Young Voegelin in America

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A Well-Thought-Out Program of Study

During its brief period of operation, from 1918 to 1929, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, according to Robert M. Hutchins, “did more than any other agency to promote the social sciences in the United States”1:

“. . . . [In 1924] about 32 fellowships would have been available for non-Americans. Along with Oscar Morgenstern and Denis Brogan, Eric Voegelin received one of them, which paid him $1,800 a year–as compared to $30 a month, which he received in 1927 as Hans Kelsen’s assistant in Vienna.2 It was, therefore, a highly competitive and generous award.”

Voegelin arrived in New York on October 4, 1924, and started a well-thought-out program of study. He began his work at Columbia, studying sociology with F. H. Giddings, educational theory with John Dewey, and public administration with A. W. Macmahon, as well as biology in the lab of Thomas Hunt Morgan (who won a Nobel Prize a decade later), and economics with John Wesley. Voegelin moved on to Madison for the 1925 summer session at the University of Wisconsin, and first met John R. Commons and Selig Perlman, who introduced him to American political history, popu­lism, and labor history as well as the achievements of populist institu­tions and forms of government in the upper Midwest.

In the late summer and early fall of 1925, Voegelin and Heinrich Poliak, a Rockefeller fellow from the German University of Prague, undertook an extensive tour of the western states (CW l:xxxviii et seq.). He spent the late fall of 1925 as a research fellow in economics at Harvard but spent most of his time study­ing American jurisprudence with Roscoe Pound and attending Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy lectures. After Christmas he returned to Madison and then spent the summer of 1926 studying with Arthur Corbin at the Yale Law School.

The Discovery of American Common Sense Philosophy

During the entire twenty-four months, Voegelin informed the Rockefeller Foundation, he would be undertaking research on his own of “the irrational elements in American social sciences applied to social psychology, philosophy, legal theory, economic theory, and legal philosophy.”

In the late fall he returned to Europe and spent a year in Paris. Given Voegelin’s interest in what might be called comparative sociology and jurisprudence, the exchange program supported by the memorial seemed tailor-made for him. In retrospect, and notwithstanding a few minor discrepancies between Voegelin’s recollections and his reports to the Rockefeller Foundation, it is clear that his American experience strongly influenced his personal and scholarly outlook.

Before analyzing Voegelin’s 1928 book, On the Form of the American Mind (Volume 1 of the Collected Works, hereafter CW), let us consider his recollection of his time in America (CW 34:56ff). “These two years in America,” he said, “brought the great break in my intellectual development.”

The Library, the Leisure, and Solitude

As with many scholars, “the most important influence came from the library” and from the lei­sure and solitude of reading and reflection. With the help of Dewey and Irwin Edman, also at Columbia, he began:

“working through the history of English philosophy and its expansion into American thought . . . . I discovered English and American common sense philosophy . . .”


“got the first inkling of what the continued tradition of classic philosophy on the common-sense level, without necessarily the technical apparatus of an Aristotle, could mean for the intellectual climate and the cohesion of a society.”

On reflection, he concluded that common sense was just what was missing from German intellectual and scientific life.

At Wisconsin, Voegelin recalled, he encountered “what I considered at the time, with my still limited knowledge, to be the real, authentic America. It was represented by John R. Commons, who took on for me the shape of a Lincolnesque figure.” It was also at Madison that Voegelin learned of the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court “as the source of political culture in America.”

A Culture Still Based on Classical and Christian Sources

In contrast, Whitehead’s lectures at Harvard introduced him to the wider cultural context of “Anglo-American civilization.” In the work of George Santayana he found “a man with a vast background of philosophical knowl­edge, sensitive to the problems of the spirit without accepting a dogma, and not interested at all in neo-Kantian methodology.”

Again in retrospect, Voegelin remarked that his book on America did not provide a full understanding of the importance of those two years. “The great event was the fact of being thrown into a world for which the great neo-Kantian methodological debates, which I considered the most important things intellectually, were of no importance.”

What mattered was the political and legal culture developed on the basis of the American founding and the background context of classical and Christian culture that was rapidly fading in Europe, the last glimmer of which was consti­tuted by the methodological conflicts among varieties of neo-Kantians: “In brief, there was a world in which this other world in which I had grown up was intellectually, morally, and spiritually irrelevant. That there should be such a plurality of worlds had a devastating effect on me.”

It destroyed his “European provincialism.” He “gained an understanding in these years of the plurality of human possibilities realized in various civilizations, as an immediate experience, an experience vécue, which hitherto had been ac­cessible to me only through the comparative study of civilizations,” which is to say, mediated by the texts of others–chiefly Max Weber and Oswald Spengler.

Accordingly, when he returned to Europe, certain phenom­ena–and here Voegelin mentioned Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit–which to his European colleagues seemed to be important, “no longer had any effect on me. It just ran off, because I had been immunized against this whole context of philosophizing through my time in America and especially in Wisconsin.” It is probably an exaggeration to claim that he had been “immunized” against Heidegger–who was in any event not a neo-Kantian, but it was accurate enough to claim that common sense did provide Voegelin with a new epistemological basis for his interpretative analysis of sociohistorical reality.

American “Form” Binds Together Disparate Areas

This did not mean, however, that the language Voegelin used in On the Form of the American Mind was modeled on that of Dewey or Com­mons, let alone the older commonsense philosophers, Ferguson and Reid. In place of the neo-Kantian understanding of culture as the object of a specific science of cognition, Voegelin said that the subject matter of his scientific inquiry emerged from his analysis of what he called “intellectual [or spiritual] formations,” geistige Gestaltungen–a term that is self-evident in its meaning neither in German nor in English.

The sense can be ap­prehended from the examples of American philosophy, law, or economic theory, all of which are understood, as American, to be expressions of a common form and style. In the previous chapter Voegelin raised this ques­tion in the context of considering what made any given painting a typical example of Dutch or American art and not merely an exemplar of beauty or ugliness.

In turn this common “form” was understood to bind together the otherwise disparate subject matter (or intellectual formations) into a meaningful unit and unity (Sinneinheit) that could then be described. On the Form of the American Mind, among other things, provided a more precise and occasionally a new conceptual vocabulary to account for this problem of particular styles of culture. These epistemological issues con­stitute the subject matter of the introduction to Voegelin’s book and pro­vide a sequel to the issues raised in the previous chapter of this book [Beginning the Quest] (CW 1:2-22).

A New Method Needed

There are, Voegelin began, plenty of studies of American institutions and intellectual life, and they have fulfilled their purpose and “steered in­terpretations of the American mind to a point that calls for new methods if the task is to be mastered.” These new methods may be needed, he said, but they have yet to be found. One can say with some confidence, however, that the old methods of neo-Kantian a priori categories and “generalized slogans” were no longer useful; what was needed must be intimately con­nected to the materials, but the materials, in this instance those pertaining to the American mind, were unfamiliar to Voegelin’s readers.

So the prob­lem involved presenting the (unfamiliar) materials at the same time as the “instruments of interpretation.” His introduction was an effort at justify­ing this procedure. It was also, incidentally, the procedure Voegelin em­ployed in writing The History of Political Ideas and the one presently being used in this analysis of Voegelin’s work in the 1920s and 1930s, which, it is fair to say, is unfamiliar, at least as compared to his postwar work or to the History.

Looked at externally, the contents of the book, from the discussion of time to American labor policy or the federal reserve system, appeared quite distinct, which would make the book a collection of essays rather than a coherent whole or “meaningful unity.” In fact, however, all these subject matters dealt with a single class of phenomena that were focused on language concerned with matters of “a theoretical nature,” where theo­ry referred to “an attempt claiming to order a field of problems rationally and thus to render it comprehensible.”

Natural sciences were eliminated, along with history and philology, leaving a selection of theoretical works in philosophy, law, politics, economics, political science, and sociology selected as being suitable to the study of form and as examples. All, he said, were “self-expressive” linguistic-theoretical phenomena (sprachlich- theoretische Ersheinungen). The principle of selection could not be based on a priori principles, and even though Voegelin had no wish to discuss methodology, “some­thing will have to be said concerning the method employed here.”

Proceeding from the Material Itself

The method, very simply, was that “the rules grew out of the material studied.” Or rather, the rules were not so much followed as “found.” Specifically, every “intellectual formation,” which included everything from political institutions to the color of Hudson River tugboats, “reveals traces of its origin in its form.”

In other words, interpretation of phenomena must follow from an understanding of the material, of its inherent meaning, and of the most appropriate method to clarify it. It must proceed “immanently” and must “never be subject to a transcendental value system.” The similarities with Husserlian phenomenology as well as with Cassirer’s modified understanding of Geisteswissenschaften have been noted (CW 1: xxii-xxv).

Later, in The New Science of Politics (1952), Voegelin called this method of analysis “the Aristotelian procedure” because it began from self-expressive phenomena of the actual self-understanding of individu­als and communities (CW5:110ff). Of equal importance was that the linguistic theoretical phenomena selected be “self-expressive.” This attribute enabled the scientist to reflect upon them as well as upon his own act of reflection. Thus the subject mat­ters–the self-expressive phenomena–were also the media in which they were studied by the reflection and self-reflection of the scientist.

Accord­ingly, one can philosophize about philosophy, but one does not normally write music about music or poetry about poetry. Such “self-expressive” phenomena have conventionally been assigned to different disciplines– economics, law, philosophy, and so on–but in fact they were intercon­nected in terms of form.

Voegelin was fully aware that such an approach can be persuasive not in terms of a priori arguments but in terms of results, namely the insight that emerged after the argument and the illustrative examples were under­stood. The task of reflection, which is the task of the scientist, was to get the material to speak on its own terms, which was why Voegelin said his approach was “purely empirical” rather than a priori.

Experience Includes Both the Personal and the Peripheral

For Voegelin, “em­pirical” also meant experiential so that reflection or self-reflection was also “personal” or participatory. Other aspects of the subject matter were not directly personal but “peripheral” in the sense that they were not experi­enced immediately but by way of institutions and other anonymous or quasi-anonymous processes.

The question of form was tied both to the individual and the personal, because even an impersonal or institutional expression of mind was empir­ically bound to an individual whose experience it was–and at the same time it was tied to anonymous processes. This double connection meant that “the form is not an inflexible boundary for a subject” and so was not subject to precise defi­nition. Hence Voegelin’s reliance on “a broader description, fleshed out with specific examples.”

The reason for adopting this interpretative strategy was not simply because the categories of personal and peripheral “summarize the results of studies that are in essence historical” but because the choice of a historical subject matter followed the events of history. Here Voegelin introduced a striking image, to which we return below, to express his mean­ing: “The historical line of meaning runs like a rope across the abyss into which everything that cannot stay on the rope plunges.” This did not mean that history was a single continuum or accumulation of meaning, for things were lost, were forgotten, and failed. Thus “it does not seem useful to treat such a tangled web with short formulas and all-encompassing definitions.”

Instead there were careful descriptions that indicated a uniform style com­mon, for example, to administrative institutions and social mores or to the intellectual biography of a philosopher and the account of the life and work of a man of action. This presentation may seem abstract–as abstract, in fact, as the neo-Kantian methodologies Voegelin sought to replace. Voegelin’s intent, how­ever, was to describe how to interpret the form of the American mind. So it is time to ask: What do those terms mean?

An answer can be formulated only by comparison, so that the common elements can be distinguished from the differentiating ones. Moreover, the accumulations of personal and impersonal history also have to be considered–youth and old age, for example, or the position of the foreigner in America, or New England Calvinism.

Is History Primarily Fated or Contingent?

What was novel in Voegelin’s approach to these matters was that the historical forms of the American mind were brought into exis­tence by history itself. In a sense Voegelin was simply reiterating the point made in the previous chapter regarding Weber’s intellectual integrity–that such integrity was entirely apposite in an age of disenchantment and everydayness because it was the form taken by an ethics of responsibility for a scientist concerned with a rational account of sociohistorical reality. The difference between Voegelin and Weber on this score was that Weber’s account, being retrospective, conveyed a powerful element of necessity; hence Weber’s extensive use of the term fate.

In contrast, for Voegelin his­tory contained a greater sense of contingency. Hence the image noted ear­lier of a “line of meaning” that “runs like a rope across the abyss.” Before introducing that rather Nietzschean image, Voegelin observed that only one contingency ever is chosen “not by the historian, but by life itself.” Ac­cordingly, each successive “intellectual formation” along a line of meaning was connected to preceding moments and to prior intellectual formations. The sequence of intellectual formations articulated the movement of–in this instance–the American mind in both its individual and personal, and its institutional and peripheral, forms.

The Unspoken Problems of Life

The sequence of intellectual formations, the line of meaning, was the articulation of the primary and inarticulate problems of life: “sorrows of loneliness, yearning for the company of others, for intimacy and love, and emotional adventures of youth, the disillusionment of old age, the expec­tation of death.” These problems were “primary” because they were inar­ticulate; Husserl once described them as belonging to an antepredicative “depth.”

That dimension of reality, prior to interpretation, had few enough emotional and temporal structures–sorrow, longing, the sequence from the adventures of youth to the expectation of death–but they were re­sponsible for the richness and detail of the form of the mind: They were primordial experiences that instigated the articulation of the intellectual formation.

From an evocation of the emotional and temporal structures that un­dergird the methodological considerations of the introduction [to On the Form of the American Mind], Voegelin moved on to a comparative philosophical analysis of British and Ameri­can articulation of those structures in terms of “Time and Existence” (CW 1:23-63).

The skepticism of David Hume, Voegelin said, was both a contrast and a model for American thought. On the one hand, his “cool doubt” contrasted strongly with the “warm trust” of the Americans Charles Sanders Peirce and William James; on the other, George Santayana, for different reasons, “finds himself adopting a solipsistic stance that comes very close to Hume’s skepticism.”

Even so, there existed an intelligible sequence from Hume to the common sense of his contem­porary, Thomas Reid, and to later modifications of common sense and skepticism in America. Voegelin was not, however, interested in a history of the idea of Humean skepticism. Rather, his concern was the form taken by skepticism in America, namely, a lack of respect for the development of European philosophy. Europeans might understand this attitude as amus­ing or deplorable, but for Americans it was, on the contrary, “very resolute and only slightly at a loss in the face of matters that have no significance for them.”

A lack of concern for European philosophy, by Voegelin’s inter­pretation, was part of what it meant to be a member of a democratic com­munity. William James, who was undoubtedly also a philosopher, but an American one, strongly agreed, and Voegelin quoted him at length in sup­port of the distinct styles and forms of American philosophizing. Even so, this difference “cannot easily be described clearly, even if all-encompassing definitions are forsworn.” Such definitions were in any event typical not of philosophy but of European philosophy. In keeping with the argument re­garding methodology presented in the introduction to the book, Voegelin’s task was to illustrate by example the self-interpretation and self-reflection of philosophizing in the American style or form.

No European Dialectic in America

A start was made with James’s own Pluralistic Universe (1909), where the author argued that philosophy was first of all a matter of vision and not the logical coherence of a “system.” In Platonic language James stressed noesis over dianoia. For the Europeans, including the British, the focus was on “dialectical” problems that arose from considering the relation of consciousness to the external world and from the problem of temporality in consciousness, both of which derive from skepticism.

In contrast, the Americans–Peirce and James–did not regard the unity of consciousness and its transcendence into the external world as problems but as givens from which other explanations could be developed.3 However described, the consequence was that the “quarrels of the various [European] schools are merely external, seemingly more a bad­ly adapted European habit than something inevitably connected with American thought.”

Accordingly, a philosopher such as C. S. Peirce may be inconsistent in his elaboration or account of his vision, but that did not touch his greatness, whereas “in Europe, and especially in Germany, the intellectual apparatus is so extensive and the elaboration of problems is carried to such length” that the concern with the details of the logic of the system was more important than the adequacy of the vision.

This did not mean that American philosophers were somehow inferior to European ones because they may have overlooked things that the Europeans found to be important, nor that, in the example of James, could he be criticized simply for writing clearly. Instead, Voegelin said, it would be more advis­able to assume “a new experience, essentially different from the European tradition of skepticism.”

A New Image of God and of Man

Voegelin discussed this “new experience” by analyzing the “emotional motive,” which from the introduction was understood to be primary, in James’s Pluralistic Universe. The traditional Christian doctrine of “monar­chic theism” discussed the divine creation of the world in a way that was obsolete even though it may still be affirmed and “confessed at church in formulas that linger by their mere inertia.”

But, James said, “the life is out of them.” Instead of an “alien” relationship between Creator and creation, a more intimate symbolism, which did not first emphasize the difference between the two, was needed. According to James, the needed symbolism would be more intimate and organic, “more like a federal republic than like an empire or kingdom.” In short, James and Peirce abandoned “the attempt to structure a rational image of the world.” Rather, several images might be invoked and, depending on the context, may be equally accept­able or adequate. Even polytheism was a possibility.

Corresponding to the contrast between European imagery of divine be­ing in terms of monarchy and the pluralistic hierarchy of James was a simi­lar difference in the understanding of human being. For James (and Peirce) human existence was open to the gods or God, the friendly powers that stretch above us away into a limitless beyond. Following Bergson, Voegelin called this understanding of human being the open self. In contrast is the European tradition “with its mania for conceptualizing the mystery of the person rationally,” which Voegelin called the doctrine of the closed self. For the American philosophers “the contraction of time and existence to the present moment of the self and the problem of the origin of the world no longer have much meaning.”

The Open Self as the American Foundation

We noted above that Voegelin informed the Rockefeller Foundation that he proposed “on his own” to study the “irrational elements” in what he came to call the American mind. It is evident that he meant Peirce and James; it is also evident that by identifying their philosophizing with “irrational elements” he was not dismissing them by adopting even provi­sionally the perspective of European rationalism, the closed self, and the mania for conceptualizing a mystery.

This did not mean that Voegelin was adopting a position on the side of “irrational elements” in some general sense but only that he (as did James) rejected the “reason” of the closed self and the neo-Kantians for whom mystery was indeed conceptualized into science. We should also bear in mind that Voegelin was not concerned with what might be called the dogmatic attributes of divine being but with the expression of the divine in European and American philosophy insofar as that expression, that “meaningful unit” or “intellectual forma­tion,” helped constitute the form of the American (or European) mind.

In other words, a balanced appraisal of American “irrationality” as dis­tinct from European “rationality” pointed to the difference between Amer­ican and European self-consciousness that had attained great clarity in the self-reflection of European and American thinkers. The open self that characterized the American mind was the center of meaning from which all other intellectual formations radiated into society: the basic principles of the democratic community, economic life, the understanding of God, the devotion to practicality in science, and the deprecation of theory as abstract and empty intellectualism.

George Santayana, Progress, and “Man of Letters”

In the chapter that followed, on George Santayana (CW 1:64-125), Voegelin found elements of both European and American forms of phi­losophizing, as befits a thinker with Santayana’s biography. Voegelin began his discussion by raising explicitly a question discussed incidentally in the previous chapter: Why is there no progress in philosophy as there is in the natural sciences? And what is to be made of the contradictory claims of philosophies?

Santayana replied that they contradict one another only “when they cling to the word and try helplessly to catch the unknown. But they agree and supplement one another when they are symbols, thoughts wrung from the experiences of the hearts of poets.” Then all philosophies were equal, and the issue of “progress” evaporated. In principle, that is, philosophy accounted for the “experiences of the hearts of poets,” which is to say, experiences of self-expressive reality par excellence. In contrast, be­cause natural philosophy was not self-expressive, it was possible to gain in­creased insight over time into the structure of natural phenomena, which is called progress.

Voegelin compared Santayana’s philosophizing to that of Brentano, who wrote on similar subjects, in a way analogous to his previous comparison of Hume and James. As in the previous analysis, the aim was to show that even though Santayana and Brentano were both philosophers and both were concerned with, generally speaking, the same philosophical problems, they each had different styles of philosophizing. The focus was then drawn even tighter as Voegelin considered “the gen­esis of Santayana’s world” in his poetry of the 1880s. Santayana, Voegelin said, was a “man of letters,” a term, he added, that was as impossible to ren­der in German as the word gentleman.

At best we could compare the rank of the latter [the gentleman] in society with that of the former [the man of letters] in the realm of the mind. Literat would be to diminish the con­cept, Dichter would be going too far. To connect them with Geisteskultur is too reminiscent of shirtsleeve professionalism; Bildung of the academic. All these terms touch on essential traits of the ‘man-of-letters’ without hit­ting his essence.

Living Between Europe and America

Voegelin’s characterization of Santayana’s poetry, no less than his philosophical reflections, showed great sensitivity to language, not least of all because he understood it to be an index of historical-cultural reality. And with Santayana, as with James and Peirce, the emphasis was on the importance of vision and the limits of logical coherence. “It is surely true,” Voegelin wrote:

“that philosophical systems contain structures that can roughly be described by the idea of concretion and its rational evolu­tion; but in a large system the rigidity of logical coherence is no more than a line of order drawn through a field of points, where each point could as easily fit along another line. The elements in one system could be elements in another and still retain the aura of possibilities no matter where they are organized at the moment” (CW 1:120).

But it was just this concern of Santayana with “logical coherence” in his “philosophical system” that made him more difficult to interpret than James or Peirce.

According to Voegelin, this was “because Santayana’s per­son stands at the frontier where the European and the American mind abut.” Specifically, Santayana’s status as a skeptic and a lonely stranger was unlike the position of James or Peirce, where even the gods were friendly. And yet, Voegelin said, “in the United States, the ‘foreigner’ is a typical phe­nomenon, and standing-at-the-border is every bit as much an American problem as unquestioned membership in an older tradition.” Moreover, the newly arrived–especially when they arrived in great numbers, as had happened during the later nineteenth century–“had no less influence on the formation of political institutions than did the previously settled, as­similated population.”

As one historian of American culture (and student of Santayana) observed, his teacher may never have become an American, but he certainly ceased to be a European.4 This ambivalence of Santayana, akin to that of other immigrants of the late nineteenth century, raised the question: In what way was his thought linked to that of James and Peirce? Voegelin’s answer was that through the use of terms such as “pure expe­rience” and “essence” all three were linked to the older form of Puritan mysticism (CW 1:126-43).

A God Not Royal But Intimate

In the early eighteenth century, with Jonathan Edwards:

“the separa­tion of dogma from mysticism begins in the United States. According to the dogma, God is an arbitrary, threatening, absolute Person who deals with believers as a king deals with his subjects, who can claim no rights. In mysticism, the perilous superiority disappears, and the religious life is dissolved in the immediate relationship to divinity, in a sequence of ec­stasies that do not require dogma.”

Accordingly, the connection between, for instance, James’s view of the divine and the growth of American de­mocracy was anything but accidental. The eclipse of the dogma of a Royal God by the community of believers was itself an expression of the form of the American mind.

No wonder, then, that even in the twenty-first century American religious practices remain essential to the meaningful unity of American life. “The systematic structural relationship,” Voegelin concluded, that tied Edwards to Peirce, James, and Santayana, “is indisputable.” Not just the absence of “systematic conclusions,” akin to the European mania for conceptualizing mystery, united them, but so too did their understand­ing of history as an adaptation to God and a gradual victory of the good.

This positive, one might say optimistic, element was present in Edwards’s understanding of the elect, in James’s pluralistic universe, and in Peirce’s evolutionary love. “And even Santayana’s philosophy believes in the histori­cal growth of reason in the world, so that the original Calvinist dogma is preserved in these forms of rational skepticism.” In the intellectual forma­tions of all these thinkers, evil remains as an inextinguishable element that can be overcome only by cultivating what was good and reasonable, which in turn was an endless temporal task.

The Mutual Influence of the American Forms

Before turning to Voegelin’s analysis of Anglo-American jurisprudence (CW 1:144-204), let us gather together some of the themes Voegelin has developed. The “guiding principle of this study,” Voegelin said, “that every intellectual formation that arises in a social body reveals the traces of its origin in its form–illustrates my method.” As noted above, by “intellectual formation” Voegelin referred to such obvious phenomena as political in­stitutions or art and philosophy, but also everyday matters such as theater tickets and the color of construction bricks (CW 1:15).

The form of the American mind bound the several intellectual formations into a meaning­ful unit, which Voegelin connected to the development of democracy in America. The apprehension of the forms, however, is not a matter of im­posing transcendental categories on an otherwise chaotic and disordered external reality because (1) the reality is not external and (2) it is not cha­otic. On the contrary, the reality that constitutes the form of the American mind appears as “self-expressive” linguistic-theoretical phenomena.

More­over, these phenomena have a history that is sustained by continuity of spiritual formations–not in any sense of retrospective necessity imposed by a storyteller but by the influence of “style.” Thus one form of earlier thinking in the realm of religion can, generations later, influence philoso­phy or poetry.

The intellectual formations can also be understood as articulations of the primary or primordial experiences of life, from sorrow to adventure to joy. Because they are articulate, they will be influenced by previous self- expressive forms that, in turn, articulate, in this instance, the basic forms of America–crossing the ocean, the encounter with the land and its in­habitants, the “social contract,” beginning with the Mayflower Compact, that sustains the enterprise of self-government.

The American Blend of English and Natural Law

The general influence of English law on American law is well-known, though knowledge regarding the details is often somewhat hazy, and the distinctiveness of American law, which is widely assumed to exist, is but obscurely accounted for. Voegelin began by considering English analytic jurisprudence.

After John Austin gave his famous lectures on jurisprudence in the late 1820s, there was no successful effort in the United Kingdom to establish any systematic jurisprudence until the 1870s and 1880s, when conflict be­tween the common law traditions of civil rights and the courts of equity provided an opportunity to deal directly with the systematic character­istics of the law. Voegelin praised Austin’s work but noted that, for want of interest, his chair in jurisprudence at Oxford was discontinued. A half century later jurisprudence was revived in the form of casebooks and maxims as well as more systematic treatments.

Most of the structural ele­ments of the legal problems that could be found in English analytic juris­prudence were also found in the American version, “but all are reshaped and arranged in new intellectual contexts that distinguish them sharply from the way they appear in the English formulations” (CW 1:165). The main addition and modification of the English tradition was provided by the eighteenth-century doctrines of natural law.

The Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitu­tion,” Voegelin wrote, “indicate the purpose of founding a state,” namely “to guarantee human rights and to establish a system to secure justice.” The United States may not have originated the notion of “the administra­tion of justice” (it is found in Hume’s Essays), but in America was found its most thoroughgoing institutionalization in the Supreme Court. The absorption of natural law principles into statute law and judicial decisions, however imperfect, provided an epistemological model of jurisprudence practically unknown to contemporary legal theory in Europe.

Rules of the State Derived From Divine Law

“Knowledge of rights,” Voegelin said, “is communicated through acts of intuition: con­cepts of rights are axioms of the human mind” that have arisen spontane­ously and allowed human beings to make sound judgments concerning right and wrong. “They are intuitively perceived like any other truth of the metaphysical sciences,” a method adopted from Scottish commonsense philosophy and justified by religion.

In accord with the intellectual for­mation articulated by Edwards, “the unalterable principles are given us by God; it is he who has furnished us with ‘rights’ and given us the ability to know them unmediatedly and without thought” (CW 1:170). The rules of the state, “jural law,” derived their validity from divine law. In order to deduce rights by intuition, certain principles were never­theless required. Instead of developing systematic jurisprudence, however, American law accumulated accounts of precedents.

This response had its own problems: “The system of precedents results in the mass production of reports of decisions. The decisions of every court are reported to a central collection point, which indiscriminately sends them out for publication,” the trivial and local decisions along with the important and national ones. The physical bulk of such cases was enormous and the principles embod­ied in them all but impossible to determine. The federal organization of the states meant there was no national control of decisions as in England, which has a single, homogeneous court hierarchy.

Finally, the unsatisfac­tory and unsystematic nature of American jurisprudence was a result of law school training by case law. “Only a very few law schools pay even the slightest attention to the history and philosophy of law.” Partly in response to this almost chaotic accumulation of materials, just prior to World War I the American legal profession commissioned an ambitious program of translation so American lawyers would have access to the works of Euro­pean jurisprudence. The result was not a wholesale importation of a European “science of law” but a typically American effort to create categories and concepts that would be pragmatically useful, not theoretically elegant.

More specifically, jurisprudence had to be useful not for law professors and legal scholars but for their students, who became ordinary lawyers and judges. That is, the Americans were not concerned about the scholarly integrity or originality of their work. It is a way to step out of the river of action for a moment in order to find a more effective mechanism to deal with reality. But the thought that theoretical values exist for their own sake and go through an evolution in their own sphere remains alien.

Analytic jurisprudence was accordingly considered to be little more than an interesting intellectual ex­ercise, the value of which lay “in facilitating and improving the solution of legal problems,” much as if organic chemistry existed to assist in solving problems encountered by chemical or petroleum engineers . . . .

John R. Commons and the Pioneer Community

The final chapter, “On John R. Commons” (CW 1:205-82), reflected both Voegelin’s close personal relationship with the man and his signifi­cance for the social, economic, political, and spiritual or intellectual forma­tion of American democracy. Commons’ life, Voegelin said, “overlaps the shaping of the American nation, and his work is woven into this process,” but its beginning lay in the pre-Civil War expansion of the country to the Midwest, where he was born, and beyond. He had been influenced by his Quaker upbringing and by Josiah Warren, “the American anarchist,” but especially by the experience of pioneer life, which confirmed existentially the doctrine of self-sovereignty proclaimed by Warren.

Voegelin made a useful distinction between Warren’s “individualism” and that of J. S. Mill. Mill’s defense of individual liberty grew from the British version of the natural rights tradition that conceived the indi­vidual as being equal to others as a result of membership in humanity. Such beings had a right to the development of all their faculties and were to be protected, as a right, from encroachment by the state, which was the organized form of the collectivity, namely society. Such individuals were essentially isolated, which was why Mill’s scheme of proportional representation seemed a sufficient mechanism to ensure they received a fair share of influence upon government.

In contrast, Warren did not see the individual as an atom of humanity in need of protection from the state. “He identifies the individual as a member of a concrete commu­nity,” and so related to others despite any personal differences by means of service and labor (and division of labor). Warren’s “idea of the individual is derived from the model of the American pioneer” and from life on the frontier, which combined individual labor and community cooperation. “Commons’ origins lie in the same social surroundings as Warren’s,” so it was no surprise that in Warren’s writing Commons initially found what he was looking for. Or rather, “the experience of the pioneer community” was the basis for all “his practical and theoretical work.”

Contrasted with Giddings, Santayana, and Dewey

In Commons’ work the pioneer experience was accepted directly, im­mediately, or as a matter of course, whereas in Voegelin’s East Coast sources of the intellectual formations he studied or studied with, “it was made the subject matter of separate observation.” Thus Franklin Henry Giddings, whom he met at Columbia, began with the “elementary subjective fact” that Giddings called “consciousness of kind.”5 This referred to a sense of mem­bership in a group that may be at odds with one’s individual interest–for example, in maintaining the solidarity of a strike over the individual eco­nomic benefits of strikebreaking.

Santayana, in contrast, was skeptical as to whether the pioneer experience could be generalized to larger, industrial groups. Citizens, he once famously said, would have to be “plebeian in posi­tion, patrician in spirit,” a society inspired by strong patriotism akin to that of Sparta, which he thought would soon turn into fanaticism.

Dewey, perhaps reflecting the native-born American experience directly, agreed with Giddings. He used the term likemindedness, not conscious­ness of kind. Voegelin was aware of the biblical origins of Dewey’s term (CW l:219n23) and recalled it many years later as highly significant (CW 34:57-58; 8:233-34).

In the context of Voegelin’s initial understanding of America, “likemindedness” referred to “the obligating power behind all specifics of social action” Also, as Giddings had argued, Dewey proposed a progressive widening of likemindedness to sustain larger or wider levels of a democratic community by means of commerce and division of labor.

Likewise “in Commons’ concrete investigations and philosophical formu­lations, the pioneer society is always the first premise, and it is only on this basis that the special problems he addresses have meaning.” But unlike Warren, for example, he did not postulate utopian solutions and social ex­periments. In Commons’ work “one can see a linear increase in a sense of reality” compared to his predecessors.

Democracy Requires Equality of Opportunity

For example, Commons added to the doctrine that “all men are cre­ated equal” the provision that all must be in a position to make use of their opportunities for there to be genuine democratic government. The great exception to equality of opportunity was provided by the condition of African Americans. In this context Commons remarked that the “great­est injury” inflicted on the United States was the stimulation given to the spirit of suppression which, in the end, brought anarchy to Europe. For we are by history a nation of frontiers­men and rough riders. We make concessions only to our equals.

If to our population is added Negroes, we do not fraternize as do the French, but we keep them in the place which we think fit for them, and lynch law re­peals the Fourteenth Amendment. If we add successively Irish, Chinese, Slavs, Italians, we use the later races as “hunkies” to displace the children of the earlier races who have begun to aspire, and, if they too demand an equal voice in their treatment, then, forgetting how we used them, we denounce them as foreigners, aliens, un-American, led on by anarchists and revolutionists, and reach for our guns.6

Voegelin commented that Commons’ words “describe a historical situa­tion as inevitable, and they do so without sentimentality” There was no “metaphysical doctrine of superiority” (based on “race,” for example) in­troduced in order to justify the position of African Americans but only a “consciousness of responsibility.” Commons was likewise a realist in his view of immigration and the need to order it in such a way that “the new arrivals are given enough time to acquire experience and enjoy education in self-government.”

Samuel Gompers and the A.F. of  L.

The most important event in Commons’s life was the process by which industrial workers were integrated into the democratic community of equals. The chief problem was caused by the increased immigration after the Civil War and the end of the creation of pioneer communities that at­tended the closing of the frontier.

The individual who represented or sym­bolized the effort to bring equality to the industrial laborers was Samuel Gompers. Gompers’s leadership was as realistic as Commons’ research. His goal was to ensure the participation of workers in American democ­racy; his distrust of intellectuals who tended to get carried away with their own grandiose ideas was, in Voegelin’s view, what preserved the union movement from collapse. He sought “higher wages, shorter hours, more liberty,” all of which were goals of mainstream America.

Gompers’s biography, Voegelin said, was not so much a “source book” as the story of how a European worker became an American worker. More­over, the politics of the American Federation of Labor (A. F. of L.) was not “behind the times” in any sense compared to the intellectually driven class politics of Europe. Rather, the rejection by Gompers of socialist and com­munist theories and his refusal to politicize the labor movement simply reflected the reality that the American trade unions developed their own self-understanding indigenously, from the experiences of the antecedent pioneer communities, as well as from their own understanding of “like­mindedness.”

The A. F. of L. had no need to deal with the alien notions of intellectuals such as Karl Marx–and Gompers was suspicious of such peo­ple precisely because they were not laborers. As Voegelin put it, Gompers was “more radical and more class-conscious than Marx” and so excluded bourgeois intellectuals and other social reformers from union leadership.

Accordingly, the “antitheoretical tactic of bargaining over concrete prob­lems of the worker’s situation” reflected a view “that the rational-active sphere of thought encompasses merely a small and superficial sector of the total life, that it is merely an intellectual annex to life, not a world with its own origins.”

Commons’ Concrete Approach a Revelation

Commons’ thinking took a similar form. For example, “he finds it incredible that thinkers develop certain views on metaphysical problems or arrive at conclusions in the theory of law without studying the devel­opment of common law and American labor law.” Compared to his own study of the law at the feet of Hans Kelsen, Commons’s approach, which was based upon thirty years of studies of American legal and economic history, was indeed a major revelation to Voegelin.

Always Commons’ concern was commonsensical and practical: developments in industry had destroyed the pioneer community. This change gave rise to another practical problem: how to create a new democratic community, which meant integrating recent immigrants while maintaining the structure of American society as one of equals?

In practice this insulated Commons and American labor leaders from the seductive appeal of Hegel and Marx, but also from Adam Smith. There was no preestablished harmony or un­seen hand either in the present or in the future. There were just day-to-day conflicts that must be resolved “without historical pathos” and without any ultimate ideals coming into play. “It is not an exciting drama in which masses wrestle each other. It has no utopian goal of ultimately reconcil­ing all contradictions. Murkily it rolls along, without an end in sight.”

The form of the American mind, Voegelin emphasized here, was that it entailed the rejection of ultimate goals as abstractions. Commons was concerned with “the concrete”–a term that Voegelin adopted for his own analyses for the rest of his life.

A Relentlessly Pragmatic Realist

The difference between Commons on the one side and Giddings and Dewey on the other were, Voegelin said, metaphysical. For the latter two, the end of the frontier democratic community meant that the “democratic ideal” had receded, leaving a historical divide between “current concrete individual actions” and the ideal.

For Commons “there is a metaphysical tension” that “cannot be resolved by any historical objective in concrete actions at any time.” Commons’ historical research and his speculative reflections originated in that tension. It could only be endured, along with the desire “to help those who, through a historical accident, are externally handicapped in the unending chain of overcoming it.”

Commons’ atti­tude, therefore, was relentlessly pragmatic and practical and his theoretical and historical research explained why this was also the height of realism. Commons’ concern for the practical was anti-intellectual only to the extent that intellectuals were alien to social life. “The genuine democratic spirit,’ to which Commons refers occasionally, knows only one class of equals, who must get along with each other.”

Bureaucracy Subverts Equality

From this attitude followed his skepticism regarding authority, particularly bureaucratic authority, which subverted the “genuine democratic spirit.” When conflicts arose, as inevitably they did, the expectation that they would be settled by com­promise rather than by removing the opposition by force was based on Commons’ notion that life was essentially self-healing because of “the ne­cessity of getting along as well as one can.”

Commons’ understanding was the final consequence of the history of the development of the American mind. “The equality of the pioneer community was materially conditioned by a shared predicament; such a community represented a fighting unit in hostile territory.” Today it was an “intellectual value and a requisite for its own sake” that “in Commons’ writings . . . has turned into a philosophy of life, thus obtaining its meta­physical significance.”

In this respect it differed from the European egali­tarianism of Simmel or Bergson: Commons developed his ideas “without any significant prior philosophical education.” As a result, his “typically American approach to problems” began not with a system but “in its tan­gibly experienced everyday events.” The results were comparable to those of the Europeans, but the genesis was far different.

The same philosophy of life that presents itself in Europe as the final product of individual philosophical culture, seen by selected people and aimed at an intellectual elite, is discovered in America by an exceedingly modest and amiable man who, coming from a farmers’ and workers’ environment, spent decades working through his historical and politi­cal experiences.

His perspective was so astute that, almost without being aware of what he was doing, he needed only to say what he saw in order to give the highest philosophical expression to the significance of the so­ciety in which and for which he lived. His technical flaws are part of his being: in a society of equals, the perfection of the apparatus–to which every European philosopher worthy of the name aspires–is considered improper and merely an attempt to be better than one’s neighbor.

Voegelin closed his analysis of John R. Commons by reproducing a quote from Commons’ essay “Utilitarian Idealism,” where “idealism” referred more or less to European philosophy in general. Commons said that there was as much idealism present in the breeding of a fine ear of corn or an instrument designed to measure the ratio of casein or butterfat in milk as there was in a Venus de Milo. “Of course,” he said, “a cow is just a cow, and can never become a Winged Victory. But within her field of human endea­vour she is capable of approaching an ideal. And, more than that, she is an ideal that every farmer and farmer’s boy–the despised slaves and helots of Greece–can aspire to” (CW 1:282). For Voegelin, Commons’ “philosophy of the concrete life” most fully expressed the lasting effectiveness of the open self in all areas of American social, economic, political, and cultural life.

If we recall Voegelin’s original methodological concern, that the Geistes-wissenschaften be an empirical philosophy of reality based on experience, it would seem that in the life and work of Commons, in his intellectual formation, Voegelin found a splendid example that combined the personal and the collective or community.That is, Voegelin saw in Commons’ experience of life the harmonious combination of the personal and the cultural, social, and political. No wonder his admiration for him was so apparent, particularly when it is recalled that the German philosophy and jurisprudence in which he had been schooled seemed, in fact, to have no implications for economic, social, political, or cultural life–for the public sphere generally–despite airy pretensions to the contrary.

Alcohol and the Constitution

Between 1926 and 1930, Voegelin published several additional papers and book reviews on various aspects of the United States. Some of them reiterated points made in the America book; others made explicit compar­isons between similar phenomena in Europe and the United States. Some, indeed, were highly technical legal and economic analyses.

The first dealt with the constitutionality of the 18th Amendment, ratified on January 16, 1919, prohibiting one year later “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” (CW 7:149-74). Voegelin’s report dealt with the process of judicial review though he was quite cogni­zant of the fact that “even the serious judicial investigations” are “in some cases diminished by emotional indignation” (CW 7:150).

The constitutional problem with the 18th Amendment resided in allegations by litigants that it was improperly introduced and that it was direct or popular legislation, even though legislative power was reserved exclusively to the institution of Congress. Moreover, by directly interven­ing in the police power of the states, it eroded federalism by undermin­ing state sovereignty. “As a result, the essential limits of the separation of powers in the American system would undergo a shift, and these limits are the very ones for whose protection the adoption of the first ten amend­ments has been made the condition of the entry of the states into the Union” (CW 7:158).

The U. S. Supreme Court, however, simply declared the 18th Amendment constitutional and provided no argument as to why. And if the 18th contradicted, for example, property rights as found in the 5th, the former prevailed on “political” grounds. One mat­ter was very clear: Voegelin was entirely comfortable discussing the often recondite arguments put forward by politicians and litigants regarding the constitutionality of the prohibition amendment and the legislation drawn up to enforce it, chiefly the Volstead Act.

Social Mobility: A Key to American Stability

In “Economic and Class Conflict in America (1926-7)” (CW 7:175-81), he elaborated a point discussed above in connection with Samuel Gompers. Eu­ropean socialists had found American workers to be backward as compared to those in Europe; European entrepreneurs found the anti­revolutionary nonclass conflict in America to be ideal, and they praised the “solidarity of interests between entrepreneurs and workers.” What was, in fact, different about America “is the existence of economic conflict with­out class conflict.”

In Europe, class was both an economic condition of insecurity and a part of a tradition where nonindustrial workers had more assured places in the existing order than they did in America. In contrast, in America there may be economic insecurity and bloody industrial strikes, but they were confined chiefly to unorganized and usually “foreign”–that is, unassimilated–workers. Among English-speaking workers there was no “class” difference, in contrast to the “foreign” workers.

The educated and assimilated workers in Gompers’s A. F. of L. certainly engaged in economic struggles with entrepreneurs, but it was not class-based and not socialist in its inspiration. Instead, the norm was “peaceful negotiation.” “The prerequisite for this kind of relationship is mutual trust and the indubitable feeling of equal entitlement.” The purpose of such negotiations was to obtain wages sufficient to permit savings and to pro­vide for retirement.

Moreover social mobility made class categories next to meaningless because they need not refer, as in Europe, to more or less static occupational demarcations. In the language of On the Form of the American Mind, the open self and the heritage proceeding from New Eng­land puritanism to the transformation of the frontier in twentieth-century industrial society consistently sustained social mobility practically as a corollary of immigration.

The “Wisconsin Idea”

In “La Follette and the Wisconsin Idea” (1927) (CW 7:192-205), Voegelin explained that the “Wisconsin idea” was both a historical development and the crystallization or endpoint of it. It began in 1908 and was constituted by a social movement around the slogan “Restoration of the Government to the People.” It was not called the “Wisconsin idea” because populist mea­sures were enacted only in that state, but because Robert La Follette was Gover­nor of Wisconsin when the most extensive measures were enacted. But it was part of a broad American movement whose beginnings antedated the American Revolution.

Here Voegelin recapitulated some of the themes and intellectual forma­tions of the America book. First and most fundamental was the “experience of the democracy of equals that had its origin in the frontier situation.” The social order it implied was less “a stratified society of free personalities,” than “a mass of equal individuals.” This was a social reality in the early pe­riods of the settlement of America but, as we noted above, it changed with the closing of the frontier and the growth of industrialization and became overlaid with economic and party stratification that eclipsed or excluded frontier equality.

At the same time, those who were latecomers, and those who were forc­ibly brought from Africa, were not integrated into the ideal of American life but rather existed side by side with the society of equals, only without rights or with only diminished rights (see CW 1:225-26). Even so, it has been in the American West, where the memory of the frontier was still strong, that the concern for equality against the big shots, the bosses, and the trusts was most strongly felt. A sense of injustice, of inequality for both citizens and sections or regions of the county had been exacerbated by the railway, and by the influence of the railways in politics.

Urban Growth Ends Populism

The “Wisconsin idea,” or populism, was a response to this new circumstance and clothed itself in the garb of reform, anticorruption, returning government to the people, and so on. “The causes lie in the sectional clashes of interests that were superimposed upon the older stratum of the ‘people’ experience.” Hence La Follette’s failure in 1924 when he ran for the presidency showed the limits of his regional as well as his experiential appeal. This limitation was linked to a second change: The end of the frontier experience was fol­lowed quickly enough by urbanization. Historically, prior to 1910, cities played little political role; after that period, one found “the flowering of an urban culture and intelligentsia with ideals different from those of the puritanically hidebound hinterland.” Sophisticated urbanites were not easily tempted by populism then and are not so tempted now.

The Slaughter-House Cases

Voegelin wrote three relatively short articles for the Archiv für angewandte Soziologie, all of which dealt with aspects of the American understanding of social justice, particularly as concerns the notion of lib­erty and property. (CW 8:53-88) His focus was on a number of Supreme Court decisions and the theoretical context within which they were decid­ed, namely the political theory of Locke.

In Race and State (1933), Voegelin described property as a pre-legal, pre-economic, and “existential” reality grounded in human nature. (CW 2:3-4)  As a consequence, the judicial and economic understanding of property needed to be supplemented by po­litical theory. That is, neither legal nor economic science was adequate by itself to ac­count for the complex and composite phenomena–nor is the contemporary “law-and-economics” approach.

Both, Voegelin said, are “imperfect.” The economic understanding of a property transaction exam­ined only the market but ignored the state and the possibility of coercion necessary to ensure compliance. The legal understanding ignored market realities that have a coercive effect on those undertaking the exchange. (CW 8:53-54)

Voegelin illustrated his point with an exegesis of a nineteenth-century Supreme Court decision, In Re Slaughter-House Cases.7 The facts are as follows: Several New Orleans butchers were put out of business when the state of Louisiana established a slaughterhouse monopoly in the city. They brought suit against the state because its legislation had rendered the slaughtering capacity of the butchers worthless, and they were compelled to pay the monopoly to do a job they were perfectly capable of accomplish­ing by themselves.

The Supreme Court ruled that the monopoly neither threatened their property, in the sense of their knives and equipment or their butcher shops, nor did it threaten their ability to enter into contracts. Accordingly a majority held that the monopoly did not violate the Thir­teenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to liberty and property.

The Court’s Obsolete View of Property

The non- or pre-judicial context for this ruling, Voegelin said, was pro­vided by Locke’s “dogmatic” teaching on natural right. Property, by this interpretation, consisted simply of the material and labor of the solitary individual. Locke’s famous remark, “in the beginning all the world was America” was approximated by the frontier experience.8

In Voegelin’s words, “the economic form of the early American settler was in fact the family farm,” and it was of limited size and productivity owing to the limi­tations imposed by the frontier economy. “It was not until the course of the nineteenth century that the last remnants of this natural condition in which property was originally created died out.” (CW 8:57) As a conse­quence, Locke could not account for a modern, complex, and highly strati­fied economy. (CW 8:63-65)

The majority decision reflected this obsolete understanding of prop­erty. The minority, however, was more in tune with the realities of the situation of individuals in complex industrial societies where a change in the economy, as permitted by the Louisiana monopoly legislation, could have catastrophic consequences for individual citizens such as the New Orleans butchers. “The precondition of the minority opinion was thus a new concept of property,” namely that property was not so much a con­crete thing, such as a butcher knife, but “the individual’s entire sphere of action, a sphere ensuring him of a certain quality of life in a particular social situation.” (CW 8:65)

By this understanding, the butchers were in­jured “even though they kept their equipment.” (CW 8:67) . Eventually, the constitutional position of the minority in the slaughterhouse cases became accepted by way of the “due process” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, even though that amendment was initially intended to deal with arbitrary state action and slavery.

The Adequate Protection of Corporeal Existence

The contrast between the majority and the minority position in the slaughterhouse cases (and the later development of the political princi­ples involved in the “due process” interpretations) also raised for Voegelin questions of philosophical anthropology.

There were two aspects to this problem. The first is that Locke’s notion of property was so indeterminate that it received its actual content only from historical practice, such as the family farm on the frontier. But, as was clear from the slaughterhouse cas­es, when those historical circumstances changed, the principles of social justice could easily be violated.

More basic than Locke’s reliance on historical circumstances, however, was the argument that “man must ‘labor,’” which meant that human be­ings must allow their bodies to bind with natural objects in order to produce the new unities that serve to preserve life and procure food and shelter. Thus, the ultimate causes of the origin of property are to be found in human corporeality: in the threat of death against which the human has no defense besides his work, his influence on nature. At the base of Locke’s theory of property lies recognition of the fact that the human is an existential center [Lebenszentrum] endangered by death. From this simple recognition proceeds the demand to preserve life. (CW 8:55)

The focus on property, for Locke, was thus a focus on things associated with, or pertaining to, bodies, including the fear of death. For Lockeans, the interpretative move of the Supreme Court by way of the due process argument to a more adequate understanding of property has always been seen as illegitimate. For Voegelin, however, it reflected a more compre­hensive understanding of the person or, so to speak, a more adequate philosophical anthropology than can be found in Locke.

In his America book, Voegelin quoted Giddings on “consciousness of kind” and Dewey on “likemindedness” to indicate the more comprehensive understanding of human being. (CW 1:217-19) So far as the Supreme Court is concerned, however, it does not press toward full clarity of thought on the matter. It contents itself instead with making decisions from case to case, and because the general principles themselves do not admit of any clear conclusions, the court’s attitude changes with its composition and with the nature of the particular case. (CW 8:87) The way the court has gone about its business does not lend itself to clear and principled analysis in terms of “normative logic” or Normlogik, to use Kelsen’s term. It does, however, provide occasions for education and for the exercise of statesmanship, as Voegelin indicated in On the Form of the American Mind. (CW 1:168-69, 34:58-60)

Ressentiment in European Studies of America

There is one other category of publication from this period that de­serves notice.

Having returned from America and published a book on his experiences and his research there, Voegelin was pressed into service as a book reviewer, which also, no doubt, augmented his return to a meager European salary. Between 1928 and 1930 he published half a dozen or so reviews of American books or of books by Europeans on America. By and large the latter “penetrate to principled insights only with difficulty; per­haps they do not even want to penetrate to them, where such insights are not very pleasant for Europeans.” (CW 13:24) Many, he said, have in common a certain attitude toward American problems. None wants to explore phenomena of American history, economy, politics, or the American mind for their own sake, but only for the significance these matters may have for Europe.

In all these writings, America per se is in fact wholly unimportant. They all seek either to ascertain only Europe’s part in American history, or to extract theories from it. All the books were written in the shadow of an upheaval that has shifted the center of grav­ity of the world economy to the West, and in almost all one can sense a more or less veiled ressentiment. Even the most outstanding among them in terms of cultural history [Geistesgeschichte] . . . still do not seek to explore a strange world with unreserved affection. Nor do they concern themselves with the meaning of this strange phenomenon for its own sake, and a style of l’Amérique pour l’Amérique, which would be the first prerequisite for first-class cultural history, is missing. (CW 13:19-20) In addition, many of these works were based on secondary sources, not archival studies or firsthand experience.

Perennial Limitations in American Social Sciences

Voegelin was equally critical of a number of texts on social science writ­ten by Americans. Some were little more than propaganda tracts less con­cerned with scientific objectives than providing, for example, a summary of “Catholic educational work on social questions” including evolution and birth control. “If we also mention that the existence of God is convinc­ingly proved, there remains nothing more to say.” (CW 13:25)

In a review of a book on the methods and objectives of research in the social sciences, Voegelin made several still pertinent observations. (CW 13:26-28) First, “everyone assumes that ‘science’ means adopting the particular aspiration of a natural science that discovers laws.” But second, since such a science would have little to say about social, political, cultural, or historical reality, the implications have generally been ignored, and the scholars proceeded about their business anyway.

Third, most social sci­ence research has been justified because it dealt with practical matters so that, fourth, it has become an activity that is both widely subsidized and conceived essentially as a collective enterprise. Voegelin found this last as­pect most interesting because it led to a social hierarchy with the following layers:

(1) Clerical assistants–scientific assistants, stenographers, graphic art­ists, secretaries, etc.

(2) Routine or average men–persons who have had the benefit of a scientific education and are also employed as “teachers” at universities, but who cannot properly be called scholars because, to put it crudely, nothing scholarly ever occurs to them. These people are suited to undertake follow-up work where the major problems have been solved.

(3) Investigators–researchers, scholars of rank who, in addition to the conventional knowledge of their specialty, have a capacity for the creative and insightful development of their science. (CW 13:27-28)

This hierarchy was somewhat dysfunctional because, if the “advancement of science” were entrusted to the “routine men,” unfortunately “they can produce nothing significant.”

On the other hand if an “investigator,” a genuine scholar, were commissioned as the director of a collaborative en­terprise “he himself runs the danger of both losing contact with research materials and losing the leisure necessary for his own work. Thus he ends up wasting his talent.” (CW 13:28) Some aspects of academic life in North America have remained unchanged since Voegelin observed them.

Was Voegelin’s Two-Year Sojurn Decisive?

Let us draw a few conclusions regarding Voegelin’s initial visit to the United States.

In his Autobiographical Reflections, Voegelin said that the experience of America occasioned the “great break” with his European intellectual formation because it introduced him to a new world that was simply beyond the horizon of European scholarly concern. There is no reason to doubt the importance that his American experience had; in ret­rospect it could hardly have looked otherwise.

It is clear from this brief account that Voegelin stressed the differences between American and European experiences and between the American and European mind, whether the latter be French or German. Moreover, looking ahead to his escape from Vienna to America after the Anschluss, the gratitude of an immigrant and then of a new citizen also shaped his recollection of his first time in the United States. His experience was not, however, a kind of conversion so that, hence­forth and forever, he would put the cares and tribulations of Europe behind him. Even prior to his voyage of discovery, as was indicated in Chapter 1, Voegelin was fully aware of the importance of the “other” and of other peoples’ ways of conducting scholarship.

The concept of “German science” meant that science, however understood, was greater than its German va­riety. His articles published prior to his first removal to America showed the development of a critical attitude toward a neo-Kantian understanding of the law and of sociology. It continued to develop after his return, as we discuss in the following chapter.

His American experience confirmed his dissatisfaction with received methods; his analysis of the American materi­als provided an example, in practice, of what an alternative might be. It is also clear, if for no reason other than the sheer density of his prose, that Voegelin was still in the midst of a reformulation of the principles of his science of sociohistorical reality.

The Search for a More Empirical Method

It is always easier to say what is wrong with a received approach than it is to construct something better. Moreover it was clear to Voegelin even before he went to America that the pretense of neo-Kantian social science, that the scientist was “outside” social reality, was a fundamental error. Hence his interest in Husserl and his own, admittedly somewhat opaque, efforts at reformulation of a more adequate method, which is to say, a method adequate to the sociohistorical reality he studied.

Instead of an a priori imposition of categories by the positivist, neo-Kantian ego of the social scientist, Voegelin discovered the importance of the self-articulation or self-interpretation of linguistic phenomena as the elements that consti­tute the historically meaningful unity of any given political society. So far as Staatslehre was concerned, as we discuss in the following chapter, the alternatives turned out to be either the analysis of an a priori formal legal structure or the description of the internal articulation of the political community.

However deep his admiration of the intellectual power of neo-Kantian Staatslehre, Voegelin came to the conclusion that it was not “empirical.” The alternative to the postulate of a Kantian (or neo- Kantian) transcendental ego that postulated both values and concepts was that of a situated scientist who mediated the empirical materials, including the grand methodological issues, as they arose in the process of history.

Granted that his American experience instructed him in the importance of participation–hence the significance of Commons–it was still necessary to give an account of the modes of participation with the same rigor that the neo-Kantians accounted for the nonparticipation of the transcendental ego. [Later] Voegelin deepened his criticism of the neo-Kantian “science of the law” and continued to move, somewhat haltingly, toward a more adequate sci­ence of sociohistorical reality.


1.  Robert Hutchins, “Address of Dedication.”

2.  For details on the memorial, see Martin Bulmer and Joan Bulmer, “Philanthropy and Social Science in the 1920s: Beardsley Ruml and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, 1922-29,” 347-407; Martin Bulmer, “Support for Sociology in the 1920s: The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and the Beginnings of Modern, Large-Scale, Sociological Research in the University,” 185-92; and Christian Fleck, “Die gescheiterte Gründung eines Zentrums für sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung in den 30er-Jahren in Wien.” Details of Voegelin’s fellowship are available at the Rockefeller Archive Center, LS/RM/III/52/548.

3. For a discussion of these problems in light of Voegelin’s later work, see Aníbal A. Bueno, “Consciousness, Time, and Transcendence in Eric Voegelin’s Philosophy,” 91-109.

4. Horace M. Kallen, Culture and Democracy in the United States. Quoted in CW 1:126.

5. CW 1:216-17. Voegelin reversed Giddings’s given names.

6. John R. Commons, Races and Immigrants in America, xviii; quoted in CW 1:226.

7. 83 U.S. 36 (1872).

8. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ch. 5:49, p. 319.


This excerpt is from Beginning of the Quest: Law and Politics in the Early Works of Eric Voegelin (University of Missouri Press, 2009); also see “Beginning the Quest.”

Barry Cooper

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Barry Cooper is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. He is the author, editor, or translator of more than thirty books and has published over one hundred and fifty papers and book chapters. He writes a regular column in the Calgary Herald.