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Science, Philosophy, and Resistance: On Eric Voegelin's Practice of Opposition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


When and in what way does it make sense to think of philosophical and scientific activity or simply the act of thinking as acts of resistance to political corruption? This article examines Eric Voegelin's extended answer to that question. Voegelin gradually developed a conception of scientific inquiry that distinguished between science, philosophy, and the wider context within which these activities take place. He showed thereby that scientific inquiry may be a valuable form of political resistance, without its practitioners being fully aware philosophically of what they are doing

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1994

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My thanks to Barry Cooper, Murray Jardine, Juergen Gebhardt, and three anonymous referees for their valuable comments on previous drafts of this article. An earlier version was delivered at the 1993 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.

1. Heilke, Thomas W., Voegelin on the idea of Race: An Analysis of Modern European Racism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), p. 2.Google Scholar

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4. Voegelin, Eric, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Sandoz, Ellis (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 12:126.Google Scholar

5. Cf. “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” Collected Works, 12: 5294Google Scholar; “On Classical Studies,” Collected Works, 12: 5294Google Scholar; “Quod Deus Dicitur,” Collected Works, 12: 376–94.Google Scholar

6. To prevent a reification of the concept of order, we might add that an order is not an empirical object of study, but a discerned quality of the interrelationship of a set of objects. As such an intellectual abstraction, it is halfway between a concept and an immediate empirical object.

7. Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, vol 1, Israel and Revelation, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956), p. 1.Google Scholar

8. Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, vol 3, Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), p. 68.Google Scholar

9. Israel and Revelation, pp. 1–2.

10. Ibid., p. 1.

11. Ibid., p. 2.

12. Cf. Voegelin, Eric, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968), pp. 5373.Google Scholar

13. Plato and Aristotle, pp. 2–3.

14. Ibid.

15. Plato, Republic 441c–445eGoogle Scholar; 544d–e.

16. Thomas Spragens has suggested that nearly all the great political philosophers have begun their inquiries with a perception of crisis. See Spragens, Thomas A. Jr., Understanding Political Theory (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976) pp. 2045.Google Scholar

17. Plato and Aristotle, pp. 68–69.

18. “On Gnosticism,” [letter to Alfred Schuetz, 10 January 1953], in Opitz, Peter J. and Sebba, Gregor, eds., The Philosophy of Order (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett, 1981), p. 461.Google Scholar

19. Plato and Aristotle, p. 5.

20. Ibid., p. 68.

21. Voegelin, Eric, “Response to Professor Altizer's ‘A New History and a New But Ancient God?'” Collected Works, 12:301302.Google Scholar

22. For an interpretation of catharsis as a kind of conceptual “clearing up,” especially in Aristotle, see Nussbaum, MarthaThe Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 388–91.Google Scholar

23. See Franz, Michael, Eric Voegelin and the Politics of Spiritual Revolt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), pp. 106ff.Google Scholar

24. “Equivalences of Experience,” pp. 119,125–26.

25. “It is not immaterial whether an evolution moves from compactness to the differentiation of experiences of transcendence or from differentiated transcendence to immanentizing gnosticism. In the first case, a society of Malaysian natives, for example, living in a complete, harmonic if compact culture, may defend itself against, say, the importation of Western ideas which in themselves can only have a destructive social impact. In the second case, pathologically crippled men try to destroy an existing high culture. It is not one and the same thing for Plato to think beyond a collapsing Athenian city state and for National

26. Voegelin, Eric, Anamnesis, trans, and ed. Niemeyer, Gerhart (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), pp. 3; cf. 9–10.Google Scholar

27. Ibid., p. 9.

28. Voegelin, Eric, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 52.Google Scholar

29. Space limitations dictate that this foreshortened account cannot do justice either to philosophy or science and the conceptual problems both activities engender. I intend here merely to offer working characterizations of both activities limited to the purposes of this article.

30. Voegelin, Eric, Autobiographical Reflections, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), p. 12Google Scholar; cf. New Science, pp. 13–24.

31. Reflections, p. 12; New Science, pp. 23–26.

32. “Here is the gap in Weber's work constituting the great problem with which I have dealt during the fifty years since I got acquainted with his ideas” (Reflections, p. 12).

33. Here again, he attributed his strong inclination for intellectual honesty to the influence of Max Weber (Ibid., p. 45).

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid., p. 47. For an early example of Voegelin's contest with intellectual dishonesty, coupled with a quest for precision of language in an effort to resist disorder and ideological corruption, see his The Theory of Legal Science: A Review,” Louisiana Law Review 4 (1942): esp. 558–71.Google Scholar Hunnngton Cairn's reply to Voegelin's review immediately follows. Particularly if it is considered in light of Voegelin's critique of Kelsen's pure theory of law, it distressingly illuminates thesorts of phenomena Voegelin was combatting.

36. Reflections, p. 50.

37. Ibid.

38. Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, p. 5.

39. Cf., Voegelin, Eric, Die Politischen Religionen (Stockholm: Bermann-Fischer Verlag, A.B., 1939), pp. 79.Google Scholar

40. Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, p. 18.

41. Voegelin, Eric, Die Rassenidee in der Geistesgeschichte von Ray bis Carus (Berlin: Junker & Duennhaupt, 1933), pp. 1, 5.Google Scholar

42. Cf., Voegelin, Eric, “Two Recent Contributions to the Science of Law,” in Pascal, Robert Anthony, Babin, James Lee, and Corrington, John William, eds., The Nature of the Law and Related Legal Writings, vol 27 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990-), p. 87Google Scholar; and “Theory of Legal Science,” p. 562.

43. Reflections, p. 21; Voegelin, Eric, Rasse und Staat (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1933), p. 6.Google Scholar

44. Rasse und Staat, p. 7.

45. Reflections, p. 21.

46. Ibid., pp. 21–22; Rassenidee, pp. 6–7. Voegelin never rejected Kelsen's theory of law per se, but only restricted its usefulness to a particular realm of law, denying its adequacy as a theory (or science) of politics. Cf. “Two Recent Contributions,” p. 90; and in his review of Kelsen, Hans, “General Theory of Law and State,” Louisiana Law Review 6 (1945): 491.Google Scholar As evidence for the development of Voegelin's own thought during this period, his critique in Rassenidee of Kelsen's theory should be compared with his laudatory and optimistic comments seven years earlier in his Kelsen's Pure Theory of Law,” Political Science Quarterly 42 (1927): 268–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

47. Voegelin's concepts of “compactness” and “differentiation” were part of a larger theory of history. Voegelin had found in his historical investigations “epochal, differentiating events, the ‘leaps in being,' which engendered the consciousness of a Before and After and, in their respective societies, motivated the symbolisms of a historical ‘course' that was meaningfully structured by the event of the leap.” Accordingly, “the experiences of a new insight into the truth of existence, accompanied by the consciousness of the event as constituting an epoch in history, were real enough. There was really an advance in time from compact to differentiated experiences of reality, and, correspondingly, an advance from compact to differentiated symbolizations of the order of being ”(Voegelin, , Order and History, vol 4, The Ecumenic Age [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974], p. 2).Google Scholar Voegelin's own discoveries concerning his motivations for resistance and the activities of others in this regard was a minor, personal example of such an advance.

48. Reflections, p. 29.

49. Voegelin, Eric, Ueber die Form des Amerikanischen Geistes (Tuebingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1928), pp. 16, 5.Google Scholar

50. Voegelin, Eric, “Hitler and the Germans,” [unpublished manuscript, 1964], pp. 9394, 138, 36, 51.Google Scholar

51. Reflections, p. 29.

52. Voegelin, , New Science, pp. 188–89.Google Scholar Hannah Arendt and Voegelin provid an interesting debate on the relationship and relative importance of ideas and events in historical developments in their exchange in 1953 on the occasion of Voegelin's review of Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (Voegelin, Eric, “Review of The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt,” Review of Politics 15 (1953)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; with a reply by Hannah Arendt, and a reply by Eric Voegelin, pp. 68–85).

53. Anamnesis, p. 183.

54. Ibid.

55. Chesterton, G. K., Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox” (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1956), p. 141.Google Scholar

56. Reflections, p. 45.

57. “Die geistige Form findet nicht Wahrheiten und stellt nicht Fakten fest, sondern sie ist auf sich selbst gerichtet und darum haftet ihr immer ein Ungenuegen an, das zu neuen Versuchen der Ueberwindung treibt, die notwendig ebenso unzureichend sein muessen” (Amerikanischen Geistes, p. 16).

58. Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 45.Google Scholar Cf. The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed. Pangle, Thomas L. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1989), pp. 812.Google Scholar