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The Paradoxes of Participatory Reality

Although neither Eric Voegelin nor Jacques Derrida had ever written about each other’s works, both thinkers were engaged in the same project of creating and sustaining an existential philosophy that was participatory in nature. Opposed to foundational accounts of reality, a philosophy that purports to ex­plain the totality of reality transparently, both Voegelin and Derrida called for a mode of philosophy that was open to the possibilities of existence with its un­answerable mysteries. They were opposed to the claim of Cartesian subjectivity where intentionality is the only operational mode for human existence: reality is understood and spoken of as if it were some sort of object to be grasped in its entirety by human subjectivity.1

The belief that humans can survey the whole of reality and thereby discover and expose its fundamental foundations was re­jected by both Voegelin and Derrida. The encounter and experience of reality could be neither exhaustive nor transparent; rather, reality demanded that we approach it in a participatory mode that Voegelin articulates in his theory of symbolization and Derrida describes in his philosophy of deconstruction.

Voegelin believed that our encounter with reality was ultimately symbolic in nature. The notion that language could be exhaustive in its account of our en­counter with reality and convey it transparently was rejected by him. Language (or more accurately symbols) was merely an incomplete reflection or articula­tion of human experiences and, at best, could only point to ineffable realities that reside in human consciousness. Language could neither account for all of human encounters with reality nor do so transparently because it was ultimate­ly considered by Voegelin to be dependent on specific historical circumstances. In other words, language was socially constructed.

Likewise, Derrida conceived of language as artificial instead of natural and something that continually de­ferred a finalized meaning forever. Language could never become transparent for Derrida, since the reality it was referencing was continually shifting its ultimate significance. Attempts to fix a finalized meaning unto language were not only doomed to failure but were also dishonest efforts to create a “second reality” in order to manipulate and motive people for certain ideological ends.

Voegelin’s and Derrida’s similar perspectives on language can be explained by their refusal to accept the premise of Cartesian subjectivity: reality is dichotomous with subjects on one side and objects on the other. Rejecting intention­ality as the only acceptable operational mode of epistemology, both Voegelin and Derrida favored one that was participatory in nature. Reality is not divided into subjects and objects but instead conceived as a single entity in which hu­mans participate and therefore it can never be known objectively or in its entirety. There will always be aspects of reality that remain mysterious.

Affinities Between Voegelin and Derrida

Voegelin gives this participatory model several names, with the most famous one known as the metaxy, where humans exist in a state of existential and paradoxical ten­sion. For Derrida, différence and messianic are the terms he uses to describe this existential mode of existence that is open to the possibilities of existence. Both accounts are participatory in nature in that they remain open to the pos­sibilities of an unknowable future and reject the idea that a finality of meaning could ever be discovered. The affinities between Voegelin and Derrida on language and epistemology are finally shared in their accounts of ontology where both repudiate a foun­dational metaphysics.

However, this repudiation does not result in passivity for ethical and political action. Just because humans are unable to account for the whole of reality does not mean they are ethically and politically paralyzed. For Voegelin, it is the philosopher’s duty to translate his experiences with reality into a symbolic order that will anchor society. Likewise, Derrida describes the “undecidable leap” that calls people into ethical action, even though it will nec­essarily contain an aspect of violence.

In both cases, there is an appeal for ethi­cal and political action, but it is conditioned by the concrete circumstances of the situation and the knowledge that violence and imperfection are unavoid­able when such action is taken. Not subscribing to the certainty of foundation­al ontology, both Voegelin and Derrida do offer a positive program of ethical and political action as an alternative to the political ideologies that have domi­nated the twentieth century.

Although they approach the problem of presenting an alternative to foun­dational ontology from different perspectives, both Voegelin’s and Derrida’s philosophies provide answers that share similar features in their linguistic, epistemological, and ontological accounts. Both also call for some sort of so­cial action–contrary to what some of their critics have claimed.2 What we will explore is how both Voegelin and Derrida specifically accomplish this task of presenting the alternative of participatory ontology to a founda­tional one and what commonalities these philosophies share in linguistics, epistemology, ontology, and social action.

It will conclude with thoughts as to whether each thinker was successful in his attempt as well as the strengths and weaknesses in each one. What we ultimately see is that what appear on the surface to be two philosophies that have little in common are, under clos­er scrutiny, actually two accounts of reality that in some fundamental sense are one and the same.

Paradoxical Participation: Voegelin and Language

Voegelin himself did not write an explicit philosophy of linguistics because of his view that language was inextricably connected with consciousness. Ac­cording to Voegelin, language had degenerated considerably during modernity and was one of the reasons of the derailment of philosophy:

“The confusion of language in the wake of the millennial movement is the syndrome of a dis­order that has grown in contemporary Western society . . . . If we want to break out of the public unconsciousness, we must analyze it and thereby raise it into consciousness.”

But language was not only connected with consciousness for Voegelin; it was also rooted in its own history:

“Only when the complex of reflective distance-remembrance-oblivion is sufficiently differentiated and ar­ticulated will it be possible to rescue the symbols that have been historically developed to describe the phenomena of oblivion from their historiographic burial as ‘ideas,’ ‘opinions,’ or ‘beliefs.'”3

Since language was dependent upon consciousness for its historical formation, one must examine what constitutes consciousness first. It would be methodologically backward to start with a study of language before consciousness because only the consciousness is ca­pable of uncovering the historiography of language. Once we know what con­stitutes consciousness, we will then be able to trace the evolution of language and recover it from its own present-day confusion.

Limitations of Self-Knowledge

For Voegelin, consciousness is neither a given in reality nor an a priori con­struct; rather, it is a process that continues to articulate and rearticulate itself in the reality in which it partakes.4 There is no Cartesian vantage point outside of ourselves where we can survey the whole of reality: we are merely participants who partake symbolically in reality.

This symbolic participation does not place us as “a self-contained spectator, in possession of and with knowledge of his faculties, at the center of a horizon of being;” rather, it demonstrates that we are “an actor, playing a part in the drama of being and, through the brute fact of his existence, committed to play it without knowing what it is.” The possibil­ity of stepping outside of reality in order to survey it as an object of cognition is simply rejected by Voegelin. The resulting existential state means that we will always have an incomplete knowledge of reality. As Voegelin remarks, “At the center of his existence man is unknown to himself and must remain so.”5

Symbolic Expression to Approximate the Knowable

The fact that we cannot know the whole of reality does not equate into a skeptical epistemology. We can know some aspects of reality, just not its entire­ty, as Voegelin states: “Many 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.”6

For Voegelin, the core experiences that are at the center of our existence are the ones that we have with God, humans, the world, and society. As participants in reality, we encounter this complex of God-man-world-society as part of the community of being and symboli­cally, for this complex is nothing more than an analogy generated by ourselves in our search for knowledge about reality.

This search therefore is a process of symbolization where we “attempt at making the essentially unknowable order of being intelligible as far as possible through the creation of symbols which interpret the unknown by analogy with the really, or supposedly, known.”7 However, our consciousness is not only our participatory site with external reality but also a place where we participate with a reality that is fundamentally internal to ourselves. For Voegelin, the process of consciousness does not flow into the external world but instead possesses a luminous space within which the dimensions of the past, present, and future occur.

Within our conscious­ness, we experience history not as the unfolding of sequential events in exter­nal and empirical reality but rather as a series of phases of divine illumination within our consciousness where the order of history is discovered within the history of order.8 These experiences are articulated symbolically rather than propositionally, because only symbolic complexes are able to evoke the inter­nal dimensions of a person’s consciousness. Because of this, when we desire to communicate our experiences of the order of reality, we must resort to sym­bolic complexes, since propositional language can convey meaning only about external and empirical reality.

For example, in early classical civilizations, people symbolized “society and its order as an analogue of the cosmos and its order.” Later, philosophers such as Plato and the early Christians symbolized “social order by analogy with the order of a human existence that is well attuned to being.” In the transition from the first to the second type of symbolization, the experienced reality of God was considered superior to the realities of humans, world, and society. Voegelin calls this transition “differentiation:” the recognition of greater insights into the nature of the divine and its relations to human consciousness. Accord­ing to Voegelin, this process of differentiation is the only “meaningful system­atic philosophy” because it makes the divine intelligible as an analog to human consciousness.

By making the experiences of the divine intelligible, a science of experience becomes possible, for theory “is not just any opining about human existence in society . . . . [I]t is an attempt at formulating meaning of existence by explicating the content of a definite class of experiences.” The argument of the philosopher thus is “not arbitrary but derives its validity from the aggregate of experiences [as drawn from history] to which it must permanently refer for empirical control.”9

Voegelin’s Imaginative Reenactment

This “new science” therefore creates an aggregate set of experiences that serves as an empirical control to evaluate new ones, with the aggregate set having been evaluated and organized by the process of differentiation. However, we do not have direct access to these experiences; rather, we must examine the symbolic complexes that are the articulations of these past experiences of consciousness. In other words, the philosopher must be capable of imaginative reenactment from the symbolic complexes in order to penetrate into past human conscious­ness filled with its experiences. The philosopher “must, at least, be capable of imaginative re-enactment of the experiences of which theory is an explication.”

For Voegelin, the “new science” will work if “certain experiences” are “intelligible only to those in whom explication will stir up parallel experiences as the empiri­cal basis for testing the truth of theory.” The assumption here is that not only do humans share the same fundamental experiences across space and time, but these experiences are continually accessible among the intellectually mature and spiritually sensitive philosophers:

“Theoretical debate can be conducted only among spoudaioi in the Aristotelian sense; theory has no argument against a man who feels, or pretends to feel, unable of re-enacting the experience.”10

This reenactment of experience requires the philosopher to examine what aspects of his consciousness remain constant in his existence so as to recog­nize them in others. What the philosopher discovers is that his existence is in a constant state of tension between the poles of immanent and transcendent re­ality: a mode of in-between existence that Voegelin calls the metaxy. This state of existence is a continual struggle to know realities that are beyond the scope of human understanding, that is, transcendent reality; consequently, the phi­losopher must be careful not to let his desire to know dominate his explora­tion of reality (a condition that Voegelin referred to as libido dominandi).

The philosopher must not allow his investigation of reality to degenerate into an “intentionalist” desire to know the whole of reality, as if it were some object on his epistemological horizon. The challenge that confronts the philosopher therefore is one of striking a balance of consciousness between intentionality and mystery when analyzing reality. On the one hand, the philosopher must recognize that intentionality is an epistemological mode of understanding re­ality as objects, while, on the other hand, mystery is the acceptance that sym­bolic complexes must be understood imaginatively. If the philosopher were to slip in his balance of consciousness between intentionality and mystery, he would fall into a deformed existence of either Cartesian subjectivity or magi­cal Gnosticism.11

The Paradox of “Thing-Reality” and “It-Reality”

The philosopher’s existence is not only one of balance and tension but also one of paradox. Voegelin refers to this paradoxical state as the “consciousness-reality-language” complex, where the structures of reality are revealed as It-reality and thing-reality. Like the poles of immanence and transcendence, both the It-reality and the thing-reality should be understood as merely differ­ent qualities of the same structure of consciousness: they are not ontologically separate entities but different aspects of the same reality.12

With this under­standing in mind, Voegelin defines It-reality as consciousness being the object illuminated by the divine and thing-reality as the object of human intention­ality. The philosopher’s intentionality makes his consciousness a subject that views reality as objects (thing-reality), but when he encounters the divine, his consciousness is acted upon as an object (It-reality). Human consciousness and its epistemology consequently exist in a paradoxical state: they are both active (thing-reality) and passive (It-reality).

This paradoxical state particularly is relevant to the philosopher’s under­standing of the divine. When the philosopher encounters the divine, this ex­perience becomes the ordering principle of all his experiences, but the divine itself is beyond any concrete or temporal manifestation of the experience itself: “the tension between the divine reality experienced as formatively present at the ordering pole of the tensions and the divine reality experienced as a Beyond of its concrete manifestations in the process.”

The divine is experienced and not experienced by its symbolization in history. The divine is beyond symbol­ization, while, at the same time, it is experienced by the philosopher in some symbolic form that orders his existence. Consciousness consequently is para­doxically both intentional and passive, as is the reality of the divine is both present and beyond present.

This lack of a symbolic finality for the divine can lead to either a cease­less dissolution and replacement of its symbolization or a hypostatization of it. Initial symbolization “belongs as much to the In-Between (metaxy) as do the experiences symbolized;” however, over time, these symbols can become hypostatized where the symbol is mistaken for the experience that originally engendered it.13

The conceptual hypostatization erases the symbol’s ability to evoke the paradoxes of metaxic existence, since these symbols become reduced to concepts that can be manipulated, like logical or empirical propositions, by intentional consciousness. The symbols of a philosopher’s encounter with the divine therefore must ceaselessly oscillate between dissolution and replace­ment in order to avoid the hypostatization of his It-reality into a thing-reality.

The Purpose of Derrida’s Deconstruction

Although he correctly diagnosed the problem of hypostatization, Voegelin would seem not to offer any solution to it. By contrast, Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction provides a strategy for the continual renewal of language and symbols in order to avoid hypostatization. Again, the danger of hypostatization is the belief that language can provide an exhaustive account of our experience with reality and therefore be manipulated like empirical propositions for ideo­logical ends. The notion of other possibilities is eliminated, since language is both definitive and finalized in its meaning of reality.

Both Voegelin and Der­rida recognized this risk of hypostatization, but only Derrida suggests a path to preclude it. Preoccupied with the binary power structures of society that mar­ginalize other values, people, and institutions, Derrida sought to recover these “others” with his philosophy of deconstruction. In his essay “Et Cetera,” Derrida presents the principles that define decon­struction:

“Each time that I say deconstruction and X (regardless of the concept or the theme), this is the prelude to a very singular division that turns this X into, or rather makes appear in this X, an impossibility that becomes its proper and sole possibility, with the result that between the X as possible and the ‘same’ X as im­possible, there is nothing but a relation of homonymy, a relation for which we have to provide an account . . . .”

For example, here referring myself to demonstra­tions I have already attempted . . . gift, hospitality, death itself (and therefore so many other things) can be possible only as impossible, as the impossible, that is, unconditionally.14

In other words, deconstructionism is a refusal to categorically define any­thing once and for all. It is a mode of existence that is never satisfied with conclusive definitions, aims, or ends, for such a task for Derrida is not only impossible but dangerous because it would marginalize the “other” from being acknowledged. Deconstruction therefore rejects the foundational mode of existence that characterizes such philosophies like Platonic metaphysics or Cartesian subjec­tivity that assumes a transcendental reality that is transparent and structured in terms of oppositions, with one opposition more valued than another.15

How Derrida Applied Deconstruction

The marginalized other can be recovered by deconstructionism by first reversing the metaphysical hierarchies of power and then favoring the undervalued. In genealogically tracing the formation of the initial hierarchy to its first decision that had privileged one value over another, the deconstructionist can reclaim and redefine the undervalued as the origin of the hierarchy itself. This favor­ing of the undervalued at the point of origin destabilizes the original hierarchy of power and thereby allows resources that were originally excluded from the foundational tradition to be now included.

Deconstructing Husserl’s Phenomenology

An example of deconstructionism is Derrida’s critique of Husserl’s phenom­enological project that emphasizes immediacy, transparency, and exhaustiveness of experience.16 Husserl’s phenomenology relies on a transcendental ego where the internal ego corresponds with the exteriority of the “now” moment: the experience of reality is immediate, transparent, and exhaustive.

To Derrida, such a moment is impossible because every experience, even the foundational “now” moment, has some prior reference point that thereby precludes it from being self-contained and exhaustive. By making the “now” moment the refer­ential experience for all of existence because purportedly it is exhaustive, the phenomenologist is merely privileging one particular moment over another, since the finality of meaning of any experience can always be deferred to either the past or the future. Thus, every time the phenomenologist pursues a meta­physical meaning for such an experience, the meaning “itself, if there is any­thing at all of it, slips away.”17

Creating Through Oscillation of Hierarchies

It should be noted that the deconstructionist does not seek to replace one opposition value with another because it would only create a new binary power structure that would marginalize another set of “others.” Rather than offering a positive philosophical program, the deconstructionist silently affirms the para­sitic critiques of existing hierarchies in the hope of creating a state of tension or oscillation between an existing hierarchy and a potential one.18

This existential mode of existence is known as différance where neither the existing hierarchy nor the undervalued or potential one is privileged. The objective for the decon­structionist is not to replace one hierarchy with another, but rather to oscillate between these two in order to create an existential openness to the realm of possibility for a person to “go there where you cannot go, to the impossible, it is indeed the only way of coming or going.”19

Existing in Both Tension and Hope

The ethical underpinning of this mode of existence (différance), where the finality of meaning is continually deferred, is called messianic where we wait but do not expect for ethical values like justice to arrive.20 The state of tension exists not for its own sake but for the hope of an ethical value to be realized.

Structuring our existence as one of patience and openness to an indetermi­nate future, the messianic strikes a certain skepticism toward such ideological movements like Marxism that purport to know a predetermined end to his torical existence and consequently justify violence against others to achieve it. Opting for a mode of patience and openness rather than finality and certitude, the deconstructionist exists in a state of both tension and hope.

However, this existential mode of tension and hope should not be confused with passivity and abdication. For Derrida, when confronted with ethical de­mands, the deconstructionist should choose the path of responsibility rather than resignation, although in doing so he would seem to adopt a foundational mode of existence and therefore is no longer open to an indeterminate future.

Accepting Responsibility as an Undecidable Leap

The decision to accept responsibility is one that is beyond any type of rational­ity and does not emerge from any metaphysical or nonmetaphysical tradition. It is a decision that Derrida characterizes as madness, resembling a leap in faith that is beyond one’s control yet demands that he should act.21

Borrowing from Kierkegaard, Derrida calls this decision of responsibility an “undecidable leap.” It is beyond any and all preparation for such a decision and often places the participant into a zero-sum game where one party will inevitably lose: “I can­not respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another, without sacrificing the other other, the other others.”22

But when the deconstructionist chooses responsibility over resignation in his “undecidable leap,” and recognizes that such a choice will prefer one party over another, how is it possible for him not to adopt a foundational mode of existence?

Derrida addresses this problem in a paradox to show how ethical ac­tion is possible while also nonfoundational. For example, when one is asked to accept responsibility, one must submit to the conditions that make such ethical action possible while knowing that the very same conditions also make such actions impossible. The conditions of possibility therefore are also the ones of impossibility. Derrida illustrates what he means by this when he discusses cer­tain ethical values such as forgiveness, hospitality, and cosmopolitanism.

The Contradictory Logic of Cosmopolitanism

In his essay “On Cosmopolitanism,” Derrida explores the value of hospital­ity in the context of cosmopolitanism. Written in 1996, the essay addresses the contemporary problem of immigrants, when France’s Debret laws allowed po­lice to extradite immigrants without right of residence. These laws provoked mass demonstrations of protest in Paris, with the International Parliament of Writers demanding cities be established for immigrants.

Addressing this audi­ence, Derrida selects the concept of cosmopolitanism from the Western tradi­tion to explore this specific and concrete issue. He ultimately proposes open or refuge cities for migrants where they will be protected from persecution, intimidation, or exile. But this concept of the open city is an unfulfilled one. It is not new but emerged from a tradition that has been marginalized by the nation-state and consequently has never been conclusively defined. Derrida wants cosmopoli­tanism to resemble the ethic of hospitality where one is more aware of one’s past mistakes and the likelihood one could commit similar mistakes in the fu­ture.

This confessional cosmopolitanism is different from the triumph cos­mopolitanism of Kant whose paradigm of the unconditional (the common possession of the earth) and the conditional (habitat, culture, institutions) only politicizes all hospitality. For Derrida, Kant’s paradigm has made all hos­pitality dependent upon the sovereignty of the state: “Hospitality signifies here the public nature of public space. . . . [H]ospitality, whether public or private, is dependent on and controlled by the law and the state police.”23

By contrast, Derrida wants hospitality to exist in a state of differance and in the messianic rather than in a triumphant or foundational mode of existence. On the one hand, unconditional hospitality should be offered to all migrants; on the other hand, hospitality has to be conditional, for there has to be some limitation on the right of residence. Again, Derrida’s identification of the contradictory logic at the heart of the concept of cosmopolitanism is not to paralyze political ac­tion but to enable it.

This contradictory logic of cosmopolitanism is also demonstrated in his other ethical values.24 Genuine hospitality demands the host relinquish con­trol over who will receive such hospitality, but to relinquish control makes it impossible to host anyone. But not to relinquish control is to have power over one’s guests, which is also contrary to hospitality.

The Example  of the Futility of Giving Gifts

Likewise, a genuine gift can never be received because the act of giving contains an implicit demand of tak­ing.23 The reception of a gift presumes the giver is no longer indebted to the recipient, but such an acknowledgment actually draws both the giver and the recipient into a cycle of giving and taking.

Wishing to escape this cycle, Derrida proposes that a genuine gift would require both the giver and the recipient to be entirely separated from each other, thereby nullifying any claims or obliga­tions against one another. Of course, this is an impossible condition, for one cannot give without knowing it. The conditions of possible giving therefore are the same conditions of its impossibility.

The Poles of Pragmatism and Responsibility

Deconstructionism’s contradictory logic compels us to negotiate between the impossible or unconditional and the possible or conditional: the irrecon­cilable yet indissociable demands of unconditional purity and the pragmatic and quotidian concerns of a specific context.

For Derrida, responsible ethical and political action consists in navigating between these two poles: pragmatic action has to be linked with the unconditionality of infinite responsibility if it does not want to be reduced to merely prudential demands of the moment, while, at the same time, the unconditionality cannot dictate incontestable ethi­cal precepts to a specific context. This link provides the paradox of how con­ditions of possibility are also ones of impossibility and how ethical action is possible but nonfoundational.26

The Paradox of Politics

Like Derrida’s “undecidable leap” where the deconstructionist is pulled into a philosophy of responsibility, Voegelin also speaks of the philosopher’s being pulled by the transcendent pole where his consciousness symbolizes and trans­lates his experience into social and political order.27

Again, this symbolization is not knowledge of an object: it is the symbolic articulation of the experi­ential tension and paradoxical existence of the philosopher whose symbol, in turn, evokes similar experiences among a people. Whether it is the symboliza­tion of the cosmos, philosophy, or revelation, the symbol becomes the order­ing principle for society.

Derrida might object to this principle because such a symbolization, although inevitable, will likely result in binary power structures that will marginalize the other. The question for Voegelin would be whether such a symbolization of experience can still order society but not be founda­tional.

Voegelin Compatible with Derrida

To a certain extent, Voegelin’s theory of symbolization addresses this prob­lem by anchoring the philosopher’s symbols in a concrete existence. The phi­losopher’s symbolization occurs not in a vacuum but as part of the community of being–God-man-world-society–and in a particular temporal-spatial con­text.

A pagan classical philosopher would symbolize his experience with real­ity differently than a thirteenth-century French Christian because the material available to symbolize these experiences–language, ideas, society, and so on–is radically different, even if the experiences are fundamentally equivalent. That is, certain fundamental experiences with reality can be equivalent with each other in spite of the different symbolization of those experiences.28

Allowing Equivalences of Experience

However, Voegelin’s theory of experiential equivalents is not to embrace philosophical relativism, for experiences can still be differentiated. The philos­opher’s encounter with reality in the metaxy creates both a differentiated and a nondifferentiated symbolization of that experience.

Both symbolizations make exclusive claims on truth to order social and political reality; however, the phi­losopher recognizes the more differentiated claim is superior to the nondif­ferentiated one. This is not to say the nondifferentiated symbolization is false; rather, it is less insightful and no longer able to evoke a people’s existential ex­periences.

For example, the anthropomorphic gods of classical Athens are a less dif­ferentiated symbolization of the fundamental experience of reality when com­pared to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Likewise, the scholastic philosophy of the medieval period is no longer able to evoke contemporary people’s existen­tial experiences in their understanding of the divine.

Although lacking contem­porary potency to evoke spiritual experience, the symbolization of a mystical experience, such as a Meister Eckehart’s, may be experientially equivalent to a contemporary symbolization of a similar experience. Voegelin therefore per­mits the possibility of certain fundamental experiences to be equivalent while, at the same time, permitting the philosopher to make evaluations about these experiences.

“Reflective Distance” Escapes Objections

The ability to discover and rank fundamental experiences requires the phi­losopher to penetrate beyond the symbolization of past thinkers to their core experiences and imaginatively reenact them. The cognitive mode demanded is what Voegelin calls reflective distance: the distance between the participatory and creative act of symbolization and the analysis of the experiences that are beyond the symbol itself.29

The philosopher can neither study a past symbol­ization as some object of thing-reality nor only imaginatively reenact the creative act of symbolization as part of It-reality. What the philosopher needs to do is both: he must maintain a balance in his analysis of prior fundamental ex­periences as an object of inquiry and as a participatory reenactment. In other words, the process of reflective distance is one of remembering a living pres­ence of the divine in a symbolic form both as an object of intentionality and as part of the philosopher’s participatory presence.30

Voegelin’s analyses of the Platonic dialogues are examples of how the process of reflective distance works.31 From his readings of the dialogues, Voegelin con­tends that the Platonic philosopher’s quest is to remember the cosmos’s “be­ginning of the beginning” as symbolized by Plato’s Demiurge.

Voegelin’s “It-Reality” Avoids Objects

This creation is part of It-reality that lies beyond history itself and therefore can never become an object of intentionality, yet the Platonic philosopher must try to make some analytical sense of the symbol, and the experience behind that symbol, that he is studying. The Platonic Demiurge therefore is not to be taken literally as a first mover of the cosmos but seen as a symbolic representation of It-reality–the “beginning of the beginning.”

Like Derrida, Voegelin recognizes that language is the symbolic representation of experiential (and therefore ineffable) reality and should not be taken for reality itself. The finality of representation is con­tinually deferred in the symbolization of experience itself.

Voegelin’s symbolization therefore is not only anchored in a concrete con­text but also allows equivalent experiences that can be recovered through the process of reflective distance without degenerating into philosophical relativ­ism. Derrida’s criticism that Voegelin’s symbolization inevitably will result in binary power structures is addressed because the symbols themselves are not understood to be exhaustive, objective, or permanent in nature.

As Voegelin remarks, “The reflective distance between the movements of the divine-human encounter and their articulation through symbols will bring itself forcefully to the thinker’s attention when a differentiation of truth on the level of the par­ticipatory experience cannot be adequately articulated by the symbols available in the social and historical environment.”32

The philosopher’s symbolization of his experiences is participatory and intentional, but it is conditioned by his peculiar spatial-temporal context. Only the Cartesian or Gnostic, not the philosopher, would mistake the philosopher’s symbol as somehow accurately and exhaustively reflecting the whole of reality.

New Symbols Through “Reflective Hesitations”

Since symbols lack any finality of meaning, the philosopher may become dis­satisfied with the currently available set, especially as spatial-temporal condi­tions change over time. With the aid of inspired imagination and the discovery and recovery of prior symbols, the philosopher may create new symbols of his experiences with reality–a process that Voegelin refers to as “reflective hesita­tions.”33

Of course, such attempts may fail, as some would argue that the neo-Thomism of the twentieth century was an inadequate symbolization because it was dependent on the insights of 13th century Thomism and also could be abused by those who lacked the intellectually seriousness and spiritual sensitivity of the spoudaioi. The process of new symbolization consequently is one of hesitation because of the dangers that may befall the philosopher in his task. But, if done reflectively and correctly, the new symbols may be able to convey the core experiences of the philosopher into a new era and translate them as renewed principles of social and political order.

To create new symbols or to recover and refurbish previous ones requires the philosopher to be open to It-reality so as to be acted upon like a receptor of the divine. The philosopher becomes aware of It-reality and its attraction when, paradoxically, he examines his own consciousness and becomes aware of something outside of himself.34 The It-reality not only pulls the philosopher toward it but also furnishes him the content of that experience in a concrete form so as to force the philosopher to recognize his own ignorance. To rem­edy this condition of ignorance, the philosopher continues to explore his con­sciousness in both an intentional and a passive mode.

The process of reflective hesitation, therefore, is paradoxical in that the philosopher is both active and subjected to this process. He must balance his desire to know with an authentic openness to It-reality–an openness that is articulated as faith, love, and hope that his soul’s attunement with It-reality may be fulfilled.35 With his process of reflective hesitation, Voegelin answers Derrida’s criti­cism of hypostatization and binary power structures. The ceaseless act of dissolution, recovery, and creation of symbols is a positive solution to the prob­lem of hypostatization: symbols can be renewed as society’s spatial-temporal conditions change as long as the philosopher maintains his balance of con­sciousness in his exploration of reality.

Voegelin’s solution also subscribes to Derrida’s premises about language as a medium of continual deferral of ul­timate meaning. Although he does advocate a deconstruction of symbols, Voegelin believes like Derrida, that symbols ultimately are malleable and flu­id instead of fixed and transparent. Instead of creating oscillating interpreta­tions of symbols, Voegelin’s solution is one of regeneration of past symbols or the creation of new ones for the philosopher to reflect his experiences in the new spatial-temporal conditions.

Reflective Distance and Making Choices

But ultimately Voegelin’s philosopher is not concerned with symbols per se; rather, he is preoccupied with the experiences that underlie these symbols. For Voegelin, the core experiences behind these symbols are part of the God-man-world-society complex, with the human encounter with the divine as the most important. Voegelin assumes that human beings remain constant in their par­ticipatory and paradoxical experiential encounter with reality, and therefore certain (but not all) experiences are continually equivalent, albeit symbolized differently as befits the spatial-temporal conditions of the period.

The way the philosopher accesses those equivalent experiences is through the process of reflective distance wherein the philosopher balances his intentionality of analysis with his participatory reenactment of the past experience. The philosopher’s symbols cannot be seen as creating a binary power struc­ture in society, since these symbols themselves, as admitted by Voegelin, are malleable.

However, the experiences underlying these symbols are constant and therefore are vulnerable to Derrida’s criticism that certain experiences are privileged over others, thereby creating binary power structures that inevitably marginalize the “other.” For example, one such constant (and differentiated) experience for Voegelin would be the philosopher’s attraction of the transcen­dent pole of existence. For Derrida, the constancy of this experience across space and time displaces or marginalizes other experiences, such as attraction to the immanent pole.

The Paradox Justice: Derrida’s Dilemma

Although he would criticize Voegelin for his acceptance of binary power structures, Derrida recognizes that one cannot escape this condition. Violence is inescapable when one takes responsibility. The only question is how one can distinguish between these two paths:

“between the force of law of a legitimate power and the supposedly originary violence that must have established this authority and that could not itself have been authorized by any anterior le­gitimacy.”36

If violence is inescapable for political action, then how can we dis­tinguish between the worst and the least violence, between illegitimate and legitimate power, between law and justice?

In his essay “Force of Law,” Derrida confronts these issues directly when he distinguishes between two types of violence: the genealogical (Greek, Christian, Enlightenment) and the expectant (Jewish and messianic).37 With respect to the question of law and justice, Derrida argues that force is a nec­essary component of the law for its establishment and enforceability, but it is a threat to justice, for if justice were to partake in annihilation, it could not be justice. The most the deconstructionist could aspire to is the recovery of lesser forms of violence in the Western metaphysical tradition. For example, deconstructionism could show us that genealogical violence is heterogeneous rather than homogeneous and therefore capable of less violent forms than previously thought of.38

One of these lesser forms of violence can be found in Derrida’s comments about Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.” Benjamin’s sanctioning the workers’ right to a general strike is a form of lesser violence when compared to the violence of the state.39 However, Derrida distances himself from Benjamin’s position by associating him with conservatives of Weimar Germany like Carl Schmitt. Although such an association initially appears incorrect–Benjamin’s general strike may undermine the state without triggering the disorder of civil war, as Schmitt had argued–the two thinkers for Derrida are both representa­tive of a messianic type of violence: Benjamin passively, Schmitt actively. Benja­min waits for someone, whether the state sovereign or the divine, to intervene, whereas Schmitt aggressively encourages some entity to intervene. Both are asking for the messianic to appear.

Accepting the Risk of Evil

But for Derrida, the Messiah will never arrive: justice will continually be delayed forever. Absent this arrival, we cannot abandon the first type (the ge­nealogical) of violence about law; nor can we abandon the expectant, as was attempted in Nazism and the Holocaust.40 Both types of violence are necessary such that one exists in a state of oscillation between them.41 When we do de­cide, this decision is part of the “undecidable” that can never be justified but nonetheless still must be made.

Yet how does this decision differ from Schmitt’s theory of decisionism where the sovereign is able to decide the state of excep­tion (Ausnahmezustand] and thereby become free from all legal constraints? How does Derrida’s “undecidable” have an affinity with an ethics of responsi­bility rather than one of nihilism?42

For Derrida, deconstructionism’s destabilization of oppositions always con­tains an element of risk: “Without the possibility of radical evil, of perjury, and of absolute crime, there is no responsibility, no freedom, no decision.”13 By embracing such a risk, Derrida is able to make us conscious of the origin of violence and therefore minimize our reliance upon it in the hope of leading us toward a justice beyond law.

Because justice can never be an object of cogni­tion, we will never be able to identify the law with justice, although we try our best to conform law to a justice that will never come.14 But when we recognize the contingency and origins of the law, we will make the law less arbitrary in its establishment and enforcement. Decision in deconstructionism therefore differs from Schmitt’s decisionism in that Derrida forces a person to reconceptualize what constitutes law itself:

“For a decision to be just and responsible, it must, in its proper moment if there is one, be both regulated and without regulation: it must conserve the law and also destroy or suspend it enough to have to reinvent it in each case, rejustify it, at least reinvent it in the reaffirmation and the new and free confirmation of its principle.”43

Decisions are simultaneously legal and extralegal, with the rules suspended not for license but for the possibility of responsibility. Derri­da’s theory of decision is associated with the expectation of justice: he is able to broaden the horizons of law, whereas Schmitt reduces the law to power. Rather than restricting the realm of possibilities, deconstructionism seeks to expand it and, in this manner, hopes to pave a path of responsibility for our decisions.

The Unknowability of Perfection

By being open to the realm of possibility, especially toward an indeterminate future where justice may (but never will) arrive, Derrida differentiates himself from transcendental philosophers like Kant and his heirs whose philosophies are foundationalist: they subscribe to a universal and transparent rationality as a mode of operation with a constructed end point in time that will be achieved by using this rationality.16 Derrida thinks that unconditionality–whether jus­tice, divinity, or any eschatological meaning–is beyond our cognitive facul­ties.

Contrary to Plato, Descartes, and Kant, who argues that unconditionality enhances the power of finite reason, Derrida argues the opposite and instead liberates unconditionality from historicity, “not only from the Idea in the Kan­tian sense but from all teleology, all onto-theo-teleology.”47 The entrance of the unconditionality into the present would neutralize and annul any current ac­tion because our anticipation would be destroyed. It must remain beyond the horizon for which we patiently wait.

Differing Methods with Similar Results

Like Voegelin, Derrida also believes that humans are participatory and sym­bolic-making creatures. For Derrida, existence is itself a type of text where the deconstructionist defers ultimate meaning to his existence since the future is indeterminate. Yet the deconstructionist accepts a philosophy of responsibility because such a philosophy is prior to the text of life itself: it is a type of mes­sianic faith that defines existence itself as one of constant tension and deferral of ultimate meaning.

The eschatological nature of messianic faith, the call for a Messiah who never comes, leaves the deconstructionist in a state of perpetual tension that is preserved in a faith that is prior to but defines existence.48 In this sense, Derrida accepts Voegelin’s premise of constant experiences in his concept of messianic faith that both is prior to and defines our encounter with reality. And if this account were correct, then Derrida would seem to have to accept Voegelin’s ontological premise of the God-man-world-society complex, for how could faith be prior to existence without God?

The Divine as the Source of Meaning

Although Derrida may not have explored these matters as systematically or as thoroughly as Voegelin, his philosophy shares similar ontological and episte­mological features with Voegelin’s. Both subscribe to the idea that reality con­tains a divine that is beyond articulation yet still permits humans to encounter and shape their existence by it, both see humans as participatory and symbolic-creating creatures in reality, and both refuse to impose a finality of meaning to symbols or language in the articulation of our encounter with reality.

Where the two thinkers fundamentally differ is in their strategies to overcome foun­dational ontology, with Derrida opting for deconstructionism and Voegelin for his “new science.” Irrespective of these differences, both Voegelin and Derrida engage in the same project of recovering the participatory nature of existence from Cartesian subjectivity and hypostatization.

For Voegelin, the philosopher participates in reality as maintaining his balance of consciousness in his exploration of both It-reality and thing-reality. This existence in the metaxy ultimately is paradoxi­cal as Voegelin describes the consciousness-reality-language complex: the phi­losopher’s epistemology is both active and passive, the divine is both present and beyond present, and symbols provide both meaning and no finality of meaning.

Derrida likewise understands the deconstructionist as a participant in reality where his mode of existence is paradoxical: oscillating between two interpretations of narratives without settling on one, waiting for a Messiah who will never arrive, and knowing the conditions of one’s ethical actions are also the conditions of their impossibility. Both thinkers are suspicious of the imposition of a finality of meaning upon reality–Derrida calls it metaphys­ics, whereas Voegelin labels it Gnosticism–and prefer a mode of patience and openness to an indeterminate future.

Agreement on Faith and Social Action

But this paradoxical existence does not equate into a passive resignation of reality. Both Voegelin and Derrida call for social action as prompted by an act of faith: the undecidable leap or the philosopher’s attraction to the pole of transcendence. The experience of faith is an ontological given for them, al­though both thinkers would be loath to use such terminology.

For Voegelin, the experience of faith leads the philosopher to encounter and experience the di­vine, thereby allowing him to symbolize this experience to order society, while, for Derrida, the deconstructionist moves from a position of differance to ethi­cal action because he feels compelled, even though he cannot explain why. It is important to note, particularly for Voegelin, that humans will never be able to escape their existence as one of tension and paradox, even if they experi­ence an “undecidable leap.” Such an experience should not be mistaken for an ontological change in human consciousness; rather, it is a preference, perhaps unjustifiably, for one set of actions over another.

Finally, the metaphysics of both thinkers are very similar in spite of their al­leged differences. Of Voegelin’s God-man-world-society complex, Derrida ac­cepts God, humans, and the world as ontological givens, with messianic faith being prior to and defining human existence. Similarly, ethical acts such as hos­pitality and forgiveness assume some form of society to exist.

Derrida might reject the notion that his philosophy accepts any ontological givens, since this may imply an acceptance of a foundational metaphysics. However, one can ac­cept certain ontological givens without necessarily resorting to a foundational metaphysics of transparency and exhaustiveness. By favoring the concrete over the abstract, humans can become more suspi­cious of such foundational claims.

For Voegelin, the philosopher encounters reality in a peculiar spatial-temporal context and consequently symbolizes this experience as conditioned by his period in order to evoke similar experiences in a people. Derrida’s deconstructionist also partakes in reality in specific ethical actions that prefer the concrete demands of the other over the abstract demands of the community.

This preference for the concrete is rooted in skep­ticism of foundational metaphysical claims, such as Gnostic Marxism. For both Voegelin and Derrida, reality was a concrete process to be incompletely under­stood and articulated by its participants as opposed to the activist ideologue who pushed history forward for his own particular ideological agenda.

Agreement on the Fundamentals

The task for both of these thinkers was the same: the recovery of an existential mode of participatory and paradoxical existence against Cartesian subjectivity. Although the strategies were different, Voegelin and Derrida essentially were in agreement about consciousness, ontology, and even the nature of communi­cation itself. In a certain sense, philosophy, at least among spoudaioi, is really nothing more than the translation of one thinker’s ideas to another thinker’s when confronted with the same basic problem.

Voegelin and Derrida were re­sponding to the same problem and devised similar solutions because they sub­scribed to the same premises about consciousness, ontology, and linguistics. By overcoming the problem of Cartesian subjectivity, both Voegelin and Derrida suggest a recovery of philosophy and, more important, a proper mode of exis­tence that is both paradoxical and participatory for us to follow.



1. Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (hereafter CW), 34 vols. (Columbia: Uni­versity of Missouri Press, 1990-2009), vol. 5, Modernity without Restraint: The Political Religions; The New Science of Politics; and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, ed. Manfred Henningsen (2000), 88-108, 175-95.

2. For a review of the criticism of the lack of the political in Derrida’s works, refer to the intro­duction of Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac, eds., Derrida and the Time of the Political (Dur­ham: Duke University Press, 2007).

3. Voegelin, CW, vol. 18, Order and History, Volume V: In Search of Order, ed. Ellis Sandoz (2000), 75, 53-54.

4. Voegelin, CW, vol. 12, Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (1990), 305-6.

5. Voegelin, CW, vol. 14, Order and History, Volume I: Israel and Revelation, ed. Maurice P. Ho-gan (2001), 39-40.

6. Ibid., 43-44.

7. Ibid.

8. Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, ed. David Walsh and trans. M. J. Hanak (2002), 68-69.

9. Voegelin, CW, vol. 5:136-38,139-41.

10. Ibid., 139-41.

11. Voegelin, CW, vol. 12:326-27.

12. Voegelin, CW, vol. 18:27-33.

13. Voegelin, CW, vol. 12:187.

14. Nicholas Royle, Deconstructions: A User’s Guide (London: Palgrave, 2000), 300. For more about deconstructionism, refer to John Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996); and Derrida, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

15. Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 41-42; also refer to Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 4-6.

16. Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 64-75.

17. Ibid., 104.

18. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 65.

19. Jacques Derrida, On the Name, ed. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 75; also refer to Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Uni­versity of Chicago Press, 1978).

20. Jacques Derrida, “Psyche: Inventions of the Other,” in Reading De Man Reading, ed. Lindsey Walters and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 60; also refer to Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New Inter­national, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).

21. Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosefeld, and David Gary Carlson (New York: Taylor and Francis, 1992): 26; also refer to Der­rida, The Gift of Death, 65-80.

22. Derrida, The Gift of Death, 70.

23. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (New York: Routledge, 2001), 22.

24. Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 151-55.

25. Derrida, The Gift of Death, 30; also refer to Jacques Derrida, Memories for Paul de Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, and Eduardo Cadava (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 149. For similar logic with respect to other values like mourning, see ibid., 6.

26. Perhaps the best formulation of this paradox is when Derrida writes about forgiveness as forgiving something that is unforgivable: “I must then and only then respond to this transaction between two contradictory and equally justified imperatives” (On Cosmopolitanism and Forgive­ness, 54; see also 39-49).

27. Voegelin, CW, vol. 6:345-46.

28. Voegelin, CW, vol. 12:115-33.

29. Voegelin, CW, vol. 18:56-92.

30. Ibid., 86-92.

31. Ibid., 117-24.

32. Voegelin, CW, vol. 12:345.


34. Voegelin, CW,  vol. 18:117-24.

35. Voegelin, CW, vol. 11, Published Essays, 1953-1965, ed. Ellis Sandoz (2000), 229-30.

36. Derrida, Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, 6.

37. Ibid., 21.

38. McCormick and Corson debate whether less violence could ever be transformed into non­violence. Corson argues this is not possible, a position with which I agree (Ben Corson, “Tran­scending Violence in Derrida: A Reply to John McCormick,” Political Theory 29, no. 6 [2001]: 866-75).

39. Derrida, Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, 34-35; also refer to Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jova-novich, 1978), 277-300.

40. Derrida, Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, 60.

41. Corson speaks of a third form of violence (“Transcending Violence in Derrida,” 870-71). Regardless of how one counts the types of violence possible, my point is that Derrida would not privilege any type of violence.

42. Mark Lilla portrays Derrida’s theory of decision as the same as Schmitt’s (The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics [New York: New York Review of Books, 2001], 174,184,190).

43. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London: Verso, 1997), 219.

44. Derrida, Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, 44.

45. Ibid., 58.

46. An example of this is Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Dis­course Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. William Rehg (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

47. Jacques Derrida, Rouges: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Nass (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 87. Immanuel Kant’s “regulative idea” was that the opposition between finite and infinite reason generated a temporality that was inherently teleological. This opened the horizon for human capacity to develop and rationally progress to­ward an infinite goal in time: “That opens up the comforting prospect of the future . . . in which we are shown from afar how the human species eventually works its way upward to a situation in which all the germs implanted by nature can be developed fully, and in which man’s destiny can be fulfilled here on earth” (“Idea of a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in On History, trans. Lewis White Beck [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963]).

48. Derrida, The Gift of Death, 96. See also David Walsh, “Derrida’s Dissemination of Existence as Différance,” in The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 232-90.


This excerpt is from Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought (University of Missouri Press, 2011). An essay of the book is here and our book review is here. Other chapters are available about the following thinkers: Heidegger, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Kant, and Hegel.

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. 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).

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