Friday, August 27, 2010

Recommended Book of the Week: "The New Science of Politics" by Eric Voegelin

This week's recommended book is "The New Science of Politics" by Professor Eric Voegelin. The New Science of Politics was published in 1954. This is the book that introduced Voegelin to the American public. I first read it more than 20 years ago, and it had a massive effect on me.

All excerpts are from the introduction.

"To pursue a theoretical problem to the point where the principles of politics meet with the principles of a philosophy of history is not customary today. Nevertheless, the procedure cannot be considered an innovation in political science; it will rather appear as a restoration, if it be remembered that the two fields which today are cultivated separately were inseparably united when political science was founded by Plato. This integral theory of politics was born from the crisis of Hellenic society. In an hour of crisis, when the order of a society flounders and disintegrates, the fundamental problems of political existence in history are more apt to come into view than in periods of comparative stability....

A restoration of political science to its principles implies that the restorative work is necessary because the consciousness of principles is lost. The movement toward retheoretization must be understood, indeed, as a recovery from the destruction of science which characterized the positivistic era in the second half of the nineteenth century. The destruction worked by positivism is the consequence of two fundamental assumptions. In the first place, the splendid unfolding of the natural sciences was co-responsible with other factors for the assumption that the methods used in the mathematizing sciences of the external world were possessed of some inherent virtue and that all other sciences would achieve comparable success if they followed the example and accepted these methods as their model. This belief by itself was a harmless idiosyncrasy that would have died out when the enthusiastic admirers of the model method set to work in their own science and did not achieve the expected successes. It became dangerous because it combined with the second assumption that the methods of the natural sciences were a criterion for theoretical relevance in general."

I think of the following passages every time I hear the cringe-making 1973 ICEL translation: "Father, help us to seek the values that will bring us lasting joy in this changing world..."

"In order to arrive at clarity about the issue, it must first of all be realized that the terms "value-judgment" and "value-free" science were not part of the philosophical vocabulary before the second half of the nineteenth century. The notion of a value-judgment (Werturteil) is meaningless in itself; it gains its meaning from a situation in which it is opposed to judgments concerning facts (Tatsachenurteile). And this situation was created through the positivistic conceit that only propositions concerning facts of the phenomenal world were "objective," while judgments concerning the right order of soul and society were "subjective." Only propositions of the first type could be considered "scientific," while propositions of the second type expressed personal preferences and decisions, incapable of critical verification and therefore devoid of objective validity. This classification made sense only if the positivistic dogma was accepted on principle; and it could be accepted only by thinkers who did not master the classic and Christian science of man. For neither classic nor Christian ethics and politics contain "value-judgments" but elaborate, empirically and critically, the problems of order which derive from philosophical anthropology as part of a general ontology.

A few pages later, Voegelin describes this attitude while discussing the work of Max Weber:

"The amount of materials which he (Weber) mastered in these voluminous studies on Protestantism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Israel, and Judaism, to be completed by a study on Islam, is indeed awe-inspiring. In the face of such impressive performance it has perhaps not been sufficiently observed that the series of these studies receives its general tone through a significant omission, that is, of pre-Reformation Christianity. The reason of the omission seems to be obvious. One can hardly engage in a serious study of medieval Christianity without discovering among its 'values' the belief in a rational science of human and social order and especially of natural law. Moreover, this science was not simply a belief, but it was actually elaborated as a work of reason. Here Weber would have run into the fact of a science of order, just as he would if he had seriously occupied himself with Greek philosophy. Weber's readiness to introduce verities about order as historical facts stopped short of Greek and medieval metaphysics. In order to degrade the politics of Plato, Aristotle, or St. Thomas to the rank of 'values' among others, a conscientious scholar would first have to show that their claim to be science was unfounded. And that attempt is self-defeating. By the time the would-be critic has penetrated the meaning of metaphysics with sufficient thoroughness to make his criticism weighty, he will have become a metaphysician himself. The attack on metaphysics can be undertaken with a good conscience only from the safe distance of imperfect knowledge."

He can be funny when he wants to be, too:

"The theoretical issue of positivism as a historical phenomenon had to be stated with some care; the variety of manifestations themselves can be listed briefly, now that their uniting bond is understood. The use of method as the criterion of science abolishes theoretical relevance. As a consequence, all propositions concerning facts will be promoted to the dignity of science, regardless of their relevance, as long as they result from a correct use of method. Since the ocean of facts is infinite, a prodigious expansion of science in the sociological sense becomes possible, giving employment to scientistic technicians and leading to the fantastic accumulation of irrelevant knowledge through huge 'research projects' whose most interesting feature is the quantifiable expense that has gone into their production. The temptation is great to look more closely at these luxury flowers of late positivism and to add a few reflections on the garden of Academus in which they grow; but theoretical asceticism will not allow such horticultural pleasures."


"Weber, as has just been set forth, still conceived history as an increase of rationalism in the positivistic sense. From the position of a science of order, however, the exclusion of the
scientia prima from the realm of reason is not an increase but a decrease of rationalism. What Weber, in the wake of Comte, understood as modern rationalism would have to be reinterpreted as modern irrationalism. This inversion of the socially accepted meaning of terms would arouse a certain hostility."

Ya think? Reflect on the intellectual contortions pro-abortion thinkers must embrace in order to deny the humanity of the fetus, all the while claiming to be rational, scientific, objective, modern.

Professor Voegelin's influence probably cannot be overstated. By now, a couple of generations of first rate scholars have explored, and continued to explore, his works, via institutes and symposia. You can help the Eric Voegelin institute at LSU (which no longer receives any state funding) by going to

Posted by Gibbons J. Cooney

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