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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

Anamnesis consists of a series of interrelated essays grouped into three parts: “Anamnesis,” “Experience and History,” and “What Is Political Reality?” The common thread which unifies these three parts and the individual chapters within them is Eric Voegelin’s examinations of human consciousness and his theories to account for its presence and force in history.

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The word “anamnesis” is originally Greek and means “remembrance,” or “calling to mind.” It has connotations of more than memory, however, particularly as used in this work. Voegelin uses the term “anamnesis” to mean human consciousness unfolding and discovering itself and the world and, in that process, creating society and making history possible. The essays in the volume are sustained explorations of this idea.

The first part of the book sets the groundwork, as Voegelin dismisses those philosophers who seek to avoid essential questions by creating closed, self-contained systems. For Voegelin, there are fundamental questions which are the essential purpose of any legitimate philosophical approach. They include concerns such as the nature of reality, the nature of human consciousness, and how human consciousness impinges upon the world. According to Voegelin, these questions are more important than any philosophical system.

In part 1, Voegelin proposes a radical reexamination of those fundamental questions, one based on both public and private considerations. By public considerations, Voegelin means those symbolic forms which are unique to human society. These may be actual events, such as those occurring in history; they may be dramatic reenactments, such as the rituals of politics or religion; or they may be symbolic language, such as that found in myths. By private considerations, Voegelin means those events which helped shape the individual as he or she matured. In a chapter titled “Anamnetic Experiments,” Voegelin considers some occasions which occurred in his own life, occasions which helped awaken him to the “awe of existence.” Some of these were striking events of his childhood, while others were more mundane but held a certain mysterious power. Out of the mixture of these public and private concerns is human consciousness formed.

From consciousness comes history, and this development is the theme for the second part of the book. Here Voegelin turns to a philosophical study of history, by which he means not specific incidents but more the evolving realization of human consciousness. He is particularly concerned with human consciousness as it focuses on certain universal concerns. What is right by nature? What is nature? What is “reason,” and how did it come to be manifest in human existence? Throughout these considerations, Voegelin makes frequent reference to classical philosophy, most often to Plato and Aristotle. These thinkers, along with the pre-Socratics, are seen by Voegelin as making the first great leap in human consciousness, and he treats their work both as a foundation for his own studies and as the central texts of European civilization.

In contrast to the ancients, later philosophers fare much worse in Voegelin’s view. He faults thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, G.W.F. Hegel, and Karl Marx for misreading and distorting the classical analysis of consciousness. Writers such as Hegel, Voegelin claims, have actually rejected reason as it is properly understood and in its place have built a closed, but sterile, system which has the appearance of being rational without the substance of reality.

In the third and final section, “What Is Political Reality?” Voegelin combines concerns from the two earlier parts of his work. He describes history as a condition created and maintained by the interrelationship of the cosmos and human beings. In a sense, “history” is the process where the cosmos achieves consciousness itself through the media of individual humans and their collective societies.

While this brief explanation might seem esoteric or broadly metaphysical, Voegelin’s presentation is rooted in specific, commonsense considerations, such as the undeniable fact that human consciousness is always concretely personal. For Voegelin, the study of history becomes the interpretation of how this human consciousness realizes and experiences itself in all aspects of life. That is why, he maintains, political theory must cover man’s entire existence and why common sense—even with its gaps and weaknesses—is still the most reliable guide for the study of human beings and their societies.

Anamnesis covers much territory in a relatively brief space. Voegelin’s command of history and philosophy is strong, and his densely packed pages are filled with insights, perceptions, and complex views. There are, however, differences between the English and German versions of the book, relating to the essays included. Chapters of the original which appeared in English translation before the 1978 volume was prepared were omitted, as were several essays considered by the editor as incidental to the main thrust of the work. In their place, Voegelin’s article “Reason: The Classic Experience” was reprinted from an earlier journal publication as central to the thesis of the work; in addition, Voegelin wrote a new introductory chapter for the American edition.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51

Germino, Dante. Political Philosophy and the Open Society, 1982.

Germino, Dante. “Voegelin’s Anamnesis,” in The Southern Review. N.s. VII (Winter, 1971), pp. 68-88.

McKnight, Stephen, ed. Eric Voegelin’s Search for Order in History, 1978.

Sandoz, Ellis, ed. Eric Voegelin’s Thought: A Critical Appraisal, 1982.

Webb, Eugene. Eric Voegelin: Philosopher of History, 1981.

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