Six Ways We See the World

global dialogues

Primordialists, Traditionalists, Romantics, Modernists, Post-Modernists and Trans-Modernists  variously see the world through the lenses of Contemplative Silence, Covenant Tradition, Transcendental Ideals, Scientific Empiricism, Cultural Relativity and Pluralistic Integration

Six Ways We See the World

Introduction: How do you see the world? How do you approach the phenomena of your experience? Most of us tend to assume that the way we see the world is the way the world actually is. At the same time we would probably admit that our perspective of “reality” is historically situated, culturally conditioned, psychologically influenced and linguistically constructed. We each look at the world through a particular lens. I would invite you to consider six historical and cultural lenses through which different people see the world today. Those six lenses are the Primordial, Traditional, Romantic, Modern, Post-Modern, and Trans-Modern.

The Question of Identity: At the heart of the matter is the question of identity. “Who am I?”It is one of the easiest ways to understand the real differences between these six ways of seeing the world. Some people are “purists” who identify almost entirely with one and only one of these approaches. Probably most people today are ambivalent, oscillating and hybrid in the sense that they find something of themselves in each of these six views. Let’s consider each of them in turn.

The Primordialist says, “I am a center of living sentience and consciousness within the Ineffable Mystery of  Universal Being. I am a Human Being within the Primordial Unity of Nature-Spirit. I am Awakened and Enlightened to the encompassing and comprehensive Supreme Reality through the interior practices of Silence, Solitude, Meditation and Contemplation. I may conceive of the Supreme Reality as either Being or Process, Permanence or Change, Personal or Non-personal, Transcendent or immanent, One or Many, Plenitude or Emptiness, or more likely a “coincidence and complement of opposites.”

 The Traditionalist says, “I am the inheritor of a noble and wise tradition.” Of course there are many versions of what counts as tradition. Many Traditionalists refer generally to the legacy of Western Civilization, including our Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian ancestors. Others would include our Celtic and Pagan ancestors. Some Cultural and Literary Traditionalists like Matthew Arnold who wrote Culture and Anarchy or Harold Bloom who wrote The Western Canon and Genius have envisioned a recovery and renewal of the study of the Books and School of the Ages in our educational institutions. Still other Traditionalists envision a recovery and renewal of interest in the wisdom of our American Founding Fathers and in the genius of the Constitution as the foundation of our democratic republic. Others expand the meaning of “tradition” to include the ideas and values associated with Hindu Vedanta, that is, Perennial Philosophy, with Asian philosophies such as Buddhism or Taoism, or with the folk ways of First Peoples and Primordial Cultures. However, these also show up in the Romantic Tradition that seeks to go back earlier in time than the ancient Romans and Greeks, Jews and Christians to “the wisdom of the east” or to an imagined pristine age of spiritual innocence before “civilization ruined everything.”

 The Romantic says, “I am an embodied soul alive with divine inspiration.” There are many kinds of Romantics, including the Angelic, Idealist, Transcendental, Bohemian, Bucolic, Humanistic, Egoist, Demonic and Revolutionary. All appeal to the ideas of transcendence, nature, greatness, genius, inspiration, creativity, imagination, beauty, subjectivity, passion, freedom, liberty and the arts.

 The Modernist says, “I am a skeptical rational empiricist committed to scientific, technological, social, economic and political progress.” Again, there are many kinds of Modernists. Early Modernists are associated with the Humanistic Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, along with the Counter-Reformation and Radical Reformation. High or Middle Modernists are associated with the 18th Century Enlightenment or Age of Reason that precedes the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, and also some Modernists who came along after the Romantic and Transcendental Movements had run their courses. Late Modernists became increasingly pessimistic about the modern ideas of objectivity and progress, especially in the light of two world wars. Modern literary periods include Victorian Literature, Realism, Naturalism, Modernism (as such), the Bloomsbury Group, Existentialism, Nihilism, Absurdism and the Beat Generation. In the Modernist period both religion, spirituality, metaphysics and ethics are largely displaced by the measurable and efficient interests and values of science, industry, information and technology, along with the instrumental concerns of commerce, trade, economics and politics. Critics of Modernism speak of “the Dehumanizing Cult of Objectivism, Impersonality, Quantification and Commodification.” T.S. Eliot described Modernity as a world of “hollow, chestless men.”

 The Post-Modernist says, “I am an eclectic, ironic, rhetorical, polymorphic, pluralistic pragmatist.” There is no Grand Narrative or Theory of Everything, only an ever-expanding plurality of incommensurable relative perspectives. The technologically mediated society presents us with a bewildering array of historically contingent, culturally situated and linguistically constructed ways of perceiving experience, interpreting knowledge and making meaning. We simply learn to be polymorphic and multi-lingual, speaking many different languages and dialects that are useful and meaningful within different cultural contexts and hermeneutical communities. For the post-modernist the “self” is radically de-centered in a pluralist multi-verse. Integration, synthesis and conciliation are no longer an option, so we embrace our ambiguous and perplexing situation through the use of rhetorical irony and eclectic play among a variety of symbols, myths, ideas, theories, narratives, rituals, artifacts and language games that some groups take for granted as their final vocabularies.

The Trans-Modernist says, “I am a culturally creative globally emergent integrative pluralist. I seek to make connections between all epistemological ways of knowing, all ontological levels of being, and all cultural stages of evolutionary development.” Trans-Modernists attempt to affirm, critique, and transcend the Traditional, Modernist and Post-Modernist frameworks or perspectives. For Trans-Modernists “truth” is simultaneously Received (Tradition), Illumined (Romanticism), Discovered (Modernity), Constructed (Post-Modernism), and Connected (Trans-Modernism). The idea here is that everyone is “partly right” and that “everybody wins” – sort of. A plurality of views are integrated through “making connections” between different epistemological domains, ontological levels and evolutionary stages.

Questions for Reflection and Dialogue:

1: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses, assets and liabilities of each of these six ways of seeing?

2: What kinds of tensions and conflicts might we expect between Primordialists, Traditionalists, Romantics, Modernists, Post-Modernists, and Trans-Modernists?

3: What major challenges and opportunities do we face in today’s  pluralist society and global age? How might these six ways of seeing the world help or hinder us in responding to those challenges and opportunities? What could they learn from each other?


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