“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.”
— David Abram (1997, p.68)
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 scholastic period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, until modern day philosophy and science.
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 t he 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 stringently agues that “this participatory epistemology, developed in different ways by Goethe, Hegel, Steiner and others, can be understood not as a regression to naïve participation mystique, but as the dialectical synthesis of the long evolution from the primordial undifferentiated consciousness through the dualistic alienation.”
Furthermore: “It 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). Tarnas speaks of a synthesis of masculine and feminine principles.
“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)
This alchemical wedding is a coming home from the odyssey of the disembodied intellect that has driven the more dominant expression of the Western Mind. It is an overcoming of the mind-made Cartesian divide which made us believe that we are somehow separate from the ground of our being: life as a planetary process.
As David Abram so aptly put it “We are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh.” Now that our action are beginning to threaten so much of our kin and our own species with untimely extinction, we are beginning to feel our carnal intimacy with the living Earth again — as we have done for most of our species history and as many indigenous cultures still do today. Life’s own will to survive is finally awakening in us. May we wake up to our larger self before it is too late!
(This piece is based on an excerpt from the worldview dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability which I first wrote in 2012 and revised in 2015.)
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures