Tag Archives: Integral Theory

The Integral Nature of Cultural Paradigms







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.”

The protean scholar & multi-disciplinary polymath: Lessons from Michael Polanyi


This week I’ve enjoyed reading an excellent “philosophical biography” (if that’s a genre), entitled  Michael Polanyi, by Mark T. Mitchell. I’ve been struck by several statements that provide insight into the remarkable character, sensibility, curiosity and achievement of Michael Polanyi, the scientist turned philosopher.

“Had one not merely to know Polanyi in an unprejudiced way to realize that here one was dealing with an Erasmian man, with the protean scholar?”

Erasmus was a Renaissance man, cultural literati and Christian humanist, as well as the intellectual nemesis of Luther who demonized “bastard reason” on behalf of authoritarian  “faith” whose glory is that it contradicts reason. Pascal would famously say that “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of,” but Pascal, a brilliant mathematician, would never demonize critical reason or empirical science in the matter of Luther.

Proteus is the shape-shifting god who can take many forms. To be a “protean scholar” is to flexibly adapt one’s intellectual and creative inquiry to different domains of knowledge and to fluently speak the acquired languages of those respective domains without reducing all knowledge to one single privileged domain. To be a protean scholar is to transcend narrow academic and disciplinary specialization. It is to see things from multiple perspectives and even to consider the possiblility that several of they of not all of them may be partly right.

To be a “protean scholar” is also to develop a kind of epistemological variety and flexibility, just as a carpenter learns to use many different tools rather than just rely on a hammer for every building job. So people only learn how to use a “hammer” for every intellectual inquiry and for every practical situation in life. They have never met a question or a problem that they could not answer or solve by just clobbering it into cowering submission. Robert Jay

Any discussion of the “protean scholar” can hardly slip by without mentioning the related idea of “Protean man” that is credited to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton’s idea is that the “protean man” embraces multiple perspectives at once, modifying them at will, and then lets them go only to re-embrace them in a playful (sometimes seriously playful) manner. He contrast’s the “protean man” with the “the fundamentalist.” That
The Protean man could also be considered an ironist, someone who is “always aware that the terms in which they describe them selves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves” — as stated by Richard Rorty. If there is one thing Protean man or the ironist finds difficult, it is committing to a single perspective among a plethora of options and then acting on it. Rorty distinguishes between metaphysicians and ironists, correlating with philosophical realists and nominalists, as well as absolutists and relativists. When one understands Polanyi’s highly nuanced epistemology, it is clear that he is neither an authoritarian metaphysician nor an ludic ironist, a modern scientistic objectivist or a post-modern literary narrative subjectivist. He offers a middle way, a third culture that transcends this dichotomy that runs through the modern academy and popular culture.
And then there was this statement: “Polanyi was unusual even as a scientist in that he was active in both theoretical and experimental work (as a physical chemist). A keen mind coupled with a rigorous and broad liberal education provided him with the capacity to pursue interests outside of his field of expertise (in physical chemistry); the political upheavals of twentieth-century Europe provided the catalyst.” One may possess a “keen mind” that inquires about many things but be sadly deprived of a “liberal arts education.” Or one may be given the gift of “a liberal arts education” but without a “keen mind” that dares to reflect upon knowledge and experience, to ask interesting and provocative questions, and go outside the field of one’s narrow expertise, it will count for little.

Polanyi’s boyhood education included private tutoring in English, French, German, and the Hungarian that was spoken in the home. What an advantage it is for the budding polymath to become fluent in multiple languages which involve a vast repertoire of lexicons of meaning and idioms of expressions.

Polanyi was introduced to the writings of Schiller, Goethe, Corneille and Racine. These are the great German Romantic writers. Goethe is, of course, the quintessential scientific, philosophical, literary and artistic polymath, as well as a man familiar with the civic, social, economic and political world in which he lived.

Here’s another clue: “The intellectual climate in Budapest at the time was vibrant, and Cecile-Mama, Michael’s mother, established a salon that attracted a wide variety of artists and writers. Both of Polanyi’s parents were engaged in a robust intellectual and cultural life. They were avid readers and they were friends to many different artists and writers. Imagine the stimulating influence this would have on a young mind.

As Polanyi later described it, “I grew up in this circle, dreaming of great things.” Who wouldn’t under such a rich informal apprenticeship and mentoring influence? It is not difficult to see where his idea of the normative and regulative value of “tradition and authority” within a “community of practice” comes from. He witnessed the intellectual stimulation and enchanting delight of a “living community of practice” in the presence of his mother’s conversational salon among gifted artists and writers who learned their crafts from the established masters of their disciplines as well as from each other. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” mutually benefit and enrich each other, as T.S. Eliot so eloquently puts it in his famous essay.

Emerson’s libertarian ideas of “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” are valuable correctives to slavish and unthinking conformity to ideas and traditions that belong to the historical past. But they have always needed the corrective of a highly diverse yet broadly normative intellectual and scholarly tradition that manifests itself in a mentored and disciplined “community of practice.” Without this we have no way to critically challenge “the lunatic fringe” of unbridled solipsism, pseudo-intellectualism, rhetorical propaganda and ignorant stupidity. The fact of the matter is that Emerson himself enjoyed such a “community of practice” among his highly educated and cultured transcendentalist friends. He even encouraged them to develop “portfolios” of their intellectual and creative work to be shared and reviewed by each other. His editorial work with “The Dial” is further evidence that he valued participation a “community of practice.” Emerson was not entirely again the epistemological value of  “Authority (meaning Expertise) and Tradition (meaning Legacy).” He just wanted to create a new one in America that was free of old European influence.  And so it seems clear that he denied in theory what he affirmed in practice.

Then there is this: “During the eight years at the Minta Gymnasium, Polanyi studied history, literature, language, science and mathematics. By his own admission, physics and art history were his favorite subjects–an early foreshadowing of the breadth of interest that would characterize the rest of his life.” Physics and art. I’m reminded of Leonard Shlain’s fascinating book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, and also of his later book, Art and Physics, on how new scientific theories and discoveries have often been anticipated (by decades if not centuries) by intuitive insights and imaginative visions expressed in the metaphorical and symbolic languages of literature and the arts.

This phenomenon illustrates and supports Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge mutually interact with and influence each other in a continual feed-back loop. Shlain, a brain surgeon by profession, also developed into a polymath. Like Polanyi he was a broad-minded and passionately intelligent humanist who thought about life with his whole-brain. He brought the right brain hemisphere and left brain hemisphere, the tacit dimension and the explicit dimensions together. The ancient Taoist tradition expresses this vision of the receptive, perceptive, inward-looking and affective Yin and the active, judicial, outward-looking and cognitive Yang being symbiotically inter-connected within the Integral, Emergent and Ineffable Tao. Jung’s conceptual model for psychoanalytic psychology is deeply influenced by philosophical Taoism.

Mark Mitchell also makes the point that Polanyi began as an “outsider” to the established scientific community and that he would probably not have been able to make some of his most brilliant scientific discoveries that relied upon his own tacit knowledge as much as upon established scientific facts if he had not possessed the independence of mind to think outside the system.

It is said that “a system cannot understand itself.” It cannot understand anything that may exist in a dimension, level or realm outside of above “the system.” Anything o”utside” is variously “labeled” as an anomaly, antimony, conundrum, fluke, blip, absurdity, contradiction, mystery, perplexity, problem or paradox.  We have a whole vocabulary for such phenomena. When enough of these unexplainable phenomena beyond the standard norms of deviation pile up, the system is ripe for a paradigm shift, a revolution in thinking. Intellectual paradigms and cultural zeitgeist sometimes seem to change at the speed of a glacier melting. But at other times these profound shifts occur as a “punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould.

At such times thoughtful and inquisitive individuals begin to look for alternative explanations that can give a more full and complete account of both natural phenomena and human experience, fashioning new theories and narratives into more elegant and encompassing patterns of meaning and relationships. They often transgress intellectual boundaries and make new connections across disciplinary lines. That is why “protean scholars” and “multi-disciplinary polymaths” are so often thought leaders who live on the forefront of change and the edge of history.

It needs to be noted that even Albert Einstein, who generally respected Polanyi as a brilliant scientific thinker, thought he was wrong about some of his scientific ideas and observations. However, those ideas and observations were validated as accurate decades later by the established scientific community. There is something to be said for the independent scholar and organic intellectual who respects the authority and tradition of  established communities of practice in various disciplines of knowledge and domains of life, but who also enjoys a measure of freedom and autonomy from their potentially stultifying and leveling influences. It is a delicate balance between the extremes of totalitarian conformity and anarchistic eccentricity.

Polanyi’s later ideas of the tacit dimension and personal knowledge are consistent with his lifelong passion for developing a diversified epistemology that vindicates multiple ways of knowing rather than only the “scientific method” as often falsely construed as a strictly empirical objectivist endeavor. He continually gleaned new insights, illuminations, knowledge and understanding of the human condition and the nature of reality as he explored the domains of science, philosophy, history, economics, politics, art, literature, ethics, values and religion. Though his early  professional expertise and success was as a chemist, Polanyi’s gradual adoption of “anti-reductionism” (that would reduce all valid knowledge to mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology) was rooted in his broad liberal arts education, placing the sciences, arts and humanities in a collegial relationship of mutual dialogue. This approach gave him an approach “to knowing and being” that understood reality on multiple levels, rather than flattened out into only one level. E.F. Schumacher develops a similar multi-layered epistemology in A Guide for the Perplexed and Small Is Beautiful. Universal Polymaths think differently than parochial specialists. In the famous analogy of the Hedgehog and the Fox, scientific specialists tend to be Hedgehogs while humanistic generalists tend to be Foxes.

In his book, More Than Matter? Is There More to Life than Molecules, by Keith Ward, the author begins by quoting Francis Crick as an example of the reductionist mentality: “You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve-cells and their associated molecules.” Crick was a brilliant scientist and a co-discoverer of DNA, but his worldview is extremely limited. It reduces all of life to the one discipline he happened to have devoted his entire scholarly life to studying. It is easy to see how one might make this mistake, explaining all the complexities of nature and human existence strictly in of the algorithms, calculations, mechanisms and laws associated with math, physics, chemistry, botany, biology, or even cognitive and social science.

Keith Ward’s book is one of many scholarly critiques of such a narrowly reductionist approach. The most credible critics of one-dimensional objectivism, hyper-rationalism and scientistic reductionism are probably those, like Polanyi, who devoted most of his life to doing serious scientific work in critical dialogue among the leading scientists of his time and within an established community of practice. His unique approach avoided the snares of both modern objectivism and post-modern subjectivism.

Polanyi’s development as both a scientist and a polymath meant that he was deeply interested in understanding and engaging all the sciences, but he was also interested in exploring the philosophy of science, including its epistemological foundations. He was interested in understanding and engaging philosophy, economics, politics, art, literature, ethics and religion, each on its own terms and within its own fiduciary framework of a “scholarly tradition” and “community of practice”, without reducing them to the domains of math, physics, chemistry and biology.

Polanyi clearly had a high regard for the scientific enterprise and for scientific method. He always regarded his knowledge and mastery of scientific inquiry as the best training for his later studies in philosophy and the other liberal disciplines. But he did not “inflate” science into the sum of all knowledge and the only valid method of knowing,  thus turning science into scientism. His broad liberal education endowed him with an equally broad epistemological orientation that unleashed his ability to approach all the liberal arts as mutual colleagues rather than an imperial territorial game of King of the Mountain. And that, quite simply, is the genius of the protean scholar and the multi-disciplinary polymath!

[Note: There is much more to be said about the genius of Michael Polanyi. That I will save for another blog. A short reading list includes: Michael Polanyi, by Mark T. Mitchell. Books by Michael Polanyi include: Knowing and Being. Personal Knowledge. The Tacit Dimension. The Study of Man, Meaning. Wikipedia has a good introduction. Surf the Web. There is a Polanyi Society. Find out thinkers have been influenced by his ideas of the tacit dimension and personal knowledge. The literary critic F.R. Leavis was profoundly influenced by reading “Knowing and Being.” See who else has developed similar ideas without any knowledge of or reference to the work of Polanyi. It is not unusual to find several great minds that come upon similar ideas during the same period and under the same pressures of historical challenge and cultural development.]

The “Polymath” Combines Tacit Knowledge & Explicit Knowledge to Create an Integral & Holistic Culture

Leonardo the polymath

It is no accident that Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Loren Eiseley and Michael Polanyi were all polymaths, fluent in both the humanities and the sciences.  For them there was no intellectual and cultural chasm between what C.P. Snow called “the two cultures.”

The multidisciplinary polymath as a pure type (and archetype) is a “universal human” who is equally at home in the forms and methods of discourse associated with philosophy, history, literature and the arts on the one side and the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences on the other. In the modern age the intellectually and culturally complex multidisciplinary polymath has been almost entirely displaced by the narrowly educated professional specialist. This is one reason why the humanities and the sciences have drifted apart and tend to talk past each other, or else marginal or co-opt each other’s styles and methods of discourse.

Michael Polanyi lived in both the world of the humanities and the sciences, and he valued them both equally. His model of tacit and explicit knowledge gives expression to this attitude of mutual respect and complementary influence. He, like William James before him and many after him, came to recognize that knowledge has two polarities. Other terms for this duality of knowledge include interiorization and exteriorization, autopoietic and representational, context and content, background and foreground, tender-minded and tough-minded, soft knowledge and hard knowledge, participation and reification, form and substance, quality and quality.

For those of you who are “Ken Wilber readers” and identified with his “integral theory of everything,” the “four quadrants” of the non-dual Ecology of Being works in much the same way. The two epistemological approaches of  Personal Intention and Collective Culture have a natural affinity with the Tacit Dimension. The two epistemological approaches of Personal Behavior and Collective Systems have a natural affinity with the Explicit Dimension. Wilber is presenting an integral pluralist method and epistemological model that combines all four ways of knowing. Wilber’s model is “anti-reductionistic” since each way of knowing is allowed to speak its own disciplinary “language” and use its own terms of reference.

The idea of “embodied knowledge” was important to Polanyi. By this he not only meant that knowledge is not limited to either abstract philosophical concepts or concrete scientific experiments. Rather, what it means is that all human knowledge is embodied knowledge. We know and experience life through our sentient bodies along with our conscious minds. This includes all those “non-cognitive” dimensions that make us fully human, including our sensations, desires, hopes, fears, memories, emotions, dreams, imaginations, purposes, actions, habits, practices, values, beliefs, intuitions and illuminations. It also means that human knowledge is embedded in history, tradition, language and culture, and especially through “communities of practice.” Analytical philosophers and linguists call this our “hermeneutical circle and community of discourse,” those with whom we share a common “consensus reality.”

To aspire to become a multidisciplinary polymath, and indeed a universal human, is to abandon the self-limitation imposed by such oppositional terms of either “a man of letters” or “a man of science,” as if one needs to choose. Of course we have hardly spoken here of “the arts” as a primal and tacit way of knowing, but Polanyi’s view was that they, too, play a necessary and integral role along with the “humanities” on the one side and the “sciences” on the other.

Much of the appeal of the “Counter-Culture” ideal as variously expressed in modern history among the Bohemians, Romantics, Transcendentalists, Beat Generation, Hippies, New Thought and New Age Movements, Feminist Movement, Green Party and Occupy Movement has been resistance to the reign of quantifying, objectifying, competitive efficiency within the early industrial and now late capitalist technocratic society. What those who identity with the “counter-culture” object to and resist is the loss qualitative and non-quantifiable experience, which is the neglected “tacit dimension” beneath the tip of the iceberg of  explicit quantifiable and utilitarian knowledge.

The tacit dimension is home to primal experiences of natural wonder, sublime beauty, spiritual awakening, ecstatic joy, emotional authenticity, aesthetic creativity, moral imagination, loving relationships, cooperative community and compassionate living. A society that neglects the transcendental qualitative tacit dimension while it worships the utilitarian quantifying explicit dimension may be rich in material things but it will impoverish the soul.

And this is why the recovery of the tacit dimension matters today. This is why we need polymaths like Leonardo, Goethe, Eiseley and Polanyi who integrate tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge as they move fluently across and make non-reductive connections between the humanities, arts, sciences and technologies. The polymath combines tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge of multiple fields of inquiry to create “the third culture,” which is an integral and emergent rather than a polarized and reductive culture.

F.R. Leavis: The Literary Critic As Anti-Philosopher

F.R. Leavis

Thesis: The various academic disciplines of the university world are each “jealous gods” who proclaim, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This is true whether we are speaking of philosophy, history, literature, arts or sciences. Each would be the Master Discipline, the organizing center of intellectual and cultural life. Each one may develop a natural antipathy to its competitors. Each one may create a vortex of knowledge that becomes a silo of power. But there are better options.

I hold in my hands a collection of essays and papers by the great English literary critic F.R. Leavis entitled “The Critic as Anti-Philosopher.” The companions to this book include Dickens the Novelist, Nor Shall My Sword, The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought, and Thought, Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in D.H. Lawrence. Leavis was invited to deliver the prestigious Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1965 that was later published as “English Literature in Our Time and the University (1967). Leavis’ subjects of literary criticism included Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Conrad, Coleridge, Arnold, James, Hopkins, Hardy, Joyce, and Dickens, among others. Leavis did admire the philosophical writings of Michael Polanyi, author of “Knowing and Being,” and so his “anti-philosopher” stance was selective rather than universal.

Leavis was a friend of the philosopher Wittgenstein who also taught at Cambridge and on one occasion playfully (but seriously) urged him to “give up philosophy.” This is ironic because in fact Wittgenstein did give up teaching philosophy for a while to go teach school children, something for which he was singularly unsuited. Leavis describes Wittgenstein as an intellectual genius of remarkable intensity who was fascinating to watch at he wrestled in a sustained spontaneous effort to resolve self-imposed problems of his intellectual discipline. Leavis writes, “Wittgenstein has an intensity of a concentration that impressed itself on one as disinterestedness.” But the same could be said of Leavis. There is something obsessive in each of these men’s intellectual passion. Maybe there is something “obsessive” in the temperament of all intellectuals who enjoy working tirelessly on various thought-problems they assign themselves to work on.

And yet it must also be said that there was an intellectual incompatibility, “an antipathy of temperament” between these two men of genius. Leavis puts it this way, “Wittgenstein couldn’t in any case imagine that literary criticism might matter intellectually. Even at that time I had the opposing conviction: it was, as it is, that the fullest use of language is to be found in creative literature, and that a great creative work is a work of original exploratory thought.”

Another literary critic who shares Leavis’ sensibility is Michael Wood, author of “Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.” Wood is the Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and from 1995 to 2001 he was the Director of Gauss Seminars in Criticism at Princeton. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. But here’s his difference from Leavis. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society. His works include books on Stendhal, Garcia Marquez, Nabokov, Kafka, and films. In addition, he is a widely published essayist and book reviewer. And so we can deduce that Michael Wood is a secular henotheist who is able to render some limited devotion to the god of Philosophy but his supreme devotion belongs to the god of Literature.

Several blogs ago I wrote about the binary nature of intellectual discourse within the various intellectual disciplines of the university world. But it is also true that there is a binary fixation between the liberal disciplines as well. For some that binary tension between Literature and Philosophy. For others it will be a binary tension between Philosophy and Science, or say philosophy and Religion. Any combination of intellectual disciplines can become a binary fixation and focus of dialogue, discourse, dialectic and debate.

What happens rather spontaneously in the complex mental lives of intellectually inclined individuals in general and of professional academics in particular is a gradual concentration and intensification of knowledge and reflection that consolidates principally around one “master discipline.” Its scholarly body of knowledge, assumptions, methods and styles become normative. The deeper one goes into that intellectual discipline and critical domain the more it becomes a creative vortex that gathers up and organizes one’s thought until we see the world almost entirely through its lens. Of course this same process is what creates academic silos from which the intellectual partisans come to view each other across disciplines with growing suspicion.

Occasionally something surprising will happen. A few “organic free-range” intellectuals and “home-grown polymaths” will adopt a radically pluralistic and pragmatic approach to intellectual and cultural inquiry. Such a pluralistic and diversified approach is characterized by “interdisciplinary complementarity” in which no single academic discipline or ideology of any discipline “captures the flag” or “gets to have the last word.” It is a continuing and open dialogue between multiple modes, methods and styles of discourse, like learning to fluently speak multiple languages and dialects. This, of course, is extremely rare. Most domesticated and sequestered academics believe, whether they will publicly admit it or not, that only one intellectual discipline can serve as the master discipline that explains (at the most fundamental level) what is really going on, and it just happens to be the one they have devoted their lives to studying with almost religiously passionate intensity of sustained devotion.

Occasionally something perhaps even curious will happen. An intellectual who had devoted his life to the primary study of one academic discipline, for example natural science, decides that his time would be better spent in the study of philosophy or literature, music or art, and so he switches horses. One can become disillusioned or weary of one’s own intellectual discipline. It may lose its magical luster and persuasive power. And of course this switching of horses may happen in any direction.

In addition, let us admit that we are each naturally influenced by the people around us and by the interests of others. Academic types figure out what seems to have intellectual pizzaz and cultural cache. Let us say one is studying and teaching the humanistic disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history, literature or the arts in an academic community that is overwhelming dominated by the prestigious and well-funded disciplines of science, technology, business and economics. In such an institution professors of the humanities and the arts are likely to feel marginalized and irrelevant to the serious business of the increasingly corporate university, which is, well, business. Colleges and universities that can’t generate income, compensate their faculty, staff the administration and pay their bills go out of business. Let’s be realists here.

One “realist” approach to teaching follows the principle: “If you can’t beat them join them.” Let’s say one is teaching philosophy, an intellectual discipline that some utilitarian cynics question as being relevant, since it is unlikely that one will ever be able to use it to make a living or become a success in the world. The sensible way for a politically astute professor of philosophy to attain at least a measure of status, relevance and respect in a science and technology-driven institution is to teach courses in “Philosophy of Science” and “Ethics of Technology.” Likewise, if theoretical and practical studies in “Economics, Finance, Business and Management” have become the academic center of university  then one hones his liberal academic discipline to address the philosophical and ethical problems of those domains. The ways in which the liberal disciplines of history, linguistic, literature and the arts justify their existence in such a utilitarian academic institution remain deeply problematic.

In any case, it is not only the specialized literary critic like Leavis who is the anti-philosopher. Every intellectual specialization will breed disciplinary elitists who can at best tolerate the distracting presence of the competing intellectual disciplines. They will assume that what is “explained” or left “unexplained” by other disciplines is “fully explained” by their discipline. After all, we only have so much physical and mental energy to spread out and use up.

Here’s my pitch: The great benefit of a true liberal arts education is that we “learn how to learn” through broad and in-depth encounters with multiple disciplines and perspectives that continuously engage each other in critically reflective and constructive dialogue. We learn how to question, compare, contrast, communicatecooperate and collaborate. We learn from others who have “casts of mind” and “styles of temperament” that are quite different from our own. We learn that philosophers, theologians, historians, scientists, literati and artists, among others, can be friends and colleagues without succumbing to suspicion, contempt, alienation or reproach. And this knowledge is precious in any progressive society that values the importance of cultural literacy, intellectual discourse, human solidarity and civil society.

Cosmogenesis: The Linguistic Binaries of Existence, Life, Consciousness & Civilization


Amidst a lifetime of “general reading” across the liberal arts curriculum I’d noticed a recurring pattern that presents itself on all levels of existence, life, consciousness and civilization. It is the binary nature of human language in expressing the dynamics of perceived experience. It is through the invocation and utilization of different linguistic binaries that we engage in a kind of imaginative “cosmogenesis” or world-making.

Allow me to illustrate this pervasive “binary habit of mind” as it occurs in the various intellectual disciplines and cultural domains. What follows is simply a starter-list. I’m sure you can add to it:

RELIGION: Prophetic & Mystical. Transcendence & Immanence. Monotheism & Polytheism. Oneness & Plurality. Union & Separation. Spiritual & Material. Immortality & Absorption. Eschatology & Apocalypse.

PHILOSOPHY: Atomism & Platonism. Materialism & Idealism. Rationalism & Empiricism. Dogmatism & Pragmatism. Being & Becoming. Essence & Existence. Possibility & Limitation. Freewill & Determinism. Truth & Beauty. Goodness & Love.

MYTHOLOGY: Psyche & Eros. Mars & Venus. Innocent & Orphan. Caretaker & Warrior. Creator & Destroyer. Lover & Seeker. Ruler & Magician. Sage & Fool.

HISTORY: Spartan & Athenian. Heroic & Picturesque. Civic & Idealist. Soldier & Artist. Industrialist & Agrarian.

LANGUAGE: Symbol & Sign. Subjective & Objective. Noun & Verb. Abstract & Concrete. Fact & Meaning. Literal & Figurative.

LITERATURE: Prose & Poetry. Realist & Romantic. Tragedy & Comedy. History & Fantasy.

ARTS: Gothic & Renaissance. Baroque & Classical. Romantic & Modern.

PHYSICAL SCIENCES: Fire & Water. Earth & Sky. Space & Time. Mass & Gravity. Particle & Wave. Matter & Energy. Dark Matter & Dark Energy. Substance & Form. Fixed & Moving. Closed System & Open System. Simplicity & Complexity. Entropy & Emergence.

NATURAL SCIENCES: Systole & Diastole. Birth & Death. Youth & Aging. Symbiosis & Predation. Female & Male. Mechanism & Organism.

PSYCHOLOGY: Behaviorism & Psychoanalysis. Humanistic Psychotherapy & Existential Psychotherapy. Introversion & Extraversion. Intuition & Sensation. Feeling & Thinking. Perception & Judgement. Intimacy & Detachment. Altruism & Egoism. False Self & True Self. Images & Words. Orality & Literacy.

SOCIOLOGY: Progress & Regress. Patricians and Plebeians. Ruling Class & Working Class. Interests & Values. Economics & Culture. Idealists & Realists. Optimists & Pessimists. Utopians & Dystopians. Progressives & Traditionalists. Communitarians & Libertarians. Anarchists & Totalitarians. Masculinists & Feminists. Authoritarians & Egalitarians. Entrepreneurs & Ecologists. Transcendentalists & Utilitarians. Evolution & Revolution.

Well, you get the idea. The list could go on. Of course not all language is binary in nature, but it is surprising how much of our language is predicated upon a binary construction. What are some things that different people do with these binaries?

Some people prefer to privilege one side of the binary over the other and become its partisan advocate. They see these polarities as mutually exclusive and feel compelled to choose one at the expense of the other. This is the conflict model whereby all values are oppositional and, by implication, all existence is a struggle between mutually incompatible choices.

Others prefer to collapse them into each other in one way or the other. For example, someone might claim that all altruism is really egoism in disguise. Someone else might claim that what everyone really wants, even if they don’t know or admit it, is to live in love, harmony and peace, not hate, conflict and violence. To use another example, someone might claim that the immanent physical world was either created or emanated from spiritual world.  Someone else might claim just the opposite, that the transcendent realm of reflexive consciousness and spiritual values evolved over billions of years as a improbably epiphenomenon of an originally non-living physical world.

Pantheist monists will claim that there never was any real duality because everything real is ultimately one undifferentiated transcendent Absolute, Oversoul or Spirit that enjoys the “play” of manifesting itself in the illusion of duality. Materialist monists will claim that there never was any real duality because the world of mind and spirit is a kind of optical illusion, a ghost in the machine of impersonal nature.

Others prefer to hold the binary values together in a “dialectical tension” as differentiated yet necessary to each other, but without any grand synthesis. For example, someone might say that the world is made up of something like magnetic forces that have both a negative and a postive polarity, and that both polarities are necessary for existence, life, consciousness and civilization, even though they seem to be in perpetual tension with each other.

And still others prefer to resolve and reconcile the dialectical tension between “thesis” and “antithesis” by introducing a third element of synthesis. There are both religious and secular versions of triadic integration. In Orthodox Christianity the vision of the Holy Trinity serves this function, as the divine “I” of the Father and “Thou” of the Eternal Son are united in the Eternal Communion of the “Holy Spirit” who co-arises from the Father and the Son. Hegel’s Dialectical Idealism borrows from Christianity but for Hegel the Dialectical Synthesis is consummated not with the transcendent Kingdom of God but with the immanent achievement of Hegel’s German Idealism. Marx’s Dialectical Materialism he turns Hegel on his head, whereby the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie will pass through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” to create a new classless society.

Still others prefer to construct a “pluralistic integrative ” method and model of reality that transcends both binary and triadic ways of thinking. Ken Wilber does this with his All Quadrants and All Levels (AQAL) approach. His four ontological (and epistemological) quadrants are Internal-Individual, External-Individual, Internal Collective and External-Collective (that is, Intention, Behavior, Culture and Society). His five levels of being are Matter, Body, Mind, Soul and Spirit, rooted in the ancient tradition of the Great Chain of Being.

For Ken Wilber these quadrants and levels ultimately converge into a non-dualist whole. Materialists view Wilber’s model as archaic and medieval, byzantine and unnecessary to understand the “real world” of physical substances, forms and processes of nature without all the metaphysical slicing and dicing of reality into quadrants and levels, holons, spheres, lines and stages. Idealists and materialists talk past each other.

Still others seem to be content to simply accept and live with the radical plurality and diversity of existence, life, consciousness and civilization without needing to “pluralistically integrate” it into four quadrants and five levels of the Ontological One with Ken Wilber, or “reduce” it to the empirical parameters and quantifying methods of math, physics, chemistry, geology, botany and biology on the other.

It’s my observation that novelists, short story writers, essayists, humorists, satirists, poets and playwrights generally seem to be of this latter sensibility, even though they may engage many of the common binaries of life. Some philosophical novelists, poets and essayists do seem to make a gesture toward theoretical and practical integration of the great binaries of existence, life, consciousness and civilization. However, the deeper instinct creative fiction and nonfiction writers sees to be to “live the questions” and to embrace the experience of Mystery, Ambiguity, Plurality and Paradox rather than to “solve the problems of existence” through either dualistic, monistic, dialectical or evolutionary theories that are the offspring of religion, philosophy, history and science.

What creative writers seem to care about  most is a polyphonic and variegated immersion into the complexity of lived experience and human relationships, not the resolution of abstract philosophical or concrete scientific problems. And yet because creative writers are human beings before they are writers they cannot help but be at least vaguely aware of the binary pattern that appears throughout the entire “cosmogenesis” of existence, life, consciousness and civilization.

What one does with these linguistic binaries is a matter of some consequence. Creative writers often do have a “tell” — as they say of the world of poker. They do have instinctive and habitual  “literary responses” to the binaries within the circle of their life experiences, but their responses are usually expressed below the writer’s own field of vision and threshold of consciousness.

To become aware of how we respond to the linguistic binaries of our experiences and relationships is to become attentive to our own creative process of cosmogenesis or world-making. Whether  these these pervasive linguistic binaries are “objective realities” (like Plato’s Forms or Kant’s Categories) or “nominal abstractions” that serve us as useful fictions is a question for further philosophical discussion.

Recovering “The Divine Center” After “The Death of God” — Healing Nature, Humanity, Self and Society


“Announcing the Death of God is like shattering the atom. The fragments fly in all directions.”

In his book, Also Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche has his protagonist proclaim, “God is dead and we have killed him.” Are these words spoken in cosmic horror and excruciating dismay or in intoxicating glee and liberating relief? Perhaps an ambivalent combination of both.

It is tempting to draw an analogy between the “death of God” in the modern secular moral imagination and Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There are several problems with this analogy. First, there may well be more than five stages of grief. Second, they may not follow any single sequence of stages in all people. Third, they may not be linear at all, but rather elliptical, circling back repeatedly and for different durations. And fourth, any attempt to draw an analogy between the death of a single finite mortal human being, or even many human beings, and the very Ground of Being Itself in all its  protean, polymorphic, numinous and ineffable essence is problematic.

Nevertheless, it fair to say individuals have different kinds of reactions and responses to “the death of God” in the modern secular moral imagination and in their own personal existential lives. These reactions and responses span a wide range of attitudes and emotions that include intoxication and relief, absurdity and despair, irony and reversal, acceptance and indifference.

These emotional reactions and responses may remain constant throughout a person’s life, or they may shift and change along the way. In some cases there may even be a “return to God” who is no longer “dead” for them but suddenly and surprising “alive and well,” resurrected, so to speak, on the other side of atheism, skepticism, secularism and indifference. Sometimes “the Divine Center,” re-imagined and re-membered, emerges in a trans-modern integral vision as the organizing principle of the Totality of Being after a long hiatus of fragmentation.

After the Death of God in the modern secular moral imagination we witness the fracturing and fragmentation of the meaning of Nature, Humanity, Self and Society into atomized and competing forces and  ideologies.

Within the Natural Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the divergent philosophies of dualism, positivism (or materialism), phenomenology, panpsychism, and pragmatism. Likewise, within the scientific community there is a contest between the methodological approaches, privileged domains and final vocabularies of the mathematicians, physicists, geologists, botanists and biologists.

Within the Humanistic Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the competing branches of the humanities, including literature and philosophy, mythology and history, each with its own methodological approaches and final vocabulary.

Within the Psychological Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the various schools of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy that fixate on different aspects of the psychological self, including the functions of introspection and observation, intuition and sensation, feeling and thinking, perception and judgment. Further, there is a contest between the schools of psychology that include behaviorism, psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology, existential psychology, family systems psychology and social systems psychology.

Within the Sociological Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the various social, economic and political traditions, including socialism and capitalism, liberalism and conservatism, communitarianism and libertarianism, and all manner of hybrid combinations as well the principled pragmatism of radical centrists.

When the Divine Center is re-imagined and re-membered as the Organizing Principle of Reality, here, too, we find a variety of spiritual and cultural traditions that have sometimes cooperated and sometimes competed with each other. These include the archetypal ways of the Shaman, Sage, Prophet and Mystic. Today these four great traditions are coming together in global dialogue in the respectful and cooperative spirit of the Parliament of the World Religions.

With the re-emergence of “The Divine Center” in the trans-modern age, something transformative appears beyond the ancient idols of superstitious religiosity, the medieval institutional idol of authoritarian religion, the modern secular idols of hyper-rationalism, reductive scientism and sentimental romanticism,  and the post-modern idols of irony, absurdity, parody and satire. The “trans-modern turn” is toward an Integral Vision of Reality in which the Divine Center respects the diversity yet unites the Natural, Humanistic, Psychological and Sociological Centers of Consciousness, Cognition, Creativity and Culture. Each of these four vital centers contributes to the Total Ecology of Being.

The various reactions and responses to the announcement of the Death of God in the modern secular age are understandable. So is the corrective-movement that seeks to look beyond the death of God in the modern secular post-ontological imagination. Some of us are experiencing a re-awakening of “The Divine Center” that organizes the integrates the Natural, Human, Psychological and Sociological spheres of life that comprise the Totality of Being into a Unified and Diversified Whole. For some of us there emerges an “anatheism” beyond the old categories of theism and theism, polytheism and pantheism. For some of us the re-emergent Divine Center speaks through a “sacred secularity” that recognizes “epiphanies” in many subtle and unexpected guises – including literature, philosophy, art and science along with traditional and syncretic  religious forms. The Divine Center  speak to us in a hidden and silent language of the Spirit beyond words.  It speaks to us through the elliptical and evocative forms of symbols, archetypes, metaphors, analogies, stories, music, drama and the arts. The Divine Center evokes a transcendent vision of the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the ineffable, the unnamable. the unseizable. It awakens in us a “tacit knowledge” of the Comprehensive, the Universal, the Luminous, the Holy, the Beloved, the Merciful, the Supreme Good.