Posted: July 14, 2014
A review of The Voegelinian Revolution, by Ellis Sandoz
his intellectual biography has a startling thesis to argue; namely, that the works of Eric Voegelin constitute a scientific revolution comparable in magnitude to the mathematical, astronomical, and physical revolution wrought by Copernicus and Newton. Voegelin, in other words, has redefined the very meaning of science. Pause just for a moment and ponder Sandoz's claim-that with Eric Voegelin there comes about a radical alteration in the scientific enterprise. If the proposition sounds incredible or at least hyperbolic, part of the reason lies in the fact that so few people are even aware of Voegelin, and that the revolution, alleged by Sandoz, must seemingly have occurred unbeknownst to the academic world. Sandoz does acknowledge the relative obscurity of Voegelin, a condition he accounts for and by his book tries to dispel. Indeed it might be said that Sandoz regards himself as witness to an event of profound significance, and that the purpose of his biography is first to announce this event, this revolution, and second to detail and analyze its salient features. Sandoz, however, is no popularizer, despite the intention of introducing Voegelin to a wider audience. By his own admission he has kept to the high ground of Voegelin's thought, expressing himself through Voegelin's unfamiliar and difficult vocabulary. The result is that Sandoz's biography is nearly as demanding a book as the works of Voegelin about which it speaks. Even with the help of The Voegelinian Revolution, therefore, Voegelin remains difficult of access.
The Voegelinian Revolution reads as conventional biography in only two of its eight chapters. The first of these chronicles Voegelin's academic career up to his departure from Austria in 1938; the second places Voegelin in his new American home, especially the sixteen years spent at Louisiana State University. In writing of Voegelin's life, Sandoz was assisted by what he calls an "Autobiographical Memoir," lengthy question-and-answer sessions between the two men that were taped, transcribed, and then edited by Voegelin himself.
Voegelin was born on January 3, 1901, in Cologne, Germany. After some years spent in the Rhineland, his family moved in 1910 to Vienna. Voegelin later attended the University of Vienna and in 1922 received his doctorate in political science. In 1924, a post-doctoral fellowship brought Voegelin to the United States, where for three years he studied at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Wisconsin. The results of his American research and experience are reflected in his first book, On the form of the American Mind (1928). Voegelin came to regard commonsense experience as the indispensable starting point of all philosophy. Following his return to Vienna, he wrote two books on the race question and two on the problem and origins of contemporary ideologies.
In 1938 Hitler marched into Austria. With the Gestapo in hot pursuit, Voegelin quickly fled Vienna. His books contained anti-Nazi themes, and the Gestapo had confiscated his last book. America was his final destination; once here, he taught at Harvard, Bennington, and the University of Alabama, before moving to his more permanent home at Louisiana State University in 1942.
Voegelin taught at L.S.U. until 1958 when he returned to Europe to assume the Directorship of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Munich. There he remained until his retirement in 1969. From 1969 to 1974, Voegelin was Henry Salvatori Distinguished Scholar at the Hoover Institute on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. In the years following his "second" retirement, Voegelin continued work on the fifth and final volume of Order and History.However, he did not live to see its publication. Voegelin died just weeks ago, on January 19, 1985.
Sandoz's central concern here is with Voegelin's writings since the early 1950s, particularly The New Science of Politics,Order and History, and Anamnesis. Sandoz's approach is thematic, with separate chapters devoted to significant periods in Voegelin's intellectual development, periods which generally coincide with the publication dates of the above-named books: 1952, 1957, 1966, 1981. Throughout it all, Sandoz's purpose is to follow the thread of Voegelin's thought, to identify alterations and new insights, and to explain how taken as a whole the works of Voegelin provide the makings of an intellectual revolution.
The core of the Voegelinian revolution lies in Voegelin's rejection of the methodology of the mathematical natural sciences, especially as that methodology is taken to be the hallmark of rational thought and as it is applied paradigmatically to the study of man. The focus of Voegelin's complaint seems to be the presumed objectivity and detachment of modern science, its distinctions between subject and object, knower and known, and facts and values which permit it from afar to record and measure the motions of a material world. Detachment, according to Voegelin, is a falsification of reality. The foundations of knowledge lie in human experience, and human experience is emphatically participatory. Thus genuine science must proceed from and investigate the participatory experience of man. Such science Voegelin calls noetic.
Noesis is a term taken by Voegelin from classical philosophy, mainly from the vocabularies of Plato and Aristotle. Its root isnous, which means mind, intellect, or reason. As explained by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, nous is an intuitive faculty which enables the mind to grasp first principles without the intermediate steps of induction or deduction. Aristotle contrasts nous with the discursive reasoning called dianoia.
Voegelin's indictment of modernity charges it with severing dianoia from noesis, the former being identified with reason itself, the latter with the irrationality of pre-positive thinking; i.e., with myth, religion, and metaphysics. Voegelin does grant, indeed even insists upon, the kinship of noetic philosophy with myth and revelation. But he disputes that these modes of thought are irrational or that they have been superseded by positive science. What man participates in at various levels and what he sometimes seeks is order; and myth, revelation, and philosophy are symbolic articulations of the order experienced. Science, then, for Voegelin is the analysis of these experiences, because only by these experiences does man make contact with ultimate reality. Furthermore, these experiences, whose record constitutes history and meaning in history, are themselves confirmation of reality, called the divine ground of being by Voegelin, such that the separation of faith and reason never quite arises-man need not believe in God, for he experiences, or can experience, an order that has its roots in the divine. Additional confirmation of the scientific character of noesis, and of myth and revelation, lies in the fact that rationalist suppressions of human experience succeed only in deforming the experience but never in destroying it. Voegelin's studies of Gnosticism show that "religious" ideologies such as Marxism and fascism are the inevitable by-products of the Enlightenment.
The participatory experience which cannot be destroyed expresses itself in any of several questions: When the quest for the ground is directed to the genesis of things, the question is of the Beginning; when the ground is located in things existing, the question concerns the Depth; when the ground is outside the cosmos of things as transcendent being, the question is about the Beyond; and when eschatological perfection through the Parousia (second coming) is anticipated, the question is of the End. Human nature at all times is open to participation in the divine whose order is experienced either as Beginning, Depth, Beyond, or End. For the most part, cosmological myth articulates experience of the first two, noetic philosophy of the third, and revelation of the third and fourth.
Noesis, as the defining principle of science, is participatory, but it is also differentiated, as suggested above, with some experiences being more luminous than others. Voegelin means by luminosity the realization of the hierarchical structure of existence, moving from the physical to the spiritual, rational, and divine, as well as the awareness of the structure of consciousness as kindred to the structure of reality. Myth is less luminous, more compact, than philosophy or revelation because its experience of the divine is largely physical, with intramundane gods postulated, and because the separation of man and God is absolute. Philosophy and revelation constitute advances over myth and are called "theophanies" or "leaps in being." There also is the suggestion that revelation is more differentiated than philosophy, because of the former's consciousness of history as a succession of increasingly luminous theophanies.
The human condition, says Voegelin, evinces one constant feature, that of existential tension between the poles of the noetic heights and the apeirontic (limitless) depths. Stated more simply, man is neither God nor animal but something in between. Life in the In-Between, Plato's metaxu, typifies the human condition which people everywhere experience and record. Voegelin bases himself here on decades of painstaking research, on first-hand familiarity with source materials from all civilizations and in all languages. Part of what Voegelin means by science is the scholarship which documents these many experiences, be they Stone Age petroglyphs, Mesopotamian myths, Old Testament revelation, Platonic dialogues, medieval mysticism, or the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.
The experience of tension and the search for order, says Voegelin, express themselves through symbols of their own devising. There is a close and necessary connection between the experience and its articulation. As Sandoz puts it:
In noetic science, experience so understood engenders the symbolisms that let it articulate itself. Experience-symbolism, thus, is a unit: without the experience there is no symbolism, and without the symbolism no articulate experience. Both arise at once in the participatory search of the Ground, which differentiates the structure and process of consciousness-reality. (p. 208)
Theophanic experience of all kinds-myth, revelation, philosophy-is articulated through symbolic speech. Voegelin repeatedly calls symbolic even the theoretical discourse of Aristotle, or appropriate portions thereof. He offers as an example the opening line of the Metaphysics: "All men by nature desire to know" (for what they desire to know, says Voegelin, is the ground). Why this is symbolic speech is not entirely clear, but three points might be mentioned: (1) such speech may be symbolic because it means to describe what is imperfectly understood; thus it is imprecise and ought not to be mistaken for a declaration of the truth; (2) it is symbolic because it works to produce in others the experience it describes; accordingly it bears some likeness to poetry; and (3) it is symbolic because its own intelligibility depends completely on the experience which engendered it; divorced from this experience, it can only be misunderstood.
The last of these points is of vital importance to Voegelin, for it explains the unfortunate history of philosophy ever since Aristotle. With its experiential foundations forgotten, philosophy became a series of dogmatic propositions about unseen phenomena. Over time such dogmatism hardened into rival schools (monists versus dualists, idealists versus empiricists) and religious wars, with the final result being the anti-metaphysical and anti-religious revolution of modern science. While sympathetic with the causes of the revolt, Voegelin asserts that it leaves untouched, because unknown, the noetic science that preceded this 2,000-year derailment. The Voegelinian revolution, therefore, is essentially a reclamation, or, in Voegelin's own words, a recollection, an anamnesis.
Voegelin's revolution is not one that promises to overtake the intellectual establishment. In that sense it is quite unlike the earlier revolution to which Sandoz compares it. Apparently Voegelin cherished no hopes that the academic community any time soon will take up the practice of noetic science or that a political order, rid of sterile, ideological dogmatism, will shortly emerge. He did, though, deny that the individual need mirror the deformations of the age. Resistance is always possible, and Voegelin's life work plainly has the purpose of assisting a few individuals in that endeavor. Voegelin, therefore, seems very much like a disciple of Plato. And Plato, as it happened, proved to be the author of a revolution more profound and perhaps more enduring than that of Copernicus and Newton.