The New Science of Politics at 60 Years

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Dear Friends,

Here is my report of the conference entitled “60 Years of Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics” which took place on Saturday, December 8, 2012, at the University of Munich. The conference was held in the main building between 9:45 am and 6 pm. The purpose of the conference was to reach out to people who had perhaps not studied Voegelin’s works before, but who might help us to “get the word” out in Germany.

There were four lectures during the day. There was also a panel discussion following the lectures. The panelists, who included the lecturers and a moderator, also took questions from the audience. Christian Schwaabe (Munich) offered a welcoming speech and Gilbert Weiss (Salzburg) moderated the lectures. There was also time for questions following each lecture.

Manfred Henningsen (Hawaii) put Voegelin’s work in the American context and compared Voegelin in some ways to Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. Although there was perhaps little new here for those who have spent many years reading Voegelin (how could there be?), I was assured by several students who were making the acquaintance of Voegelin for the first time that they had followed the lecture with attention and interest.

Henningsen also made an important contribution to the final panel discussion by explaining Voegelin’s work as a continual deepening exploration of fundamental problems. This was in response to one of the speakers who thought he found many contradictions in Voegelin’s work. But, as MH pointed out, the real question is the unity of his work, not the temporary stages of the answers.

The second lecture was given by a young sociologist from the University of Vienna, Christopher Schlembach–a man who had worked with Reinhold Knoll and Gilbert Weiss. His lecture focused on Voegelin, Schütz, and Talcott Parsons and the relationship of the three to Max Weber, i.e. their attempt to build on his insights but not rest at the methodological level Weber had reached.

It was the type of lecture that one needs to read–there was a little too much information to digest at first hearing. But it was good in that it showed Voegelin in the context of problems that others were dealing with–Schütz, Parsons–and opened up the possibility that by comparing one could see more clearly Voegelin’s approach. I hope this lecture will be printed in the Occasional Papers.

The third lecture was by a Professor of Philosophy, Barbara Zehnpfennig (Passau). She looked at Voegelin’s Plato interpretation. I think there were some misunderstandings on her part.  She criticized Voegelin for not saying things which as a matter of fact Voegelin had said. Nevertheless, there was a positive reception of Voegelin–at times a bit patronizing, but friendly. And some of her students, themselves working on masters or PhDs on Plato were introduced to Voegelin.

The last lecture was delivered by Prof. Emeritus Demandt (Berlin), a historian. Here, to use an overworked word, a “Positivist” took a look at Eric Voegelin. His evaluation of Voegelin was a caricature. It angered several people who then called out “Unsinn!” and left the room, etc.

In the question and answer period following his lecture, the unpleasantness of the shouting was cleared up. But the lecture was nevertheless a caricature. And, as someone in the audience pointed out, one can caricature any thought if one breezes over it in a superficial manner. Still it was a rather unpleasant intellectual experience and a rather unpleasant social one too. As I say, things were ironed out and I do not believe the professor will go around telling his friends: “the Voegelin crowd invited me over and then threw their chairs at me.”

Prof. Buchstein, who until recently was president of the German equivalent of the American Political Science Association, moderated the panel discussion.

Tilo Schabert (Erlangen) pointed out that the fact that we do not hear much about Voegelin in Germany implies perhaps more of a criticism of Germany than it does of Voegelin. Herr Leidhold (Cologne) made a very lucid comment on Voegelin’s method which amounted to a last statement and ended the conference.

The conference was well attended, between 80 and 100 people, many of them students, including at least one from England and two from Poland (both currently studying in Germany). There was a positive regard for Voegelin and presumably openness to learning more about him. This was more of a social contact and only time will tell if the social contact helps.

Two things become clear after every such Voegelin conference:

It is very difficult to reach people who have never thought about faith in any but a dogmatic way. Mysticism is immediately misunderstood and thought to be something associated with Madam Blavatsky and the local esoteric bookstore.

And there is no way to give people a quick course in “experiences of transcendence” if they have not noticed that we have them every day. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The problem of experiences of transcendence seem to be the challenge in any confrontation with Eric Voegelin: people must have some notion that the cognitive-existential experiences of transcendence constitute our own human-being.

On Friday evening, during the meeting of the Voegelin-Gesellschaft (Voegelin-Society) Herr Optiz suggested that perhaps the Voegelin-Gesellschaft should try to organize conferences with societies that deal with thinkers like Löwith or Plessner or Scheler, etc. In that way we would be engaging with people, who, although they might not know Voegelin well, or at all, are acquainted with the type and the depth of the problems that concerned him. In this way we might come more easily into fruitful discussions with one another.

I hope this sketch provides you with some small notion of our conference. I confess I enjoyed it. To see the difficulties involved in bringing Voegelin to the attention of a larger audience in Germany is part of the solution to bringing him to their attention.

William Petropulos

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William Petropulos is a Board Member of VoegelinView and a Research Fellow at the Voegelin Centre for the Study of Politics, Culture and Religion at the University of Munich. He is editor of Eric Voegelin's Collected Works, Volume 32: The Theory of Governance and Other Miscellaneous Papers (Missouri, 2004).