What It Means To Be Post-Cartesian
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the deadWilliam Blake, The Proverbs of Hell
One very crucial aspect of the present transition between Ages and consciousness structures is the emergence of what we might call “post-Cartesian” modes of thought. The citation from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” that opens today’s essay is a reminder to never allow one’s regard and respect for the past to inhibit the realisation of our destiny, and our destiny is “fourfold vision”. In order to understand what the term “post-Cartesian” actually signifies, we need to thoroughly understand also what is meant by “Cartesian” and why it is being left behind.
There is a legend, apocryphal as it might be, that Descartes hit upon his “wondrous strange method” — his new mode of thinking — after confining himself int a “poêle” — a french word that could refer to a furnace, oven or some type of closet. That’s the joke implied in the illustration above. Although probably not factually true, it persists as legend (even Rosenstock-Huessy mentions it) because it is, in a psychological sense, quite accurate.
The effect of Cartesian method, and its famous slogan “cogito ergo sum“, (which was, as previously discussed, a development and refinement of perspectivism invented by the Renaissance artists), was also it’s intensification of the ego-consciousness or the “I” or what we call “the point-of-view”. In effect, awareness withdrew from the world-at-large (or “Lebenswelt“) and became localised behind the skull as identity contracted into the cogito or “point-of-view”. This is clearly the case in the various illustrations from the time of Cartesian method and perspective consciousness.
This is the structure of consciousness and the modern ego that Gebser refers to as “perspectival” or “mental-rational”, based on a triadic ratio of three dimensions of reality — the spaces of length, width and depth. It was, in those terms, a triadic or triangulating logic formalised in the symbol of the pyramid — thesis, antithesis and synthesis corresponding to the spatial dimensions. You will perhaps observe how it leaves whole zones of reality outside its focus which essentially become background or “the unconscious”. Gebser calls this the “sectoral” view.
This is what William Blake has in mind when he writes that,
“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”
So, the legend of Descartes’ quarantining himself in a poêle in order to think is not so far from the actual truth. Awareness and identity withdrew and confined itself to this “point” behind the eyes and localised in the brain.
There is a joke about this that is relevant to Descartes. A man, desirous of discovering final truth, locks himself away in a closet, vowing never to leave until truth reveals itself to him. Truth, meanwhile, observing his devotion to her, approaches the door of the man’s closet and knocks. “Go away”, shouts the man from his self-isolation, “I’m looking for the Truth!” And Truth turns and departs.
This too is not so far from the truth.
This intensification of the “I” or ego consciousness was also formalised into the political principle called “rational pursuit of self-interest”. Self-interest and its pursuit (rational or otherwise) seemed to become the foundational mode of our being-in-the-world. But this has finally decayed into what Christopher Lasch has described as “the culture of narcissism” and what we call the “narcissistic mentality” and a reification of the “point” of “the point-of-view” consciousness structure.
Before proceeding further in our discussion, here, we should also make note of how Cartesian method (dialectical) differs radically from Socratic method (dialogical). For Socrates, reasoning was something done in the open and in public — in the Athenian agora. It was the method of speaking and listening, question and answer. Dialectics abstracts this whole process making reasoning something that goes on principally in one and the same abstract mind, which ends up as a conception of mind-body dualism. In Socrates, reasoning is embodied process — a dialogical process. In Socratic method, two or more individuals attempt to become present to one another, whereas Cartesian method emphasises distance and what we call “objectification”. But this objectification is a kind of absenting and also intensifies the sense of subjective isolation within the skull.
Many people now chafe at this confinement or restriction of awareness to a mere “point” behind the eyes and within the skull. Moreover, it is no longer even considered to be true of ourselves and our reality, and is even considered dangerously erroneous in that it is now driving us towards disaster by its very incompleteness, while still having some usefulness but only within certain limits and “domains of relevance.”
Our stepping out from this self-enclosure and confinement within the cave of the skull and into the open air of a truly “universal way of looking at things” is what Gebser means by “time-freedom” or “spacetime-freedom”, which he calls “aperspectival” or “arational” consciousness. This is reflected in the current tendency to consider “the field” primary over the particulate, but also in the paradox of non-locality (or quantum synchroncity) in quantum physics. This becomes a new metaphor for the full awareness itself quite in contrast to Descartes’ closeted viewpoint. Awareness is no longer perceived as being merely localised within an ego or behind the eyes and within the cave of the skull, but “smeared out”, as it were, like the energetic field itself.
So, we see various offerings today such as “panpsychism” or Sheldrake’s “morphic fields” or quantum field theory or Jung’s insight that “all psyches are one psyche” as breaking out of this confinement of our awareness within the mere point-of-view. For someone like David Bohm likewise, our fundamental awareness is identical with his “undivided wholeness and flowing movement” that he perceives as underlying all manifested realities — that, and the “implicate order” as the “Logos that is common to all” as Heraclitus put it who did perceive this “undivided wholeness in flowing movement” and the “implicate order” within that flux. I could almost be convinced that Bohm is the reincarnation of Heraclitus, or in some way mutually “entangled” in the quantum sense of non-locality.
There is, at least, a great affinity between Bohm and Heraclitus.
The great anxiety and paranoia about the present transition is the Cartesian ego’s fear of being dissolved into that “universal flux” — a loss of self and identity, so it clings to this little “point” as a drowning sailor might cling to the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck. These fears and anxieties that are driving us towards catastrophe in a “maelstom of blind anxiety” are deeply misguided because your true identity actually expands to include the entire cosmos — the entirety of “the field”. It does, however, imply dying to one’s own petty- and narrow- mindedness and being reborn again as a kind of “Mahatma” or “Great Soul” and to know that, as Krishnamurti put it, “You are the World”.
This was William Blake’s desire for us, of course — that we expand into fields of Eternity. Jill Bolte-Taylor had the same experience with her “Stroke of Insight”
This is also the whole import, too, of Buddhism or of Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Something, of course, that few contemporary fundamentalist Christians actually heed or understand anyway, but is also the import of Blake’s remark:
More! More!’ is the cry of a mistaken soul: less than All cannot satisfy Man.
You may also experience such times when you not only sense that you are a part of all that is, but also that you are identical with all that is. These are intimations of the new consciousness aborning within us. This is Truth knocking at your door. But then, perhaps, something kicks in and the feeling vanishes as quickly as it seemed to come.
That “something” is Blake’s Urizen, who is the jealous god.