Ways of knowing: separation and participation

In his remarkably comprehensive and insightful book The Passion of the Western Mind — Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view, Professor Richard Tarnas (1996) of the California Institute of Integral Studies explores how our conception and perception of nature and our relationship to nature has changed since the time of early Greek philosophy and on through the Middle Ages, and the scholastic period, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, until modern day philosophy and science.

Deep Galaxy Field from the Hubble Space Telescope showing hundreds of galaxies with thousands of star systems in each of them.

Tarnas emphasizes that “although the Cartesian-Kantian epistemological position has been the dominant paradigm of the modern mind, it has not been the only one” and argues that with the work of Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, Emerson, as well as Rudolf Steiner, a diversely expressed but consistent alternative epistemology began to emerge based on the “fundamental conviction that the relationship of the human mind to the natural world was ultimately not dualistic but participatory” (Tarnas, 1996, p.433).

This alternative way of knowing does not contradict the Kantian epistemology, but includes and transcends it. It acknowledge Kant’s assertion that all human knowledge of nature or the world is ultimately determined by subjective principles; “but instead of considering these principles as belonging ultimately to the separate human subject, and therefore not grounded in the natural world independent of human cognition, this participatory conception held that these subjective principles are in fact an expression of the world’s own being, and that the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation” (Tarnas, 1996, p.434). Tarnas explains:

“In this view, the essential reality of nature is not separate, self-contained, and complete in itself, so that the human mind can examine it “objectively” and register it from without. Rather, nature’s unfolding truth emerges only with the active participation of the human mind. Nature’s reality is not merely phenomenal, nor is it independent and objective; rather, it is something that comes into being through the very act of human cognition. Nature becomes intelligible to itself through the human mind. In this perspective, nature pervades everything, and the human mind in all its fullness is itself an expression of nature’s essential being.” — Richard Tarnas, 1996, p.434

Tarnas emphasizes that this participatory epistemology which Goethe, Hegel, Steiner and others, all expressed in different but related ways is not a form of regression to naïve participation mystique. Rather, it is a way of knowing that can be regarded as a dialectical synthesis of the long evolution from the primordial undifferentiated consciousness and the enchanted world of early humans when everything was sacred and alive, on to the dualistic alienation between self and world, mind and body, humanity and nature, to then arrive at a participatory worldview that embraces the paradox of being at one and the same time (seemingly) separate from and fundamentally interconnected with nature.

In being we are an individual self and integral to the whole’s emergence at one and the same time. This participatory epistemology “incorporates the postmodern understanding of knowledge and yet goes beyond it” since “the interpretative and constructive character of human cognition is fully acknowledged, but the intimate, interpenetrating and all-permeating relationship of nature to the human being and human mind allows the Kantian consequence of epistemological alienation to be entirely overcome” (Tarnas, 1996, p.435).

We can acknowledge difference and celebrate diversity without staying trapped in the alienation of separation. The qualities that define the uniqueness of ‘other’ come into being when the self takes a perspective from which to ‘observe’ the world. The perceived separation emerges through a way of seeing, but the world does not cease to be whole. Everything is an expression of the one unifying, living, evolving, and conscious process we can choose to call Nature, Universe, God, the Ultimate, the Whole, or the One. As there is nothing outside it — neither in space nor time since they only come into being through a participatory experience of this process.

For the One to know itself, it has to divide itself in order to get a perspective on itself. This first distinction makes experience and participation possible. We create the illusion of our separation as experiencing subjects in the very act of relating to the unifying process by distinguishing the objects of our experience. Precisely because we can experience Nature we are a part of it and not separate from it.

The perception of separation and experience of self and world — subject and object — are valid and important emergent properties of our participation in and as the One. By embracing the seeming paradox that in our very experience of separation lies the proof of our belonging, we can learn to celebrate diversity and difference as expressions of our underlying unity.

We can find peace and rest in the certainty that with all our striving, going somewhere, and creative passion to co-create a regenerative culture, we are — in every moment — arriving exactly where we need to be, the eternally transforming now of the present moment. Our level of consciousness affects how we perceive this moment. Our collective narrative about who we are and what future we want affects what future emerges.

The French writer Marcel Proust reminded us “the true journey of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes.” The journey towards a regenerative culture is about embracing all of Nature as the ground of our being — seeing ourselves and thereby everything with new eyes. Once we do that we will express our experience of this new intimate relationship of belonging to Universe and to Nature in beautifully diverse and creative ways.

“For the deepest passion of the Western mind has been to reunite with the ground of its own being. The driving impulse of the West’s masculine consciousness has been its dialectical quest not only to realize itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life, and thus to rediscover its connection to the whole” - Richard Tarnas, 1996, p.443

A bright intellect advancing science and technology, striving for a ‘better world’ and a caring heart feeling deeply connected with all of life, celebrating the perfection of all-that-is, are not mutually exclusive. I have met many women and men who have integrated the gifts of heart and mind on their own path as cultural creatives of a humanity that cares for nature as nature — in humility, creative brilliance, and full recognition of our kinship with all of life.

Our path into the future is one of synthesis. Just as our experience of a separate self is what Einstein called “a kind of optical illusion of our consciousness”, our experience of time is also an illusion. It has us experience the transition towards a regenerative culture as a journey through time rather than as an arriving where we already are: bringing forth a world, by living the questions together.

[This piece is based on a chapter that my editor suggested I cut out of my book Designing Regenerative Cultures published by Triarchy Press in May 2016].