Of essences, ideas - and quibbles. In language and logic the 20th-century philosophers Voegelin and Quine show a certain community of interest, an obvious delight in the richness and complexity of language.
Order and History, Volume 5: In Search of Order, by Eric Voegelin. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press. 120 pp. $14.95. Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary, by W.V. Quine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 249 pp. $20.
Reading philosophy has its rewards. Abstract terminology, logical rigor, and the extreme conciseness of expression cultivated by modern philosophers can put you off, but when these are balanced by a mature, deeply felt concern for the great problems of mankind, there's nothing like reading philosophy. When the work is a late one, like these recent books by Eric Voegelin and W.V. Quine, one thinks of late Beethoven, late Rembrandt for parallel experiences.
On the face of it, Voegelin and Quine couldn't be more different. Voegelin, who died in 1985, is a philosopher noted for his writings on political science and ancient thinkers; Quine, professor emeritus of philosophy at Harvard University, began as a logician and has made major contributions to analytic philosophy.
Born in Germany in 1901, Voegelin fled the Nazis, teaching primarily at Louisiana State University, becoming known mostly for his published work, especially the monumental ``Order and History.'' Quine has been visible almost from the beginning, contributing to a major school of modern philosophy and teaching at a major university.
Voegelin's work has centered on recovering the thought of the ancients; Quine is definitely a modern specialist. Voegelin has a transcendental thrust befitting a student of Plato; Quine has seemed to undermine traditional concepts by relating everything to language and logic.
Reading their latest works side by side shows a certain community of interest, perhaps inevitable, since they shared the same world, philosophical and otherwise. Both men have taken obvious delight in the richness and complexity of language.
Quine's ``Quiddities'' is a sometimes arcane, often playful tour through his major themes, arranged alphabetically. Many of these short pieces come under headings like ``Definition,'' ``Etymology,'' ``Kinship of Words,'' ``Language Reform,'' ``Syntax.'' Far from trying to flatten out the bumpiness of words, Quine relishes the odd, sometimes paradoxical combinations of sound and meaning the study of words reveals. He can sound like a newspaper columnist: ``It is heartwarming to hear transpire used correctly''; or like a logician, ``To define is to eliminate.'' For some of his own effects, Quine exploits the playful insights afforded by words. Start with the ambiguity of the title of this book: ``Quiddity'' refers both to essence, and to quibble. For a man who doesn't believe in essences in the traditional sense, and who loves to quibble in the logical sense, this is a particularly happy title.
In his own way, Quine has preserved the central complexity of the human world from the reductionists who would use philosophy (he prefers the term science) to flatten out our mental life. Long considered something of a skeptic and relativist, in ``Quiddities'' Quine appears to be motivated by something like love for the universals - just so long as they are classes, properties, and numbers.
Gradually one begins to sense that this book is far from random; that the cross-indexing of major themes is a serious matter with Quine, and serves to promote the more serious matter in the book.
Quine is the author of 17 books; his opinions are not in doubt. But I prefer to take my Quine in thimbles-full, quibblingly.
Voegelin is something else. His pages are meditations on key passages, ranging from the Bible to Hegel. Reading the volumes of ``Order and History'' as they appeared, beginning in 1956, one can see, now, Voegelin's flexibility. He actually changed his plan midway, early in Volume 4. Here, in the last, uncompleted volume, he opens with a passage that sounds like St. Augustine: ``As I am putting down these words on an empty page I have begun to write a sentence that, when it is finished, will be the beginning of a chapter on certain problems of the Beginning.''
Like Quine's quibbles, Voegelin's playful self-consciousness as a writer opens deep perspectives on his lifework. Voegelin's great contribution is to have restored the meaning of philosophy by placing it in the full context of life. Refusing to flatten traditional symbols into logical statements, he has restored the force of ancient passages by restoring their context in the mystery of life as a whole. His own writing, difficult at first because English is his second language, has gradually become transparent for meaning that cannot be understood in contexts any less total. His target has always been the ``imaginative oblivion'' of great philosophers like Hegel who seem to have forgotten the meaning of the words they use. ``In Search of Order'' makes it clear that, for Voegelin, the search for truth is always beginning ``in the middle,'' that the philosopher is indeed a lover of wisdom, and that the philosophical word is an expression of love from beyond man, through man, toward the world.
Voegelin died before he could finish writing ``In Search of Order.'' And yet it has a sense of completeness, even finality. He could write with conviction: ``By virtue of his imaginative responsiveness man is a creative partner in the movement of reality toward its truth''; and his books are living monuments.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.