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On Debate and Existence: Excerpts from Voegelin
The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 12 ^ | 1990 | Erice Voegelin

Posted on 12/08/2002 12:25:26 PM PST by betty boop

In our capacity as political scientists, historians, or philosophers we all have had occasion at one time or another to engage in debate with ideologists – whether communists or intellectuals of a persuasion closer to home. And we have all discovered on such occasions that no agreement, or even an honest disagreement, could be reached, because the exchange of argument was disturbed by a profound difference of attitude with regard to all fundamental questions of human existence – with regard to the nature of man, to his place in the world, to his place in society and history, to his relation to God. Rational argument could not prevail because the partner to the discussion did not accept as binding for himself the matrix of reality in which all specific questions concerning our existence as human beings are ultimately rooted; he has overlaid the reality of existence with another mode of existence that Robert Musil has called the Second Reality. The argument could not achieve results, it had to falter and peter out, as it became increasingly clear that not argument was pitched against argument, but that behind the appearance of a rational debate their lurked the difference of two modes of existence, of existence in truth and existence in untruth. The universe of rational discourse collapses, we may say, when the common ground of existence in reality has disappeared.

Corollary: The difficulties of debate concern the fundamentals of existence. Debate with ideologists is quite possible in the areas of the natural sciences and of logic. The possibility of debate in these areas, which are peripheral to the sphere of the person, however, must not be taken as presaging the possibility in the future that areas central to the person…will also move into the zone of debate…. While such a possibility should not be flatly denied, it also should be realized that there is no empirical evidence on which such an expectation could be based….

The Second Realities which cause the breakdown of rational discourse are a comparatively recent phenomenon. They have grown during the modern centuries, roughly since 1500, until they have reached, in our own time, the proportions of a social and political force which in more gloomy moments may look strong enough to extinguish our civilization – unless, your course, you are an ideologist yourself and identify civilization with the victory of Second Reality. In order to distinguish the nature of the new growth, as well as to understand its consequences, we must go a little further back in time, to a period in which the universe of rational discourse was still intact because the first reality of existence was yet unquestioned. Only if we know, for the purpose of comparison, what the conditions of rational discourse are, shall we find our bearings in the contemporary clash with Second Realities. The best point of departure for the comparative analysis of the problem will be St. Thomas’ Summa contra Gentiles. The work was written as an exposition and defense of the truth of Christianity against the pagans, in particular against the Mohammedans. It was written in a period of intellectual turmoil through the contacts with Islam and Aristotelian philosophy, comparable in many respects to our own, with the important difference that a rational debate with the opponent was still possible or – we should say more cautiously – seemed still possible to Aquinas….

Truth about the constitution of being, of which human existence is a part, is not achieved in an intellectual vacuum, but in the permanent struggle with preanalytical notions of existence, as well as with erroneous analytical conceptions. The situation of debate thus is understood as an essential dimension of the existence that we recognize as ours; to one part, the quest for truth is the perpetual task if disengaging it from error, of refining its expression in contest with the inexhaustible ingenuity of error. Philosophy, as a consequence, is not a solitary but a social enterprise….

Aquinas, following Aristotle, considers it the task of the philosopher to consider the highest causes of all being…. There is talk about a first mover of the universe – who must be assumed to be an intellect – from whom emanates somehow an order of being that is at the same time an order of truth. Why should we be concerned with a prime mover and his properties? – you will ask. And does the matter really improve when Aquinas identifies the prime mover as a demonstration of the existence of God? At the risk of arousing the indignation of convinced Aristotelians and Thomists I must say that I consider such questions quite pertinent. The questions must be raised, for we do no longer live, as did Aristotle and Aquinas, at the center of a cosmos…. We can no longer express the truth of existence in the language of men who believed in such a cosmos, moved with all its content by a prime mover, with a chain of aitia, of causes, extending from existent to existent down to the most lowly ones. The symbolism of the closed cosmos, which informs the fundamental concepts of classic and scholastic metaphysics, has been superseded by the universe of modern physics and astronomy.

Nevertheless, if we admit all this, does it follow that Aristotelian and Thomist metaphysics must be thrown on the scrap heap of symbolisms that once had their moment of truth but now have become useless?

You will have anticipated that the answer will be negative. To be sure, a large part of the symbolism has become obsolete, but there is a solid core of truth in it that can be, and must be, salvaged by means of some surgery….

[I]f we remove…everything that smacks of cosmological symbolism, there remains as a piece de resistance the argument that a universe which contains intelligent beings cannot originate with a prima causa [first cause, prime mover] that is less than intelligent]….

The second operation must extend to the prime mover itself. We must distinguish between the symbolic construction and the reality to which it refers; and we must be aware of the curious relations between the firmness of conviction that such a reality exists and the credibility of the construct. If the motivating experiences are known to the reader and shared by him, the construct will appear satisfactory and credible; if the experiences are not shared…the construct will become incredible…. Aristotle could indulge in his construction with assurance because the experiences which motivate the symbolism were taken for granted by everybody without close scrutiny; and Aquinas, in addition to living in the same uncritical safety of experience, could as a Christian theologian blend the truth of the prime mover into the truth of revelation. Today the validity of the symbol, and with its validity the reality to which it refers, is in doubt, because the experiences which motivated its creation for their adequate expression have slipped from the public consciousness….

The immediate experiences presupposed in Aristotelian metaphysics are not difficult to find in the classic sources…. [W]e find ourselves referred back to nothing more formidable than the experiences of finiteness and creatureliness in our existence, of being creatures of a day as the poets call man, of being born and bound to die, of dissatisfaction with a state experienced as imperfect, of apprehension of a perfection that is not of this world but is the privilege of the gods, of possible fulfillment in a state beyond this world…. [W]e can see philosophy emerging from the immediate experiences as an attempt to illuminate existence….

Human existence, it appears, is not opaque to itself, but illuminated by intellect (Aquinas) or nous (Aristotle). This intellect is as much part of human existence as it is the instrument of its interpretation. In the exegesis of existence intellect discovers itself in the structure of existence; ontologically speaking, human existence has noetic structure. The intellect discovers itself, furthermore, as a force transcending its own existence; by virtue of the intellect, existence not only is not opaque, but actually reaches out beyond itself in various directions in search of knowledge. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the sentence: “All men by nature desire to know.”…

With regard to things, the desire to know raises the questions of their origin, both with regard to their existence…and their essence [nature]. In both respects, Aristotle’s etiological demonstration arrives ultimately at the eternal, immaterial prima causa as the origin of existing things. If we now shift the accent back from the construct of doubtful validity to the experiences that motivated its construction, and search for a modern terminology of greater adequacy, we find it offering itself in the two great metaphysical questions formulated by Leibnitz in his Principes de la nature et de la grace, in the questions: (1) Why is there something, why not nothing? and (2) Why is something as it is, and not different? These two questions are, in my opinion, the core of true experience which motivates metaphysical constructions of the Aristotelian and Thomist type. However, since obviously no answer to these questions will be capable of verification or falsification, the philosopher will be less interested in this or that symbolism pretending to furnish the “true” answer than in the questions themselves. For the questions arise authentically when reason is applied to the experiential confrontation of man with existent things in this world; and it is the questions that the philosopher must keep alive in order to guard the truth of his own existence and well as that of his fellowmen against the construction of a Second Reality which disregards this fundamental structure of existence and pretends that the questions are illegitimate or illusionary….

Man discovers his existence as illuminated from with by Intellect or Nous. Intellect is the instrument of self-interpretation as much as it is part of the structure interpreted. It furthermore turned out that Intellect can transcend existence in various directions in search of knowledge…. By virtue of the noetic structure of his existence…man discovers himself as being not a world unto himself, but an existent among others; he experiences a field of existents of which he is a part. Moreover, in discovering himself in his limitation as part in a field of existents, he discovers himself as not being the maker of this field of existents or any part of it. Experience acquires its poignant meaning through the experience of not being self-generated but having its origin outside itself. Through illumination and transcendence, understood as properties of the Intellect…human existence thus finds itself in the situation from which the questions concerning origin and end of existence will arise….

But where is the origin and end of existence to be found? As a preliminary to the answer we must interpret the phenomenon of questioning itself; and for this purpose we must add to illumination and transcendence two further properties of the Intellect,…ideation and reasoning. Through illumination and transcendence existence has come into view as an existent thing in a field of existent things. Through the ideational property of the Intellect it is possible to generalize the discovered characteristics of existence into a nature of existence, to create an idea of existence, and to arrive at a proposition that origin and end of existence are to be found in one existent thing no more than in another. To be not the origin and end of itself is generically the nature of existent things. With this proposition we have reached the experiential basis for extensive demonstrations of both Aristotle and Aquinas that the infinite regress in search of an origin can have no valid result; the postulate of the peras, of the limit, is the symbolism by which both thinkers acknowledge the truth that origin and end of existence is not to be found by ranging indefinitely over the field of existent things. But if it is not to be found in the field of existent things, where is it to be found? To this question, Intellect, by virtue of its reasoning power, will answer that it is to be found in something beyond the field of existent things, in something to which the predicate of existence is applied by courtesy of analogy.…

To what purpose should an understanding of existence be expanded into the symbolic forms of metaphysics of the Aristotelian or Thomist type? What purpose could be served by the prime mover, converted by Aquinas into proofs for the existence of God, especially since they prove nothing that is not known before the proof is undertaken? I have tried to show that the knowledge of the something that “exists” beyond existence is inherent to the noetic structure of existence. And this result is confirmed by Aristotelian and Thomist demonstrations in which the postulate of the peras, whenever it is formulated, is richly studded with the suspicious adverbial expressions of evidently, obviously, clearly, which indicate that the premise of the argument is not derived from any demonstration, but that the prime mover which emerges from the demonstration has in fact been smuggled in with the unproven premise…. [T]here seems to suggest itself the possiblity that demonstrations of this type are a myth of the Logos offered by the Intellect as a gift of veneration to the constitution of being….

I have…used the expression truth of existence. We can now define it as the awareness of the fundamental structure of existence together with the willingness to accept it as the conditio humana [human condition]. Correspondingly we shall define untruth of existence as a revolt against the conditio humana and the attempt to overlay its reality by the construction of a Second Reality….

We have traced the problem of truth in reality as it appears in the strange-sounding formulations of Aquinas and Aristotle to its origin in the noetic structure of existence. We shall now resume the problem of debate as it presented itself to Aquinas.

The Summa contra Gentiles defends the truth of faith against the pagans. But how can one do that, if the prospective partner to the debate will not accept the argument from Scripture?… It is difficult to argue the truth of faith against the Gentiles, [Aquinas] admits, because they do not agree with us in accepting the authority of any Scripture by whiich they may be convinced of their error. And then he continues: “Thus, against the Jews we were able to argue by means of the Old Testament, while against heretics we are able to argue by means of the New Testament. But the Mohammedans and pagans accept neither the one nor the other. We must, therefore, have recourse to natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent.”…

The passage formulates succinctly the problem of debate in the thirteenth century and, together with it, by implication the profound difference which characterizes the situation of debate in our own time. For every debate concerning the truth of specific propositions presupposes a background of unquestioned topoi held in common by the partners to debate…. In a debate with the Jews the unquestioned topoi are furnished by the Old Testament; in a debate with heretics, by the New Testament. But where do we find them in a debate with the Gentiles? It seems to me no accident when in the answer to this question Aquinas shifts from the earlier language of Intellect to the language of Reason, without further explaining the shift…. If Aquinas believes that he can rely on the power of Reason to force the assent of the Gentiles, he tacitly assumes that the reasoning of the Gentiles will operate within the same noetic structure of existence as his own – a quite justified assumption in view of the fact that the Mohammedan thinkers were the very transmitters of Aristotle to the Westerners. For obviously – that is, obviously to us – the logical operations of Intellect qua Reason will arrive at widely different results, if Reason has cut loose from the condicio humana. The unquestioned topoi which Thomas has in common with the Gentiles of his time, to whom he addresses his argument, so unquestioned that he does not even formulate them but can just take them for granted, are the topoi of existence. He can justly assume that his opponents are just as much interested as he is in the why and how of existence, in the questions of the nature of man, of divine nature, of the orientation of man towards his end, of just order in the actions of man and society, and so forth.

These however are precisely the assumptions that we can no longer make in the situation of debate in our time. Going over again the list of Aquinas, we must say that we cannot argue by the Old Testament, nor by the New Testament, nor by Reason. Not even by Reason, because rational argument presupposes the community of true existence; we are forced one step further down to cope with the opponent (even the word debate is difficult to apply) on the level of existential truth. The speculations of classic and scholastic metaphysics are edifices of reason erected on the experiential basis of existence in truth; they are useless in a meeting with edifices of reason erected on a different experiential basis. Nevertheless, we cannot withdraw into these edifices and let the world go by, for in that case we would be remiss in our duty of “debate.” The “debate” has, therefore, to assume the forms of (1) a careful analysis of the noetic structure of existence and (2) an analysis of Second Realities with regard to both their constructs and the motivating structure of existence in untruth. “Debate” in this form is hardly a matter of reasoning (though it remains one of the Intellect), but rather of the analysis of existence preceding rational constructions; it is medical in character in that it has to diagnose the syndromes of untrue existence and by their noetic structure to initiate, if possible, a healing process.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: aquinas; aristotle; groundofexistence; ideation; intellect; leibnitz; logic; reason; secondreality; transcendence; voegelin
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Excerpted from Eric Voegelin’s “On Debate and Existence,” originally published in 1967. It has been reprinted in Volume 12 of Eric Voegelin’s Collected Works: Published Essays, 1966-1985. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. Available at, this volume IMHO is one of the two essential Voegelin works for the generalist reader (the other being the monumental five-volume Order and History).

(My bolds for emphasis throughout.)

BTW, Voegelin is very serious in his remark about the “medical character” of the diagnosis of persons enamored of Second Realities. Arguably taking his cues from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, et al., he writes (in The German University and German Society, 1966):

Indeed, one cannot realize a Second Reality; but the spiritual closure within it is a real phenomenon and has an actual affect on reality. In this regard the structure of the pneumopathological case [the case of spiritual disorder] doesn’t differ from that of the psychopathological [the case of mental disorder]: the delusions of a paranoid person also correspond to no reality, but the delusions are real and the actions of the paranoid enter into reality.”

1 posted on 12/08/2002 12:25:26 PM PST by betty boop
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To: Alamo-Girl; Aquinasfan; beckett; cornelis; Diamond; donh; Dumb_Ox; Phaedrus; PatrickHenry; ...
Just in case you might have an interest in this subject, FYI!!!
2 posted on 12/08/2002 12:27:00 PM PST by betty boop
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To: All
Beware of typos!!! (So very sorry....)
3 posted on 12/08/2002 12:34:18 PM PST by betty boop
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To: betty boop
nature of man, to his place in the world, to his place in society and history, to his relation to God

Thanks BB. Here V. lists the four possible relations that give rise to ethics.

4 posted on 12/08/2002 12:34:30 PM PST by cornelis
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To: betty boop
The "debate" has, therefore, to assume the forms of (1) a careful analysis of the noetic structure of existence and (2) an analysis of Second Realities with regard to both their constructs and the motivating structure of existence in untruth. "Debate" in this form is hardly a matter of reasoning ---- bla, bla, bla. -- I agree, - the author frames his argument for 'debate' in terms only he [and the pretensious fools who imagine they understand him], -- can deciper.

BTW, does ANYone know what the "noetic structure of existence" is?
5 posted on 12/08/2002 12:48:36 PM PST by tpaine
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To: betty boop
"That's the case with the Darwinists in the United States. The majority of the people are skeptical of the theory. And if the theory starts to waver a bit, it could all collapse, as Napoleon's army did in a rout."

"They have... lost---a big one."

"They're like Napoleon's army in Moscow. They have occupied a lot of territory, and they think they've won the war. And yet they are very exposed in a hostile climate with a population that's very much unfriendly."

6 posted on 12/08/2002 12:49:04 PM PST by f.Christian
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To: betty boop; Alamo-Girl
"Too many notes. Just cut a few, and it will be perfect."

Alamo-Girl's Origins seems a smoother fit to me.

AG, ping. Thanks always for "Origins".

7 posted on 12/08/2002 12:54:07 PM PST by onedoug
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To: betty boop
Indeed, I'm very interested in this! Thanks for the heads up!
8 posted on 12/08/2002 1:11:58 PM PST by Alamo-Girl
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To: betty boop
Good News For The Day

‘But I am among you as one who serves’ (Luke 22:27)

"The most satisfied people are those who have learned to serve; those who have found a cause bigger than themselves, to live for. Self-regard is necessary when we are born. A baby does not care one whit about its mother's comfort. It is an infant's business to be selfish. But if the child matures, as its parents hope, it will develop a capacity to appreciate the world from other people's point of view. Instead of having only subjective values, he will acquire objective ones. She will grow in character to the degree she is able to learn service. To the degree he can find life, by losing it."

"We all hope to grow up, but the... truth is---many never do."

"All of us, more or less, suffer from arrested development. The most severe forms of it, we call narcissim. Narcissistic individuals always think the world is doing them a bad turn. They are baffled, believing everyone is against them. They demand to be the center of attention. They feel constantly opposed, anxious, and defeated. They are unhappy."

"Lincoln was that way in his younger years. It is said that he had all the makings of a neurotic. In 1841 he wrote: "I am now the most miserable man that ever lived. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth." Lincoln's amzing development came later when he exchanged his long struggle with himself for a struggle on behalf of his fellowman. He was transformed into a great individual, who blessed the world around him. He learned to serve."

9 posted on 12/08/2002 1:12:20 PM PST by f.Christian
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To: onedoug
Thank you so very much for the kudos and encouragement! I'm very glad the Origins article was helpful to you!!!
10 posted on 12/08/2002 1:14:00 PM PST by Alamo-Girl
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To: betty boop
I see nothing in this dialogue that remotely smacks of Cicero. He would hve been appalled to have his name thrown in with Plato and Aristotle. He only (barely) admired Socates. Cicero did not ascribe to any of this. His writings do not reflect it.
11 posted on 12/08/2002 1:25:30 PM PST by widowithfoursons
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To: widowithfoursons
hve=have Socates=Socrates
12 posted on 12/08/2002 1:28:35 PM PST by widowithfoursons
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To: widowithfoursons
In the History of Political Philosophy Voegelin quickly dismisses Cicero. A good assessment of Cicero can be found in Frederick Wilhelmsen's Christianity and Political Philosophy. There you will also find a chapter devoted to Voegelin and his disposition to Platonism.
13 posted on 12/08/2002 1:29:05 PM PST by cornelis
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To: widowithfoursons
Cicero did not ascribe to any of this. His writings do not reflect it.

I do believe that it was Cicero who propounded the term, aspernatio rationalis -- which means "flight from reason," or in more modern terminology, "the refusal to apperceive." He plainly classifies this sort of thing as symptomatic of a spiritual disorder.

Look, I know that Cicero is normally classified as a Stoic. But on what specific basis do you insist that these kinds of insights were foreign to Cicero?

14 posted on 12/08/2002 1:31:03 PM PST by betty boop
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To: cornelis
Thank you. If Voegelin dismisses Cicero, then I can safely dismiss Voegelin.
15 posted on 12/08/2002 1:31:26 PM PST by widowithfoursons
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To: betty boop
Cicero was not a Stoic. He was a patriot, a lawyer, a Consul of Rome, a prolific writer, and was eventually assasinated for his refusal to give up the idea of the Republic. Read his writing (in Latin if possible). "Flight from reason" (if he said it) most likely referred to Caesar and Catalina.
16 posted on 12/08/2002 1:38:22 PM PST by widowithfoursons
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To: widowithfoursons
Okie dokie. Better run and get your copy of Wilhelmsen. They are hard to find. From Voegelin on Cicero:

There are no problems in Cicero; whenever there is one insolent enough to come near the surface, the firm hand of the Roman consul and imperator comes down and bends it under the yoke of his authoritative language. The result is impressive: Cicero is one of the most quotable writers in the whole history of political ideas . . .

17 posted on 12/08/2002 1:42:40 PM PST by cornelis
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To: tpaine
BTW, does ANYone know what the "noetic structure of existence" is?

tpaine, that is the very thing that Voegelin is endeavoring to demonstrate in this essay. He can't hand it to you on a silver platter, already "cooked to doneness, and predigested for you." You have to do the work -- please read the essay again, with an open mind (and spirit), carefully and attentively. Work through his penetrating analysis for yourself. Great teacher that he was, I strongly doubt that he would want it any other way.

But to give you a possibly helpful shortcut, look at the classical experiential sources of human existential problems that he adumbrates. These insights are as true now as ever, for the essential conditio humana does not change over time. You can take your clues from there.

18 posted on 12/08/2002 1:43:35 PM PST by betty boop
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To: betty boop
If the motivating experiences are known to the reader and shared by him, the construct will appear satisfactory and credible; if the experiences are not shared…the construct will become incredible…

LOL. Double LOL. Voegelin at his most helpful ;)

19 posted on 12/08/2002 1:46:31 PM PST by general_re
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To: cornelis
OK, where on the net do I go? I assume it's all out of print. Do You have an inside idea?
20 posted on 12/08/2002 1:46:42 PM PST by widowithfoursons
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