The Problem of Consciousness

The Problem of Consciousness

Forty years ago, in 1977, the political philosopher Eric Voegelin published a book entitled Anamnesis, which is a Greek word meaning reminiscence, or remembering, and its meaning for Voegelin meant a remembrance of things past and even past lives. Voegelin was born in Germany in 1901, but brought up in Vienna, where he earned his doctorate at the university there and began to write books, several of which were critical of Nazi thinking and policy, and in 1938, he and his wife had to flee the SS to neutral Switzerland and then on to America, where he became a citizen in 1944 and where he would write and teach until his death in 1985.

At the beginning of Anamnesis, Voegelin said the following: “In 1943 I had arrived at a dead-end in my attempts to find a theory of man, society, and history that would permit an adequate interpretation of the phenomena in my chosen field of studies…and it became clear beyond a doubt that the center of a theory of politics had to be a theory of consciousness.” And from then on, the bulk of his work, now numbering some forty volumes, had that aim and general direction.

Therefore, it is not surprising that institutions like UPR would be attracted to this same field of study and that working to understand and to penetrate the mysteries of consciousness would become the focus of our studies. In my own journey, I encountered Voegelin’s work when he arrived at the Hoover Institution of War and Peace at Stanford, and one complex sentence from his work has become for me a focus of long-term study to this day.

Here it is: “When consciousness is experienced as an event of participatory illumination in the reality that comprehends the partners to the event, it has to be located, not in one of the partners, but in the comprehending reality; consciousness has a structural dimension by which it belongs, not to man in his bodily existence, but to the reality in which man, other partners in the community of being, and the participatory relations among them occur.”

As a university, UPR is a community of beings in which those interested in the problem of consciousness share similar insights related to reality, and because consciousness is complex, these shared experiences contribute to crucial knowledge and understanding. It is clear, then, that it takes a community of beings devoted to learning and knowing to share insights, reject false notions, and explore complexities, all in the name of what Voegelin calls “the comprehending reality.”

What we learn, of course, is that consciousness is not merely individual brain activity unique to each person or animal, but is rather a collective structure within experience in which we all participate. Here is how Voegelin defined it: “Consciousness is the existential tension toward the ground, and the ground is for all men the one and only divine ground of being.” For us in these times, our task is to explore study and confirm for ourselves if this definition is true and active in our lives, or as philosophers put it, if it is the case.

Richard Geldard, PhD

Professor of Consciousness Studies