Archive for April, 2012

Like all newborn visions, the holism vision in the 19th century was almost impossible to express directly. Intimations of it can be glimpsed in art and imaginative fiction, or in off-the-cuff remarks by otherwise conventional scientists, but it was never consciously articulated. Even when it became more visible towards the end of the century, it remained largely ineffable.

The easiest way to trace the emergence of holism is thus through its association with the slightly older chaos vision. Between about 1886 and 1926, these two visions operated in concert to challenge the faltering but still dominant partnership of reason and scientific materialism.

The association of chaos and holism was a natural rival to the existing partnership. Both combined an inner experience-based vision with a scientifically-based vision, and both were intended to reconcile mind with matter and human beings with the cosmos. However, they did so from different starting premises and arrived at very different conclusions.

The pairing of reason and scientific materialism emphasized objective knowledge based on an arms-length relationship between a rationally-constructed material world and a human mind which could stand outside that world and master its secrets.

In stark contrast, the pairing of chaos and holism focused on participatory knowledge of a cosmos that might never be fully comprehended but could be engaged with through empathy and intuition. And the shift from one model to the other defines almost everything that differentiates the early 20th century from the 19th.

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I have never had a satisfactory explanation for how the cycle of visions might have gotten started or for what makes it repeat in such a regular manner. This lack of a plausible mechanism prevented me from writing about the visions for many years, until I finally decided to just jump in and say what I know and leave the larger questions for later. But in recent months, I think I’ve finally started to catch sight of an answer.

Part of that answer has to do with the complex web of associations and mutual influences among the visions that keeps the system in motion. The underlying dynamic however, appears to involve the constant tension between higher knowledge and ordinary knowledge.

Those two forms of knowledge are typically in disagreement about the nature of reality, but occasionally we manage to identify some aspect of our everyday experience with our mystical sense of being participants in a larger and more meaningful universe. The most powerful of these intimations have the potential of developing into a vision that is shared by an entire culture.

When a new vision appears, its ready access to higher knowledge enables it to become a vehicle for creativity and inspiration, capable of sending people out to build machines, found empires, or upgrade their moral standards. But over time, every vision starts to identify with what it has already brought into being and lose sight of higher possibility. It grows narrow and defensive, becomes a vehicle for power politics and elite control, and dooms itself to failure and replacement.

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