Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics: Revisited

HomeArticlesEric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics: Revisited

Nearly sixty-five years ago, Eric Voegelin delivered a series of lectures at the University of Chicago under the sponsorship of the Walgreen Foundation.  These lectures were subsequently published the following year and The New Science of Politics quickly became a best seller in political theory.[1] Many viewed the book as an apology for political theory and while this is partially correct, it obscures the true significance of Voegelin’s work.

Voegelin was indeed concerned about the debilitating effects of the behavioral movement on political science, but he was far more worried about the political disorder of his age.  The methodological debates that permeated the discipline during the middle of the 20th century were symptomatic of a much larger problem within modernity:  gnosticism.   The political problems of the 20th century, exemplified by the rise of National Socialism and Communism, could directly be attributed to the same underlying disease that permeated the academy.  Voegelin had witnessed first hand the disastrous political effects of National Socialism, and he barely escaped the grasp of the Gestapo with his life.  He was particularly troubled by the inability of academics to diagnose the problem and many of his colleagues simply went along with the Nazi program (and were rewarded for doing so).  Voegelin’s project was intended to accurately diagnose the political disorder of his age and this required a “new science of politics.”  However, a diagnosis is but the first step towards health and thus Voegelin’s new science was also intended to aid in the creation of a proper political order.  I will briefly explore the essential elements in this two-pronged approach and assess whether Voegelin’s instruction can help us navigate the political problems of the 21st century.

The very title of Voegelin’s work points to a crisis within the discipline of political science.  The methodological debates within the discipline hit a fever pitch with the behavioral revolution.  The influence of positivism had permeated the academy and there was a concerted effort within the social sciences to become more “scientific.”  The prestige afforded to the natural sciences had understandably left some in the social sciences with a desire to receive similar acclaim.  Following the lead of Auguste Comte, an effort was made to “positivize” the social sciences by embracing the methodology of the natural sciences.  Political scientists within the United States met the issue head on during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s.  In spite of the declared victory of the behavioral movement, the issue has remained a point of contention within the discipline.[2] This is because an appreciable group of political scientists have found positive political science to be inadequate, particularly in the realm of practical politics.  Voegelin serves as perhaps the most influential figure in that camp and it is worth briefly recounting the basics of his critique of positive political science as offered in The New Science of Politics.

As noted, Voegelin’s call for a new science of politics was primarily spurred by the inadequacy of positive political science to address the political crises of his time (especially the experience of Nazi Germany).  According to Voegelin’s analysis, a restoration of political science is required because of two particularly destructive effects of positivism.[3]  The first is the assumption that the methods of the natural sciences have inherent worth and can be applied to all other sciences, including the human sciences.  The second, and more dangerous, assumption is that the methods of the natural sciences become the criterion for theoretical relevance.[4] As Voegelin notes:

The second assumption is the real source of danger.  For this second assumption subordinates theoretical relevance to method and thereby perverts the meaning of science. Science is a search for truth concerning the nature of the various realms of being.  Relevant in science is whatever contributes to the success of this search.  Facts are relevant in so far as their knowledge contributes to the study of essence, while methods are adequate in so far as they can be effectively used a means for this end. Different objects require different methods.[5]

If method is made the criterion of science, then what becomes of questions that cannot be answered with that method?  According to Voegelin’s analysis, they are either ignored or relegated to the realm of “values.”  A value-free science however cannot instruct a citizen or statesman how to properly act nor can it condemn tyranny.   Thus, in the face of the major political crises of the 20th century, positive political science remained silent (or complicit), and it was this point, more so than any particular methodological quibble, which convinced Voegelin a new science of politics was necessary.

To further illustrate the need for a new science of politics, Voegelin points to the case of representation.  According to Voegelin, positive political science does a fine job of describing elemental and conventional representation, but fails to address existential representation.  Elemental representation simply refers to who is in charge of the political order.  Conventional representation deals with representative institutions and how they function.  For example, in the United States, there are numerous representative institutions at each level of government (federal, state, local) including the Congress, state legislatures, and city councils.   Positive political science can tell us precisely how these institutions are structured and also how they are designed to work.  However, the final and most important level of representation, existential, is left untouched by positive political science.  While Voegelin acknowledges the relevance of studies focused on the “external existence of a political society,” such studies cannot be comprehensive unless they also incorporate the internal or “existential” aspect of political society.[6]According to Voegelin’s analysis, citizens will appoint a “representative who will represent the society with regard to the whole range of human existence, including its spiritual dimension.”[7] The spiritual dimension is decisive because of the “self-interpretation of society.”  Voegelin notes:

Human society is not merely a fact, or an event, in the external world to be studied by an observer like a natural phenomenon.  Though it has externality as one of its important components, it is as a whole a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization.  It is illuminated through an elaborate symbolism . . .The self illumination of society through symbols is an integral part of social reality, and one may even say its essential part, for through such symbolization the members of a society experience it as more than as accident or convenience; they experience it as of their human essence.[8]

Voegelin’s insistence on the importance of existential representation is justified by a quick glance at the major civilizations throughout history.  Societies are not magically ordered “givens.”  To the contrary, the ordering of a particular society is tied directly to that society’s interpretation of its place within the cosmos.  That interpretation is then “canonized” through civil theology.  The idea of American exceptionalism and the “city on the hill” are good examples of the self-interpretation of those within the United States.  Great societies often envision themselves to be carriers of the truth and large-scale warfare can result when these visions of truth are not shared with other societies.[9]  Within the past century, the Soviet, Japanese, Chinese, American, and British empires all claimed to have truth on their respective sides. Trying to decipher between competing claims to truth cannot be done within the framework of positive political science so we are simply left with the unsatisfactory notion that each has society has its own “values” and those values cannot be judged scientifically.

The majority of The New Science of Politics is dedicated to Voegelin’s assertion that gnosticism constitutes the “essence of modernity.”[10] While space precludes a full discussion of gnosticism, it is important to note how it relates to the study of politics.  Generally speaking, modern gnosticism can be characterized by the desire to “immanentize” the Christian eschaton.  While Christianity promises perfection in the next life, modern gnostics expect perfection in this world.   This makes politics of first-rate importance since “heaven on earth” is to be created through political programs. The modern gnostic wants to create order in a disorderly world and believes that gnosis, or special knowledge, will facilitate the process.  Anyone who resists the prescribed program is an impediment to progress and the movement of history and can be dealt with accordingly.  National Socialism, Marxism, progressivism, and scientism all represent variants of modern gnosticism.[11]  The movements may be primarily intellectual (such as with Freud and Comte) or political (Marx), but the dynamic nature of the movements often means that they envelope both realms.   The intimate connection between the intellectual and the political explains Voegelin’s call for a new science of politics.  Much like Plato and Aristotle, Voegelin points to proper education as a corrective measure to political disorder.  And since strands of modern gnosticism have infected the political realm and the academy, a political solution must encompass educational reform.  For Voegelin, that reform must start with the study of politics.

Before outlining what a new science of politics would need to encompass in order to overcome the deficiencies of the dominant paradigm, it is important to assess whether Voegelin’s critique of political science still holds true today.  A brief examination of the situation will show that many of Voegelin’s concerns have not been adequately addressed.  While political theory still exists as a subfield, its legitimacy has continued to come under question.[12]  Some notable programs have dropped the field altogether and others have added political methodology as a subfield.  Quantitative methodology has thrived with the technological advances made over the last several decades.  Students can now run multiple regressions with a few strokes of a computer program and nearly every graduate program requires at least one course in quantitative methodology.  This training is necessary for without it the students would be unable to comprehend the majority of scholarly articles published in the leading journals of the field.   So in the realm of methodology, it is clear that positivism has continued to permeate the discipline.

As outlined previously, methodology was merely a secondary concern for Voegelin.  He was concerned with it only insofar as it hampered theoretical relevancy.  So we must ask whether political science, as a whole, has demonstrated its relevancy?   According to Voegelin, the relevant questions in the study of politics are those that the average citizen is concerned with:

As far as the subject matter, it is nothing esoteric; rather, it lies no far from the questions of the day and is concerned with the truth of things that everyone talks about.  What is happiness? How should a man live in order to be happy? What is virtue? What, especially, is the virtue of justice? How large a territory and a population are best for a society? What kind of education is best? What professions, and what form of government?  All of these questions arise from the conditions of the existence of man in society.[13]

Do the articles in the leading journals of the discipline typically refer to questions that concern the citizenry or that can help guide the statesman in terms of policy?  The answer, for the most part, seems to be no, and many within the discipline do not seem to mind.  Rosato and Schuessler, International Relations scholars, echo this sentiment in their article, “A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States.”  The view of many governmental officials, on their account, is that  “academia represents an irrelevant ivory tower.”[14]  Another prominent political scientist, Joseph Nye, notes, “scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world . . . (and) in many departments, a focus on policy can hurt one’s career.”[15] Thus, there seems to be self-awareness within the discipline that many of the studies being conducted are not directly relatable to the actual practice of politics.  Rosato and Schuessler argue: “political scientists can and should contribute to policy debates. The reason that political scientists can make a valuable contribution is simple, but cannot be repeated enough:  theory and policy are inextricably linked.”[16]

The question must be raised as to why this continues to be a problem.  The short answer is because of the deleterious effects of scientism.  As noted previously, scientism is a variant of gnosticism and is characterized by a dogmatic faith in the methods of the natural sciences.  The incessant focus on methodology is symptomatic of scientism’s effect on the academy.  The desire to be “scientific” has seemingly trumped theoretical relevance.  The lack of attention given to existential representation has persisted and Voegelin’s concerns have not been addressed for the most part.  What must be done in order to adequately restore political science to a comprehensive science of man?  Drawing heavily from Voegelin, I outline what the new science needs to encompass and how it would differ from the current paradigm.

Towards a New Science of Politics[17]

From the onset, it is important to acknowledge an inherent difficulty in proposing such a solution: language has been co-opted by the very system that I propose to replace.  More specifically, terms such as reason, experience, facts, empiricism, and perhaps most importantly, science, have taken on different meanings within modernity. Scientistic thinkers such as Bacon and Comte appeal to experience and reason, but they have something different in mind than did Plato and Aristotle. Thus, a crucial part of the task will be to clarify the different meanings of these terms and to ultimately recover the elements that were lost with the transition to modernity.  Let us begin with perhaps the most important of these terms, reason, for all science (whether of the ancient or modern variety) depends on it for its justification and implementation.


The one thing that nearly every philosopher and scientist will agree upon is that reason is crucial to his enterprise.  Yet, we would find less agreement if we asked them to define reason.  This is in part due to the fundamental shift that occurred with the inception of modernity whereby reason acquired a much more “practical” bent.[18]  The bios theoretikos, or contemplative life, was diminished in favor a practical utility.  Reason, instead of being considered the pinnacle of the soul as in Plato and Aristotle, became a mere means to an end within modernity.  And instead of ordering the soul, reason became the slave of the passions and was relegated to a tool used in their service.[19] By the time of Darwin, reason had become nothing more than an evolutionary tool to aid in survival and serve the self-interest of human beings. And unlike Aristotle, who posited reason as the differentia specifica, Darwin was quick to ascribe it to other living beings. Reason could help us (and other living beings) secure certain ends, but it would have little, if anything, to say about which ends to pursue.

There are at least two reasons that we can point to for this change in the meaning of reason.  The first is the tremendous success of the natural sciences in providing tangible benefits.  Medicine and technology provided “proof” of the efficacy of the new conception of science and its implementation of reason.  Secondly, the gradual diminishment of Christianity’s influence led to an emphasis of the physical over the spiritual, which subsequently meant that the body gained primacy over the soul.[20] Aristotle had praised the bios theoretikos as the happiest life because it requires the utilization of man’s most divine capacity.[21]  To the extent that we embrace that capacity and engage in contemplation, we are “immortalizing.” Like Plato, he places reason at the pinnacle of the soul.  And to care for the soul is far more important than the body as Plato makes clear throughout his works.[22]  Once the soul’s existence is denied or placed in the service of the body, reason necessarily must be redefined.  And in this redefinition, reason loses any connection to the divine and ceases to be the constitutive part of man’s nature.[23] It is my argument that this redefinition of reason was not justified and that it has led to stasis, or rigidification, within the political order.  To understand why this is the case, it is necessary to turn to a more in depth examination of reason in the classical sense.

Voegelin offers a penetrating analysis of reason’s role in antiquity in his essay, Reason:  The Classic Experience.  Voegelin posits reason as an epochal event in the history of mankind.  It represents a “process in reality in which concrete human beings, ‘the lovers of wisdom,’ the philosophers as they styled themselves, were engaged in an act of resistance against the personal and social disorder of their age.”[24] It serves as an ordering structure in the psyche, or soul, of man and is borne out of a concrete resistance to disorder (both within the individual and in society).  To this particular kind of reason, Plato and Aristotle gave the name nous.  As Voegelin notes, the nous serves as the “cognitively luminous force that inspired philosophers to resist and, at the same time, enabled them to recognize the phenomena of disorder in the light of a humanity ordered by nous.[25] Therefore, noetic reason constitutes both the “force and criterion of order.”[26] In other words, it provides us with the cognitive tools necessary to recognize disorder while also providing us with the model of proper order to correct it.

Voegelin is careful to point out that the discovery of nous, although epochal in the philosophical sense, did not magically cure the political ills of the time:

Reason in the noetic sense, it should be understood, does not put an apocalyptic end to history either now or in a progressivist future.  It rather pervades the history which it constitutes with a new luminosity of existential order in resistance to disordering passion.  Its modus operandi is not revolution, action, or compulsion, but persuasion, the peitho that is central to Plato’s existence as a philosopher.  It does not abolish the passions but makes reason articulate, so that noetic consciousness becomes a persuasive force of order the stark light it lets fall on the phenomena of personal and social disorder.  To have raised the tension of order and disorder in existence to the luminosity of noetic dialogue and discourse is the epochal feat of the classic philosophers.[27]

The reason that nous cannot provide a magical political cure is because of the fact that each individual must first overcome disorder in his own soul.[28]  The tension of existence, to use Voegelin’s terminology, requires “balance of consciousness.”[29] The “aperionic depth”, or nothingness, holds an equally prominent place in man’s nature, as does the divine nous.  Furthermore, man is not a “disembodied psyche ordered by reason.”[30]  He possesses a corporeal nature and experiences the pull of the passions.  Thus, while criticism of the radically immanent conception of man proffered by the likes of Darwin and Marx is well placed, any attempt to downplay the passions and corporeal nature of man must also be rejected for they constitute a crucial part of man’s nature.

Due to the luminosity provided by noetic insight, Plato and Aristotle were able to acknowledge their own ignorance.  Indeed, both Plato and Aristotle place “wondering” as the starting point for philosophy.[31] In fact, Aristotle extends the dictum to everyone: “All men by nature desire to know.”[32]While all men experience this desire, it is stronger in some.  The philosopher is one who is drawn by a sense of urgency to seek answers to the questions of his existence.  Plato’s parable of the Cave is the symbolization par excellence of this search.[33]  The prisoner is moved to turn around (periagoge) and ascend out of the cave by a mysterious, unknown force.[34]  The wisdom acquired outside of the cave is only attainable because of that force, but the draw alone is not enough: the prisoner must respond to the calling that compels him to turn around.  It should be noted that the experience of wondering in Plato and Aristotle is not one of fear and anxiety: it is one of joy.[35] As Voegelin notes, this is “because the questioning has direction; the unrest is experienced as a theophanic event in which the nous reveals itself as the divine ordering force in which the psyche of the questioner and cosmos at large; it is an invitation to pursue its meaning into the actualization of noetic consciousness.”[36]

Voegelin contrasts the classic experience of reason with some of the prominent representatives of modern reason in order to exemplify what happens when nous is disregarded and the directive nature of the search has been lost:

In the modern Western history of unrest, on the contrary, from the Hobbesian “fear of death” to Heidegger’s Angst, the tonality has shifted from joyful participation in a theophany to the agnoia ptoiodes, to the hostile alienation from a reality that rather hides than reveals itself.  A Hobbes replaces the summum bonum with the summum malum as the ordering force of man’s existence; a Hegel builds his state of alienation into a system and invites all men to become Hegelians; a Marx rejects the Aristotelian quest of the ground outright and invites you to join him, as a “socialist man,” in his state of alienation, a Freud diagnoses the openness toward the ground as an “illusion,” a “neurotic relict,” and an “infantilism”; a Heidegger waits for a “parousia of being” which does not come, a Sartre feels “condemned to be free” and thrashes around in the creation of substitute meanings for the meaning he has missed.[37]

Yet, the shift represents more than just a change in tone or emphasis.  The problem is that those thinkers invoke “reason” as justification for their respective systems.  The zoon noun echon (the being that possesses nous) has been replaced by the zoon agnoian echon (the being that possesses ignorance).[38]  But if all men desire by nature to know, then how can we make sense of this derailment?  The answer lies within the response to the state of unrest.  If man fails to utilize and nurture his highest capacity, noetic reasoning, then the questioning will have no direction.  The sense of disorientation that results will then lead to artificial constructions of order, or second realities, in which the individual can gain a sense of certainty and control over his existence.  Such constructions, however, must be protected because they will fail under rational scrutiny.  Thus, a key tenet of modern systems (such as those offered by Marx and Comte), explicitly prohibit philosophical questioning in the classic sense.[39]  A recovery of reason then will necessarily entail an “open” approach to politics: one that features philosophical questioning at its core.


Another term that has acquired a new meaning within modernity is experience.  When faced with questions of verification, both classical and modern political philosophers will point to experience as proof, or evidence, of their respective claims.  However, it is important to note the differences in what is meant by experience.  For instance, when Bacon laments that none before him has “spent an adequate amount of time on things themselves and on experience,”[40] he is referring to observation and experimentation.  Sense perception alone may mislead us, but the experiment serves as the “assistant to the senses” and allows us to gain true insight into nature.  So while admitting the inadequacy of the senses if unaided, Bacon’s “experience” is one based on information gained through the sense perception.  This is a perfectly reasonable definition in relation to the natural sciences, but a crucial aspect of human existence is ignored if we simply import Bacon’s notion of experience into the study of human affairs.[41]

Plato and Aristotle also appeal to experience, but they include an aspect that is missing in Bacon’s account:  apperceptive experience. This is an inner, participatory experience.  As Ellis Sandoz notes in The Voegelinian Revolution, “it is, in any event, evident that the material and quantifiable do not exhaust the whole of experienced reality.  No account that takes only these factors into consideration can form a sufficient basis for understanding man in his humanity or for understanding the science of politics.”[42] Man’s noetic capacity gives insight into areas of reality that are not exhausted by sensory perception.  Insight into the structure of reality, and the realization of one’s own participation in the metaxy are apperceptive experiences.[43] The divine draw, or pull, that man experiences, the force that compels him to turn around; these are just as real (Plato and Aristotle would argue that they are more so) as any sensory perception. The fact that man participates in this process precludes any notion of the traditional subject-object dichotomy that is prevalent in the methodology of natural science. Plato turns to the myth in part because apperceptive experiences are often ineffable.  The medium of myth allows him to symbolize experiences that do not lend themselves easily to a standard, philosophical exegesis.  This necessitates the understanding that politics is a relatively “imprecise” science for one can only be as precise as the subject matter allows.[44] Man’s apperceptive experiences are not expressible as mathematical formulae, nor can they be reduced to mere description.

Another important aspect of experience that is often neglected within modernity, and certainly in its scientistic manifestations, is common sense.  Common sense serves as a line of defense against ideologies and systems that exclude or inhibit important aspects of political reality.  As Thomas Reid notes:

There is a certain degree of it which is necessary to our being subjects of law and government, capable of managing our own affairs, and answerable for our conduct towards others:  This is called common sense, because it is common to all men with whom we can transact business, or call to account for their conduct.[45]

Voegelin points out that it means the same as a “branch or degree of ratio” and represents the “habit of judgment and conduct of a man formed by ratio.[46] Voegelin points to Aristotle’s Politics as an example of a “commonsense study,” since it deals with situations that typically arise in society and history.[47] Common sense is also what allows us to recognize the deficiencies of ideological systems.  So when Marx tells a hypothetical interlocutor to give up his questions about the nature of his existence or posits that man is a self-created being, common sense experience leads us to reject such propositions.[48]  Marx’s systematic ban on such questions serves as proof that he realizes the sway of common sense experience and therefore, he must find a way to convince his followers to ignore it.


Again, we encounter the problem of meaning when we assess the term “facts.”  As with reason and experience, most thinkers will claim to have “facts” on their side. And any science must rely on facts for its validation.  Positivism helped initiate the separation between “fact” and “value.”  Under this conception, facts are held to be empirically demonstrable; that is to say, accessible through sense perception.  Furthermore, facts cannot be tied to any sense of right or wrong; they are “value-free.”  To be scientific, on this account, is to engage in a discussion of facts. Thus, science is ethically neutral and the social scientist must strive to be so as well (to the extent he is being a good scientist). As Leo Strauss points out, such an attitude can lead not only to nihilism, but, perhaps more importantly, to a blind acceptance of the status quo.[49] As Strauss notes, “ethical neutrality . . . is not more than an alibi for thoughtlessness and vulgarity:  by saying that democracy and truth are values, he says in effect that one does not have to think about the reasons why these things are good, and that he may bow as well as anyone else to the values that are adopted and respected by his society.  Social science positivism fosters not so much nihilism as conformism and philistinism.”[50] Strauss points to the almost unanimous acceptance of democracy amongst American social scientists as evidence of this claim.  Furthermore, the social scientists in his homeland of Germany, offered little in the way of a critique of the Nazi regime (something that Voegelin vigorously pointed out as well).  That this was the case should not be too surprising given the positivistic outlook of those practitioners.

In stark contrast to the positive conception of social science, we again can turn to Aristotle.  Far from being ethically neutral, Aristotle was adamant that ethics served as the foundation for political order.[51]  Like the positive social scientist, Aristotle noted the importance of facts, but he was much more expansive in his definition. The student of politics has to study the soul first and foremost since the end of politics is the good of man.[52]  The philosophical anthropology offered by Aristotle does not represent a “value judgment” or an “opinion.”  As Voegelin notes:

Neither classical nor Christian ethics and politics contain value judgments but elaborate empirically and critically, the problems of order which derive from philosophical anthropology as part of a general ontology.  Only when ontology as a science was lost, and when consequently ethics and politics could no longer be understood as sciences of the order in which human nature reaches its maximal actualization, was it possible for this realm of knowledge to become suspect as a field of subjective, uncritical opinion.[53]

Man’s nature includes not only the corporeal, but also the spiritual. The reductionist philosophical anthropologies offered by the likes of Comte, Marx, and Darwin fail to account for man’s non-corporeal nature, and thus the systems that they base around such conceptions necessarily fail.  They mistakenly subordinate theoretical relevance to methodology and exclude from examination the questions that matter the most in human affairs.  Science is not to be characterized by any particular method; it provides insight into the nature and order of things. Thus, it aspires to rise above mere opinion and arrive at knowledge.  The methods of the natural sciences are scientific only because they serve to provide insight into the subject matter that is being investigated, not because there is any inherent worth in the method itself.  Yet, politics deals with the most complex of subjects, human beings, and as such, it cannot be studied using methods that were designed to study different (and much simpler) subjects.[54] Moreover, ethics and politics are prudential sciences; they deal with action primarily.  Because of this, rigid rules of action cannot be formulated.  The fluidity of human affairs allows for generalizations and guideposts, but cannot be subjected to the rigorous quantification and precision found in fields with less complex subject matter.  Facts must be taken to mean anything that corresponds to reality; a reality experienced by concrete human beings (whether it be of the perceptive or apperceptive variety).  And thus a student of politics, far from being removed from politics, must be immersed in it.


Another term that deserves attention is empiricism.  The meaning of the term has narrowed considerably within modernity, especially with the advent of positivism.  Modern day social scientists often equate empiricism with measurability or with quantification.  A study is said to be “empirical” if it utilizes objective, quantitative measures or if it refers to concrete historical cases. While such measures do indeed belong in the empirical realm, they are not exhaustive.  The misunderstanding has arisen from the tendency to separate the normative from the empirical, with the assumption being that only the latter is scientific.  The empirical merely states “what is” while the normative suggests “what ought to be.”  The problem with this distinction is similar to that found in the fact-value dichotomy: it unnecessarily reduces the legitimate realm of knowledge.  Any study that bases its claims on experiential reality has the right to be called empirical.[55]  An examination of human nature or political order is just as empirical as the number of representatives a state has in Congress.  The standard for determining if a statement is empirical rests on its relation to reality and to the facts, not on its proclivity to quantification. Thus, the likes of Plato and Aristotle are not merely offering normative suggestions; they are conveying empirical facts about reality![56]


In addition to the other terms mentioned (reason, experience, facts, and empiricism), a change also occurred in the meaning of science itself.  Indeed, the problem of scientism is directly tied to the “new” meaning of science that has arisen within modernity. Science holds great prestige and any claim can be bolstered exponentially if it can be labeled as “scientific.”  Conversely, any claim that is seen as “unscientific” can readily be dismissed.  Thus, the question about what constitutes science is paramount.[57] Without some idea of what constitutes science, we would be unable to distinguish pseudo-science from science and scientific claims would hold little persuasive power.

One aim the “new science” shares with present day social science, and more specifically political science, is to be scientific.  Yet this paradigm is quite obviously “philosophical” so it is important to explain why it is also scientific. The distinction between philosophy and science is a modern invention.  Prior to Bacon, philosophy and science were identical.  “Natural philosophy” was the term applied to what we now refer to as natural science. Beginning with Bacon, the break with the Aristotelian tradition, led to a separation of philosophy and science.  As Strauss explains:

The distinction between philosophy and science or the separation of science from philosophy was a consequence of the revolution which occurred in the seventeenth century. This revolution was primarily not the victory of science over metaphysics, but what one may call the victory of the new philosophy or science over Aristotelian philosophy or science.  Yet the new philosophy or science was not equally successful in all its parts.  Its most successful part was physics (and mathematics) . . .The victory of the new physics led to the emergence of a physics which seemed to be as metaphysically neutral as, say, mathematics, medicine, or the art of shoemaking.  The emergence of a metaphysically neutral physics made it possible for “science” to become independent of “philosophy” and in fact an authority for the latter.  It paved the way . . .for the separation of political science from political philosophy as well as the separation of economics and sociology from political science.[58]

The new standard of science became physics and those in other fields tried their best to legitimate their studies by emulating it.  The prestige afforded to the new science was something that all wished to share in.  This is why Hume tried to imitate Newton’s methodology in the field of ethics and why Comte went through great pains to create a “social physics.”[59]  With the rejection of Aristotle’s physics came the rejection of his politics and ethics.[60] The problem arises from the fact that the methods that work so well in physics do not prove as fruitful in the realm of human affairs.  And the misguided emphasis on method has led to an oversight of the problems that matter most.

An important aspect of the recovery of nous is the recognition that it is the driving force of what constitutes science in the first place.  As Voegelin explains:

The truth of noesis has the character of rationality and science . . .(it) establishes the historical fact that the Platonic-Aristotelian noesis has developed the indices science (episteme) and theory (theoria) in order to express the character of their mode of knowledge and to distinguish it from the non-noetic modes of knowledge as the doxai, beliefs or opinions. “Science” is not determined by the mystery of a pre-existent definition, it rather discovers itself as the knowledge of the structure of reality, when consciousness historically attains the illumination of itself and its ratio . . . Modern natural science is science not because we recognize it as such by convention but because the methods it uses to investigate the structure of the world are compatible with the ratio of noesis.[61]

Under this conception, the term “science” can indeed be appropriated beyond the methods of the natural sciences to the insights of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy.  And the assumption that “mathematical natural science” is the model of science itself is shown to be an “ideological dogma stemming from modern scientism.”[62] The aspiration to be “scientific” in the narrow sense has unfortunately led social scientists to overlook the fundamental problems of human existence. The call for a new science of politics then is not simply a nostalgic desire to return to the past, but a necessity for the future.


In summary, it is instructive to outline the features of a new, or revised, science of politics. A science of politics must at its core rest on a proper understanding of man.  The good of man is the proper end of politics and that good cannot be determined or acquired unless man’s full nature is accounted for.  This means going beyond his corporeal nature and beyond the methods that are designed to study his phenomenal nature.  As Voegelin points out, “a theory of politics must cover the problem of the order of man’s entire existence.”[63]  This includes both the corporeal foundation and ordering consciousness; any attempt to focus on one or the other necessarily misses the mark. Political science must again be conducted from the perspective of the citizen and statesman: not from an imaginary Archimedean point of objective neutrality.  Political analysis must start from common sense experience and any attempt to systematize politics into a fixed set of propositions must be rejected.  As a corollary, any analysis must ultimately be subjected to open questioning and the “proof” of a claim will be guaranteed not by a particular methodology but through experience (in the broad sense of the term).  The search does not stop at the common sense level however; science aspires to move beyond opinion into the realm of knowledge.  Thus, reason becomes paramount and more specifically, nous must be accounted for. The “sensorium” for this capacity is consciousness and each man must account for his own existence within the metaxy.  Consciousness represents a participatory experience; the structure of reality is illuminated through the noetic capacity, but it also represents a process in the journey towards truth.  In other words, noetic knowledge is subjective, but not solipsistic.  The luminosity that Plato or Aristotle experiences is representative for all men and assuming that human nature is constant, it holds true throughout time.

Appeals to common sense experience and to consciousness may have an alienating effect on those who have been immersed in the positivist dogma and understandably so. Yet, those are indispensable parts of reality as experienced by man and thus we cannot simply eliminate them because they do not happen to fit into the preferred way of doing things.  As Sandoz succinctly summarizes, noetic science:

[c]onsists in the exploration of experience from the perspective of participation as its empirical basis; it sets aside the mathematizing method of the natural sciences and of conventional (or positivist) social science, as well as the extraneous language of subject-object, the dogmatic fact-value dichotomy, and the contraction of scientifically relevant “experience” to the world of sense perception as the controlling (if not sole) reality screening scientific questions from pseudo-questions. Not to do so would be to abandon reality as experienced.[64]

Furthermore, if political science is to have any authority whatsoever in the realm of “real-world” politics, it must account for things that matter to the citizenry.  While a glance at current scholarship would have us believe that the question of the best regime has been settled (democracy is clearly the answer), how are we to recognize when a not so innocuous form of government begins to arise? Does current political science possess the cognitive tools both to recognize disorder and to offer a corrective? The answer given by the likes of Voegelin, Strauss, Andreski, Hayek, MacIntyre, and Kolakowski is a resounding no! It is my contention that one of the key crises of our age, scientism, has infected both the political order and the very science that is designed to protect it.  Just as the discovery of nous did not lead to a magical transformation of the political order in Athens, a new political science cannot be expected to solve the perpetual problems of human existence.  But it can at least allow us to recognize those problems and provide guidance on how to vitiate their effects.



[1] See Dante Germino’s Foreword to Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics:  An Introduction.  (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 1952) p.v

[2] For an example of a declared victory, see Robert Dahl’s “The Behavioral Approach in Political Science:  Epitaph for a Monument to a Successful Protest.”  American Political Science Review Vol. 55 No. 4 (December) pp.763-772

[3] The New Science of Politics p.4

[4] Ibid p.4

[5] Ibid pp.4-5

[6] Ibid p.33

[7] Ibid p.43

[8] Ibid p.27

[9] Voegelin points to the Mongol empire’s clash with the Christianized West as a prime example of truths clashing.  Ibid pp.56-57

[10] Ibid p.126

[11] Scientism (the dogmatic faith in the methods of the natural sciences) is the variant that manifests itself within the academy. Ibid p.164

[12] For an excellent article on political theory’s relationship to the discipline as a whole see Andrew Rehfeld’s “Offensive Political Theory.” Perspectives on Politics (June 2010) pp.465-486

[13] Eric Voegelin. Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. Ed. Sandoz (Wilmington:  ISI Books, 2004) p. 12

[14] Sebastian Rosato and John Scheussler.  “A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States.” Perspectives on Politics Volume 9 No. 4 (December 2011) p.803

[15] p. 803

[16] Ibid pp.803-804

[17] This section includes previously published material.  See David Whitney.  Maladies of Modernity:  Scientism and the Deformation of Political Order.  (South Bend, Indiana:  St. Augustine Press)  2016   pp.131-144

[18] Strauss points to this shift as one of the distinguishing features of modernity.  See Leo Strauss. Liberalism: Ancient and Modern. (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1989) pp.20-21

[19] “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” See David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L.A. Sigby-Bigge (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1896) Book II, Section III, Part III “Of the influencing motives of the will.”

[20] To the extent the soul was thought to exist at all, discussion of it was relegated to “unscientific” fields such as theology.

[21] See Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Ostwald (New Jersey:  Prentice Hall Publishing).  To the extent man leads the contemplative life, his life “would be more than human.  A man would do so not insofar as he is human, but because there is a divine element within him.” 1177b 25-30

[22] For example, see the Phaedo (63A-B).  Socrates defines philosophy as the practice of dying.  This is because the body is viewed as a hindrance to the soul.  He then proceeds to provide epideictic proofs for the immortality of the soul.

[23] I am simply referring to the new view of reason and the subsequent understanding of man that results. I am not suggesting an actual change in human nature.

[24]  Anamnesis p.89

[25] Ibid. p.89

[26] Ibid p.89

[27] Ibid pp.90-91

[28] This is due to the anthropological principle of Plato.  The polis is “man writ large.” This means that the order of a society will reflect the order of the individuals that constitute it. See Republic Book II (367C-369C)

[29] Anamnesis p.90

[30] Ibid p.92

[31] See Plato’s Theaetetus Trans. Sachs. (Newbury Port, MA:  Focus Publishing, 2004) (155d)

[32] Anamnesis p.93 (emphasis added)

[33] See Plato’s Republic. Book VII

[34] Anamnesis p.94

[35] Ibid p.101

[36] Ratio is what gives the search direction toward to the Ground. p.101

[37] Ibid pp.102-103

[38] Ibid p.102

[39] Voegelin asserts that those thinkers knowingly distort reality; it is not simply an intellectual error.  Ibid p.3

[40] Francis Bacon. The New Organon.  Ed. Jardine and Silverthorne. (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000)  p.8

[41] Ethical and political constraints prohibit the implementation of experimentation on human beings.  We cannot “vex” humans in the same way we can manipulate nature in the laboratory.

[42] Ellis Sandoz. The Voegelinian Revolution. 2nd edition. (New Brunswick and London:  Transaction Publishers, 2000) p.148

[43] Anamnesis p.209

[44] As Aristotle readily points out in the Nicomachean Ethics: “a well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits.” To do otherwise is “foolish.”  (1094b lines 23-26)

[45] As quoted by Voegelin. See Anamnesis pp.211-12

[46] Ibid p.212

[47] Ibid p.212

[48] See Karl Marx. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Milligan (New York:  Prometheus Books, 1988) p.111

[49] See Leo Strauss. What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). pp.19-20.  Stanislav Andreski makes a similar claim noting social scientists “have followed and continue to follow the intellectual fashions of the day:  hurrah-patriotic in 1914, pacifist in the twenties, leftist in the thirties, celebrating the end of ideology in the fifties, youth-cultured and new leftist at the end of the sixties.” Social Sciences as Sorcery. p.30

[50] p.20

[51] “To be a competent student of what is right and just, and of politics generally, one must first have received a proper upbringing in moral conduct.” 1095B 5-10

[52] Nicomachean Ethics 1102A 20-25

[53] The New Science of Politics  pp.11-12

[54] Andreski points to the fact that human beings react to what is said about them as the primary reason for the impasse. “Imagine how sorry would be the plight of the natural scientist if objects of his inquiry were in a habit of reacting to what he says about them:  if the substances could read or hear what the chemist writes or says about them, and were likely to jump out of their containers and burn him if they did not like what they saw on the blackboard or in his notebook.” Social Sciences as Sorcery p.20

[55] It should be noted that empirical statements do not have to be (and often are not) “scientific.”

[56] Again, I am working under the assumption that the only reality we have is experiential reality.  I am not suggesting that normative claims be reduced to the empirical or that the distinction cannot be made.  For example, Aristotle’s claim that the contemplative life is the happiest is not meant as an opinion. It is a statement of fact about what is best for man and therefore is empirical. But the suggestion that man should pursue such a life is normative.

[57] This is not to say that the term will not be abused if the original meaning is recovered.

[58] Leo Strauss. “An Epilogue.” Taken from Liberalism:  Ancient and Modern. (University of Chicago Press:  Chicago, 1995)

[59] Hume’s subtitle to A Theory of Human Nature clearly indicates his intentions to follow Newton’s lead: “an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.”

[60] A problem addressed fully by Alasdair MacIntyre. See After Virtue pp.81-82

[61] Anamnesis p.177

[62] Ibid p.178

[63] Ibid p.201

[64] Sandoz pp.193-194

David Whitney

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David Whitney is Assistant Professor of Government at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. He is author of Maladies of Modernity Scientism and the Deformation of Political Order (St. Augustine's Press, 2016).