Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Voegelin’s “Gnosticism” Reconsidered

Eric Voegelin
Eugene Webb is an admirer of Eric Voegelin’s philosophical ideas; he is the author of the book called Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History which is on Voegelin’s multivolume work, Order and History. But Webb sees some serious problems in the way Voegelin has used the word “gnosticism” in his writings on political theory. In his essay, “Voegelin’s “Gnosticism” Reconsidered,” Webb lists five problems in Voegelin’s use of such a language:

 1. It begins by claiming to draw out the implications of historical research on the ancient gnostics but does so in ways that conflict confusingly with the meanings given the word by the leading scholars in that field of research in his own time.

2. Even if his use of the term had been in line with that of the scholars of his time, the state of scholarship has advanced considerably in the last half century, in directions that call into question even the most widely accepted scholarship Voegelin drew on.

3. Even if the ancient Gnosticism he appealed to as the source of what he called modern “gnosticism” had not been so clearly disinclined to seek salvation in worldly fulfillment, the historical links Voegelin asserted between that and the modern immanentizing patterns of thought he talked about do not exist in the evidence available, and his assertions of those links did not meet the usual standards of scholarly carefulness that he believed in.

4. When the word “gnosticism” appears in the writings of Voegelin and Voegelinians, it brings with it a host of associations that are likely to confuse the issues its use is intended to clarify, or at least puts out a bone of contention that is likely to distract many readers from the serious problems Voegelinian research tries to bring to their attention.

5. Voegelin’s own use of the term, though richly meaningful when one goes into it in depth and sets aside all the side issues it tends to arouse, covers so many distinct problems that its very richness makes it seem overly general and imprecise—a problem Voegelin seems to have recognized himself when he said in 1978, as I mentioned earlier, that besides what was then usually called by that name, the ideas he was interested in using it to address included many other strands, such as apocalypticism, alchemy, magic, theurgy, and scientism.

I think Voegelin is a solid political thinker. His analysis of what he calls the “gnostic” influences in politics is convincing. But I think Webb has a point — “Gnosticism” is probably not the most perfect word for describing the political forces that Voegelin wanted to oppose.

“Gnosticism” is defined by the Voegelinians as a "type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. Gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism)." 

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