skip to Main Content

Process and the Derailing of Reality: Voegelin, Process and the New Realism (Part I)

Process And The Derailing Of Reality: Voegelin, Process And The New Realism (Part I)

Recently I overheard a little aphorism. It went: the philosophy of the 20th century was largely epistemological and agnostic. The philosophy of the 21st century is shaping up to be ontological and atheistic. I am not sure where this little aphorism came from. It may well have been from Radical Orthodox theologian John Millbank originally. Nonetheless it got me thinking about a great deal of things I have been intending to write about for quite a while now concerning Eric Voegelin, the Radical Orthodoxy movement, the history of Christian Platonism and what has variously been titled “the ontological turn,” “the speculative turn” and “speculative realism.”

Very clearly the figure casting the shadow behind the curtain of already emergent 21st century atheistic-ontologic philosophy is French post-structuralist Gilles Deleuze, a thinker who has been so done to death in the past fifteen years, interpreted with such cringe-inducing “live, love, laugh” positivity and such pantomimic schlock horror, that one might wish the philosophers might simply get on with the business of bankrupting themselves and bury him already. A century of post-post-Deleuzian “speculative realism” and object orientated this that and the other sounds so tedious and of such diminishing returns that it is hard to believe that any day soon this camp is going to produce (or already has) the epoch making Heideggers and Whiteheads of a new century’s 20’s.[1] Readers of VoegelinView might recall that a number of years ago now I wrote a little about this “speculative turn” and had very little of anything nice to say about it at all. I still don’t, but I do increasingly think that something productive might be done with it.

The fact is that something very important has happened. There has indeed been a turn of late within the remains of Continental Philosophy away from experience as the arche of philosophy towards being. No one wants to be friends with the hermetically sealed post-Kantian subject anymore. Instead we are charged as entities among entities to do the best we can to speculate about what might be going on, whether we might ever perceive it or otherwise. In short, metaphysics is returning – just about everyone is sick of playing the word games of Derrida and friends. This has some very interesting potential repercussions and invites us to go back over the history of ontology with an open soul.

However, thus far this has been a rather sedate business. Aside from Alain Badiou’s curious attempt to return to Plato through set theory and the rediscovery of the ideas of Étienne Souriau concerning the “different modes of existence,” the majority of speculative realism largely just seems to copy and paste the Deleuzian “univocity of being” in an effort to produce ever more immanentist and absolutely flat ontologies. We have five hundred crass flavors of Deep Ecology and amusingly dull “democracies of objects,” which seems an abjectly predictable outcome given the latent tendency towards pantheism that Tocqueville astutely observed in the democratic mindset.[2] Voegelin once said of immanentism: “We can observe over the last two hundred years, that every possible locale where one could misplace the ground has been exhausted…Even if one could find a new wrinkle in them, it wouldn’t be interesting because the matter has been more or less exhausted emotionally. We have had it.”[3] As exhausted as things might be, clearly there must still be a little bit left to wrinkle. The turn towards being before experience could be so much more than what we have so far seen.

Ontological Migraines and a Plan of Action

This is going to be an essay in six parts, a kind of online chapbook for pointing out different possibilities that might be taken up through, with and against the “new realism”. It is going to be long but also a great deal of fun I hope. There is going to be angels, science fiction, love, death and all manner of other wonderful things. In part 1 we will be looking at Eric Voegelin’s deep debts to the process philosophers A.N. Whitehead, William James and Henri Bergson. All of these thinkers have recently undergone something of a revival as part of this “speculative turn,” primarily because Deleuze was strongly indebted to them. What has happened is that I have begun to consider the dreaded possibility that Voegelin may well have been a “speculative realist” of a sort. As I argue here in part one, upon close inspection Voegelin was doing something in his readings of Plato and Aristotle, particularly in Anamnesis, that is completely counterintuitive to what we usually assume about these philosophers – he was reading them as process thinkers.

This is quite a claim. Are not Plato and Aristotle all about nouns, permanence and things and process thought all about verbs and change? Would Deleuze not cozily have it that the Stoic belief in the non-existent existence of events was deliberately formulated over against the Eleatic-Platonic doctrine that non-being could not be?[4] Were not process thinkers such as Bergson and Deleuze simply reversing Platonism to favor becoming over being? Can one not find the trite application of Whitehead’s ideas to every non-Western culture conceivable, from the Chinese and Hindus to the Aztecs, all in the name of the touted fact that they all “go with the flow” and the West is alone in being morosely clunky with its Forms and Essences? [5] Voegelin certainly scrimped on the question of Platonic and Aristotelian cosmology in favor of the discussion of consciousness as process. Nonetheless, as I will show in this essay, there are exceptions to this in his works, many fragmentary, and especially his serious engagement with Schelling that came too late, which we will be looking at in parts four and five, which suggest that Voegelin’s ideas might be expanded upon very fruitfully to deal with the “speculative turn.”

We are not entirely alone in our adventure. The Radical Orthodox (RO) thinkers John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock have already been engaging with the speculative turn for several years now. In part 3 of this essay we will be looking at Pickstock’s remarkable 2013 book Difference and Repetition that outlines a Christian Platonic alternative to the current speculative realist trends. As John Milbank said in a recent interview:

“Analysis and Phenomenology (with its offshoots) is giving way to a new ‘speculation’ that can take both naturalist and spiritualist forms (Deleuze, Badiou, Laruelle, Henry, and so on). We have more recently responded to this new scenario and would even claim to be one of its harbingers since, from the outset, we tended to claim that the anti-metaphysical was only itself based on the wrong kind of metaphysical dogmatism.”[6]

RO first rose to prominence in the 1990s by attempting to pass through post-structuralism in order to revitalize the tradition of Christian Platonism. RO centers upon a genealogical attack on medieval nominalism as the root cause for the atheistic and will-obsessed modernity that we have found ourselves in.[7] A major part of this is the perceived effects of medieval Franciscan Duns Scotus’ doctrine of the univocity of being – that God differs from his creation only in degree. Univocity means that a word signifies the same thing no matter what it is used to describe, whether it is a man, a brick or God. The opposite of univocity is equivocity – the idea that the same word means something different when used to describe different things. For instance, a good brick, a good friend and a good bottle of wine might seem to share relatively little in common, especially if one is a nominalist. As Scotus claims in Book I of his Ordinatio:

“Every metaphysical inquiry about God proceeds in this fashion: the formal notion of something is considered; the imperfection associated with this notion in creatures is removed, and then, retaining the same formal notion, we ascribe to it the ultimate degree of perfection and then attribute it to God. Take, for example, the formal notion of ‘wisdom’ or ‘intellect’ or ‘will’ . . . Because this notion includes formally no imperfection nor limitation, the imperfections associated with it in creatures are removed. Retaining this same notion of “wisdom” and “will”, we attribute these to God—but in a most perfect degree.”[8]

Scotus may have been attempting to bring God and his creation into a closer relationship, but to the RO thinkers this rebounds with two very interesting and negative consequences. The first is that instead of bricks, people and God possessing a deep shared relationship of existential degree, the univocity of being instead supplied the platform for the strengthening of existing nominalist discourses through Scotus’ successor William of Occam. Univocity is utilised to claim that all existents are particulars and what they share in common aside from this fact is simply convenient man-made labels. Besides the univocity of being all else is pure equivocity. Secondly, because under the univocity of being, so the RO thinkers claim, God becomes simply a very big, very powerful being, this in turn caused man to try to become an immanent God.

The key here is the question of the importance of divine will over divine rationality. Following Avicenna Scotus prioritized God’s will over His reason. In comparison, Aquinas followed Averroes and put divine reason before will. One would do well to recall Carl Schmitt’s dictum that the political theological nature of the absolute ruler is that of the possessor of the potentia absoluta Dei (absolute power of God). Whether Schmitt understood the implications or not of his choice of words, this was the very terminology that Scotus’ successor, the nominalist William of Occam, used to describe God. As Mika Ojakangas observes:

“. . . unlike the Schmittian constitution-making power, God’s potentia absoluta was not, in medieval theology, originally intended as a description of some form of divine action: the absolute power of God referred to the total possibilities initially open to God . . . It became a theological notion with Duns Scotus’ theory of univocity: the power of man has the same meaning as the power of God.”[9]

And indeed Occam is far more noxious than Scotus ever was. His God is one of pure irrational will. Eric Voegelin understood well what Occam had done. With him, so he wrote, “a great cycle of Western Christianity comes to an end” and in its place was erected an “absolute authoritarian God who posits the content of faith at his Will.”[10] Yet, Occam and his strange notions, such as that Christ could have simply incarnated with a donkey if he wanted to, did not come from nowhere. They are the product of a perverse union of the worst of nominalism and voluntarism that was but one permutation of the great wealth of ideas existing in the Middle Ages. The RO thinkers are very correct in seeing the powerful influence Occam exerted over Luther’s and Calvin’s conceptions of God as an entity of pure will.  Indeed, should one takes this seriously, there might seem nothing novel or “modern” at all about Feuerbachian projectionism or the Nietzschean Will to Power. As Milbank says – we are living out a “certain middle ages.”

The reader might be familiar with somewhat similar genealogies of the Humanist God-man from Oswald Spengler on the “Gothic Christian” origins of the Faustian obsession with will and transcendence to Eric Voegelin’s diagnosis of Gnostic libido dominandi (desire to control reality) and more recently D. C. Schindler’s Freedom From Reality on the Lockean obsession with the subjective will.[11] Yet as faith in humanist big m Man has declined it is little wonder that we have begun to see phenomena such as “speculative realism” with all manner of immanentist post-human oikonomiae granting historical agency and power to the forces of technology, capital, the Earth and networks of animate and inanimate objects instead. We will be talking about some of these in parts three and five of this essay. One might be tempted to consider this post-human immanentism an amusing little punchline indeed to the genealogy of the Will to Power. Nonetheless, this should invite us all the more keenly to consider and rediscover other forgotten possibilities.

The univocity of being is especially important for our current reconsiderations of ontology and “speculative realism” because Gilles Deleuze was perhaps its greatest conscious defender in the 20th century. We will look at the RO diagnosis of Deleuze in detail in part three of this essay. Nonetheless, for now it is at least worth noting that one existentialist cousin to the “speculative realists,” Frédéric Neyrat, seems to have begun to understand that such an ontology does have sinister consequences:

“How has ontology gotten to this point? How has immanence as a category necessary for contesting the spiritualities that negate life, come to mean the grim machine that destroys differences, a mill for grinding out a sort of ontological flour, an ontology spread flat? We might say that this way of thinking immanence has only pushed the Deleuzian stance regarding the univocity of being to its limits.”[12]

RO thinkers call this “grim machine” “the univocal mode of production” and see it at the heart of the modern mistreatment of nature and man by man.[13] Could things have been different? What alternatives might there be?

In the Metaphysics Aristotle famously states (several times) that “being is said in different senses.”[14] Aristotle was largely talking about the difference between “is” as affirmation (John is here) and predication (John is a man, is happy etc.). The full implication of “different senses”, however, remained a dormant problem until Thomas Aquinas expanded it to respond to the apophatic or negative theological tradition’s conception that the names for a God merely anagogically pointed away from the immanent world towards an absolutely transcendental God. In the apophatic tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius God can only be approached by subtracting the immanent world (God is not this, not that . . . ). Aquinas instead defined the being of God and the being of creation as different, but analogically linked. To Aquinas God is a being who is pure being and creatures are beings participating in that pure being. By participating in his being, His creatures analogically reflect Him. Creation, should one learn to read it, leads back towards Him, rather than the apophatic insistence of the mystics that God is radically alien from creation and even beyond being.

Aquinas’ theory of participation is called the analogia entis (analogy of being). He described the analogia as “a means between pure equivocity and simple univocity.”[15] The RO thinkers, although Christian Platonists, consider the Thomist analogia to be the true metaphysical alternative to univocity. As John Milbank outlines:

“In Aquinas it was still the case that an exploration of the meaning of the word ‘good’ involved entering on an existential journey towards an inaccessible plenitude of perfect goodness in God. So to delve into the richness of the meaning of good was also to ascend towards a higher contemplation and practice of goodness, and that ascent in its turn simply was the ascent towards God.”[16]

The RO thinkers ardently argue for the analogia entis, calling it a “paradoxical” mix of ontological equivocity and univocity, of the interplay of the Same and Different running through all things. In this they are also indebted towards the coincidentia oppositorum (coinciding of [all] opposites) Renaissance Platonists such as Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno saw God as embodying, which was fundamentally contrary to the Aristotelian Law of Non-Contradiction. Yet, as we will see shortly, this interweaving of Same and Different throughout all creation is little closer to the spirit of Plato’s Sophist than that of Aquinas’ or Cusa’s consideration of the ontologically Same and Different in the relation between God and creation.

The Scotist doctrine of univocity was, one must emphasize, a reaction to and subsequent to Aquinas and his successors such as Henry of Ghent. Indeed, univocity is a vastly plainer understanding of theism than either mediaeval apophatic mysticism or Thomist analogy. Yet, if univocity only becomes a conscious issue after the analogia entis has been thought, one is compelled to ask: what was really going on beforehand? One might note that the first modern “neo- pagan” Platonist, the 14-15th c. Byzantine Gemistios Plethon, adamantly argued against Aquinas that Plato and Parmenides had believed being to be thoroughly univocal. So too against the apophatic Pseudo-Dionysian mystics of his age he argued that there was nothing beyond being.[17] Who is correct?

The univocity of being might seem to make a great deal of sense seeing the importance of the diminution of being in the Platonic tradition, that becoming is merely a lower imitation or emanation of eternal being. Yet at the same time it might recommend exactly the opposite – that the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius could not have been possible without the Platonic legacy’s insistence beginning with the famous epekeina tes ousias (beyond being) of Plato’s Republic and the paradoxes of the Parmenides in which the One is beyond being, but reconciles and is necessary for any and all of existence. So too the analogia entis would likely have been impossible without the convoluted discourses on ontological methexis (participation) in the Parmenides and Sophist that were inherited and modified by Aristotle in his Metaphysics. Indeed the unicity, or reconciled oneness of being, need not mean that being is wholly univocal any more than the Deleuzian univocity of being as multiplicitous requires any unicity. This is the vital thing that Alain Badiou misunderstood when he attempted to criticize Deleuze’s ontology as a “flat Plotinian One.”[18]

Nonetheless, we still haven’t found ourselves an answer. Instead we have a migraine coming on. The history of ontology begins to unravel into an endless muddle. Did Plato go wrong from the start by injecting non-being into the Eleatic tradition as Parmenidean Jesuit Emanuele Severino astoundingly suggested in his The Essence of Nihilism? At very least there is something more than a little dishonest at work in Deleuze’s famous declaration that “there has only ever been one ontological position: Being in univocal. There has only been one ontology, that of Duns Scotus . . . from Parmenides to Heidegger.”[19] If there has ever been a “forgetting” of being that has coloured recent times, then perhaps Heidegger played a key role in it by completely overlooking the question of univocity and the complexities of mediaeval ontology entirely, the result of which is the current homogeneity of “speculative realism’s” univocal clamoring chorus.[20] We can do better.

Voegelin’s Debts

What did Eric Voegelin have to say about such things? John Milbank has mentioned Voegelin from time to time, but no RO thinker appears to have said anything substantial about him at all, which seems something of a shame.[21] Voegelin was rather enthusiastic about the analogia entis. In Science, Politics and Gnosticism Voegelin claims that: “as long as divine being can be conceived of only in the form of the analogia entis, the construction of system will be impossible.”[22] What high praise indeed from someone who was avidly against system-building, yet also at the same time found Aquinas’ metaphysical machinery to be the beginning of modernity’s fall into axiomatic philosophizing.[23] Moreover, in the third volume of Order and History Voegelin even declares the analogia entis to be the true metaphysics as opposed to the “immanentist metaphysics” of Aristotle’s substances.[24] In spite of this, Voegelin did not follow this particular realization much further. Nor does he ever seem to have had anything to say of the fact that shortly before he died Aquinas famously had a religious vision of such incredible power and indescribable beauty that he hung up his writing implements and called the Summa nothing but “straw.”[25] What a potent symbol of symbolic limitation indeed!

However, instead of the analogia’s balancing of Same and Different, Voegelin came to concentrate on negative/apophatic theology as a means to undercut the notion of absolute gnosis and outline his theory of antifoundational symbolisation. When Robert Heilman recorded that Voegelin once said: “Of course there is no God. But we must still believe in Him” was he not making a clever reference to the via negativa of the Cloud of Unknowing that became so important to him in later years?[26] If there is one thing that this essay is going to attempt, it is the question of taking Voegelin’s ideas further than he took them himself. So much of what Voegelin has to say is fleeting, fragmentary and unclear. I do not think that this could simply be put down to his aversion towards “system-building.” We are tasked then with taking the hints and clues squirreled away in Voegelin’s works in a different direction.

The place to begin is with an overview of Voegelin’s relationship with process philosophy, because it is here that we find his strongest attempts to consider the questions of epistemology and ontology. If we look closely at Voegelin’s key articulations of human consciousness it is not difficult to notice that they are deeply indebted to A. N. Whitehead, William James and Henri Bergson. It is often hard to categorize Voegelin using standard philosophical phyla because he utilizes bits and pieces of various modern thinkers to try to come at the sort of mystical experiences mainstream 19th and 20th century European philosophy had very little interest in. Was Voegelin a phenomenologist? Voegelin’s ongoing project to recover the mystic consciousness and experiences of historical figures of luminous “privilege” may well appear somewhat subjectivist. Nonetheless, Voegelin considered Husserl’s “nondiscussable ultimatum” of the rejection of traditional symbolic systems in favor of subjective “appearance” to be a “bankruptcy of philosophy” and a “symptom of spiritual nihilism.”[27]

Indeed, as Renaud Fabbri illuminates, Voegelin was deeply marked by the lecturers of Whitehead he attending as a young exchange student in the US in 1924-5, and had no love for Kant and his children because of their stultifying domination of the German academy.[28] During this time Voegelin was also strongly taken by the ideas of William James, especially his “openness towards experiences” displayed in The Varieties of Religious Experience and the thinker’s rejection of the categories of subject and object in favor of “pure experience” and relation in his essay “Does Consciousness Exist?”[29]

Voegelin sought to move beyond the limits of mere phenomenological intentionality to how pre-intentional religious experience comes to be conveyed and converted into analogical and anagogical symbolic systems: “a mythical symbol is a finite symbol supposed to provide ‘transparence’ for a transfinite process.”[30] With this move we see a turn towards the question of consciousness as a part of ongoing cosmic process, most strongly outlined as follows in Anamnesis:

“The experience of consciousness is the experience of a process – the only process which we know “from within”. Because of this its property, the process of consciousness becomes the model of the process as such, the only experiential model to serve as the orientation point of the conceptual apparatus through which we must also grasp the processes that transcend consciousness.”[31]

Even the Bergsonian “flow” of consciousness has a “limit” and “vanishing point” for Voegelin – the egological “I” disappearing either into the body or into the ground of being,[32] the old darkness below and darkness above of Neo-Platonic mystical tradition. Reality is far larger than the human sensory and cognitive faculties. Transcendence for Voegelin cannot be a datum of consciousness. Voegelin also extended this to the question of the afterlife and immortality, referring to experiences of such things as “non-existent realities.” As with his apophatic understanding of God, Voegelin is utilizing the language of non-being to attempt to convey the ontologically diverse nature of things beyond the thin band of usual human consciousness and our ability to convey such experiences. He writes:

“In our own century, the work of William James and Henri Bergson has set great landmarks of such endeavor. This task of reestablishing con­tact with nonexistent reality, however, is not easy; and the task of making the attempts socially effective is even less so. It would be difficult to detect any lasting imprints the work of individual thinkers has left on the vast expanse of intellectual mud that covers the public scene; the madness seems to go as strong as ever, and only an Hobbesian fear of death puts on the brakes. And yet, dis­couraging as the results may be, progress of a sort seems to me undeniable.”[33]

Voegelin was also strongly taken by Bergson’s concept of “l’âme ouverte” (the open soul) outlined in Two Sources of Morality and Religion. In this term Voegelin detected a strong Plotinian flavour comparable to the anti-dogmatic 16th c. mysticism of Jean Bodin.[34] Bergson speaks of the openness and love for reality which accompanied early religious experience and philosophy, and how this came to be closed over into dogmatic priesthoods and moral systems. It is only too true that the mystic and philosopher have always had an uneasy relationship with authority (or “ideological dogmatomachy” as Voegelin calls it). Voegelin was also similarly taken by Whitehead’s concept of the “climate of opinion” – the duty to combat the dominant and stultifying intellectual modes of the 20th century.[35]

Indeed, if we look around today in the “marketplace of ideas” and its communicational “global village” (two gratuitous misreadings of “l’âme ouverte” belonging to Karl Popper and Marshall McLuhan respectively),[36] it would seem indeed that we are not only very low on mystics and saints, but also even original “secular” thinkers in general. At some point everyone seems to have got stuck in the middle of the 20th c. and what it found outré, rebellious, cool and “spiritual”, and then in dotage, simply stopped there. There is not much more conservative and closed than what remains of mid-century post-modern literature, art, theology and philosophy. If ever there was a time needing a bit of a shakeup and rereading of its old myths and the creation of a few new ones, just as Plato undertook, now would seem highly appropriate. After a century of nothing but phenomenology and word games we may indeed find ourselves back at the start of the 20th century all over again, but this time affirming the speculative religious dimensions in the works of thinkers such as Bergson, James and Whitehead rather than simply their cosmological and aesthetic aspects that are the only elements emphasized by the “speculative realists.”[37]

Voegelin realized the impossibility of writing a history of ideas because of the fact that the historian too is embedded in the flow of history and in search of the “ontological underground” at work beneath the “phenomenal surface” of the landmarks, texts, rituals and other forms of cultural memory we inherit. [38] Thus, he embarked on an anamnetic journey of his own in an attempt to get back to the varieties of mystical experience that he saw at the basis of Western thought on the nature of reality. He did this by reflecting on the symbols and tools used by two thinkers he considered to have possessed the fullest articulation of the whole of reality –Plato and Aristotle. Voegelin considered the core of Plato and Aristotle’s thought, and thus the true roots of philosophy, to be religious experiences.

The Plato Voegelin was most taken with was the Phaedrus and its “erotic reason” in search of luminous experience of that which is hyperouranios (above the heavens), and, in the language of the Republicepekeina tes ousias (beyond being). For this he was especially dependent upon Plato’s use of the word metaxy (between) to illustrate the notion of a processive and transformative relationship of metalepsis/methexis (participation in existence) between man and this Beyond. Reading Aristotle he was also struck by the philosopher’s use of the terms helkein (to pull) and zetein (to search), which he uses to describe the life of the philosopher given over to divine theoria (speculative existence).[39]  Reflecting on these, Voegelin came to the idea of centering noetic experience upon the relation between two poles – that of man and that of the Beyond. He called this “tension towards.”

However, to Voegelin the experience of the Beyond is, as already noted, not a datum of consciousness, but is pre-intentional and anti-foundational. It is an It-Reality, which can only be analogically communicated through recourse to creative use of one’s available cultural symbols.[40] No wonder, then, that Voegelin found the analogia entis and its doctrine of participation in being to be the only thing he regarded as passing muster as a “true metaphysics.”  Moreover, I would be unsurprised if to some extent Voegelin’s theory of tension was not influenced by William James’ comparison of human experience to an iron bar we find utilized in Varieties of Religious Experience,  as part of the critique of pure feeling he deploys against Kant: “A bar of iron could never give you an outward description of the agencies that had the power of stirring it so strongly; yet of their presence and their significance for its life, it would be intensely aware through every fibre of its being.”[41] This is of course also very reminiscent of Plato’s Ion (533d-e) and its comparison of the Homeric rhapsode to a magnet radiating divine influence out over the audience. However, to my knowledge Voegelin never comments on the short, obscure Ion, which seems something of a pity.

Nonetheless, Voegelin’s imagery of “two poles” was most certainly borrowed from A.N. Whitehead, who uses a similar construction of a physical and mental pole in human beings, “inseparable in their origination.” So too does Whitehead’s God have a “primal” pole from before the world and experience of it, and an “consequent” pole that develops as God “grows” with the world and is affected by it.[42] Although Whitehead’s ontology is univocal (due to the strong influence of Spinoza), he still believed the primal pole of God and the “eternal objects” with it to be beyond time. If only he had perhaps considered something like the analogia entis his system might have sounded quite so less like simply a systems theory in which God is but one more part in a flat holism of entities, but that is that.

Voegelin seems to have taken up this Whiteheadian “polar” position because if one thing is clear about the history of Platonism and Christianity, it is that they have tended towards irreconcilable dualisms of transcendent and immanent God, of perfect spirit and lowly matter absolutely divided and at odds. As Voegelin illuminated so well, this has had had some rather obvious and deleterious consequences, primarily the “pneumatopathology” of recurrent Gnostic modes of thinking seeking to derail reality and remake it. The overwhelming problem of the political theological machine of the Two is that One always ends up eating the other One. Although Voegelin retained the dualistic language of immanent and transcendent, he did so in an attempt to regain a fuller understanding of their mutual participation in which the immanent world has no historical eidos (form) of its own. As the following quotation from Anamnesis emphasizes, he was emphatic that there was no immanent beginning or end of things in time:

“The being of immanence which we call ‘world’ contains no problem of arche (except possibly in the sense of what transcends the world) but only one of indefinite progression. If we ask whether the ‘world’ has a beginning in time or not, we have loaded the question by hypostatizing the order of being into a being thing inasmuch as we have forgotten that ‘being’ and ‘world’ do not exist but rather are relations of order with respect to the cosmos in which we still are living.”[43]

I do not think that one can read this “hypostatizing” of Voegelin’s and not feel that there are very strong hints of the influence of William James’ “vicious abstractionism” or Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” – the habit of transforming speculative concepts into “things” at the expense of the ongoing “flow” of reality.[44] As Alessandra Gerolin illuminates in her essay “The Influence of Alfred North Whitehead on Eric Voegelin,” the concept of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” endured and evolved throughout Voegelin’s career, from his early studies of scientism and Nazi race science and to his later work, where he attempted to invent a whole new philosophical vocabulary ‘‘to protect the analysis from the danger of the fallacies of misplaced concreteness which . . . lurk behind every unanalyzed concept.’’

[45] This, indeed, is why Voegelin has such a reputation for being very hard to understand. He retools Ancient Greek terminology utilized by Plato and Aristotle for describing an anthropological science of consciousness, the point of which is to try to approach finding such a consciousness again. One might then conclude by stating that what Voegelin seemed to be doing was replatonising the religious dimensions of James, Whitehead and Bergson in order to develop his own practical toolkit. In part two of this essay we will take this much further and consider Voegelin’s ideas in relation to the processive dimensions of Plato’s Sophist and its affinities with the overlooked 20th c. thinker Étienne Souriau.



[1] The best introduction to all this is still Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (eds), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism,, Melbourne, 2011. As this is an “open access” text it is easily available for download online.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol 2, Ch VII.

[3] Eric Voegelin, “In Search of the Ground,” in The Eric Voegelin Reader, eds. C. R. Embry and G. Hughes, University of Missouri Press, Columbia MO, 2017, p.125.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Constantin V. Boundas et al, Bloomsbury, London, 2015, p. 7-8.

[5] See: Radhakrishnan, The Idealist View of Life, Unwin Books, London, [1932] 1975, pp. 259-65; Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China Vol 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, [1956] 1996, esp. pp. 291, 458; James Maffie, Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2014.

[6] John Milbank, “Radical Orthodoxy and Protestantism Today,” Acta Theologica Supplementum 25, 2017, p. 56.

[7] For a good introduction see: John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward eds., Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, London, Routledge, 1999.

[8] Duns Scotus, Ordinatio

[9] Mika Ojakangas, “Potentia absoluta et potentia ordinata Dei: on the theological origins of Carl Schmitt’s theory of constitution,” Continental Philosophy Review, 45, 2012, 505-17.

[10] Eric Voegelin, Collected Works Vol 21: History of Ideas Vol 3, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1989, pp. 106-11.

[11] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Volume 1, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1922. For a far more blatantly fascist celebration of “Germanic” Christianity’s preoccupations with the Will, obviously cribbed from Spengler see: Alfred Rosenberg, The Myth of the Twentieth Century: An Evaluation of the Spiritual-Intellectual Confrontations of Our Age, Invictus Books, Wentzville MO USA, 2011, esp. p 67: “The ANALOGIA ENTIS (if one leaves out an assumption about the creation of the world from nothing) has been forced on the Nordic European spirit by the old Testament.” Here Rosenberg tries to claim that the analogia entis was an import from foreign peoples who believed in a totally dominating, remote, alien God. The ‘Aryan” apparently can only truly understand sharing in the “godlike” qualities of the divine. This is Nazi mysticism at its most obviously power-hungry and immanentist.  See also: D. C. Schindler, Freedom From Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN, 2017.

[12] Frédéric Neyrat, Atopias: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism, trans. Walt Hunter and Lindsay Turner, Fordham University Press, New York, 2018, p. 6.

[13] Catherine Pickstock, “The Univocal Mode of Production,” in Creston Davis, John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek  (eds), Theology and the Political: The New Debate, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2005, p. 303.

[14] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1003a33, 1017a23,1045b28-9. See: Joan Kung, “Aristotle on ‘Being Is Said in Many Ways’,” History of Philosophy Quaterly, 3.1,1986, pp. 3-18.

[15] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.13.5. See also: Idem, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.33.295, 1.34.148, De Veritate, 2.11.122-4, De Potentia Dei, 7.7. A good overview: Roger M. White, Talking About God: The Concept of Analogy and the Problem of Religious Language, Ashgate, Surrey UK, 2010.

[16] John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People, Wiley, Chichester UK, 2013, pp. 29-30.

[17] See Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, esp. pp. 223-77. While Siniossoglou’s book is very interesting, it is marred by a strange desire to want to claim an absolute “real” difference between the Christian and Pagan-Platonic legacies – the former deprecatory of human knowledge and millenarian; the latter rationalist and Utopian. The author seems to be claiming this in order to posit the revival of the latter as the true spirit of the Enlightenment. There’s something a little 19th c. and very gauche about this. Foremost, it requires repeatedly passing over the Neo-Platonic legacy inherent in Byzantine Christianity’s deprecation of “vain” worldly pagan learning and weakly trying to explain away Plato’s description of the Good as “beyond being.” One could just as easily look at Plethon and the monastic institutionalism he battled with as two different strains of Platonic thought.

[18] Alain Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, trans. Louise Burchill, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2000. See this reply by a Deleuzian which seem to vindicate the idea that Badiou didn’t really know what he was talking about concerning the difference between univocity and the One in relation to being: Jon Roffe, Badiou’s Deleuze, Acumen, Durham UK, 2012.

[19] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, p. 35.

[20] The classic text on this issue is John D. Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas, Fordham University Press, New York, 1982 in which it is argued that Aquinas’s analogia does indeed consider the issue of ontological difference. But see also: Philip Tonner, Heidegger, Metaphysics and the Univocity of Being, Continuum, New York, 2010, pp. 33-4 where we find Heidegger quoted in the 1930s as stating that the analogia entis was “not a question of being, but a welcomed means for formulating a religious conviction.” Tonner argues that Heidegger’s conception of Being qua Being is univocal (even though Heidegger never said so) on the basis of it always being the same for Dasein to relate to it through the Ereignis (eventing, en-owning) of time. This seems more than a little problematic in that it puts the onus back on human onticity rather than on Being qua Being. Moreover, it is now of course de rigeur to try to extend Dasein beyond humans, to other animals, and perhaps even to all ontic “objects”. Do they all relate to the history of being’s revealing and concealing in the same manner? Someone like Graham Harman with his fixation on objects would probably argue that this is indeed so.

[21] Milbank, to my knowledge, has only infrequently referred to Eric Voegelin. For example in Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2012, p. 195 n. 166 on p. 230 where Voegelin is referenced in relation to the idea that Zizek is a Gnostic in the tradition of Jacob Boehme and his influence on Hegel. Very recently Milbank has called Voegelin “the great German Catholic philosopher and historian” in relation to the idea that the Franciscans attempted to imitate the divinity of Christ too hard and thus ended up attempting a collective sort of apotheosis in the tradition of Athanasius and Nestorianism: “Radical Orthodoxy and Protestantism Today: John Milbank in Conversation,” Acta Theologica 37.25, 2017. Available online here:

[22] Eric Voegelin, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 5: Modernity Without Restraint, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, p. 273 (Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1960, p. 43).

[23] Idem, Anamnesis, p. 193-4. Cf. Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1981, pp. 132-3 n. 6.

[24] Idem, Order and History Volume 3: Plato and Aristotle, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1957, p. 368.

[25] John D. Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas, Fordham University Press, New York, 1982, pp. 253-6 in which this experience is used to outline a mystic Aquinas who manages to escape Heidegger’s accusation of “ontotheology”. If only Heidegger had spent more time on mediaeval thought – particularly mysticism and negative theology – he himself might have been able to realise the problem of the univocity of being and its limits. Instead Heidegger almost wholly “erases” the ontology of the Middle Ages.

[26] See: Maben Walter Poirier, “Eric Voegelin’s Immanence: A Man at Odds with the Transcendent?” Appraisal 7.2.2-3, 2008-9, pp. 28-9. This essay is a rather bitter reproach from a thinker who seems to have come to the conclusion that deep down Voegelin was guilty of being an “immanentist” and “atheist” thinker. This misreading is refuted here by Eugene Webb, Appraisal, 8.2, 2010, pp. 42-56 but esp. p. 47.  One might note that it has also been possible to regard negative theology rather than an excess of univocal positivity as having been to blame for the radical immanentist nihilism of modernity. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Volume 1, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1922 in his discourse on “Faustian Man” had much to say about mediaeval “Gothic” Pseudo-Dionysian Christian mysticism’s preoccupations with the Will. The will to shut out the world to get to a totally transcendental God, so he claimed, became an important part of the immanentised pursuit of power over infinite space and time. From Joachim to Hegel and Ibsen it is all “arrows of desire aimed towards the other bank”. Voegelin, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Vol. 21: History of Political Ideas Vol. III: The Later Middle Ages, University of Missouri Press, Columbia MS, p. 177 had similar attitudes in his early work towards this Pseudo-Dionysian thought: “the civilizational destruction perpetrated by a peasant group fighting for the perfect realm does not differ in principle from the annihilation of the world content in the…Cloud of Unknowing.” However, Voegelin later realised the validity of the Cloud’s refusal of any kind of absolute “gnosis” as a spiritual antidote to millenarian ideology and system building. See:  Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1981, pp. 28-9.

[27] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, trans. Gierhart Niemeyer, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1990, p. 35.

[28] Renaud Fabbri, “Voegelin and Whitehead’s Process Theology (Preliminary Remarks),” A Post-Secular Age blog, 1 November 2013,

[29] Eric Voegelin, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” in Collected Works Vol 12: Published Essays 1966-1985, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1990;  Athanasius Moulakis, introduction in Eric Voegelin, Order and History III: The World of the Polis, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 2000, p. 13.

[30] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, pp. 21.

[31]  Ibid, pp. 21.

[32]  Ibid, pp. 18-19.

[33] Eric Voegelin, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol.”

[34] Henry Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R. Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Bereton, Anchor Books, New York, 1954, esp. pp. 52ff. Cf. Eugene Webb, Eric Voegelin, pp. 147-8; Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, pp. 194-6; idem, Collected Works Vol 12: Published Essays 1966-1985, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1990, p. 273. See also: Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, “From Bergson to Voegelin: The Chosen People and the Universal Commonwealth,” VoegelinView, 7th December 2012.

[35] A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Free Press, New York, [1925] 1997, p. 3f. Cf. Eric Voegelin, ‘‘On Classical Studies,’’ in Published Essays 1966–1985, pp. 256–64, idem, Anamnesis, p. 113, idem, Autobiographical Reflections, p. 148.  For the most comprehensive exploration of this topic see: Alessanda Gerolin, “The Influence of Alfred North Whitehead on Eric Voegelin,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 76. 4, 2015, pp. 633-55.

[36]  See K. R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol 1: Plato, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, [1945] 1966, notes to introduction p. 202. Cf. Marshall McLuhan,The Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, [1966] 2002, pp. 7-8. Note here that McLuhan here is talking about Popper and thinks that through television that the “open society” will be “closed” into one big community. On Voegelin’s recognition of Popper’s abuse of the term see: Peter Emberly and Barry Cooper, Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2004.

[37] Exemplary of this is Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and The Occurent Arts, MIT Press, Cambridge MA and London, 2013 in which Deleuze, Whitehead, James and Bergson are liberally combined for the sake of trying to aestheticize some truly boorish experimental art projects.

[38] Eric Voegelin, Collected Works 28: What Is History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings, eds. T. Hollweck and P. Caringella, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1990, pp. 12f. Cf. Thomas Heilke, “Out of the Crooked Wood: How Eric Voegelin Read Immanuel Kant,” VoegelinView, 29th March 2012, which seems to be a little too quick to claim that Voegelin was a Kantian simply because of his use of the term “phenomenal” as opposed to the Real of the ontic underground. Voegelin seems to be clearly being metaphorical here, though perhaps he could have chosen better terms less reminiscent of Kant. Nonetheless, we might note that it has been argued several times in the past few years that “speculative realism” in deconstructing “correlationism” or by having objects retract into their own private substance simply reinvents the noumenal and phenomenal division – e.g.  Peter Wolfendale, Object-Orientated Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, Urbanomic, Falmouth UK, 2014.

[39] See esp. Voegelin, Anamnesis, pp. 103-9, 148-59. Yet Voegelin says in Order of History Vol 3, p. 276 that Aristotle was guilty of an “intellectual thinning out” of the experience of transcendence that Heraclitus, Parmenides and Plato had all articulated.

[40]  See esp. Eric Voegelin, Order and History Vol 5: In Search of Order, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2000.

[41] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, Collins, Fontana Library, London, 1960, p. 71.

[42]  A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, Free Press, New York, 1978, pp. 248, 344.

[43] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, p. 85.

[44]  William James, The Meaning of Truth, Harvard University Press, New York, [1909] 1979, pp. 135-6; A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 52.

[45] Alessanda Gerolin, “The Influence of Alfred North Whitehead on Eric Voegelin”. See esp.: Eric Voegelin, ‘‘Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History,’’ in Published Essays, 1966–1985, p. 123.


This is the first of six parts. Also available are “Process and the Derailing of Reality: Haunted Ontologies and Different Modes of Existence,” “Process and the Derailing of Reality: Catherine Pickstock and the Return of Platonic Cosmology,” “Process and the Derailing of Reality: The Strange Curse of the Ages of the World,” “Process and the Derailing of Reality: Love and Violence,” and “Process and the Derailing of Reality: Erotic Theology.”

Jonathan Ratcliffe

Jonathan Ratcliffe is Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a doctoral candidate in Asian History at the Australian National University. He is working with Chris Heggie-Brown on a history of technology and politics, provisionally titled "Voegelin Among the Machines."

Back To Top