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Equivalents of Experience and Symbolization

Equivalents Of Experience And Symbolization

The search for the constants of human order in society and history is, at present, uncertain of its language. An older body of concepts is proving inadequate to expressing the search, while a new one has not yet crystallized with sufficient precision.

We still speak of “the permanent values” in the process of history, though we know the language of “values” to be the caput mortuum of a bygone era of methodology; but we must use it if we want to make ourselves understood, because no language more fitting man’s experience of his humanity has yet reached the stage of common acceptance. While there is no adequate language that would impose itself with the authority of an established theory, we use such a language in the practice of our work on symbols.

When we engage in com­parative studies concerning ancestor cults, initiation ceremonies, coronation rituals, the myths of life eternal or the judgment of the dead in various societies, we do not talk about “values” but speak of “equivalent” cults, ceremonies, rites, and myths.

Moreover, in doing so we are aware of the differences between the symbols and we know that the sameness which justifies the language of “equiva­lences” does not lie in the symbols themselves but in the experi­ences which have engendered them. The language of “equiva­lences,” thus, implies the theoretical insight that not the symbols themselves but the constants of engendering experience are the true subject matter of our studies.

What is permanent in the history of mankind is not the symbols but man himself in search of his humanity and its order.

The Study of Constants in History

Though the issue can be stated clearly and simply, its implications are vast.

For a comparative study, if it goes beyond registering the symbols as phenomena and penetrates to the constants of engendering expe­rience, can be conducted only by means of symbols which in their turn are engendered by the constants of which the comparative study is in search.

The study of symbols is a reflective inquiry con­cerning the search for the truth of existential order; it will become, if fully developed, what is conventionally called a philosophy of history. The casting around for a theory of “equivalences,” thus, presupposes the existence of a philosopher who has become con­scious of the time dimension in his own search of truth and wants to relate it to that of his predecessor in history.

The urge to replace a theory of “values” by a theory of “equivalences” marks the point at which the comparative study of symbols attains to an under­standing of itself as a search of the search. 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. I shall reflect, first, on the philosopher’s encounter with an intellectual climate that is dominated by the theory of “values.”

Experiences and Symbols are the Time Dimension

To gain the understanding of his own humanity, and to order his life in the light of insight gained, has been the concern of man in history as far back as the written records go. If today a philosopher turns reflectively toward the area of reality called human exist­ence, he does not discover it as a terra incognita, but moves among symbols concerning the truth of existence which represent the ex­periences of his predecessors.

This field of experiences and symbols is neither an object to be observed from the outside, nor does it present the same appearance to everybody.

It rather is the time dimension of existence, acces­sible only through participation in its reality; and what the phi­losopher moving in the field will see or not see, understand or not understand, or whether he will find his bearings in it at all, depends on the manner in which his own existence has been formed through intellectual discipline in openness toward reality, or deformed by his uncritical acceptance of beliefs which obscure the reality of im­mediate experience.

The Futile Search for a Set of True Propositions

Let us assume the philosopher to have deformed himself by adopt­ing the belief that the truth of existence is a set of propositions con­cerning the right order of man in society and history, the proposi­tions to be demonstrably true and therefore acceptable to everybody.

If, holding this belief, he enters the field of symbols, he will be dis­appointed and bewildered. In vain will he look for the one set of true propositions that he may well expect to have emerged from the labors of mankind over a period of five thousand years.

The his­torical field will present itself rather as a selva oscura of such sets, differing from one another, each claiming to be the only true one, but none of them commanding the universal acceptance it de­mands in the name of truth. Far from discovering the permanent values of existence, he will find himself lost in the noisy struggle among the possessors of dogmatic truth–theological, or meta­physical, or ideological.

Retreating to the Safety of Skepticism and Relativism

If in this confrontation with the dog­matomachy of the field he does not lose his head and join the battle, but holds firmly to his belief that existential truth, if it can be found at all, must be an ultimate catalog of propositions, rules, or values, he will tend toward certain conclusions.

Intellectually, he will perhaps suspect a search that has been going on for millen­nia without producing the desired result, of being a pursuit of the unknowable that had better be abandoned; if then he contemplates the unedifying spectacle of dogmatomachy–with its frustration, anxiety, alienation, ferocious vituperation, and violence–he will perhaps deem it also morally preferable not to engage further in the search. And we shall hardly blame him if in the end he decides that skepticism is the better part of wisdom and becomes an honest rel­ativist and historicist.

The questionable phase in the philosopher’s process of thought is not the skeptical conclusion but the initial belief by which he forces upon the field of symbols the appearance of a perpetual dog­matomachy. Against this charge, however, he can plead that he is unjustly accused of doing violence to the field–the belief is not his invention; he has found it as a phenomenon in the surrounding field, massively imposing itself on him–and he is doing no more than drawing sensible conclusions from his observations.

What shall we do now? Declare his observation to be true and the conclu­sion to be questionable?

The Scotosis of Truth

The problem of this circle will occupy us presently. For the moment we shall break out of it by stating: History is not an unbroken stream of existence in truth, but is interrupted by periods, or is shot through with levels, of deformed existence.

This period, or stratum, of deformation, furthermore, can impose itself so mas­sively on a man that he conforms to it and consequently deforms himself by making deformed existence the model of true existence. And the philosopher who has made deformed existence his own, finally, can deform the historical field of experiences and symbols by imposing on it his model of deformation.

The deformed sectors of the field acquire the status of true reality, while the sectors of true existence are eclipsed by the imagery of deformation. Of the result we can speak as a scotosis of truth.

The New Fundamentalism

In the case of the contem­porary philosopher, the idea that the truth of man’s existence must be a permanently valid body of doctrine, preferably a system to end all systems, can be traced to its more immediate origin in the eighteenth-century crisis of theology and metaphysics.

The symbolisms that had been engendered by noetic and pneumatic experiences in antiquity and the Middle Ages had ceased to be transparent for the engendering reality–existential faith had dried up to doctrinal be­lief–and the critical attempts to repair the loss by recapturing the reality of existence, though their success in other respects must be neither denied nor diminished, were doomed to fail in the decisive point because, under such glamorous titles as a system of science or of positive science, they preserved the deficient mode of doc­trinal truth as the form into which the new insight had to be cast.

The doctrinaire theology and metaphysics of the eighteenth cen­tury were succeeded by the doctrinaire ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; an older type of fundamentalist doctrine was followed by a new fundamentalism.

This belief that existential truth is a doctrine to be universally accepted, thus, has become the mark of an “age,” roughly extending from 1750 to 1950. It is the age of modern dogmatomachy, frequently called the age of “mod­ern man”–with the overtones of an apocalyptic new age, of the age in which man has come of age, of the perfect and therefore the last age of man. Inasmuch as the presumptive philosopher has ac­cepted the mark of the age as the mark of his own existence, he has engaged in precisely the act of conformation which a philosopher worthy of the name must avoid at all cost.

For “ages” are badly de­ficient in consciousness and order of intellect–they are the social and historical field of deformed existence which, having slipped from the control of consciousness, tends to usurp the ordering au­thority of existence that is properly the function of intellect.

We are all sufficiently familiar with the age and its usurpation of au­thority, for we all have had our encounters with men who, sternly rejecting their humanity, insist on being modern men and, in so-called discussion, try to bury us under the rhetoric of deformed existence. This kind of “age,” it is true, cannot be avoided by the philosopher in our time; it is the social field into which he is born, and it presses in on him from all sides.

But he is not supposed to succumb to its impact. The philosopher’s way is the way up toward the light, not the way down into the cave. The insinuating pressure to deform himself, and perhaps to become the spokesman of the “age,” must be met with the answer:

Behold, my name will reek through thee

More than the stench of bird droppings

On summer days, when the sky is hot –

The answer given by Man to the “age,” represented by his Soul, in the third millennium B.C. by an unknown Egyptian thinker.

The Test of Truth: A Lack of Originality

The question of constants in the history of mankind, it will have become clear, cannot be answered through propositions concern­ing right order, or through a catalog of permanent values, for the flux of existence does not have the structure of order or, for that matter, of disorder, but the structure of a tension between truth and deformation of reality. Not the possession of his humanity but the concern about its full realization is the lot of man.

Existence has the structure of the In-Between, of the Platonic metaxy, and if anything is constant in the history of mankind it is the language of tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfec­tion and imperfection, time and timelessness; between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence; between amor Dei and amor sui, l’âme ouverte and l’âme close; between the virtues of openness toward the ground of being such as faith, love, and hope, and the vices of infolding closure such as hybris and revolt; between the moods of joy and despair; and be­tween alienation in its double meaning of alienation from the world and alienation from God.

If we split these pairs of symbols, and hypostatize the poles of the tension as independent entities, we destroy the reality of existence as it has been experienced by the creators of the tensional symbolisms; we lose consciousness and intellect; we deform our humanity and reduce ourselves to a state of quiet despair or activist conformity to the “age” of drug addic­tion or television watching, of hedonistic stupor or murderous pos­session of truth, of suffering from the absurdity of existence or in­dulgence in any divertissement (in Pascal’s sense) that promises to substitute as a “value” for reality lost. In the language of Heraclitus and Plato: Dream life usurps the place of wake life.

Ultimate doctrines, systems, and values are phantasmata engen­dered by deformed existence. What is constant in the history of mankind, i.e., in the time dimension of existence, is the structure of existence itself; and regarding this constant structure certain propositions can indeed be advanced.

Experience and its Limits

There is, first of all, the fun­damental proposition:

1. Man participates in the process of reality.

The implications of the fundamental proposition, then, can be ex­pressed by the following propositions:

2. Man is conscious of reality as a process, of himself as being part of reality, and of his consciousness as a mode of participation in its process.

3. While consciously participating, man is able to engender symbols which express his experience of reality, of himself as the experi­encing agent, and of his conscious experiencing as the action and passion of participating.

4. Man knows the symbols engendered to be part of the reality they symbolize–the symbols “consciousness,” “experience,” and “symbolization” denote the area where the process of reality be­comes luminous to itself.

To the positive statements we, finally, can add three corollaries of a cautionary nature:

5. Reality is not a given that could be observed from a vantage point outside itself but embraces the consciousness in which it be­comes luminous.

6. The experience of reality cannot be total but has the character of a perspective.

7. The knowledge of reality conveyed by the symbols can never be­come a final possession of truth, for the luminous perspectives that we call experiences, as well as the symbols engendered by them, are part of reality in process.

Propositions are meant to be true–but the very content of these propositions arouses misgivings regarding their validity, for they express the experience of participation in a process of reality of which man, the knower, is a part.

The Tension between the Knower and the Known

Cognition of participation, as it is not directed toward an object of the external world, becomes a luminosity in reality itself and consequently, the knower and the known move into the position of tensional poles in a conscious­ness that we call luminous as far as it engenders the symbols which express the experience of its own structure.

This confrontation with a cognitive consciousness whose cognition is closed within itself will compel the questions:

Can we really speak of a constant structure of existence and assume the propositions to express it adequately?

Are not the symbols employed admittedly part of the structure they are supposed to express?

Is there really any such structure apart from the imagery of the propositions?

Are they more than an attempt, inevitably futile, to escape from a process from which, as they state themselves, man cannot escape?

The misgivings are legitimate. Man’s existence in the In-Be­tween of imperfection and perfection, time and timelessness, mor­tality and immortality is indeed not an object of sense perception; and the propositions of a consciousness reflecting on its own struc­ture of participation are indeed self-reflective.

Personal Experience is not Subjectivity

From this state of things, however, it does not follow that we are falling into “subjec­tivity.” For the process of self-reflection by which consciousness becomes luminous to itself is not a flight of imagination; nor are symbols engendered by the process one more ideology, or one more project of Second Reality.

The effort of self-reflection is real; it is recognizably related to a less reflected experience of participation and its less differentiated symbolization; and the propositions en­gendered by the effort are recognizably equivalents of the symbols which had been found unsatisfactory and whose want of differ­entiation had motivated the effort of reflection.

The Test is Lack of Originality

Hence, the proposi­tions engendered in a process of self-reflection can be tested objec­tively, even though we cannot use the tests that we would apply to propositions concerning objects of the external world. The validity can and must be tested by placing the propositions in the historical field of experiences and their symbolizations, i.e., in the time di­mensions of existence itself.

The validating question will have to be: Do we have to ignore and eclipse a major part of the historical field in order to maintain the truth of the propositions, as the fun­damentalist adherents of this or that ideological doctrine must do; or are the propositions recognizably equivalent with the symbols created by our predecessors in the search of truth about human existence?

The test of truth, to put it pointedly, will be the lack of originality in the propositions.

The Same Questions Recognized throughout History

Regarding this test I can be brief, as you will have noticed the numerous allusions to ancient, medieval, and modern predeces­sors: to Plato and Aristotle, to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, to Bergson and Whitehead.

It will be sufficient to recall a few equiva­lent symbolizations of the central issue, i.e., the experience of par­ticipation and the consequent identity and nonidentity of the knower with the known. That being and thinking are the same, was the insight of Parmenides; that the logos of his discourse was the same as the logos of reality expressed by the discourse, the in­sight of Heraclitus. The symbolism of participation, of methexis or metalepsis, is both classic and scholastic. Aletheia, with its double meaning of truth and reality, is Platonic-Aristotelian.

The identity and nonidentity of the knower with the known has its equivalent in Hegel’s sophisticated definition of absolute reality as the iden­tity of identity and nonidentity–though in this case our agree­ment must be qualified because of Hegel’s lapse from the analysis of a structure of consciousness into the construction of a system.

The Metaxy and Alienation

The process of reality is the equivalent of Whitehead’s conception of the experience. The In-Between of man’s existence, then, is Plato’s metaxy. And the virtues of existential tension–love, hope, and faith–are constant symbols from the pre-Socratic and classic philosophers, through St. Paul and St. Augustine, to the present.

The symbolisms of alienation, finally, that can be found in the Hellenic poets and philosophers were collected by Clement of Al­exandria on occasion of his struggle with the Gnostic response to alienation, and new varieties of the symbolism were developed by Christians and Neoplatonists.

In our own search today, thus, we are indeed engaged in the same search in which our predecessors were engaged in their day.

Avoiding Subtler Fallacies

That the propositions can be validated by applying them to the his­torical field from which they have emerged through an act of re­flective participation we can consider established on principle. But the circular process of reflection and application itself has not yet been described with sufficient exactness.

Such phrases as “a shift of the search from the symbols to the experiences” or “the lack of originality as the test of validity,” are clear enough to avoid the fal­lacy of permanent values, and suggestive enough to point the inquiry in the right direction, but analytically they are unsatisfac­tory.

In part, this vagueness served the purpose to avoid a conven­tional terminology that is badly permeated by ideological jargon; in part, however, it was meant to protect the analysis from the danger of the fallacies of misplaced concreteness which in such matters lurk behind every unanalyzed concept.

There would be no sense in replacing the fallacy of permanent values by the subtler fallacies of existential tension and experiences of participation.

The Fallacy of the Hypostasis of Experience

The first fallacy to be avoided is the hypostasis of experience as an absolute. If we understand symbols in spite of their differences as equivalent because, as we have said, they are intelligibly engen­dered by the same type of experience, the experience is in danger of becoming the resting point in our search for constants in history.

This resolution of the problem would be tempting, but it is unten­able. For the constant experience, in order to be identified, would have to become articulate, and once it has been articulated the re­sult would be a symbolism claiming to be exempt from the fate of being one more historically equivalent truth.

We would be back to the system to end all systems–Hegel’s solution. If we want to avoid this unhappy end, we must extend the differences of the sym­bols into the engendering experiences and, consequently, speak of the equivalence not only of symbols, but of experiences as well.

The Constant of Equivalent Experience Lies Beyond

If, however, we accept this result as analytically necessary, we shall look in vain for the constant in an experience articulating the con­stant as its contents. The constant that will justify the language of equivalent experiences and symbols must be sought on a level deeper than the level of equivalent experiences which engender equivalent symbols.

This deeper level has indeed been discerned by thinkers who carefully observed the process by which they arrived at more differ­entiated experiences engendering more differentiated symbols than the symbolisms prevalent at their time.

Still compactly the depth is present in the pre-Socratic imitations of the sameness of being and thinking, and of the logos of discourse with the logos of being.

The Depth of the Soul cannot be Explored

On a more differentiated level, the observation of the process has induced Heraclitus, Aeschylus, and Plato to develop the symbol of a “depth” of the soul from which a new truth of reality can be hauled up to conscious experience; and their symbol of the “depth” has been preserved as an insight, through a long chain of equiva­lents, to the contemporary depth psychologies and psychologies of the unconscious.

This depth of the soul, however, is experienced by the Hellenic thinkers as a depth beyond articulate experience. It can be expressed by the symbol “depth,” but it does not furnish a substantive content in addition to our experiences of God, man, the world, and society, of existential tension, and of participation.

Hence, we must avoid the fallacy of imagining the depth as an area whose topography can be explored by a science not bound by the limits of our experienced truth of reality. Neither must we popu­late it with the archetypes of a collective unconscious, nor endow it with libidinous dynamics, in order to gain by fornicatio fantastica an absolute which a critical analysis of experience will not deliver.

The Descent into the Depth and the Anima Mundi

Though the experience of depth does not add to the substantive content of the experiences and symbols whose equivalence is our concern, it has a content peculiar to itself: it conveys insight into the process of reality from which the equivalents emerge. More­over, the men who have gone through the process have developed a richly differentiated language in their endeavor to articulate it with exactness.

There is, first of all, the symbol psyche. The Hellenic thinkers have transformed the older term into the symbol for a site or matrix of experience that surrounds and comprehends the area of conscious experience. In its new symbolic meaning, the psyche has depth and its depth is unbounded; one can descend into the depth and explore it; like a diver man can drag up from the depth a truth about reality that hitherto had not been articulate insight; the exploration will result in an augmentation of meaning in con­scious experience; but the awareness of continuity between con­sciousness and depth will also permit the language of an augmenta­tion of meaning in the psyche.

A descent into the depth will be indicated when the light of truth has dimmed and its symbols are losing their credibility; when the night is sinking on the symbols that have had their day, one must return to the night of the depth that is luminous with truth to the man who is willing to seek for it.

The depth is fascinating as a threat and a charm—as the abyss into which man falls when the truth of the depth has drained from the symbols by which he orients his life, and as the source from which a new life of the truth and a new orientation can be drawn.

The Descent as a State of Ecstasy or Mania

The return from the depth with a truth newly experienced, then, is symbolized as a renovatio in the double sense of a renewal of truth and a renewal of man; the new man can experience the renewal of reality and truth with such intenseness that only the symbols of death and resurrection will adequately express it; the depth will become a dead point of consciousness beyond consciousness, so that the transition through the depth will have to be symbolized as a state of ecstasy or mania; when the new truth effectively consti­tutes a new social field, the event of its emergence will be consid­ered to mark an epoch and to articulate the process of history by a Before and After; and the enthusiasm of renewal and discovery can be so intense that it will transfigure the new truth into absolute Truth—an ultimate Truth that relegates all previous truth to the status of pseudos, of lie.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm can also be tempered by awareness that the truth emerging from the process is not entirely new, not a truth about a reality hitherto unknown, but a differentiated and therefore superior insight into the same reality that had been compactly symbolized by the old truth.

When such critical awareness becomes acute enough, as it does in Aristotle, the first steps toward a theory of equivalent symbols and experi­ences will be taken: Aristotle recognizes both Myth and Philosophy as languages man can equally use to express the truth of reality, even though he accords to Philosophy the rank of the instrument that is better suited to the task.

The historically earlier thinker who articulates his truth of reality by means of the Myth is the philomythos. He is in search of the same truth as the philosophos; and the philomythos is, therefore, to be considered something like a philosophos. The equivalence of Myth and Philosophy, of philo­mythos and philosophos, is stressed even more strongly in a late letter where Aristotle admits to becoming philomythoteros the older he becomes.

The Inexpressible Reality Beyond Consciousness

The results of this exploration in depth can be formulated in propositions like the following:

There is psyche deeper than consciousness, and there is reality deeper than reality experienced, but there is no consciousness deeper than consciousness.


We experience psyche as consciousness that can descend into the depth of its own reality, and the depth of the psyche as reality that can rise to consciousness, but we do not experience a content of the depth other than the content that has entered consciousness.


We consciously experience psyche as a reality extending beyond con­sciousness. The area “beyond” is of the same nature as the reality of consciousness. Moreover, the two areas are a continuum of psychic reality in which man can move by the actions and passions symbol­ized as descent and ascent.

Analytically one cannot go beyond propositions of this kind.

Beyond the Primordial Field of Reality

Nevertheless, the exploration in depth renders further results if the insight of the propositions is compared and combined with the substantive truth of reality present in consciousness.

The primor­dial field of reality is the community of God and man, world and society; the exploration of this field is concerned with the true na­ture of the partners in the community and of the relations between them; the sequence in time of the verities found is the historical field of equivalent experiences and symbols.

The philosopher in search of truth about reality will want to know what kind of reality in terms of the primordial field is touched when man descends into the depth of his psyche; and since the truth hauled up from the depth affects his perspectival view of the field as a whole, he will not identify the reality of the depth with any of the partners in the community but with the underlying reality that makes them part­ners in a common order, i.e., with the substance of the Cosmos.

This was Plato’s answer to the question, in the Timaeus. The depth of the psyche below consciousness is the depth of the Cosmos be­low the primordial field. Hence, the reality of the Cosmos in depth is the anima mundi.

The Philosopher’s Myth: The Anima Mundi

The anima mundi, the world soul and its life, has had a pro­digious career—down to its modern equivalents in the work of Giordano Bruno, Jacob Boehme, Schelling, and Hegel. In the course of this career the symbol has badly suffered from its deformation into a “metaphysical concept” and its doctrinal use as part of the philosophical tradition.

Of Hegel we may say that he would hardly have conceived of himself as being one with the World Soul unfold­ing its Logos and, therefore, would hardly have constructed a “Sys­tem of Science” if he had been clear about what his symbols “soul” and “life” implied and what not.

But extraordinary vicissitudes must be expected to be the lot of a symbol that baffled its own au­thor. When Plato tried to characterize the type of truth peculiar to the symbolism of the Timaeus he wavered between the more asser­tive alethinos logos and the more doubtful eikos mythos.

But whether his myth of the Cosmos was a “true story” or a “likely myth,” he was sure that the symbolism had not been engendered through articulation of an experience. The anima mundi is a phi­losopher’s myth: it articulates neither the experience of the pri­mordial field, nor the experience of the psyche, but achieves the imaginative fusion of insights gained by the two types of experi­ence separately.

Reality as Intelligibly Ordered

That is not to say that the imaginative play does not express any reality at all. It is true, we have no experience of the depth of the Cosmos as psyche; and Plato himself is careful enough to claim for the psyche and logos of man no more than to be kindred (syngenes) to the divine psyche and logos of the Cos­mos. Still, the imaginative play has its hard core of reality as it is motivated by man’s trust (pistis) in reality as intelligibly ordered, as a Cosmos.

Our perspectival experiences of reality in process may render no more than fragments of insight, the fragmentary ele­ments may be heterogeneous, and they may look even incommen­surable, but the trust in the underlying oneness of reality, its coher­ence, lastingness, constancy of structure, order, and intelligibility will inspire the creation of images which express the ordered whole­ness sensed in the depth.

The most important of these images is the symbol “Cosmos” itself, whose development runs historically parallel with that of the symbol “psyche.” The result is the eikos mythos whose degree of likeness will depend on the amount of dis­parate experiences it has achieved to unify persuasively in its im­agery.

The Unsurpassable Mythopoetic Play

But that is not yet the last word in the matter; for Plato lets Timaeus conclude his story with the assurance that, according to the likely myth, the Cosmos is a zoon empsychon ennoun in very truth (te aletheia).

The earlier wavering characterizations of the myth as somewhat less than really true are now superseded by the assertion of its truth in the full sense. The statement is delivered with impenetrable seriousness but in its depth we can sense an ironic smile: the most intimate truth of reality, the truth about the meaning of the cosmic play in which man must act his role with his life as the stake, is a mythopoetic play linking the psyche of man in trust with the depth of the Cosmos.

Thought Critically Attentive to Itself

The symbol “depth” indicates a stage in the exegesis of an experience that can be reached only if thought is critically attentive to itself. Only if thought is attentive to every step in articulating an experience will it pene­trate to the depth beyond consciousness; if it is inattentive, the symbols engendered by earlier stages will turn into hypostases and block the process.

As I have tried to conduct the analysis with some attention, the search for the constant in history has been re­ferred back from the symbols to the experiences, and from the ex­periences further back to the depth of the psyche. By refusing to be satisfied with a resting place at the upper levels, by permitting our­selves to be urged on to the deeper levels of the psyche, by rejecting reifications of symbols and the construction of an absolute con­tent, by yielding to the persuasion of the logos in the psyche to be­come the logos of the discourse, we have enacted a descent to the depth.

Even when the depth of the psyche has been reached, how­ever, thought must not yet relax its attention, or it will fall into one of the specific fallacies of the depth at which I have hinted pre­viously. For the depth is neither an “object” to be described as a content; nor a conveniently vacant area to be used as dumping ground for the psychoanalytic unconscious; nor a seat of authority to be occupied by a thinker who wants to fulminate a system; nor the kind of murkiness that will endow thought with the quality of “deep” or “profound” in the vulgarian sense.

Only if this last set of reifications and fallacies be avoided can the descent become the source of insights concerning the truth of reality and the problem of equivalences.

The Insights Returned from the Depth

That journey’s end has been reached for the search is the first in­sight to result from the descent. There is a depth below conscious­ness, but there is no depth below depth in infinite regress. As the depth, however, renders no truth but the equivalent experiences of the primordial field of reality, the search for a substantive constant of history that would be exempt from the status of an equivalent must be dismissed as fallacious.

No phenomenon in the past or the future of the historical field is an ultimate truth of reality that would transform the search into a possession of truth. The sym­bolism of an ultimate truth is engendered by the apocalyptic dream of abolishing the tension of existence: the possession of ultimate truth would create the ultimate man who need no longer search for the truth of his existence—it would mean the metastasis of man in history.

Since no such apocalyptic truth of reality behind reality can be experienced, we must draw the consequence and push the equivalence of symbols, that we have already extended to the expe­riences engendering them, still further back to the depth by which experience lives.

The Process in the Mode of Presence

By extending the structure of equivalence from the historical field of symbols through the experiences to the depth, we recognize the psyche of man as an area of reality whose structure extends continuously from the depth to the manifestations of conscious­ness.

There is neither an autonomous conscious nor an autono­mous depth but only a consciousness in continuity with its own depth. We shall now apply this insight to the problems of the his­torical field, of equivalences, and of the constant in history. The relation of equivalence does not run between the phenom­ena of the field directly but mediated through the equivalence in the depth of the psyche from which the experiences and their sym­bolizations have emerged.

Hence, neither the single phenomena nor their aggregate are objects given to an observing consciousness that is not itself part of the field. The single phenomena enter into the relation of equivalence, and by virtue of this relation become recognizable as an historical field, only to a participant in the pro­cess of search from which the previous symbols of truth have emerged.

The process has a past only to the consciousness of its presence, i.e., at the point where a new truth is released from the depth of the psyche and sets itself off against older truth that has emerged from the same depth. The presence of the process, thus, is the point at which, along with a new truth, emerges our conscious­ness of the historical field and the equivalence of its phenomena–as we have seen in the cases of Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle where the new truth of philosophy emerged together with the knowledge of its equivalence to the Myth.

The process in the mode of presence is the source of our knowl­edge concerning the depth of the psyche and a process in the depth. Emergent truth confronting previous truth is the experience we try to articulate by the symbols of an historical field and of equivalence between its phenomena.

Misunderstanding the Depth as an Absolute

This concentration on the experi­ence of emergent consciousness requires a last effort of warding off suggestive fallacies: We must extend the relation of equivalence into depth of the psyche as its source. But equivalence in the depth cannot signify a relation between phenomena which, in their turn, could become objects of inquiry independent of the phenomena in the historical field. It can only signify a process in the depth that becomes mani­fest in the phenomena of the historical field but is otherwise inac­cessible.

The consequences of extending equivalence into the depth look undesirable: of the process in the depth we become aware through the emergence of a newly differentiated truth, recogniza­bly equivalent to the more compact truth it is meant to replace; and we construe the historical sequence of equivalent verities as the epiphenomenon of an evolving truth of reality in the depth of the psyche. The depth threatens to acquire the character of an ab­solute that we have just removed from the historical field–as it does in the théogonie speculation of Schelling.

But then again, if we keep depth and surface of the psyche in balance, we get caught in the circle of interpreting the field of history in terms of an evolv­ing truth in the depth, and the process in the depth in terms of the historical field of equivalents and such sense as they make.

Escaping into the Conventional Construction of Consciousness

From this circle, it is true, we could escape into the conventional con­struction of consciousness as a series of reflective acts: we could split the experience of the primordial field into a reality beyond consciousness and an experience by which it is represented in con­sciousness; we could, then, let consciousness reflect on the experi­ence as its content as well as on the genesis of this content of con­sciousness; we could discover the depth, reflect on the relation between consciousness and depth, and make the relation a further object for reflective consciousness; and so forth.

But to submit an experience of participation in the primordial field, of emergent truth, and of its meditative articulation through symbols to this butchery would destroy the reality of the experience as experi­enced. Moreover, it would be incompatible, not only with the pre-Socratic and classic analyses of the psyche, but also with such twentieth-century attempts at coming to grips with the problem as William James’s conception and analysis of “pure experience.”

The Wholeness of Presence not an Object

If we do not want the analysis to derail into misconstructions of this kind, we must recognize the character of wholeness in the ex­perience: the experience is experienced as wholly present to itself. This wholeness of presence, of the experience, as a character in the experience itself can be suitably expressed by the symbol “lumi­nosity.” The experience, we may say, is luminous; and that is to say it is luminous to itself as man’s consciousness of participation in the primordial field of reality, in the depth of the psyche, and in a process by which the truth of reality assumes consciousness in the historical field of equivalent verities.

Moreover, this wholeness of presence must not be construed as a structure of consciousness that now has become an “object” of investigation for the present analysis construed as an act of reflection on this “object.” The present analysis must be understood rather as a meditative ex­egesis of the experience; it is engendered by the experience itself as part of its self-articulation through symbols; in fact, it is the very process by which the experience expresses its own luminosity on the level of symbols.

As far as the analysis has been successful in differentiating the truth of reality beyond the state achieved by pre­vious equivalents, finally, we have been moving, and are moving, in the process at the point of its presence where truth emerges from the depth.

The Process in the Mode of Presence as a Constant

The final application of these insights to the problems of a con­stant in history and of equivalence requires no more than a brief statement.

There 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. History originates in the presence of the process when a truth of reality emerging from the depth recognizes itself as equiv­alent but superior to a truth previously experienced. If anything that has turned up in the course of our search deserves the name of a constant, it is the process in the mode of presence.

The search, thus, has not been futile, but the result subverts the initial ques­tion. For we have not found a constant in history but the constancy of a process that leaves a trail of equivalent symbols in time and space. To this trail we can, then, attach the conventional name of “history.”

Equivalence as an Immediate Experience

History is not a given, as we have said, but a symbol by which we express our experience of the collective as a trail left by the moving presence of the process.

For the same reasons, the prob­lem of equivalence cannot be resolved on the level of symbols. In the practice of our work, it is true, we can frequently be satisfied with a feeling of instant recognition. We can feel sure, for instance, that a design of four quarters inscribed in a circle, devised by a Stone Age symbolist, expresses an experience of the Cosmos equiva­lent to the experience which motivates the Assyrian royal style of a ruler over the four quarters of the land. But equivalence as an im­mediate experience is to be found only at the point where two sym­bolisms confront each other in the presence of the process.

Beyond constancy and equivalence there remains the problem of the process itself. We have immediate knowledge of the process only in its presence. A man whom we can name concretely–a Her­aclitus, Plato, Plotinus, or St. Augustine–experiences the process in its mode of presence.

The historical field that is left by the pro­cess, however, is not left by the confrontation of truth in the psyche of one concrete man but results from the presence of the process as it moves through the multitude of concrete beings who are mem­bers of mankind. The process as a whole that leaves the trail is not experienced by anybody concretely.

Faith Engendered by the Primordial Experience

In our time, this problem is rarely faced with critical awareness, though it is a fundamental problem of philosophy. When a philosopher explores the nature of man and arrives at the sweeping statement “All men by nature de­sire to know,” one may take exception to its general form. For the statement may apply to the philosopher whose experience of his own psyche has engendered it, but there is no empirical justifica­tion for the extension of the insight to “all men.”

Still, we do not discard the statement as fanciful, because we share with Aristotle the belief in the premise that a truth concerning the reality of man found by one man concretely does, indeed, apply to every man. The faith in this premise, however, is not engendered by an additional experience of man’s nature, but by the primordial experience of re­ality as endowed with the constancy and lastingness of structure that we symbolize as the Cosmos.

The trust in the Cosmos and its depth is the source of the premises–be it the generality of human nature or, in our case, the reality of the process as a moving pres­ence–that we accept as the context of meaning for our concrete engagement in the search of truth. The search for truth makes sense only under the assumption that the truth brought up from the depth of his psyche by man, though it is not the ultimate truth of reality, is representative of the truth in the divine depth of the Cosmos.

Behind every equivalent symbol in the historical field stands the man who has engendered it in the course of his search as representative of a truth that is more than equivalent. The search that renders no more than equivalent truth rests ultimately on the faith that, by engaging in it, man participates representatively in the divine drama of truth becoming luminous.


This excerpt is from Published Essays: 1966-1985 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 12) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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