Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ellis Sandoz - What is a Mystic Philosopher and Why does it Matter? Preliminary Reflections

This paper was delivered by Ellis Sandoz at the Eric Voegelin Society, 27th Annual International Meeting in Seattle, Washington (September 2, 2011). Sandoz is the Hermann Moyse Jr. Distinguished Professor of Political Science and is Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies at Louisiana State University.

Sandoz offers this definition of the mystic philosopher of his title:
A mystic philosopher is one who takes the tension toward the transcendent divine ground of being as the cardinal attribute of human reality per se and explores the whole hierarchy of being from this decisive perspective. 

Here is a little about Eric Voegelin, since his theory and philosophy play a central role in this paper (from Wikipedia):
Voegelin worked throughout his life to account for the endemic political violence of the twentieth century in an effort variously referred to as a philosophy of politics, history, or consciousness.

Voegelin published scores of books, essays, and reviews in his lifetime. An early work was Die politischen Religionen (1938), (The Political Religions), on totalitarian ideologies and their structural similarities to religion. His magnum opus is the multi-volume (English-language) Order and History, which began publication in 1956 and remained incomplete at the time of his death 29 years later. His 1951 Charles Walgreen lectures, published as The New Science of Politics, is generally seen as a prolegomenon to this, and remains his best known work. He left many manuscripts unpublished, including a history of political ideas that has since been published in eight volumes.

Order and History was originally conceived as a six-volume examination of the history of order occasioned by Voegelin's personal experience of the disorder of his time. The first three volumes, Israel and Revelation, The World of the Polis, and Plato and Aristotle, appeared in rapid succession in 1956 and 1957 and focused on the evocations of order in the ancient Near East and Greece.

Voegelin then encountered difficulties that slowed the publication down. This, combined with his university administrative duties and work related to the new institute, meant that seventeen years separated the fourth from the third volume. His new concerns were indicated in the 1966 German collection Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik, and the fourth volume, The Ecumenic Age, appeared in 1974. It broke with the chronological pattern of the previous volumes by investigating symbolizations of order ranging in time from the Sumerian King List to Hegel. Continuing work on the final volume, In Search of Order, occupied Voegelin's final days and it was published posthumously in 1987.

One of Voegelin's main points in his later work is that a sense of order is conveyed by the experience of transcendence. This transcendence can never be fully defined nor described, though it may be conveyed in symbols. A particular sense of transcendent order serves as a basis for a particular political order. It is in this way that a philosophy of politics becomes a philosophy of consciousness. Insights may become fossilised as dogma. The main aim of the political philosopher is to remain open to the truth of order, and convey this to others.

Voegelin is more interested in the ontological issues that arise from these experiences than the epistemological questions of how we know that a vision of order is true or not. For Voegelin, the essence of truth is trust. All philosophy begins with experience of the divine. Since God is experienced as good, one can be confident that reality is knowable. As Descartes would say, God is not a deceiver.

Voegelin's work does not fit in any standard classifications, although some of his readers have found similarities in it to contemporaneous works by, for example, Ernst Cassirer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. He has a sometimes unapproachable style and a heavy reliance upon extensive background knowledge. Voegelin often invents terms or uses old ones in new ways. However, there are patterns in his work with which the reader can quickly become familiar.

Among indications of growing engagement with Voegelin's work are the 305 page international bibliography published in 2000 by Munich's Wilhelm Fink Verlag; the presence of dedicated research centers at universities in the United States, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom; the appearance of recent translations in languages ranging from Portuguese to Japanese; and the publishing of the nearly complete 34 volume collection of his primary works by the University of Missouri Press and various primary and secondary works offered by the Eric-Voegelin-Archiv of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universit├Ąt.

Having read a couple of Voegelin's books (Order and History, Vol. 3: Plato and Aristotle and From Enlightenment to Revolution), I would suggest that he is one of the under-appreciated (if at all even acknowledged) philosophers in the canon of integral theory.

This is an interesting paper by the man who has edited the Collected Works of Voegelin.

Full Citation:
Sandoz, E. (2011). What is a Mystic Philosopher and Why does it Matter? Preliminary Reflections. APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

The question posed by my title (What is a Mystic Philosopher and Why Does it Matter?) can be answered briefly: A mystic philosopher is one who takes the tension toward the transcendent divine ground of being as the cardinal attribute of human reality per se and explores the whole hierarchy of being from this decisive perspective.

The question posed by my title (What is a Mystic Philosopher and Why Does it Matter?) can be answered briefly: A mystic philosopher is one who takes the tension toward the transcendent divine ground of being as the cardinal attribute of human reality per se and explores the whole hierarchy of being from this decisive perspective. Thus, all philosophy worthy of the name is mystic philosophy. It has been so from the pre-Socratics to Plato to Voegelin himself, by his account, as the sine qua non of philosophizing, past, present, and future. It matters because more than a mere definition is at take. It matters because the experiential core of noetic and pneumatic reality insofar as glimpsed in consciousness and regarded as basic to human existence is available only through individual persons‟ divine-human mystical encounters– which happen as events in a variety of modalities evidenced from prehistory to the contemporary.

If it be suspected that this implies that the history of philosophy may be in largest part the history of its derailment the point is conceded, as Voegelin himself tells us (1). To inventory and critique the assorted ways in which the philosophic impulse has been diverted or has otherwise gone astray is a task for another day–a task, however, already substantially addressed in Voegelin's own life-long quest for truth in resistance to untruth under such familiar rubrics as sophistry, gnosticism, scholasticism, Enlightenment, phenomenalism, ideology, and positivism among myriad other deformations. Enough here if I can bring a bit more clearly to light the meaning and implications of mystic philosophy and its importance for a non-reductionist exploration of metaxic reality, one grounded in common sense and participatory (or apperceptive) empiricism– i.e., one which invokes in principle the Socratic “Look and see if this is not the case.”

This then gets us to more familiar ground: Mystic philosophy is what Plato‟s Socrates was about, as the messenger of the God. Sundry Spinozaists and latter day Averroists among us will be unpersuaded, since for them and their epigones theology (a neologism and term of art in Plato, Republic 379a) and philosophy are taken to be radically different enterprises. Dogmatic delusion everywhere dies a hard death, and you can‟t win them all. However, to argue that the history of philosophy is largely the history of its derailment admittedly puts Voegelin somewhat in the company of Johannes Brahms when he departed a social gathering, insouciantly turning at the door to say: “If there‟s anyone here I haven't offended I apologize.”

What is at stake here, however, is more than social amenities. When Voegelin told an old friend from Vienna days not to be too surprised to learn that he was a mystic as well as a philosopher (2), he did so after a high stakes battle to recover something of the truth of reality–one he had pursued for decades so as to find his way out of the lethal quandaries of radical modernity and convincingly critique National Socialism. The effort produced three books while he was a professor in Vienna, cost him his job, and very nearly his life. Still, as the battle in various less grim forums continued thereafter, humor intruded from time to time. So with a genial intramural debate while at LSU in the 1940s with the head of the philosophy department (a great admirer of Bertrand Russell) that at one point found Voegelin retorting: Mr. Carmichael you are a philosophy professor. I am a philosopher.

Perhaps the fullest direct clarification of the pertinent issues Voegelin gave in a 1965 talk to the German Political Science Association plenary session, subsequently published as “What is Political Reality?” (3) The drift of that presentation is to explain why political science cannot rightly be assimilated to the natural science model most famously exemplified by Newton's Principia Mathematica but has its own unique paradigm as a philosophical science which Voegelin sketches on the occasion. In effect a minority report to political scholars (rather like our own colleagues here in Seattle still today) eager to be as “scientific” as possible, the tenor is combative as well as diagnostic and therapeutic.

Read the whole article by downloading the PDF.

Notes from the text above:

1 Cf. Eric Voegelin, Order and History, 5 vols. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956-1987), 3:277.

2 Saint “Thomas [Aquinas] is a mystic, for he knows that behind the God of dogmatic theology there is the tetragrammatic abyss that lies even behind the analogia entis. But in that sense also Plato is mystic, for he knows that behind the gods of the Myth, and even behind the Demiurge of his philosophy, there is the real God about whom one can say nothing. It may horrify you: But when somebody says that I am a mystic, I am afraid I cannot deny it. My enterprise of what you call „de-reification‟ would not be possible, unless I were a mystic.” Letter 422. To Gregor Sebba (Feb. 3, 1973) in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, 34 vols. (hereinafter CW), vol. 30, Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, trans. Sandy Adler, Thomas A. Hollweck, & William Petropulos, ed. and intro. Thomas A. Hollweck (2007; Columbia: University of Missouri Press), 751.

3 Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, trans. and ed. Gerhart Niemeyer (pb. edn, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978), 143-214; originally Voegelin, Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik (Munich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1966); also revised and reprinted in Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 6, trans. M. J. Hanak, ed. with an intro. by David Walsh (2002; 34 vols., University of Missouri Press).
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