Equivalences of Experience, and Symbols of the Depth By Which Experience Lives (Part I)

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“Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History” (1971)[1] is, in my view, one of Eric Voegelin’s five most important stand-alone essays, along with “Immortality: Experience and Symbol” (1967), “The Gospel and Culture” (1971), “The Beginning and the Beyond: A Meditation on Truth” (written 1974-77), and “Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme: A Meditation” (1983). It is a writing with relatively few textual references, consisting almost exclusively of a sustained exegesis of the nature and structure of human consciousness in history. Despite its being by far the briefest of these five essays, “Equivalences” addresses questions about so many issues central to philosophy—concerning experience, language and symbols, truth, reality, values, divine being, history, and the structure of consciousness and its historical development—that a proper exposition and “reader’s guide” to the essay would have to extend to the length of a book, and not a short book at that.

The aim of my paper is to examine one element addressed in the course of the essay: the fact that what Voegelin calls “the depth of the cosmos,” or the “underlying oneness of reality,” requires, for each of us, adequate articulation and symbolization, if we are to orient ourselves successfully in existence. In order to pursue my study of this issue, I will need to consider both the overall character of Voegelin’s essay, and some of the principal concerns that initiate and propel it—concerns that coalesce in his analysis of the notion of a cosmic “depth.” But my own theme will be, finally, how symbols of a cosmic depth may or may not be adequate to its reality; may be found wanting for various reasons; and what role they necessarily play both in our being confident that we can attain some understanding of what is constant about the human situation in the process of reality, and in our having faith that our own inevitably personal efforts to “exist in truth” are meaningful.


I will begin with a few comments about the first word in the title of Voegelin’s essay—about what the word “equivalences” means and implies.

To affirm that two or more words, symbols, experiences, or events are “equivalent” to each other is to say that they share an identity in meaning or function, derived from their relationship to an underlying “sameness” of meaning or truth which must be one and constant if the notion of “equivalence” is to be valid. Only the assumption of such an underlying “sameness,” as Voegelin writes at the start of his essay, “justifies the language of ‘equivalences’ . . .”.[2] For example, to say that the words destruction and ruination can function as equivalent terms means that they both may be understood to represent the same experience or idea which makes the two words effectively equal in meaning and import. For another example: to state that the purpose of haruspication is equivalent to the purpose of scrying is to affirm that there is a constancy and sameness of meaning defining the aim of each activity—which is the aim of foretelling what is yet to come, enabling prediction of future events. The notion of equivalent symbols, then, depends upon an underlying reality of a constant of meaning that validates recognizing them as equivalent expressions of it.

Now, Voegelin’s principal aim in this essay is to determine the location, so to speak, of the unchanging constants of truth that would justify the assertion that differing, and historically differentiating, symbolizations of significant truths about existence, reality, history, society, the world, or divine being, are “equivalent,” even if some articulations are superior to others in representing a more differentiated understanding of a particular truth. Voegelin’s concern, as usual, is with the most important symbolizations of truth about what it means to be a human being, and about the nature and order of reality, that have emerged in the historical unfolding of the human search for knowledge. These most-important symbolizations of truth have all derived from human seeking; so, to describe his own search for an understanding of how human seeking has historically brought forth symbolizations of truth among which the philosopher can discern genuine equivalences of meaning, Voegelin refers to his investigation as a “search of the search”—that is, as an effort to grasp the nature of what is constant in both the human search for order and its more notable results; and, then, to explain as carefully as possible why we may reasonably affirm that there are differing, equivalent symbolizations of key truths concerning existence and reality because we can reasonably affirm that, underlying those symbolizations, there are indeed constants of meaning.

An accurate and nuanced understanding of Voegelin’s investigation is not easy to achieve. In part this is because “Equivalences” is, like a number of Voegelin’s late essays, a “meditation.” That is: it is not a systematic analysis and presentation of the meaning of one or more texts or events in political or cultural affairs, nor is it about problems of logic or formal structures of rational analysis. Rather, it is a personal effort on the part of the philosopher to re-enact and reconstruct in his own consciousness certain experiences in which crucial philosophical symbols or articulations of truth emerged in the psyches of earlier thinkers, and at the same time to encounter and follow the lead of question after question relevant to consciousness’s understanding of itself and its participation in reality as these arise in the course of the re-enactive meditation. The purpose of such a meditation is thus both to arrive at a more discerning understanding of how certain key philosophical insights and articulations have come into historical being, and also to introduce new insights and formulations that carry the understanding of a complex of philosophical insights a stage further, as the philosopher’s consciousness suffers clarification and differentiation, within itself, of the matters under investigation.

Because such a meditation uncovers new aspects of the subject under investigation, as it proceeds it alters the landscape of the problematic in such a way that fresh and original questions arise; that the journey of thought moves in unexpected directions due to new insights; that themes already touched on in the meditation must be revisited, as newly emergent insights retrospectively adjust their meanings and implications; and that a continual revising and refining of thoughts take place due to the meditation’s advances in discovery and clarification. The written work resulting from such a meditation thus has the character of an adventure in self-illuminative thought, rather than the character of a philosophical essay that systematically explains the meaning and implications of a text or other “external” data.

Voegelin calls this written work a “meditative exegesis,” to distinguish it from anything like a “textual exegesis.”[3] And due to its character as a journey of thought that undergoes in its course recurrent adjustments of understanding, expression, and focus, the work should be approached as being written from what Bernard Lonergan calls “a moving viewpoint,” in that some questions and assertions introduced earlier in the piece, because of later insights and viewpoints, require re-contextualization and re-formulation, sometimes with the later formulations contrasting with—or even seeming to contradict—earlier formulations.[4]

The reader of such a work, then, must be willing to do her best to follow the philosopher’s meditation, re-enacting in her own consciousness the questions, insights, and discoveries that make up the meditation, and moving along with—and not becoming unnerved or confused by—the moving viewpoint of the meditation as it proceeds on its journey.

For example, in the second paragraph of his essay, Voegelin explains that if “symbolizations” of experiences may be truly said to be “equivalent,” the theoretical implication is that there are “constants of engendering experience” underlying such symbolizations, and that these constants must be the “true subject matter of our studies.”[5] But later, on the basis of meditative developments, he concludes that it is a theoretical “fallacy” to consider any “engendering experiences” to be themselves “constants,” and that it is philosophically necessary to “speak of the equivalence not only of symbols, but of experiences as well.”[6] Again, early in the essay, Voegelin asserts that what “is constant in the history of mankind . . . is the structure of existence itself”—that is, the structure of each person as a seeker of truths about existence and reality.[7] But later, toward the end of the essay, Voegelin states firmly that “[t]here is no constant to be found in history, because the historical field of equivalents is not given as a collective of phenomena which could be submitted to the procedures of abstraction and generalization.”[8]

That is, no one can validly claim to possess the truth of a constant regarding “the structure of existence” on the basis of having had empirical experiences of the consciousnesses of all persons in history. Thus, it can seem to the reader who is not following the essay precisely as a meditation, and consequently not attempting to re-enact in her own consciousness the philosopher’s meditative journey, that Voegelin corrects himself along the way to the point of self-contradiction, and that the essay as a whole may finally be a muddle. After all, either there are “constants of engendering experience” or there are not; and either there is a “constant in the history of mankind” or there is not.

And yet, to the attentive and careful reader, Voegelin’s assertions, as the meditation proceeds, each make sense in their context; this moving context constitutes the genuine adventure of the essay; and Voegelin’s conclusion to his inquiry into the constants that must exist if the language of equivalent symbolizations in history is to be justified may be summarized as follows: It is indeed the case that there are no constants or absolute truths in history that can be empirically, or experientially, verified; but, nevertheless, we are justified in affirming the truth, and the equivalence, of important philosophical symbols and propositions concerning existence and reality, because we can be confident that they are indeed founded upon constant or absolute truths that lie beyond our empirical experience. The meditative exegesis is finally concerned, then, with the precise nature and character of this reasonable confidence—this “trust” or “faith,” as Voegelin calls it—that we may have in a constancy of truth beyond experience itself.


This much established, a few more comments about the essay as a whole should be made before following the path of those elements in Voegelin’s meditation that lead to the theme of “symbols of the depth” which is our principal concern.

Hans-Georg Gadamer has emphasized that, in interpreting an important text, the reader must try to understand as far as possible the author’s horizon of questions and concerns that motivated the writing of the text. It will be useful to identify two of the principal concerns that drive Voegelin’s meditative journey in “Equivalences.” Both of these derive from his being a philosopher living and writing in the middle of the twentieth century, and both of them are mentioned in the text—but not mentioned in such a way that their overriding importance for Voegelin’s engagement in this particular meditation is highlighted.

The first concern pertains to the rise of historical consciousness in modern centuries—the increasing cultural and intellectual focus on human historicity, or historical situatedness, and a deepening consequent preoccupation with all of the implications of historicity for properly understanding the nature of language, social institutions, cultural insights and artifacts, self-interpretations, and truth-claims—especially truth-claims pertaining to moral, legal, and religious matters. One consequence of this focus and preoccupation has been particularly problematic. During the nineteenth century and after, the growing emphasis on historicity has led, in some intellectual, academic, and cultural circles, to its apotheosizing in doctrines of historicism—that is, doctrines claiming that a human being is only and completely a historical or history-bound creature, with no element or dimension of a person’s being or consciousness transcending the material and temporal conditions of existence. In Voegelin’s language, in the view of such historicist doctrines, a person is a purely “world-immanent” being.[9] A purely world-immanent being could have no access to any truth that transcends the physical, biological, biographical, cultural, and linguistic circumstances and conditioning factors of her existence, and in such a case all understanding of truth could only be historically relative.

From the historicist perspective, no one could validly argue that any recognition of a genuine good or value, or any insight into how life should properly be lived, or any articulations or symbolizations concerning the order of reality or existence, is a truth that holds constant across the boundaries of cultures, languages, and epochs. Needless to say, this view of human existence is, for Voegelin, misleading and dangerous. And “Equivalences” is, in fact, his most sustained meditation on historicity, as well as his most deeply-elucidated rebuttal of historicism’s claim that we cannot know trans-historical truths. Or, to put it another way, it is Voegelin’s most sustained philosophical defense—in response to the challenge of historicism—of the view that the human search for enduring truths about existence and reality is not, and has never been, an unfounded and vain enterprise. Voegelin himself describes this elemental purpose of “Equivalences” in a somewhat casual sentence, whose importance the reader could easily overlook, at the end of the essay’s brief introduction, where he writes: “The following reflections intend to clarify, as far as that is possible within the limits of a paper, the principal problems of the new historical consciousness.”[10]

A second concern that propels Voegelin’s meditation is one familiar to his regular readers: the delusion and harm caused, over the known centuries of history, by the confidence on the part of a leader and his followers, a thinker and his acolytes, or a powerful group or institution and its members or believers, that they alone possess the absolute and final truth about the meaning of human existence, the nature and order of reality, the factors determining the worth of individuals and the ultimate outcome of individual destinies, the purpose and goal of history, the right order of political life, the manner in which people should live, and which specific set of values and traditions should be revered by all people of all times as humankind’s highest moral and cultural achievement. The conviction that final knowledge of ultimate truths has been attained and is possessed by the privileged, Voegelin argues, leads their presumed possessors into deluded viewpoints and degraded existential postures, which undermine the ability to make headway in the unending struggle against existence in untruth, and tends also toward the promotion, more or less active, of social and political disorder. In its most destructive manifestation, it is a delusion that leads to the use of force to punish or even kill those whose lives and convictions clash with the dictates or precepts derived from the “ultimate knowledge” of its presumptive possessors.

In modern centuries, the impact of doctrines and zealous activities on the part of self-proclaimed possessors of ultimate and final truth have become existentially and physically destructive on a scale much larger than earlier in history. This is due partly to technological advances (in communications, transportation, weaponry, etc.), and partly to the emergence of ideologies built on world-immanent interpretations of existence and history that view the necessary goal of historical process as both 1) known absolutely, and 2) dependent for its realization upon the concerted activities of the “possessors of ultimate truth” to force non-believers either to conform to the doctrine’s vision or be put out of the way.

Voegelin, who of course narrowly escaped Nazi arrest and almost certain internment, spent much of his energies as a political philosopher (and philosopher of history) analyzing the origins, character, and meaning of modern secular political ideologies and regimes founded on the presumed possession of ultimate truths and values, and of modern theoretical and philosophical systems, such as those of Hegel and Marx, that claimed also to have attained a “final” and “absolute” knowledge of ultimate truths and values. There is no doubt that a key passion guiding the meditation of “Equivalences” is Voegelin’s abhorrence and rejection of all human claims to possess knowledge of ultimate truths about the final whys and wherefores of existence, about the final purpose and goal of history, and about what reality as a whole finally is. It is an abhorrence that finds articulation a few times in the essay, beginning in section I, which diagnoses the specific “deformation” of human thought and existence involved when persons believe that ultimate truth can be summarized and possessed in a fixed doctrine composed of true propositions. But it is most clearly and forcefully stated in a sentence near the start of section II, where Voegelin flatly states: “Ultimate doctrines, systems, and values are phantasmata engendered by deformed existence.”[11]

Now, Voegelin’s acceptance of the “new historical consciousness,” with its emphasis on the historical situatedness of human experiences and utterances, on the one hand, and his rejection of the idea that human beings can possess ultimate truths about such matters as the purpose of existence and history’s outcome, on the other hand, are fully compatible philosophically—and compatible with the view of any historicist, as well, who would instantly agree with Voegelin both that all human experiences and formulated understandings are historically situated and that ultimate doctrines, systems, and values are “phantasmata.” But then Voegelin would also argue that these positions may and must be embraced without succumbing to the outlook of historicism. In other words, Voegelin accepts human historicity while rejecting historicism’s argument that we cannot claim knowledge of any trans-historical truths. Voegelin argues that, in fact, we can be confident in our knowledge of many fundamental, permanent truths about human nature, about the right order of existence, and about the structure of reality, even while we must acknowledge that these do not constitute a possession of final or ultimate answers regarding the meaning of human existence, the purpose and goal of history, or why there is a reality at all.

As already mentioned, the path of Voegelin’s meditative journey leads to the reasons why a philosopher may confidently claim to have knowledge of certain “constants” concerning existence and reality, as well as why the precise nature of our relationship with these constants leaves us, as humans, still and forever engaged in the ongoing search for a deepening understanding of how to order our individual and social lives; of history’s structure and direction; and of the order of reality as a whole. So let us now move through the stages of Voegelin’s meditation and examine the basis of these conclusions of Voegelin—an examination that will entail addressing the human need for “symbols of the depth” of reality for our proper philosophical and existential orientation.



[1] Eric Voegelin, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” in Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 115-33.

[2] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 115.

[3] For Voegelin’s account of his analysis in this essay as a “meditative exegesis,” see “Equivalences,” 131.

[4] “[A philosophical work] may be written from a moving viewpoint, and then it will contain, not a single set of coherent statements, but a sequence of related sets of coherent statements. . . . It cannot begin by presupposing that a reader can assimilate at a stroke what can be attained only at the term of a prolonged and arduous effort. On the contrary, it must begin from a minimal viewpoint and a minimal context; it will exploit that minimum to raise a further question that enlarges the viewpoint and the context; it will proceed from the enlarged viewpoint and context only as long as is necessary to raise still deeper issues that again transform the basis and the terms of references of the inquiry . . .”. Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, vol. 3 of The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 18; see 18-20.

[5] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 115.

[6] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 123.

[7] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 120.

[8] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 131 (emphasis added).

[9] See, for example, Eric Voegelin, “The Drama of Humanity,” in The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1939-1985, ed. William Petropulos and Gilbert Weiss, vol. 33 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 174-75.

[10] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 116.

[11] Voegelin, “Equivalences,” 120.

This is the first of two parts with part two available here.

Glenn Hughes

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Glenn Hughes is Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Texas. He is author of several books, including Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity (Missouri Press, 2003) and A More Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art (Missouri Press, 2011).