Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History (1970)
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Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History (1970) 198 From Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 12: Published Essays, 1966–1985, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 115–34. [Voegelin here develops his search for constants of “human order in society and history,” and describes explicitly his approach to interpreting and understanding the historical documents of recorded order. He examines the nature of symbols and their relation to engendering experiences; the depth of the soul; trust in the Cosmos and its depth as intelligibly ordered; and the luminous experiences of discovery by philosophers as representative for all humankind . This essay constitutes Voegelin’s most direct and sustained explanation of why a full acknowledgment of human historicity does not nevertheless justify the reductive philosophical position of historicism.—Eds.] The search for the constants of human order in society and history is, at present, uncertain of its language. An older body of concepts is proving inadequate to expressing the search, while a new one has not yet crystallized with sufficient precision. We still speak of the permanent values in the process of history, though we know the language of “values” to be the caput mortuum of a bygone era of methodology; but we must use it if we want to make ourselves understood, because no language more fitting man’s experience of his humanity has yet reached the stage of common acceptance. While there is no adequate language that would impose itself with the authority of an established theory, we use such a language in the practice of our work on symbols. When we engage in 199 equivalences of experience and symbolization in history comparative studies concerning ancestor cults, initiation ceremonies , coronation rituals, the myths of life eternal or the judgment of the dead in various societies, we do not talk about “values” but speak of “equivalent” cults, ceremonies, rites, and myths. Moreover , in doing so we are aware of the differences between the symbols and we know that the sameness which justifies the language of “equivalences” does not lie in the symbols themselves but in the experiences which have engendered them. The language of “equivalences ,” thus, implies the theoretical insight that not the symbols themselves but the constants of engendering experience are the true subject matter of our studies. What is permanent in the history of mankind is not the symbols but man himself in search of his humanity and its order. Though the issue can be stated clearly and simply, its implications are vast. For a comparative study, if it goes beyond registering the symbols as phenomena and penetrates to the constants of engendering experience , can be conducted only by means of symbols which in their turn are engendered by the constants of which the comparative study is in search. The study of symbols is a reflective inquiry concerning the search for the truth of existential order; it will become, if fully developed, what is conventionally called a philosophy of history. The casting around for a theory of “equivalences,” thus, presupposes the existence of a philosopher who has become conscious of the time dimension in his own search of truth and wants to relate it to that of his predecessor in history. The urge to replace a theory of “values” by a theory of “equivalences” marks the point at which the comparative study of symbols attains to an understanding of itself as a search of the search. The following reflections intend to clarify, as far as that is possible within the limits of a paper, the principal problems of the new historical consciousness. I shall reflect, first, on the philosopher’s encounter with an intellectual climate that is dominated by the theory of “values.” I To gain the understanding of his own humanity, and to order his life in the light of insight gained, has been the concern of man in history as far back as the written records go. If today a philosopher turns reflectively toward the area of reality called human existence, 200 part four | philosophy and the open soul he does not discover it as a terra incognita, but moves among symbols concerning the truth of existence which represent the experiences of his predecessors. This field of experiences and symbols is neither an object to be observed from the outside, nor does it present the same appearance to everybody. It rather is the time dimension of existence, accessible only through participation in its reality; and what the philosopher moving in the field will...