cartesian worldview

The Evolution of Worldviews

The Modern Worldview (Right side of the picture)

And that fundamental difference [between the modern worldview and the primordial, non-western worldviews] is a sense that the human self, as the subject, lives in a world that is fundamentally different from and separate from, and in some sense superior to because of this capacity for rational apprehension and interior reflection. There is a very sharp boundary between the human self, as a subject, and the would as an object. The world is just matter and energy. It is impersonal. It's unconscious. It’s disenchanted. All enchantment in the modern worldview is a function of human subjectivity. It comes from the interior world. …. You particularly see it emerge from the time of Descartes and Bacon, but it is stronger and stronger as the 17th, 18th, 19th Centuries progress.

The Primordial / Tradition / Non-western Worldview (Left side of the picture)

By contrast … the primordial alternative … The sense that the ancients, the Primal, the tribal–there’s different words–they used to be called primitive … That perspective is one in which the self and the world are far more interconnected and undifferentiated relative to the modern. And where soul and spirit are deemed to exist is not just inside the Cartesian subject but is throughout the world and self as a kind of unitative whole. And the trees, the sky, the heavens ….. the wind, the oceans are experienced as being imbued with psychic and spiritual presence and presences, that the human being is in some sense continuous with. The inner life of the human being is continuous with the inner life of the cosmos and of nature. And that continuity is experienced in ways that permit a kind of ongoing communication between the human psyche and the world, that the world communicates mythically, archetypally.   

It would not be too much to say that myth [this kind of symbolic perspective, this capacity to see life in terms of archetypal figures, narratives, constellations] is the secret opening though with the cosmos pours its inexhaustible energies into human cultural manifestation
~Joseph Campbell | Hero with a thousand faces

Part of nature or separate from it?

So here’s the cosmos [the traditional worldview] … pouring through myth its meanings, its soul becomes intelligible and communicative to the human being. And so there is a certain participatory relationship between Self and World. 

There is far more empowerment of the individual Self [in the modern worldview] compared with [the traditional worldview] much more immersion, of say a tribal identity or the identity that the human being has interconnected with other form of nature, of place that one lives in, etc. [In the modern worldview] the objectifying of the world empowers the subject. It increases the subjectivity by increasing the objectification. The two go together. It also increases autonomy though, for example, compared to the passing on of generation after generation of belief, ritual practice, myth in a very ancient, primordial society. There is not a lot of change from generation to generation. While, by contrast, the amount of questioning that is done to the given meta-narrative in our time is just spectacular. And that is made possible by the emergence, forging of an autonomous, self-aware, critical consciousness that looks at the tradition as something to question not just something to live. And it also create all sort of potentials, negative and positive for exploiting the world, because the world is an object not ones matrix.  

Transition from the primordial to a transcendent religious worldview (eg.  heaven and earth)

There is one major step … that mediates between these two [worldviews] and this is the enormous religious disclosures that characterise the axial period in all the major world civilizations of the first millennium BCE. Particularly, let’s focus here on on the western context coming out of Israel and Greece. Here there is a new sense that the divine and the ultimate locus of value, and of spirit and soul, is in a transcendent dimension, that is in some sense distinct from the imminent world of nature, of the body, of conventional experience.

The archaic civilizations began to have the divine located in the theocratic structure of society and a kind of imperial, kingly power. That finally reached to a point where a divine king that one lived under and participated in the divine through semi-divine human but rather you participated in the divine though either a philosopher in Greece, or a mystic in India, or sage in China, or a Prophet in Israel. In each of these cases these are not people who by birth are given their divine access, rather through their spiritual journey, through grace or prophetic mystical illumination or philosophical rigour, and so forth. This helps create a possibility of critiquing the world of society, of the political structures and power structures, because, for example, you don’t just have the king who can no longer say “I’m the source of the ultimate spiritual authority here” because there is a prophet who can say to the king “your the king in this world but there is a king of kings who is more transcendent dimension” …. [so that the king and anyone else] can be judged outside the political power structure. 

Shift from a polytheistic world, of goddesses and gods and so forth, moves much more to a transcendent monotheistic perspective, where there is on god, one higher truth, one reality. …. [This] is largely accomplished by mostly masculine symbolizations of the divine and of the human. …

[During the axial age] there is the tremendous new polarity between this world and a transcendent world, between the many and the one, between body and spirit, between opinion, maya or illusion and Brahma, nirvana or true reality. 

This serves as a crucial way-station to the modern [worldview]. …. The human being has a special relationship to the divine–man is made in the image of god…–and the implication is that the human soul, the human spirit has a special relationship to the divine in the way the rest of the world doesn’t. Human history, and this is particularly coming out of the Hebrew-prophetic tradition, human history becomes the locus of divine activity, and focus of divine activity, compared with the eternal cycles of nature, death and rebirth in the ensouled, natural world being the focus of the divine ritual participation. Now human history as a working out of god’s plan and the importance of a kind of moral rigour and asceticism of the divine, and that human salvation is obtainable …. 

From the transcendent religious to the modern worldview (46:35)

The Cartesian Self [modern worldview], the “I think, therefore I am” sense of great robust consciousness of being a subject that can act on the world and make a difference and shape the world through its own wits and wills, intelligence and purposefulness. …

[The modern worldview is the result of a] kind of intojection of the divine nature [from heaven down onto man]. The crucial period is the Renaissance, Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, particularly the Copernican Revolution where the is a huge download, as it where, of the divine. You see it in Adam being touched by God on the Cistern Chapel ceiling that Michelangelo paints at the same time that Copernicus is getting the insight that the sun is the centre of the solar system, or the universe as he though. And, Martin Luther breaks out of the church and established the direct relationship with the divine as being the foundation of the religious life. A huge kind of emancipatory, almost divination of the human being as taking place at that time.

By the time that Descartes comes, he is just sweeping away the whole past and just saying, we’ve got to just question everything and to use our own intelligence that is God given. He’s basically inheriting the medieval theology, but in a way that becomes a foundation for the robust modern rational objectification of the world. ….

So that’s why we call this [the modern worldview of the Self] as the monotheistic Ego …., the we walk around with. We make our decisions day by day. We have that sense of autonomy, and self possession, and self reflection. These are all, kind of, inherited from this enormous psychological development that was mediated by the sequence of philosophical, religious then scientific as well as social, political breakthroughs. 

Descent of the modern worldview into the post-modern (49:42)

Now, starting about the end of the nineteenth century with a figure like Nietzsche and many others … this worldview of that robust humanistic sense of progress and that we had the capacity for objective knowledge though scientific reason and empiricism and that the west was the best and that human consciousness was a crown of creation. Even after Darwin you still have sense that the human being has  in terms of survival of the fittest is the fittest of all. It’s the top of the ladder. It’s the crown of creation. …. By the time you get to the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth this worldview undergoes a profound decent. ….

The first blow was the Copernican de-centring of the Earth, and therefore the human being. The second is the Darwinian biological de-centring of homo sapiens as being a special divine creation, as it was in the biblical vision. And the Freud says with psychoanalysis there is the revelation that the rational Self … is not a master of its own house. …

The recognition in terms of knowledge that if the human mind is seeking to understand a world that is fundamentally different, from which it is separate, then to a crucial extent our subjectivity is going to contaminate our objectivity. We are never going to see the world as it is. We are always going to be seeing it shaped by our own largely unconscious subjective structures. [For example] it could be shaped by language. It could be shaped by the paradigm that we were educated in. It could be shaped by gender, by class, by race, by our historical period, by our biological limitations, by socio-biological factors. …

The universe itself gets expanded so far that we become really, really diminished and peripheral. ….into a cosmic void of meaning

The people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game. What they wanted to say was this: “All you people who believe in religion are old ladies and wishful thinkers. You’ve got a big daddy up there and you want comfort and things, but life is rough. Life is tough. And, success goes to the most hard-headed people.” That was a very convenient theory when the European-American world was colonizing the natives everywhere else. It said: “We are the end product of evolution.” and “We’re tough.”, “I’m a big strong guy, because I face facts.” and “life is just a bunch of junk”, and “I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else.”, and “I’m real hard”. See that’s a way of flattering your self. It has become academically, plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable.
—  Alan Watts | Out of your mind | 24:32