The Epilogue of The Passion of The Western Mind
by Richard Tarnas presents a set of provocative claims about how Tarnas sees the zeitgeist shifting. I will attempt to summarise some of his main points here as a basis for discussion of the theme of paradigm shift, the famous idea popularized by TS Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
A paradigm is a framework of meaning, a set of ideas that constitutes a person's worldview. Kuhn famously argued that examples of paradigm shift are from the geocentric to the heliocentric cosmologies, and from the Newtonian-Euclidian concept of space to Einsteinian relativity. Similarly, the shift from Biblical creationism to Darwinian evolution, or from traditional logical rationality to the depth psychology claims of unconscious instinct as driver of behaviour, constitute major paradigm shifts. Kuhn’s argument was that people in an obsolete paradigm are so identified with their false ideas that they are simply incapable of seeing the obvious truth in the new vision.
In pointing to a ‘reintegration of our culture, a new possibility of the unity of consciousness’ (415), Tarnas defines the modern paradigm as the set of ideas historically framed by the thought of Copernicus, Kant and Descartes. This troika of great modern thinkers constituted the modern worldview in terms of cosmology and the theory of reality and knowledge. Tarnas says the Copernican revolution, by opening the vista of a vast and impersonal universe, was decisive in the disenchantment of the natural world, “a primordial event, world-destroying and world-constituting.” Descartes responded to this modern shock by emphasizing the self as distinct and separate from the external world that it seeks to understand and master. Kant consolidated this modern vision by his theory that only experience is real, and all knowledge is interpretation. For modernity, the world is devoid of spiritual purpose, without intrinsic meaning. The soul is not ‘at home in the modern cosmos’. The world is a construct, contextual and theory-soaked. The troika of estrangers cast humans as aliens, with matter and spirit radically separated. So Tarnas compares modern philosophy to an obsessive-compulsive repeatedly tying and untying his shoelaces because he never gets it quite right, “while in the meantime Socrates and Hegel and Aquinas are already high in the mountains on their hike, breathing the bracing alpine air, seeing new and unexpected vistas.” (421)
Let us see how well Tarnas can justify this dismissive comment about the modern worldview.
He says the power of modernity focuses on control of nature through interpretation that is “concretely predictive, mechanistic, structural… systematically cleansed of all spiritual and human qualities.” The immense power of modern control has produced technological abundance, but Tarnas asks if it comes at the price of loss of soul, the loss of knowledge of a reality beyond human subjectivity? He discusses this claim in analyzing the thought of Carl Jung, who he says followed Kant in developing a theory of archetypes as patterns of human projection, but later moved to a view of archetypes as ‘patterns of meaning that inhere in both psyche and matter’ (425). Tarnas explores this idea through the work of Grof, who saw the history of civilization through the metaphor of individual life, from oceanic embryo through painful birth and individuation through to recognition of a higher cosmic unity. Hence the Biblical archetype, expulsion from paradise and experience of the universe as indifferent, pointing towards a final reconciliation of nature and spirit, is a model for individual life.
Tarnas argues that the modern subject-object epistemology is metaphor for the moment of individuation, a powerful but risky stage leading towards higher wisdom. “Repudiation of any intrinsic meaning or purpose in nature, demand for a univocal, literal interpretation of a world of hard facts, ensure the construction of a disenchanted and alienating world view.” (431) Tarnas sees this modern claim as intrinsically wrong and oppressive, bringing the return of the repressed in the underworld of the psyche – “the Cartesian-Kantian condition evolves into a Kafka-Beckett like state of existential isolation and absurdity.” (432)
In proposing a “more sophisticated and comprehensive epistemological perspective”, Tarnas identifies as forebears Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, Emerson and Steiner. His key comment is that the common thread in these thinkers was “the fundamental conviction that the relation of the human mind to the world was ultimately not dualistic but participatory…Nature becomes intelligible to itself through the human mind.” (433) Rather than nature as a separate material object to be mastered, we ourselves are channeling nature in our thought as imagination directly contacts the creative process within nature. The world’s truth reveals itself within and through the human mind, reflecting the universe’s unfolding meaning. In this participatory epistemological framework, conjecture and myth arise from something far deeper than a purely human source, from a wellspring of nature itself, a kinship with the cosmos.
Tarnas sets this kinship vision as a paradigm, in Kuhn’s terms, that cannot be measured against the criteria of modernity, lacking common measure or value as standard of comparison. Only as this paradigm resonates with the collective psyche will it gain traction, once the prison of modernity reaches a crisis of tension and an inspired Promethean genius comes along and is graced with an inner breakthrough to a new vision that gives the scientific mind a new sense of being cognitively connected. An example is Newton’s illumination of the theory of gravity as a divine revelation ‘I think thy thoughts after thee!’. Once the old paradigm loses its numinosity and is felt as ‘oppressive, limiting, opaque’, a new paradigm can emerge as a liberating birth into a new, luminously intelligible universe.
“A new philosophical paradigm, whether that of Plato, Aquinas, Kant or Heidegger, … reflects the experience of a global experiential gestalt.” (439) The contemporary world is ‘breaking through… out of what Blake called its ‘mind-forged manacles’ to rediscover its intimate relationship with nature and the larger cosmos.” (440)
For Tarnas to set the problem as between ‘the autonomous rational human self’ and ‘primordial unity with nature’ is far from a simple claim. If such ‘unity’ defies logical analysis and evidential criteria, it could well open a path to irrationality. Yet, Tarnas suggests this unity is emerging in “the growing recognition of an immanent intelligence in nature, in the broad popularity of the Gaia hypothesis... an epochal shift .. a sacred marriage between …the alienated masculine and the …ascending feminine…The deepest passion of the western mind is to reunite with the ground of its own being…the telos,…to reconnect with the cosmos.” (443)
Tarnas concludes that Western thought is not simply an imperialist plot, but a noble part of a great dialectic, an evolving process of thought that has prepared the way for its own self-transcendence through opening to the feminine. This argument is a highly provocative challenge to the logic of modern rationality. By starting with a cosmic intuition it opens a path for a mystical sense of unity.
The theme of channeling Gaia as the goddess of nature is one that has emerged more strongly in the science of planetary homeostasis as an explanation of global heating and its likely consequences. Tarnas himself takes this intuitive method forward in his next book, Cosmos and Psyche
, where he sets our planetary reality in the cosmic framework of the solar system and its rhythms, a highly disconcerting approach for people used to scientific evidential criteria.
I personally think that Tarnas has opened core questions for human identity with this discussion of the paradigm shift required to address the modern planetary crisis. In asking that philosophy seek to think nature, the western concept of autonomy is thrown into radical doubt. Tarnas cites Heidegger as one thinker who has opened such a challenge to the modern paradigm, presenting a participatory rather than autonomous worldview.
This participatory agenda can be used to assess a range of current ideas. For example, I am now reading The Vanishing Face of Gaia – A Final Warning
by James Lovelock. It presents a compelling logic against Tarnas’s suggestion of paradigm shift, but is incomprehensible for those mired in the logic of control. Yet Lovelock seems to suggest that the logic of control condemns its adherents to the fate of a frog in a warming pot, lacking the vision to jump out as its instinctive responses lead it to wait until it is too late.Robert Tulip