The Dance of the Visions

on September 5, 2009

Over the past month or so, I’ve started sketching out the rudiments of three different ancient visions of the underlying nature of reality — the scientifically-based transformative vision, the socially-based kinship vision, and the inner experience-based spirit vision.

In various combinations and interpretations, these three visions guided and defined all prehistoric cultures. Even today they underlie the worldviews of the few remaining groups that still preserve an archaic hunter-gatherer or tropical gardener lifestyle.

However, for most of the world — that is, all the parts which undertook the transition to farming, urbanism, and finally civilization — the three archaic visions eventually proved inadequate to deal with changing conditions. They failed one after the other and were replaced by others that took better account of new scientific knowledge, new possibilities of social organization, and new understandings of inner experience.

As time went by, those later visions failed as well and were replaced by still newer ones. This process of successive replacements of visions as they fall out of touch with current realities has continued uninterrupted — and at an increasingly accelerated pace — ever since.

I have been observing, classifying, and attempting to understand this progression of visions for over thirty years. There are still many things about it that I cannot explain, but there are certain basic points that I recognized very early and have never had reason to doubt.

One thing I realized almost at the start was that newer visions consistently appear in the same order as the first three — first a scientific vision, then a social vision, and then a vision based on inner experience — because the oldest vision at any given time is always the first to fail and be replaced.

A second recognition was that the process is truly one of replacement and not of gradual change. Visions do not evolve by small increments into their successors. They maintain a discrete identity throughout their lifespan, based on a tightly interwoven set of assumptions about the nature of existence. And when one vision collapses, an entirely new vision is constructed, using many of the same materials but starting from different premises and arriving at different conclusions.

The process might be compared to the shift from one scientific paradigm to another, or to the sudden appearance of a new species, or even to the eyewall replacement cycle in a hurricane. In each case, the fundamental building blocks persist, but the central principles which control the expression of those building blocks are swept away and superseded by a very different pattern of organization.

The third thing of note about this process of replacement is that it does not take place in a vacuum. While a vision of one type is undergoing failure and regeneration, the contemporary visions of the other two types not only maintain their coherence but enter into a mutually supportive partnership that guarantees the integrity and stability of the culture at large.

When a new vision first emerges from the ruins of its predecessor, it remains for a time on the borders of society, inspiring artists and philosophers but having relatively little impact upon daily life. Only when it has matured sufficiently in both theoretical and practical terms does it step forward to claim a leading role in the culture.

When that happens, everything changes. In a relatively brief but hectic interlude of cascading breakdowns and transformations, the entire society is shaken apart and remade in new terms.

First, the emergent vision challenges the claim to authority of the senior vision in the dominant partnership. That vision is already nearing the end of its useful life and showing increasing signs of rigidity and inability to cope with crisis, so it doesn’t take much to delegitimize it.

Next, the dominant partnership fractures, further undermining the senior vision and freeing the junior vision to break away and move conceptually closer to the emergent vision.

Finally, the senior vision begins to collapse, setting up the conditions for its successor of the same type to be born out of the wreckage.

As this sequence of changes nears completion, the culture begins to seek security again and shun further dislocation. At that point, the former junior vision and the former emergent vision work out the terms of a new partnership and take on the mutual task of restabilizing society.

As they do so, they push the newly-born vision to the margins, where it will undergo its own period of artistic and philosophical development until the time is ripe for another moment of upheaval.

In the next several entries, I will illustrate this cycle of replacement by showing how it applies to the sequence of political and cultural changes from the 1940’s up to the present day.

Following that, I will offer some observations as to how this strangely elaborate yet self-sustaining process might have arisen out of the uneasy relationships among the first three visions at the dawn of human history.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

Read the Previous Entry: The Bottleneck and the Great Migration
Read the Next Entry: On the Antiquity of Fairy Tales

Leave a Reply