Voegelin's Place in Modern Philosophy

Article excerpt

POLITICAL THEORISTS, like literary and social theorists, occupy a kind of twilight zone in relation to philosophy. Their disciplines are at once empirical and philosophical, an indeterminate status compared to the strictly autonomous unfolding of philosophy. Yet it is by virtue of this difference of perspective that they may have something to contribute to philosophy. The problem, however, is that the contribution remains largely invisible to the philosophical core. As practitioners of these twilight sciences we may be acutely aware of their potential application to philosophy itself, but it is difficult for philosophers to grasp the implications for their discipline in the work of Tocqueville, Weber, or Derrida. The same is surely the case with Eric Voegelin. His work may indeed be philosophical but it is not philosophy and, therefore, does not necessitate a philosopher's taking notice. For philosophers this is a reassuring state of affairs. Not having to take account of every thinker who has philosophical thoughts allows them to concentrate their efforts on the canon of bona fide members. Professional narrowness is a welcome time-saver, although that is not our principal concern here. Our focus is less on the consequences for philosophy of neglecting its neighboring disciplines than it is on the reverse. The consequences seem larger if social, literary, or political theory fails to take philosophy as fully into account as is possible. That is the justification for the present reflection on Voegelin's relationship to modern philosophy.

Professional Context

This relationship goes far deeper than mere professional association, although that is a context that is not insignificant. The fact that Voegelin's work was not exposed to regular philosophical critique is a factor that must not be overlooked. It meant that he did not have to pass muster before the most intellectually rigorous scrutiny. The chances of professional historians, the proprietary practitioners of the empirical side, paying attention were even less. As a consequence Voegelin's work was left to fend for itself among the ignoranti of political science. It was among the latter that he appeared as a figure of philosophical weight, an estimate that reaches no higher than its source. Even political theorists, Voegelin's own sub-field within the discipline, are not well equipped to furnish philosophical critique.

Having only recently stepped outside of the boundaries of constitutional theory, political theory has sought to live off an acquaintance with only one strand of the larger philosophical tradition. A focus on the strictly political texts has been deemed to be sufficient. Voegelin at any rate cannot be accused of that kind of parochialism. His omnivorous interests ranged far and wide and certainly included the centrally philosophical texts, not just their political applications. The problem was that he rarely encountered professional situations in which his broader philosophical interpretations were subjected to challenge. As a consequence his approach to the history of philosophy became peculiarly settled. Having once mapped out a line of interpretation there was little stimulus to reconsider it, especially as it was readily taken as dispositive by readers who had even less philosophical training. This is no doubt a hazard of the disciplinary setting within which Voegelin worked. It is a situation that was no different for such mentors as Max Weber. Both were clearly men with a good grasp of the history of philosophy but that was never enough to enable them to make philosophical progress on the problems to which they addressed themselves.

In the case of Voegelin the situation is even more remarkable. Despite the fact that he locates himself outside of the discipline of philosophy, he nevertheless persists in working his way toward the resolution of philosophical problems. Of course he still interacts with philosophical texts, but it is not an interaction that is connected with any contemporary conversation. …