Eric Voegelin on America

Veogelin copyI’ve written here before at length about Hayek, Leo Strauss, Milton Friedman, Richard Weaver, and other major conservative thinkers of the 20th century. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned Eric Voegelin, another German emigre who made significant contributions to political philosophy with such works as The New Science of Politics and his multi-volume Order and History. This neglect ends today!

Lately I’ve been reading Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections, and came across this passage where he reflects in his first visit to the United States around 1922, where he comes to see that the “common sense” of American thought is superior to the deep dish sophistication of European thinkers. Much of his reflections in his autobiography are naturally concerned with how to explain and understand the catastrophic rise of Nazism in his homeland. The last sentence in particular is important:

Precisely this tradition of common sense I now recognized to be the factor that was signally absent from the German social scene and not so well developed in France as it was in England and America. In retrospect, I would say that the absence of political institutions rooted in an intact common sense tradition is a fundamental defect of the German political structure that still has not been overcome. When I look at the contemporary German scene, with its frenetic debate between positivists, neo-Marxists, and neo-Hegelians, it is the same scene that I observed when I was a student in the 1920s in the Weimar Republic; the intellectual level, however, has become abnormally mediocre. The great figures engaged pro and con in the analysis of philosophical problems in the 1920s—men like Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Alfred Weber, Karl Mannheim—have disappeared from the scene and have not been replaced by men of comparable stature and competence. During my year in New York, I began to sense that American society had a philosophical background far superior in range and existential substance, though not always in articulation, to anything that I found represented in the methodological environment in which I had grown up.