Time, Reason, and The Frame of the World

Thinking takes time. Time, however, has become problematic, frenzied, anxious. “Life in the fast lane”, “rat race”, “fast forward and out of control”, “future shock”, and a host of other phrases and terms attest to the sense of flux and of accelerating and fleeting time. But haste is ever the enemy of reason  which must proceed slowly, carefully, deliberately, methodically (syllogistically). The irony of the situation is, that it is the fruits of reason that have subverted reason itself in another strange case of enantiodromia and the karmic law– reversal of fortune at the extremity of action.

The self-devouring pace of things has all the aspects of Late Modern nihilism in which “all higher values devalue themselves”. No sooner does reason reach secure conclusions about the state of affairs than the premisses are nullified by the contractions of time, and one fashionable school of thought (a perspective) is soon replaced by another perspective. The crisis of reason (and the Age of Reason) in the challenge of change is also the breakdown of modern perspectivism itself and of the linear dynamic of thought and of directional time. This brings about profound disorientation and social dislocation.

What is collapsing around us is the house that Newton built called “The Frame of the World”. The superstructure has grown top-heavy, while the foundations have become creaky and unstable — a house built on shifting sand. That shifting sand is the quantum world view and associated developments in other sciences which signal a paradigm shift from the core themes of matter and mechanics to energy and electronics. Mechanics and the mechanical world view, which became also the order of society and economy, always reflected only the shape of Reason itself and its tendency toward “conclusion” in the form of systemic closure (most recently once again in Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis). It was always the dream of Universal Reason to end in a final conclusion, universally valid, whether this was called “Theory of Everything” or, in politics, the final form of society in which all doubt and contradiction (dualism, in effect) would be resolved for all time.

That hope for a redemption from ravages of time through a perfected, systematic, sequential rationality (and a corresponding rational order of society) suffered a body blow with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. But, even more to the point for society, the race of time has put great stress on the exercise of reason itself. So, when someone like David Ehrenfeld writes of “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“, this “Age of Technology” must be understood properly as the projected image of Universal Reason and of rationality itself. When William Blake earlier denounced “the dark Satanic mills“, this was also inescapably consistent with his denunciation of “single vision and Newton’s sleep”, of the false god “Urizen” (probably a contraction of “Universal Reason”), for the mill was the objectified image of reason itself,

“If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.”

Which is, in effect, the “end of history”. Nothing but panem et circenses from now on. (But with a catch noted by Nietzsche: “man would rather will nothing than have nothing to will”).

What happens when universal reason breaks down into fractured perspectivities? That was the question put by post-modernism, really. It was the question asked by Jean Gebser in his Ever-Present Origin when he diagnosed the malaise of modernity as the mental-rational structure of consciousness now entered into its deficient mode of functioning (deficient being another term for “decadent”). Ehrenfeld’s essay basically reiterates these same concerns. And the problem of nihilism today is intimately connected with this breakdown of confidence in reason to provide a secure modus for universality or integrality. When Gebser writes of the “urgency of attempts to discover a universal way of observing things, and [the need] to overcome the inner division of contemporary man who, as a result of his one-sided, rational orientation, thinks only in dualisms”, we might be justifiably perplexed. “Universal Reason” was supposed to be precisely this “universal way of observing things” with an eye to ultimately resolving all the the perplexity, doubt, uncertainty, and contradictions of human existence in a definitive Grand Unified Theory (which many thought was exactly what Isaac Newton had come up with and therefore called it “The Frame of the World”). Hence, Alexander Pope’s homage to Newton,

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

This “Frame of the World” is indistinguishable, in fact, from the form of Universal Reason itself. Consquently, any breakdown in our confidence in Reason to certify truth (or “the facts of the matter” or “all that is the case”) or achieve authentic universality (that is, integrality) must inevitably be reflected in the architecture of our constructed reality that is this “Frame of the World”. Disorientation in time and space is the result (and for some this Frame of the World has come to resemble a House of Mirrors). This is why Gebser refers to “the urgency” of a new orientation and new “attempts to discover a universal way of observing things” in the face of the imminent disintegration (“deficient mode”) of the mental-rational structure of consciousness.

Needless to say, it has dawned on very few people that Universal Reason is actually in a crisis, and with it “reasonableness” per se (even though events of the day would seem to bear this out). This growing lack of confidence in Universal Reason to certify truth or existence (meaning and purpose) is reflected even in a lot of pop music, like The Police, Supertramp (The Logical Song), and Pink Floyd (The Wall. In fact, the Newtonian/Cartesian “Frame of the World” is now felt and perceived as “The Wall”)

We touched on the problem of the pressure and stress of time as it affects thinking earlier (“No Time to Think”) and of the self-immolation and self-destruction of reason. Ironically, one of the very principles of academia — perish or publish — contributes enormously to this self-annihilation and the problem of the “multiversity” (fracturing and disintegration of universality). Professors who are expected to publish are, at the same time, unable to even keep up with the flow of literature within their own specialities let alone that in other faculties or disciplines, yet are still expected to contribute even more to this incoherent flux. The unity of knowledge and consciousness is ruptured.

What happens in such circumstances where reason is stressed to the point of breaking (which, in the numerous cases of nervous breakdown, it is now)? The tendency is, as Nietzsche once foresaw, to revert to a kind of “automatism” or “instinct”. Marshall McLuhan anticipated that the mind would reorganise to detect pattern (Gestalt or wholes) rather than details and particulars (analysis). In any event, these responses both have the same character as what Gebser called the collapse of perspective or even a retreat into narrower perspectivism (the reactionary or survivalist). And since “keeping things in perspective” is one of the virtues of reason (preserving psychic distance as well as the boundaries of the individuated self) the danger was invasion of the mind by the psyche (leading to anxiety and psychic inflation) as older, unruly structures of consciousness in the form of magic and myth drove out reason and imperialised consciousness and perception, which was, in effect, the meaning of the eruption of fascist occultism and Nazism in the last century. It is also the significance of W.B. Yeats’ “rough beast” in his poem “The Second Coming”.

The problem of perception is what we find emphasised in McLuhan and in Gebser, whether that is “pattern” perception (Gestalt) in McLuhan or “integral” vision and consciousness in Gebser. The breakdown of the mind’s logic under the stress of acceleration and the contractions of time leaves only raw, naked perception as a guide. Yet, we have virtually no formal and social knowledge of the rules of perception and of the act of perception compared to our hyper-articulated (and increasingly deficient) rules of logic and of logical discourse. We need just as much effort, now, in becoming conscious of the act of perception itself: how we perceive, why we perceive the way we do, what we perceive in the act of perceiving. In other words, very much the practice of “mindfulness”.

We are perceiving beings — sentient beings — first and foremost before all other things. Yet we know precious little about our functioning in this capacity or the possibilities of such things as “enhanced perception”. The discovery of a new and truly “universal way of observing things”, as Gebser called for, cannot proceed without attention to the act of perception and the necessity of transcending our narrow perspectivising perception. I do not believe the human race will endure if we do not come to terms with the act of perception.

This is, in effect, the whole import of Castaneda’s books too: we are primarily perceiving beings, and we have never even investigated the possibilities of perception let alone enhanced perception in the way described also by Rumi or William Blake. For the most part, Castaneda’s work is an extended discourse on the rules governing perception as related to him by his teacher, don Juan. It’s surprising how this is always overlooked. Perhaps, with more attention to the act of perception, the “mysticism” of a Castaneda, a Rumi or a Blake would then appear less mystical to the syllogistically-oriented mental-rational structure of consciousness than it has hitherto taken these to be.


One response to “Time, Reason, and The Frame of the World”

  1. Scott says :

    Jean Gebser for Economists: Just after I finished posting this, I received a link via email to an essay by economist Peter Pogany, who has been influenced in his views by Jean Gebser. A heady article, but contains many of the themes recently raised here in The Chrysalis and in the former Dark Age Blog. It’s a heady article for non-economists, but worth the effort,


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