On Debate and Existence

This is an outline of Eric Voegelin's essay On Debate and Existence, which can be found in:

Your comments and corrections are always welcome: please e-mail Bill McClain.

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Debate with ideologists is not possible because of profound differences with regard to all fundamental questions of human existence. The ideologist's arguments are not rooted in reality because he has overlaid it with a Second Reality. Rational discourse fails because the two sides live in two modes of existence: existence in truth and existence in untruth.
Corollary: The difficulties of debate concern the fundamentals of existence. Even though debate with ideologists is possible in the natural sciences, it does not follow that it is possible in areas that are more central to the person.
Points to be considered: First: the breakdown in historical perspective.


The Second Realities are fairly recent, growing since about 1500 to social and political dominance today. It is helpful to examine the period when the first reality of existence was unquestioned, as in St. Thomas' Summa Contra Gentiles. Defending Christianity against the Mohammedans, he said it was incumbent on the philosopher to:

Truth is achieved in the permanent struggle with preanalytic notions of existence, as well as with incorrect analytic conceptions. Debate is an essential element of existence. It is a social enterprise.

What is this "truth of existence"? The terminology has been updated from that used by Aquinas and Artistotle, but the problem is the same. Next: how they expressed their problem of truth.


Much of the symbolism of Aristotle and Aquinas deals with a closed cosmos and is obsolete. But a core of truth can be salvaged from their metaphysics, in two stages:

  1. Remove the cosmological symbolisms. What remains is the argument that intelligent beings cannot originate from a first cause that is not intelligent.
  2. Properly locate the prime mover by making explicit the experiences which created the symbols of a divine being. Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas did this, with the result that both the symbols and the reality are much doubted and misunderstood.
Examples of immediate experiences are anticlimatic in their simplicity: For Plato, who understood the problems of existence well, philosophy could be: Once the Platonic symbolism was established, philosophy became unconvincing when it became an autonomous enterprise detached from the motivating experiences.


Now we attempt an exegesis of existence as implied in classic and scholastic metaphysics. Warning: new data will emerge which will force us to start over again.

Human existence is illuminated by intellect, which is both part of existence and the instrument of its interpretation. Intellect also discovers itself as a force transcending its own existence.

Simplifying Aristotle's argument, the intellect reaches out to know:

  1. Things of the external world.

    In modern terminology, this is best represented by Leibnitz's:

    1. Why is there something rather than nothing?
    2. Why is something the way it is rather than otherwise?

    Answers to these questions can be neither verified nor falsified. The answers are less important than the experience of the questions themselves. Men in the Second Reality pretend the questions are illegitimate or illusory.

    1. The analysis is valuable for classifying Second Realities and their techniques, such as omission of parts of the experience of existence.
    2. Symbolisms providing answers are of less importance, but still may be useful in protecting against error, even if the answers must be revised later. The danger is that the answers will become "idols" detached from the original experience. The reaction against the symbol will extend to reality itself, destroying the order of existence.
  2. Human actions.

    Human action is rational and presumes an ultimate end, because no one would pursue an infinite regress. Further, without a limiting Good there would be no reason in the world at large. This is founded on Aristotle's experience that reason is embedded in order and that it is the property of reason to have a limit. We have returned to the original proposition that reason discovers itself as part of human existence.

    Corollary: Aristotle's argument is difficult for modern readers because his "cause" is not "cause and effect" but something more like "derivation". Possibly, modern psychic disturbances are not caused by loss of the closed cosmos, but rather by the loss of truth in existence.
New factors have been introduced into the problem of existence, so we start again:

We previously said:

Now, in addition:

Through illumination and transcendence, man finds himself in the situation from which questions of the origin and end of existence will arise.

Corollary: This description is more exact than Heidegger's "flungness", which requires a "flinger" and introduces an unnecessary construction.
Where is the origin and end of existence to be found? We must interpret the phenomenon of questioning itself. To these attributes of consciousness: we must add: This is the experiential basis of Aristotle's and Aquinas' symbol of the "limit", and their argument that it is pointless to seek for the origin and end of things in existence, through an infinite regress.
Corollary: The analysis suggests a process in time, but this is not true in reality where all the analytical steps are known at once in preanalytic experience. The metaphysical elaborations of Aristotle and Aquinas "prove" only what was smuggled in with the premises, particularly in the symbol of the "limit". That something "exists" (analogically speaking) beyond existence is inherent in the noetic structure of existence.
Truth of existence: the awareness of the fundamental structure of existence together with the willingness to accept it as the human condition. Untruth of existence: revolt against the human condition and the attempt to overlay reality with a Second Reality.
Corollary: This analysis deals only with the demonstrations of classical and scholastic metaphysics, not with the whole structure of existence.

The truth of reality has been traced to its origin in the noetic structure of existence. Now: back to the problem of debate.

Every debate presumes a shared background of unquestioned premises. Aquinas argued that one could not use the Scriptures in arguing with the Mohammedans and pagans because they did not accept them. One had to drop back to natural reason. He could do that because his opponents accepted the classical foundation, agreeing with him as to the noetic structure of existence.

We can no longer presume this today even as to the application of reason, because we do not share a community of existence with the ideologists. Our duty to "debate" must take the forms of:

  1. a careful analysis of the noetic structure of existence
  2. an analysis of Second Realities, both with regard to their constructs and to the motivating structure of existence in untruth
This is a therapeutic endeavor involving diagnosis and, if possible, healing.
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Bill McClain (wmcclain@watershade.net)