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The Recovery of Science in Eric Voegelin’s Thought

The Recovery Of Science In Eric Voegelin’s Thought

The debate about scientism (also referred to as positivism or scientific reductionism) is an argument over the validity of applying the methods of the natural sciences to the social sciences. The desire of the positivist to purge the social sciences of its subjective element reveals his or her assumptions that reality consists only of immanent existence and that knowledge only can be derived from external objects that conform to the scientific method. Claims about transcendent or aesthetics are considered outside the boundaries of science, and therefore outside the boundaries of knowledge.

In this article, I wish to review the historical and philosophical development of scientism, as started by Bacon, and ends in its last greatest manifestation in the positivist works of Max Weber. What we discover is that scientism as both a science and as a type of politics is a type of Gnostic enterprise that Voegelin identifies and condemns. As an alternative to scientism, Voegelin creates a “new science” of politics that paves a path of recovery of science to its original, normative nature. By the end of this chapter, the reader will be able to see the two alternatives that confront us in our understanding of science and technology.

Gnostic Scientism

Scientism is an ideology grounded on the assumption that facts can be distinguished from values: facts are derived from scientific methods, while values are the product of subjective prejudice or opinion. On the one hand, knowledge is restricted to phenomena that conform to the scientific method because this process is objective, valid, and universal; on the other hand, metaphysical speculation is dismissed as an illegitimate form of knowledge because it is unscientific. As Voegelin puts it, “whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.”[1] In other words, the horizon of knowledge has been restricted to the method and not to the man.

The origins of scientism started with Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, where the method outlined can be applied to all human knowledge.[2] Suggesting that society could advance through science, Bacon called for the fusion of political power and science in his New Atlantis, with humans being able to subdue nature, but only after they had first studied and understood it.[3] Although previous thinkers have sought a synthesis of science and power, Bacon stands out as one of first modern thinker because of his refusal to name a teleological end for human beings. For Bacon, scientific progress would enable humans to imagine what they would be capable of accomplishing in the future. Any predetermined end postulated for humans would only impede the progress of science and therefore cannot be stated. The notion of limit and constancy in human nature is absent in Bacon’s thought, making him not only one of the first modern thinkers but also a founder of scientism.

However, the scientific method and its influence on human understanding of the world did not become prevalent until the time of Newton with his notion of absolute space. This concept has important philosophical and political consequences, as Voegelin remarks: “the attribution of ‘absoluteness’ to the new science expresses the will of finding an absolute orientation of human existence through intramundane experience, and the correlate to this new will is the unwillingness to orient existence through openness towards transcendental reality.”[4] That is, the positioning of absolute space within the temporal-material realm and as the sole orientation point of human existence precludes the existence of transcendental reality as a directional point for human beings.

The result for science is that knowledge resides only in the temporal-material realm; and, as joined with political power, focuses on utilitarian considerations of wealth and technology. Science thus becomes reduced to a materialist and temporal process that promotes practical utility. The influence of this new type of science is “expanding in our civilization so strongly that the social realization of other values is noticeably weak.”[5] The social and political environment becomes governed on the scientific principles of rationality and utility, and its adherents express a dogmatic faith in the power of science, as Voegelin notes, “Science becomes an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.[6]

Perhaps the best example of such a Newtonian-inspired society can be found in the writings of Henri de Saint-Simon, who had hoped to recreate society on the basis of science after the French Revolution. Replacing the Catholic Church with a Council of Newton, a body of twenty-one scholars with no religious officers, to be the “representative of God on earth,” Saint-Simon sought to transform French society into an earthy paradise.[7] The Council would espouse a positive science that all members and organizations in society had to subscribe to; otherwise, they would be punished, for nothing should obstruct the progress of science. Humans would become reduced to instruments of an abstract promise of progress and the speculative process of science.

If Saint-Simon paved the path for scientism to become the new basis of society, then Auguste Comte made possible the tools to realize Saint-Simon’s vision. For Comte, the social sciences—the study of humans—should be modeled after the natural sciences and used for the perfection of society. The equivalent of the Newtonian law of gravity could be found in society; and, by Comte’s time, the idea has been simmered down to the law of three historical phases for humankind: theological, metaphysical, and positivist.[8] Although Comte was engaged in historical speculation rather than empirical science, he was able to present his law of three phases as scientific, because it appeared to be modeled after the natural sciences’ methods.

Scientism as applied to both science and society is a type of Gnosticism for Voegelin. According to Voegelin, a Gnostic is someone who claims absolute certain knowledge of the fundamental principles of reality, thereby committing the error that humans ultimately can understand the mystery of being. Gnostic movements, whether ancient or modern, are characterized by a Manichean obsession with a temporal evil that can be blamed on social disorganization rather than on a condition of human beings, i.e., original sin, and a conviction that salvation from the evils of existence can be achieved in one’s lifetime through a historical process dictated by human action, i.e., historical agents who possess gnosis (certain knowledge) to guide correct action.[9] Essentially, Gnosticism is the human desire to dominate and to recreate the world into his or her own image.

Gnosticism contains certain characteristics to help us identify it: 1) the feeling of dissatisfaction with human’s place in the world; 2) the belief that this dissatisfaction is a result of the world being poorly organized; 3) the belief that salvation from the evil of the world is possible; 4) the belief that the order of being will have to be changed in a historical process; 5) the belief that a change in the order of being is possible through human action; and 6) the belief that one can possesses this type of knowledge, gnosis, and therefore should encourage other human beings into action in order to change the order of being.[10] Scientism, especially when joined with political power, fulfills these criteria: Saint-Simon’s positive science will reorganize society because the scientist has superior insight into the order of being when compared to other people and therefore the scientist knows best how to  move society forward in the name of progress.

 Gnostic Positivism

 If scientism is a Gnostic political enterprise, then positivism is its counterpart in the academy. Positivism is the scientific method as applied to the social sciences: the belief that the natural sciences have some inherent value and that all other sciences would achieve comparable success if they followed that example and accepted those methods as their own. For Voegelin, these two assumptions held by positivists—the natural sciences possess some inherent value because of their mathematizing of the external world and all other sciences should accept their methods—would have devastating consequences for the social sciences. The source of danger came from the second assumption, where the natural sciences “were a criterion for theoretical relevance in general,” i.e., the so-called fact-value distinction.[11] This assumption de-legitimatizes methods that do not conform to mathematical equations.

For Voegelin, the subject’s theoretical relevance becomes subordinate to the method in positivism, thereby perverting the meaning of science. As Voegelin states:

“Science is a search for truth concerning the nature of the various realms of being. Relevant in science is whatever contributes to the success of this search. Facts are relevant in so far as their knowledge contributes to the study of essence, while methods are adequate in so far as they can be effectively used as a means for this end. Different objects require different methods.”[12]

For example, the political scientist who studies classical political philosophy will not have much use for mathematics; and the physicist will have little use for classical political philosophy. Although this may seem self-evident, the positivist disregards these truths. By contrast, for Voegelin, instead of having the method dictate the matter, the matter should dictate the method.

The last great positivist for Voegelin was Max Weber, who had advocated a value-free science that explored cause and effect and constructed ideal types and the deviations from them. The Weberian science did not inform whether a person should become a particular political or ideological persuasion; rather, it would show the consequences of translating a particular set of values into practice. Values were beyond the critical evaluation of the social scientist, but the scientist could offer technical knowledge that would be useful to the politician. In a sense, Weber pushed positivism past the methodological debates that had preoccupied previous thinkers towards relevance about the world in which humans participate. But for Voegelin, this search fell short because values had to be accepted as unquestionable, thereby limiting the analysis to causality rather than fundamental principles.[13]

The new relevance of Weber’s positivist science articulated itself in terms of the “ethics of responsibility,” “ethics of intention,” and “demonic values.” The first two showed politicians the consequences of their actions in hope of awakening a sense of responsibility within them; the last revealed that values cannot be traced to rational sources of order, thereby making politics a field of demonic disorder. However, the questions of what demonic values should politicians possess or what ethics should be adopted are left untouched by the scientist, since values are beyond science. Perhaps, as Voegelin speculates, Weber sought to influence his students by indirection because “he shunned explicit statements of positive principles of order; and, in the second place, the teaching even though direct elaboration of principles could not be effective if the student was indeed demonically fixed in his attitudes.”[14]

Be that though it may, Weber’s refusal to analyze demonic values, which would require a level of philosophical anthropology as the unit of analysis, makes his rational engagement with demonic values feeble and ineffective. With a value-free science, the scientist encounters a plurality of conflicting values, with each one potentially constituting an object of study. The inability of the scientist to select one value over another in his study of “ethics of responsibility” or “ethics of intention” turns him philosophically into a relativist and politically into an apologist. The arbitrariness of the method could only be somewhat countered by a systematic study of the history of humankind in the hope that certain ideal types or patterns would emerge, e.g., a sociology of religion, thereby giving rise to certain theoretical traditions that would act as a factor in the selection of material and problems.

Still, there are theoretical difficulties even with this approach. For example, if there were an objective study of history processes that would reveal the materialist interpretation of history was incorrect, then there must exist a standard of objectivity to make such an assessment. However, Weber’s science does not permit us to make such a claim. Even when we look at Weber’s own work, like his sociology of religion, we see that pre-Reformation Christianity is absent but we are provided no explanation as to why. For Voegelin, the reason was obvious: “One can hardly engage in a serious study of medieval Christianity without discovering among its ‘values’ the belief in a rational science of human and social order and especially of natural law. Moreover, this science was not simply a belief, but it was actually elaborated as a work of reason.”[15]

If he were to study pre-Reformation Christianity, Weber would have encountered an objective science competing with his own, forcing him to show that thinkers’, like Aquinas, claim to science was unfounded. But in order to accomplish this task, Weber would have to become someone who states a preference for a certain set of values over another, thereby undermining his own claim that his science was value-free. In short, Weber would have to become a philosopher himself. Although Weber’s study of religion is impressive for the amount of range of material he had collected, his work also reveals the limitations of positivism as shown in the lack of explanation in the selection and analysis of the very same material.

It is clear that Weber did not subscribe that all values were equal, especially when one looks at the omission of certain material in his studies. The problem with Weber—and positivist more generally—is their explicit refusal to incorporate their value of selection into their methodology. Instead of explaining his principles of selection in his methodology, Weber resorted to ideals or types, such as rationality or rational self-determination.[16] Unlike Comte, this process towards rationality was not one of progress but of disenchantment and de-divinization of the world, a condition to be mourned rather than celebrated. But Weber’s ideals raise the same question we had about values: why are certain ideals or types preferred over others in the objects of study? Again, Weber remains silent on this question.

The New Science

As stated previously, Voegelin believed that the predominance of positivism in the social sciences, particularly in political science, has made it impossible to uncover the fundamental principles of political reality. He conceived of politics as the human search for order and justice as experienced by their relationships to nature, society, and transcendence. These experiences become symbolized in political  symbols, which society either accepts or rejects, and can be analyzed as ones of order and justice. But in order to evaluate these political symbols, and the experiences underneath them, the political scientist must understand the broader theoretical context from which these symbols arise, i.e., the historical context of these political symbols. This “new science of politics,” as Voegelin referred to it in 1952, is to reconstruct the experiences of elites’ consciousnesses and their relationships to nature, society, and transcendence with the available empirical data before us. Factors such as socio-economic class and political ideology are taken into account as are national events and international factors, but the primary focus is on the formation and articulation of elite consciousnesses as ones of order and justice.

Voegelin’s new science of politics tries to accomplish this task in conceiving a science of politics as a philosophy of history: “the existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history.”[17] It must be made clear here that for Voegelin history is not the external flow of events outside of our consciousness; rather, it is our experiences with nature, society, and transcendence. From our participation with transcendence in our consciousness, order and justice emerges and becomes known to us. Transcendence is known to us as a movement in our psyche as it unfolds in our consciousness and not in the external world. From these experiences, we articulate political symbols of order and justice. History, therefore, is a series of political symbols as representative of societies’ experience with transcendence; political science is a study of these political symbols in a historical context.

The evaluation of these political symbols is rooted in a philosophy of consciousness, where:

“Theory is not just any opining about human existence in society; it rather is an attempt at formulating the meaning of existence by explicating the content of a definite class of experiences. Its argument is not arbitrary but derives its validity from the aggregate of experiences to which it must permanently refer for empirical control.”[18]

This new science, therefore, searches for symbols that are “amenable to theorization as an intelligible succession of phases in a historical process” so that “the order of history emerges from the history of order.”[19] From this datum of human experiences, consisting of “God and man, world and society [that] form a primordial community of being,” we are able to reconstruct the consciousness of societal elites.[20] Although we cannot know this datum as “an object of the external world,” or view them from some location outside of time and place that would permit us to understand the mystery of the whole, we can attempt to uncover the experiences of these leaders “by virtue of [our] participation in the mystery of being.”[21] From this recovery, we discover and clarify these experiences as cosmological, anthropological, soteriological, and Gnostic.

The experiences of order are articulated in cosmological, anthropological, and soteriological symbols. The experience of cosmological symbolization is “a rhythmical repetition of cosmogony in the imperially organized humanity which existed at the center of the cosmos,” whereas anthropological symbolization is the experience of human participation with the divine.[22] Soteriological symbolization also reflects the experience of human participation with the divine but permits the possibility of friendship (philia) between God and man in Christ as the incarnated Logos:

“The experience of mutuality in the relation with God, of the amicitia in the Thomistic sense, of the grace which imposes a supernatural form on the nature of man, is the specific difference of Christian truth. The revelation of this grace in history, through the incarnation of the Logos in Christ, intelligibly fulfilled the adventitious movement of the spirit in the mystic philosophers. The critical authority over the older truth of society which the soul had gained through its opening and its orientation toward the unseen measure was now confirmed through the revelation of the measure itself.”[23]

Because philosophy and Christianity have endowed humans with the insight that right order radiates from their participation with the divine, cosmological symbolization loses its effectiveness as a symbol of right order. Humans now are able to play the role of a rational contemplator and pragmatic master of nature. But this new role comes at a price. Instead of attributing to nature the causes of disorder, humans now must look within themselves for the root of their own troubles, i.e., the spiritual fall from grace.

Thus, soteriological and anthropological symbolizations present new dangers. Whereas cosmological symbolization was governed by the rhythm of growth and decay, soteriological symbolization seeks to be actualized in the supernatural destiny of humankind by breaking this rhythm of existence in its search for perfection beyond temporal reality: “man and mankind now have fulfillment but it lies beyond nature.”[24] For Voegelin, history lacks meaning, since it extends forever in time, but humans who experience derailment from soteriological symbolization may seek a meaning within history, i.e., to realize a supernatural destiny in temporality. By adopting the Christian structures of grace and history, these derailed individuals engaged in a Gnostic project that tries to actualize their eschatological goal in history through human, historical action.

The Gnostic’s desire to dominate the world disrupts what Voegelin referred to as a balance of consciousness.[25] According to Voegelin, humans participate in the world of humans, God, society, and the cosmos, all of which are given to his consciousness. The most important relation in this complex is human’s relationship to transcendence. From this participation, humans can experience and articulate political symbols of order. Unlike the Gnostic, neither this experience nor interpretation of this experience is positivist knowledge as an external object, rather, it is a tension between immanent and transcendent reality that man encounters as a participant.

This participatory tension between the human and the divine is what Voegelin referred to as the metaxy: the existence of human consciousness in a state of tension between the poles of immanent and transcendent reality. Human existence in the metaxy is an ongoing struggle to know realities (i.e., the divine) which are beyond the scope of human understanding. Therefore, the philosopher must be careful not to let his desire to know dominate his exploration of reality. In other words, our speculation must not degenerate into an “intentionalist” desire to know the mystery of the divine as if it were some “object this side of the horizon”; nor must we assume that human realities belong to the sphere of the divine.


The restoration of science cannot be accomplished by engaging in ideological warfare. The attempts of relativist postmodern philosophers on the left and dogmatic religious believers on the right to establish their ideology in the academy will only confuse rather than clarify matters in the classroom. Although the two groups sense correctly the limitations of positivism, especially in the methodologies of the social sciences, both appear to replace one Gnostic enterprise (scientism) for another (postmodernism or unexplored faith). Voegelin would reject both attempts and, instead, ask us to engage in the philosophical project of his new science: a return to the study of philosophical anthropology within a historical dimension that includes the realities of nature, society, and transcendence.

It must be stressed here that normative evaluation and the study of human participation with transcendence does not equate into a refutation of the fact-value distinction; rather, Voegelin’s new science examines the empirical data in an alternative manner to clarify and analyze the fundamental political realities. Of course, this approach cannot provide scientific proof for its conclusions. It is true, but unfortunate, that the thoughts and passions of humans cannot be rigorously demonstrated as in mathematics or the natural sciences. Although this difficulty is formidable, it is not insurmountable. The reconstruction of consciousness from the available empirical data is to rely upon one’s own introspection with the hope of understanding other people. This procedure requires us to infer the motives, experiences, and perceptions of others by examining their situation, behavior, and self-interpretations. In the reconstruction of consciousness, we not only compare them with previous people in their society but also with our own, thereby creating an aggregate set of experiences from which we make normative evaluations. Such a science employs this introspective and imaginative method where its conclusions are not dependent upon positivist methodology but on my and your knowledge of human nature.



[1] Voegelin, Eric. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (hereafter CW), 34 vols. (Columbia & London: University of Missouri Press, 1990-2009), CW 24, 194.

[2] White, Howard. “Francis Bacon,” History of Political Philosophy, eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, second edition (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1973), 343.

[3] Ibid., 342.

[4] Voegelin. CW 24, 210.

[5] Ibid., 207.

[6] Ibid., 208.

[7] Ibid., 219.

[8] Voegelin. CW 5, 93.

[9] Ibid., 297–98.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 90-91.

[12] Ibid., 91.

[13] Ibid., 98.

[14] Ibid., 100.

[15] Ibid., 103.

[16] Ibid., 104.

[17] Ibid., 88.

[18] Ibid., 138.

[19] Ibid.; CW 14, 19–24; also refer to 39–50.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.; also refer to 89–90.

[23] CW 5, 150–51.

[24] Ibid., 183–86.

[25] CW 17, 291–302.


This excerpt is from Technology and Democracy, Lee Trepanier, ed. (Southern Utah University Press, 2008)

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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