Between Heaven & Earth: The Historical Dialectics of Transcendent Longing & Human Fulfillment

To be a human being is to live between the immensities of “heaven and earth.” It is to live in the dialectical tension between seemingly contradictory instincts, intuitions, needs and desires. Some people choose to split these divergent impulses off from each other. Some even go so  far as to deify one impulse and to demonize the other. For those who perceive reality dualistically the words “heaven” and “earth” suggest two opposing casts of mind, the heavenly-minded and the earthly- minded, the ascenders and the descenders.

In Raphael’s famous painting of “The School of Athens” Plato is pointing with his finger upward at the heavens while Aristotle is gesturing with his whole hand downward at the earth. Surrounding Plato and Aristotle are the many luminaries of ancient Greek philosophical culture, each with his own vision and version of the nature of reality and the place of human beings in the grand scheme of things. It has been said that the more things change the more they remain the same. We, too, have our ascenders pointing upward and our descenders gesturing downward, with most folks content to function on the “horizontal plane” with little attention to the transcendental-immanent vertical axis of being and existence, time and eternity.

The history of human consciousness and culture can be viewed as a continuing dialectic between ascenders and descenders, between those whose native predisposition is to turn their attention toward the heavenly, transcendental, eternal, infinite, invisible, intuitive, contemplative and ineffable dimension, and those whose native predisposition is to turn their attention toward the earthly, temporal, finite, visible, rational, empirical and observable dimension. Highly creative persons tend to complexly integrate what most people segregate. More conventional people people tend to be directed toward one of these two polarities rather than the other. It would not occur to them that dualistic polarity can be integrated and transcended through a non-dual complement or coincidence of opposites.

Whatever our natural cast of mind, it eventually gives rise to its own way of life. Some of the most familiar dualistic binaries as alternative ways of life include the following: The Way of Being (Essence) vs. the Way of Becoming (Emergence); The Way of Agape vs. the Way of Eros; The Way of Contemplation vs. the Way of Action; the Way of the Ascetic Siddhi vs. the Way of the Ecstatic Tantrika; The Way of the Mystic vs. the Way of the Prophet; The Way of the Solitary Taoist vs. the Way of the Civic Confucian; The Way of the Visionary-Intuitive Platonist vs. the Way of the Rational-Empirical Aristotelian.

Not only does this dialectic between “heavenly-minded ascenders” and “earthly-minded descenders” express itself in the polarity shifts between one epoch of history and another, but it also plays itself out within each historical epoch. For example, within the early modern period we witness the dialectical tension between the humanistic Renaissance and the theocentric Reformation. In the high modern period we witness it again in the dialectical tension between the Scientific Enlightenment and the Transcendental-Romantic movement. In the late modern period we witness the dialectical tension between the Positivists on the materialist, mathematical, logical, calculating, quantitative, objectivist empirical side and the Phenomenologists on the metaphysical, musical, aesthetic, creative, qualitative, subjectivist and inter-subjective intuitive side, with American pragmatists and French existentialists caught in the ambiguous middle. William James leans toward the phenomenologists and panpsychists while John Dewey leans toward the positivists and materialists. Both talk about the primacy of “experience” but what they mean by “experience” is as equivocating as the existentialists use of the word “existence.” These words are employed in the service of different world-views. Some are gazing up in rapture at the heavens with Plato while others are studying the particles and patterns of nature with Aristotle.

As I’ve suggested already there is no reason why the twin impulses toward transcendental longing and human fulfillment cannot both be given their due, but this requires a radical shift from dualistic thinking to a non-dual paradoxical approach that allows for and embraces the “complement” if not the “coincidence of opposites.”  The Universal Human in any age, whether primal, ancient, medieval, modern or contemporary, will endeavor to heal the rupture between the two sides of our paradoxical duplex nature. Right Brain awareness, intuition and feeling will provide he encompassing context for Left Brain knowledge, reason and thinking as both sides of our brain/mind work together in the quest for transcendent meaning and human fulfillment.

 

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Encountering the Primal Mind and Culture: Four Contemporary Responses

What are the primary ways that contemporary people can and do respond to their encounters with the primal mind and culture? Let me suggest four basic relational options:

One approach is simply to ignore the Primal Mind and Culture and to be indifferent toward it. There are those who are so deeply and unconsciously embedded in their own modern cultural milieu that they have no curiosity about primal Peoples who once walked this earth or about those primal Peoples who still inhabit it today. As the saying goes, “They don’t know and they don’t care.”

A second approach is to respond to the Primal Mind and Culture with a range of negative emotions and antagonistic thoughts. They have decided for whatever reasons that primal Peoples of the world have been and remain savages – ignorant, superstitious, wild, dangerous, irrational, evil and perverse, and that modern, secular, rational, scientific, technological, “educated” and “civilized” people should know better than to have any silly romantic ideas about how primitive people once lived.

A third approach is to respond to the encounter with an idealization of the primal mind and culture, and even perhaps to recover the primal way of life as an alternative to modern “civilization” that many believe is heading toward inevitable self-destruction. Some people today attempt to combine the primal and the modern in their clothing styles and home decor, describing themselves as “primitive-chic.”

A fourth approach is to respond dialectically, that is, to weigh both the successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons of primal life, thought and culture. This approach involves realizing we can learn the lessons of the past, both positive and negative, but we cannot return to the past. It is long gone. But there may be aspects of the primal way of seeing the world and living within it that we moderns (along with post-moderns and trans-moderns) could still learn to apply to our contemporary world.

These four relational options are also in play as people encounter each period, epoch, age and era of human history. We can be indifferent and avoidant toward that which is alien and foreign to our experience. We can be hostile and reactive. We can be fixated and enchanted. And we can by dialectically engaged in both sympathetic appreciation and analytical critique. How we respond to the challenge of encounters with “the Other” will reveal our own embedded cast of mind and habitual response to that which takes us outside our familiar comfort zone.

How do you respond to the challenge of encountering the primal mind and culture? What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses? To what extent are the primal mind and the modern mind so different that they resist integration? To what extent can we build a bridge between them while respecting their real differences?

The Integral Nature of Cultural Paradigms

VILLA SOPHIA

Lighthouse_glasgow_spiral_staircase

Each “cultural paradigm” can be thought of as a self-referencing integral whole. Each one will have some commentary on the elements of Ontos (Being) and Ecos (Nature), Spiritus (Spirit) and Soma (Body), Psyche (Self) and Polis (Society), Mythos (Myth) and Histor (History), Logos (Reason) and Pathos (Passion), Ratio (Logic) and Eros (Beauty), as well as Personage (Individual) and Cultus (Community).  And that is why it is difficult to falsify or displace cultural paradigms. Each part supports the whole in a complexly networked relationship. Moreover, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each cultural paradigm forms an encompassing or totalizing gestalt that resists the presence and pressure of other encompassing or totalizing gestalts.

Varieties of Primal, Ancent, Medieval, Modern, Post-Modern and Trans-Modern Perspectives toward the ineffable mystery of “Reality” all fall under this principle of self-referencing symbol systems, meaning-models, language games and forms of life in which each element supports the stability and integrity of the whole.

This assessment will hold true even if we follow Jean Gebser’s model of primal-ancient-medieval “unperspectival”, modern…

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The Integral Nature of Cultural Paradigms

Lighthouse_glasgow_spiral_staircase

 

 

 

 

 

Each “cultural paradigm” can be thought of as a self-referencing integral whole. Each one will have some commentary on the elements of Ontos (Being) and Ecos (Nature), Spiritus (Spirit) and Soma (Body), Psyche (Self) and Polis (Society), Mythos (Myth) and Histor (History), Logos (Reason) and Pathos (Passion), Ratio (Logic) and Eros (Beauty), as well as Personage (Individual) and Cultus (Community).  And that is why it is difficult to falsify or displace cultural paradigms. Each part supports the whole in a complexly networked relationship. Moreover, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each cultural paradigm forms an encompassing or totalizing gestalt that resists the presence and pressure of other encompassing or totalizing gestalts.

Varieties of Primal, Ancent, Medieval, Modern, Post-Modern and Trans-Modern Perspectives toward the ineffable mystery of “Reality” all fall under this principle of self-referencing symbol systems, meaning-models, language games and forms of life in which each element supports the stability and integrity of the whole.

This assessment will hold true even if we follow Jean Gebser’s model of primal-ancient-medieval “unperspectival”, modern Renaissance-Enlightenment “perspectival” and emergent Post-Modern & Trans-Modern “a-perspectival” approaches toward the encompassing mystery of being-in-the-world. Nevertheless, perhaps it is possible to follow Gebser’s idea in “The Ever-Present Origin” of various unfolding epochs of time that include the archaic, magical, mythic, mental and integral, and view the integral phase as affirming, critiquing and transcending the other four epochal paradigms but without eclipsing them. The image of a “spiraling staircase” comes to mind. Don Beck’s and Chris Cowen’s model of “Spiral Dynamics” has affinities with Gebser’s integral model, though it structures them a bit differently to arrive at eight instead of five epochal phases of unfolding and emergence.  Heraclitus wrote, “The path of ascent and descent is one and the same.”

Negotiating the Variety of Intellectual & Cultural Value Memes across the Ages

Negotiating the Variety of Intellectual and Cultural Value Memes

Throughout history in different parts of the world human beings have developed a wide variety of “value memes” that shape assumptions, beliefs, habits, traditions, norms and commitments. These value memes constitute what Wittgenstein called our “language games and forms of life.” Metaphorically speaking they can be compared to different molecular bonds that constitute the periodic table, or to different biological genes that carry coded information about a living organism.

One interesting question concerns the nature of the relationship between the value memes. To what extent they can be regarded as mutually exclusive or inclusive? Are they dualistic or dialectical? To what extent is their relationship competitive or complementary, conflictive or cooperative, or both?

Further, is the relationship between the value memes to be regarded as eclectic and ironic, as within the post-modern tradition, or as pluralistic and integral, as within the trans-modern tradition? There is no easy answer to such questions because different individuals and collectives will tend to relate to them in different ways. The choices between exclusivity and inclusivity, duality and dialectics, irony and integration, eclecticism and pluralism are themselves tacit and assumed “meta-value memes.” They are largely taken for granted and hidden from view. They operate invisibly below our “radar.”

Brain hemisphere research seems to support the idea that the left-brain hemisphere prefers to see the world within the operating assumption of “either-or” duality and dichotomy. It prefers to make sharp distinctions and to interpret phenomena in conflicting oppositional terms. By contrast, the right-brain hemisphere prefers to see the world within the operating assumption of “both-and” dialectical and paradoxical terms. Brain hemisphere preference conditions whether we see different intellectual and cultural value memes as engaged in intractable conflict or participating in a symbiotic relationship. In the latter approach it is assumed that “the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.” If we trace the history of the various intellectual and cultural value memes across the ages we will discover that there have always been those who view them within a dualistic conflict model and those who view them within a dialogical cooperation model. One employs language literally and dogmatically while the other employs language metaphorically and relationally. These constitute two persistent casts of mind. Likewise, post-modern eclectic ironists value incommensurable multiplicity whereas trans-modern integral pluralists value encompassing unity within multiple quadrants, levels and stages.

The empiricist says “I believe because I see,” but it is just as true that “I see because I believe.” Whatever we assume and take for granted, that is, whatever I tacitly or explicitly believe, will profoundly influence and shape what we am able to notice, attend to and “see.” In this way the so-called “observer” or “subject” influences that which is “observed” as the object of attention, or even whether that which we see is viewed as an impersonal “I-It” object or a personal “I-Thou” subject.

Finally, parochial individuals and cultures prefer to engage a relatively small number of cultural memes whereas cosmopolitan individuals and cultures engage a relatively large number of cultural memes.

Frames of Mind: Comparing Eight Habits of Thought

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There can be little doubt that different persons are endowed with different frames of mind. In considering any topic under the sun different individuals will reveal that they operate according different instinctive habits of thought. I would like to identify eight frames of mind that  pre-condition how a particular person naturally approaches any subject that is of vital interest to them, and especially how they engage in “big conversation” with other minds. These eight frames of mind are the Exclusive, Inclusive, Monistic, Dualistic, Dialectical, Eclectic, Integral and Pluralistic. Some persons will attempt to selectively employ several different assumptive and presupposional approaches on different occasions and within different cultural contexts, but there will tend to be a dominant and secondary approach, with the others in either a tertiary role or even oppositional role.

1. The Exclusive Frame of Mind: All beliefs, ideas, norms and values are assumed to be mutually exclusive, with one view being exclusively right and all others be absolutely wrong. It’s black and white. There’s no room for compromise with falsehood and evil.

2. The Inclusive Cast of Mind: Some beliefs, ideas, norms and values are assumed to be inclusive or assimilative of others, much like an enormously large circle that contains many small circles. One may thus regard one’s one beliefs, ideas, norms and values as ultimately and absolutely True and other beliefs, ideas, norms and values as penultimately and relatively true.

3. The Monistic Frame of Mind: Philosophically there have been two kinds of metaphysical monism. They are known as Idealism and Materialism. Idealism assumes that Matter is an emanation of Mind (Essence or Spirit). Materialism assumes that Mind (Essence or Spirit) is an epiphenomenon of Matter. Absolute forms of Monism can take on the character of Exclusivism, whereas qualified forms of Monism will take on the character of Inclusivism.

4. The Dualistic Frame of Mind: In matters of metaphysics it is assumed that there are two separate realities that have little or nothing to do with each other, or else they are entangled in an eternal cosmic struggle. In matters of ethics and politics it is assumed that there is an irreducible conflict between two and only two points of view. “He who is not for me is against me.” No third point of view is allowed. If one attempts to construct a third point of view, the dualists will attack from both sides. There can be no middle ground. The Aristotelian “Golden Mean” is categorically excluded. One is either for proposition A or proposition B. It is assumed that all propositions are oppositional and antagonistic in nature.

5. The Dialectical Frame of Mind: Thesis and Anti-thesis are unified in a “dialectical synthesis” that is “non-dual” rather than either monistic or dualistic. The relationship involves push and pull, attraction and repulsion, each necessary to the dynamic nature of the relationship. The Yin and the Yang within the Tao serves as a symbol of the dialectical relationship, with the Yin containing the Yang and the Yang containing the Yin. The whole that is greater than the sum of its two parts. Philosophically, the two most well-known forms of dialectical thinking are Hegel’s dialectical idealism and Marx’s dialectical materialism. Dialectical thinkers believe that the opposite of a Great Truth may be another Great Truth. They attempt to integrate binocular (double) vision with a combinational view of the incompassing whole.

6. The Eclectic Frame of Mind: In considering different beliefs, ideas, values, norms the eclectic cast of mind will attempt to toss many of them together like mosaic tiles of many different colors and shapes into a large container, empty them out upon a large surface, and then artfully arrange them in various imaginative, ironic and idiosyncratic ways. This is the post-modern attraction to brick-a-brack. No attempt is made to organize or arrange them into a comprehensive and coherent gestalt. Bits and pieces of multiple traditions are represented, but how they connect to each other is left unstated. It may be assumed that in our informational and culturally saturated world that any attempt at a comprehensive vision or “theory of everything” is futile. What we have are many unrelated but interesting pieces of several different jig-saw puzzles that don’t fit together. They belong to different puzzles but it’s fun to display them artfully in their incommensurable diversity.

7. The Integral Frame of Mind: Some people feel compelled to  integrate the variety of human beliefs, ideas, norms and values, as well as historical epochs, cultural traditions, intellectual domains and life practices into a comprehensive and coherent whole. Integral thinkers construct maps, models and paradigms that attempt to re-present the full spectrum of consciousness and culture across the ages. Historically, this may be expressed as encompassing the primal, ancient, medieval, modern, post-modern and trans-modern ages of man. Developmentally, this may be expressed as stages in the unfolding of being, the evolution of matter, and the awakening of the Universal Human. Of course various integral thinkers have different myths, maps, models and paradigms of reality (“what is”) and they dispute with those who are equally committed to different myths, maps, models and paradigms. It is easy here to forget that “the map is not the territory.” Some integral thinkers who grasp this concept in the abstraction resist it when their own model comes under criticism from those who are passionately beholden to a different “theory of everything.”

8. The Pluralist Cast of Mind: The philosophical pluralist is a pragmatist who seeks an encompassing and coherent view of prime reality and the world in which we live, but without any exclusivist or absolutist assumptions. Pluralists recognize that there are many unique and distinct, complex and creative ways of being human and of constructing rich cultures and great civilizations. Unlike eclectics they prefer to understand each complex and creative individual and culture within its own highly nuanced and “thick” context, rather than to lift it “a-historically” out of its larger symbolic and functional context for purposes of commercial kitsch. Intellectual and cultural historians tend to exist on a spectrum between ideological dualists and pragmatic pluralists. The monistic and dualistic ideologues tend to reduce the story of history to a single Idea or to an ideological struggle between opposing forces that reiterates itself in different language and symbols from age to age. This translates into the conflict model of human history. This approach is the home of the proverbial Hedgehog who has found One Big Idea.

The pluralist pragmatists tend to view the story of history as a complex multi-dimensional movement between multiple forces that all interact with each other in patterned but unpredictable ways. This approach is the home of the proverbial Foxes who has Many Small Ideas rather than One Big One.

Pluralistic Pragmatists prefer to give each realm of knowledge and domain of life “its proper due” but to limit the tendency of each realm and domain to over-reach in its ambition to apply its methods to everything under the sun.  They appreciate the distinction Pascal made between the esprit de geometrie and the esprit de finesse. Neither esprit is higher or deeper or better than the other.

As Jacques Barzun, himself a cultural historian and pragmatic pluralist puts it, Science-Technology (geometrie) and Humanities-Arts (finesse) belong to radically divergent modes of conceiving and working with reality. In Science-Technology the elements and defintions are clear, abstract, and unchangable, but stand outside the ordinary ways of thought and speech. In the opposite realm of Intuitive-Aesthetic thought, the elements come out of the common stock and are know by common names, which elude definition. Thus it is hard to reason justly about them because they are so numerous, mixed, and confusing: there is no method.

The spirit of Pluralistic Pragmatism seeks to honor both sensibilities or casts of mind but without allowing the former to become hardened or reified as scientism and mechanism and the latter to become reified as intellectualism and aestheticism. Pragmatism cares about the consequential “cash value” of ideas for human fulfillment, cultural literacy, civil society and a sustainable world.

In his introduction to the anthology, “A Jaques Barzun Reader,” Michael Murray puts it this way: “The pragmatic cultural historian “deals with ideas, but with ideas as they flourish in the marketplace–some derived from the sytems and no longer pure, other from the minds of reformers, politicians, artists, and indeed anybody. It’s limits are fixed by the breadth of the practitioner’s knowledge, eloquence, and wit.”