A Philosopher and a Psychoanalyst: Eric Voegelin and Donald Winnicott on the In-Between of Human Life (Part I)

HomeArticlesA Philosopher and a Psychoanalyst: Eric Voegelin and Donald Winnicott on the In-Between of Human Life (Part I)
Donald Winnicott

The literature on the work of the philosopher Eric Voegelin includes no studies of the relevance of his philosophy of order for psychiatry and psychotherapy.  There are at least two reasons why such studies are worth doing.  First, for Voegelin the philosopher is a diagnostician of disorders of the soul.  His work abounds with sensitive analyses of the order of the souls of philosophers, saints, and sages, and acute diagnoses of the disorder of the souls of gnostic intellectuals and ideologues.  Psychiatrists and psychotherapists have much to learn from these analyses.  Second, for Voegelin philosophy is the therapy of order.  Philosophizing is a healing process in which ever greater insight into the disorder of one’s soul goes hand in hand with ever more open responsiveness to the pull of transcendent truth. The psychiatrist and psychotherapist should be attracted to such a conception of philosophy, since it promises to help further his own personal healing and that of the people who come to him for help.

A fruitful way to begin such research is by interpreting the work of a major figure in contemporary psychotherapy in the light of Voegelin’s mature philosophy.  In this paper I use Voegelin’s work to interpret the theories of human development and psychotherapy of the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), whom I regard as the most important psychoanalyst since Freud.  The major theme of the paper is that we can use Voegelin’s concept of the primary experience of the cosmos to clarify Winnicott’s ideas about the experiences of being and play that are the core of psychological health.  A second theme is the similarity between the core problems addressed by Voegelin and Winnicott and the remarkable equivalence between many of their symbols.  I conclude that Voegelin and Winnicott offer complementary insights that can be incorporated into a theory of the psyche, psychopathology, and personal healing that reflects the full range of human experience.


Voegelin defines philosophy as “the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order,” and says that the proper object of philosophical inquiry is the logos or order of being. (Voegelin 1956, p. xiv)  The philosopher does not start his inquiry from scratch but from the symbols in his social environment that have been developed to articulate that order.  Philosophizing involves a meditative descent into the depths of the psyche in search of the experiences that motivated such symbols and a meditative ascent from the depths in search of a more differentiated language with which to interpret those experiences and symbols and, thereby, bring the order of being to essential clarity.

The Experience of Participation

Voegelin interprets the history of ancient Hellenic philosophy from Heraclitus to Aristotle as the gradual discovery and symbolization of the order of man’s participation in being.  By “participation,” which is the key symbol in his philosophy, Voegelin means “the reality of being in contact with reality outside myself.” (Voegelin 1989, p. 72)  For Voegelin, as for Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers, the experience of participation involves our whole being and is, therefore, not an intellectual problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.  We cannot “look at” participation in the way we look at objects in the world around us or “know” it in the ways we “know” such objects.  We can only illuminate our participation in being from within through the analogical symbols and narratives of myth and the more differentiated symbols of philosophy, revelation, and mysticism.

In an important essay, “What is Political Reality?” (Voegelin 1966), Voegelin interprets certain passages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics as providing a precise exegesis of the movements by which the consciousness of the philosopher, in seeking to become explicit to itself, illuminates its own order as a mutual participation (metalepsis) of the human and divine entities that Aristotle calls nous. The following passage from Voegelin’s analysis illustrates his understanding of the order of man’s participation in being and, therefore, is worth quoting in full:

In the experience of Aristotle man finds himself in a condition of ignorance (agnoia, amathia) with regard to the ground of order (aition, arche) of his existence.  He could not recognize his ignorance as such, were he not in the throes of a restless urge to escape from ignorance (pheugein ten agnoian) in order to seek knowledge (episteme).  Since the term anxiety, which in modern language symbolizes this restlessness, has no equivalent in Greek, Aristotle uses specific terms in order to characterize the questioning in confusion or doubt (diaporein, aporein).  “But whoever is perplexed (aporon) and wonders (thaumazon) is conscious (oetai) of being ignorant (agnoein)” (Met. 982b18).  From questioning restlessness there arises man’s desire to know (tou eidenai oregontai).  The restless search (zetesis) for the ground of all being is divided into two components:  the desire or grasping (oregesthai) for the goal and the knowledge (noein).  Similarly, the goal (telos) itself is divided into the components of desire (orekton) and the known (noeton) (1072a26ss).  Since the search is not a blind desire but rather contains the component of insight, we may characterize it as knowing questioning and questioning knowledge.  Although the quest implies a component of direction, it still may miss its goal (telos) or be satisfied with a false one.  That which gives direction to the desire and thus imparts content to it is the ground itself, insofar as it moves man by attraction (kinetai).

The tension toward the ground, of which man is conscious, thus must be understood as a unity that may be interpreted but not analyzed into parts.  Tracing the exegesis backward, we therefore must say:  Without the kinesis of being attracted by the ground, there would be no desire for it; without the desire, no questioning in confusion; without questioning in confusion, no awareness of ignorance.  There could be no ignorant anxiety, from which rises the question about the ground, if the anxiety itself were not already man’s knowledge of his existence from a ground of being that is not man himself.  This directional factor of knowledge in the tension of consciousness toward the ground Aristotle calls nous….  Aristotle adds to the exegesis of the noetic desire for the ground and the attraction by the ground the symbol of mutual participation (metalepsis) of two entities called nous.  By nous he understands both the human capacity for knowing questioning about the ground and also the ground of being itself, which is experienced as the directing mover of questions.  (Voegelin 1966, pp. 148-9)

This interpretation of Aristotle indicates Voegelin’s view that man’s participation in being is not random or diffuse but is structured from within as a movement or tension toward divine Being.  A philosopher like Aristotle or Voegelin articulates the directional movement in consciousness, the tension toward the ground of being, in experience-near symbols.  Aristotle speaks of the concrete experiences of being ignorant; questioning in confusion, doubt, and perplexity; wondering; desiring; searching; grasping; and being attracted.

In interpreting such experience-near symbols, a philosopher will inevitably use more abstract symbols in sentences that have the grammatical structure of everyday language, in which we use verbs to link subjects and objects.  It is possible to be led by such sentences to interpret the more abstract symbols as if they refer to objects in the external world.  This is the most basic of philosophical errors, according to Voegelin.  We must not let the character of everyday language lead us to miss the function of the concrete symbols in articulating an immediate experience in which the awareness of subject, object, and verb is not present.  However differentiated the language we use to interpret the experience of participation, we must not forget that participation has an immediate dimension.  Voegelin’s view on this issue was influenced by his reading of William James and Plato:

In developing his concept of pure experience, James put his finger on the reality of the consciousness of participation, inasmuch as what he calls pure experience is the something that can be put into the context either of the subject’s stream of consciousness or of objects of the external world.  This fundamental insight of James identifies the something that lies between the subject and object of participation as the experience.  Later I found that the same type of analysis had been conducted on a much vaster scale by Plato, resulting in his concept of the metaxy-the In-Between.  The experience is neither in the subject nor in the world of objects but In-Between, and that means In-Between the poles of man and the reality that he experiences. (Voegelin 1989, pp. 72-73)

Voegelin refers to James’ essay, “Does Consciousness Exist?”, which Alfred North Whitehead said marks the end of modern philosophy just as Descartes’ Meditations marks its beginning.  The thesis of James’ essay is that we need not assume any fundamental ontological division of reality into two substances, as Descartes did, in order to account for the facts of experience.  Voegelin inferred from this view that we commit what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness if we interpret our language of subject-verb-object as reality itself.  The alternative James proposes is to assume that we experience reality prior to our thoughts and feelings about or images of it:   “the instant field of the present is at all times … the ‘pure’ experience.  It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet.” (James 1904, p. 23)  Our attention to the more differentiated language of a subject of cognition intending objects must not obscure the fact that, in addition to apprehending reality through the mediation of language, we also experience reality immediately as what James calls a “simple that.”  In James’ view, “experience … has no … inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition ….” (p. 9)  Following James, Voegelin takes the view that both dimensions of experience-the immediate and the symbolically mediated-are real and must be acknowledged if we are to understand the knowing-from-within that we achieve through symbols.

Mythical Symbolism and the Primary Experience of the Cosmos

Voegelin contends that all philosophical exegeses of the experience of participation must employ mythical symbolism.  In the passage quoted, Voegelin notes that Aristotle uses the same term, nous, for both the human capacity for knowing questioning and also for the ground of being itself that is experienced as the directing mover of the questions.  According to Voegelin, this usage employs a form of mythical symbolism in which “synonymity of expression means equality of genus by genesis” (Voegelin 1978, p. 149).  Aristotle assumes that the apprehending participation of the human nous in the ground of being is only made possible by “the preceding genetic participation of the divine in the human nous” (p. 150).  The reliance on mythical symbolism is not just the plight of Aristotle.  The more differentiated language of Voegelin, for example the statements that man is “part of the whole” and a “partner in being” and indeed the more abstract term “participation,” also employs metaphor.  According to Voegelin, a philosopher must inevitably use metaphors to articulate his differentiated understanding of reality, and those metaphors differ from the more compact narratives of mythical symbolism only insofar as they reflect a greater critical awareness of the symbolizing process and render more explicit the meanings expressed more compactly in the myth.  Why is this so?

According to Voegelin, mythical symbolism and its refinement in more abstract metaphors are the precise instruments for articulating the single experiential constant that is expressed in all forms of symbolism of human participation in being.  That constant element is the experience of all the areas of reality as consubstantial.  In his later work, Voegelin calls this constant the primary experience of the cosmos.  This experience is primary in the sense of being “the historical and personal starting-point for all interpretations of reality.” (Hughes 1998, p. 3). The experience is of a cosmos in the sense that reality is experienced as an embracing oneness that comprises all that is.  As Voegelin describes the experience in the fourth volume of his magnum opus, Order and History:

The cosmos of the primary experience is neither the external world of objects given to a subject of cognition, nor is it the world that has been created by a world-transcendent God.  Rather, it is the whole, to pan, of an earth below and a heaven above-of celestial bodies and their movements; of seasonal changes; of fertility rhythms in plant and animal life; of human life, death, and birth; and above all, as Thales still knew, it is a cosmos full of gods. (Voegelin 1974, p. 68)

Voegelin’s historical studies led him to conclude that, in societies such as ancient Egypt, where the breakthrough to the more differentiated language of philosophy or revelation has not yet occurred, mythical symbolism is the sole means of illuminating man’s participation in reality.  In such societies, reality is symbolized as an embracing whole that is comprised of the four areas of the gods, man, the world, and society, all of which are symbolized compactly in terms of analogies with each other.  Thus, a king’s rule over a territory and its people may be symbolized as an analogue of divine rule over the cosmos, or the king himself as a god or perhaps a son of god.  Reflection on such intracosmic analogies reveals, according to Voegelin, an important truth about the relationship between mythical symbolism and the primary experience of the cosmos.  The intracosmic analogies used by ancient societies make sense only on the assumption that the various partners in the community of being are consubstantial.  That is, the validity of the analogies is not self-evident but derives from

the experience of an underlying, intangible embracingness, from a something that can supply existence, consubstantiality, and order to all areas of reality even though it does not itself belong as an existent thing to any one of these areas.  The cosmos is not a thing among others; it has reality in the mode of nonexistence.  Hence, the cosmological play with mutual analogies cannot come to rest on a firm basis outside itself; it can do no more than make a particular area of reality … transparent for the mystery of existence over the abyss of nonexistence. (p. 72)

For Voegelin, philosophical symbols that seek to explicate the consubstantiality of man and the reality of which he is a part, including the reality of other men, have their source in the primary experience and emerge from and are continuous with more compact mythical symbols. The cosmic primary experience is also the source of all differentiated revelatory symbols about man, such as those developed by the prophets of Israel to articulate the experience of the presence under God as their essence (Voegelin 1966, pp. 150).  Voegelin’s view is made clear in his interpretation of perhaps the most famous Aristotelian statement of sameness, the claim at the beginning of the Metaphysics that “all men by nature desire to know.”

The statement that the known nature is not merely the nature of one person who concretely has the experience of his essence, but rather that of all men, implies the premise that all men are equal qua men, regardless of whether or not they experience their human essence in the clarity of differentiated consciousness.  The knowledge of the premise, however, comes not from the concrete experience of essence on the part of the respective noetic or pneumatic person, but from the cosmic primary experience, in which things are already experienced as participating-men as men, and gods and gods-even when we do not know too well what precisely they are.  Without that premise, the noetic experiences would remain a biographical curiosity; only with the premise as background do they attain their ordering function in society and history, inasmuch as the premise is the basis of the claim that they are representative and binding for all men.  (pp. 150-1)

In the last quotation Voegelin refers to noetic and pneumatic experiences.  A brief summary of his distinction between experiences and acts of transcendence (Voegelin 1963, p. 5) will help to clarify his understanding how noetic and pneumatic experiences differ from the primary experience of the cosmos.  As I understand it, the term “transcendence” refers most broadly to those experiences in which, as we focus our attention on any aspect of reality, a “more” emerges into our awareness.  Voegelin generally speaks of “experiences of transcendence” in which the “more” that emerges is experienced and symbolized as holy, sacred, divine, or the equivalent.  He uses the term “act of transcendence” to refer to the culmination of a process of meditation in which an experience of transcendence ends in the pervasion of consciousness by transcendent Being.

According to Voegelin, experiences of transcendence occur in ancient societies that symbolize reality solely in mythical terms, but the various realms of being are not clearly distinguished and acts of transcendence are not recognized as such, if they occur at all.  In both Hellenic philosophy and Israelite revelation acts of transcendence dissociate the cosmos-full-of-gods of the primary experience into a world of existing things and a transcendent, divine reality that in philosophy is symbolized as Being and in revelation is symbolized as a personal, creator God.  Beginning with the essays written in the 1960s that were published in Anamnesis (Voegelin 1978), Voegelin begins to speak of “noetic” and “pneumatic” experiences and to use those terms as synonymous to the philosophical and revelatory differentiations, respectively.  In the fourth volume of Order and History he makes clear that both differentiations always include a pneumatic core and a noetic periphery.  I interpret the pneumatic core as the experiences of transcendence, especially the acts of transcendence, and the noetic periphery as the experience of making the differentiating event explicit to itself through discovering and symbolizing its structure.

An important achievement of the Hellenic philosophers was the differentiation of the psyche as the area in reality that becomes luminous to itself in the noetic exegesis of the tension toward the divine ground of being.  To clarify the relations between the psyche and the ground, the philosophers developed the symbols immanent and transcendent to symbolize what Voegelin calls the human and divine poles of the tension.  The abstract terms “immanent” and “transcendent” and human and divine “poles” articulate in more differentiated form the truth compactly expressed in the mythical symbolism of mortal men and the immortal gods.  At the same time, the terms are metaphorical symbols that articulate the primary experience of the cosmos just as do the more compact symbols of the intracosmic myth.

The Existential Virtues and the Depth of the Psyche

Heraclitus was the pre-Socratic philosopher who first differentiated and explored the order of the psyche in its tension toward the divine ground.  For Heraclitus a man can augment his psyche by exploring it.  He states, “I explored [or: searched into] myself” (B 101).[1]  This exploration is both an activity of the logos and a means of increasing a man’s participation in it:  “The soul has a logos that augments itself.” (B 115)  The process is unlimited because the logos itself is without limit:  “You could not find the limits of the soul, even if you traveled every path, so deep is its logos.” (B 45)  It seems to me that this play with the meanings of logos as both a divine and a human thing involves mythical symbolism in same way as Aristotle’s play with the term nous.

According to Voegelin, Heraclitus uses the symbols of pistis (faith) and elpis (hope) to articulate the sense of direction that makes possible the psyche’s progress toward the “invisible harmony,” which is “better [or: greater, more powerful] than the visible.”  “Through lack of faith (apistie) the divine [?] escapes being known.” (B 86).  “If you do not hope, you will not find the unhoped-for, since it is hard to be found and the way is all but impassable.” (B 18)  Voegelin interprets these fragments as emphasizing the difficulty of finding the divine that we seek and stresses that the “the anticipating urges” of hope and faith orient the psyche’s search in the right direction.

Heraclitus calls the divine “the alone wise” (B 32) and says of it that “the Wise is apart from all things” (B 41).  He appears to have predicated wisdom of men but contrasted it to the divine One who is wise.  He also was the first to use the term “philosopher.”  Voegelin interprets the fragments as indicating that “human wisdom consists in the consciousness of a limitation in comparison with the divine” and the “philosopher” for Heraclitus as one who is engaged in the search for the One that is wise (pp. 225-6).  With the symbol “philosopher” Heraclitus adds philia (love) to pistis (faith) and elpis (hope) as a third experience that orients the soul toward the divine ground.

In an important essay, “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,” Voegelin relies on the Heraclitan symbols to search meditatively for the experiential constant that is the source of validity of our judgments that mythical, philosophical, or revelatory symbols are equivalent (Voegelin 1970).  Voegelin argues that Heraclitus, Aeschylus, and Plato, by carefully observing the process by which “they arrived at more differentiated experiences engendering more differentiated symbols,” developed the “symbol of a ‘depth‘ of the soul from which a new truth of reality can be hauled up to conscious experience ….” (p. 124)  Interpreting Plato in the Timaeus, Voegelin identifies the reality of the depth not with any of the intracosmic partners of the primary experience, but with “the underlying reality that makes them partners in a common order, i.e., with the substance of the Cosmos.” When we judge two symbolisms to be equivalent, “a truth of reality emerging from the depth recognizes itself as equivalent but superior to a truth previously experienced” (p. 131).  What is constant is this process of truth emerging from the depth that “leaves a trail of equivalent symbols in time and space” (p. 132).  According to Voegelin, we have immediate knowledge of this process “only in its presence.” That raises the question of how we know that we participate in the same process as every other human being.  Voegelin argues that

the faith in this premise … is … engendered by the primordial experience of reality as endowed with the constancy and lastingness of structure that we symbolize as the Cosmos.  The trust in the Cosmos and its depth is the source of the premises-be it the generality of human nature or, in our case, the reality of the process as a moving presence-that we accept as the context of meaning for our concrete engagement in the search of truth. (p. 132-3)

This passage expresses Voegelin’s view that the sources of man’s knowledge of the reality in which he participates are the experiences of faith, hope, love, and trust.  In the “Equivalences” essay, he calls faith, hope, and love “the virtues of existential tension” and says that those terms are “constant symbols from the pre-Socratic and classic philosophers, through St. Paul and St. Augustine, to the present.” (p. 122)  This statement expresses Voegelin’s own trust in the reality that he symbolizes as the Cosmos and his faith that what he calls the primary experience of the cosmos is the source from which the differentiated symbols of Heraclitus, St. Paul, and St. Augustine emerged.

Play and the Freedom of the Philosopher’s Myth

For Voegelin play is an irreducible element of man’s participation in reality.  He acknowledged his debt to Jan Huizinga, whose Homo Ludens:  A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Huizinga 1965) he credited with recovering and deepening the Platonic insight that culture originates in play (Voegelin 1948; 1957b, pp. 257-9).  Huizinga observed that play is not peculiar to man but is to be found fully developed in the animal world, where it already appears as a superabundance that transcends the realm of material forces.  This led Huizinga to conclude that play is a manifestation of the spirit.  In Voegelin’s words:

It is an independent factor, a form arising from the animal level of being which is fit to become a carrier of cultural worlds of meaning; by virtue of its transcendence beyond existential necessity it links the spirit with animal nature without determining it pragmatically. (Voegelin 1948, p. 185)

Voegelin sounds the theme of man as a player, as homo ludens, at the very beginning of the first volume of Order and History.  There he symbolizes existence as “the drama of being” in which we play our part while knowing fully neither what the drama itself or we ourselves are. (Voegelin 1956, p. 1).  Yet the drama includes our effort to illuminate its meaning from within through the play of symbols, to participate metaleptically in the divine authorship of the drama.  This metaphor continues the symbolism of Plato’s Laws of God playing with man as his puppets or as pieces on a board, and of man conducting his life as a serious play in following the pull of the golden cord in the psyche. (Voegelin 1957b, p. 259-61)

Mythical symbolism, with its rich field of sensuous images and tales, is permeated by play, but lacks critical awareness of the function of play in creating worlds of meaning.  As the early Hellenic philosophers explored the order of the psyche, they achieved this critical awareness, which enabled them to play with mythical symbols with greater freedom than their predecessors.  According to Voegelin, Plato’s myth of the myth in the Timaeus represents the maximal expression of this freedom.  The myth reflects Plato’s insight into “the nature of the myth … as the upwelling, from the unconscious, of psychic forces which blossom out into assuaging expression,” and that “the myth remains the legitimate expression of the fundamental movements of the soul.” (Voegelin 1957b, p. 186)  In the following passage Voegelin comments on the freedom of the play of mythical symbols that was achieved by Plato and that, he argues, must be achieved by anyone who seeks to understand mythical symbols and use them to illuminate our participation in reality.  The passage, in which Voegelin plays in his own distinctive way with some of the symbols of the early Hellenic philosophers, reveals the process that it symbolizes:

Freedom of the myth … implies the recognition that the conscious subject occupies only a small area in the soul.  Beyond this area extends the reality of the soul, vast and darkening in depth, whose movements reach into the small area that is organized as the conscious subject.  The movements of the depth reverberate in the conscious subject without becoming objects for it.  Hence, the symbols of the myth, in which the reverberations are expressed, can be defined as the refraction of the unconscious in the medium of objectifying consciousness.  What enters the area of consciousness has to assume the “form of object” even if it is not object.   The symbols, therefore, do not denote an unconscious reality as an object, but, rather, are the unconscious reality itself, broken in the medium of consciousness. (p. 192)

The In-Between

For Voegelin, the philosopher is critically aware of mythical symbols as the indispensible means for illuminating the order of his participation in reality, is open to the depth of the Cosmos from which symbols emerge in his psyche, and can engage freely in the play of symbols in partnership with all of reality, which Voegelin symbolizes as the Whole (Voegelin 1974).  Through an existential openness that is grounded in the virtues of trust, faith, hope, and love, the philosopher participates in the revelation of the truth of the Whole.  One of the most beautiful and comprehensive symbols for this process, for Voegelin, is the In-Between (metaxy) of which, the Platonic Socrates tell us in the Symposium, he has heard the goddess Diatoma speak:

In the myth told by Diatoma, Eros is the son of Poros (riches) and Penia (poverty); he is a daimon, something between god and man; and the spiritual man (daimonios aner) who is in search of truth is somewhere between knowledge and ignorance (metaxy sophias kai amathias) ….  “The whole realm of the spiritual (daimonion) is halfway indeed between (metaxy) god and man ….” (p. 185)

The myth told by Diatoma and reported by Socrates articulates the erotic tension in the soul of the philosopher, his longing for truth that is both an awareness of ignorance and poverty and an anticipation of fullness and knowledge.  Living in the truth symbolized by the myth, as a partner in the play of symbols, the philosopher lives between and participates in the mortal and the divine.

The Pneumapathology of the Divided Self

Voegelin often uses the term “pneumapathology,” but as far as I know he never clearly defines that term.  Among his analyses of disorders of the soul and the processes that maintain them, perhaps the clearest are contained in the essays on “Hegel:  A Study in Sorcery” (Voegelin 1971) and “The Eclipse of Reality” (Voegelin 1969).  Both essays reflect Voegelin’s adaptation and extension of The Divided Self of the existential psychiatrist R.D. Laing (Laing 1965).  That work reflects the influence of Winnicott’s ideas, and Winnicott read it in typescript and praised it highly in correspondence with Laing.  Voegelin takes from Laing the idea that a person who functions fairly well in society may suffer from a schizoid condition, that is, a profound division in his experience of himself and others.  In this condition what Laing calls a person’s “inner self” is occupied in fantasy and observation, observes the processes of perception and action, and attempts to be unaffected by events in the world, at least to a degree.  The individual’s actions do not express this “inner self” and, thus, are not creative.  Relations with the world are conducted by what Laing calls “the false-self system.”  The schizoid condition is accompanied by a feeling of being unreal and the absence of intimate relationships.  Laing calls the experiential source of this condition “ontological insecurity” and argues that schizophrenia is an extreme version of the schizoid condition.

In the first of the two essays, Voegelin argues that Hegel is a representative modern thinker in that his existence is characterized by the coexistence of two selves.  Hegel has a true self that lives in open participation in the first reality of the tension toward the divine ground of being, and a false, contracted self that lives in an imaginary second reality that eclipses the first reality of the tension.  The pairs of symbols “true self-false self” and “first reality-second reality” are equivalent to the Platonic pairs “philosopher-philodoxer” and “episteme-doxa.”  Voegelin refers to the task of the philosopher as gaining “the stature of his true self as a man under God.” (Voegelin 1969, p. 216)  The true self exists in open participation in the first reality of the tension toward the divine ground.  The false self and the second reality it inhabits are imaginary constructions motivated by “existential insecurity, anxiety, and libido dominandi.”

Analyzing Comte in the second essay, Voegelin indicates that the fantasy of the second reality is created through the “imaginative projecting of … [the] contracted self.” (Voegelin 1969, p. 143)  In one part of his experience, the thinker has withdrawn from and lost contact with the tension of existence.  The result is a fantasy of a wholly immanent, contracted self that may relate to the world of existent things, but is unrelated to the ground of being and, therefore, cannot have contact with the true selves of others.  Parts of this fantasy are then compulsively projected onto the first reality, including the part of the thinker’s experience that is still open to the ground.  In effect, the false self tries to kill the true self, an attempt with which psychotherapists are quite familiar.  According to Voegelin, one reason why masses of people are attracted to a comprehensive but false ideological system elaborated by a Hegel or a Comte is that it “permits the assuaging of anxiety by removing, with a show of legitimacy, the expressions of existential tension to one of the more or less deep cellars of the unconscious.”  The result is the loss of the life of reason, since “the critical center of rational discourse-i.e., the luminosity of existence-has been suppressed” (p. 157).  As a consolation, the projective operations appear to bestow on the false self imaginary versions of all of the parts of the psyche:  reason, imagination, spirit, etc.

At the end of “The Eclipse of Reality,” Voegelin indicates that he has “eliminated the issue of psychopathological sanity or insanity by treating the whole work [of Comte] as a problem in the pneumopathology of projecting” and returns to “the question of the difference between pneumopathological and psychiatric phenomena,” which is raised earlier in the essay (p. 158).  He suggests that part of the answer can be found in the phenomenon of play:

Sanity is a play …. [T]he imaginator will stay on the side of sanity in the psychiatric sense as long as he can sustain his play of honest dishonesty.  The exasperating dishonesty of the Second Realities is the factor of play that holds the imaginator’s personality together; if he were to believe seriously in what he says, his personality would fall apart and he would become a neurotic [psychotic] case.  As long as the Second Reality carries the index of “bad faith,” as long as it remains a play at insanity, we have to speak of a spiritual disorder; when the Second Reality acquires the index of “good faith,” the play will change over into an honest psychosis. (pp. 161-2)

The mysterious movements in the depth of the psyche find symbolic expression even in the play of lying.  As long as those forces emerge in some form in play, the higher sectors of the personality will have some contact with the truth of the Cosmos.  But if the movements in the depth no longer reach the psyche, the person will no longer have any experiential basis for judging what is true.  For Voegelin, at the opposite end of the spectrum of mental health from the true self of the man under God is the man who no longer is homo ludens because his psyche has lost touch with the truth of the Cosmos.  These formulations are consistent with the psychotheraeutic literature that has been influenced by Winnicott.  For example, Frederickson (1991) illustrates how recovery from delusional psychosis begins when the client starts to play with symbols playfully offered by the therapist as potentially useful for articulating experiences that have heretofore been too overwhelming for the client to symbolize.


Over the course of several decades Donald Winnicott articulated a detailed theory of the infant’s development in the first year of life.  The first period, extending from birth to about five or six months, he refers to as the period of “primitive emotional development” (Winnicott 1945).  Winnicott emphasizes that the mother’s devoted care is a necessary condition of the infant’s successful maturation during this earliest period.  In 1942 he jumped up in a professional meeting and exclaimed, “There’s no such thing as a baby!”  Reflecting on this outburst, he realized that he had come to believe that, at the beginning of life, there is no such thing as an individual, only an individual related to an interpersonal environment.  As he put this insight ten years later,

…if you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for the baby, or at least a pram with someone’s eyes and ears glued to it.  One sees a nursing couple … [B]efore object relationships [that is, before the infant relates to the mother as a separate, whole person] the state of affairs is this:  that the unit is not the individual, the unit is the environment-individual setup.  The centre of gravity of the being does not start off in the individual.  It is in the total set-up.  (Winnicott 1952a, p. 99)

Winnicott uses the terms holding, handling, and object-presenting to refer to three aspects of the ordinary, good-enough mother’s care of her infant that are necessary conditions of his primitive emotional development.  Holding, handling, and object presenting each support the infant’s development of a distinct psychological capacity that Winnicott believes to be fundamental to healthy living.  Holding supports the achievement of integration, handling supports personalization, and object presenting supports object relating (Winnicott 1945, 1952a, 1952b 1960b, 1962).  The three capacities develop synchronically.  Winnicott could “find no clear sequence in development that can be used to determine the order of description.” (Winnicott, 1971a, p. 99)

When the period of primitive emotional development has gone successfully, at about six months the infant’s interactions with his mother (or other primary caregiver) and his nonverbal play show that he is aware of having an inside and an outside, that things come from outside, and that he can be enriched by them, physically and psychically.  The infant relates to his mother as a separate, whole person, assumes that she has an inside, and is starting to be concerned about her and her moods.  Moreover, he is able to grasp an object that he sees and put it into his mouth and can get rid of it when he is done with it.

Holding and Handling Leading to Integration and Personalization

Holding “includes especially the physical holding of the infant, which is a form of loving.” (Winnicott 1960b, p. 49).  But it is more than a physiological process:

The term ‘holding’ … denote[s] … the total environmental provision prior to the concept of living with….  It includes the management of experiences that are inherent in existence, such as the completion (and therefore the non-completion) of processes … which from the outside may seem to be purely physiological but which belong to infant psychology and take place in a complex psychological field, determined by the awareness and empathy of the mother….  (pp. 43-44)

Holding “includes the whole routine of care throughout the day and night, and … is not the same with any two infants.”  It “meets the infant’s physiological needs” and protects him from “physiological insult,” “takes account of the infant’s skin sensitivity,” “is reliable … in a way that implies the mother’s empathy,” and “follows the minute day-to-day changes belonging to the infant’s growth and development, both physical and psychological”  (pp. 48-9).

Holding is made possible by the ordinary mother’s intense but healthy unconscious identification with her baby, which emerges towards the end of her pregnancy and during the infant’s first weeks of life.  In this period, to a large extent she is the baby and the baby is her.  There is nothing mystical about this.  After all, she was a baby once, and she has in her the memories of being a baby; she also has memories of being cared for, and these memories either help or hinder her in her own experience as a mother. (Winnicott 1966, p. 6).

When the mother’s own experience has been good enough, her identification with her infant enables her to be extremely sensitive to his experience and to adapt nearly perfectly to his needs for a time.  She then gradually adapts less perfectly as he becomes able to tolerate greater frustration.

Holding allows the infant to integrate his experiences.  Initially the baby’s life consists of unconnected and disorganized states.  There is a biologically-based tendency for this “primary unintegration” to coalesce in more connected and organized form. In the ordinary course of development, this tendency is supported by the mother’s holding and by “acute instinctual experiences” such as feeding that “tend to gather the personality together from within.”  With adequate support from these two sources, “[t]here are long stretches of time in a normal infant’s life in which a baby does not mind whether he is many bits or one whole being, or whether he lives in his mother’s face or in his own body, provided that from time to time he comes together and feels something.”  Winnicott goes on to say that, “[i]n regard to environment, bits of nursing technique and faces seen and sounds heard and smells smelt are only gradually pieced together into one being to be called mother.” (Winnicott 1945, p. 150)

“Handling describes the environmental provision that corresponds loosely with the establishment of a psychosomatic partnership.” (Winnicott 1962, p. 62)  The good-enough mother’s touch facilitates the baby’s development of a sense of having a skin and “indwelling” in his body.  Personalization is the process by which the baby’s person comes “to be linked with the body and the body functions, with the skin as the limiting membrane.” (p. 59)  It is the capacity for satisfactory “localization of one’s self in one’s own body,” “the development of the feeling that one’s person is in one’s body.” (Winnicott 1945, pp. 149, 150-1)  Instinctual experience and the repeated quiet experiences of body care contribute to the gradual build-up of satisfactory personalization.

Holding and handling together protect the infant from excessive experience of the most primitive anxieties.  Winnicott viewed the baby as “an immature being who is all the time on the brink of unthinkable anxieties,” which concern “going to pieces,” “falling for ever,” “having no relationship to the body,” and “having no orientation” (Winnicott 1962, pp. 57-8).  These anxieties are aspects of the most primitive human anxiety of “annihilation” (Winnicott 1960, p. 47).  The opposite of annihilation is “continuity of being” or “continuity of going-on-being” (Winnicott 1962, p. 60).  The infant experiences  sufficiently disruptive breaks in maternal care as a threat to his existence to which he must react.  Winnicott refers to such breaks in care as impingements:

The alternative to being is reacting, and reacting interrupts being and annihilates …. The holding environment … has as its main function the reduction to a minimum of impingements to which the infant must react with resultant annihilation of personal being. (p. 60)

For Winnicott, this picture of the infant at the beginning of life as poised between being and annihilation is more faithful to clinical experience than Freud’s view of the infant from the start as a whole person who can experience hunger and the frustration of that instinct.  The experiences of being a person, desiring satisfaction, and being frustrated are developmental achievements that cannot be taken for granted at the beginning of life.  The ordinary, good-enough mother’s holding and handling of her baby keeps his experience of annihilation anxieties at tolerable levels and, in interaction with his inborn maturational tendencies, allows the infant to come into existence as a person who can desire and experience frustration.  The mother’s care gives the infant sufficient existential security to be able to tolerate gradually greater degrees of satisfaction and frustration.  Impingements caused by inadequate holding and handling result in late or incomplete development of the capacities for integration and personalization.  In that event, the infant’s sense of self is based on reaction to annihilation anxieties rather than being.  As an older child and adult, he will be prone to excessive experience of those anxieties.  For Winnicott, disintegration and depersonalization are defenses used by an individual to avoid the experience of annihilation anxieties, and extreme use of those defenses is an essential feature of psychosis.



[1]  All translations of the fragments of Heraclitus, which are cited using the Diels-Kranz numbering system, are from the second volume of Order and History (Voegelin 1957a, pp. 220-240).


This is the first of two parts.

Robert S. Seiler

Written by

Robert S. (Robin) Seiler, Jr., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Greenbelt, MD. He studied political philosophy at the University of Virginia and clinical social work at the University of Maryland. In 2016 he retired from 36 years of public service as a legislative, budget, and policy analyst, researcher, and manager for U.S. the Congress, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and two federal financial regulatory agencies. He has presented papers at several meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society, where this paper was presented in 1999.