The Medieval Mind
One of the things I should like to do in future is a more detailed comparison of the medieval consciousness structure with the modern consciousness structure. That is to say, what we might call the “mytho-religious” consciousness (or “pre-modern”) with the “mental-rational” (logico-mathematical or “secular”) consciousness. I’m sure this would be most revealing of why it makes sense to speak of “species of consciousness” or different modes of perception.
Probably all of us at some time or another have come upon some work of medieval art, literature, philosophy, music, or architecture and have been completely bemused by it. “What on earth were they thinking?” That’s a fair question. For the things that interest the mytho-religious consciousness and attract its care and attention are certainly not the same things that interest the mental-rational consciousness and attract its care and attention.
For one thing, it’s the ear, rather than the eye, that is the authoritative sense. Most mytho-religious societies are intensely aural/oral. The ear is the organ of knowing. Debates amongst the Scholastics would often by prefaced by the words “The Philosopher says…” and that would be definitive and conclusive. “The Philosopher” was Aristotle who was considered the final voice of authority on any matter outside the Bible. It was known to everyone who “the Philosopher” was in much the same way we speak of “The Bard” and mean William Shakespeare and no other. The primacy of the ear is also reflected in the hierarchical structure of the medieval arts and sciences. At the top of the hierarchy (the so-called Trivium) were grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Below the Trivium was the Quadrivium comprising astronomy, music, geometry, and arithmetic. Theology was the queen of the sciences, and that was, of course, the study of the Word of God.
Even cathedrals were designed along aural principles. Not only were they ingeniously designed to amplify the voice (as you will know if you’ve ever visited some of the old medieval basilicas and cathedrals of Europe. You can hear a whisper at the other end of the building!) but as “Bibles in Stone” they were designed to relate Scripture by their very structure. Even the flat, perspectiveless, two-dimensional paintings were attempts to render the voice visible, for they were narratives in paint rather than imitations of nature. The ear dominated everything, and even subordinated the eye to its authority. Space and the intellectual mastery and organisation of space was really of little concern. Time and eternity are the chief concerns. Calendars and clocks originated in the monasteries to mark holy-days and the daily hours for prayer.
That’s what interests me about the Flammarion woodcut, as discussed in earlier posts, entitled Urbi et Orbi. It really does describe the medieval consciousness as it confronts the emerging Mechanical Philosophy that came to describe the heavens as a great Clockwork mechanism. That’s the “pilgrim” poking his head out of the cozy, animate medieval world into what appears to be a dead mechanism of gears, cogs, wheels, and ice — the cold future of Blake’s “dark Satanic mill” and of a philosophy that was to give the world, amongst other things, the Industrial Revolution.
The mytho-religious consciousness, which is largely aural, and the mental-rational consciousness, largely eye-centric, pretty much confront each other as alien species. That’s pretty much the gist of the famous trial of Galileo. The two parties were really talking past each other, if you followed the course of the argument. What was in dispute was the meaning of “truth”, and it was controversial because the meaning of “truth” was conditioned by the consciousness structure. Galileo’s understanding of “truth” was already conditioned by perspectivism. He had even applied to the Academy in Florence to teach perspective, but failed to get the appointment, after which he turned his attention to his famous motion studies.
It needs to be said, at this point, that what is called “Galilean Space” or “Ideal Space” is perspective space. It is space rationalised in the three dimensions of length, breadth and depth. Galileo was very influenced by Copernicus and the latter’s heliocentric theory. This is fairly significant, I think, because as Thomas Kuhn observed in his interesting biography of Copernicus and the Scientific Revolution, Kuhn couldn’t see how Copernicus hit upon his solar-centric cosmos except by thinking “perspectivally”, and Copernicus in his own words mentioned how he imagined himself looking outwards from the surface of the sun (the new “point of view”) and seeing the planets orbiting the sun rather than the Earth. This is the perspectivising imagination at work, consciously shifting the point of view in much the same way someone looks at a painting in perspective, shifting position until they find the proper “point of view”.
So, I very much agree with the cultural historian Jean Gebser, that the medieval or mytho-religious consciousness is “pre-perspectival” or “un-perspectival”, while that of the new mental-rational consciousness is completely “perspectival” in relation to space and the rational or logical arrangement of spaces in dimensions. That emphasises the eye as the organ of knowing. And of course, we have the saying “seeing is believing” as testimony to the eye’s hegemony. In fact, the slogan “seeing is believing” was precisely the challenge of the new mental-rational consciousness to the old medieval consciousness. It’s implied in the slogan “look to Nature herself” that was the rationale for the new natural philosophy.
So, we are a very eye-intensive culture, and that means, also, a space-dominated and -dominating consciousness. Perspective was the intellectual conquest and mastery of space. Marshall McLuhan believed that this shift to eye-dominance was a hidden consequence of the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, which shifted the emphasis on knowing from the ear to the eye. But I prefer to think it was the perspective artists like Albrecht Dürer who were the first to shift the focus of perception from the ear to the eye.
Dürer, as I’ve mentioned before, invented an extremely interesting device for training the eye to perceive perspectivally. It was very popular, apparently, as a pedagogical tool for that purpose. Dürer even sketched a few pictures of himself using it,
If I’m not mistaken, I think this gridwork that analyses space into sections is the origin of the phrase “frame of reference” (or so I like to think). For I see in Dürer’s device even what was to become the basic plan of our modern cities, too — the Grid as the perspective analysis of space from a fixed and certain “point of view” (and “line of thought”). That “point of view” is also called “ego consciousness”.
So, there seems to have been a great many implications from the perspectivist reorganisation of consciousness and perception. One interesting historical note I might mention: perspectivism was even a bit controversial in the Renaissance period for religious reasons. But it was banned outright in the Islamic world as “competing with God”, which may have stopped the Islamic Golden Age dead in its tracks. For without knowledge of perspective, space cannot be “reasoned out”, ordered and rationalised. And I think that perspectivism also resulted in the dissolution of Christendom itself and its reorganisation (as “Europe”) into a system of nation-states each with their own nationalist “point of view”.
It was upon this certainty and this rock-solid “point of view” that the perspectivising mental-rational consciousness erected itself. It’s called “individualism”. It was very confident, very self-assured, and very bold, as modern history amply attests. It is this solid foundation in the “point of view” that is today fracturing and disintegrating. That is part of the significance of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It is a great challenge to the perspectivising consciousness, which is one of the interesting themes of Arthur Miller’s book Deciphering the Cosmic Number.
Jean Gebser would say that the perspectivist consciousness structure is now disintegrating — entering its “deficient mode” of functioning, and that human consciousness is now in transition to an “aperspectival” mode of functioning. That is also another term for “holistic” or “integral”.
We’ll see how that is shaking out in future posts.