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Understanding the Language of Politics

Understanding The Language Of Politics

Political science is suffering from a difficulty that originates in its very nature as a science of man in historical existence. For man does not wait for science to have his life explained to him, and when the theorist approaches social reality he finds the field pre-empted by what may be called the self-interpretation of society. Human society is not merely a fact or an event in the external world to be studied by an observer like a natural phenomenon. Although it has externality as one of its important components, it is as a whole a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization.

It is illuminated through an elaborate symbolism, in various degrees of compactness and differentiation–from rite, through myth, to theory–and this symbolism illuminates it with meaning in so far as the symbols make the internal structure of such a cosmion, the relations between its members and groups of members, as well as its existence as a whole, transparent for the mystery of human existence. The self-illumination of society through symbols is an integral part of social reality, and one may even say its essential part, for through such symbolization the members of a society experience it as more than an accident or a convenience; they experience it as of their human essence. And, inversely, the symbols express the experience that man is fully man by virtue of his participation in a whole that transcends his particular existence, by virtue of his participation in the xynon, the common, as Heraclitus called it, the first Western thinker who differentiated this concept.

As a consequence, every human society has an understanding of itself through a variety of symbols, sometimes highly differentiated language symbols, independent of political science; and such self-understanding precedes historically by millenniums the emergence of political science, of the episteme politike in the Aristotelian sense. Hence, when political science begins, it does not begin with a tabula rasa on which it can inscribe its concepts; it will inevitably start from the rich body of self-interpretation of a society and proceed by critical clarification of socially pre-existent symbols.

When Aristotle wrote his Ethics and Politics, when he constructed his concepts of the polis, of the constitution, the citizen, the various forms of government, of justice, of happiness, etc., he did not invent these terms and endow them with arbitrary meanings; he took rather the symbols that he found in his social environment, surveyed with care the variety of meanings that they had in common parlance, and ordered and clarified these meanings by the criteria of his theory. When a theorist reflects on his own theoretical situation, he finds himself faced with two sets of symbols: the language symbols that are produced as an integral part of the social cosmion in the process of its self-illumination and the language symbols of political science. Both are related with each other in so far as the second set is developed out of the first one through the process that provisionally was called critical clarification.

In the course of this process some of the symbols that occur in reality will be dropped because they cannot be put to any use in the economy of science, while new symbols will be developed in theory for the critically adequate description of symbols that are part of reality. If the theorist, for instance, describes the Marxian idea of the realm of freedom, to be established by a Communist revolution, as an immanentist hypostasis of a Christian eschatological symbol, the symbol “realm of freedom” is part of reality; it is part of a secular movement of which the Marxist movement is a subdivision, while such terms as “immanentist,” “hypostasis,” and “eschatology” are concepts of political science. The terms used in the description do not occur in the reality of the Marxist movement, while the symbol “realm of freedom” is useless in critical science. Hence, neither are there two sets of terms with different meanings nor is there one set of terms with two distinct sets of meanings; there exist rather two sets of symbols with a large area of overlapping phonemes.

Moreover, the symbols in reality are themselves to a considerable extent the result of clarifying processes so that the two sets will also approach each other frequently with regard to their meanings and sometimes even achieve identity. This complicated situation inevitably is a source of confusion; in particular, it is the source of the illusion that the symbols used in political reality are theoretical concepts. This confusing illusion [that there is one set of language symbols when there are in fact two] unfortunately has rather deeply corroded contemporary political science.

One does not hesitate, for instance, to speak of a “contract theory of government,” or of a “theory of sovereignty,” or of a “Marxist theory of history,” while in fact it is rather doubtful whether any of these so-called theories can qualify as theory in the critical sense; and voluminous histories of “political theory” bring an exposition of symbols that, for the larger part, have very little theoretical about them. Such confusion even destroys some of the gains that already were made in political science in antiquity. Take, for instance, the so-called contract theory. In this case the fact is ignored that Plato has given a very thorough analysis of the contract symbol. He not only established its nontheoretical character but also explored the type of experience that lies at its root.

Moreover, he introduced the technical term doxa for the class of symbols of which the “contract theory” is an instance in order to distinguish them from the symbols of theory. Today theorists do not use the term doxa for this purpose, nor have they developed an equivalent–the distinction is lost. Instead the term “ideology” has come into vogue and in some respects is related to the Platonic doxa. But precisely this term has become a further source of confusion because under the pressure of what Mannheim has called the allgemeine Ideologieverdacht, the general suspicion of ideology, its meaning has been extended so far as to cover all types of symbols used in propositions on politics, including the symbols of theory themselves; there are numerous political scientists today who would even call the Platonic-Aristotelian episteme an ideology.

A further symptom of such confusion is certain discussion habits. More than once in a discussion of a political topic it has happened that a student–and for that matter not always a student–would ask me how I defined fascism, or socialism, or some other ism of that order. And more than once I had to surprise the questioner–who apparently as part of a college education had picked up the idea that science was a warehouse of dictionary definitions–by my assurance that I did not feel obliged to indulge in such definitions, because movements of the suggested type, together with their symbolisms, were part of reality, that only concepts could be defined but not reality, and that it was highly doubtful whether the language symbols in question could be critically clarified to such a point that they were of any cognitive use in science.

[The] foregoing reflections will have made it clear that the task will not be quite simple if the inquiry is conducted in accordance with critical standards of a search for truth. Theoretical concepts and the symbols that are part of reality must be carefully distinguished; in the transition from reality to theory the criteria employed in the process of clarification must be well defined; and the cognitive value of the resulting concepts must be tested by placing them in larger theoretical contexts. The method thus outlined is substantially the Aristotelian procedure.


This excerpt is from Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religion, The New Science of Politics, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Collected Works 5) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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