Voegelin and Schelling on Freedom and the Beyond

HomeArticlesVoegelin and Schelling on Freedom and the Beyond

Do you ask to be conscious of this freedom? But do you also consider that all your consciousness is only possible via your freedom and that the condi­tion cannot be contained in what is conditioned?

—F. W. J. Schelling, Vom Ich als Princip der Philosophieoder uber das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen


Voegelin’s Ambivalence Toward Schelling

Unlike the thought of some of the other philosophers in the continental tradition, Eric Voegelin had relatively good things to say about the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. In fact, late in his career, Voege­lin attributed the breakdown of his History of Political Ideas to his work on Schelling, thus indicating that Schelling’s thought played a pivotal role in Voegelin’s own development.

As Voegelin recalls in his Autobiographical Re­flections, it was “while working on the chapter on Schelling, [that] it dawned on me that the conception of a history of ideas was an ideological deforma­tion of reality. There were no ideas unless there were symbols of immediate experiences.1 Thus, Voegelin’s work on Schelling occasioned one of his most important insights and contributed to a reconceptualization of his project that would eventually result in its appearance as Order and History, his magnum opus.

The positive impact that Schelling’s philosophy had on Voegelin’s work is further illustrated by Voegelin’s praise for Schelling in his early chapter on him. Voegelin states that Schelling’s philosophy is “one of the most important points of orientation for a modern philosophy of human existence,” and he credits Schelling with establishing a philosophy of order amid the disorder of his time on a “new level of consciousness.”

At another point, Voegelin refers to Schelling’s Potenzenlehre, his doctrine of potencies, as “perhaps the profoundest piece of philosophical thought ever elaborated.” In light of these remarks, it should not be surprising that an awareness of the importance of Schelling’s thought for Voegelin has begun to attract attention in the literature.2

Yet one would be hard-pressed to show that Voegelin carried on a lifelong di­alogue with Schelling. For one, as Jerry Day notes, most of Voegelin’s published remarks on Schelling are highly critical: Voegelin often categorizes Schelling as one of the modern intellectual Gnostics contributing to the derailment of modernity.

Moreover, although Voegelin recognized the influence of Schelling on his own development, there seems to be little to suggest that Voegelin ever returned to Schelling in order to reconsider his philosophy. There is evidence that he had intended to include his early chapter on Schelling in the final vol­ume of Order and History without significant revision, but, for whatever rea­son, he never did.3

In any event, such an inclusion would not have amounted to a reengagement with Schelling’s philosophy. Thus, despite his high praise for Schelling, Voegelin seems to have abandoned Schelling as a conversation part­ner during his most productive decades.

What if Voeglein Had Employed Schelling Fully?

Voegelin’s reasons for excluding Schelling from Order and History may well always remain unknown. Certainly, it would be too cynical to suggest that Voege­lin never returned to Schelling because he was aware of the extent to which such a move would have required him to alter his philosophical course. The case can be made, however, that a philosophical change of course is exactly what would have been the result if Voegelin had returned to Schelling.

In other words, a critical study of Voegelin and Schelling side by side reveals that a reconsidera­tion of Schelling’s philosophy could have helped Voegelin to overcome certain difficulties in his own philosophy that remained until the very end. This is be­cause Schelling’s philosophy is better able to deal with a constellation of issues related to the question of how we are aware of a reality that transcends con­sciousness.

More specifically, Schelling’s position has three advantages. First, it is less susceptible than Voegelin’s to the charge of subjectivism that has often been directed against the latter. Second, it is better inoculated against the ten­dency of consciousness to reduce that which is beyond it to an object. Third, it is better able to answer certain questions that arise from Voegelin’s analysis of consciousness. For example: How do we know the Beyond as beyond? How do we recognize truth as truth?

Schelling’s philosophy has these advantages because Schelling recognizes that, just like the source of order in reality, our participation in the order of reality is beyond consciousness. This means that, while an absolute grasp of the truth of existence permanently eludes us, we nevertheless live within the truth as that which constitutes our existence. In other words, we always already know truth even before we experience it.

While Voegelin wants to make a similar claim, he struggles to establish the truth of his account because he continues to rely on terms such as “experience” and “consciousness,” which leave his account open to the charge that it is merely his subjective opinion.4

Unlike Schelling, Voegelin does not realize that a phi­losophy of order cannot be a philosophy of consciousness only: it must be a metaphysics of the existence that contains consciousness, which means, in Schelling’s words, that it must be a philosophy of freedom.

Flaws in the Voegelin’s Philosophy of Consciousness

In spite of these contrasts, it must be kept in mind that Voegelin and Schelling are fellow travelers. The goal of this article is not to critique the purpose of Voegelin’s philosophy, that is, his attempt to establish that there is a know­able order in reality and that we are obliged to live within that order. This is Schelling’s goal as well.

Moreover, it is not being suggested that Voegelin was unaware of the issues under discussion here, such as the need to overcome the Cartesian view of subjectivity. On the contrary, Voegelin is clearly cognizant of these issues, and he attempts to deal with them.

The question is, rather, wheth­er Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness gets him where he wants to go. The answer appears to be that it does not because his continued employment of the language of “consciousness” and “experience” leaves him with the kinds of dif­ficulties mentioned above, since, as David Walsh has argued, once Voegelin be­gins with consciousness, he has no way of getting beyond it.5

Voegelin himself may have been close to realizing this, and he may even have begun to move to­ward Schelling’s position–whether consciously or not–when he introduced the notion of reflective distance into his philosophy of consciousness. If this is true, then Voegelin himself may have illustrated how Schelling’s thought might help us to overcome some of the difficulties that remain in Voegelin’s mature philosophy.

Overcoming Subjectivity

Voegelin attempts to overcome the Cartesian understanding of the self by arguing that human consciousness is paradoxically structured in two different ways.6 The first structure of consciousness, the one that is most familiar to us, is the subject-object model. According to this model, consciousness belongs to particular human beings who experience a world of things that are external to them. Voegelin labels this structure of conscious “intentionality” and argues that it corresponds to what he calls “thing-reality,” or reality considered in its “thingness.”

Voegelin then argues that, in a second sense, consciousness must also be understood as belonging to the reality of which human beings are a part. In this structure of consciousness, reality becomes the “subject,” and “the consciousness of the human subject intending objects moves to the position of a predicative event in the subject ‘reality’ as it becomes luminous for its truth.”

Voegelin refers to this as the “luminosity” of consciousness and suggests the term “It-reality” for the “comprehending reality” in which it is located. By way of summary, Voegelin concludes, “Consciousness . . . is a subject intending real­ity as its object, but at the same time a something in a comprehending reality; and reality is the object of consciousness, but at the same time the subject of which consciousness is to be predicated.”7

A Search Ending with “Reflective Distance”

Knowledge of the order of reality emerges within this paradoxical complex through the imaginative symbolization of experiences of order. In other words, the experiences of order that emerge within consciousness are articulated (al­though never adequately) in language. Voegelin refers to the process that accomplishes this articulation as “imagination.”

He explains that “the event [of symbolizing the emerging content of consciousness], we may say, is imagina­tive in the sense that man can find the way from his participatory experience of reality to its expression through symbols.” Voegelin stresses that, although the process of articulation is accomplished by individuals, imagination is also involved in the irreducible paradox of consciousness: it is at once the imagi­nation of a particular individual and the imagination of the reality of which consciousness is a predicate.

Voegelin summarily refers to the complex of “consciousness-reality-language” as the process in which truth emerges, or, as Voegelin puts it, in which “reality becomes luminous for its truth.”8 In his later works on the philosophy of consciousness, Voegelin begins to acknowledge “a third dimension of consciousness,” which he refers to as “reflective distance.” He comes to recognize that consciousness is “structured not only by the paradox of intentionality and luminosity, but also by an awareness of the paradox, by a dimension to be characterized as a reflectively distancing remembrance.”

This “reflective distance of consciousness to its own participa­tion in thing-reality and It-reality” signifies our capacity to step back from the paradoxical structure of consciousness and reflect upon it. By virtue of this capacity, the philosopher is aware of the luminous structure of his conscious­ness for what it is and is thus able to compare and evaluate different symboliza­tions of the truth of order as they emerge in consciousness.

Voegelin notes that Plato was dimly aware of this dimension of consciousness and that he labeled it “anamnesis,” a remark that suggests, as Michael P. Morrissey notes, that the dimension of reflective distance is something that “has been present through­out [Voegelin’s] work but that he only now [that is, in his late works] develops explicitly.”9 Indeed, it would have to be so if Voegelin is correct to identify re­flective distance as part of the structure of consciousness.10

How Can We Know What is Real?

In any event, according to Voegelin, the philosopher is thus able to reflect upon and study the process of consciousness becoming luminous for its truth within his own consciousness. But this capacity does not afford human beings access to the full truth of reality because human consciousness is a predicate of that reality and, therefore, contained within it. In fact, consciousness is, accord­ing to Voegelin, structured by a divine-human tension between a transcendent Beyond and our immanent existence as human beings.

Voegelin refers to this tension in consciousness as the metaxy, which, as students of Voegelin’s thought will know, is a word for “in-between” that he borrows from Plato. He uses the term to stress the fact that we cannot achieve an Archimedean point from which we could grasp the order of reality as a whole. Instead, we must struggle to reach the limited understanding of order that is vouchsafed to us through our conscious participation as parts within the whole.

For Voegelin, knowledge of the order of existence is available to us only insofar as it emerges within this tension of consciousness and is articulated symbolically. The explanatory power of Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness is remark­able, yet it is not without difficulties.

One important problem in Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness pertains to the question of how we come to have knowledge of the order of reality. It is not clear that Voegelin is able to establish how we can know that our experiences of order actually correspond to real­ity as it is in itself.

As Walsh suggests, Voegelin’s position is open to the objection that our “experience cannot authenticate its own truth, that there is no way of establishing the transition from what is within to a reality that lies beyond the subject. How do I know that a correspondence holds?”11

Is Voegelin’s Opinion Just One Opinion?

As a result of this difficulty, Voegelin’s theory of consciousness leaves claims to knowledge of order open to the charge that they are merely someone’s subjective opinion. Voegelin himself recognizes that such questions will arise, but he believes he can answer them. Consider, for instance, the following passage from In Search of Order, in which Voegelin discusses the possibility of communicating experi­ences of order:

“But how does the listener recognize the story [that is, the account of an expe­rience of order] to be true . . . ? Why should he believe the story to be true rather than consider it somebody’s private opinion concerning the order of his pref­erence?”

“To questions of this class only one answer is possible: If the story is to evoke authoritatively the order of a social field, the word must be spoken with an authority recognizable as such by the men to whom the appeal is addressed; the appeal will have no authority of truth unless it speaks with an authority com­monly present in everybody’s consciousness, however inarticulate, deformed, or suppressed the consciousness in the concrete case maybe.”12

It is not clear that Voegelin successfully answers the charge of subjectivism in this passage, since he merely transfers the correspondence problem from one individual to several. The “authority” to which Voegelin appeals remains with­in consciousness. Moreover, and more important, Voegelin’s response raises even more fundamental questions, namely: How are we able to recognize what is true at all? How is it that we ever come to recognize any story as authoritative?

It is not enough to say, as Voegelin does, that there is an “authority com­monly present in everybody’s consciousness” or that “the character of truth attaches to the story by virtue of its paradoxic structure of being both a narra­tive and an event.”13 What is the authority that Voegelin speaks of, and whence does it derive its authority? If we begin from the standpoint of consciousness, how can we ever know that an event in our consciousness corresponds to an event in reality?

Locked in the Perspective of Consciousness?

These questions point to a fundamental problem in Voegelin’s philosophy: since Voegelin remains within a philosophy of consciousness, he cannot finally shake off the skeptical doubt that his account of order may not have any real­ity. The language of experience cannot foreclose the possibility of questioning whether a correspondence holds between an individual’s experience of Order and the true order of reality. As a result, it is not clear how, as Glenn Hughes writes, “the ground of being has solidified, in the course of Voegelin’s analysis [over the course of his career], from an ‘ontological hypothesis’ into the divine partner in the participatory tension of existence.”14

Hughes is certainly cor­rect in noting the change in Voegelin’s position, but the question is: how does Voegelin justify this development? It would appear that he cannot, since he re­mains within the perspective of a philosophy of consciousness. Schelling, on the other hand, while making a similar transition, is able to justify the development because he moves beyond a philosophy of consciousness and toward a metaphysics of freedom.

Schelling’s Philosophy of Freedom

Consciousness is a central theme in Schelling’s philosophy as it is in Voege­lin’s, yet it would not be adequate to label Schelling a philosopher of consciousness. This is because Schelling’s philosophical investigations lead him beyond consciousness: his primary concern is the reality that transcends conscious experience, which, at various points in his works, Schelling refers to as the un­conditioned, the transcendental I, the Absolute, or God.

It is on this subject that Schelling makes his most important contribution to the history of phi­losophy, which is to recognize that the Absolute is what makes consciousness possible and, therefore, can never be contained within it.15 Realizing, in other words, that being is prior to thinking, Schelling moves beyond a philosophy of consciousness to the recognition that we know truth because we always already exist within it, even before we begin to reflect upon it.

Our very existence is constituted by truth. Voegelin, of course, would agree with this assessment, but the problem is that he can never confirm it because his philosophy remains within the sphere of consciousness. Schelling, on the other hand, avoids the dif­ficulties that Voegelin runs into by developing a metaphysics of freedom, that is, by arguing that it is through our existence (which is free because it can never be contained within consciousness) that we participate in and thereby know the order of reality. Thus, Schelling is, above all, a philosopher of freedom.

Schelling’s Critique of Fichte

Schelling’s path to the recognition of the Absolute as the reality that we live within but can never grasp begins with his critique of Fichte’s transcendental idealism.16  In his attempt to overcome the Kantian dualism between phenom­enal and noumenal reality (and without falling back into Spinoza’s philosophy of substance), Fichte argues that the realm of reflective consciousness (of sub­ject-object relations) must ultimately be contained within a transcendental I that is the source of both the empirical I and the not-I, that is, of both the free subject and the objective realm of nature.

Schelling argues, however, that if the transcendental I is the source of both subjectivity and nature, then it can hardly be conceived of as a subject. Instead, it must already be the unity of the subjec­tive and the objective, since the Absolute is beyond the reflective mode of know­ing that characterizes human consciousness.17  The Absolute, as the condition of consciousness, can never be contained within it, and, therefore, we can never possess absolute knowledge of the Absolute. Schelling would spend the rest of his career struggling to unfold the implications of this insight.

Participation in God’s Freedom

In Schelling’s early work he sometimes appears to think (as Voegelin did) that we must merely presuppose or assume the existence of the Absolute, since any attempt to know it in consciousness already precludes the possibility.18  But Schelling comes to realize in his later philosophy, beginning in particular with his Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freyheit (Freiheitsschrift), that the Absolute, now more often spoken of as God, is more than a mere assumption. He comes to see that our freedom–our participation in the living order of reality that continually transcends the web of necessity and abstract thought–is the principle by which we gain access to this real­ity.

This recognition marks the beginning of Schelling’s historical turn, since he now sees that the truth of what actually exists emerges only in the actual process of life (and not in thought, since thought cannot capture the living re­ality of the world). The Absolute, then, becomes more than a mere presupposi­tion: it is the freely manifested divine order of reality in which we participate through the exercise of our own freedom. Freedom is thus both that which makes existence possible and the principle by which we recognize the order that we live within. In other words, our freedom is a participation in God’s freedom, and it is this relationship that Schelling has in mind when he an­nounces the ancient principle of “like is known to like” as our point of access to the order of existence. 19

Thus, Schelling emphasizes that our participation in the order of existence is prior to our attempts to understand that participation in consciousness. Whether we come to reflect on what is true or not, we already exist within truth; our existence itself prereflectively reveals the order of being in a way that thought can never establish.

Negative vs Positive Philosophy

Schelling crystallizes this point in his later works when he distinguishes between negative and positive philosophy. 20 The distinc­tion corresponds to the difference between the essence of things and their exis­tence. Negative philosophy is purely abstract and conceptual, and it deals with the essence or “whatness” of things. As such, it does not go beyond the realm of mere possibility.

Positive philosophy, on the other hand, seeks the actual exis­tence or “thatness” of things–the raw facticity of existence–and, consequent­ly, it must turn to the empirical and the historical. Positive philosophy begins from that which simply is and tries to prove, by sifting through the historical materials, that what exists in fact corresponds to what has been established in thought, that is, by the negative philosophy.

We Know Even Before We Reflect

The distinction between the negative and positive philosophies is ren­dered necessary by Schelling’s recognition that being takes priority to think­ing. Schelling now fully embraces the radical inability of thought to contain existence, since he comes to accept that thought cannot account for its own existence, or, as he would put it, thought cannot ground itself.

Schelling often expresses this incapacity of reason in the question–to which Voegelin famously refers–”Why is there something and not nothing?” 21  Ultimately, reason cannot explain why there is a world at all. In order to answer this question (insofar as it can be answered at all), Schelling turns to a philosophy of existence (the posi­tive philosophy). Through the positive philosophy he attempts to show that the realm of history (of freedom) reveals our participation in an order of reality that cannot be comprehended within the negative philosophy. He tries to show, in other words, that despite our inability to develop a reflective understanding of order, we nevertheless know the order that we live within.

How We Know Christ

It is a point that is well illustrated by Fichte, who observes that in order to see my own reflection in a mirror as my reflection, I must already have a preexist­ing awareness of myself. Otherwise, I would not recognize myself. The insight is more profoundly illustrated by Kant and Schelling in their philosophies of religion. In his Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, Kant observes that we are able to recognize Christ as Christ only because we already inwardly know him:

“The required prototype [that is, Christ as representative of our moral perfection] always resides only in reason, since outer experience yields no example adequate to the idea; as outer, it does not disclose the in­wardness of the disposition but only allows inference to it, though not with strict certainty.”22

The appearance of Christ in the external world can point to but not confirm the inner perfection of his nature; we can recognize the latter only because we already know it from within. Schelling arrives at the same in­sight when he asks, “How did this country Rabbi come to be the subject of such a glorification?” The answer is that we must, as David Walsh argues, already have a:

“pre-existing awareness of Christ before we encounter him. In other words Christ must already be Christ in some sense before he enters history as Jesus of Nazareth. We already are potentially in relationship with him, other­wise there would be no way to move into one.”22

Similarly, as Schelling states, it is not that the stories of the Gospels are “necessary in order to recognize the sovereignty of Christ, but to the contrary, the sovereignty of Christ . . . is nec­essary to comprehend the stories.”22 What this illustrates is that, for Schelling, it is the reality in which we live that enables us to understand our experiences, rather than the other way around.

Schelling Summarized

Thus, for Schelling, consciousness is never the starting point for arriving at truth, as he makes clear in the following passage from System des transzendentalen Idealismus:

“The question as to how our concepts conform to objects has . . . no mean­ing from a transcendental viewpoint, inasmuch as this question presupposes an original difference between the two. In the absence of consciousness, the ob­ject and its concept, and conversely, concept and object, are one and the same, and the separation of the two first “occurs with the emergence of consciousness.” A philosophy which starts from consciousness will therefore never be able to explain this conformity, nor is it explicable at all “without an original identity, whose principle necessarily lies beyond consciousness.”23

As this passage indicates, Schelling holds that philosophy must begin from that which is beyond consciousness, from the eternal freedom of the Absolute in which we participate. This means that, for Schelling, it is not that our expe­riences afford us knowledge of the Absolute; rather, it is our existence within the Absolute that allows us to make sense of our experiences. As we will see in the next section, Voegelin does not appear to have quite realized the full signifi­cance of this principle for Schelling’s philosophy.

Voegelin’s Interpretation of Schelling

As noted in the introductory remarks, Voegelin’s only sustained treatment of Schelling’s philosophy is found near the end of the History of Political Ideas, the work that he abandoned in favor of the project that would become Order and History. Voegelin never published his chapter on Schelling, but there is little evidence that he ever returned to Schelling in order to reconsider his in­terpretation, either. Thus, while we must recognize that it is a relatively early unpublished work, we must also accept it as representative of Voegelin’s under­standing of Schelling.24

The chapter is both insightful and illuminating, but, as the following analysis will show, it also demonstrates a certain lack of clarity on Voegelin’s part concerning Schelling’s most essential insight, namely, his recognition that existence cannot be contained within thought, or that being is prior to thinking. This imprecision causes Voegelin to misinterpret Schelling’s account of how we know the order of reality, which in turn allows Voegelin to misleadingly interpret Schelling’s thought in terms of a philosophy of con­sciousness.

In the next section, it will be argued that the issues that confront Voegelin’s reading of Schelling continue to challenge his own philosophy of consciousness (although in a more general fashion), and, thus, it will be sug­gested that a return to Schelling might have proved helpful to Voegelin. First, however, we turn to an examination of Voegelin’s Schelling interpretation.

Voegelin Recognizes Schelling’s Epochal Significance

Voegelin’s chapter begins with an account of Schelling’s place in the his­tory of modern philosophy. It is evident from this account that Voegelin sees Schelling as a fellow traveler in the search for order amid the disorder of the modern age. Voegelin’s positive view of Schelling is also confirmed by the fact that he puts Schelling in the company of Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, group­ing him with these “spiritual realists,” who attempted to balance the tensional forces within their civilizations before they erupted into open conflict. Voege­lin sees Schelling’s philosophy as the final point of orientation before the ex­plosion of forces that would lead to the morass of ideology and destruction characteristic of the twentieth century.

In characterizing Schelling in this way, Voegelin relies to a certain degree on Schelling’s own self-interpretation, since, as Voegelin notes, Schelling gives several accounts of the role he plays in the history of philosophy.25 Schelling was clearly concerned with his own posi­tion in the trajectory of modern thought, and he was also, as Voegelin brings out, aware of the cultural and political ramifications of philosophy, a facet of Schelling’s writings that is often neglected.26

As Voegelin suggests, one defi­nitely gets the sense in reading Schelling that he was cognizant of the epochal significance of his philosophy. Philosophically, Schelling understands himself as striving to overcome one fundamental problem in particular: the dualism between mind and matter that has beset modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant. What overcoming this dualism means for Schelling is recognizing the unity of thought and being and developing a complementary epistemology that transcends the subject-object (Cartesian) paradigm of knowledge.

Voegelin illustrates Schelling’s position by reference to a series of aphorisms that Schelling published in 1806:

“Not we, not you or I, know about God. For reason, insofar as it affirms God, can affirm nothing else, and in this act it annihilates itself as a particularity, as something that is outside God. The ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ is since Descartes the fundamental error of all knowledge (Erkenntnis ); thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being, for all is only of God, or of the All. Reason is not a faculty, or tool, and it cannot be used: indeed there is no reason that we have, there is only a reason that has us.”27

Voegelin quotes several more of the aphorisms, but the point is clear: for Schelling, the Cartesian subject has been overcome, and thus Voegelin concludes that Schelling’s “aphorisms are the full stop after the Age of Enlightenment and Reason.” With Schelling, Voegelin writes, it is finally realized that “the ego is not an ultimate entity with faculties of reasoning but a medium through which the substance of the universe is operating in its pro­cesses.”27

Advancing Beyond Giordano Bruno: Potenzenlehre

Turning to an explication of Schelling’s own philosophical system, devel­oped in response to modern dualism, Voegelin identifies the “general principle of Schelling’s speculation” as the “immersion of the morphological differentia­tion of the realms of being, as well as of cognitive relations, into the identity of the universal or divine process.”28 In other words, Voegelin sees Schelling’s great accomplishment as his ability to sustain the unity of existence while rec­ognizing the differentiated realms within it at the same time.

Voegelin argues that Schelling is here attempting to advance beyond the speculation of Bruno,29 and he claims that Schelling finally achieves this with his Potenzenlehre, the doctrine of potencies, which allows him to account for the coexistence of iden­tity and difference in the process of reality. The Potenzenlehre posits a series of powers that interact with one another in the production of the world. They all belong to the same source, yet it is the ever-repeating conflict and resolution between them that echo throughout all the levels of being. Schelling is thus able to claim that everything is of one source, while at the same time maintaining that there is difference and movement within the source.30

As Voegelin writes, “By using this formalized terminology and designating the stages in the pro­cess of the One as A 1 , A 2 , A 3 , Schelling escapes the difficulty of having to iden­tify terminologically the fundamental substance with any of the partial phases into which the process of the whole is articulated. The fundamental substance is, therefore, neither matter nor spirit, neither a transcendent God nor an im­manent nature, but the identity of the process in which the One becomes the articulated universe.”31

Protodialectic Experience

Having established what he takes to be the general principle of Schelling’s philosophy, Voegelin then turns to the question of how knowledge of the order of reality emerges in the universal process. As will become evident, the account he gives is strikingly similar to his own theory of consciousness. Voegelin ar­gues that, for Schelling, “anthropology is . . . the key to speculation.”32 

The human soul itself is the key to unlocking the meaning of history and the universe because it is coextensive with the universal process: through reflection upon itself, the soul radiates meaning into history and the universe. This knowl­edge of the soul, however, does not lie open as a realm of objects that could be known by a subject. Rather, the soul is polarized into a principle of freedom by which it can understand everything and a principle of darkness and oblivion in which the archetype of all things slumbers obscured and forgotten.

The un­conscious is the “past” of the soul, and knowledge is anamnetically recovered from it by the conscious or free principle of the soul. In order to further elabo­rate this process, Voegelin coins the term “protodialectic experience” to:

“desig­nate the experience of the emergence of a content from the unconscious, still in the state of flux and vagueness before its solidification into language symbols, together with the dynamic ‘tones’ of the soul that accompany the emerging.”

Voegelin thus makes “experience” central to Schelling’s philosophy (which, as will be shown below, is problematic). In another passage, Voegelin argues that “the experience of transition from unconsciousness to consciousness and re­flection . . . is Schelling’s model for the interpretation of the universal process.” Even more strongly, he adds that “Schelling considers this experience as reveal­ing the character of the universal process in general.”33

Assimilation or Reinterpretation of Schelling?

Students of Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness will recognize the simi­larities between this account of Schelling’s philosophy and Voegelin’s account of how consciousness becomes luminous for its truth in his own theory of con­sciousness. The description of protodialectic experience, in particular, seems to correspond to Voegelin’s own description of how prearticulate meaning emerges in the luminous dimension of consciousness, and the attempt to ar­ticulate the meaning of these experiences appears to mirror Voegelin’s descrip­tion of the imaginative process of symbolization.

The similarities may suggest that Voegelin’s work on Schelling played a decisive role in the development of his own philosophy. Yet Voegelin had already begun to develop his own theo­ry of consciousness before he wrote the chapter on Schelling, so the similari­ties could indicate instead the degree to which Voegelin assimilated Schelling’s philosophy to his own position.34

We should not rush to one conclusion or the other, since the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, there is little room for doubt that Voegelin was influenced by his study of Schelling–the turn from a history of ideas to a history of the symbolizations of experience clearly owes something to Schelling’s thought–but, on the other, it is also true that Voegelin’s account of Schelling’s philosophy is incomplete and, in at least one important respect, misleading.

Voegelin and Schelling’s Late Work

In terms of its incompleteness, it is important to note that Voegelin’s inter­pretation of Schelling does not refer to any of Schelling’s theoretical statements from the later part of his career. Instead, Voegelin relies quite heavily on the Weltalter, which, as Voegelin notes, Schelling left incomplete and unpublished. (In fact, Schelling never published another significant work after the 1809 Freiheitsschrift.)

Moreover, rather than exploring the possible philosophical rea­sons for Schelling’s abandonment of the Weltalter (a work that he attempted to write many times over the course of many years) and his decision not to pub­lish again, Voegelin offers the following explanation: “Schelling’s qualities as a philosopher were hardly recognized by his contemporaries, and when Jacobi attacked him in 1811 and charged him with pantheism, he confined his publication for the rest of his life to a few minor articles.”

This is certainly a possible explanation, but it could also be that Schelling never published the Weltalter (or any of his other late writings) because he realized that it would be philo­sophically impossible to write a complete and systematic account of the “ages of the world.”

In any event, Voegelin also claims that Schelling “considered [the Weltalter to be] the representative formulation of his philosophy.”35 But this claim is almost certainly too strong, for the Weltalter does not yet explicitly include Schelling’s positive philosophy, which is perhaps his greatest achieve­ment (Schelling at least would have considered it so).

The Weltalter certainly contains many elements of Schelling’s late philosophy, but it is also a work in which Schelling has not yet fully developed the implications of his realization that being precedes thinking. Only in his later lectures on the philosophy of mythology and revelation does Schelling give his fullest expression of this in­sight and its consequences. Voegelin’s inattention to these works is an impor­tant reason for the limitations of his interpretation of Schelling.

Being Precedes Thought

This is not to say that Voegelin is completely oblivious to Schelling’s central insight into the priority of being to thinking. Although Voegelin never explores this aspect of Schelling’s philosophy thematically, he does evince an inchoate awareness of it in his discussion of Schelling’s critique of Hegel. Voegelin notes, for instance, that:

“Hegel’s philosophy of history bears still the marks of Enlight­enment insofar as the Idea has come to its full, reflective self-understanding in the present; Schelling is beyond Enlightenment insofar as man has become an unexhausted historical existence.”

A few lines earlier, Voegelin recognizes that, for Schelling, “the anamnesis is neither completed nor will it be complet­ed soon, and we do not know, therefore, the meaning of history as a whole; the future is still open.”36  But these passages do not amount to a full recognition of the principle that underlies the difference between Hegel’s and Schelling’s philosophies of history.

Schelling’s point (that, for us, the future will always remain open because we are free, that is, because our existence can never be resolved into a reflective or theoretical account)37 is tied to Schelling’s recogni­tion of the priority of being to thinking: it is a further recognition of thought’s inability to fully contain that which exists. While Voegelin implicitly recog­nizes the importance of this principle for Schelling’s philosophy of history, he does not make the principle itself central to his account of Schelling’s thought in general. It is an oversight that has negative consequences for his reading of Schelling as whole.

Voegelin Mischaracterizes Schelling’s Thrust

In particular, it allows Voegelin to misleadingly describe Schelling’s philoso­phy in terms of experience without realizing that by so doing he is working against the thrust of Schelling’s thought. For instance, as was mentioned above,Voegelin introduces the term “protodialectic experience” to describe the initial stages of the articulation of meaning [see Part 2 of this essay]. He also speaks of “Schelling’s experi­ence of human historical existence as coextensive with the historical process of the universe.” Toward the end of the chapter, he states that “the greatness of Schelling has to be measured by his strength in holding existentially in balance an explosive compound of experiences and in dialectically translating the balance into a system.”

In these and other passages, Voegelin claims that experience is the basis for Schelling’s philosophy. The problem with this approach is that it suggests that human knowledge derives from experience, whereas Schelling ar­gues that it is our prereflective (and therefore preexperiential) knowledge that allows us to understand our experiences. As Schelling asserts concerning his late philosophical position, “The positive philosophy is not empiricism, at least insofar as it does not start out from experience.”38 Thus, by attempting to ex­plain Schelling’s philosophy in terms of experience, Voegelin obscures one of Schelling’s most profound insights.

Freedom Lies Beyond Experience

The problem manifests itself, for instance, in Voegelin’s treatment of free­dom in Schelling’s thought.39 As was the case with his handling of Schelling’s philosophy of history, Voegelin does not articulate the theoretical principle that underlies Schelling’s use of the term “freedom.” The problem is now even more serious because Voegelin makes certain claims that cannot be reconciled with Schelling’s position. Voegelin’s account begins appropriately enough insofar as he recognizes that, for Schelling, freedom is constitutive of human existence:

“The soul is polarized into a principle of freedom by which it can understand everything and a principle of darkness and oblivion in which the archetype of all things slumbers obscured and forgotten.”

But Voegelin then goes on to speak of freedom as something that we experience, which becomes problem­atic when Voegelin suggests that our knowledge derives from experience, as he does in the following passage:

“We experience the tensions of freedom and necessity, of guilt and harmony. Free action is action in harmony with neces­sity; guilty action is action in rebellion against necessity. Guilt and harmony are the ‘tones’ of experience that reveal the structure of existence and form the experiential basis for dialectical elaboration.”40

Voegelin also says that “guilt and harmony are . . . existential gates.”40 He thus claims that our knowledge derives from our experiences, but, for Schelling, the point is precisely the op­posite: he argues that we are able to make sense of our experiences because we already participate in the truth of existence. Thus, Voegelin does not do jus­tice to Schelling’s understanding of human freedom as a participation in the eternal freedom of the Absolute. For Schelling, this, and not experience, is the source of our knowledge of the order of reality.

Thus, Schelling’s philosophy cannot be held within the framework of Voege­lin’s theory of consciousness. If Voegelin had returned to Schelling and given more consideration to some of his later theoretical statements, he might have focused more intensely on Schelling’s key insight into the precedence of be­ing over thinking and thereby realized this incompatibility. Voegelin might also have recognized the Weltalter for what it is: an important turning point in Schelling’s career that ultimately leads to the distinction between the negative and positive philosophies but does not yet contain it explicitly. In any event, as it stands in the History of Political Ideas, Voegelin’s dialogue with Schelling re­mains incomplete.

We now turn to a consideration of the implications of this for Voegelin’s own mature philosophy.

Knowledge of the Beyond

The preceding should not be taken to suggest that Voegelin is unaware of or unconcerned with the reality beyond consciousness that Schelling refers to as the Absolute. On the contrary, the Absolute holds a central place in Voegelin’s philosophy insofar as it corresponds to what he calls the Beyond or the Ground of consciousness.

The point is, rather, that Voegelin misinterprets Schelling’s account of how we are able to know the Absolute, which is a reality that lies be­yond experience. It is important to recognize the error in Voegelin’s interpreta­tion because it highlights an essential difference between Voegelin’s philosophy and Schelling’s: whereas Voegelin holds that our knowledge of the Beyond has an experiential basis, Schelling claims that we know it on account of our pre-reflective (that is, free) existence within it.

The difference has significant con­sequences for the knowledge claims that Voegelin and Schelling want to make, and Schelling’s approach appears to have certain advantages. In fact, it could be argued that, if Voegelin had overcome the lack of clarity in his reading of Schelling, he may have been able to reconcile some of the lingering problems in his mature philosophy.

As was mentioned at the outset, one such problem for Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness is that there is no way from within the perspective of con­sciousness to guarantee that an experience of the Beyond corresponds in any way to what is actually beyond that experience.

As long as it is claimed that our knowledge has its source in experience, the skeptical question always remains: how can I ever be sure that my thoughts correspond to an external reality? Schelling avoids this problem because he moves beyond a philosophy of con­sciousness and develops a metaphysics of freedom.

Instead of trying to account for the Absolute from within the perspective of consciousness, Schelling argues that our existence as free beings is always already a participation in the eternal freedom of the Absolute. Thus, for Schelling, our very existence is the source of our knowledge of the Absolute; before we ever attempt to articulate truth in consciousness—an attempt that is always bound to distort it–we already exist within truth.

Voegelin, of course, wants to make a similar claim, but he con­tinues to operate from within the horizon of consciousness, and, therefore, he cannot guarantee that his experiences correspond to a reality that lies beyond them. As a result, Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness remains susceptible to the charge of subjectivism.

Participation is Beyond Consciousness

Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness also makes it difficult to uphold the transcendent character of the Beyond, even though he knows and repeatedly insists that the Beyond must not be objectified. Schelling warns against this propensity of the mind as well, but it does not threaten his philosophy in the same way. The difference stems from a disagreement between Voegelin and Schelling concerning the meaning of consciousness.

As was outlined above, in order to explain how we can know a reality that transcends the realm of objects, Voegelin holds that consciousness is paradoxically structured both intention­ally and luminously, and he then argues that we become aware of the Beyond through nonintentional experience.

Schelling, on the other hand, maintains that consciousness is inherently reflective and stresses that our participation in the Absolute is always beyond consciousness. Schelling’s approach has the advantage of maintaining a clear distinction between the reflective knowing that takes place in consciousness and our prereflective or participatory knowl­edge of the Beyond, and, therefore, he does not have to assert repeatedly that the Absolute is transcendent.

Voegelin’s position, on the other hand, invites the tendency to objectify the Beyond (even though he constantly warns against do­ing so), since it accounts for our knowledge of it in terms of experience, which cannot help but suggest a subject-object relationship. It is an apparently irre­solvable tension that comes with the attempt to attribute a nonpropositional structure to consciousness. As Voegelin himself acknowledges, “Consciousness is always consciousness-of-something.”41

What Tells Us What is True?

Finally, Schelling’s approach offers greater insight into another class of prob­lems that arise in the course of Voegelin’s analysis of consciousness. How, for instance, do we come to judge one account of reality as true and another as false? On what basis are we able to recognize truth at all? Furthermore, how do we recognize that our experiences of the Beyond do not capture the Beyond it­self, or, as Schelling would put it, that our knowledge of the Absolute is never absolute?

The question of our recognizing truth as truth was already discussed above. As was suggested there, while Voegelin is aware of these types of ques­tions, he cannot offer a satisfactory answer to them because he continues to employ the language of experience and consciousness when he addresses them.

Voegelin suggests that there is “an authority commonly present in everybody’s consciousness” that testifies to the veracity of our experiences, but whence does this authority come? Voegelin cannot answer this question convincingly be­cause he remains within the horizon of consciousness.

Schelling, on the other hand, is able to offer an answer because he begins from the fact that we must have a preconscious awareness of the truth that serves as the basis for our judg­ments. Likewise, Schelling has an answer to the question of how we know the Be­yond as beyond, whereas Voegelin does not. Once again, the trouble with Voegelin’s method is that a philosophy of consciousness cannot explain how we are aware of a reality that cannot be contained within consciousness.

Con­sider, for instance, the following passages from In Search of Order, in which Voegelin attempts to explain the experience of the Beyond as beyond:

“The questioner, when he renders the account of his participatory quest, is conscious of a Beginning beyond the beginning and of an End beyond the end of his story. But where do we find the experiential basis for this consciousness of a capitalized Beginning and End beyond the temporal beginning and end of the quest?”42

The problem with this passage lies in the fact that Voegelin is seek­ing an “experiential basis” for the distinction between the “beginning” and the “Beginning” when what is needed is a basis for the experience of the distinc­tion in the first place.

Experience That is Not Experienced

The basis cannot be an experiential one, since that would not explain how we can recognize the limitations of our experience at all: an “experiential basis” remains within the horizon of experience. The problem is magnified when Voegelin goes on to ask:

“How does the questioner experience a Beginning and an End that, wherever they lie, certainly do not lie within his present experience?”

In addition to illustrating how Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness forces him to speak of an “experience” of that which is beyond “present experience,” the question also demonstrates Voegelin’s awareness of the need to explain how we experience the Beyond as beyond. Once again, however, Voegelin cannot provide an adequate response because he remains within the philosophy of consciousness. Consider his answer to the question:

Precisely because this divine Beyond, ‘this God’ as it is called in the Laws, is not one of the being things, it is, then, experienced as present in all of them (pa-reinai) as their creatively formative force. The Beyond is not a thing beyond the things, but the experienced presence, the Parousia, of the formative It-reality in all things. The Parousia of the Beyond, experienced in the present of the quest, thus, imposes on external time, with its past, present, and future, the di­mension of divine presence.42 This passage explains that the Beyond is experi­enced as beyond–that it is not experienced as a thing–but it does not explain how such an experience is possible for us. How do we know that we do not know the Beyond in its fullness?

Unlike Voegelin, Schelling is able to answer this question because he recognizes that we know the Absolute not through experience but through our free participation in it. Thus, just as we are able to evaluate the veracity of our experiences because we are always already beyond them, so too can we recognize the Beyond as beyond because we are always al­ready beyond our experience of it.

“Reflective Distance” as Step Toward “Freedom”

It may be that Voegelin was moving toward this recognition himself when he introduced the notion of reflective distance into his philosophy of consciousness. In terms of the Schelling connection, it is interesting to note Voegelin’s re­mark that reflective distance is “formulated in opposition to, and as a corrective of, the symbolism of reflective ‘identity’ developed by the German idealistic philosophers.”43

Yet, as Jerry Day notes, Schelling is strangely absent from this discussion, which might suggest that Voegelin was at least aware that Schelling did not fit the pattern and that Schelling’s inclusion in the story would break the dichotomy that Voegelin wished to draw between his philosophy and the idealist tradition. Voegelin himself might have recognized that Schelling was closer to the solution of the problem than he was.

In any event, Voegelin’s notion of reflective distance might represent a move toward something like Schelling’s philosophy of freedom insofar as it seems to suggest that philo­sophical reflection is already beyond the noetic and pneumatic articulations of order that emerge in consciousness. Does not my ability to stand back, reflect upon, and evaluate the emerging symbols of order in the metaxy already sug­gest that I am in some sense beyond the process of experience and symboliza­tion? Whence does my ability to analyze the structure of consciousness come if I am not already more than my consciousness?

Although Voegelin introduces reflective distance as another dimension within consciousness, its logic seems to point toward our freedom, our prereflective participation in the order of reality. One wonders if further reflection on questions of the type considered here would have pushed Voegelin to the recognition that truth is something we already know, even before we experience it.

Voegelin Might be Completed through Schelling

As Ellis Sandoz notes in his introduction to In Search of Order, “The fact that the quest of order is an unfinished story as told by Voegelin is most fitting.” Voegelin would have been the first to admit that his search was incomplete. It has been argued in this essay that Schelling’s philosophy can help us to un­derstand one of the ways in which it is.

Both Voegelin and Schelling aim to es­tablish that we exist within an order of being of which we are not the authors and that we are incapable of knowing in its entirety. But Voegelin pursues this aim via a philosophy of consciousness, while Schelling develops a philosophy of freedom that attempts to show that we are always already in touch with or­der before we experience it.

Although Voegelin seems to be aware of the prob­lems that Schelling is trying to overcome, he does not quite seem to realize the centrality of Schelling’s insight into the priority of being to thinking for over­coming them. If Voegelin had followed Schelling down this path, however, he might have found the philosophical means to go beyond some of the difficul­ties that arise in relation to his own philosophy.

Voegelin argues that a phi­losophy of order must be a philosophy of history and that a philosophy of history depends upon a philosophy of consciousness. As he says in his chap­ter on Schelling, “Philosophy becomes identical with history and history with the science of the soul.”44

The next step would have been to recognize that the search for order must move beyond a science of the soul and become also a metaphysics of freedom.



1. Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (hereafter CW), 34 vols. (Columbia: Uni­versity of Missouri Press, 1990-2009), vol. 34, Autobiographical Reflections: Revised Edition, with a Voegelin Glossary and Cumulative Index, ed. Ellis Sandoz (2006), 90.

2. Voegelin, CW, vol. 25, History of Political Ideas, Volume VII: The New Order and Last Ori­entation, ed. Jürgen Gebhardt and Thomas A. Hollweck (1999), 236, 208; Jerry Day, Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003). See also Barry Cooper, Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science (Co­lumbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 383-432.

3. Day, Philosophy of Historical Existence, 24-44,47. See the appendix in Voegelin, CW, 28:233-43.

4. Bernard Lonergan, for instance, said of Voegelin’s philosophy that “it is just he knowing himself.” Quoted in Eugene Webb, Philosophers of Consciousness (Seattle: University of Washing­ton Press, 1988), 95.

5. David Walsh, “Voegelin’s Place in Modern Philosophy,” Modern Age (Winter 2007): 12-23, 21. As will be seen below, this is exactly Schelling’s critique of the language of consciousness.

6. Voegelin’s theory of consciousness has been well treated in the secondary literature. For a few examples, see the following: Glenn Hughes, Mystery and Myth in the Philosophy of Eric Voegelin (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993); Michael P. Morrissey, Consciousness and Transcendence: The Theology of Eric Voegelin (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994); and Webb, Philosophers of Consciousness.

7. Voegelin, CW, vol. 18, Order and History, Volume V: In Search of Order, ed. Ellis Sandoz (2000), 29-31.

8. Ibid., 51-54,31.

9. Ibid., 58, 55; Morrissey, Consciousness and Transcendence, 123.

10. As was mentioned in the introductory remarks and will be discussed below, this develop­ment in Voegelin’s thought might suggest that Voegelin was actually moving toward Schelling’s position.

11. Walsh, “Voegelin’s Place in Modern Philosophy,” 21.

12. Voegelin, CW 18:40.

13. Ibid. Voegelin adds, “The participatory structure of the event and the account given of it in the referential structure of the narrative are inseparably one in the paradoxic structure of the story” (ibid., 41).

14. Hughes, Mystery and Myth, 38.

15. The best arguments in English for this position are found in Andrew Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1993); and David Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni­versity Press, 2008). Bowie relies quite heavily on the work of Manfred Frank. See his Der unendliche Mangel an Sein (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975) and Eine Einführung in Schellings Philosophie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985). Voegelin, of course, speaks of the Beyond as well, but, as I will ex­plain below, for Voegelin our awareness of it is always due to an experience within consciousness, whereas Schelling tries to grasp how our awareness of it transcends consciousness.

16. As Manfred Frank and, following him, Andrew Bowie have argued, Schelling’s critique of Fichte was indebted to the influence of his friend Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (Frank, Eine Einfuhrung in Schellings Philosophie; Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy).

17. As will be discussed below, this is a key point of disagreement between Voegelin and Schelling, for Schelling reserves the term “consciousness” for the reflective (or intentional) rela­tionship between subject and object. Voegelin, on the other hand (as has been discussed above), applies the term to the luminous dimension of reality as well.

18. Andrew Bowie claims that the Absolute can be only “presupposed” (“Translators In­troduction,” in F. W. J. Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Andrew Bowie [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 17), and Schelling himself refers to it as an “assumption” in his early works. See for example, Schelling’s On University Studies, ed. Norbert Guterman and trans. E. S. Morgan (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1966), 9-10 (Schelling, Säm-mtliche Werke, ed. K. F. A. Schelling, I Abtheilung, vols. 1-10, II Abtheilung, vols. 1-4 [Stuttgart: Cotta, 1856-1861], I Abtheilung, 5:237-38. All references to Schelling’s works in translation are followed by references to this edition).

19. F. W. J. Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), 10 (I Abtheilung, 7:337).

20. The distinction emerges for Schelling sometime in the 1820s. An extensive discussion is available in English in F. W. J. Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy: The Berlin Lectures, trans. Bruce Matthews (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007).

21. As Schelling asks, for instance, in The Grounding of the Positive Philosophy, “Why is there anything at all? Why is there not nothing?” (94; II Abtheilung, 3:7).

22. Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, ed. Alien Wood and George di Giovanni with an introduction by Robert Merrihew Adams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 81-82, original German in Kant’s gesammelte Schriften, ed. Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: Reimer and de Gruyter, 1900-), 6:63; Walsh, The Modern Philo­sophical Revolution, 167-68; F. W. J. Schelling, Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology and Revelation, trans. Victor C. Hayes (Armidale: Australian Association for the Study of Religions, 1995), 221 (II Abtheilung, 4:233).

23. F. W. J. Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 135 (H Abtheilung, 3:506). Quoted in Andrew Bowie, “Re­thinking the History of the Subject: Jacobi, Schelling, and Heidegger,” in Deconstructive Subjec­tivities, ed. Simon Critchley and Peter Dews (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), 119.

24. Voegelin makes intermittent references to Schelling throughout his corpus, but the early chapter in the History of Political Ideas offers the only extended discussion. For an overview, see Day, Philosophy of Historical Existence, 18-49.

25. Voegelin relies on the accounts that Schelling gives in the Stuttgarter Privatvorlesungen (“Stuttgart Private Lectures,” in Idealism and the Endgame of Theory: Three Essays by F. W. J. Schelling, ed. and trans. Thomas Pfau [Albany: SUNY Press, 1994]) and the Weltalter (Ages of the World, trans. Jason Wirth [Albany: SUNY Press, 2000]). For a more elaborate account, see Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy.

26. Although see, for instance, Frederick Beiser, The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), in which he elaborates on the political and cultural motivations of the early romantics.

27. F. W. J. Schelling, Aphorismen zur Einleitung in die Naturphilosophie (1806), cited and translated in Voegelin, CW, 25:204, 206-7 (II Abtheilung, 7:148ff).

28. Ibid., 207.

29. Who, incidentally, does not get as much press in the Schelling literature as Voegelin gives him. Schelling is usually seen as attempting to unite and overcome Spinoza and Fichte. See

Bowie, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy; and Bow-ie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy.

30. For a helpful discussion of the potencies, see Edward Alien Beach, The Potencies of God(s): Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).

31.Voegelin, CW, 25:208.

32. Ibid., 210. Voegelin claims that “what is new in Schelling is the critical consciousness of the source of speculation” (ibid., 239).

33. Ibid., 212, 214, 216.

34. Day argues for the former in Philosophy of Historical Existence.

35. Voegelin, CW, 25:198-99.

36. Ibid., 213, 212.

37. Schelling is still ambiguous on this point even during the Weltalter phase. He writes, for instance, that “perhaps the one is still coming who will sing the greatest heroic poem, grasping in spirit something for which the seers of old were famous: what was, what is, what will be. But this time has not yet come” (Schelling, Ages of the World, xl [I Abtheilung, 8:206]).

38. Voegelin, CW, 25:211, 233; Schelling, Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 179 (II Abtheilung, 4:127). Schelling also says that “the positive philosophy starts out just as little form something that occurs merely in thought . . . as it starts out from some being that is present in experience” (178 [II Abtheilung, 4:126]).

39. In fact, it is immediately suspicious that, although contemporary Schelling scholarship now points to Schelling’s “philosophy of freedom” as the thread that holds the various phases in his thought together, Voegelin devotes very little space to what Schelling has to say about free­dom. See, for instance, Holger Zaborowski,”Geschichte, Freiheit, Schöpfung und die Herrlichkeit Gottes. Das ‘System der Freiheit’ und die Ambivalenz der Philosophie Schellings,” in System– Freiheit–Geschichte. Schellings Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830) im Kontext seines Werkes, ed. Holger Zaborowski and Alfred Denker (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 2004), 26-47.

40. Voegelin, CW, 25:211-12, 218. The full quote is as follows: “Guilt and harmony are the experiential gates to the understanding of the ‘double life’: man has spirit and selfhood and by their virtue can separate as a particular will from the divine will in which necessity and freedom are in eternal identity” (219).

41. Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, ed. David Walsh and trans. M. J. Hanak (2002), 365.

42. Voegelin, CW 18:44. The tension in Voegelin’s approach is also highlighted in a passage from Michael P. Morrissey’s Consciousness and Transcendence that is meant to explain Voegelin’s position: “The beyond can only be experienced through its parousia, its presence. This presence of the beyond is a formative presence that pervades the whole of reality in the form of things. In itself this beyond is non-experientiable, but since experience somehow reveals the beyond of experience mysteriously present in experience, this beyond needs to be evoked. But in conjuring this beyond, consciousness must inevitably image it in the ambiguous and limited form of be­ing-things, that is, ‘objectively’ through symbols and concepts, even though these symbols and concepts refer to no object” (119).

43. Voegelin, CW 18:63.

44. Ellis Sandoz, introduction to ibid., 15; Voegelin, CW, 25:212.


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

Steven F. McGuire

Written by

Steven F. McGuire is a Research Fellow at the Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University. He is co-editor, with Lee Trepanier, of Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition (Missouri, 2011) and, with R.J. Snell, Subjectivity: Ancient and Modern (Lexington Books, 2016).