Heidegger’s Place in Modern Philosophy
Martin Heidegger was the culminating figure of twentieth-century philosophy. For better or worse he is the one who carries philosophy forward to the point it has reached today. The most convincing evidence of this is that his critics, at least those who actually understand rather than simply dismiss him, operate of necessity within the framework he has provided. Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida can legitimately claim to have advanced and departed from the Heideggerian project, but this is, fundamentally, to have remained within it. He remains the toweringly original figure from whom philosophy today takes its bearings.
It is impossible to philosophize without taking account of Heidegger’s primordiality. To ignore him is to remain anachronistically within an earlier phase of philosophical reflection, a little like continuing to compose music as period pieces in a style no longer capable of development. This is why the question of how a thinker stands in relation to Heidegger is not simply an idle curiosity. At stake is the vitality of his or her thought.
It was this intuition of the indispensable that prompted Eric Voegelin to return periodically to measure his work in relation to the widely sensed, if less widely understood, genius of Heidegger’s philosophy. The problem was that Heidegger’s innovations could not be so easily absorbed through such passing glances. Instead of reaching a comprehensive understanding, one that might well have enlarged Voegelin’s own philosophical project, they passed as ships in the night. Mutual understanding requires a deeper investment than thinkers are often willing to commit. It entails the exposure of one’s own thought to the challenge of the other. Now that task has become ours.
Heidegger’s Impact on Voegelin
What is the impact of Heidegger on Voegelin’s work?
This may not have been how Voegelin posed the question, but it is clearly the way we must consider it. Of course, the same question can also be asked in reverse, and it should not surprise us if we discover that Voegelin might well have also had an impact on Heidegger’s thought. Geographically, they were not so far apart during the decade that Voegelin spent at the University of Munich while Heidegger remained where he had always been–in Freiburg. Certainly, the cosmopolitan range of Voegelin’s interests contrasts sharply with the narrowly philosophical focus of Heidegger.
It might well have been possible for Voegelin to convey something of the wider amplitude of experiences and symbols of being, beyond the canonical handling within the strictly philosophical texts to which Heidegger devoted himself. One might even speculate about the possibility of Voegelin awakening Heidegger from his dogmatic slumbers about politics.
There is sufficient evidence from Heidegger’s passing political references from the 1960s to suggest that his apocalyptic perspective was beginning to wane. He talked of the possibility that the modern world might endure an extended stabilization of its present condition before its irrevocable collapse. Perhaps Heidegger would have been ripe for the more coldly sober analysis of politics from which Voegelin’s own philosophical reflections flowed.
The prospect of such an exchange is indeed tantalizing, especially when one considers the extent to which each had been shaped by the preoccupation with apocalypse. Voegelin by this stage had adopted such a rigorously anti-apocalyptic stance that he had difficulty finding any role for the horizon of apocalypse as such, while Heidegger had dwelled so deeply on the structure of apocalypse that he had not been able to satisfactorily separate out the non-apocalyptic reality from it.
In retrospect Heidegger appears the more foolish because of the “stupidity” and even mendacity of his political judgments.1 But it is a measure of his stature as a thinker that his own thought points the way out of the apocalyptic imbalance to which he personally succumbed. By contrast, Voegelin, who aimed at the achievement of balance in relation to apocalyptic expectations, was less able to find the philosophical and linguistic means of communicating it.
Heidegger’s Greatness Transcends His Errors
In other words, Heidegger’s greatness lies in the capacity even for his errors to point to their own overcoming. Ultimately, he serves a philosophical unfolding that reaches further than his own surmises about it. This is how it is possible for one of the most apocalyptic thinkers of the century to point toward the most radically non apocalyptic conclusion. Having brought the logic of apocalypse to its limits, he shows that it has nowhere else to go and thereby terminates its inexorability.
This is the point of convergence with the work of Eric Voegelin, albeit a convergence that might not have been apparent to either of them. To the extent that Voegelin was concerned with the effect of apocalyptic expectations and, by implication, with the larger structure of revelation that is the meaning of the term “apocalypse,” he was engaged with the core problematic of Heidegger’s thought. That is what the latter has called the “ontological difference” between being and beings whose obscuration has shaped the misdirection of Western metaphysics since its Greek inception.
The fatality to which even Heidegger tended to succumb was to regard his own formulation of the distinction as a kind of overcoming of it. In that spirit he looked around for external historical demarcations of the same turning point, and notoriously cast his lot with National Socialism and der Führer.
But, once it became apparent that the ontological difference is not surpassed through its formulation, then the character of its apocalypse is seen quite differently. Now the apocalypse must be recognized as the unsurpassable condition of existence and of the possibility of reflection on it. The tensional structure of existence that Voegelin struggled mightily to formulate finds its most evocative expression in Heidegger’s linguistic exemplification of it. This is the reason Voegelin’s own late reflections sound uncannily Heideggerian despite the fact that they seem to have been formulated without much conscious allusion to such a predecessor.
It is a relationship that is best traced by looking at Voegelin’s knowledge of Heidegger, the elements he overlooked within the latter’s thought, what they nevertheless shared, and finally how they might now complement one another within our project of understanding them.
Before Heidegger There Was Husserl
The first stratum of Voegelin’s understanding of Heidegger is undoubtedly shaped by his reading of Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology was a common foundation on which each of them built in different ways. Voegelin shared with Heidegger an estimation of Husserl’s significance as a new departure within philosophy, one that decisively broke with the psychologistic approaches of the recent past.
Instead of seeing philosophy as a discipline that stood outside of its subject matter, along the model of the social sciences, Husserl had reestablished the validity of philosophy as an inquiry within its own right. Phenomenology did not require the assumption of an objectivist position outside the matter at hand. It was rather a far deeper probing of what can be known from within the perspective disclosed by reality itself.
Phenomenological reduction allowed the possibility of disclosure of being that was already embedded within the relationship that consciousness already had with phenomena. There is no thing-in-itself apart from the phenomena, just as there is no purely subjective process outside of the relationship with phenomena. Consciousness is always consciousness of something, and within that primordiality truth discloses itself.
There is no stepping outside of the relationship to take an independent perspective or verification. Nor is such an extraneous maneuver necessary, for appearance is the very way by which what is discloses itself. There is no access to reality apart from that process of manifestation.
Husserl’s efforts to refound philosophical reflection in this more rigorous mode made a profound impression on many of the rising generation. One thinks of the lifelong involvement of Voegelin’s closest friend, Alfred Schütz, in elaborating the potential for a self-disclosive mode of sociological inquiry. Voegelin recounts his attendance at Husserl’s lecture in 1935, “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Humanity,” with all of the implicit expectancy that it might provide a way of addressing the crisis that would soon overwhelm European humanity.
Voegelin’s Critique of Husserl
Perhaps it was disappointment at the failure of Husserlian phenomenology to deliver on that promise that caused Voegelin to turn away. At any rate by the time he reads The Crisis of the European Sciences in 1943, Voegelin has turned away from the narrowness of a philosophic approach that has restricted itself to the preparatory questions. Husserlian methodology would prove of little help in understanding the larger civilizational crisis and, Voegelin complained to Schütz, exemplified the crisis through its own hubristic construction of the history of philosophy as a propaedeutic to Husserl himself. 2
The core objection however, as Voegelin formulated it in “On the Theory of Consciousness,” was that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology had overlooked the constitution of consciousness through experiences of transcendence. Husserl had never finally broken out of the Cartesian project of reestablishing the world from the perspective of the subject. “An attempt to withdraw consciousness from its ontic context, to squash the world and its history, and to reconstruct it out of the subjectivity of the I, and, finally to have the flow of consciousness constitute itself in the I, is not self-evident.” The “transcendental I” remains within consciousness and cannot therefore establish a world beyond itself, including the world of others who cannot simply be grounded within the self.
Husserl and, by extension, the whole Cartesian arc reaching up to Heidegger had failed to recognize that consciousness cannot provide the foundation for reality since it is already founded in structures of transcendence that are pregiven. “The fact that consciousness has an experience at all of another human being, as a consciousness of the other, is not a problem but a given of experience from which one may proceed but never regress.”3
The Consequences of Discarding Phenomenalism
In thus thoroughly rejecting the starting point of all post-Cartesian approaches, especially as they were best exemplified by Husserl, Voegelin determines to set out on his own historically mediated account. The results are certainly impressive, but it is difficult to suppress the sense that his work might have had an even greater impact if it had been able to avail of the linguistic developments that were already under way in the Phenomenological tradition.
One of the consequences of this early dismissal of Husserl and his aftermath is that Voegelin’s own convergence with them went largely unnoticed, at least until he begins to tackle the linguistic issues more explicitly in the late writings. Within the essay “On the Theory of Consciousness” the problems surface without being noticed. The most obvious is the difficulty of talking about experiences of transcendence that are constitutive of experience. Can consciousness experience that by which it is constituted?4
At this stage Voegelin does not fully recognize the need to address the peculiar status of experiences that cannot be experienced. As a result of his early rejection of the Phenomenological school, he remains peculiarly mired in the linguistic limitations he inherited from it. To the extent that he continued to work within the framework of the “philosophy of consciousness, ” he missed, while all the while sensing the loss, the crucial insight that consciousness cannot be contained within consciousness.
Heidegger, by contrast, perceived the opening toward ontology that Husserl had provided even if he had not been able to undertake it. Some measure of the challenge, however, is revealed by the extent to which Heidegger’s own first efforts, especially in Being and Time, still fell short of their target. It was only in light of the turn later from Dasein to being that the trajectory of Being and Time could be more clearly established. As a consequence Heidegger spent a good part of his career arguing for a turn that would demonstrate that no turn had taken place. The results were naturally confusing for his readers.
It was therefore not surprising that Voegelin too failed to grasp the underlying project of Being and Time that would be needed to make sense of its often tortuous linguistic gyrations. Instead, the latter became the focus of Voegelin’s remarks in which a passage from the work was chosen to exemplify the spiritual disorientation of German philosophy that marked the relationship of the universities to the Nazi era. It was, Voegelin suggested, because of the “linguistic delirium” with which Heidegger had whipped himself up that he could be taken in by the author of Mein Kampf. “In a state of alliterative ecstasy now, many lose sight of the reality of being.”5
Within the context of the essay Voegelin’s discussion of Heidegger is only one component of an analysis of the comprehensive failure of the German academic world to judge and resist the rise of Nazisim. But given the notoriety of Heidegger’s own political failures, the connection with his philosophy is damning, even if it falls short of establishing any intrinsic link between the two.
An unbiased reader might be left with the impression that Being and Time is irrevocably tainted by the existential failure of its author. Although that may be implied in Voegelin’s reconsideration of the German universities in the Nazi era, it was clearly not his considered judgment of Heidegger.
Apocalypse in Heidegger
For that we must look to a slightly earlier lecture, published as Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, in which he assimilates Heidegger to the Gnostic configuration of modernity. Previously, Voegelin had identified the Gnostic component within the great messianic figures of the nineteenth century, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. Now he finds a culminating position for Heidegger within this series. It was a daring move since Heidegger seemed to fall outside of that trajectory, given his emphasis on existential authenticity as a turn away from all ideological constructs.
Certainly, Voegelin’s listeners at his inaugural lecture in Munich (1959) must have been surprised to find the great philosopher located within such company. Whatever Heidegger’s personal affiliation with National Socialism, it seemed pretty clear that his philosophy pulled substantially against any such activism. Existentialism seemed to promise a new beginning in the face of the collapse of all ideological possibilities. Without any solution man was thrown back on responsibility for his own existence.
It is worth noting that it has taken the commentary literature on Heidegger considerably more time to discover how his philosophy could yield the logic of National Socialism. The consensus eventually converged on the “decisionism” of Being and Time, the sense in which all choices are groundless, as that which provides the opening in which such an option can be exercised.6
Voegelin, by contrast, penetrated far below the surface to a structural affinity between Heidegger’s philosophy and his ideological sympathies. Even when his philosophy eschewed any ideological content, it shared with such systems an apocalyptic expectation that in many respects represented the purest form of the phenomenon.
Without endorsing a specific form of apocalypse, it invokes expectation as such. “Gone are the ludicrous images of positivist, socialist, and super man. In their place Heidegger puts being itself, emptied of all content, to whose approaching power we must submit.” This strikes Voegelin as such a definitive clarification of the Gnostic structure of ideological aspirations for transformation that it furnishes a key concept. He takes over Heidegger’s interest in parousia, coming to presence, as the defining feature of modern Gnosticism.
We thus acquire a concept and a terminology for designating a phase of Western Gnosticism that have hitherto been lacking. Moreover, by conceiving of it as parousiastic we can distinguish this phase more adequately than heretofore from the preceding chiliastic phase of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the Gnostic movements expressed themselves in terms of the Judaeo-Christian apocalypse.
Heidegger becomes thus the one who distills the pure essence of modern political movements as “parousiasm, ” the pure expectation of “deliverance from the evils of the time through the advent, the coming in all its fullness, of being considered as immanent.”7
Voegelin’s Indictment: Perpetual “Parousiasm”
It is quite a burden for the philosopher of the Schwarzwald to bear. The indictment of “parousiasm,” as Voegelin pronounces it, has more than a ring of truth to it. Heidegger does indeed talk incessantly about coming to presence, opening, clearing, unconcealing, and so on, as if we are always on the verge of a revelation that never seems to occur.
The endless incipience of his thought that always seems to be setting out and never arriving, perhaps never arriving because it never ceases to set out, is one of the most striking features of his works. We seem to be always awaiting the god who alone can save us without ever encountering him. And in the background there remains the apocalyptic tone as well as Heidegger’s own embrace of the Nazi apocalypse. Philosophizing on the brink seems to guarantee an oscillation between despair and ecstasy.
Heidegger emerges from this depiction as a caricature of himself. The dismissal is easy, too easy. It is regrettable that we find none of the countervailing assessments that Voegelin often offered when he pondered thinkers at greater length and from multiple perspectives. One thinks of the different assessments of Hegel as an example. With Heidegger there seems to be no deeper reconsiderations, only a few passing references that indicate that Voegelin continued to pay attention to the appearance of later publications.
Distaste for Heidegger’s Nazi past was surely a strong factor at the time when Voegelin was working on his Hitler and the Germans. In the aftermath of parousiasm he was hardly ready to reflect on the extent to which it was precisely the impossibility of parousia at which Heidegger pointed. Yet that is an equally plausible construction of the quotations from the Introduction to Metaphysics on which Voegelin placed such weight.
Even his own formulation that Heidegger awaited the revelation of being as immanent is possible only by ignoring the fundamental thrust of the latter’s thought. If there is any point of clarity that can be extracted, it is that Heidegger strained mightily at what he perceived as the persistent inclination to regard being as immanent. His “parousiasm” was intended to signal the impossibility of that advent. Voegelin, it appears, had in this central aspect misunderstood Heidegger.
The charge that Voegelin misunderstood Heidegger is indeed a hard saying. Before undertaking my own intensive reading of Heidegger, I would not have been inclined to accept it. The notoriety of Heidegger’s unapologetic avowal of Nazism that has in recent years attracted far more substantial scrutiny would seem to confirm Voegelin’s perception. And there is the undeniably apocalyptic tone that permeates his writings.
Voegelin would seem to be on good grounds in characterizing Heidegger as the end point of modern parousiastic speculation. Heidegger might even be taken to fit Derrida’s formulation of “apocalypse without apocalypse.”8 The problem is that having reached that limiting conception, we begin to suspect that the accusation has become unstable. At the apex of definition we sense the possibility of reversal. What, after all, is a parousia that never occurs, an apocalypse that is continually postponed, if not what we have always understood by those terms?
Saint Augustine was the one who squeezed the last drop of immanence out of millenarian speculation in the early church. He simply proclaimed that the millennium is already under way through the reign of Christ on earth within his church. Apocalypse is what we live within, not a future event that we await. Could it be that Heidegger aimed at the same realization?
That at his core he never evoked an immanent apocalypse but the apocalypse that made all immanence possible? Certainly, his relentless insistence on the ontological difference, that Being can never become a being, seems to confirm such a perspective. We might even suggest that Heidegger’s principal achievement is to have compelled philosophy to ponder this inexorability.
Over the lectures and courses that fill the Gesamtausgabe he seems to have done nothing else but compel reflection on what it means to talk about that which can never become present because it underpins all becoming present. The concealment of being permits the unconcealment of beings. They are what they are because they are not Being. It may indeed be that passages in Heidegger might yield the interpretation that he seeks to effect the irruption of being into existence, but that reading cannot be sustained in light of his comprehensive articulation of the impossibility of their coincidence. The distortion is, in other words, hardly intentional on Voegelin’s part. It is more likely to have arisen from the larger framework within which he saw the unfolding of philosophy from German idealism on.
Even today, there is scarcely a consensus on this philosophic phase that begins with Kant and reaches up to the present.9 Interpretations have scarcely converged on the meaning of the most well-studied figures within this arc. Hegel is presented as a thinker who proposes the priority of the social reality in which individuals find themselves, or he emerges as a theorist of the limits of the self-referential possibilities of language.
It is no wonder that Voegelin should seek to define his own take on the paradigm that makes sense of the bewildering variety of worldviews that succeed one another in this period. Without such a plausible framework it is difficult to assign the interpretation of individual thinkers. Narratives structure intelligibility for us. For Voegelin the master narrative of modernity was “science, politics, and Gnosticism.” To the extent that it was the drive to draw transcendence into immanence as the means of effecting the final transformation of history, it was natural that everything would be slotted into that framework as an expression, a resistance, or a compromise with the fundamental aspiration.
This is how Heidegger’s focus on a revelation that is not revealed could be taken as not only an instance of the immanentization of the eschaton but its purest instantiation. The paradigm that made sense of Heidegger’s own Nazi proclivities, as well as the apocalyptic tone of his writings, was too powerful to permit Voegelin to notice that the core of Heidegger’s philosophy moved inexorably in the opposite direction. As a Gnostic he could not simultaneously subtend the most powerful anti-Gnostic impetus.
Clearly, we and Voegelin are in need of an alternative narrative of modernity, one that will contemplate the possibility of multiple and countervailing dimensions. Gnostic and anti-Gnostic motives may both be present and often in ways that seem to unfold into one another. This is not the place to undertake that larger investigation, although we will return to some elements of the relationship when we look at the convergences between Voegelin and Heidegger in the final section of this essay.
For now all we can do is sketch the main thrust of that alternative line that emanates from German idealism and challenges the theoretical framework in which not only Voegelin but most philosophy is still conducted up to the present. In this way we will bring to light the innovative dimension of Heidegger’s thought that Voegelin overlooked despite its ultimate convergence, as we shall show, with his own work.
The Crucial Issue: The Relationship Between Thought and Being
The crucial element is the clarification of a central issue at the heart of Western metaphysics concerning the relationship between thought and being. Contrary to the conventional account of modernity as an age in which man is installed at the center of reality, as made evident by the presumption that he was capable of mastering the whole within which he finds himself, the philosophic revolution inaugurated by Kant places the very possibility of knowledge validating itself in question.
Where Kant’s predecessors had innocently assumed it would be possible to establish the epistemological foundations of knowledge, he called attention to the impossibility of doing so without presupposing them. Knowledge of knowledge is inherently problematic. The idealists perceived the ambivalent status of the Kantian transcendentals, but it was Heidegger who saw the problem through to its limits.10 Kant in his exploration of the conditions of possibility of knowledge, he explained, was engaged not in framing an epistemology but in the unfolding of an ontological meditation. It is not knowing that makes knowledge of being possible but being that is already there prior to knowing that now becomes an illumination of being from within.
This crucial insight into the priority of ontology over epistemology is what marks the Heideggerian achievement. It may still not have been absorbed by the philosophic community, and in some respects is even extended by some of his successors, but it has the inestimable merit of defining the logic of the entire post-Kantian unfolding. It also explains why philosophy assumed such bewildering multiplicity of forms as Nietzsche’s aphorisms and Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms in the intervening period. Philosophy no longer philosophized about being but out of being.
Heidegger saw what had remained obscure in Kant’s effort to think the condition of the possibility of knowledge. Kant had seen that knowledge cannot step outside of itself in order to establish its own grounds. What he had not grasped was what this implies. That is that knowledge is already a movement within being, although a uniquely privileged one because it is the point at which being becomes transparent. Our knowledge is therefore not primarily our own, for it could not be ours if it did not first belong to being. Knowing is disclosive of being only because being is disclosive of itself. There is no knowing that stands outside of being and can contemplate it in the manner of an object; there is only the knowing that is itself a movement within being.
To glimpse what knowing is about, a possibility because knowing is transparent to itself, is to glimpse the transparence of being that makes knowing possible. We do not possess the light of truth by which we probe and test what we encounter. That inquiry of reality is possible only because truth in some sense already possesses us. Truth is prior; we stand in its light just as we stand in the light of being. This is why the question of truth looms large for Heidegger in his reflections after Being and Time, as he struggles to recover a more primordial understanding of truth as unconcealment, al-etheia, before it had congealed into the Platonic fixity of the eidos. Behind the eidos there is what makes its apprehension possible. That cannot in turn be another eidos, but must be simply unconcealment as such. Our access to it must, of necessity, be limited, for it is what makes all accessibility possible.
Heidegger understood that the prioritization of being over knowing would alter the very mode of philosophy itself. Gone would be the ambition of a speculative reach toward the whole, and in its place would be a far humbler evocation of what can only be glimpsed because we are ourselves contained by it. Personally, Heidegger may have had apocalyptic proclivities, but his philosophy hewed toward the indefatigably tentative.11
Voegelin, by contrast, remained tied for a much longer time to the language of conscious subjectivity. Even to the very end he continued to understand his project as the elaboration of a philosophy of consciousness, although the form of that elaboration moved strikingly close to the ontological mode that Heidegger had emphasized ever since his turn from Dasein to Sein.
The reason for that convergence is of course that Voegelin discovered that the language of experience tended to surpass itself in that direction. Not only are there the well-known objections to the subjectivity of all experience, a concession to privacy that once made is difficult to withdraw, but the very character of the experiences is that of a transcending of subjectivity. At that point we are close to the turn that Heidegger advocates from the primacy of experience to the primacy of being.
The only difficulty is that it is difficult to effect the transition linguistically. One can hardly deal with what lies beyond experience without becoming conscious of the central role that language plays in the evocation. An ever-heightening sensitivity to language is evident in the careers of both men, with Heidegger the more adventurous in testing the limits. No doubt Voegelin suspected that behind Heidegger’s language acrobatics was little more than words.
How To Say What Makes Experience Possible?
Ever fearful of the potential for empty self-reference, Voegelin insisted that experience is always an experience of something. In this way he sought to anchor the subjectivity of experience within an ontological relationship. The problem is, as he discovered more and more, experiences of what makes experience possible cannot be coherently rendered. That which lies beyond experience, what cannot be contained within it, can be known only through the indirection by which language points. We have no resort but to begin not with experience but with that by which experience itself begins. Truth is there before we discover it.12
Our discovery of it is therefore always a discovery of what cannot be discovered. We are confined to a parousiastic process, a revelation of what cannot be revealed. How then, we are inclined to ask, can we know anything about what draws us?
It is no doubt that question that for many readers of Heidegger defines the inconclusiveness they perceive in his thought. One senses that such a surmise also lurks behind Voegelin’s briefly stated aversion. He himself sought to emphasize the transcendent reality of what is experienced in the spiritual breakthroughs of history, particularly as a way of avoiding the collapse of such experiences into the internal dynamics of consciousness.
This was the great danger he perceived in the Hegelian treatment, although it is worth noting here the possibility that Voegelin misread in that instance, too. The difference, between a dialectic internal to consciousness and a dialectic of the ontological relation of consciousness to what it cannot include, can easily be overlooked. Without the subject-object separation it can be difficult to decide. This is surely one of the reasons Voegelin held on to the notion of experience for as long as possible, although the logic of transcendence inexorably compelled him to think without it.
How can that which is beyond experience be experienced? The question has lain at the heart of philosophy since Plato named the “beyond” in the Republic, as Voegelin understood very well. Yet he hesitated to take the radical step announced by Heidegger in rejecting the identification of the Beyond with God. He sought to retain the experience of that which cannot be experienced without fully confronting the tension that remains within the traditional sources. In so doing Voegelin may have simply postponed a difficulty that Heidegger was more ready to confront. That is that a God who is mere standing reserve, ready to be summoned forth when human need or interest requires, is hardly a God at all.13 Some support for the more radical approach is surely to be found in Voegelin’s own later modulation in the Heideggerian direction of a nonpersonal God.
The dissatisfaction that has been voiced about both of their final positions should also be noted here, since it suggests the possibility that they converged on a mistaken end point. It may be that it is the tendency to eliminate a personal God, however different the pace of their respective movements in that direction, that is the great misstep.
Seeking to avoid the personification of God as a protagonist for human negotiation, both Voegelin and Heidegger sought to preserve the inexpressible depth of the numinous from which the voice of divinity emanates. Yet in the process they moved inexorably toward a divinity that no longer personally addresses us. The depth beyond revelation comes perilously close to abolishing the drama of revelation.
Largely overlooked in the quest for the beyond of revelation is the realization that such a structure, or rather nonstructure, is possible only for the self-revelation of persons. It is possible for the transcendent to reveal itself as that which is beyond all revelation only because that is the mode of the self-disclosure of persons. They are precisely that which cannot be contained in their self-disclosures because they have always evanesced from what has been disclosed. We may know everything about persons but the persons who make such disclosure possible.
Ever transcending what is said is the sayer. How then can they be known at all as they are, in themselves? Surely, it is only through the complete giving of self, that which must be contained yet cannot be contained in every genuine communication. The other can be known only when he or she is completely present in what is said, a revelation that always exceeds the finitude of all that can be said. It is a mystery that only deepens, for nothing immanent seems to suffice for an answer. The only answer is to acknowledge that communication is irreducibly and inescapably personal.
We cannot talk about a depth beyond revelation without recalling that all revelation is profoundly abyssal. The case of God is only the preeminent instance, not the sole one. By thus recalling the character of all interpersonal communication, we are in a better position to understand how it is possible for human beings to know that which transcends all revelation. An openness to the beyond of all that persons can convey of themselves, a capacity to catch the gift of self that is ever proffered but never contained, is a possibility only for persons whose own beginning is in the movement of transcendence. In other words, the mystery of revelation can be pierced only if it remains closely tied to the mystery of the mutuality of persons.
What Voegelin and Heidegger Missed in Schelling
This is an insight that both Voegelin and Heidegger might have gained from their reading of Schelling, yet neither managed to grasp the pivotal significance of a personal God for the latter’s lectures on mythology and revelation. The oversight is mentioned here only because they both wrote appreciatively and admiringly on Schelling. Their focus, however, was limited to Schelling’s development up to Die Weltalter.
Passing familiarity with the monumental series of lectures at Berlin in the 1840s, Philosophie der Mythologie and Philosophie der Offenbarung, was not sufficient to alert them to the personalist breakthrough achieved therein. It was in these late lectures, attended by such luminaries as Engels, Bakunin, Burckhart, and Kierkegaard, that Schelling grasped the logic of German idealism that had escaped Hegel.
He characterized it as a turn from the negative philosophy of dialectical necessity, a contemplation that inevitably left the thinker outside of the subject matter of his speculation, to the positive philosophy in which a thinker finds himself within a horizon of personal disclosure that includes and exceeds his own comprehension. Revelation, he showed, moves in an inexorably personal direction.
Mythological divinities wrapped in their intracosmic manifestations cannot but fail to disclose who they are, yet they point in their muteness to the personal divinity that can be revealed only through itself. Cosmological gods function, in Schelling’s account, as a kind of preparation for the God who stands beyond all disclosure and who can therefore be disclosed only by the encounter by which he is known to each person.
Just as “I am not satisfied, in the case of individuals who are important to me, to know that they exist, but demand continuing proof of their existence, so here: we demand that the divinity draw ever closer to the consciousness of mankind; we require that it be an object of consciousness not merely in its effects but in itself.”14 How that encounter occurs cannot be fully penetrated because we already exist within its possibility. A personal God is accessible only to persons who share with him a capacity for self-disclosure that is never exhausted. Only they can glimpse the reality of spirit toward which the idealists had decisively tilted philosophical reflection.
Voegelin and Heidegger intuited something of Schelling’s significance in this regard but neither dwelled sufficiently with the latter’s thought to perceive the consequences for their own struggle with the dynamics of the revelatory movement.
The Convergent Understanding of Voegelin and Heidegger
It may indeed be the case that Voegelin and Heidegger set philosophy on a path they themselves were not capable of traveling as far as might have been expected. The greatness of a thinker is surely measured not by his accomplishments so much as by the goals that he sets for himself. It is thus not surprising that our explorers should find themselves overtaken by philosophical developments they themselves had marked out. Their greatness lies in opening rather than blocking the paths they have created.
This is what must be emphasized, for they are distinguished by a remarkably new understanding of philosophy. Both Heidegger and Voegelin were extremely conscious of the philosophical innovation on which they embarked. Looking back toward the Greek beginnings, they lavished all the more attention on an inception from which a new beginning must be launched. This was their revolutionary character. In breaking most profoundly with the past, they restored it to its origin, although not without effecting a thorough renovation.
Theirs was a radically traditional approach. The ambition was nothing short of breathtaking, for they were acutely conscious of aiming at a new beginning that would remedy the defect that had vitiated the whole philosophical tradition. While reverencing the Greek beginning of philosophy more deeply than at any time in its history, they were absolutely convinced that philosophy could not continue within the pattern it had received from that impulse.
The History of Philosophy is the History of its Derailment
The crisis of modern civilization was ultimately traceable to the fatal missteps that had simultaneously been imparted with that very inception. The convergence between Heidegger and Voegelin is nowhere more remarkable than in this common conviction that “the history of philosophy is in the largest part the history of its derailment.”15
Even Plato and Aristotle were not to be absolved of all responsibility for the misdevelopment. In many respects it was their very success in elaborating the consequences of philosophical reflection that overwhelmed the existential origins of philosophy itself. It was the comprehensiveness of their intellectual achievement that established the pattern of “propositional metaphysics” that permitted the thinker to forget that he was not outside of the whole that he contemplated. The mastery that a propositional approach encourages easily overlooks the dependence from which such mastery derives.
Thought had been given an externalistic perspective through the preference for eidos over al-etheia, Heidegger insists, and the tendency had been only exacerbated through the modern enthronement of the subject-object relationship. Voegelin may have been less willing to implicate Plato in this deleterity, but he certainly acknowledged that the topical approach to philosophy had been established by Aristotle. The whole within which philosophy arises had disappeared. Now the task, as Voegelin formulated it in a strikingly parallel fashion to Heidegger, is to recover the luminosity from within which intentionality emerges.
Husserl, by contrast, had never broken with the language of intentionality, of a noesis intending a noema. Both Voegelin and Heidegger sought to break out of the objectivity of that stance, not to embrace subjectivity as what is higher, but to reach the more primordial wholeness that is neither subject nor object because it includes both.
We have access to this, Voegelin suggested, through the luminosity of consciousness by which we are simultaneously aware of intentionality and the intended as dimensions of one underlying reality. Heidegger, as we have seen, grasped that even this formulation would have to move in the direction of a movement within being; it could not be simply accounted for as a mode of knowledge apart from the knower. Voegelin grappled, although not quite so forcefully, with the inseparability of ontology and epistemology (to use somewhat anachronistic terms).
The extent of their agreement is, however, best illustrated by their convergence on the notion of an event. Prior to the separation between a subject and an object, there is the unity of being that sustains them. It is only through the event of being becoming luminous that the differentiation into subject and object becomes possible.
This means that knowledge cannot fully account for itself since it can never include the condition of its own possibility within itself. At most it can glimpse whence it has derived in the mode of a boundary experience of what transcends it. Emphatically, Voegelin and Heidegger agree, there is no subject prior to such experience who might be its putative carrier. As a consequence both thinkers find themselves in bewildering linguistic territory since our language has been formed in the context of subject-object distinctions.
Beyond Subject-Object Distinctions, Language Fails
By regressing behind the distinction, they discover that language fails them. How can we talk of an event or an experience that emerges prior to the subject that sustains it? To their credit, neither thinker flinches from the challenge. They proceed to the invention of a wholly new terminology that would more accurately convey their discovery of a truth that emerges before its evocation, of a clearing that precedes all uncovering, of a lighting prior to all shining.
Voegelin adopts the more straightforward tactic of admitting the paradoxical character of the formulations to which he is compelled. “Pending further analyses concerning the problem of indices, we will let the experience keep its appearance of a subject-less, nonobjective event within being; but at the same time, we recognize the psyche as the locus of the event through which it becomes an experience. “16
Heidegger employs more inventive, but not necessarily more lucid, tactics to bend language in an entirely dynamic direction. Speaking of an Ereignis, he exploits all of the multiple meanings of the word to denote an appropriation or event in which the whole possibility of appropriations and events arises. Thus, there is no event but rather an e-vent, er-eignis, that can never be appropriated as an event.
The pattern is one in which each of them progressively purifies the language of philosophy in order to make it convey what it has historically failed to convey.17 That is that the luminosity within which the philosophical meditation unfolds can never be accounted for but only allowed to radiate. So it is not surprising to see that both Heidegger and Voegelin jettison much of the conventional terminology that has shaped the academic discipline. They became more acutely aware that it was the reification of philosophy itself that blocked the way toward its primordiality.
“Ontology,” for example, is dropped once they recognize that it is an eighteenth-century invention designed to turn the science of being into a science of beings. By naming it, the mystery has become manageable, but it has also eluded us. Even the term “metaphysics, ” Voegelin points out, is considerably removed from its Aristotelian origins as “first philosophy. ” The coinage was supplied by Saint Thomas Aquinas in designating the books that followed Aristotle’s Physics, but, once again, given such a definable identity, the label suggested a discipline that could be subjected to the same criteria of judgment as any other.18
The Death of “Metaphysics”
Both Voegelin and Heidegger were aware, in different ways, that it was this increasing specificity of the content of philosophy, of “metaphysics,” that rendered it vulnerable to the rationalist critiques of the Enlightenment. When it turned out that “metaphysics” could not withstand the scrutiny of evidence that was the measure of truth in the empirical sciences, it was pronounced obsolete.
The “death of metaphysics, ” including the “death of God” that was its most dramatic manifestation, defined the spiritual crisis of modernity that sought a resolution in the great political convulsions. There is no doubt that Voegelin had a sharper penetration of the latter aspects, but they pursued an essentially parallel path in addressing the underlying disappearance of faith in an order beyond the finite.
It was not simply to import a body of metaphysical concepts from the past, but to think through what metaphysics has always been in a more fundamental way. That is that there is no science of metaphysics because metaphysics is the horizon we live within and, for that reason, can never be included within any account we give of it. As the condition of the possibility of giving accounts, it always escapes by virtue of its intimacy with every giving account.
In this regard, the rationalist demand for evidence cannot establish its own validity on the basis of evidence. This was an insight that first emerged with and defined German idealism. Both Heidegger and Voegelin were aware in different ways of their affiliation with this earliest retrieval of the existential horizon of philosophy.
Like Hegel and Schelling, they found themselves increasingly pressed to attend to the peculiar linguistic challenge of evoking a dynamic conception of philosophy. Heidegger was clearly the more adventurous in this regard. His later engagement with the poetic capacity of language was in many ways designed to avoid any direct application of the traditional metaphysical terminology.
Rather than discourse about being, he talked about the disclosure of being through language. It was a perceptive way of making language say what it could not say directly but could nevertheless convey in the indirection through which it always operates. “Language is the house of being.”19 It is because language is where being lives that language is so poorly positioned to discourse about being, yet can silently radiate whence it too has been derived.
A parallel effort is undertaken in Voegelin’s late meditations, especially in In Search of Order, to surpass the language of propositional discourse in the direction of a medium that is more transparent for its source. With less of a focus than Heidegger on the permeability of language as such, he nonetheless recognizes the necessity of elaborating a language prior to subjectivity through which reality might begin to speak for itself. This is Voegelin’s notorious foray into the realm of It-reality.20
What is striking is that, despite the variations in their approaches, they each leave far behind the conventional categories of nature, faculties, and philosophical anthropology from which they began. In doing so they posed a challenge to readers who were not yet ready to make a break with the long-established convention of discoursing about existence as if we are ourselves outside of it. There had always been a profound tension in the conception of nature ever since its introduction into the philosophic vocabulary by the Greeks. On the one hand, nature is what is formed, displaying a definite structure by which human existence can be measured and guided. On the other hand, nature is that which must be realized, especially through the exercise of freedom as a project that is never completed.
It is characteristic that both Heidegger and Voegelin call attention to this deep ambiguity at the core of phusis. 21 Interwoven in it are the two different notions of eidos, or form, and al-etheia, or unconcealment, by which existence unfolds. Convention eventually settled on the priority of the former meaning since the demand for fixed standards occupied the foreground while the struggle to remain true to them receded into the background. But the settlement could not eliminate the ambiguity that required it.
The Unavailability of Natural Law as a Science of Entities
In many ways the tension persisted even more openly in the modern world, where science aimed at uncovering the laws of nature while philosophy still talked about natural law shorn of all sense of necessity. Neither the assimilation of human action to the laws of nature nor the abandonment of any reference to nature in human action was possible. Kant’s third antinomy pronounces the unviability of a natural law approach today and explains why neither Voegelin nor Heidegger are natural law theorists. Or, rather, they are natural law theorists in the original sense of phusis, as that which seeks to realize a nature that can never be fully realized. It is for this reason that they cannot avail themselves of a language of entities or faculties that would seem to be fully present.
When philosophy has become fully conscious of the conditions under which its reflection proceeds, then it must be prepared to relinquish the fixities upon which it had previously allowed its focus to rest. Only in this way could it rise to the challenge posed by the rationalistic exposure of the contingency attached to all fixed points in time.
Human nature did not thereby become, either for Voegelin or for Heidegger, an unbounded abyss of subjectivity. The fact that a direction is not disclosed in advance does not mean that it cannot be disclosed along the way, for indeed the way would be unthinkable without the direction that draws and sustains it. But it does mean that the account of human nature must now be a far more inward reflection on the process by which it is constituted.
There is no nature other than the process by which nature is progressively unfolded and disclosed. Human beings do not have a nature, Voegelin remarked, because they have a history. 22 Heidegger too was acutely aware of the historicality by which the relationship to being emerges and is glimpsed as a process of emergence. All of this is a different way of understanding the eternal principles at which philosophy has traditionally aimed.
Many have not been prepared to follow Voegelin and Heidegger in delineating this more fluid modality; they shrink back from the relativistic implications sensed within any defection from the validity of absolute truths. What they do not notice is that the crisis of truth that has threatened and now overwhelms modernity arises from the opaqueness of hypostatized truths. Only that which is transparent for its genesis in truth can display the necessary authority.
Voegelin and Heidegger accepted this condition as one that had only incompletely been accepted within classical philosophy. Now the radical nature of the crisis had rendered it unavoidable, and they were prepared to take up the challenge even if it necessitated a more unorthodox mode of reflection and of language.
They saw that a philosophy of existence that wishes to remain true to its subject matter cannot afford to ignore its own existential emergence. There is no starting point outside of existence, only the meditative movement within which existence itself unfolds.
The remarkable convergence we have traced between Voegelin and Heidegger suggests that we might also reflect on the point at which they could actually meet. Would it be possible for them to effect a mutual correction in the understanding that each of them had reached? This enlargement of their separate perspectives is, after all, one of the goals served by their juxtaposition in relation to one another. Our aim is to travel that much further with the assistance of both Heidegger and Voegelin than either of them might have been able to support alone.
We are prepared to ask, therefore, what Heidegger might have gained if he had thoroughly read and understood Voegelin, and vice versa. Such a conversation is not wholly imaginary. One side of it was definitely initiated in Voegelin’s reading of Heidegger, although it remained at a somewhat cursory level. Heidegger might well have undertaken a reading of Voegelin, although his curiosity remained strangely confined to the canonical philosophical texts. Like many potential meetings in the life of the mind, the encounter remains inconclusive. That is, of course, its allure.
The life of the mind continues within others who bear the same questions and interests, so it is not entirely anachronistic to contemplate what our two thinkers might have said to one another. To the extent that they are each pledged to the pursuit of truth, it matters little who arrives closer to it. All that matters is the arrival in which all participate. This is the collaborative nature of thought at its finest when the particular identities are overlooked in the name of the common goal that draws them. Few individuals more nearly embody the selflessness required of thinking. We might imagine in that spirit that Heidegger would welcome the correction Voegelin could provide because it would save his philosophical insight from its self-distortion. This is, of course, a long-standing criticism of Heidegger by many of the sympathetic readers who sought to save Heidegger from himself.
They recognized that the apocalyptic significance he attached to his own work, the sense of its impending impact on modern civilization as a whole, was nowhere implied in the actual content. Indeed, the implication was flatly contradicted by the essential thrust of Heidegger’s thought. Even in the notorious “decisionism” of Being and Time, with all of its emphasis on authentic resolution, it hardly seemed plausible that it would be put to work to effect the termination of all such decision making. If the call is for fidelity to the high demands of free self-responsibility, then it is scarcely consistent to suggest its abdication. Can there be a responsible elimination of all responsibility?
The easy transition some of Heidegger’s less friendly readers made from his elevation of the moment of decision to the option of a totalitarian choice always bordered on the facile. It always seemed as if the philosophical apparatus was out of all proportion to the banality of the outcome, almost as if one of the great philosophical texts of the century could be reduced to its propagandistic value. Certainly, few found their way to Nazism by reading the book, although the author’s willingness to lend his prestige to one of the most evil regimes of the century is a very different matter and one not easily overlooked. Heidegger in this sense poses a profound interpretative challenge.
How was it possible for the thinker who most thoroughly uncovers the nonrealizability of apocalypse to wrap his own apocalyptic imagination around Adolf Hitler and National Socialism?
Heidegger’s Germanic Taste for Heroic Convulsion
Voegelin is one of the few commentators to provide the tools for an answer to this question, even if he never personally undertook the investigation. His extensive occupation with the imbalancing effects of all spiritual outbursts, the very source of the apocalyptic imagination that found its way into the modern ideological movements, details the process by which this disequilibrium occurs.
Voegelin’s heightened sensitivity to the problem led him to suspect apocalyptic and Gnostic leanings even within such pillars of the early church as Saint Paul or Saint John. It was not, Voegelin explained, that Christ’s message necessarily pointed toward an imminent apocalypse but that the revelation itself overshadowed all other dimensions of reality. Once the persistence of the mundane is forgotten, then the field is open for expectations of transfiguration.
Using this notion of a revelation that blocks out all other dimensions of reality, we can begin to see how even a Heidegger could be so enthralled with his own discovery that it eclipsed everything else. The excitement of the event of the discovery of openness as such could easily lead to overlooking the arduousness of the task of transmitting the insight within the wider civilization of modernity.
Extrapolation leaps irresistibly ahead toward the conclusion that has been reached philosophically. Even when the revelation announces that revelation as such is the permanent and unsurpassable horizon of existence, that too can be treated as if it is the announcement of the end of revelation as such.
The problem with which Heidegger wrestled had much in common with the struggle confronted by the church in explaining why the revelatory movement could not be abolished by its culmination. To remain the church of Christ it would have to remain within his revelation, not leap apocalyptically outside of it. The irony of Heidegger’s work, if not its ultimate tragedy, is that the thinker who most thoroughly shows how revelation or apocalypse is the unsurpassable structure of existence nevertheless regarded his own insight in apocalyptic terms, that is, as the beginning of the transformation itself. It was for this reason that he could be so badly misled by his reading of actual political events, a fatality he never finally overcame.
By contrast, he might have learned from Voegelin to perceive the full intractability of historical reality. The disconnect between philosophy and its political setting, of which Heidegger’s case was emblematic, was nothing short of appalling. Voegelin was surely correct in identifying the long-standing pattern of intellectual disdain for the grubby world of politics as the root cause. He had traced its origins back to von Humboldt’s preference for self-cultivation over the assumption of civic responsibility, and, although it is not necessary to agree with all the details of the diagnosis, it is certainly the case that the attitude was pervasive in German intellectual life.
Without concrete empirical experience of politics, it was impossible to render informed judgments. Heidegger, like many Germans, was particularly susceptible to the dreamlike proposals that offered to sweep all political unpleasantness away in a great heroic convulsion. Small-scale reforms would no longer be adequate to the situation. Completely overlooked in this far more exciting revolutionary prospect was the possibility that things could get a lot worse when the destructive forces were unleashed.
Voegelin understood the danger of a revolutionary apocalypse and appreciated well the challenge of preserving the fragile hold that any political community has on the order that sustains it. To his core he remained a spiritual realist, one for whom the distance between perfection and reality served only to underline the impossibility of their convergence.
Politics, on this outlook, remains a realm of incremental measures tempered by the constant reminder of the threat of far worse outcomes. Success in the task of remediation is tied to a commonsense knowledge of the possible. By contrast, the inability of a genius of Heidegger’s stature to even glimpse the potential for disaster within his own political affiliations endures as a mark of obtuseness that will probably forever dog his undoubted philosophical accomplishments.
That susceptibility to what Voegelin has rightly termed “stupidity” should, however, not be taken as a disqualification of Heidegger’s essential contributions. To the extent that political judgments are heavily dependent on knowledge and experience, there is no reason to expect that philosophical penetration is any substitute. Even Plato’s philosopher-king had to spend fifteen years of familiarity with life in the cave before he was invited to rule.
Heidegger’s problem was that he never seemed to recover from the initial disorientation of the return to the cave, although that personal failing hardly vitiated his undoubted philosophical insight. Even at the cost of suppressing a certain element of personal distaste, Voegelin might well have been able to enroll Heidegger’s philosophy within his own theoretical project. The convergence we have already noted would seem to suggest as much.
The Last Step: Being Beyond Thinking?
Central to the relationship is the insight around which their work revolved but which Heidegger carried out in a more radical fashion. This was nothing less than a reorientation of the philosophic tradition that would rescue it from the subjective turn imparted by Plato and Aristotle that reached its apogee in the modern crisis.
Voegelin thought that the fatal misstep was in allowing the experiential source of philosophy to recede from awareness; the corrective would lie therefore in the recovery of experiences and symbols that lay behind the propositional formulations.
Heidegger understood that even the language of experience conceded too much to the priority of the subject, thereby blocking or obscuring the access to truth. What was needed was an even more radical recognition that experience too was already a conditioned possibility. To gain access to the unconditioned, it would be necessary not to obtain an independent experience of it (since that would only beg the question of its possibility) but to glimpse the unconditioned as what all possibility is contained within.
Voegelin understood the uniqueness of such an apprehension of the transcendent horizon of thought, that it confirmed the Parmenidean principle of thinking and being as the same, yet he never managed to integrate it coherently into his account as a whole. Thinking retained a primacy over being that meant that being ultimately eluded the grasp of thinking. Heidegger’s pivotal significance is derived from just this realization.
Even as conscientious an effort as the kind represented by Voegelin, to get behind thinking to the pregivenness of experience, never quite arrived at the being within which thinking itself occurred. The only adequate way of thinking of being, Heidegger saw, was to glimpse the being beyond thinking as its condition of possibility. At that limit, Parmenides was right that thinking and being are the same. The closest Voegelin comes to this point is in his account of the meditative structure of experience. Philosophy unfolds as a meditative quest for the ground that it already knows as the moving force that sustains the quest itself.23
That characterization is, however, unstable. At one level it seems to indicate that consciousness contains a knowledge of being within itself, that it revolves within a circle already predefined for it. Yet Voegelin also wants to reject the suggestion that consciousness remains locked within its own world. He emphatically wishes to maintain that it arrives at being. The question is, how does it know what it arrives at if it can never step outside of itself? A comparison between consciousness and what it knows can never happen.
Consciousness Not Its Own Source of Being
Such are the familiar solipsistic objections of epistemology. Voegelin assumes that his meditative structure is immune to them because it begins with questions that are already a form of knowledge of what is sought. Knowledge does not need to be grounded when it opens toward its own ground. Obviously, this is not the case with all knowledge, since Voegelin still upholds the value of empirical investigation, but only of the special limiting case in which consciousness inquires into its own source. This it knows not through empirical inquiry but through participation. Yet it is not a participation in what is present; otherwise, consciousness would be the source of its own being and would not even need to raise the question of whence it has derived.
So the meditative unfolding of the question is not as straightforward a path to knowledge as Voegelin seems to suggest. It is a confession of ignorance of the ground or, more accurately, a movement between ignorance and knowledge that is actually neither. Voegelin’s use of the term metaxy to identify this more primordial condition is a step in the Heideggerian direction of locating knowledge within ontology. There would be no knowledge of being unless there was first the being of knowledge. The latter cannot, of course, be included within knowledge, but it can be glimpsed as the condition of possibility of knowledge. The meditative movement consists, therefore, not in a fuller elaboration of what is already known but in the straining of knowledge toward the boundary by which it is constituted. At its extreme knowledge finally perceives that it is encompassed by being that cannot be comprehended. Revelation devolves ultimately into nonrevelation.
Neither Voegelin nor Heidegger fully confronted the mystery at the core of the Parmenidean principle concerning the alliance of thinking and being. How is knowledge of being possible when knowledge is contained by being? Can knowledge extend to that through which it is, the Kantian condition of possibility? How indeed is it even possible to pose such questions that cannot be answered? Is that not nevertheless a form of answer? Is nonrevelation ultimately a mode of revelation?
Such destabilizing reflections are clearly in the background of both thinkers’ minds, perhaps somewhat more so in the case of Heidegger than Voegelin, but they do not become so focal that they begin to point toward a different way of conceiving them. To do so would require the acknowledgment that the questions are not as unfamiliar as they might seem but, on the contrary, are the most familiar of all within the interpersonal horizon of meaning that we daily navigate.
Heidegger’s Direction: Disclosure Despite Nondisclosure
At one level we know that it is not at all impossible to disclose within the mode of nondisclosure because this is how knowledge of other persons continually proceeds. The other is never contained in the words or gestures that he or she employs, for meaning is precisely dependent on the evanescence of the signifiers from the signified. Conversation can continue, inexhaustibly, because there is no danger of saying all that can be said. Yet there is also the sense that, in the little that has been said, everything has been said. If it is a genuine meeting of persons, then they have given themselves completely, or as completely as they can give of themselves, in what they say.
Neither disclosure nor nondisclosure, conversation revolves within a mysterious horizon it can never ultimately fathom. Only in this way is it possible for the finite to touch the infinite. The challenge of explaining how it is possible for us to apprehend what is beyond apprehension, what is literally transcendent, cannot be separated from its irreducibly personal horizon. Whatever access we have to being arises only because we are persons whose being is never contained by what they are. This, it seems, is the great insight toward which Heidegger’s work points, even if he did not adequately embrace it. To the extent that it was the direction unfolded in considerable measure by such successors as Levinas and Derrida, it is worth singling out as the most significant point of convergence with Voegelin.24
In many respects Voegelin is even closer to its inner logic than the post-structuralists. For him the advance beyond structure and presence is even less problematic because he has understood that philosophy is primarily a movement of existence, a way of life before it is a way of thought. The problem is that his own linguistic apparatus remains tied to the nomenclature of a philosophy of consciousness, while his implication strongly suggests the grounding of consciousness in a reality beyond itself. Having begun with the crisis of meaning precipitated by the death of propositional metaphysics, he never fully breaks from the expectation that a way back toward a kind of metaphysics might yet be possible. This is particularly evident in the polemical resistance to the nihilistic consequences of the disappearance of metaphysics.
Simultaneously, Voegelin was well aware of the impossibility of effecting a pure return to what even in its classic inception was untrue to its own source. What was needed was the more radical embrace of the challenge of the obsolescence of metaphysics undertaken by Heidegger, which would definitively establish metaphysics as the unsurpassable horizon of existence itself. Human beings do not have access to metaphysics because they already live within it.
Voegelin remained too close to the categories of phenomenology with which he began to be able to make clear their derivation from metaphysics. There is no philosophy of consciousness because, as Voegelin comes close to acknowledging, there is no such thing as consciousness. There is only the movement of being by which consciousness glimpses itself within its ontological radiance.
The Central Problem: The Desire to Transform Society
That profound reorientation in thinking that Heidegger called for would also yield enormous consequences for the central political problem with which Voegelin grappled. We have already touched on the irony of Heidegger’s both exemplifying and resolving the same issue. This is the expectation of transfiguration that dominated political imagination for more than two centuries.
It was not enough, Voegelin sensed, to merely decry the hold of parousiastic expectations and to lament their disastrous political consequences. There was also the need to address the longing from which they arose. Voegelin understood this as the need to regain a spiritual equilibrium between the theophanic events and the world in which they occurred.
More than a few commentators have found the incompleteness of this counsel to be curiously related to Voegelin’s ambivalence toward Christianity. They point out that it was precisely the central mission of the church to convey the full amplitude of a balance that insists fully on the transfigurative expectation while utterly forestalling its preemption within time. Indeed, the church itself exists within the tension of the now but not yet.
But it is not simply a feature of the Christian life that may have brought into focus the character of apocalypse as always without apocalypse. Now that metaphysics has become the permanently unattainable horizon of existence, expectancy as such has become its structure. That is a structure ever moving beyond structure, as Voegelin formulated it.
All that needs to be added is that the perennial postponement of fulfillment must not be regarded as a disappointment. It is rather the opening of space and time within which existence unfolds. How otherwise is it possible for persons who are not reducible to their space-time components to live than in relation to what is not because it already is? Expectation, far from raising an impossible aspiration, is what provides all possibility of aspiration through which existence unfolds.
Unattainability is not tantamount to futility. It is rather the way in which persons who transcend all finitude can nevertheless participate in a finite world. History is possible only for beings who are not historical; their eternal dimension is far more real than any emergent within the historical process.
The great ideological convulsions, centered on dreams of a final transfiguration within time, were only a tragic misapplication of what can never be applied within existence. Voegelin mightily resisted the immanentization of the eschaton. What was needed was a way of explaining how the eschaton could never be abolished because it remains closer to us than we are ourselves.
We Can Join in the Conversation
There is, in other words, the distinct possibility that the conversation between Voegelin and Heidegger could yield more than either participant might have expected. Surely, they would not be surprised by such a suggestion. They were intimately familiar with the exchanges by which the movement of philosophy overleaps its individual contributors. Aristotle was privy to insights that had escaped Plato, and Hegel understood things that had eluded Kant.
Of course, it is equally possible that the successors fail to reach up to the level attained by their predecessors, a hermeneutic caution always worth recalling. Yet the hesitation should not furnish an excuse for not doing all that we can to move the conversation forward. Even the most comprehensive exchanges remain open-ended, leaving more than enough room for the contributions of underlaborers in the process. After all, the quest for truth is, of all human enterprises, the most democratic. It is open to the humblest participant since it is no respecter of persons, even persons of genius. The only qualification needed is the capacity to raise questions. By taking in what has been said, we can reach the questions that philosophy itself makes proximate.
It is not for us to answer the questions, no more than it was for those who taught us, but it is our privileged responsibility to undertake the effort. In thus straining to the utmost, we become more worthy transmitters of the bequest we have received and, perhaps, even begin to catch a glimpse of what is further than our mentors were able to see. To gain that larger intimation, however, we must dare to go further than our teachers were able to go. Could there be a more faithful, or a more impressive, witness to their teaching?
1. “Stupidity” is of course not an epithet of denigration or insult, but a technical term that Voegelin adapted from Robert Musil to denote the peculiar inability of Germans in the Nazi era to make commonsense judgments about political consequences. See Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (hereafter CW), 34 vols. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990-2009), vol. 31, Hitler and the Germans, ed. and trans. Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell (1999), 98-102.
2. Voegelin, CW, vol. 6, Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, ed. David Walsh and trans. M. J. Hanak (2002), 45-61.
3. Ibid., 81, 71. Similarly on the futility of the attempt to get at a pure perception of time: “It is not the consciousness of time that is generated by the flow, but rather the experience of the flow is generated by consciousness, which itself is not flowing” (ibid., 66).
4. “We have experience of our consciousness only qua consciousness, only as the process experienced from within, which is neither corporeal nor material. The substantive unity of human existence, which must be accepted as an ontological hypothesis for the understanding of con-sciousness’s foundation in body and matter, is objectively inexperienceable” (ibid., 79).
5. Voegelin, CW, vol. 12, Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (1966; reprint, 1990), 9.
6. See Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990). For a balanced summary, see Rüdiger Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, trans. Ewald Osers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
7. Voegelin, CW vol. 5, Modernity without Restraint: The Political Religions; The New Science of Politics; and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, ed. Manfred Henningsen (2000), 276-77.
8. Jacques Derrida, Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida, ed. Peter Fenves (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 167. See also Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994).
9. My own take on it is available in The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
10. Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, trans. Richard Taft (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).
11. Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks, trans. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), the collection of essays from 1919 to 1961 that Heidegger published as Wegmarken (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1967).
12.”Truth signifies the sheltering that lightens as the basic characteristic of being. The question of the essence of truth finds its answer in the proposition the essence of truth is the truth of essence” (Heidegger, “On the Essence of Truth, ” in Pathmarks, §9).
13. Commenting on Nietzsche’s “death of God,” Heidegger notes: “What to common sense looks like ‘atheism,’ and has to look like it, is at bottom the very opposite” (Gesamtausgabe, vol. 6. 1, Nietzsche, 423 / Nietzsche II, trans. David Krell [New York: Harper, 1984], 95).
14. F. W. J. Schelling, Schellings Werke: Nach der Originalausgabe in neuer Anordnung, ed. Manfred Schroter (Munich: Beck, 1927-1959), 6: 753 / Schellings Philosophy of Mythology and Revelation, trans. Victor C. Hayes (Armidale: Australian Association for the Study of Religions, 1995), 198.
15. Voegelin, CW vol. 16, Order and History, Volume 111: Plato and Aristotle, ed. Dante Germino (2000), 331. Voegelin goes on to explain this most sweeping denunciation of Order and History: “I am speaking of the transformation of symbols developed for the purpose of articulating the philosopher’s experiences into topics of speculation. ” For Heidegger’s diagnosis of the misstep, see “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth,” in Pathmarks, 155-82.
16. From one of Voegelin’s more “Heideggerian” texts, “Eternal Being in Time,” in CW, 6: 324.
Heidegger envisages “the great turning around [that] is necessary, which is beyond all ‘revaluation of all values,’ that turning around in which beings are not grounded in terms of human being, but rather human being is grounded in terms of being” (Beiträge zur Philosophie [Vom Ereignis] [Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1989] / Contributions to Philosophy [From Enowning], trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999], §91).
18. Voegelin, CW, 6: 391-92.
19 Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, 12: 156 / On the Way to Language, trans. Peter Hertz (New York: Harper, 1972), 63.
20. There is a reality with two structural meanings, to be distinguished as the thing-reality and the It-reality. Consciousness, then, is a subject intending reality as its object, but at the same time a something in a comprehending reality; and reality is the object of consciousness, but at the same time the subject of which consciousness is to be predicated. Where in this complex of equivocations do we find a beginning?” (Voegelin, CW, vol. 18, Order and History, Volume V: In Search of Order, ed. Ellis Sandoz , 30-31).
21. Heidegger, “On the Essence and Concept of Phusis in Aristotle’s Physics B,” in Pathmarks, 183-230; Voegelin, CW, 6: 157-74.
22.See the discussion of Aristotle’s struggle between the nature of the polis and its history in “The Science of the Polis,” chap. 9 in CW, vol. 16.
23. “The consciousness of questioning unrest in a state of ignorance becomes luminous to itself as a movement in the psyche toward the ground that is present in the psyche as its mover” (Voegelin, CW vol. 12, Published Essays, 1966-1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz , 272).
24. For an account of such personalist implications flowing from Heidegger, see the chapters on Levinas and Derrida, as well as Kierkegaard, in The Modern Philosophical Revolution.
This excerpt is from Eric Voegelin and the Continental Tradition: Explorations in Modern Political Thought (University of Missouri Press, 2011). An essay of the book is here and our book review is here. Other excerpts are avaialble about the following thinkers: Schelling, Kierkegaard, Kant, Hegel, and Derrida.