Dialectics and “The Crisis of Our Age”
In his Social and Cultural Dynamics, his magnum opus, Sorokin classified societies according to their ‘cultural mentality’, which can be “ideational” (reality is spiritual), “sensate” (reality is material), or “idealistic” (a synthesis of the two). He suggested that major civilizations evolve from an ideational, to an idealistic, and eventually to a sensate mentality. Each of these phases of cultural development not only seeks to describe the nature of reality, but also stipulates the nature of human needs and goals to be satisfied, the extent to which they should be satisfied, and the methods of satisfaction. Sorokin has interpreted the contemporary Western civilization as a sensate civilization dedicated to technological progress and prophesied its fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era — (from Wikipedia entry “Pitrim Sorokin“)
I woke up this morning thinking of Sorokin’s book The Crisis of Our Age, which I read years ago (I’ve only read short excerpts from his main work Social and Cultural Dynamics). As you might judge from this excerpt from Wikipedia, Sorokin seemed to be groping, with this notion of “cultural mentality”, towards the kind of taxonomy of civilisations as structures of consciousness articulated by Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin. Sorokin, however, seems to have been somewhat hamstrung himself by his remaining under the spell of dialecticism — ie, thinking in terms of antitheses and syntheses. I think it’s very revealing where Gebser and Sorokin begin to diverge.
Dialectical reasoning in terms of pairs of antitheses, was a device of the young mental-rational consciousness to facilitate its coping with a complex reality. It was a convention that has since become confused with reality itself. While it has some merit and value in helping the intellect cope with chaos and complexity by reducing that complexity to pairs of antitheses, it isn’t the way reality is actually organised. Dialectics itself is a technology of thinking – a technique for managing our perception of complexity.
So, Sorokin has classified his “cultural mentalities” in terms of a pair of antitheses (ideational and sensate, or mind and body, spirit and matter) and a synthetic or hybrid form called “idealistic”, each with its own interpretations and perceptions of what is “real”. Civilisations “evolve” from an ideational, to an idealistic, to an eventual sensate decadence, in parallel, it seems, to what Gebser notes about a structure of consciousness having an earlier “efficient mode” and, at later stages, a “deficient mode” of functioning.
To put it more simply, a new civilisation, or consciousness structure, begins as a burst of inspiration and ends in the exhaustion of expiration when its originally inspiring values are finally exhausted or “bankrupt” as a “devaluation of values”, as Nietzsche put it. The civilisation’s foundational “truths” (which we call “root assumptions”) that were once so self-evident and manifest are no longer so self-evident and manifest. But that also must include dialectics itself.
So, in Pitrim’s schema, the earlier stages of the mental-rational consciousness were ideational or “efficient” in Gebser’s terms, while the late stages of the mental-rational consciousness, now become merely “sensate” or “deficient” in Gebser’s terms. But if it has become “deficient”, it is largely owing to the fact that the technology of thinking itself has not kept pace with the complexification of its reality. Dialecticism is not adequate for a world of “everything, all the time”. We have, in that sense, command without mastery. Our situation, in that respect, is much as Shakespeare described it in Henry the Fourth,
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
Glendower: Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command
Hotspur: And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil—
By telling the truth. Tell truth and shame the devil.
While Sorokins tripartite schema of “cultural mentality” might be useful in describing the parabola of the rise and fall of civilisations, from inspiration to expiration, from efficient mode to deficient mode, or from “ideational” to “sensate”, it seems quite limited in describing civilisational types in the way Gebser’s archaic, magical, mythical, and mental-rational does. Moreover, in Gebser’s taxonomy, structures of consciousness don’t “evolve” from one stage to another, but are “mutations” which co-exist and which are “contemporary” with one another, in some form or another, or which are either more or less latent or manifest. This very complexity makes dialectical thinking in terms of opposites or antitheses of limited value.
So, too, the “ideational”, the “idealistic”, and the “sensate” also co-exist, only one is more dominant than the others, and they aren’t necessarily “stages” a civilisation “evolves” through on its way to decadence.
Sorokin is a dialectician, and too much still under the spell of dialectics itself. The idealisitic “synthesis” of the sensate and ideational, or materialism and spirit, is not an “integration” in Gebser’s sense, which is much more complex, and in Gebser’s case thinking is more quadratic or quadrilateral compared to Sorokin’s tripartite logic, and that tripartite logic itself has become, as Gebser understands it, the essential “deficiency” of the mental-rational consciousness structure.
Like so many others, Sorokin believes the Modern Era has exhausted its values and ideals, and sensationalism and cynical reason are both symptomatic of that exhaustion. But even more to the point is, as Gebser notes, that dialecticism itself is incapable of coping with the reality it has largely made for itself, and not a “synthesis”, but a whole new “mutation” in consciousness is required to overcome it. Sorokin’s tripartite schema allows only for a “twofold” self-nature in terms of the ideational and the sensate (or mind and body) and a “synthesis” of mind and body in the “idealistic”. But Gebser (and Jung too) has shown that consciousness and the human form is more multiform than can be accounted for by dialectical reason. It’s not that it’s entirely wrong. It’s just that it’s incomplete.