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The Self of Oakeshott & Voegelin

"The self appears as activity. It is not a 'thing' or a 'substance' capable of being active; it is activity. And this activity is primordial; there is nothing antecedent to it.", Oakeshott, Michael; The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind, in Rationalism in Politics; p. 204

"The not-self, then, is composed of images. But these images are not 'given' or 'presented' to the self; they are not independent existences caught as they swim in the next of an expectant or an indifferent self. And they are not this because they are not anything at all out of relation to a self: and self is activity.", ibid, p.205

"The 'thing' that is called man discovers itself as having consciousness; and as a consequence, it discovers man's consciousness as the area of reality in which the process of reality becomes luminous to itself... A mute process about whose meaning one could be in doubt becomes increasingly articulate about its meaning; and what is discovered as its meaning is the emergence of noetic consciousness in the process... The differentiation of consciousness makes reality both luminous and meaningful against the background of the compact truth; it does not overreach itself into a beyond of the process.", Voegelin, Eric; The Ecumenic Age, p.236

"The philosophers' truth does not become a possession; it remains a truth of the search (zetesis) in erotic tension toward the mysterious ground of existence.", ibid; p.236

From the above-set pairs of quotations, it seems clear that both Oakeshott and Voegelin are in general agreement as to the constitution of the human essence, in that both perceive a form of motion, rather than stillness, to be the principle (or perhaps only) mode in which, and by which, a specifically human existence is both constituted and maintained. In neither formulation does there seem to be much room for the possibility of a a specifically human existence in a mode or state of stillness, in that any such profound state of non-activity would not, by definition, constitute a state of existence, but rather reflect non-existence, or alternatively, reflect the de-constitution of existence -- which is to say, death and dissolution. Thus, broadly speaking, both speaks would seem to be in agreement as to the mode in which the highest forms of human existence would be found (the existence of motion versus the apparent non-existence of stillness), and, broadly speaking, would be in general disagreement with any thesis which would suggest that stillness might either constitute a valid state of existence, or represent a valid goal of such an existence.

The question then becomes one of determining the different manner in which the concern over motion vs. stillness might reflect itself in the works of both men, and, indeed, one need not venture far. For, in Oakeshott's concern regarding 'rationalism' and Voegelin's concern regarding 'gnosticism', one detects a similar apprehensiveness in the face of modern intellectual and political quests for absolute, propositionalizable certainties, which are hoped to put an end to all mysteries, all uncertainties, all doubts, and all need for personal, existential searching. In rationalism and in gnosticism, the two writers seem to perceive nothing so much as the quest to eliminate -- or at least very much suppress -- as much of the activity which constitutes human existence as is possible. In its particular manifestations, this quest might reveal itself in the attempt at the radical reformation or destruction of institutions for the sake of rationalizing and clarifying their work towards the goal of the 'proper' organization of society. It might manifest as the insistence that all practical and scientific knowledge be translated (or be at least translatable) into a body of propositional instructions, which might, at least hypothetically, be absorbed from the medium of a text into the eager, disembodied minds of the literate. It could even reveal itself in the form of apocalyptic, historiogenetic texts, which proclaim the arrival of a new epoch, in which all knowledge, all spiritual yearning, all work, and all Science, has been laid bare in its final, comprehensive solution in the form of a Book -- thus making the solution to human existence readily available at one's local Barnes & Noble. The drive, in whatever case, is singular, in that, wherever some idiom of human activity -- be it primarily physical, primarily noetic, or, more often some balance of the two -- is not brought to an end, it is certainly restricted within ever tighter boundaries by the dogmatism of those who would 'free' humanity from mystery.

Given that such dogmatic restriction, in whatever form, represents a profound restriction on the motion of human existence -- a restriction of movement within the field of imagining for Oakeschott, within the metaxy of noetic consciousness for Voegelin -- the restrictions themselves can only be understood as a form of spiritual assault, a claim by the dogmatists upon the very foundation of the soul itself. Given the self's status as a epiphenomenon of participating in the process of reality, the dogmatic attempt to being either a relative, or absolute, conclusion (stillness) to human existence would seem to amount to an attempt to annihilate human existence as such.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 7th, 2009 11:00 pm (UTC)
From which perspective, Voegelin's famous hostility to dogma and openness to the symols of the Catholic religion makes sense.
Dec. 8th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
From which perspective, Voegelin's famous hostility to dogma and openness to the symols of the Catholic religion makes sense.

It does make his overall hostility to dogmatism fairly intelligible. I'm interested in seeing how he deals with Augustine, who ultimately upholds the historiogenetic reading of Genesis, and comes close to declaring stillness ("peace") to be the ultimate destiny of the saints.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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