Anamnesis Essay - Critical Context

Eric Voegelin

Critical Context

The range of Voegelin’s philosophical thought varied widely throughout his career, and he was not averse to changes in the directions of his inquiries and methods. Indeed, the single constant throughout his studies was the determination not to erect a self-sustained, inherently limited system which obscured his attempts to gain a better vision of reality. Each work represents a stage of development, and Anamnesis shows Voegelin at a point in his thinking where he had rejected some earlier concepts, modified others, and shifted his direction from particular events to underlying universals. The work stands as a culmination of a twenty-year cycle of development started during the mid-1940’s.

Before that time, Voegelin had envisioned a multivolume “History of Political Ideas,” arranged in chronological order and treating ideas as entities discrete in themselves and independent of human beings. By 1943, however, Voegelin had come to reject this approach, developing new theories based on human experience and its symbolization through language, myth, and political institutions.

In The New Science of Politics (1952), and in the four volumes of Order and History (1956-1974), Voegelin explores this evolving concept of the shared symbolization of reality; for him, history itself is a trail of symbols caught between an unknown beginning and an unforeseen end. In a sense, Voegelin fused philosophical and historical thoughts, and Anamnesis is probably his most compact presentation of the results. Anamnesis centers on two central points: the need to recover philosophical truths that were lost during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the use of the language of philosophy to express the ultimate reality found within human consciousness that creates history.

Voegelin believed that the earlier insights of such men as Aristotle and Plato had been devalued and obscured by later developments, most notably the creation of rigid philosophical or ideological systems. These systems replaced an encounter with reality with a false reality, one created by the system. Anamnesis is Voegelin’s attempt to expose this false reality and to replace it with the true language of philosophy, one capable of expressing those transcendent concepts which constitute the ultimate reality of the cosmos and human existence.