Philosophy against Misosophy



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Voegelin’s experience of American culture in the mid-1920s was decisive to his intellectual development.  Prior to his visit, American forms of thought had been utterly foreign to him.  This insight into the fact of cultural differentiation forced a shift of intellectual horizon: “That there should be such a plurality of worlds had a devastating effect on me.  The experience broke for good, at least I hope it did, my provincialism of a Central European or generally European kind without letting me fall into an American provincialism.”  In short, Wisconsin inoculated him against Heidegger.

Of special interest to me is his exposure to Alfred North Whitehead and his admiration of George Santayana.  From Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, 26:3-4, Summer-Fall 1982, 332-333.  A note appended to this essay reads: “From an autobiographical memoir, tape recorded by Prof. Ellis Sandoz, and amply used in his recent monograph on The Voegelinian Revolution (LSD Press, 1982.)


The American Experience

Eric Voegelin

I was awarded one of the first Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fellowships and came to the United States from Austria for two years of study at Columbia, Harvard, and Wisconsin in 1924.  These two years in America brought the great break in my intellectual development. . . . At Columbia University I had courses with [Franklin Henry] Giddings the sociologist, John Dewey, and Irwin Edman, John Wesley the economist, [John Whittier] Macmahon in public administration, and I was overwhelmed by a new world of which hitherto I had hardly suspected the existence.  

The most important influence came from the library.  During the year in New York, I started working through the history of English philosophy and its expansion into American thought.  My studies were strongly motivated and helped by Dewey and Edman.  I discovered English and American commonsense philosophy.  More immediately the impact came through Dewey’s recent book on Human Nature and Conduct (1922) which was based on the English commonsense tradition.  From there I worked back to Reid and [Sir William] Hamilton.  This English conception of common sense as a human attitude which incorporates a philosopher’s attitude toward life without the philosopher’s technical apparatus, and inversely the understanding of Classic and Stoic philosophy as a technical, analytical elaboration of the commonsense attitude, has remained a lasting influence in my understanding both of common sense and Classic philosophy.  I got the first inkling of what the continued tradition of Classic philosophy on the commonsense level, without necessarily the technical apparatus of an Aristotle, could mean for the intellectual climate and the cohesion of a society. The tradition of common sense I now recognized to be the factor that was signally absent from the German social scene, and not so well developed in France as it was in England and America . . . . In this year in New York I began to sense that American society had a philosophical background far superior in range and existential substance, though not always in articulation, to anything that I found represented in the methodological environment in which I had grown up.

During the year at Columbia, when I took courses with Dewey and Giddings and read their work, I became aware of the categories of social substance in the English-speaking world.  John Dewey’s category was “likemindedness,” and I found that “likemindedness” was the term used by the King James Version to translate the New Testament homonoia.  That was the first time I became aware of the problem of homonoia about which I knew extremely little at the time, because my knowledge of Classic philosophy was still quite insufficient and my knowledge of Christian problems practically nonexistent.  Only later, when I had learned Greek and was able to read the texts in the original, did I become aware of the fundamental function of such categories for determining what the substance of society really is.  The term of Giddings was the “consciousness of kind.”  Though I did not know very much about the background of these problems, I remember already becoming aware that Giddings was intending the same problem as John Dewey but preferred a terminology that would not make visible the connection of the problem with the Classic and Christian traditions.  It was an attempt to transform the homonoia, in the sense of a community of the spirit, into something innocuous like a community of kind in a biological sense.

The first year at Columbia was then supplemented by the second year in which the strongest impression was, at Harvard, the newly arrived Alfred North Whitehead.  Of course I still could understand only a very small portion of what Whitehead said in his lectures, and I had to work myself into the cultural and historical background of his work that came out at the time, Science and the Modem World (1925).  But it brought to my attention that there was such a background into which I had to work myself more intensely if I wanted to understand Anglo-Saxon civilization.  

The occasion for expanding my knowledge offered itself in the second semester of the year 1925-26 when I went to Wisconsin.  I had become aware of the work of John R. Commons at Columbia, as during that year his Human Nature and Property was published . . . . In Wisconsin I got into 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, strongly connected with the economic and political problems, both on the state and national level, and with particular accents on the labor problem . . . .

The account of the American experience would be incomplete without mentioning the strong influence of George Santayana.  I have never met him, but I got acquainted with his work in New York, partly through the suggestion of Irwin Edman.  I studied his work with care and still have in my library the copies which I bought in that year in New York.  Santayana was a revelation concerning philosophy to me comparable to the revelation I received at the same time through commonsense philosophy.  Here was 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 . . . .

The results of these two years in America precipitated my book On the Form of the American Mind . . . . This literary work in which I assembled the results of the two American years does not, however, give a full understanding of the importance which these two years had in my life.  The great event was the fact of being thrown into a world for which the great methodological debates of the neo-Kantian type, which I considered the most important thing intellectually, were of no importance.  Instead, there was the background of the great political foundation of 1776 and 1789, and of the unfolding of the founding act through a political and legal culture, primarily represented by the lawyers’ guild and the Supreme Court.  There was the strong background of Christianity and Classical culture which was so signally fading out, if not missing, in the methodological debates in which I had grown up as a student.  

In brief, here was a world in which this other world that I had grown up in was intellectually, morally, and spiritually irrelevant.  That there should be such a plurality of worlds had a devastating effect on me.  The experience broke for good, at least I hope it did, my provincialism of a Central European or generally European kind without letting me fall into an American provincialism.  I gained an understanding through these years of the plurality of human possibilities realized in various civilizations, as an immediate experience, an expérience vécue, which hitherto had been accessible to me only through the comparative study of civilizations, as I found them in Max Weber, in Spengler, and later in Toynbee.  The immediate effect was that upon my return to Europe certain phenomena which were of the greatest importance in the intellectual and ideological context of Central Europe, as for instance the work of Heidegger, whose famous Sein und Zeit I read in 1928, 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.  The priorities and relations of importance between various theories had been fundamentally changed, and as far as I can see for the better.

Posted March 10, 2007

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