Equivalences of Experiences and Symbolization in History

Eric Voegelin's essay was originally published in Eternita e storia: I valori permanenti nel divenire storico (Florence: Valecchi, 1970, pp. 215-234). In this essay Voegelin searched for a philosophical vocabulary to explain the constants of human experience. The term "equivalent" was used to describe the underlying experience shared by all humans in various ritual and symbolic acts as they search for order in history. However, the study of man's search for order is in itself a search for order that likewise is expressed symbolically. Thus, this search for order is a self-reflective one - a theory of equivalences - when the philosopher becomes consciousness of the historical dimensions of his quest for order.

Of critical importance in the philosopher's quest for order is his openness to reality: whether he accepts the notion that symbols can be "equivalent" to each other. This initial belief about equivalence will determine whether the philosopher will be engaged in a genuine search for order in history. If the philosopher is opened to equivalence, then he discovers that this search is a state of tension between truth and untruth. Voegelin described this tension as 1) man participating in a process of reality; 2) man as consciousness of his participation in reality as a process; 3) man expressing his participation in reality in symbols; 4) man recognizing that the symbols he creates are part of the reality in which he finds himself; 5) and man realizing that he searches for order from a vantage point within reality where insights become luminous to him.

Ultimately Voegelin discovered that there are no constants to be found in history because history is a process of truth emerging in reality either as equivalence or superior to truth that had been previously experienced. The only constant to be found is the search itself: man's desire to find order in history.

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Eric Voegelin
Publication Info:
Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, 1990 (pp.115-133)

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