the beginning to its happy, or unhappy end; it is a mystery in process of revelation.

First, human existence is still unfolding, and consequently its full pattern of meaning must still remain open toward the future. Second, the meaning of human existence in history must remain shrouded in mystery because its very origins and goal are transcendent rather than immanent. Concerning this direction, Hughes maintains that. The transfiguration Voegelin has in mind appears to be a precarious participation, in the medium of consciousness, of generated and perishing being in the imperishable being of the transcendent ground.

Why precarious? Because, while our own experiences of temporally conditioned participation in the pole of transcendent being may lead us to imagine the process of history culminating in a completed and stable transfiguration of some kind…we have no evidence of such a stasis or fulfillment. Although Voegelin points to an ineluctable mysteriousness encountered in the most profound human experiences of reality and history, it would be improper to suggest that he depicts humanity simply as lost in darkness and ignorance.

The ultimate, essential ignorance is not complete ignorance. Man can achieve considerable knowledge about the order of being, and not the least part of that knowledge is the distinction between the knowable and the unknowable. Such achievement, however, comes late in the long-drawn-out process of experience and symbolization that forms the subject matter of the present study. The concern of man about the meaning of his existence in the field of being does not remain pent up in the tortures of anxiety, but can vent itself in the creation of symbols purporting to render intelligible the relations and tensions between the distinguishable terms of the field.

It is widely known that the history of such symbolic efforts begins with mythic symbols. It is much less widely known that resort to myth becomes no less important or necessary as the process of history unfolds in the differentiation of cosmic truth and the development of modes of inquiry such as philosophy and theology. He observes that these mysteries raise further questions regarding how humans are to orient and attune themselves to a radically transcendent and ultimately mysterious ground of being, and, of equal importance, how they are to find meaning and fulfillment in the immanent realm of worldly existence from which the ground is differentiated.

As Hughes casts the issue,. When the differentiating insights separate the perfection of the ground from the physical universe, a shadow falls over the struggle for personal and social fulfillment, insofar as perfect attunement or reconciliation with what is most lasting in reality can no longer reasonably be conceived as possible under worldly conditions. The insights place the index of imperfection on the whole of finite reality.

Inevitably, then, the noetic and pneumatic differentiations lead to a new kind of vision of the human struggle, a vision beyond the horizon of ancient mythic thinking, in which social and personal existence find fulfillment, not in this world, but in a Beyond of the world. Much of the secondary literature in this problem area suffers from distractions that Hughes succeeds in avoiding. More specifically, many accounts of particular writings and movements born from spiritual revolt against the experience of a radically imperfect and dedivinized world become embroiled in disputing the particular doctrines in which the revolt is expressed, which is to say that they concentrate on epiphenomenal manifestations rather than on the core phenomenon of the revolt as it occurs on the level of consciousness.

Why is the human transfiguring response only partially successful? It is not going too far to say that the entire complex, as an interpretation of the human situation, stands or falls together…. Hughes recognizes that such readers are—and will remain—in relatively short supply. The latter precondition is particularly problematic. The differentiation of consciousness is both spiritually demanding and intellectually challenging, and not everyone is equal to these demands and challenges. Of the ten single-author books on Voegelin published in English to date, this is by far the longest, the most extensive in scope, and the most broadly based in terms of source materials.

Whereas all of the commentaries to date are either introductions that seek to ease the way for those new to Voegelin or specialized studies that examine some particular facet of his thought, Cooper seems intent upon a nearly comprehensive exposition. Moreover, what little he does say is not entirely clear or persuasive. This tack is also dictated to a degree by the sheer bulk of the book, which, at pages, defies the sort of running commentary that was possible with a shorter work such as that by Hughes.

Given that this book is the first of two in a set, one naturally wishes to understand it in relation to the larger project of which it is a part. In any case, I believe it would be easier to assess this book if we had a clearer indication of how Cooper understands the scope of his project.

The early indications are that—remarkably enough—he just might be. Cooper provides a remarkably complex and detailed account of the early Voegelin by weaving together all of the various types of writings he left behind, and he makes deft and highly profitable use of materials that are almost never utilized by other commentators.

Of course, these varied materials could add up to a confusing mess just as easily as an illuminating composite, but Cooper has orchestrated them with admirable skill. He demonstrates sufficient command of materials, interpretive ability, and philosophical aptitude to provide a comprehensive commentary that—while obviously not substituting for the originals—does genuine justice to them.

My point of departure is a section in the third chapter where Cooper provides an account of the yardstick employed by Voegelin when reviewing the work of another political scientist which is also, of course, what Cooper does in the book and what I am doing here. He has clearly mastered the materials, and he interprets them ably at almost every turn. However, my reading left me with many questions about how Cooper has ordered and presented the materials he analyzes, and I find few passages in the book that explain or justify his decisions.

Rather, he engaged in almost constant examination and reconstruction of the foundations utilized in earlier works, never content merely to extend the superstructure with additional analyses. Reviewers should certainly not make too much of metaphors, which are easy to exploit unfairly for critical purposes. To determine whether there is a problem here, we must examine the issue more closely. Cooper then launches directly into his discussion, which is thick with biographical background through the first chapter.

However, beginning with the third chapter, things change abruptly. Yet, this is not what follows. The problem, of course, is that Voegelin is hardly done with these questions in , which makes one wonder where Cooper intends to take his readers in the next volume. If these problems and questions are not revisited, readers will not be well served, and if they are revisited, Cooper may find that he has left himself an impossibly massive task for the second book.

Still, readers may find themselves uncertain about where they are being led as they dig into the book, and also about where Cooper intends to go in the successor volume. Cooper sets the spiritual and intellectual context of the discussion at the outset, where he observes that. Like any perversion, it was the result of an act, in this case an intellectual act of subordinating theoretical relevance to method.

This principle of perverse subordination, then, constitutes the methodological core of the problem, which implies that the manifestations of positivism through particular doctrines are secondary. These accounts are less concerned with the particular doctrines in question than with the principles of relevance employed by their authors and dictated in turn by the impoverished versions of philosophical anthropology underlying these principles.

Each social science, having accumulated enormous amounts of information and having developed logically coherent models within which that information could be understood, saw itself as autonomous not merely with respect to the social sciences but with respect to philosophical anthropology as well. It bears noting that Cooper does not treat philosophical anthropology as an undertaking distinct from the philosophy of history or the philosophy of consciousness, but rather as a result of their fusion.

Cooper enumerates the three phases in this process of dissociation as identified by Voegelin , a process that was largely provoked by the church and which resulted in the destruction of its public authority in spiritual matters. A new Thomas would…develop a philosophy of history that was neither as empirically limited as the theology of history represented here by Bossuet nor as spiritually arid as the secular philosophy of history represented here by Voltaire.

Such an enterprise, as was just indicated, would have three interrelated components.