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
The devil

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.



4 responses to “Dialectics and “The Crisis of Our Age””

  1. abdulmonem says :

    History never moves in a linear fashion, it has its reversal movement . It is unfortunate we talk about the external movement and forget the internal movement, the purpose of our existence. Observation must works on both the external and the internal in order not to forget the two aspects of everything the seen and the unseen, life and death, the bad and the good, the true and the false and their reversal movements. Why do we die, if the purpose is only to talk, why do we grow old. Why do we aspire for justice and truth, why is all this expansive cosmos, why all these stories of different races and different cultures and different religions. Who put rivers and seas in earth and who make our earth floats in the space. Millions and millions of questions. When are we going to decide for ourselves. Why are all this rottenness in the world. Is it wise and acceptable to let death be the end of those whose crimes touched everything and those who lived in goodness and to equates between them and say this the end of the story and be happy that we have talked about the nature of reality without certainty. In this world not everybody is caught for his crime, in the other nobody escapes. The return that exposes everything. I look always forward and never doubt the return to the oneness to find the answers to all these questions.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    I definitely prefer Gebser’s “efficient” versus “deficient” modes of consciousness to Sorokin’s “Ideational” versus “sensate” cultural mentality.

    Of course, Seth, if I understand him correctly, posits that full capacities of human consciousness within a physical frame of reality should first be developed in the dream state. For the development of the human faculties in this way automatically effects change in the physical setting.

    The more I think about Seth’s approach, the more it seems to be the one effective and most efficient way of working one’s way toward integral consciousness.

    I loved the quote from Shakespeare. He is one of my most favorite authors of all time, along with Jung, of course; both of whom I have yet to read. I wish I had more time to read Shakespeare’s incredibly insightful works.

    “…….the technology of thinking itself has not kept pace with the complexification of its reality.”

    Beautifully said.

    • Scott Preston says :

      The significance of “dreaming” in Seth is much the same as in Castaneda’s “art of dreaming”. Seth states that we individually and collectively, often “rehearse” many probable futures in our dreaming, and then actively work to actualise one of them. This gives the impression of “dream clairvoyance”, but it is actually a rehearsal of probable futures which we then work to translate into physical reality. Seth held open the intriguing possibility that, in future, with enough training, human beings would even fight their wars in dreaming rather than in physical reality.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        “Seth held open the intriguing possibility that, in future, with enough training, human beings would even fight their wars in dreaming rather than in physical reality.”

        This is the aspect of “dreaming” that I’m most interested in and have been pondering it on and off. How else can one fight injustice while injustice is armed to the teeth and was trained all his life to know how to use it in the most brutal fashion?

        I have experienced the event of a dream (a power dream) that helped save my life. Many years later and after having read Seth, Castaneda, and Robert Monroe, I have always wondered if I can initiate dreams that can help me go places in the dream state, collect the information I need, and then take action in the dream state. Action that can produce results within physical reality. I have no doubt this is possible. But for someone who is so “focused in physical reality” (to quote Seth) it may not be so easy to pull off.

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