The Consciousness of the Ground (Eric Voegelin)

 The following text is from chapter 8 of Eric Voegelin’s Anamnesis (translated by Gerhart Niemeyer). Anamnesis provides Voegelin’s most systematic exposition of his philosophy of consciousness.
The tension in political reality, which historically produces the phenomenon of the noetic interpretation, is not a thing about which objective propositions could be formed. Rather, it must be traced back to its origin in the consciousness of men who desire true knowledge of order. The consciousness of concrete men is the place where order is experienced. From this center of experience radiate the interpretations of social order, both the noetic and the non-noetic. The experience of concrete-human order, too, is not knowledge of an object but itself a tension, insofar as man experiences himself as ordered through the tension to the divine ground of his existence. Nor does any of the terms that emerge in the exegesis of this experience relate to an object. Neither the tension is an object, nor are its poles. Nor is the relation of man to his ground an object for propositions that could turn into possessive truth; rather, it is precisely the tension itself and man’s abiding in it. Far as we might push the game of objectivizing language, we must keep dissolving it negatively, in order to keep free our awareness of the experience of order as a nonobjective reality. The nonobjective character of the experience of order admits of no so-called intersubjective knowledge of order; rather, the intangibility of the reality, which is no ineffability, allows room for a variety of experiences that motivate a corresponding number of symbolic expressions of the experience. In the dynamism of the effort to find the right expression of order we find the origin of the tensions in political reality.

Noetic as well as non-noetic interpretations expound the experience of order for society. Both types, and also their variants, claim that their interpretation is the only true one. As far as the content of the experience is concerned, all interpretations conceive order in terms of their ground. The various satisfied with a false one. That which gives direction to the desire and thus imparts content to it is the ground itself, insofar as it moves man by attraction (kinetai). The tension toward the ground, of which man is conscious, thus must be understood as a unity that may be interpreted but not analyzed into parts. Tracing the exegesis backward, we therefore must say: Without the kinesis of being attracted by the ground, there would be no desire for it; without the desire, no questioning in confusion; without questioning in confusion, no awareness of ignorance. There could be no ignorant anxiety, from which rises the question about the ground, if the anxiety itself were not already man’s knowledge of his existence from a ground of being that is not man himself. This directional factor of knowledge in the tension of consciousness toward the ground Aristotle calls nous. Since in his language the terms nous and noein carry a variety of meanings, while the directional factor of knowledge in the tension toward the ground is the material structure of consciousness and its order, it is advisable, for the purpose of our essay, to identify this factor and to fix it terminologically. I shall, therefore, call the directional factor ratio. With a view to the thus complete exegesis, we may speak of the ratio as the material structure of consciousness and its order. Further, we may characterize that which Bergson has called the open soul its rationality; and the closing of the soul with regard to the ground, or the missing of the goal, as its irrationality.

Aristotle adds to the exegesis of the noetic desire for the ground and the attraction by the ground the symbol of mutual participation (metalepsis) of two entities called nous (1072b20 ss). By nous he understands both the human capacity for knowing questioning about the ground and also the ground of being itself, which is experienced as the directing mover of questions. In Aristotle’s thinking, which is in the process of detaching itself from the symbolism of myth, synonymity of expression means equality of genus by genesis. ”We note that all primary things come into being out of something with the same name” (1070a4 ss). “To explain a thing (ousia) it is necessary to know which among a number of things that have a name in common gives that name to the others (ek synonymou), for it is it which explains what other things are (malista aouto)” (993b20 ss). To the synonymity of the two entities corresponds the genesis of the human from the divine nous. In the sense of the mythic symbolism of synonymity through genesis, Aristotle thus can understand the tension of consciousness as the mutual participation (metalepsis) of the two nous entities. On the part of the human nous, the knowing question and the questioning knowledge, i.e., the noetic act (noesis) is the apprehending participation in the ground of being; the noetic participation, however, is possible by virtue of the preceding genetic participation of the divine in the human nous.

Through the symbols of synonymity, genesis, and mutual participation of the two nous entities, myth enters into the exegesis. What is the meaning of this entry?

The noetic exegesis does not occur in a vacuum but historically renders conscious the tension toward the ground as the center of order of the differentiated consciousness, in contrast to a preknowledge of man and his order that stems from the compact primary experience of the cosmos, with its expression in the myth. It is a differentiating correction of the compact preknowledge, but it does not replace the latter. Our knowledge of order remains primarily mythical even after the noetic experience has differentiated the realm of consciousness and noetic exegesis has made its logos explicit. Our habits of thought, however, are so uncritical that this fact is hardly noticed. We casually work with the concept of human nature as if we considered it constant, as did the classics, or malleable, as do the ideologues. We forget that that concept was not developed inductively but as an expression of the love for the divine ground of being that a philosophizing human being experiences concretely as his essence. What applies to the philosophical experience of nature also applies to the presence under God, which a prophet experiences pneumatically as his essence. The statement that the known nature is not merely the nature of one person who concretely has the experience of his essence, but rather that of all men, implies the premise that all men are equal qua men, regardless of whether or not they experience their human essence in the clarity of differentiated consciousness. The knowledge of the premise, however, comes not from the concrete experience of essence on the part of the respective noetic or pneumatic person, but from the cosmic primary experience, in which things are already experienced as participating men as men, and gods as gods even when we do not know too well what precisely they are. Without that premise, the noetic experiences would remain a biographical curiosity; only with the premise as background do they attain their ordering function in society and history, inasmuch as the premise is the basis of the claim that they are representative and binding for all men. The community-creating content of the premise is so important that in the context of philosophy special symbols were developed for it. Heraclitus speaks of the logos as what is common (xynon) to men, in which all participate qua men, and thus it demands of them conscious homologia. For Aristotle, the common element is the nous, and the symbol of the common order through participation in the nous is thus homonoia. Alexander takes over the homonoia as the symbol for his imperial religion; and finally, St. Paul introduces it into the symbolism of the Christian community. The entering of the myth, therefore, is not a methodological derailment; rather it is the residue of prenoetic knowledge of order and the background without which the noetic knowledge of order would have no function.

In the light of this insight, let us consider the metalepsis of Aristotle. Socrates, in the Phaedo, quotes a dictum concerning the Orphic mysteries: “Many bear the emblems (i.e., take part in the cult), but the devotees (i.e., those akin to the god) are few.” The devotees, he believes, are the true philosophers; and he has done everything in his life to become one of them (69c). The Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy is preceded not only by the myth of the primary experience but also by the symbolism of a probably quite differentiated pneumatic experience of the divine. When the classical noesis lifts the logos of consciousness to highest clarity, it interprets the logos of an area of reality that Plato identifies as initiation into the mysteries. The “Bacchus” who, in the quoted dictum, is both the god as well as the human akin to God becomes in Aristotle the nous, which is both divine and also the human nous participating in the divine. Nor is the identity of the area of reality dissolved if we trace the mythical symbolism still further, clarifying its logos, and substituting the ground (aition), for Bacchus or nous. Even when the noetic exegesis, coming from the more compact experiences of reality, differentiates its logos, it still abides in this same area of reality. The myth, then, ingresses into the noetic exegesis because the noesis egresses from the myth, as it interprets its logos.

Behind the metaphors of ingress and egress there lies the problem of objectivization by noesis. We must resolve and remove the aporias pertaining to this problem before we can continue the analysis:

(1) The area of reality of which we are speaking is the existential tension toward the ground, the participation of man in the divine, the metalepsis in Aristotle’s sense. Regardless of whether the phenomena of this area of reality are expressed in the symbols of epic poets or tragedians, of the Orphics or the philosophers, whenever they are seen as cases of participation, participation becomes the genus under which phenomena of that kind are to be subsumed. “Participation,” however, is a term with the help of which the noetic experience interprets itself. The participation of the philosopher, therefore, would be a species that comes under itself as the genus.

(2) In order to escape this aporia, the participation of the philosopher falling as a species under itself as the genus might be dissociated from the other cases by attributing to it cognitive quality. In that case all non-noetic experiences and symbols would become objects, while noesis would become the science of these objects. The attempt encounters the difficulty that the symbols of the noetic exegesis in fact are not developed as concepts relating to non-noetic objects; rather they are developed as terms in the process of meditation, in which the noetic experience interprets itself. The symbols of noesis relate, objective-wise, to the experience which they are interpreting.

(3) We dissolve these aporias as we acknowledge that the logic of objects and their classification does not apply to an area of reality in which the species is structured by the same kind of knowledge as the supposed generic knowledge and in which, reversely, the supposed generic knowledge has the same material content of participation as the phenomena which it supposedly subsumes.

(4) This decision leads us into another aporia, for the non-noetic phenomena are indeed maneuvered into a kind of object position, by the analysis and classification of the noesis.

(5) In order to resolve this further aporia, one must consider that all participation also contains the component of knowledge about itself and its characteron the scale of compactness and differentiation, direction and misdirection, openness and closing, acquiescence and revolt, etc. On this scale of knowledge, participation has degrees of transparence for itself, up to the optimum clarity of the noetic consciousness, so from each respectively higher position of transparence the respectively preceding position, from which the higher one emerged, appears as a phenomenon of lower ranking truth.
(6) The “objectivization” thus does not refer to participation itself but rather to the difference of truth that arises in the longing search for insight into the right relation to the ground. When Jeremiah scolds the people for having “false” gods, he wavers between the two suppositions that the false gods are non-gods (question of truth) and that, though false, they are gods nevertheless (question of participation). Participation with a low grade of transparency is still participation; and the noetic illumination of consciousness in the tension to the ground is not anything more than participation. There is no Archimedean point from which participation itself could be seen as an object.

(7) Participation is a process of consciousness over which we cannot jump into an objective beyond. The relation of knowledge and object is a relation immanent to the process between degrees of truth of participation. The reality of participation has an immanent structure of different levels of truth, in which even the present knowledge, seen from the vantage point of a future presence, turns into a phenomenon of the past, and it is of this structure we speak as the field of history.

(8) The dropping down of a participation of inferior truth to a phenomenon of the past occurs in the consciousness of concrete persons who look for truth and find it. The consciousness that out of this process emerges a “new man” is old, even though the urge to describe the process produces the symbolic form of autobiography only in later times. The origin of history is human consciousness, which moves a phase of its quest for the truth of the ground into the distance of the past. The quest, however, occurs in a society, and the starting point can always be only a traditional knowledge that is experienced as unsatisfactory. Thus the personal field of history generates a social one. Such fields, generated by new participation, are structured by the characteristic human types that Plato has developed in the Symposium. For the man of mythical participation Plato, following the vocabulary of the epics, uses the term mortal (thnetos), the man who stands over against the immortal gods. The man who lives in the erotic tension to his ground of being is called daimonios aner, i.e., a man who consciously exists in the tension of the in-between (metaxy), in which the divine and the human partake of each other. Insofar as the call of the new humanity is not heard at all or even rejected, the man whom the call addresses sinks down to the status of spiritually dull being, the amathes. The past world, the new world, and the resisting environment are the core of the field of history as constituted respectively through a new truth that experiences itself as epochal.

The noetic experience, interpreting itself, illuminates the logos of participation. Our own analysis, linking up with that of Aristotle, has by now progressed to the point where we can distinguish three dimensions of the exegesis. First, consciousness discovers as its material structure the direction-giving ratio, i.e., the tension of the knowing questioning about the ground. Further, it discovers itself as the luminosity of knowledge about the tension toward the ground. Finally, it discovers itself as a process of quest that puts behind itself phases of less luminosity, as the past. I shall now characterize the three dimensions as well as their relation to each other, again beginning with the Aristotelian analyses, insofar as this is possible:

(1) The direction-giving ratio is the material content of consciousness, even when it is not known in the luminosity of noetic consciousness. Ratio, in the sense of questioning about the ground, also provides the structure of the myth from which noesis differentiates consciousness as the center of order. This was known to Aristotle, who further knew that myth and noesis do not immediately confront each other but that there are transitional forms, like the Ionic speculation in which the elements supplant the gods as the arche of things. His own analysis therefore assumes the form of a criticism of the Ionic speculation. One cannot simply posit something as the ground, he says, so that man derives from earth, the earth from air, the air from fire, and so on, ad indefinitum (apeiron). Indefinite series (euthoria) he deems inadmissible since they contain merely intermediate causes (meson) but not a first cause (proton); and if the series has no limit (peras) in a first cause (arche), there is no aition at all (Met. 994a1 ss). More particularly, series of this kind are inadmissible in a theory of human action. For man is a being having reason (nous echon); and a rational being is not content with intermediate goals in a theory of action; only a goal (telos) having the character of a limit (peras) can be rational (994b ss). Furthermore, precisely for this reason the aition cannot have material character, for wood does not make a bed and bronze a statue (984a25). The aition that is the origin of movement can therefore be only the nous.

(2) While the above argument endeavors to isolate the truth concerning the ground, it still takes into account the other dimensions of consciousness, i.e., the luminosity and the historicity of the process. Especially the decisive point of the argument, viz., that man is noetically open and therefore can recognize his ground in the nous, is not itself an argument or the result of an argument, but rather the premise that alone makes the argument possible. Let us look at it from the premise of the luminosity of consciousness: On the one hand, Aristotle knows that in his noetic experience the nous is the adequate symbol for the ground, and therefore he has no need to prove this truth by an argument. On the other hand, though, he requires the argument in order socially to establish the material structure of consciousness vis-à-vis rival interpretations of the ground. The traditional knowledge of participation, expressing itself in the form of aetiological series without an adequate arche, is given, and the new knowledge of the ground must justify itself by means of a criticism of the traditional knowledge. That justification, however, is possible only when one isolates the question of the ground as the tension of consciousness, a tension that creates symbols even where the symbols of reality to be expressed are not yet adequately differentiated. The isolation of the aetiological dimensions thus reveals the field of history as the field of endeavors to grasp and symbolize the truth of the ground. This essential character of the historical field is not revealed by the aetiological argument itself but through the light thrown on the prenoetic past by the luminosity of the noetic experience. Only because the noetically open man (nous echon) knows about his ground can he enter into a critical contention with a knowledge of participation that has inferior transparency. By entering into this contention, however, the Aristotelian argument is pushed to the limits of the aporias that we examined above. Is the Ionic speculation a proposition about the object “ground,” which the argument proves to be false? And is the assertion that the nous is the ground a proposition about the same object, which one can prove right by an argument? With regard to these questions of “objectivization,” Aristotle’s analysis still is not as exact as might be desirable, even though there can be no doubt about its intentions. The reasons for this shortcoming of exactness are still to be discussed. One can, however, exactly fix the point at which the argument arrives at the limit of aporia, if we recall the previously mentioned case of Jeremiah and his suppositions concerning the “false” gods: In his aetiological argument, Aristotle concentrates so exclusively on the question of truth that the dimension of the question of participation is momentarily obscured. The critical speculations are not altogether as “false” as they appear in Aristotle’s description, for they, too, have their meaning in the context of a knowledge of participation, even though a more compact one. One can corroborate that on the basis of the extant pre-Socratic texts. On the other hand, Aristotle’s identification of the ground with the nous is not altogether as ”right” if he relies on arguments rather than on the context of the noetic knowledge of participation. Let us, therefore, repeat once again: The tension toward the ground is the material structure of consciousness but not an object for propositions; rather it is a process of consciousness having degrees of transparency for itself. In the noetic experience, consciousness attains its optimum luminosity in which the tension toward the ground can interpret its own logos. And from the presence of the luminous exegesis of its logos, it can constitute the field of past history as the field of the less transparent phases of the same endeavor to know the truth of the ground. Without the dimension of consciousness’s luminosity, there is no aetiological dimension of consciousness; and without these two, there is no historico-critical dimension of the knowledge of participation.

(3) It is only on the occasion of the aetiological argument that Aristotle pushes his analysis so close to the limit of objectivization, that the relation of the truth of the ground to the dimensions of luminosity and of history remains not wholly clear. A contributing factor may have been his assumption that there is a continuum of philosophy comprising both the Ionic transitional form and noetic philosophy. On this assumption, he would conceive his criticism of the aetiological series as an intraphilosophical contention about the truth of the ground, a contention in which the problem of two different types of experiences, a non-noetic and a noetic one, would not be a factor. This assumption of a continuum of the type of experience, beginning with the Ionians, continues even today as the unshakable convention of philosophy’s history, but I still doubt its correctness. The type of experience that produces material archai as well as aetiological series as its symbol seems to me to differ from the noetic one. At this point I shall not dwell on the character of this type of experience. The question must be touched only because the difficulties that arise on occasion of the aetiological argument disappear as soon as Aristotle confronts noetic philosophy with the myth in other words, with a type of experience and symbol about the non-noetic character of which he has no doubt. In the confrontation of philosophy with the myth, out of which it has grown, the historical dimension of participation becomes the theme; through its analysis, Aristotle has gained insights the textual formulation of which are well known to every classical philologist and historian of philosophy, while their character as insights into the historicity of consciousness has hardly been noticed. Fortunately these insights are not only important but also formulated simply and tersely.

All people are equally excited by thaumazein (wondering), but they can express their wonderment either through the myth or through philosophy. Side by side with the philosophos there is, therefore, the philomythosa neologism that the philosophical language unfortunately has not retained and that “philomythos is, in a sense, a philosophos, for the myth consists of wonders (thaumasion)” (982b18 ss). The linguistic thread tying the wonders of the myth with man’s general wondering, from which also philosophy arises, is then spun further in that the philosopher, while not disposing of the thaumasia of the myth, has a thaumasion in the divine nous (1072b26). Even though myth and philosophy, as symbolic expressions for the experience of wondering and participation in the ground, are equivalent, they nevertheless do not achieve equal knowledge of truth concerning the ground. The philosopher, therefore, cannot accept the thaumasia of the philomythos, or at least not all of them. For Aristotle holds the belief of the fathers (patrios doxa)that the heavenly bodies are divine to be divinely inspired and true, and embodies it in his own symbol of the Prime Mover of the cosmos. On the other hand, he considers the tradition that gods have human or animal form an invention for the edification of the people, a tradition that must not be accepted (1074b115). The philosopher thus eliminates the thaumasia of the polytheistic myth but retains the knowledge of the philomythoi about the divinity of the ground. He clearly grasps the difference of the grades of truth between the primary experience of a cosmos full of gods and the noetic experience for which the divine is the ground of the cosmos and of man. In spite of his recognition about this difference of truth, the myth still so fascinates the philosopher that the late Aristotle confesses: “The more solitary and retired I become, the more I love the myth” (philomytheros).

Aristotle’s name does not conjure up in our time the figure of a philosopher of history. And yet his analysis of the temporal flow in consciousness as the dimension in which noesis recognizes itself as the presence of truth and, at the same time, the myth as the past, is a philosophical accomplishment about history that has not been surpassed until today. Let us recapitulate the essential points.

Above all, history is not a field of indifferently objective materials from which we may select some according to arbitrary criteria, in order to “construct” a tableau of history. Rather, history is constituted by consciousness, so the logos of consciousness decides what is and what is not historically relevant. Be it noted especially that the time in which history constitutes itself is not that of the external world, in which the somatically founded life of man leaves its traces, but rather the inner dimension of consciousness of desire and search after the ground. Since, regarding this dimension, all men are equal, the field of history is always universally human, even if only a relatively small sector of the philosophers’ position would be materially known. The human universality of the desiring and searching participation in the ground results further in the equivalence of the symbolisms in which the consciousness of the ground is expressed. By equivalence I mean the fact that all experiences of the ground are in like manner experiences of participation, even though they may considerably differ from each other on the scales of compactness and differentiation, of finding and missing the ground. The equivalence of the symbols thrown up in the stream of participation, finally, leads to the loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past, since they express phases of that same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself.

Our own analysis has followed that of Aristotle as far as possible. We now have to determine at which point a noetic exegesis in the historical situation of our time must diverge from Aristotle.

The insight of the noetic experience dissolves reality’s image of the cosmic primary experience. The place of a cosmos full of gods is taken up by a dedivinized world, and, correlative to it, the divine is concentrated into the transcending ground of being. Immanent and transcendent are spatio-metaphorical indices attributed, in the postnoetic dispensation, to the areas of reality that have become, respectively, the world of things in space and time, and the divine being of the ground beyond space and time. Aristotle was fully aware of this restructuring of reality, from the image of a cosmos to that of a world, as a result of the noetic experience, even though the older images of the divine stars (phanera) or the geocentric, spheric cosmos still linger on. The residue of patrios doxa in the cosmology strictly speaking does not constitute the big obstacle for the further development of Aristotle’s philosophy. Natural science, especially, was successfully pursued in the Peripatos; and Aristotle’s geocentric concept did not prevent the emergence of a heliocentric image in his school. It was the dogmatic-geocentric resistance of the Stoics against the heliocentric liberty which the Peripatetics had taken, which seems to have caused the stagnation after Aristarchus. The obstacle must rather be seen in the unfinished state in which Aristotle left the noetic part of his work, as well as in the lack of interest of his immediate successors in the unfinished problems. For the restructuring of the image of reality required a philosophical vocabulary that expressed most precisely the new truth of the structure of being. If “being” was to remain the term for reality in general, as Aristotle intended, then he needed a differentiated vocabulary for the modes of being. Obviously, the existence of things in  space and time is a mode of being different from the mode of divine being beyond space and time, and this latter, in turn, is a mode different from that of the nonobjective reality of consciousness together with its tensions and dimensions which we have here analyzed. This kind of vocabulary, however, was not developed, possibly because Aristotle was still too close to the myth so that he did not feel handicapped by the technical deficiency of his own analyses.

The deficiencies of Aristotle’s vocabulary was one of the factors that pushed the post-Aristotelian philosophy into the direction of dogmatic metaphysics. The specific point of departure for the development was the symbolism of ousia.1

In the cosmic primary experience, there are no terms for being and its modes. All “things” are called directly by their names: heaven and earth, gods and men, country and ruler. All of them are “real” and ”true” in a way not precisely determined. All of them are themselves and yet at the same time consubstantial, so they can be related to each other through genesis, which in its turn is expressed in the mythical narrative of their generation. This background is so much alive for Aristotle that the one term ousia suffices him for all modes of being; his glance always passes through the ousiai correctly to the “things” of the primary experience. “The question that has always been asked and is still being asked today, the ever-puzzling question ‘What is being?’ amounts to this: ‘What is primary being (ousia)?’ ” (1028b35). It does not make sense to translate ousia in this sentence with “substance,” as is conventionally done, for one would thereby only get involved, anachronistically, in the problems of later dogmatic metaphysics. The meaning of this ousia is the undoubted, unquestionable, and convincing reality of “things” in the primary experience. If one is looking, in Aristotle’s language, for an explanatory synonym for ousia, the closest would be aletheia in its double meaning of reality and truth. For Aristotle, everything that is convincingly real falls under the title ousia. Form and matter are ousia and also the thing that is composed of form and matter. Beyond that the soul, or at least its noetic part, is ousia, inasmuch as it is the form (eidos) of man. Furthermore the constitution is such a real form (eidos) of the polisa mishap the consequences of which still plague us today as the doctrine of state forms in political science. Finally the divine nous, the Prime Mover, has the status of ousia.

Obviously great misunderstandings must arise when the term ousia loses its transparence for the reality of the primary experience. Under the pressure of the noetic experience, which dissociates the cosmos into the world and its ground, all “things” that Aristotle calls ousia are then objectivized according to the model of things in the world, composed as they are of form and matter in space and time. When the transparency vanishes and the ousiai become objects of speculation, then there originate the millenial controversies of dogmatics about the soul its existence, pre- and post-existence about the existence of God and its proofs, about the finality or infinity of the world in time, and so on. Finally, when the criticism of Enlightenment and Positivism removes the dogmatisms of theology and metaphysics from the intellectual discourse, the mistaken treatment of the problems is not replaced by a better one, but together with the misunderstandings the entire mistreated reality is thrown out. The residual mode of world-immanent existence alone still carries the title being and ousia. At this point, however, the intellectual grotesque, which originates in the misunderstanding of Aristotle’s symbols, enters into a phase that materially must be recognized as its final phase, inasmuch as the reality of reality, about the truth of which man historically is concerned, is simply denied. The characteristic result is the appearance of symbols like “the end of history” and “the point of existence,” in which the experience of existence without reality is groping for an expression. The horrid consequences of the denial of reality for the order of society in the age of ideology are well known to everybody.

I have used the word grotesque. It offers itself readily because since the nineteenth century the grotesque has become a literary form that is best able to express the phenomena resulting from the cleavage of language and reality. The great experimenter and also master in this area was Flaubert. In his Tentation de Saint Antoine, he has grasped the phenomena of intellectual decay on the level of the spirit; in Bouvard et Pécuchet, the vulgar level of a middle-class farce of cliché, prefiguring the middle-class ambiance in which Hitler would come to power. If one wishes to see, as a whole, the crescendo of decay down to the catastrophe, one need only put side by side with each other Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées recues and the pages in Karl Kraus’s Dritte Walpurgisnacht, in which he characterizes Goebbels through his cliché language. With Flaubert we are still in the phase in which the language loses its grip on reality and begins to have a life of its own as cliché; with Karl Kraus it has come to the phase in which the cliché asserts the claim to realize itself; but since reality cannot be produced out of nonreality, its place must be taken by bloody grotesque.2 Among the more recent attempts to comprehend the phenomenon of National Socialism in the form of the grotesque, I should like to mention Doderer’s Die Merowinger and Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter. In his prologue to the latter, Frisch has formulated the problem of the grotesque: “Just because it happened, nonsense (madness) never deserves to be called destiny.” Doderer, with the same intention as Frisch, also uses the term “nonsense” (or madness) in the Merowinger.3 For as a result of the loss of reality, human action turns into a phenomenon that can no longer be understood by means of such reality-charged categories as “destiny.” Even the term action misses its mark, since action in the sense of classical ethics is oriented by means of the existential tension toward the ground, while action minus this orientation becomes nonaction. The social advancement of symbols like “activism,” “decisionism,” “terrorism,” and “behavior” is symptomatic for the need to find adequate words for the experience of reality-forsaken, world-immanent conduct in its active and passive varieties. Insofar as political events drop down to the level of unhistorical “nonsense” (madness), it can indeed no longer be interpreted by symbols that have originated in consciousness’ center of order and its exegesis; new terms are required in order adequately to describe the pneumopathological phenomena of the “loss of reality,” which we prefer to the accurate, but fuzzy “nonsense” (madness).

The misunderstanding and dogmatization of a noetic exegesis as a proposition about things cannot be prevented; but it is possible to differentiate the reality represented compactly by the symbol ousia to such an extent that the analysis offers few inducements to the dogmatizing disposition.

I refer back to the sentence of Aristotle that the question “What is being?” merges into the question “What is ousia?” and to my comment that the “ousia” is a matter of reality of “things” that matter-of-factly and convincingly confronts us in the cosmic primary experience. Let us then talk about reality and articulate the area to be covered by the term: Reality (a) is not a thing that man confronts but the encompassing reality in which he himself is real as he participates; real (b) are the “things” that can be distinguished in the encompassing realitythe gods, men, and so on; real (c) is also the participation of things in each other within the encompassing reality. Further, in the case of man – if we for the moment leave aside the questions of bodily reality- participation has the structure of consciousness, so we can speak of consciousness as the sensorium of human participation. In the experiences, recollections, phantasmata, and symbolizations of consciousness arise the images of reality, in which the poles of participation, i.e., the realities of god and world, of other people and of the concretely participating man, find their place. Among the experiences of participation, finally, the noetic one has its special place, in that it elevates to clarity the tension toward the divine ground not merely as the material structure of consciousness but as the fundamental structure of all reality that is not the divine ground itself. As a result, the mythical image of reality that operates with intracosmic things as the ultimate ground must be changed into the philosophical image of the order of being.

Let us pursue the resulting problems in more detail.

Following the language of the preceding paragraph, we must formulate the sentence: A reality, called man, relates itself, within an encompassing reality, through the reality of participation called consciousness to the terms of participation as reality. The ambiguity of Aristotle’s expression “ousia,” which we criticized above, seems to return in this sentence as the ambiguity of “reality.” And that is no mere appearance; it does indeed return. What, then, have we gained? One could answer that this sentence, in its differentiation, makes it clear why the analysis of existence can express a certain phase of its process only through an ambiguous symbol. The symbol must be ambiguous because every attempt to limit it to one or the other unambiguous meaning would destroy the insight in the structure of reality that the philosopher, within reality, has gained through participation in its process. That insight would be lost if he were to make reality into an object of knowledge from a standpoint outside of reality. Insight into reality is insight from the perspective of man who participates in reality. The term perspective must not be understood, or rather misunderstood, in a subjective sense. There is not a multitude of perspectives, but only the one perspective that is determined by the place of man in reality. Insight as reality of consciousness determines the content of the insight as the reality of human participation, as the poles of participation and as the encompassing reality. In a real sense the noetic exegesis thus arrives at the point at which its insight in reality can be expressed adequately only through a symbol referring ambiguously to all dimensions and aspects of reality, in which the exegesis itself, knowing in perspective, really moves. The ambiguity is not the result of sloppy language but rather is required by the noetic insight. The symbol, therefore, though couched in ambiguous language, is noetically unambiguous. It is unambiguous insofar as it is a symbol through which the reality of the exegesis, which produces it, attains transparency of itself for itself. As the expression of a phase of the exegesis, the symbol does not refer to a reality outside of itself; it itself is reality. The Aristotelian symbol ousia thus is not objectionable on account of its ambiguity, which rather proves the noetic self-assurance of Aristotle in the treatment of his problem. It is objectionable only insofar as it tends (a) to limit reality to the terms of participation and (b) within this limited meaning to suggest the mode of being of things in spatio-temporal existence as the model of reality so that it tends to lose the occasion of experience which (a) gives noetic unambiguity to the linguistic ambiguity and (b) exhaustively determines the content of the perspectival ambiguity.

It is obvious that a situation that is linguistically and noetically so complex can give rise to a number of misunderstandings. It is advisable to anticipate the historically and practically most important of them, two in number:

(1) As we contrast the philosophical image of being to the mythical one of reality, we obviously do not wish to say that it is reality that has changed but rather only our image of reality. In the context of this statement, “reality” becomes a kind of constant given, the structure of which is seen better by the philosopher than by the philomyther. This idea has a solid core, inasmuch as there is indeed a difference of truth between the compact-cosmic and the noetically differentiating experience, in relation to which difference reality appears as a constant. The idea is misunderstood, however, if one makes the metaphor of an “image” too literal, forgetting that “images” are the symbols with the help of which men express their respective experiences of participation. The images are not more or less correct representations of a reality existing as a datum independently of the experience of participation; rather they are more or less adequate expressions of the experiences. Participation is also reality. The difference in truth between two sets of images is immanent to the historical dimension of consciousness. If one overlooks the reality of consciousness, then the following results occur: (a) the terms of knowing participation turn into data independent of participation, (b) the images and the differential of truth between them turn into events in the time of the world (most suitable for materials of a history of philosophy), and (c) participating man turns into a subject of knowledge beyond participation (which is capable of progressing most delightfully from theology to metaphysics to positive science). When the symbols become detached from the experience for the exegesis of which they were created, they become images in a mistaken sense. Then there develop the secondary phenomena of philosophy, e.g., the manipulation of noetic symbols as if they were propositions (this being called metaphysics), also the eternal truths found by philosophy, or the idea of a philosophia perennis (sixteenth century), or the quarrel of the isms about the correctness of the images.

(2) Reality is constant in relation to the differential of truths in consciousness. Consciousness, however, is reality of human participation, and this reality is characterized by a presence of experience that puts phases of lower grades of truth behind itself, as the past. Reality, then, is not constant. Just as one can forget the changeability of reality we call it history because of its constancy, so one can forget the constancy of reality because of its experienced changeability. The differentiating experience, either noetic or pneumatic, can be so intensive that the man to whom it occurs feels transformed into a new being. The new image of the world resulting from the experience can be misunderstood as a new world; and the process of change itself can turn into a structural datum of reality that can be extrapolated into the future. As that changeability that is experienced in participation mutates into images of a changeable reality comprising the poles of participation, we have the roots of the phenomena of metastatic beliefs: The gradualistic idea of infinite progress in the time of the world, the apocalyptic visions of the catastrophe of an old world and its metastasis into a new one resulting from divine intervention; the revolutionary ideas of a metastasis manipulated by human action; and so on. Since, in spite of the changeability within the realm of participation, reality does remain constant, the metastatic outbursts are followed by disillusionment: The social dwindling away and dying out of metastatic beliefs; the turning from metastatic exuberance to the necessities of everyday life; the retreat of the adepts from the stubborn, unchanging world into underground sectarianism; Isaiah’s “remnant”; pietistic communities that remain aloof from the corrupted world; the disappointment of the expectation of parousia; the decline of the revolutionary momentum aiming at world conquest to co-existence; and so on.

The reality of consciousness is not unconscious, but through symbolic expressions in various degrees of illumination it relates to reality, either to its own reality of participation, or the poles of participation. The images themselves thus are reality, the reality of consciousness, but they are not the reality to which they relate themselves in knowledge. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. There would be no possibility for misunderstood, imaginary, or intentionally false images if consciousness were not a process of relating itself to reality through images. We are here touching the origin of all objectivizations of consciousness itself.

The problem arises at the beginning of the noetic experience and its symbolization. The intentional character of participating consciousness becomes a central theme in the generation of the philosophers about 500 B.C. Parmenides says it is the same thing to think (noein) and to be (einai) (B 3); and Heraclitus uses the term logos in a double meaning of exegetic thinking and explained reality (B 1). A trias of being-thinking-symbol is a reality identical with itself and, at the same time, analytically kept distinct as being, thought of being, and expression of thinking as well as of being. Noetic consciousness is the luminosity in which thinking about reality finds its language, and in this linguistic expression it again relates itself to reality. The enthusiasm of the newly experienced tension of man toward his ground, and the will to knowledge about the divine ground, which lightens up reality as a convincing “Is!” (esti) also effaces a good many things that should have been distinguished, above all the limit between the reality of participation and the reality of its poles. Precisely this exuberance of Parmenides is characteristic also for the treatment of noesis in Aristotle, even though Plato had already progressed further in the differentiation of the area of erotic tension. For in Aristotle we find this sentence: “Thought (nous) thinks (noei) about itself because it shares the nature (metalepsis) of the object of thought (noeton); for it becomes an object of thought in coming into contact (thigannon) with and thinking (noon) its objects, so that thought and object of thought are the same. For that which is capable of receiving (dektikon) the object of thought, i.e., the essence (ousia), is thought (nous)” (Met. 1072b2022). The existential tension in Parmenides is already a differentiated reality as it is for Aristotle: the trip from night to light, the tensions of desire and being-led, which Parmenides describes at the beginning of his poem, correspond strictly to Aristotle’s analysis of existence in Metaphysics I and II. In Aristotle, however, the will to knowledge is so exuberant that consciousness is in danger of drawing into itself the reality of the ground, a reality to which consciousness in its participation relates itself and that, for that reason, it also keeps at objective distance. The boundary between image and reality becomes fuzzy. Aristotle does indeed push his image of participation in the divine, through what in man is divine, to the point where he maintains that the activity (energeia) of participation, which man, tied down by his body, attains only in rare moments of the highest bliss, is a perpetual happiness in God’s reality. It is no accident that we find the above-mentioned quotation from Aristotle in Hegel’s gnostic-dialectical speculation as the great peroration of the Encyclopedia. The occasion on which the intentionality of consciousness becomes a theme in the classical noesis is also the occasion for saying something more about the reality of the divine ground than a strict exegesis of the existential tension would permit.

The intentionality of consciousness as such would not lead to the fallacious images of reality if man’s participation were an automatism that produced in consciousness infallibly correct pictures of reality and nothing but correct pictures. Consciousness, however, has a dimension of freedom in the design of images of reality in which are found such disparate phenomena as mythopoeic freedom, artistic creation, gnostic and alchemistic speculation, the private world view of liberal citizens, and the constructions of ideological systems. What concerns us in this wide range of problems is only the possibility of a disparity between form and content of reality. In this disparity the phenomena of the loss of reality originate.

From the knowing anxiety of ignorance, through the desiring knowledge and knowing questioning, man can advance to the optimum consciousness of his existential tension toward the ground and thereby to an understanding of the structure of his consciousness. He is, however, free either to enter this quest with but little interest, or to be content with partial success, or to accept falsehood as truth, or to refuse the quest and even resist it, without ceasing to be participating man and as such to have consciousness. There are easy-going people like the couple whom Doderer describes in his Merowinger: “They belonged to the multitude of the happy-without-history endowed with the well-being of born atheists, who do not necessarily conduct themselves without piety, and mostly also go to church.”4 They, too, are human; they, too, have consciousness; they, too, design images of reality even if of questionable quality. Human consciousness let us definitely state this point has reality in the form of participation and the material structure of ratio even when the existential tension is low and the reality realized by consciousness correspondingly small. By reality we mean, in this context, the previously outlined perspective that is determined by man’s place in reality. This perspective is the form intended by the images, regardless of whether the content is rich or sparse, whether compact-opaque or differentiated-clear, whether it stems from man’s experienced tension toward the ground, from the experienced revolt against the ground, or from the velleities of the passions. Whenever the desire of knowledge is sufficiently intensive to elaborate somewhat comprehensive images of reality there occurs a filling-in of the perspective form of reality. This relation between images and form of reality exists in fact, as has been implicitly found in situations in which comparisons are unavoidable. Such discoveries have been made, sometimes with chagrin, as when Christians discovered pagan parallels to their own verities of faith and their cults; sometimes with pleasure, as when secularist interpreters of the Qumran texts thought it possible to diminish the importance of Christ through the earlier figure of the “teacher of righteousness”; sometimes with the erudite apparatus of cultural diffusion, as when astonishingly similar images appear in different civilizations; sometimes with psychological cleverness, as when parallels are explained by way of archetypes of the collective unconscious. As one can see, the insight into the form of reality is not without importance for the economy of science, for it eliminates the element of astonishment and renders superfluous occasional theories for the explanation of parallels. Further, the insight provides general rules for the investigation of image-designs, like the following: Images of reality must be examined for their form of reality; when the pattern of form has become clear, the contents must be examined; schemes of reality that present themselves as systems must be examined for the intellectual tricks with the help of which the nonsystematic form of reality is closed to make up a system; particularly one must not accept the demand of adherents of a system that their premises are the condition for understanding the system, for precisely systems can be understood only by interpretations “from without,” i.e., interpretations beginning with the form of reality; when the investigation deals with a cosmological society expressing its compact experience of reality through myths, the myths about the different areas of reality must be carefully collected and classified in order to gain a somewhat correct idea of the image of reality of that society; and so on. Finally, the insight makes it possible to formulate more precisely the problem of the loss of reality: There is no other reality than that of which we have experience. When a person refuses to live in existential tension toward the ground, or if he rebels against the ground, refusing to participate in reality and in this way to experience his own reality as man, it is not the “world” that is thereby changed but rather he who loses contact with reality and in his own person suffers a loss of reality. Since that does not make him cease to be man, and since his consciousness continues to function within the form of reality, he will generate ersatz images of reality in order to obtain order and direction for his existence and action in the world. He then lives in a “second reality,” as this phenomenon is called, since Musil’s Man without Qualities. The ersatz images can draw their content from various sources, the most important ones being the lust for wealth, power, or sex, as well as the superbia vitae positing the autonomous Ego in place of the ground. The effects of a loss of reality are pneumopathological disturbances in the existential order of the respective person, and, if life in the “second reality” becomes socially dominant, such massive disturbances of social order as we have witnessed.

In our time the loss of reality is not only registered by revolutionary violence, noisy propaganda, bloody executions, indifferent complacence, or dull apathy. It is also experienced and suffered as loss. The awareness of suffering a shadowy life, however, is the low point of turning around, the periagoge, from where the ascent from the cave to the light can begin. Our time is characterized not only by extreme losses of reality but also by efforts to fill the form of reality again with the reality of existential tension. The indications and more than indications of this movement are the insights into the nature of the second reality, the grotesque and imbecility of this time, into the fraud of systems and intellectual swindle, into the ersatz character of images of reality without reality, with their origin in the refusal to apperceive reality. Let us add to this list a reference to Albert Camus, whose work is a prototype of existential catharsis. The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) is still governed by an experience of the absurdity of existence that comes from the area of Dostoevsky’s psychology of the revolutionary. Suicide appears as the only possible response to absurdity. In The Rebel (1951) Camus accomplished a second phase of the ascent, as he accepts the endurance in uncertainty about the meaning of life as his burden and seeks to keep the tension free from dogmatic ersatz realities, be they theological, metaphysical, or ideological. The third phase of his meditative progressus, of which he hoped to gain the freedom of creation,5 was shortened by his untimely death. More than one of his formulations, however, indicate the goal toward which he was moving. On the concluding pages of his work on rebellion, he made clear its character in such clarity that it had to collapse: The rebel cannot cope with the order of his life and thus replaces the presence of life by his dream of the future. These men “despair of personal freedom and dream of a strange freedom of the species; reject solitary death and give the name of immortality to a vast collective agony. They no longer believe in the things that exist in the world and in living man; the secret of Europe is that it no longer loves life.” Instead of the man who lives here and now in the tension toward the ground, there is the Ego without a present arrogating to himself power over life and death of his fellow beings, under the pretense of justice and politics. “For want of something better to do, they deified themselves and their misfortunes began; these gods have their eyes put out.” The vision of healing: Rebellion has attained its meridian of thought men refuse to be gods and thus relinquish the unlimited power to inflict death. The new rule of ethics, the sole “original rule of life today”: “to learn to live and to die and, in order to be a man, to refuse to be a god.”6 In other words, the murder of God, the preoccupation of the European intellectual from the Marquis de Sade to Hegel and Nietzsche, and which logically led to the murder of man, is reversed. A contemporary note in the Carnets makes clear that Camus’s self-analysis had already gone beyond the formulations of The Rebel: “Not morality but fulfillment. And there is no fulfillment other than that of love, meaning the renunciation of self and dying to the world. Going on to the end. Disappear. To dissolve oneself in love. It will be the power of love which then creates, rather than myself. To lose oneself. To dismember oneself. To deny oneself in the fulfillment and the passion of truth.”7 It seems to have been more difficult, although understandable for everyone who knows the milieu of intellectual terror, to have courage for the theoretical consequences of the new insight from love. I quote a touching remark from The Rebel: “The analysis of rebellion leads at least to a suspicion that there is a human nature, as the Greeks thought, and contrary to the postulates of modern thought.”8 If one does not take “human nature” in this sentence to mean that kind of information that textbooks on philosophy always offer, but rather take it to mean active life, ordered by the loving tension of existence to the divine ground, in which tension the autonomous self dissolves itself, one would not miss the direction of the progressus. It is remarkable how young people understand Camus, taking him as model and guide in the analysis of existence that today is the burden of everybody who, resisting the time, seeks to regain his reality as man. At more than one American university, I could observe that the imitation of Camus’s meditation has become, for numerous students, the method of catharsis. In this way they rid themselves of the intellectual pressure of either the leftist ideologues or the neo-Thomists or existentialist theologians, according to their respective milieu. The great effect of Camus’s work seems to stem from his inexorability in the endeavor for purity as he divests himself of ersatz realities.
The analysis of consciousness could start from the classical noesis, following it to an insight into (a) the material structure that we called ratio, (b) luminosity of consciousness and (c) the historical gradation of truth. At that point it had to go beyond Aristotle in order to introduce the further problems (d) of the perspective of reality, (e) the form of the intentional object, and (f) form of reality of consciousness, as well as that of the content of reality and the loss of reality. The two phases of the analysis were required by the historical change of the noetic situation from antiquity to modernity. In the classical noesis the point was to differentiate consciousness as the center of human order, in opposition to the cosmic primary experience and to the compact symbolism of the myth. In the modern noesis the point is to re-establish consciousness in opposition to a dogmatism bare of reality. The two efforts are phases in the historical continuum of consciousness, inasmuch as (1) the incomplete condition of the classical noesis set up the development of postclassical dogmatism to which we are in opposition today, and (2) we can struggle out of the misery of dogmatism only by returning to the classical noesis and to try to solve its unfinished problems. Let us, then, formulate the unfinished problem as it presents itself now, at the end of our own efforts.

The classical attempt was essentially successful but was not followed through to the end required by its own beginnings. The noetic experience led to the dissociation of the cosmos of primary experience, “full of gods,” into the dedivinized world and the divine ground of being. In the same process human consciousness comes into view as the reality of experience and the source of the images of reality. The insight of the noetic experience thus encompasses all at once two areas of reality, that of consciousness and that of the poles of participation, that can be distinguished from each other but combine in the reality of noetic experience to the one truth of the perspective of reality. The difficulties arise from the “all at once.” For the consciousness of the ground cannot attain the optimum clarity of insight into its logos without gaining insight into the poles of participation and their relation to each other, in which process the mythical image of reality changes into the philosophical image of being. On the other hand, there is the danger that the new truth about the poles turns into propositions about a reality supposedly independent of the perspective of noetic experience. These propositions, in turn, would induce alternative propositions unmotivated by the noetic experience, propositions concerning the supposedly same reality. If propositions about the poles of noetic participation, i.e., about man, his divine ground, and the world, are detached from the perspective of reality of the noetic experience, they come out not only as false propositions about the poles but also destroy the existential tension of consciousness and thus the center of human order. There then ensue the phenomena of the loss of reality and spiritual disorder. In the classical noesis, as it was just detaching itself from the myth, the truth of the perspective of reality was so much taken for granted that the problem, as we have here sketched it, did not become a theme. The speculations about ousia and nous set up the postclassical dogmatism not because they themselves had left behind the noetic experience and lost its reality but because the analysis of the desire for knowledge developed directly into the knowledge of man and of the divine ground itself. The areas of participation and of its poles were neither adequately distinguished from each other, nor was their connection adequately clarified. Thus it was possible to forget the noetic experience and to make the symbols it had produced into instruments of intellectual games in the context of utterly different contents of reality, just because the experience itself as the ordering reality of man had not become a central theme. It is therefore incumbent on us to secure the reality and function of the experience by clarifying the connection between it and the symbolism relating to the poles of noetic participation.


1 The symbolism of ousia is not the only point at which the post-Aristotelian parekbasis of “metaphysics” could have been engendered. The language of the literary corpus that falls under the general title of “metaphysics” reflects a number of cases of experiences that, not always clearly recognizable, offer various opportunities for dogmatization. Regarding the dogmatism that stems from the works of Aristotle, cf. Philip Merlan, From Platonism to Neoplatonism (The Hague, 1960).

2 Gustave Flaubert, Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Oeuvres vol. II, Pleiade). Karl Kraus, Die dritte Walpurgisnacht (Munich 1955), p. 41 ff.

3 Max Frisch, Biedermann und die Brandstifter (Frankfurt 1958), p. 9. Heimito von Doderer, Die Merowinger (Munich 1962), p. 363.

4 Doderer, Merowinger, p. 353.

5 Albert Camus, Carnets II (Paris 1964), p. 324 ff.

6 Albert Camus, L’Homme révolté (Paris 1951), p. 376 ff.

7 Camus, Carnets II, p. 309 ff.

8 Camus, L’Homme révolté, p. 28.

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