Posts Tagged ‘holism vision’

The birth of a new vision is the most mysterious aspect of the entire cycle. It is rooted in higher knowledge and the ability of the imagination to conjure something out of nothing, and though its spoor can be followed a certain distance, it ultimately vanishes into the mists of individual inspiration.

When the creative imagination vision came into being in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed to spring out of nowhere in many different places at once and in a variety of forms. That sudden flowering was something of an illusion, however. The seeds of creative imagination had been planted within the nurturing soil of the chaos vision a full generation earlier and had germinated there slowly until the mainstreaming of chaos sent out a signal that it was the season for them to sprout.

Many of those seeds can even be traced back to a single point of origin — a small group of science fiction writers who in the late 1930s and early 40s set themselves to reconciling the wild, improvisational nature of chaos with the scientific assumption of a cosmos ruled by unvarying natural law.

The underlying premises of chaos and scientific materialism had never been particularly compatible, but until that time nobody had tried to believe in both of them at once. The conflict arose only because faith in science had flagged for a time after World War I — leading many people to see the universe as alien and chaotic — and had then been strongly renewed in the 1930s. So the question arose of which was to be master.

The recurring pattern of the cycle of visions would have made the conflict inevitable under any circumstances, but the specific terms on which it was played out were set by two extraordinary masters of higher knowledge: H.P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell.

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I’ve gotten awfully deep in the weeds the past few months as I’ve tried to pin down the exact mechanisms underlying the cycle of visions. But I’m coming back round to where I started last fall — with Robert Heinlein and the chaos vision — and the end finally appears to be in sight.

This extended side-quest began when I realized there had been two very different approaches to the chaos vision in 1940’s SF. For writers like Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov who were still attached to scientific materialism, chaos might appear as either a tolerable anomaly or an apocalyptic threat to order and sanity. But for someone like Henry Kuttner or Fredric Brown, the wacky workings of the subconscious mind were an essential means of navigating the fluidity and uncertainty of a holistic universe.

That surprised me, because I’d previously thought of the visions as unitary paradigms that might evolve over time but but were self-consistent at any given moment. Now I needed to figure out how a single vision could present two such very different faces simultaneously — and I found my answer in the associations that each vision forms with those immediately senior and junior to it.

I’d been aware of those associations for a long time, but I’d regarded them as merely alliances of convenience, like the current affiliation between the internet-based holists of Anonymous and the radical horizontalists of Occupy Wall Street. I hadn’t believed these alliances could affect the visions in any deep and permanent way — but I found myself forced to conclude that they did.

That conclusion, in turn, brought forth answers to questions that had baffled me for years: What keeps the cycle of visions in motion? Why does every vision eventually wear out and lose its original transcendence? And what enables mature visions to enter into socially powerful partnerships even though their native transcendence has been exhausted?

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Over the past few entries, I’ve been trying to pin down the exact sequence of events that took the holism vision from being a hot new thing in the late 1910’s and early 20’s, to becoming culturally marginalized in the middle 30’s, and then into a fruitful association with the new-born horizontalism vision by the end of the decade.

The first step in that sequence was when the democracy vision emerged from the counterculture of the 1910’s in the perfect Goldilocks position — neither too old and tired nor too new and untested — to be accepted as the consensus vision of the era.

The second step came when democracy entered into a partnership with a pared-down version of scientific materialism, depending on the older vision to reinforce its bottom-up view of society while not getting in the way of its agenda of human triumphalism.

The third step took place around 1934, when the chaos vision was hauled into the orbit of the emerging scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership, at the cost of its long-time relationship with holism.

And the fourth occurred in 1936-39, when holism responded to its growing isolation by forming a new association with horizontalism.

When I first discussed this series of events, I compared it to a Rube Goldberg machine, with visions randomly bouncing off each other — but I’m finally starting to understand that it was both orderly and inevitable.

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The most radical implications of W.E. Ritter’s philosophy of “organismalism” could not have been apparent when he published The Unity of the Organism in 1918.

For one thing, there was a crucial vagueness in his assertion that “the organism in its totality is as essential to an explanation of its elements as its elements are to an explanation of the organism.” Was he simply trying to say that science could not understand cells or organs without a recognition of the roles they played in the complete organism? Or did he have something deeper in mind?

Over the next few years, however, both the vocabulary and the concepts of the new philosophy came into sharper focus. By 1926, Jan Smuts had introduced the more streamlined term “holism,” which he defined in the 1927 Encyclopedia Britannica as “the theory which makes the existence of ‘wholes’ a fundamental feature of the world.”

“It regards natural objects, both animate and inanimate, as ‘wholes’ and not merely as assemblages of elements or parts,” Smuts explained. “It looks upon nature as consisting of discrete, concrete bodies and things, and not as a diffusive homogeneous continuum. And these bodies or things are not entirely resolvable into parts; in one degree or another they are wholes which are more than the sum of their parts, and the mechanical putting together of their parts will not produce them or account for their characters and behaviour.”

Ritter was quick to adopt this simpler terminology of wholes and parts. In a book co-authored with one of his students in 1928, he wrote, “Wholes are so related to their parts that not only does the existence of the whole depend on the orderly cooperation and interdependence of its parts, but the whole exercises a measure of determinative control over its parts. … Structurally, functionally, and generatively, they are reciprocals of each other.”

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I’ve spent the past two weeks battling my way through the book which is considered to be the first expression of holism as a coherent philosophy: W.E. Ritter’s The Unity of the Organism; or, The Organismal Conception of Life (1918). Ritter’s work is generally acknowledged to have set off the flood of holistic writings that appeared over the following decade — but I’m finding it hard to understand just why it made the impact it did.

For one thing, the book doesn’t seem to have much to do with holism as we now know it. For another, it’s not particularly well-written, but is as awkward throughout as its title. I’ve been tempted to conclude that it merely said the right things at the right time to appeal to people who were desperate for any alternative to mechanistic science.

And yet I keep feeling that buried within the clumsy language is a message that is as relevant today as it was a century ago — if we can only tune our ears to catch what Ritter was really saying.

At the present moment, after all, the holism vision has lost much of its original transcendence. It’s in serious need of something that can remind it of its origins and stretch it beyond its present limitations — and how better to do that than by dialing up the radio message from the past that is The Unity of the Organism?

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In previous entries, I’ve suggested that a counterculture is born when the senior member of a dominant partnership is discredited, the partnership collapses, and the junior member is left demoralized and directionless. As I focus on the development of the holism vision in the early 20th century, however, I’m reminded that the collapse of a partnership is actually an extended and complex process.

For one thing, each dominant partnership undergoes a final revival during the period immediately preceding its collapse. At that time, the intellectual ferment and political turmoil of the “romantic break” die down, the younger visions are pushed to the margins of society, and there is an overwhelming desire for social stabilization and tranquility.

But it’s exactly that desire which leads to disillusionment with the partnership when it fails to make good on its promises of security.

Then, even after the senior vision has failed and brought the partnership down with it, the junior vision does not immediately relinquish its hold on the social consensus. Instead, lacking any external constraints on its authority, it becomes more arrogant and self-willed than ever — and the resulting moral void is what really triggers the start of the counterculture.

This dynamic can be seen on full display at the present moment. An initial crisis — the attacks of September 11 — provided the conditions for a final revival of the democracy-and-chaos partnership in something resembling its classic Reagan-era configuration. In the upshot, however, the Bush administration not only undercut democracy but helped bring on a second and more devastating crisis, the great financial meltdown of 2008.

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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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In the course of doing the previous entry, I stumbled on a surprising realization — that the first tentative seeds of each new vision are generated a full cycle before they take shape as a distinct entity. This has undercut some of my long-held assumptions about the dynamics of countercultural periods, but it promises to replace them with a subtler and more fruitful paradigm.

When I initially developed my ideas about the cycle of visions, I assumed that the central narrative of every counterculture involved the loss of faith in a dominant partnership and the coalescing of opposition around the next vision in the sequence. I derived this template from the 1960’s, which I perceived as a heroic struggle by the forces of chaos against the increasingly repressive tendencies of scientific-materialism-and-democracy.

That remained my working model when I started this blog. I soon added an additional level of complexity, however, as I concluded that the explosive burst of cultural energy which marks the onset of every counterculture must be a by-product of the liberation of the countercultural vision from the influence of the dominant partnership and its realignment towards the vision one junior to itself.

In this revised model, I identified the foundations of the 60’s counterculture as having been established between about 1958 and 1962, when a few visionary writers and musicians began to associate chaos with holism rather than scientific materialism. This new way of thinking then swept through the culture at large when the dominant partnership was discredited in 1964-65.

I still believed, however, that holism had played a merely catalytic role and that chaos had provided the energy source for the counterculture and had produced its most radical new ideas, some of which coalesced as the creative imagination vision when chaos narrowed down in the 1970’s and became more conventional

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I finished the previous entry feeling confident that I was about to beat my way out of the 19th century — but then Alexei remarked that he’d found it hard to follow. I took that as a sign that I’d gotten too abstract and needed to provide more detail on the core assumptions of both scientific materialism and holism before I could move ahead.

As I’ve stated repeatedly, every new vision is rooted in insights that derive from a particular area of human experience but also offer intimations of higher knowledge. This combination provides the vision with its psychic center of gravity, and though it gets tugged off base at times by its associations with other visions, it always tends to revert to that original moment of inspiration

In the case of scientific materialism, its founding insights were sparked by the proliferation of mechanical devices during the early Middle Ages. In an era of extreme other-worldliness, the only people who did not regard the material world as fallen and corrupt were the unknown tech geeks of the time — the builders of cathedrals, designers of siege engines, and tinkerers with the inner workings of windmills and mechanical clocks.

The first intimations of the mysteries inherent in machines must go back to the medieval counterculture of the late 1100’s — the period of Arthurian romance, the troubadours, and Gothic architecture. The new vision took on shape, however, only as it accepted the mentorship of the reason vision over the following century.

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Now that I’ve started trying to look at the system of visions as an interactive whole, rather than dealing with each vision in isolation, I keep finding new ways in which the development of the latest visions is driven by interactions among the older ones.

Most recently, I’ve been struck by the degree to which the association between chaos and holism emerged in precise resonance with the rise and fall of the reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership. The new association came into being at the same time as the partnership in the 1860’s, was closely associated with it during its peak in the 1870’s, and became increasingly independent after the partnership faltered in the 1880’s.

The key to this resonance, I believe, is that both the partnership and the new association combined an inner experience-based vision with a scientifically-based vision. As a result, they were addressing the same philosophical problems and responding to the same emotional needs — and were thus bound to be either collaborators or rivals.

Up to now, I’ve been emphasizing the intellectual basis of these associations between visions and how they grow out of our desire to construct a coherent picture of existence. But on the emotional level, something even more powerful and dynamic is going on — which might be described as the need for a sense of belonging.

When we have that sense on a personal level, it appears to us that everything in the world is in harmony and that we are in harmony with it. But if ever we lose it, we are beset by feelings of alienation, meaninglessness, or just plain wrongness.

Much the same is true in terms of the visions. As long as our various areas of experience can be reconciled within a context of higher knowledge, the culture as a whole remains in balance. But once they fall out of attunement, the entire society is overwhelmed by a pervasive sense of alienation.

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