Published Humanitas, Volume IX, No. 1, 1996
Louisiana State University, Thomas More College
This essay explores Eric Voegelin’s recovery of pre-modern experiences as the basis of his own theory of knowledge. It divides roughly into five parts: the first distinguishes between Voegelin’s “mystical” epistemology and the intentionalist epistemological theories of modernity; the second finds his mystical epistemology to be rooted in experience of faith and love as symbolized by the Christian mystics; the third develops the second by contrasting the traditional Christian mystical understanding with its antithesis—Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola fide; the fourth explores the modern consequences of the disparity in Luther between faith and love; and the fifth, in conclusion, assesses Voegelin’s ostensible rejection of Christian thought, and concomitantly of faith and love, in his later writings. We hope to show that Voegelin’s theory of knowledge depends upon a certain understanding of faith and love and that it agrees essentially with the equivalent insights found in the greatest of the Classical and medieval Christian philosophers.
Aristotle once said that “all men desire to know.” In modern philosophy, however, this “desire” has been ignored, and concern for this fundamental human experience has been replaced by a concern for epistemological consistency. Following Descartes, the moderns began with the assumption of a knower separated from the thing known, a consciousness external to its object. How, they asked, can this thing (the human mind) “know” the reality outside of it? They searched for the rational ground of knowledge in order to provide their propositions with logical necessity and certainty. Descartes doubted everything of which he could not have demonstrable knowledge. This “universal doubt” would make no sense were Descartes not on his quest for apodictic certainty, which, as he says, “will put science upon a foundation of knowledge.” From Locke to Hegel, all the great modern epistemologists, while searching for the foundation of knowledge, in effect question the very possibility of that knowledge. The quest for certainty ends with two extreme epistemological positions: the quagmire of skepticism (Hume) or the “moral holiday” of absolutism (Hegel). Each position reduces the Socratic paradox— of knowing that one does not know—to an epistemological fallacy. As a consequence, in the course of modern epistemological speculation, knowledge as power (Bacon) becomes knowledge as the pawn of the powerful (Nietzsche).
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