Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reason and Revelation: The Islamic Case and Western Parallels

Both Etienne Gilson, in his classic study The Unity of Philosophical Experience (UPE, 1937), and Benedict XVI in his 2006 address at the University of Regensburg (Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization)--previously discussed in Benedict at Regensburg--have found it useful in discussing the crisis of the West to compare the Western crisis to the earlier crisis of Islamic thought.  As we continue our consideration of the development of Western thought, we will do likewise.

Gnosticism and Ideology

In what follows I’ll be using words like gnosticism and ideology in quite specific senses.  Gnosticism and ideology represent human responses to reality in which a programmatic vision of reality is developed in a highly conceptualized structure. Unlike the experiences of faith and reasoned inquiry--which seek insight into the nature and meaning of existence--gnosticism and ideology, while highly conceptualized and thus highly rationalistic in a certain sense, have as their motivating core, desire: desire for deliverance, for certitude, for power. Thus, while gnosticism and ideology often draw freely on the symbols and terminology of faith and reasoned inquiry, their motivation sets them apart and marks them as deformations of those experiences. Gnosticism and ideology present reality in terms of a conceptual construct that, while purporting to offer a comprehensive understanding of reality, is in fact oriented toward the fulfillment of human desires rather than the understanding of reality as it really is. As I use these terms, broadly speaking, “gnostic” refers generally to movements that seek deliverance or salvation, while “ideology” is seen to have a strongly practical, this worldly orientation toward attaining power.

This usage derives, of course, from the work of Eric Voegelin. One of Voegelin’s most compelling explications of the nature of gnosticism and ideology can be found in his seminal essay, “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery,” in which Voegelin quite deliberately characterized Hegel’s gnostic/ideological speculation as “sorcery.” (The essay is unfortunately unavailable on the internet. Cf., Eric Voegelin, “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery,” Collected Works Vol. 12, or Eric Voegelin, “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery,” Studium Generale 24 (1971), pp. 335-68. Cf. also Voegelin’s shorter book length expositions, The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism.) The following short summary of the basic ideas Voegelin was working with, taken from the essay on Hegel, is helpful:

Sorcery, or magic, is a conceptual system that asserts the human ability to control the natural world (including events, objects, people, and physical phenomena) through mystical, paranormal, or supernatural means — through, for example, magic words, or an ability to present compelling appearances of fictitious reality.
A Second Reality is such an ersatz reality. The term was coined by Robert Musil to denote a fictitious world imagined to be true by the person creating it, who will then use his construction to mask and thereby “eclipse” genuine, or First Reality.
(From Hegel as Sorcerer: The “Science” of Second Realities and the “Death” of God, by Jean F. Drew)

As is apparent from Drew’s definitions, Voegelin’s focus was on the gnostic nature of Hegel’s speculation, but Voegelin deliberately used the provocative term “sorcery" to draw attention to the ways in which Hegel’s speculation differs from true “philosophy," despite Hegel’s use of language and presentation that are usually associated with philosophy. This ambiguity of Hegel’s presentation was noted by David Walsh who pointed out (Reflections on the Nature of Modernity) that Hegel deliberately maintained this ambiguity in his thought--the ambiguity as to whether it was “religious” or secular in nature. This ambiguity as well as the interplay between gnosticism and ideology, their conceptual fluidity and ability to masquerade as faith or reasoned inquiry, has its practical uses: successors of Hegel such as Marx had no difficulty transforming gnostic speculation into ideologies focused on raw power under the guise of intellectual respectability.