The Concept of Differentiation

Voegelin’s concept of differentiation is a difficult one, comprising not only the meaning of a separation of elements that were previously present only in unseparated, unanalysed, or, as Voegelin prefers to put it, compact form, but also, and primarily, that of the deepening and transformation of spiritual experience and philosophical insight which produced these results.

I will only partly use Voegelin’s own concept of differentiation. But I will use the term in a broader and comparatively loose sense without reference to the details of Voegelin’s analysis of either the spiritual experiences or the historical development, a sense which is not only proportioned to the somewhat generalizing synopticity of this series of posts, but which actually comprises more of what could in fact legitimately be described by the term in the development of the civilization of classical antiquity and, mutatis mutandis, of the Middle Ages and modern Europe.

The cosmological, mythological civilizations were, according to Voegelin, compact in the sense that they had not yet fully undergone or passed through the decisive spiritual and moral experiences through which Greek and Israelite culture, society and history gradually came to assume new and different characteristics and meanings. In the process of these experiences, things subsequently fundamental to Western civilization were differentiated, and in a broader sense than Voegelin’s own.

Again, I point out that we are not talking here about India or the Far East in general, both because, as Voegelin himself seems to have become increasingly aware, the analysis is in important respects simply not valid with regard to their civilizations, and because the differentiational experience did not take place in contrast to those civilizations but only to those of the Near East. But it must be said that due to some particular limitations of his perspective, Voegelin overlooks the significance of the partial continuity with the Far East which I have pointed to in Greek thought. And that those civilizations, and in particular the spiritual legacy of India, has long been of great importance in the modern West, a fact which is of importance also in connection with Voegelin’s analyses both of the foundational, differentiational origins and of what could perhaps be called the post-differentiational and neo-compact modern West.

What for Voegelin primarily defined the differentiational shift was the experience of transcendence, in the two different forms in which it occurred: the philosophical form of the Greeks and the religious form of the Israelites. With differentiation in the sense of this deepening of spiritual consciousness there followed a new and clearer separation not only of transcendence and immanence, but also of related things such as eternity and time and spirit and nature. Voegelin’s account of his own concept of differentiation is in some respects reminiscent of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century descriptions, within the limitations of the same civilizational references, by various progressivist historians (not only positivists) of one stage of the transition from primitive religion to developed, higher religion and then from higher religion to metaphysics. But what sets Voegelin apart from them, or at least the positivists, is of course that he accepts the reality of the deepened experience of transcendence as the cause of the transformation.

Voegelin is well aware of the transitional forms of culture and society in the Near Eastern empires, and thus of the partial differentiational experiences that are found there too. And recent scholarship will certainly have further complicated the picture in this regard. Yet the radicality of the new Greek and Israelite experiences still make Voegelin’s historical argument with regard to their relation to those ”compact”, ”cosmological” civilizations plausible at least to a degree that warrants the use of the contrast as a typological one in the historiographical reconstruction of relevant aspects and dimensions of the emergence of the consciousness of personality.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi