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Eric Voegelin and Continental Philosophy: Diagnosing Modernity

Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought. Lee Trepanier and Steven F. McGuire, eds. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2011.


I am still waiting for a philosophical physician in the exceptional sense of that word–one who has to pursue the problem of the total health of a people, time, race, or of humanity–to muster the courage to push my suspicion to its limits and to risk the proposition: what was at stake in all philosophizing hitherto was not at all “truth” but something else–let us say, health, future, growth, power, life.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science


Eric Voegelin embodied Nietzsche’s “philosophical physician” to an exceptional degree. He was preoccupied with the spiritual and intellectual condition of Western culture since the Enlightenment. This is best illustrated by his studies of modern epistemology and its failure to take into account experience and its symbolism.

Voegelin’s diagnoses are derived from his open reading of philosophical texts. This openness reflects his understanding of reality–what he called “participatory.” This meant immersing himself in relationships to God and man, world and society. Voegelin acquired the learning and spiritual maturity to see how ideologies corrupt individuals and consequently, society. Courageously, Voegelin undertakes for our time the task once undertaken by Socrates. This task of restoration is again necessary because people no longer see the nature of reality or celebrate its meaning. This daunting task is both reminiscent of Plato and embraces the mystery of existence.

In Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition, Lee Trepanier and Steven F. McGuire investigate Voegelin’s relation to modern philosophy. They bring together a range of scholars who know both Voegelin and influential modern European thinkers. Contributions include those from Thomas Heilke, Cyril O’Regan, Eugene Nagy, Rouven J. Steeves, Arpad Szakolczai, David Walsh, Fred Lawrence, Barry Cooper, as well as the editors themselves. This reviewer found the essays to be well-written and insightful.

For scholars curious about Voegelin’s philosophy, especially within a contemporary context, this book is useful. It illustrates how Voegelin’s work remains relevant today in the great philosophical conversation. After all, Voegelin is not only a cutting-edge political scientist but also a philosopher and diagnostician able to answer those continental thinkers labeled the foremost representatives of modernity. In this book each scholar examines one philosopher, his interpretation of reality, and Voegelin’s analysis of his language. In the case of Trepanier’s essay on Voegelin and Derrida, Trepanier provides all the commentary since neither man said much about the other.

The book seeks to reconsider Voegelin’s diagnosis of the problems in modernity while introducing a new perspective. It does show that Voegelin is not always carefully analytic and unbiased. Yet he would be less fascinating and less human if he did not state things exactly as they appear to him–his bold and cheeky tone is evidence of that. Take, for example, Cyril O’Regan’s essay on “Voegelin and the Troubled Greatness of Hegel.”(44-63)  In a meticulous manner, by carefully piecing together Voegelin’s episodic criticisms of Hegel, O’Regan shows both that Voegelin demystifies Hegel as a sorcerer and, at the same time, acknowledges Hegel’s greatness as a philosopher whose influence is everywhere, unavoidable, and often bad. But Hegel did “attempt to understand the very modernity that made his philosophy possible.” (45) O’Regan makes clear that although Voegelin sympathizes with Hegel’s troubling call to understand and interpret modernity, he differs from him because he refuses to join in Hegel’s sickness or the disorder of the times. O’Regan also shows that Hegel’s unfriendly and obscure vocabulary is palpably related to his derailment from reality–in other words, his gnosis–in company with Heidegger, Schelling and Nietzsche. A troubled philosopher indeed!

Another striking conversation occurs between Voegelin and Nietzsche in Rouven J. Steeves’ “Dionysus verses the Crucified: Nietzsche and Voegelin and the Search for Truthful Order.”(108-136)  Steeves shows that although Voegelin displays compassion for Nietzsche, he refuses to follow him into that dark abyss of the psyche and contrasts Nietzsche with Voegelin’s own experience of openness to the transcendent. Steeves fervently proposes the idea that in wandering in the darkness and truly experiencing the struggles in the soul, there are truths waiting to be found. In this way, Voegelin, as Steeves writes, “never quite allow[s] himself or his reader to unconsciously experience the struggle of a spiritual wanderer for whom the dark night of the soul never leads to a heavenly grace-infused dawn.” (108)

Perhaps the most daring and praiseworthy essay is Lee Trepanier’s “The Paradoxes of Participatory Reality,” wherein he imagines a dialogue between Voegelin and Derrida.(240-259) Skillfully he argues that both Voegelin and Derrida attempt to recover the participatory mode–the paradoxical existence–against the persistent threat of Cartesian thought–its subjectivity and the dangerous confusion to which it leads. According to Trepanier, Voegelin’s and Derrida’s thoughts synchronize on a number of topics troubling contemporary philosophy. These range from man’s experience of consciousness to questions of ontology and metaphysics, both thinkers essentially espousing a kindred mode of philosophy that is open to all of the possibilities of existence and accepting life as a mysterious adventure.

Trepanier perceptively focuses on the importance of language for Voegelin and Derrida, even though Voegelin’s philosophy of lacks a formal linguistics when compared to Derrida because it is subordinate to his philosophy of consciousness. For both Voegelin and Derrida, language and words mean something–words are not empty things floating around the world, but meaningful affections of the soul.(242) Trepanier looks at Voegelin and Derrida and concludes that the derailment of philosophy is due in part to our taking language for granted in a way that promotes the misuse of words, misuse which distorts and severs man’s relationship to reality and the possibilities of paradoxical participation.

Although only three of the ten essays are discussed here, all contributions are helpful in their discussions of the influence of continental thinkers on Voegelin’s philosophy. Overall the book is an achievement in Voegelinian scholarship and a hopeful step forward in acknowledging Voegelin as an active participant in the great philosophical conversation. Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition finally suggests that no one thinker ranked as important today is to blame for the current malaise that pervades Western philosophy. Voegelin was able to examine all of them because he was not swept up in the confusion that limited many of his contemporaries.


An essay of the book is here. Chapters are available about the following thinkers: Heidegger, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Kant, Hegel, and Derrida.

Sarah SheaSarah Shea

Sarah Shea

Sarah Shea is a PhD student in the Philosophy of Religion at McGill University in Canada. Her dissertation is a study of Camus' relationship to Nietzsche and their shared affinity for Greek philosophy.

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