The Mechanical Philosophy and the Modern Era
Just to revisit and review a few key concepts this morning….
We tend to use the terms “Modern Era” and “Western Civilisation” interchangeably. By “Modern Era” I mean everything falling within the time horizon of the last 500 years. This era corresponds to the development of the rational ego (individualism) or the mental-rational structure of consciousness (or the logico-mathematical consciousness structure). In speaking, people tend to use “modern” and “western” as practically synonymous; or, “modernisation” and “westernisation”.
In speaking of “Modern Era”, the accent or emphasis here falls on the historical horizons that comprise the Era. And in speaking of “Western civilisation” the accent or emphasis falls on the geographical horizons. That is to say, the accent or emphasis in the former is on time, and the accent in the latter is on space.
Now, I agree with the cultural philosopher Jean Gebser that the quintessential and defining feature of the Modern Era is its perspectivism, and that we can pretty much date the beginnings of the Modern Era with the invention of perspective by the Renaissance artists-engineers (they were pretty much one and the same). The Mechanical-Analytical philosophy and the logico-mathematical consciousness pretty much grew out of perspectivisation of space — the analysis of space into particulars and the measurement and re-arrangment of spatial relations necessitated by the addition of a third dimension (depth). Perspectivism is a mode of perception, and it had to be learned, and some artists invented special devices to educate the eye in proper perspective perception. This is what Renaissance art accomplished. It educated the mind in perspective perception — the perception of “the point of view” and “the frame of reference”. Perspectivism encouraged an analytical approach to space and the rational-logical ego or selfhood as the centre of this “point of view” — “man the measure of all things”, as it were. The eye becomes space-conquering, and the so-called Age of Discovery — the intense exploration of space — arises with the perspectivisation of spaces — length, breadth, depth.
What I’ve been calling “point-of-view” perception and “rational ego” are pretty much synonymous. We learn perspective perception and the analytical orientation from a very early age. Children are taught how to draw things in perspective, which requires the development of analytical skills in the proper “ratio” of spaces. In fact “rational” probably means exactly this perspectivisation of spaces in their proper ratios or proportions. So, the rational ego is very space-oriented in that regard. Time is a puzzle and a riddle to it. In fact, the father of modern rationalism, Rene Descartes, thought time was a “miracle”, and made no claims that his “wondrous strange method” could actually account for time at all.
So, this early period of the Modern Era featured and intense interest in space and the ratios of spaces. And a very excellent history of this early period of incipient perspectivism is Alfred Crosby’s The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250 – 1600. I highly recommend this book for students of Gebser or anyone interested in how the Modern consciousness structure has evolved and developed, inclusive of the early development of the Mechanical-Analytical Philosophy that has pretty much prescribed the proper orientation and direction of the Modern Era. It has, after all, given us our technological society, which is also one of the products of perspectivism. For as Jean Gebser pointed out, without the invention of perspective, proper blueprints for the design of machines could not have been made.
And, of course, the chief model and exemplar of “Perspective Man” is Leonardo da Vinci. “Renaissance Man” and “Perspectivising Man” are pretty much synonymous too.
Perspectivisation became all the rage, and extended even into religion. God the Architect or Clockmaker who winds up the universe at the beginning of time and then sits back to let it wind out is a precise image of the rational ego itself with it’s “point of view” mentality. This belonged largely to the theological school called “Deism”. And, in fact, this God is the same as William Blake’s mad Zoa Urizen, Ancient of Days, who Blake also called the “Selfhood” and “Satan” and “Single Vision”. “Single Vision” is pretty much identical with what I’ve been calling “point-of-view” mentality, or what Nietzsche decried as “nook-and-corner perspectives”. For one of the pernicious consequences of perspectivisation is the angular narrowing of the focus of awareness to a point — the “pyramid of perception” or cone. This “angularity” is, as Gebser also points out, connected to the meaning of “anxiety” or “Angst” — the sense that one is being gradually “enclosed” or disappearing into a point. This is what Blake means when he writes
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narow chinks of his cavern
This is largely the result of perspectivisation too. It has become narcissistic. And the Mechanical-Analytical philosophy is the chief expression of this perspectivisation of space and time.
The often hidden assumptions and premises of the Mechanical-Analytical philosophy inform the era’s “common sense”, which under examination proves to be merely a prejudice. Since Einstein, in any event, the “common sense” just ain’t what it used to be. The Mechanical-Analytical philosophy has, since the addition of the “dimension” of time, become increasingly defensive and even self-contradictory. That’s typically the situation of a philosophy that has exceeded its sell-by date and is struggling to remain pertinent. It becomes increasingly self-contradictory, for it then ceases to provide any kind of clear orientation towards reality or our experience of it. That’s the case, today, with the Mechanical-Analytical philosophy. Hence, much confusion in these days. And this is particularly so when we speak of nutrition and diet, as you may have noted.
There are already many new schools of thought arising to challenge the Mechanical-Analytical consciousness structure for its inadequacies or deficiencies. These belong, as I mentioned earlier, to the emergence of its chief challenger, the Holistic Philosophy. The new schools go by names like “Chaos Theory”, or “Complexity Theory” or “Integral Theory” or “Quantum Theory” and so on, and these have arisen because our historical experience has changed. Our reality has changed. Our consciousness is changing — “mutating”. And the Mechanical-Analytical philosophy has proven inadequate to account for it all and so lapses into self-contradiction (which some call “hypocrisy”). We simply don’t live in “the Modern Era” anymore, even though our habits of thought and received wisdom still persist as if nothing had changed much.
This lapse into self-contradiction is what Gebser means in speaking of the “disintegration of a consciousness structure”. It loses coherence and unity — fragmentation of knowledge and perception. This is one reason why some speak today of a “multiversity” rather than the “university”, and even the breakdown of universality as a guiding principle. Gebser would refer to this as the perspective consciousness now entering into “deficient mode”. And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, the symptoms of that are perverse outcome, unintended consequence, ironic reversal, revenge effect — it goes by many names. They all pretty much refer to the same thing — the self-contradictions of a philosophy or mode of consciousness now working themselves out into reality and becoming effectual.
That’s where I want to end off for today. While it may be a little facile to say that the main “clash of civilisations” today is really a clash of consciousness structures — the Mechanical-Analytical and the Holistic-Intuitive — it does make some sense to approach it this way, bearing in mind that we’re speaking within the time horizons of what is called “the Modern Era” and its universe of significations or “semantic frame”, it we might call it that. The Modern Era has boundaries. It constitutes a “frame of reference” for its members. That “frame of reference” has largely been provided by The Mechanical-Analytical Philosophy. The Mechanical-Analytical Philosophy, however, not longer functions adequately to provide a frame of reference owing to its increasing self-contradictory character, which is a symptom of its disintegration as a coherent worldview or mode of perception. So, some really big things are in the offing.