Faith, Philosophy, and Postmodernism in Voegelin

HomeReviewsFaith, Philosophy, and Postmodernism in Voegelin

Faith and Political Philosophy the Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964. Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper, ed. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Eric Voegelin’s Dialogues with the Postmoderns Searching for Foundations. Peter A. Petrakis and Cecil Eubanks, ed. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

 

With Collected Works of Eric Voegelin complete, the University of Missouri Press have issued a new series, The Eric Voegelin Institute Series in Political Philosophy, that places Voegelin’s works in the context of other philosophers and thinkers.  Two books from this series, Faith and Philosophy and Eric Voegelin’s Dialogues with the Postmoderns, examine Voegelin’s writings in his exchanges with Leo Strauss and in the context of postmodern philosophy.  Faith and Philosophy is an updated version of the 1993 Pennsylvania State University Press edition and does not contain Part Three: the essays that analyze Strauss’ and Voegelin’s philosophies; Eric Voegelin’s Dialogues with the Postmoderns is a collection of essays that compares Voegelin with such postmodern thinkers like Levinas and Patočka.  The editors in both books have excellent introductions to the Voegelin’s philosophy, but these books are for advanced students in Voegelinian scholarship and should not be consulted as an introduction to it.

Faith and Philosophy contains fifty-three letters of correspondence and previously-published essays by Strauss and Voegelin.  In their correspondence, both Strauss and Voegelin explored the similarities and differences in their work in the recovery of the fundamental structures of political reality.  The main difference between the two thinkers is that Voegelin understood Greek philosophy as rooted in an ineffable, mystical experience of the divine that gave rise to rational propositions as symbolizations of that experience, while Strauss viewed rational propositions as nonreligious and the embodiment of philosophy’s goal as a mode of knowledge that is fundamentally distinct from revelation.  This disagreement between Strauss and Voegelin started in the latter’s  review of Huntington Cairns’ The Theory of Legal Science, to which Strauss responded that Platonic-Aristotelian science which Voegelin had invoked is based on reason and not on “religious faith” (p. 6).  Both philosophers rejected Cairn’s positivism as defective when compared to the Platonic-Aristotelian science; but they provided different interpretations of what constitutes that science.

This debate eventually focused over the nature of revelation, as shown in letters 35-39, with Strauss having written “there is an essential distinction between the thinking of the Middle ages, based on revelation, and the thinking of classical antiquity, not based on revelation” (pp. 78).  Voegelin responded that both revelation and reason are part of a universal human knowledge that is understood concretely and experientially.  This prompted Strauss to write back that claims of a universal human knowledge must reside in the realm of philosophy and not in Christianity.  To understand Plato properly, one should not impose “biblical concepts,” since they are separate from Greek philosophy.

Although this debate was not resolved by Strauss and Voegelin, it does clarify and presents challenges to both thinkers’ philosophies: for Voegelin, the claim that the experience of the divine is the foundation for a universal, human knowledge requires some sort of demonstration in order for him to escape what Strauss referred to as “the desert of Kierkegaard’s subjectivism” (p. 88); and for Strauss, the tension between reason and revelation suggests a permanent condition of human incompleteness that is unable to point to a right way of life, leading one into nihilism.

In spite of their differences, both Strauss’ and Voegelin’s analyses of Plato partake in the common task to recover the Platonic-Aristotelian science against positivism.  Both Strauss and Voegelin were opposed to abstract, ideological, and positivist thought; and both sought to renew political science by returning to a philosophical anthropology rooted in Plato and Aristotle.  And with respect to politics, both Strauss and Voegelin were worried about liberalism, as Ted V. McAllister wrote in his Revolt Against Modernity (1993), “they were worried that liberal principles would ultimately undermine liberal goals.  Consequently they advocated a postliberal order” (p. xi).  This theme of a postliberal order is explored in Eric Voegelin’s Dialogues with the Postmoderns, which attempts to understand Voegelin as a postmodern thinker in a search for a philosophical foundation but without foundationalism: to see whether a society can recover a sense of transcendence without resorting to metaphysical certainty (p. 21).

In “Voegelin and Ricoeur,” Peter Petrakis begins this book by believing such a recovery is possible.  By showing how both thinkers believed that stories and symbols can serve as a foundation for politics and ethics, Petrakis demonstrates how both Voegelin and Rioecur can recover transcendence without returning to metaphysical certainty.  Both Voegelin and Ricoeur cite a “unified self” who symbolizes or creates a narrative out of his experiences that can be verified both externally and internally.  Critical to this understanding is that the “unified self” is one that respects the mystery of being and therefore does not attempt to place himself outside of reality to survey all of it: the self exists within a historical or linguistic process not of his own making and must accept it.  By accepting this epistemologically limited position, the “unified self” protects himself against charges of metaphysical reductionism.

Murray Jardine continues this theme of “foundations without foundationalism” in his essay “Sight, Sound, and Participatory Symbolization” that compares the communications of print and speech in the context of Voegelin’s and Poteat’s philosophies.  According to Jardine, literate cultures tend to promote thinking of symbols as visual phenomena which results in neglecting the initial experiential content behind them.  Voegelin’s conception of consciousness as participatory and his emphasis on experience asks us to return to an oral culture where reality is conceived in a personal context; but what this context consists of, especially with respect to Christianity, is a source of disagreement between Voegelin and Poteat.  For Jardine, Voegelin had misconceptualized Christian revelation in terms of nature instead of human creativity, leading to a dogmatization of one’s own symbolization of the Christian experience (p. 83). This misconception of Christianity stems from Voegelin’s belief that Christian revelation has been “a closed matter” since the time of Augustine.

Jeffrey A. Bell contrasts Voegelin’s philosophy with Deleuze’s in his essay, “Immanence/Transcendence.”  According to Bell, Voegelin is guilty of vertical transcendence, the experiences of eros and thanatos as understood in the context of transcendence, whereas Deleuze practices horizontal transcendence, these experiences are understood in the context of immanence (p. 97).  Both Voegelin and Deleuze critique metaphysics; but only Deleuze succeeds in avoiding metaphysical reductionism, because he understands eros and thantos in the context of immanence.  By rejecting a transcendental metaphysics, Deleuze is able to support a politics of multiplicity that avoids excessive centralization and chaotic decentralization.  By contrast, Voegelin’s view of transcendence leads him to accept a politics of hierarchy and centralized power.

William Paul Simmons and Edward Finley in their respective essays, “Voegelin and Levinas” and “Politics, Metaphysics, and Anti-Foundationalism,” compare Voegelin’s, Levinas’, and Patočka’s philosophies in the recovery of transcendence.  For Simmons, both Voegelin and Levinas recognize transcendence as a guide instead of a foundation; but for the former, politics and ethics are justified “from the individual’s existential participation in the metaxy,” while, for the latter, “Politics must answer to ethics” (p. 139).  Patočka and Voegelin also accept transcendence into their politics, but each approaches transcendence in different ways: Patočka employs postmodern techniques, “negative Platoism,” to reject metaphysical thinking; while Voegelin adopts a classical approach to understand Plato.  Although both Simmons and Findley provide an excellent delineation of the differences among these thinkers, they leave open the question as to which approach – Voegelin’s, Levinas’, or Patočka’s – is the best way to recover a meaning of transcendence for society.

The essays in Eric Voegelin’s Dialogues with the Postmoderns are uniformly excellent in their exploration of “foundations without foundationalism”; but, like most volumes of collected essays, it only offers suggestions of a synthesis between Voegelin and postmodernism.  Both have different interpretations of classical philosophy and transcendence; both are critics of the metaphysical certainty of the Enlightenment project; and both fail to offer a theory of institutionalized politics.  Interestingly, at the end of the volume, the editors propose Camus as a possible synthesis to understand Voegelin and other postmodern thinkers but fail to develop this theme, which is all the more puzzling, since both editors have written on Camus (JOP 61: 2); or, it may be that they plan a sequel that will expand on their suggested synthesis.

Both Faith and Philosophy and Eric Voegelin’s Dialogues with the Postmoderns illuminate and challenge the assumptions in Voegelin’s philosophy and lead readers in new directions for Voegelinian scholarship.  Simply put, they are indispensable readings for students of political philosophy in their examination of transcendence, philosophy, and politics.  By seeing Voegelin as a postmodern thinker and by showing his exchange with Strauss, both of these books provide us a broader context to understand Voegelin’s political philosophy.  As part of the University of Missouri Press’ new series, both Faith and Philosophy and Eric Voegelin’s Dialogues with the Postmoderns provide intellectually provocative and serious-minded secondary works on Eric Voegelin and his ultimate place in political philosophy.

 

This review was originally published in the Journal of Politics 68.2 (2006): 485-87.

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).