What is missing from the Intellectual Dark Web?
“Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, Mock on, ’tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.” —William Blake
The Intellectual Dark Web has done a great job of integrating, promoting, and celebrating science and the western enlightenment. It has also done a stellar job of smashing post-modernist relativity, extreme leftist groupthink, and a certain sterile political correctness which has its icy fingers in all aspects of media, education and culture these days. On the other hand, I have always felt that something is missing from that gang. And that thing, I would argue, is the essential cornerstone of all great cultural movements, from the renaissance to the beats. And that is: mythopoetics, metaphysics, and art.
The one conspicuous exception is Jordan Peterson, but even Peterson seems a little timid at times — for good reason perhaps — to enter the realm of metaphysical speculation: he has a scientists’ natural recoil from anecdote and magical thinking, which is of course admirable. But at least Peterson has admitted that other realms of knowing exist other than objective science, and has in fact shown that we live in a world of narrative patterning, and dynamic action and flow, rather than a world of mere ‘things’.
Of course fairy tales and astrology are usually put down as being ‘unscientific’ by the new atheist twitter mobs, which they certainly are. But that is because the mythopoetic mode of knowing which they represent is different from that of science, but no less valuable. Even Ken Wilber, with all his descriptions of different states and stages of spirit, seems rather condescending towards the medieval alchemy, fairy tales, and astrology which Carl Jung studied so deeply. The point is: there is a fear of ‘mystery’ and an obsession in making things cohere to a simplified model: a disrespect for the more poetic, speculative aspects of reality, among the hard nosed rationalists of the culture.
One of the people who has done the most in helping me understand this is Iain McGilchrist, who, like Peterson, understands both the strengths and the limits of the western enlightenment. But unlike Peterson, McGilchrist roots his philosophy and world view — as did Martin Heidegger — in the pre-socratics; furthermore, he has a connection to eastern mysticism, sufism and Lurianic Kabbalah. McGilchrist’s genius is to bridge Heraclitus’ flow (“No man ever steps in the same river twice”) and the eastern Tao (“The Tao that can be talked about is not the Real Tao”) with brain anatomy, showing the differences between a left hemisphere view of the world and a right hemisphere view.
Today’s world, McGilchrist tells us, is starving for metaphysical depth and unity: it lives in a ‘left-brain-hemisphere desert’ of disembodied facts and things. Without a deeper right hemisphere view, left hemisphere activity tends to fraction the world off into parts and figments; our useful tools begin to tear at the very fabric of life. While the left brain is all about the perception of things and objects, rational argument, instrumentality, and especially anger — it can map the territory but not perceive its depth.
In the west we lean too much on the left hemisphere: celebrating ration over intuition, things over spirit, worldly acquisition and power over spiritual enlightenment. Not that materialism wasn’t present in the east, or that the west doesn’t have its mystery traditions; the east may be too otherworldly just as the west has triumphed over the world of ‘things’. The greatness of the west has been, as Nietzsche has pointed out, in the revolutionary dialectic tension of pushing against an aggressive expansion into the material world. Triumphalist science has driven too many forms of human knowledge underground.
This spiritual world of the west, as McGilchrist has pointed out, finds its outlet and expression in art and music — when the church is overly focused on worldly power and dogma. Western music and romantic poetry expresses this protest again the ‘thingness’ or the hyper-rational reductionism of the western enlightenment. And any genuine revolution in meaning has to be accompanied by a revolution in the arts; to have deeper, more felt expressions of being, as well as ritual and ceremony. And great artists have always been dependent on those repositories of collective poetry called religion, whether they pushed back against religious corruption and stuffiness or celebrated religious orthodoxy.
It would be a pity if the defence of the enlightenment that the IDW brings to the table, narrows the conversation and gets stuck in the usual scientific materialist reduction, rather than expands towards a larger universe, as they are trying to do in good faith. The IDW have brought reason to the table and out of the post-modern fog, which is laudable. They have bravely refused to be manipulated by the various performative contradictions of postmodernism (There is no absolute truth. This is the truth!). This has been important and necessary.
The IDW’s spearhead publication, the magazine Quillette, has done great work promoting liberalism and the free discussion of ideas, but it seems allergic to all things poetic or metaphysical — unaware of ‘the shadow of liberalism’ — to quote David Fuller. (Personally, a couple of my articles were considered for publication in Quillette, but the editors found my writing too speculative, not scientific enough. Perhaps they were right, but I think it is a pity that they don’t allow a broader spectrum of views.)
William Blake knew well the limits of a reductionist mode when he criticised Voltaire and Rousseau for their utopian and political romanticism (Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau he wrote). In the twentieth century many novelists like DH Lawrence, Henry Miller, and poets like William Butler Yeats and EE Cummings (to name some of my personal favourites), and even the American Beats in the 1950’s who loved William Blake, rebelled against a reductionist view. Sadly too few read these kinds of writers today. Today people are highly conservative and reactionary (on the left and on the right), and terrified out of their wits by genuine poetry, cowed into the over-politicizing of everything. While people argue loudly about God and science, many have perhaps forgotten the muse. A revolution in aesthetics and beauty is what is needed.
Note: there is some hope on the fringes of the IDW. Jonathan Pageau, for instance, has done great work in helping us understand that we don’t just live in a world of things, but a world of symbols and meanings embedded in deep traditions. Rebel Wisdom is interviewing the right people: Zen masters, novelists, artists, and soon even Ken Wilber. Deep code with Jordan Hall and Daniel Schmachtenberger have done some fantastic and unclassifiable work, reminiscent of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller. There is lots of wisdom out there, waiting to be uncovered. My hope is that the centre will soon start to learn from the fringe, since in the present world the fringe is really the center.
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits