Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

A philosophy of participation in dynamic wholeness

Excerpt from Exploring Participation (D.C.Wahl 2002)

“Our task is to look at the world and see it whole.”

— E.F. Schumacher

“The success or failure of saying, and hence of writing, turns upon the ability to recognize what is part and what is not. But a part is a part only inasmuch as it serves to let the whole come forth, which is to let meaning emerge. A part is only a part according to the emergence of the whole which it serves; otherwise it is mere noise. At the same time, the whole does not dominate, for the whole cannot emerge without the parts. The hazard of emergence is such that the whole depends on the parts to be able to come forth, and the parts depend on the coming forth of the whole to be significant instead of superficial.”

— Henri Bortoft

The above remains meaningful whether we understand it hermeneutically, as referring to a text and the reciprocity of meaning between the whole and the parts, as well as understood as an analogy for our individual relationship to the wider whole — the world we live in.

“Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more- than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of the wolves and the honking of the geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”11 — David Abram

In the Santiago theory of cognition Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela proposed that the process through which an individual interacts with its environment is fundamentally a cognitive process. This process of cognition, of structural coupling between the organism and its environment, is regarded as the fundamental process of life itself. In our reflective consciousness this process emerges as the process of knowing.

“The point is not to understand the meaning of life, but to live a life of meaning.” — Prof. Brian Goodwin

I believe that living a life of meaning is about paying attention to our relationship to the community of life in its entirety. It is about appropriate participation in the process of life — participation in meaning unfolding.

“There is only one meaning. It is the one meaning that can manifest itself in different forms and therefore there is difference within meaning. The differences are elicited by the different cultural and historical contexts and personal situations [read relation], which that meaning appears in … no matter how many times the work is understood it is always the one meaning … coming into being in the happening of understanding.” 18 — Henri Bortoft

Bortoft refers to the “one that appears as the many”, as the “intensive dimension of one”. He emphasizes that the diversity of interpretations of the work (whole) do not fragment it, because what we see as diversity is in fact dynamical living unity. Just like Maturana and Varela proposed to equate the process of cognition with the process of life and, in the reflective consciousness of humans, with the process of knowing, Bortoft shows that meaning is akin to life. Like Goethe and Gadamer before him, he takes the position that meaning is inexhaustible, but neither predetermined nor indeterminate. Meaning in Gadamer’s hermeneutics is rather like Goethe described the world:

“She is complete but ever unfinished”. — Goethe

Bortoft shows clearly that the world is not an object, but a process. We participate in a world that is complete but unfinished. The way that meaning continuously manifests itself through the diversity of its interpretations reflects the way the world continuously manifests as a “dynamical unity producing itself in different modes according to language.” What is important to understand here, as Bortoft emphasized, is that experiencing the world in this way “is not perspectivism. It is manifestationism.”19 Each interpretation is a manifestation of the whole, each experience of the world is the world.

“Communicative meaning is always, in its depths, affective; it remains rooted in the sensual dimension of experience, born of the body’s native capacity to resonate with other bodies and with the landscape as a whole. Linguistic meaning is not some ideal and bodiless essence that we arbitrarily assign to physical sound or word and then toss out into the external world. Rather meaning sprouts in the very depth of the sensory world, in the heat of meeting, encounter, participation.”22 — David Abram

Yet another very important mental construct that influences the way we see the world fundamentally is our understanding of time and space. As three prominent phenomenologists, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, have concluded independently, in direct pre-conceptual experience it is impossible to distinguish time and space.23 Our understanding of time and space is really at the heart of it all, but it would go beyond the bounds of this dissertation to mention more than the most fundamental points.

“The conceptual separation of time and space — the literate distinction between a linear, progressive time and a homogenous, featureless space — function to eclipse the enveloping earth from human awareness. As long as we structure our lives according to assumed parameters of static space and a rectilinear time, we will be able to ignore, or overlook, our thorough dependence upon the earth around us. Only when space and time are reconciled into a single, unified field of phenomena does the encompassing earth become evident, once again, in all its power and its depth, as the very ground and horizon of all our knowing.”27 — David Abram

I would like to stress the fundamental importance of direct sensory experience as the primary mode of entering into relationship and knowing the world. Although, as human beings, we predominantly live in a world that manifests itself through language and the mental concepts we express, nevertheless language can only remain meaningful if it reflects our embodied, sensory experience of the world and allows us to express the direct, intuitive understanding of that world-whole, as it is reflected in us — the world-part — through direct experience. David Abram reminds us that:

“Language is … an evolving medium we collectively inhabit, a vast topological matrix in which speaking bodies are generative sites, vortices where the matrix itself is continually being spun out of the silence of sensorial experience…Merleau-Ponty comes in his final writings to affirm that it is first the sensuous, perceptual world that is relational and web-like in character, and hence that the organic, interconnected structure of any language is an extension or echo of the deeply interconnected matrix of sensorial reality itself. Ultimately, it is not human language that is primary, but rather the sensuous, perceptual life-world, whose wild, participatory logic ramifies and elaborates itself in language.”28 — David Abram

The distrust of the senses arose out of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and is an expression of the resulting mind-body dualism. It has critically influenced Reductionist science, our culture and the way we experience the world. Phenomenologists, like Merleau- Ponty, do not follow the tradition of Reductionist science attempting to explain the world objectively, but aim to describe “as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things arise in our direct sensorial experience.”29

“Clearly, a wholly immaterial mind could neither see nor touch things — indeed, could not experience anything at all. We can experience things — can touch, hear, and taste things — only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and have our own texture, sounds, and tastes. We can perceive things at all only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us.”32 — David Abram

In the predominant, dualistic way of seeing, “we consider knowledge to be a subjective state of the knower, a modification of consciousness which in no way affects the phenomenon that is known”, which we regard to be the same “whether it is known or not.” The dynamical way of seeing, regards the knower not as “an onlooker but a participant in nature’s processes, which now act in consciousness to produce the phenomenon consciously as they act externally to produce it materially.”33

“Epistemologically, we must engage the paradox. “Paradox” means, literally, “beyond” (para) “opinion or belief” (doxa). Paradox, then, takes us into the “space” that is beyond belief — into experience itself. Ontologically, it invites us into the ambiguity of being — an ambiguity of neither this-or that nor this-and- that, nether either/or nor both/and, but all of these together.”37 — Christian De Qunicey

De Quincey calls his philosophical framework Radical Naturalism. Central to his argument is the fundamental assumption: “It is inconceivable that sentience (subjectivity; consciousness), could ever emerge or evolve from wholly insentient (objective, physical matter).” He therefore argues: “the assumption of consciousness and matter as coextensive and coeternal is the most adequate ‘postmodern’ solution to the question of consciousness in the physical world.

“With this new perspective we can now embrace the actuality of consciousness and meaning in a self- organising cosmos. Elements of the new story will include:

(1) complementarity rather than dualism,

(2) organicism rather than mechanism,

(3) holism complementing reductionism,

(4) interconnectedness rather than separateness,

(5) process rather than things,

(6) synchronicity as well as causality,

(7) creativity rather than certainty,

(8) participation and entanglement rather than objectivity.

But most of all, the new cosmology will emphasize

(9) that matter is inherently sentient all the way down, and

(10) that, therefore, nature, the cosmos — matter itself — is inherently and thoroughly meaningful, purposeful, and valuable in and for itself.

Nature, we must see, is sacred.”42 — Christian De Quincey

It may now be more obvious why I found it necessary to set a philosophical context for this dissertation, why it is so important that we learn to employ multiple ways of seeing and to integrate the dualistic/Reductionist into a wider holistic, or non-dual context. It is important that we learn to embrace and live in the paradox. The rigid either/or logic of dualism is at the heart of our alienation from nature and the whole. It is also at the heart of the consequential environmental, social and cultural crisis. As David Loy explains:

“[In dualism] the self is understood to be the source of awareness and therefore of all meaning and value, which is to devalue the world/nature into merely that field of activity wherein the self labours to fulfil itself. … the alienated subject feels no responsibility for the objectified other and attempts to find satisfaction through projects that usually merely increase the sense of alienation. The meaning and purpose sought can be attained only in a relationship whereby nonduality with the objectified other is re-established.”43 — David Loy

The dualist distinction between the self and the world allowed for the development of a detached, Reductionist science in the first place. Bortoft argued that the existing ontological gulf between science and its object is a fundamental prerequisite of Reductionist science, as it allows for a science of measuring and experimenting, in which an “object appears to consciousness, it does not appear in consciousness.”44

“You can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. Your are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she is, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she brings you forth, not once but a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now. The present is the only thing that has no end.”45 — Erwin Schrödinger

[Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. It addresses some of the root causes of our current crises of unsustainability. If you are interested in the references you can find them here. The research I did for my masters thesis directly informed my 2006 PhD thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ (2006).]



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Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures