Tag Archives: Artists

The Creative Dialectics of Intellectual and Cultural History

One of the joys of exploring intellectual and cultural history is that we begin to perceive the variety of critical debates and creative dialectics that have influenced and shaped our worldviews and ways of life across the ages and within different cultural traditions.

Books I’ve enjoyed reading and re-reading recently include “From Dawn to Decadence,” by Jacques Barzun, “The Roots of Romanticism,” by Isaiah Berlin, “Culture and the Death of God,” by Terry Eagleton, “The Age of Atheists,” and “The Modern Mind,” by Peter Watson, “Plato at the Googleplex,” by Rebecca Goldstein, “The History of Knowledge,” by Charles Van Doren, “Sources of the Self,” and “The Secular Age,” by Charles Taylor. I’ve become passionate about exploring intellectual and cultural history, and have become so shameless as to give copies of my favorite books to several close friends, hoping that these fine books might stimulate further spirited conversations about “the great ideas.”

Some of the critical debates and creative dialectics that become obvious in any reading of the history of ideas and culture include the following themes: Affirmation and Renunciation, The Picturesque and the Heroic, The Beautiful and the Sublime, the Hedonic and the Ascetic, the Sensuous and the Austere, the Secular and the Sacred, Immanence and Transcendence, Potentiality and Limitation, Unity and Plurality, the Universal and the Particular, the Cosmopolitan and the Provincial, the Abstract and the Concrete, Reason and Passion, Morality and Instinct, Ethics and Aesthetics, Will and Being, Eros and Agape…to name a few. These great dialectics run through the entire history of philosophy, religion, literature, art and culture.

It also becomes obvious that there has been an ongoing contest between the different “Culture of the West,” that is, between the ascendency and attempted hegemony of their respective domains of knowledge and their respective ways of knowing. These different intellectual and cultural ways of being and knowing have become reified and archetypal. They include the Religious Ways of the Shaman, Sage, Prophet, and the Mystic. They include the Secular Ways of the Philosopher, Scientist, Historian, Mythologist, Poet and Artist. There is a constant push-pull, what Charles Taylor calls “cross-pressure” between these domains of knowledge with their competing epistemologies. Of special interest to Taylor is what he calls “the ghost of transcendence” even in a secular age of exclusive humanistic immanence. Terry Eagleton follows a similar line of thought, seeing a hidden longing for transcendence within the exclusively immanent frame of secular modernity.  At times the ineffable, the eternal, the sacramental and the transcendent seem to vanish into complete hiatus from the immanent frame of the secular age. But the transcendent longing is often hiding in plain sight. And it often reappears in various newly adaptive and modified secular forms. The search for the sacred and the sublime continues, even among many who identify themselves as entirely secular and non-religious in outlook.

Sometimes it helps to put faces and names to the various Cultures of the West. Below are a few images that conjure entire worlds of cultural tradition and worldview perspective, both ancient and modern, sacred and secular. Literally hundreds of images could be added to this small cluster of merely representative types. A true liberal arts education will expand our appreciation for the vast array of possible ways to see and live in the world, and will introduce us to the many “cross-pressures” that nurture a complexly nuanced experience of life with all its dualities, dialectics, ironies, enchantments, contradictions and paradoxes. Not only will a liberal arts education give us a broader and wider appreciation for the many ways of being human, but it will also sharpen the intensity and refine the quality of our experience. Those of you who have been following my blogs know that this is one of my persistent themes. We need a renaissance of liberal arts education, historical perspective,  cultural literacy and civil discourse if we are not to be reduced to economic animals, compulsive addicts, distracted spectators and mindless consumers.


Jesus and Buddha, Redemptive Savior and Enlightened Sage


Rumi, the Ecstatic Mystic of Absorption into the Divine Beloved


Plato and Aristotle, Rational Mystic and Rational Empiricist


Ludwig Schopenhauer, Philosopher of Ascetic Renunciation


Frederick Nietsche, Philosopher of Dionysian Affirmation


Jacques Barzun, Western Intellectual and Cultural Historian


Shakespeare, Poet and Playwright


Beethoven, Musical Genius Celebrating Human Grandeur


The Four Cultures: Empiricists, Theorists, Literati and Artists

The Idea of the University

In perusing my personal library recently it occurred to me that my books could easily be classified by “The Four Cultures.” These are the four cultures of the Empiricists, Theorists, Literati and the Artists. All four of these intellectual and creative cultures matter! Together they constitute “the idea of the university,” a concept that John Henry Newman articulated in his classic text of that title.

1. The Culture of the Empiricists is directed toward facts and information, directories and instruction manuals. It’s about finding information fast and understanding how things work. I have books about everything from gardening to cooking, scientific discoveries to phone directories, all focused on empirical investigation and knowledge of facts, processes and procedures. For some people this is their primary language and what Richard Rorty calls their “final vocabulary.”

2. The Culture of the Theorists is different from the Culture of Empiricists, though the two cultures often work together. Theorists don’t just want to understand “how things work” in the factual, numerical, measurable and mechanical sense of the word. They are looking for the hidden dynamics, the underlying laws, and the interactive patterns that explain differences and attitudes and behaviors. They are analytical “systems thinkers” rather than simply empirical observers of “physical properties.” Every domain of knowledge has its “system thinkers” who construct maps of reality, cosmos, consciousness and culture. My library is full of such books. These include such books as Maps of the Mind; A Brief Theory of Everything: Spiral Dynamics; Generations; The Passion of the Western Mind; Please Understand Me; The Enneagram; Awakening the Heroes Within; Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences; Theories and Practices of Counseling and Psychotherapy; Ways of Wisdom; King, Warrior, Magician, Lover; Habits of the Heart; and At the Edge of History, to name a few.

Some theorists have “one big idea” that they repeatedly present in a variety of ways. Other theorists have “two big ideas” that they think exist in either a dualistic, dialectical or symbiotic (or integral)  relationship, that is, in oppositional conflict, dynamic tension, or mutual enrichment. Still other theorists want to get beyond the number two. They conceive of anywhere between three to a dozen different points of view they believe exist in either a dualistic, dialogical or symbiotic relationship. Here are a few examples:

Ontology: A Brief Theory of Everything, by Ken Wilber [Intention, Behavior, Culture, Society]

Ontology: Spiral Dymamics, by Chris Cowen and Don Beck [SurvivalSense, KinSpirits, PowerGods, TruthForce, StriveDrive, HumanBond, FlexFlow, GlobalView]

Spirituality: Four Spiritualities, by Peter T. Richardson [The NT Journey of Unity, The SF Journey of Devotion, The SJ Journey of Works, The NF Journey of Harmony]

Psychology: Please Understand Me II, by David Kersey [Territorial Guardians ST, Volcanic Artisans SF, Oceanic Idealists NF, Ethereal Rationals NT]

Psychology: Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, by Gerard Corey [Psychoanalytic Therapy, Adlerian Therapy, Existential Therapy, Person-Centered Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Reality Therapy, Behavior Therapy, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Family Systems Therapy]

Sociology: Generations, by Strauss and Howe [Idealists, Reactives, Civics, Adaptives]

Sociology: Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah (Religious Covenant: John Bradford, Secular Citizenship: Thomas Jefferson, Utilitarian Individualism: Benjamin Franklin, Expressive Individualism: Walt Whitman]

Political Theory: At the Edge of History, by W.I. Thompson [Traditionalists, Progressives, Libertarians, Communitarians]

What those who dwell primarily in the Culture of Theorists care about are ideas, concepts, principles, maps, models and paradigms. Again, these various conceptual perspectives may be viewed as dualistic, dialectical or symbiotic, that is, as oppositional, frictional, or integrative. One of the dangers for those who live primarily in the Culture of Theorists is the tendency to forget that “the map is not the territory.” When we forget this we become militant and tight-fisted ideologues with doctrinaire and inflexible ideas.

3. The Culture of Literati is different from both the Culture of Empiricists and the Culture of Theorists, though some Literati are not hostile or indifferent toward  Empiricists and Theorists. Lyrically and poetically sensitive “nature and science writers” along with “philosophical novelists” are able to combine the literary sensibility with either science or philosophy. But other literati who write novels, short stories, lyric essays, literary criticism, poems and plays are not primarily concerned with either the Culture of Empiricists or the Culture of Theorists. They are Story-Tellers and Myth-Makers who revel in the “thick” language of creative fiction, imagination, analogies and metaphors. They care about evocative settings, vivid characters, and dramatic events. To those whose natural style and mode of discourse is imaginative narrative, the factual idiom of science and the theoretical idiom of philosophy may seem dull and prosaic by comparison. Each culture has its prejudice.

4. The Culture of Artists is different from the Cultures of Empiricists, Theorists and Literati, though once again there may be “elective affinities” between any of them. When we think of artists what first comes to mind are painters and musicians, but most people also include creative writers as well. Again, it is not uncommon to find that painters, musicians and creative writers enjoy hanging out together and gaining inspiration from each other’s work. In the more narrow sense of the word, an “artist” uses the medium of images and sounds, that is, painting and music to express intense emotions and visionary imagination without a primary dependence of words, whether scientific or philosophical, or even literary and fictional.

Even still, the lines of distinction between the four cultures are hardly cut-and-dried. Some painters and musicians are deeply interested on conversations with the creative literati. Some are interested in the discoveries of scientists and the theories of philosophers as well.

We need educated specialists who are able to make their contributions within particular cultural domains. At the same time, there is also a place for the educated generalist or  interdisciplinary polymath who is able to cultivate a breadth of interest and competence in each of the Four Cultures.

In his book, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary and Creative Minds, Harold Bloom says that we read the “strong poets” because “they offer freedom for the creative self, for the expansion of the mind’s consciousness of itself.” I would extend this definition to include an expansion of the mind’s consciousness not only of itself but of the totality of life, of all things above and below, without and within. In this sense we need to learn how to “read” not only the strong poets, as if they have the only show in town, but also the strong artists, scientists and philosophers, without conflating them all as “poets.”

Of course we can speak of other “cultures” that influence and shape our society and world. All of the Trades, Technologies, Enterprises and Professions create their own cultures, and we would be foolish not to pay attention to them. Yet it is our Scientists, Philosophers, Literati and Artists who are at the heart of “the Idea of the University.” The concept of the university has roots in both the Renaissance and Enlightenment traditions. It’s purpose is to be a community of scholars, a place of “higher learning” that is animated by an intrinsic love of wisdom (Renaissance) and knowledge (Enlightenment) for its own sake rather than for instrumental purposes and utilitarian gain. Of course “liberal arts education” had implications for the practical affairs of living and working, but its primary interest is not monetary or commercial.

As with most things the actual practice of higher education often falls short of the ideal vision. But it is a vision worth preserving and renewing from generation to generation. The idea of the university never has been primarily about “job creation,” popular as that instrumental idea has become today.  It has been about the collaborative effort to cultivate highly developed human beings who aspire to master a vital domain of knowledge and eventually to contribute as thought-leaders, creative innovators and cultural trustees through their livelihoods and vocations. It has been about “the freedom of the creative self to expand the mind’s consciousness” of reality in all its rich and complex diversity.

Unless we are content to create a mindless society of technological wizards and intellectual imbeciles, we need the University as a “community of scholars” to recover its true and noble vocation. We need a diversity of Scientists, Philosophers, Literati and Artists at the heart of the university to come together as the Four Cultures. We need them to engage in critical reflection and constructive dialogue (1) with each another and with their students, (2) with those employed in Trades, Technologies, Businesses and Professions, and (3) with the general public and civic leaders. We need those who have become knowledgeable and fluent within the Four Cultures to help us engage the perennial questions of life and the momentous challenges we face in our pluralist society and global age.