Voegelin and the question of “intelligible units”

the epiphany of structures in reality — be they atoms, molecules, genes, biological species, races, human consciousness, or language — is a mystery inaccessible to explanation.  (Voegelin, In Search of Order)1

McLuhan and Voegelin exchanged four letters in 1953.2 But the most important aspect of their brief correspondence may have been what they did not discuss (at least not directly). For the two of them, although on separate tracks, were pursuing a strategy that was then, and remains today, almost 70 years later, what may be the one way out of the global crisis in which the planet was and is ensnared.3 This is a crisis that expresses itself everywhere along the whole register of human activity — extending to our distorted relation to God.

As indicated in the titles of Voegelin’s 1953 New Science of Politics and McLuhan’s (posthumous) 1988 Laws of Media: The New Science, both saw that science could and should be pursued in the social sciences. And both saw this possibility as crucial to human survival in a planetary condition of “continuous  warfare” (as  Voegelin already observed in his New Science and as has been hideously maintained ever since).4 Regarding our situation in “continuous warfare”, Voegelin specified:

The causes of this phenomenon will receive careful attention in the course of these lectures; but their critical exploration presupposes a clearer understanding of the relation between theory and reality.5 

Voegelin’s New Science originated in his 1951 Walgreen lectures entitled ‘Truth and Representation’.  Now the key in any area of inquiry to the relationship of theory and reality or of representation and truth (relations which are not necessarily the same)6 is, as may be seen particularly in the birth and development of chemistry in the nineteenth century after the identification of its elements, the specification of what Voegelin called “theoretically justifiable units” . He made this point particularly in an exchange with Hannah Arendt early in 1953 — the very year in which Voegelin and McLuhan conducted their brief correspondence — concerning her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism:

I shall do no more than draw attention to what we agree is the question at stake, though Arendt’s answer differs from mine. It is the question of essence in history, the question of how to delimit and define phenomena of the class of political movements. Dr. Arendt draws her lines of demarcation on what she considers the factual level of history; arrives at well-distinguished complexes of phenomena of the type of “totalitarianism”; and is willing to accept such complexes as ultimate, essential units. I take exception to this method because it disregards the fact that the self-formation of movements in history, institutionally and ideologically, is not [the same thing as] theoretical formation. The investigation inevitably will start from the phenomena, but the question of theoretically justifiable units in political science cannot be solved [simply] by accepting the units thrown up in the stream of history at their face value. What a unit is will emerge when the principles furnished by philosophical anthropology are applied to historical materials. It then may happen that political movements, which on the scene of history are bitterly opposed to one another, will prove to be closely related on the level of essence.7

In 1981, almost thirty years later, a few years before his death in 1985, Voegelin again commented on “theoretically justifiable units”, here called “intelligible units”, in a letter to Gerhart Niemeyer:

Now let me thank you…for your contribution to the Festschrift8 on ‘intelligible units’ of history. (…) While I agree with your condemnation of the misuse of ‘intelligible units’, I wonder whether one can9, and perhaps must, use the concept without misusing it. What shall we do with ethnic cultures, empires, religions, sects, ideological movements, national states? Are they not intelligible units? Did Augustine not treat the Roman Empire as an intelligible unit in history? And what, after all, is Christianity?10 The problem seems to be [that of] a critically tenable conception of intelligibility…11

The characterization of “the question of theoretically justifiable units” as that of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility” pointed to a logical and temporal circularity in the question at stake: what was to be achieved later, as a goal, namely “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility”, had to be already active earlier in order to make ‘a critically tenable’ beginning of the required process to that goal. Voegelin: “this invisible harmony is difficult to find, and it will not be found at all unless the soul be animated by an anticipating urge in the right direction” (NSP, 103); “the openness of the soul is experienced through the opening of the soul itself” (101). This was at once confounding and potentially indicative. For the fact that discovery of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility” would itself require the exacting exercise of “intelligibility” (otherwise, the conception could hardly be “critically tenable” and could certainly not reach its goal) served to illuminate the requirement that that discovery be at once sudden and revolutionary in effecting a decisive break in time and yet also applicable to the whole chronological experience of human beings, especially to the past as the laboratory in which any proposed intelligibility would have to demonstrate itself.12 

In the same way, the discovery of the elementary structure in chemistry and of the structure of DNA in genetics served to break inquiry into a definitive ‘before’ and ‘after’ in their respective fields, and yet did so in a manner that was just as applicable to the ‘before’ as to the ‘after’. At such a moment, illumination is suddenly and for the first time possible — of what has always taken place and always will take place.13 It is the stupendous reach of such conceptions somehow occurring to utterly finite minds that underlies Voegelin’s wonder at “the epiphany of structures in reality” as “a mystery inaccessible to explanation”.  

What was ultimately at stake in Voegelin’s remarks to Arendt and Niemeyer, then, was just such a break in the history of the social sciences that would reveal itself as being “critically tenable” through its application as much to the past as to the present and future. Furthermore, this was a break that would occur as much subjectively (in the before and after of the discoverer) as objectively (in the before and after in research in the domain).14

What happens to our knowledge in such a case is that it goes through a kind of wormhole, only to emerge on the other side with a revolutionary new appreciation of what had always been going on, on the other side of the wormhole, leading up to it. The implicated figure is

A >< B

where a real knowledge of A (representing the entire cultural history of the world to this point) is obtained only through the exponentially expanding findings of the new science, or sciences, suddenly enabled in B.15

The enormous practical effects of this sort of scientific breakthrough may be seen by comparing the world in 1800 to the world today after only two centuries of chemistry and the derivative sciences chemistry has enabled. It is, indeed, just such revolutionary effects — resulting from collective open research — which at once offer hope in the face of the contemporary world crisis and account for the intense resistance to such science from the bellicose partisans of the status quo. 

Certain indications for authentic contemporary research in the humanities and social sciences seem to follow. First, history and commentary should be abandoned except as they are pursued as modes of searching for “theoretically justifiable units”.  As is plain from the genesis and development of sciences like chemistry and genetics, all history and commentary will have to be recast on the basis of such units when they are, at last, isolated and demonstrated.16 In the event that units of this sort remain manifestly lacking (since the practice of science they would enable is manifestly lacking), history and commentary are at best premature and at worst  themselves part of the “crisis of Western civilization” they often purport to address.17 Second, the primary focus of research in the humanities should be on candidates for “theoretically justifiable units” that have been suggested in the past, particularly by its single greatest mind, Plato.18 The “recovery”19 that is fundamental to science involves, as Voegelin was clear in his reply to Arendt, a complete reformulation of history and this would necessarily  include a reassessment of whether or not Plato (for example) did indeed put forward “a valid formulation of principles”.20 To compare, once chemistry received its proper conceptualization in the course of the nineteenth century, it became possible to sort out for the first time who in the past had had genuine insights into chemical processes and who had not. The central questions here are: if proposals for “theoretically justifiable units” have been made, what was deficient in them that they failed to yield the required intelligibility? how might these deficiencies be cured? Further, were there deficiencies in the appreciation of such proposals? And how might these be cured?21 If “theoretically justifiable units” can be isolated for the humanities and social sciences, dedicated work on these two fronts of definition and appreciation offer the one hope for doing so.22

The history of the physical sciences shows that crises can be revelatory. An essential step is acknowledgement of the crisis and of the need to address it with adjusted subjective and objective presuppositions. A kind of subjective-objective Rubik’s cube needs to be manipulated with a passion until, at last, the tesserae reveal their pattern and, with it, the way to and from it.

Both because of the inherent interest of such a breakthrough in the investigation of human being and of its potential importance in addressing the dire situation of the contemporary world, intense focus on the question of “theoretically justifiable units” is indicated.


  1.  Order and History 5, CW18, 31. As McLuhan was very much aware, such an epiphany is already operative in the first use of language, phylogenetic or ontogenetic. Language is nothing other than the recognition of “structures in reality”. In fact, Voegelin’s list of structures has application to language but little to science. Scientifically, structural comparison between “atoms” and “biological species” or “races” is misleading at best.
  2. For discussion, see McLuhan and Voegelin 1953.
  3. The one way out of the crisis — that is, the one way out that is in our control. Heidegger, for one, saw only the possibility of a divine solution: Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.
  4. The full passage at this point in NSP is eerily prescient of the state of the world today almost 70 years latter: “Our own foreign policy was a factor in aggravating international disorder through its sincere but naive endeavor of curing the evils of the world by spreading representative institutions (…) to areas where the existential conditions for their functioning were not given. Such provincialism, persistent in the face of its consequences, is in itself an interesting problem for the scientist. One cannot explain the odd policies of Western democratic powers leading to continuous warfare, with weaknesses of individual  statesmen — though such weaknesses are strongly in evidence. They are rather symptomatic of a massive resistance to face reality, deeply rooted in the sentiments and opinion of the broad masses of our contemporary Western societies. Only because they are symptoms of a mass phenomenon is it justified to speak of a crisis of Western civilization.” (NSP, 1987 ed, 81)
  5. Ibid.
  6. The relations of “theory and reality” and of “truth and representation” may be considered as the same or as different. They are the same when “reality” and “truth” are brought together and contrasted to the “theory” or “representation” that would give access to them and so enable their collective study. They are different when truth is considered as a potential property of theory and representation in their relation to reality. The important thing in this context is only that the question of the relation between the two relations be left open and not decided in advance.
  7. Voegelin, Concluding Remark‘ (to Arendt), The Review of Politics, 15:1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 84-85. Voegelin included an offprint of his initial review of Arendt in his second letter to McLuhan. It appears that he did not include Arendt’s reply to his review or his reply to her reply. But McLuhan may, of course, have gone on from Voegelin’s review to look into the further pieces by Arendt and Voegelin that continued from it.
  8. The Philosophy of order: essays on history, consciousness, and politics (For Eric Voegelin on His Eightieth Birthday January 3, 1981), ed Peter J. Opitz and Gregor Sebba, 1981.
  9. Voegelin (not improperly, but strangely in combination with “perhaps must”): “cannot”.
  10. This late letter seems to show that Voegelin may never have seen the fundamentally important distinction broached in note #1 above between linguistic and scientific units — even though his own reply to Arendt in 1953 was prescient in differentiating historical or linguistic units from essential ones!
  11. Voegelin letter to Gerhart Niemeyer, February 24, 1981, Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, CW30, 862-863. This reference was kindly supplied by Fritz Wagner.
  12. At least at this point in his career, Voegelin seems also to have argued that such discovery is oriented only to the future: “this center (of the human psyche) is not found (by the Greeks) as if it were an object that had been present all the time and only escaped notice. The psyche as the region in which transcendence is experienced must be differentiated out of a more compact structure of the soul; it must be developed and named. With due regard for the problem of compactness and differentiation, one might almost say that before the discovery of the psyche man had no soul. Hence, it is a discovery which produces its experiential material along with its explication” (NSP, 101). Just what was at stake in this passage would, however, have to be gleaned in comparison with his statement later in NSP that “we must distinguish between the opening of the soul as an epoch in experiential differentiation and the structure of reality which remains unchanged” (208).
  13. The isolation of definitive structures in a scientific discipline does not at all entail that research into those structures is no longer required. Far rather, research is only now properly grounded and guided. Future research might well, indeed, require modification or even overthrow of those ‘definitive’ structures at some point — such is ‘the structure of scientific revolutions’.
  14. In the early 1950s, at least, Voegelin himself may not have realized the implications of his own insight into “theoretically justifiable units” as effecting a scientific revolution. As previously noted above, he began NSP by observing that the field of politics will “prove amenable to theoretization as an intelligible succession of phases in a historical process” (NSP, 1987 ed, 21). A process was postulated “through (…) degrees (!) of compactness and differentiation — from rite, through myth, to theory” (52). But this is exactly how a new theoretization in science does not take place. Instead, the possibility of “theoretically justifiable units” must first of all be ontologically based. This entails the presence of abysmal borders or gaps in the deepest level of reality that accounts for real plurality (“essential units”) and that prohibits gnostic conflation into seamlessness. A scientific revolution occurs when research aligns itself, at last, with the transitive borders of reality so as to formulate revolutionary insight into a field (which only now becomes rigorously identifiable). Such insight does not result from “an intelligible succession of phases in a historical process”, but from an unaccountable leap, “a mystery inaccessible to explanation” (as Voegelin himself would put it 30 years later). Strangely, however, in just this same context at the start of NSP, Voegelin correctly saw the ontological crux of the matter: his “new science” was to arise from “the principles of order in general” (21). Hence his definition of “science as a truthful account of the structure of reality” (26). It may be that the remainder of Voegelin’s long career amounted to an attempt to understand the problems and opportunities which arise at this point where the “mystery” of “the epiphany of structures in reality” crosses with “historical process”. His 5-volume main work would begin to be published in 1956, a few years after NSP, and would be called Order and History.
  15. The information available in B increasingly exceeds that in A, both because B’s research into every aspect of A always increases while at the same time new events occur in B with research into these new events always increasing as well.  This increase in entropy accords with the second law of thermodynamics and correlates closely with Voegelin’s and McLuhan’s arguments against gnosticism. Whereas gnosticism always attempts to compress complexities into simplicities (eg, historical time and eschatological time into the end of history), the scientific figure of A >< B obviates this possibility through an ever increasing complexity — ie, through entropic resistance to compression. Cf, Voegelin: “Can the monadism of such representation not be broken by questioning the validity of the truth in each case?” (NSP, 92)
  16. As cited above from his reply to Arendt, Voegelin was clear about this: “What a unit is will emerge when the principles furnished by philosophical anthropology are applied to historical materials. It then may happen that political movements, which on the scene of history are bitterly opposed to one another, will prove to be closely related on the level of essence.”
  17. See the preceding note.
  18. With a counterfactual faith in “advancing articulation” (67) through “the very historicity of human existence” (22), Voegelin maintained in NSP: “One cannot restore political science today through Platonism, Augustinianism, or Hegelianism. Much can be learned, to be sure, from the earlier philosophers concerning the range of problems, as well as concerning their theoretical treatment; but the very historicity of human existence, that is, the unfolding of the typical in meaningful concreteness, precludes a valid reformulation of principles through return to a former concreteness” (22). But this was to make the very mistake of confusing historical with essential units that Voegelin rightly found in Arendt. Essential units may well have been formulated in the past by Plato, and/or by others, but then not have been appreciated as such and thereby conformed to historical ones.
  19. 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 re-theoretization must be understood, indeed, as a recovery” (NSP, 3-4). For discussion see McLuhan and Voegelin 1953.
  20. As cited above, Voegelin’s phrase is “a valid reformulation of principles”.
  21. It may be that Aristotle should be read as addressing exactly these questions in reference especially (but not only) to the work his mentor, Plato.
  22. On account of the circularity of the deployment of intelligibility in the specification of “a critically tenable conception of intelligibility”, it is inevitable that definition and appreciation work together —  first of all in the individual researcher working toward such definition. The moment of insight comes only when each of these, intelligibility and appreciation, come together to inform the other.