Mike Holliday

Section 1: A Brief Introduction

As the year 2000 grew nearer, there seemed to develop a distinct end-of-an-era feel to many writings on social and political matters (Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book entitled - rather prematurely - The End of History and the Last Man). Much of this could be put down to the approaching end of the millennium, and to the decline of communist states in the USSR and Eastern Europe, but there was also a growing sense that intellectual culture had reached some sort of dead-end, a critical point that left much of the West's philosophic, scientific, and cultural development over the last few hundred years in doubt, but which failed to suggest any new way forward. One book that caught this fin de siecle mood was Richard Tarnas's The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), a narrative of the development of Western thought from the pre-Socratic Greeks to postmodernist thought, via medieval Christianity and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and following centuries. By charting the major trends within this history, Tarnas was able to provide a suggestive account of the development of the aforementioned sense of intellectual crisis. If we were to try to summarize Tarnas, we might identify three major strands that contribute to this sense that 'the very project of Modernity ... seems to have lost momentum, and we need to fashion a successor program' (Toulmin 1990, p. 3).

Firstly, modern Western thought has been perceived to be more self-consciously rational than earlier periods or other cultures.1 There have of course been strong trends with a different outlook, such as the Romantic movement originating in Rousseau and finding perhaps its strongest proponent in Goethe, but the rational, mathematicized intellectual approach taken by early proponents such as Descartes, in philosophy, and Galileo, in physics, represents the major trend in Western thought since the first half of the seventeenth century. Yet such an approach now looks to have become, in a sense, self-defeating - there appear to be strong reasons for believing that a coherent and logical understanding of the world, and of  humanity's place in it, is simply not a possibility. Various elements can be adduced to support this conclusion. Descartes' own confident philosophy was soon developed in a more doubting direction by successors such as Locke and Berkeley, culminating in David Hume's outright skepticism concerning our ability to be certain of any conclusion at all. Various attempts to reconstitute our ability to know what is true, such as those of Kant or Hegel, have ultimately been seen as failures, albeit possibly heroic failures. In addition, our modern, rational, scientific society is now seen as being itself determined in non-rational ways: for example, by economic factors (Marx), by unconscious psychological factors (Freud), or by cultural factors (Kuhn). Our intellectual self-confidence has been affected by an increased knowledge of social and cultural history, and of societies other than our own, and hence by the realization that our own culture is just one of many that have grown and then declined during human history. Finally, there is the sobering effect of the discovery that the universe as described by physics - the doyen of our rational sciences - dwarves us in terms of time and space, and is, in the case of quantum physics, strange beyond our comprehension.

Secondly, this emphasis on the rational appears to have been at the expense of other attributes such as the 'emotional, aesthetic, ethical, volitional, ... imaginative, [or] epiphanic' that had previously helped mediate the relationship between an individual, society, and the world. Such meaningful categories had permeated the pre-modern world, but rationalistic thinking has tended to dismiss them as merely anthropomorphic projections (Tarnas 1991, pp. 287, 326).

Thirdly, the belief that science provided its own justification in terms of the benefits of improved health, more material goods, and so on, was eroded during the twentieth century by a variety of factors: two world wars and the development of nuclear and biological weapons; a growing perception that capitalist societies were characterized by greed and unnecessary consumption, and socialist societies by bureaucracy and restrictions on pluralism; the effect of economic growth on the environment; the failure to eradicate poverty in many third-world countries; and a sense that individuals in economically developed societies were prone to a growing sense of alienation - from themselves, from society, and from the world around them. This sense of alienation forms the everyday counterpart to what Tarnas (1991, p. 419) describes as a threefold intellectual displacement: a cosmological estrangement initiated by Copernicus, an ontological estrangement due to Descartes, and an epistemological estrangement via Kant.

I don't intend to recapitulate in any further detail the developments that have led to our current situation, whether they be philosophic, scientific, cultural, or social. Others have already written excellent accounts; Tarnas, for example, provides an exemplary overview, and Stephen Toulmin's book Cosmopolis (1990) details the historical context of the development of philosophical and scientific modernism, and the growth of those doubts about its efficacy that eventually led to the postmodernist milieu. I will be taking most of this for granted; the series of notes that follow will instead be predicated on the the following:

(i) First of all, I will accept the view that we are currently in an 'era between eras' (Tarnas 1996), in the sense that the sensibility forged in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries appears to be subject to a problematic that renders a strong modernist revival improbable, yet where the trends of thought that have contributed to its demise appear unlikely to be maintained as a stable intellectual and cultural status quo. The current ethos is, as Tarnas suggests, 'one of disassembling established structures, deflating pretensions, exploding beliefs, unmasking appearances - a "hermeneutics of suspicion" in the spirit of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud' (Tarnas 1991, p. 401). The very basis of earlier attempts to improve civilization is seen as (i) subject to its own criticisms and hence in a way self-defeating, and (ii) having helped produce the type of society that is now seen by many as inhuman and totalizing (and hence totalitarian). Thus, the critique of modernist ways of thought seems to have led to a decline in constructive and optimistic social criticism during the second half of the twentieth century, to be replaced by what might be termed 'oppositionalism'. But if rational criticism keeps undercutting itself, then we are left in an impasse without sight of an exit.

(ii) Accordingly, what we need to do is (to use a phrase from Mao) 'let a thousand flowers bloom'. Our present aim should be to cultivate different ways of looking at ourselves and the world, rather than attempting to show that we have the correct description or theory.2 In the text that follows, I shall therefore be trying to extract relations and linkages from a variety of writings over the last few decades. I will not be too concerned with the possibility of deconstructive criticism of those ideas - my aim is to develop some form or pattern of concepts that can be of use in changing our ways of thinking and our behaviors, rather than simply repeating criticisms of earlier views.3 As such, much of what follows is necessarily speculative and subject to an ad hoc development. It is certainly not intended to be viewed as foundationalist or as a totalizing system of thought.

First version created: June 2004

Last updated: July 2005

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[1] In Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990), Stephen Toulmin describes how the use of the term 'rational' seems to have changed during the last few hundred years. From Descartes on, Western philosophy has emphasized an abstract, formal approach that considers matters independent of context, rather than 'reasonable procedures' of various types that apply to different sorts of concrete situations, and has thereby subtly redefined the meaning of 'rational'. In effect, the scope of rational thought contracted, rather than expanded, during the seventeenth century. This separation of rationality and logic from the emotions and rhetoric represented a move back from the more 'humanist' philosophy of the Renaissance, as realized in Shakespeare, Erasmus, and Montaigne. According to Toulmin, there were strong political and cultural reasons, deriving from the religious arguments and wars that followed the Reformation and counter-Reformation, why writers in the seventeenth century emphasized a desire for certainty above all else.

[2] I am therefore also committed to avoiding the opposite temptation, which is to merely keep repeating as a form of mantra 'there is no correct description or theory'.

[3] Given this approach, I concentrate on recent thinkers, rather than those without whom we could not have reached our current position, such as Descartes, Kant, Hegel or Marx.