The Passion of the Western Mind

UnknownThis book by Richard Tarnas is a history of Western thought. Now, yes, Eastern thought is also worthy of respect. But the Western intellectual tradition is the 800 pound gorilla, the elephant in the room, the hippo in the bathtub.

I have written about our falling down on humanities education. Tarnas presents his history as a story – the tale of how we got from Point A (the ancient Greeks) to Point B (where we are today), with hints of a further Point C. It’s actually a thrilling story – but more, it’s vital to understanding our world and its challenges.

Play-doh's Forms

Play-doh’s Forms

Tarnas says he aims to describe systems of thought “on their own terms,” without “condescension,” so that we can better understand our journey. He begins with the Greeks, notably Plato, whose theory of “forms” was a first stab at understanding the nature of reality, starting a conversation that’s never stopped.

Then comes Christianity. True to his word, Tarnas gives us Christian thought and its development straight, “on its own terms,” nonjudgmentally. images-2This takes many pages. Frankly I skimmed over much of it. However, one thing that impressed itself upon me was how impossible it was, in Europe at least, during the centuries of church domination, to break free of that influence. The Christian way of thinking was the only way of thinking.

But then the story gets good. Revolution bursts out all over. You’ve got your Renaissance. Then your Reformation. And then your scientific revolution, and your Enlightenment. It all makes the church’s head spin.

When it comes to discussing the modern intellectual paradigm – the Enlightenment of science and rationality – Tarnas lets slip his straight-faced mask of nonjudgmentalism. images-4He is downright triumphalist about how thoroughly the modern idea demolishes the older mentality grounded in religion. To read his passages on the sweeping victory of science over faith, you might think religion has slunk away, crushed and banished. This may be true in the academic groves Tarnas inhabits; but it sure ain’t true in Kansas.

Meantime, though, it wasn’t just religion having trouble with science; philosophy did too. It’s the eternal problem of epistemology:  what is true knowledge, and how can a human mind possess it? “The Crisis of Modern Science,” Tarnas calls this chapter. In particular he invokes philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-96), and the notion that what we’ve got is not so much information as interpretation; we cannot truly know anything. And then we find sentences like this: “The aggressive exploitation of the natural environment, the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the threat of global catastrophe – all pointed to an indictment of science, of human reason itself, now seemingly in thrall to man’s own self-destructive irrationality.”

Please. This is indeed the pessimistic post-modern mindset. But just as Tarnas was over-the-top in declaring that science had killed faith, he is even further off the mark in declaring science mortally wounded.

Unknown-1Firstly, you can bullshit all night in your dorm room over the epistemological conundrum, whether we can truly know anything – but airplanes fly (and pigs don’t). That airplanes do fly actually proves that the great corpus of modern scientific knowledge is true. Not probably true, as Kuhn might at most allow, all encrusted with qualifiers and caveats – but absolutely true, full stop. (But perhaps Professor Kuhn, believing as he did, never boarded an airplane; or did 99% of the other things modern people do, like using computers, thanks to scientific knowledge.)

As for “man’s own self-destructive irrationality,” etc., it’s undeniable that we are at least imperfectly rational and sometimes cause great harm to ourselves and others. But is that the whole picture? It’s not even most of it. The bigger picture – vastly bigger – is that, from our emergence as a species, and especially from the start of civilization, and especially in modern scientific times, we humans have increasingly utilized rationality to create societal structures and to gain knowledge to advance technologically, to give ever greater numbers ever better quality of life.

Unknown-2That’s the bigger picture. All this “self-destructive irrationality” crap makes me sick. We have not blown ourselves up with nuclear weapons. Most of us are less violent than ever (yes; see again my review of Pinker’s book). More people than ever have more food, better health, more education, and more rewarding and longer lives.* True, all this has put a strain on the planet, but rather than being irrationally self-destructive, to the contrary it’s been a rational effort to improve life. There’s no free lunch, but the price has been worth paying, and so far growing knowledge has enabled us to handle the resulting environmental challenges.

Now what about that Point C I mentioned? In the spirit of Tarnas I’ll try to present this “on its own terms.” He suggests a resolution to “the profound dualism of the modern mind” – man vs. nature, mind vs. matter, self vs. other, etc. One’s birth is an expression of a larger underlying archetypal process of moving from one paradigm to another. The newborn is expelled into a world of confusion, needing a “redemptive reunification of the individuated self with the universal matrix.” It’s not a matter of our seeking to extract knowledge from the world; rather, “the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind.” There is a “universal unconscious” that “reflects the human mind’s radical kinship with the cosmos.” images-6This break-out is what the great Western intellectual journey has been leading toward. But so far it’s been mostly a masculine thing, and only now are we beginning to reunite our masculine and feminine. For this, “the masculine must undergo a sacrifice, an ego death.” This evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stage.

Well. As Francis Urquhart, in the original House of Cards would say, “You might think that; but I could not possibly comment.”

* No doubt some lefty cynic will deride me as a blind fool. Much though such folks love to believe everything is getting worse, it just ain’t so.

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7 Responses to “The Passion of the Western Mind”

  1. Jorg Lueke Says:

    Anyone who claims we cannot truly know anything has not read or understood Kant who clearly (OK not so clearly really) explained both the limits and powers of pure reason. There was a thread of transcendental philosophers who understood this people like Emmerson, Russel, and Popper. In the post war world, maybe because of Wittgenstein’s your Weltanschaung is as valid as my Weltanschaung we end up with this morass of relativism and worse pessimism about the human condition.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Wittgenstein confused a lot of people who mistakenly think there’s something profound there. He famously explained that no matter how you try to define the word “game” one can always come up with a use of the word that doesn’t fit the definition. I say: so what??

  3. Andrew Semeiks Says:

    Is there something to be learned from west’s inability to break free of the Christian church’s influence during the centuries of church domination and the seeming parallelism of current Muslim influence in the mid east? The biggest difference I see is that over the century and half of its existence Muslim tolerance for other thinking has ebbed and flowed while Christianity has never achieved the same dominance as the middle centuries in Europe.

    How many years or crisis does it take for dogmatic thinking to squeeze out freethinking and are we just a bit away from this in our country as evidenced by the fundamentalist influence in many areas? Think about the recent Supreme Court rulings that have allowed greater Christian influence in our secular thinking. When does this cross over the line to intolerance for “other” thinking? Regarding the Mideast, it seems that there is no short term way to extricate the area from the influence of Muslim thinking and so we are in the current quagmire with no solution.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Fundamentalist influence rising in the U.S.? I don’t think so. Two words: gay marriage. As for the Muslim world, it will evolve, in the long term. But as Keynes said, in the long term we are all dead.

  5. Andrew Semeiks Says:

    Correction to my previous post. Islam has been in existence nearly a millennium and a half, from the early 600’s, not a century and a half.

    During these 1500 centuries Islam’s tolerance for other thoughts and religions has widely varied and there have been many schisms within the religion itself the longest lasting being the one between Sunni and Shiia.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    True. It seems that only lately have Shia & Sunni suddenly realized they should be killing each other.

  7. bruce Says:

    philosophy is like the discussion of a model ship built in a bottle, wonderful craftsmanship, made undone by a careless two year old.

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