PART ONE: Rethinking the World
Chapter 1: A World in Crisis
There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere--no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen.” (James (1), p. 45, “What Pragmatism Means”.)
Section 1: The Challenge
“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” wrote Pascal, commenting insightfully on the pervasive human need to domesticate the world. We need to see it as a place that speaks our language, and in which we can feel at home. From earliest childhood, we “humanize” animals, and “spiritualize” the natural world. Whether benign or malignant, spirits are at work in the world. From Santa Claus for children to God for adults, we need to believe that good behavior will be rewarded, evil punished, and all will be right in the end, if only we follow the “true path.”
But the facts are against us. Located on a minor planet in an average solar system on a peripheral arm of an average galaxy among billions of galaxies stretching off into a practical infinity of space and reaching back some 13.7 billion years to a so far inexplicable “Big Bang,” the scientific understanding of our conditions of existence render our traditional (religious) creation stories as little more than children’s fairy tales.1 They show no understanding of the processes at work in nature, nor any ability to honestly address the challenges confronting humans sequestered as we are on this innocuous planet far from the “center” of anything. I suspect it was facts like these, along with his understanding of the ways humans intentionally, even if often unconsciously, deceive themselves, that led Freud to pessimistically observe that “... what the common man understands by his religion ... is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.” (Freud, p. 21)
Of course, uncertainty reigns at the extremities, and we cannot definitively prove the negative. We cannot prove the non-existence of a God or gods, or of the transmigration of souls or reincarnation, nor the absence of eternal life, or the ultimate purposelessness of the universe. The current inability of science to adequately address the genesis of the “Big Bang,” the nature of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, as well as the detailed specifics of each stage of species transformation in the evolutionary process, leave large gaps for minds desperate for transcendent purpose to fill. But such theories are for the most part either essentially vacuous, internally incoherent, and/or without any rational bearing on the world revealed by science, when, that is, they are not in direct conflict with it. No doubt, self-conscious creatures are understandably agonized by the tragic nature of the human condition, indelibly marked as it is by uncertainty, vulnerability, finitude, and purposelessness. Thus compassion is in order, along with humility about the theoretical and practical claims that can rationally be made. Failing that, we are liable to contribute to aggravating rather than ameliorating our shared condition. But ignorance and mythic illusions are likely to do as much damage as ideological certainty, and when one feeds the other, given current levels of technological development, the entire biosphere is threatened. We are a species now capable of producing on a global scale the kind of complete collapse of civilization that has been so well documented for the Easter Islanders, among many others. 2
When thinking of our contemporary situation, I am reminded of the airline pilot who sought to provide his passengers with a progress report. There was good and bad news, he said. The good news is that we’re cruising at 600 miles per hour at 34,000 feet, encountering only normal and expected pockets of resistance, and making good time. The bad news is that we’re lost.
As civilized humans, we used to know--or thought we knew--where we were, why we were here, and where we were going. To answer precisely these questions for us was the main point of religion. Answers to which seem to constitute a vital human need. But the traditional answers are no longer adequate. Not only are there many competing religious stories to choose from, but the advances of modern science and technology have raised serious questions about the adequacy of each of them, thus generating serious doubts about the intellectual assurance that any can offer. Increasingly, the more intellectually astute among us are subtly driven to inquire about who and where we are and where, if anywhere, we are going? And the vast majority have at least an inkling of the problem and experience a troubling, if often inarticulate, sense of unease.
A dawning sense has thus emerged on the horizon of contemporary consciousness that we are not here for any particular reason and are not going anywhere! This seems to be the obvious and unsettling reality revealed by modern science. Human beings have never before possessed such knowledge and power to direct their collective destiny. Yet, never in recorded history have we been so uncertain about our direction and purpose. There are certainly no shortage of prophets--of salvation or doom--some privately inspired, hawking their wares in pamphlets on street corners, others armed with divine revelation, sustained by centuries of tradition, promoting their message through sophisticated media outlets to millions of followers. But few are those--and hardly convincing--whose prescriptions--and proscriptions--are consistent with the experimentally warranted truths of modern science. Rather, we are confronted with mythic stories promising salvation to the devout, while often threatening or actively promoting damnation for the reprobate. However diverse the messages, and often incredible, most seem to claim insight into the Truth--joined with the promise of assured salvation for followers of the True Path.
Religions across the world have built up, on, and around these mythic stories, giving personal meaning, institutional sustenance, and salvific promise to our lives. They have provided us with the dramatic sense of being on a cosmic journey, a divinely ordained providential mission that grounds moral values and social institutions, orients our individual and collective lives, gives direction to human undertakings, and offers the vision and holds out the promise of eternal felicity.
No doubt, these mythic stories speak to a deep--might we say, ontological--craving of the human being for a world of assured meaning and purpose within which cosmic frame each of us can feel fundamentally “at home”--that we belong and that all will be well in the end. We have relied on these traditional stories--and the religions that give them institutional weight--to provide our lives with the meanings that sustain and energize our efforts. And no doubt, we will continue to do so--regardless of the “evidence”--for years to come. For, in the words of the Judeo-Christian Bible, we “do not live by bread alone.” We are self-conscious animals, and have to make sense of our world. Not only must we make sense of our world, but we need it to be a world that calls us to significant action. It must invite our involvement and hold out the promise of fulfillment. We need to know that successful action is possible, what its path is, and that support is available if we proceed properly--even if that is at the expense of other human beings. This ontological need to dramatize our existence is the experiential foundation of the mythic in human life and culture. Myths are stories that dramatize the meaning of human existence for each culture, providing the taken-for-granted lived metaphysic of a people. They thus provide the vitalizing cosmic frame and energizing interpretive structure within which the life story of each individual unfolds.
Not only do our myths dramatically structure our beliefs, framing the horizon of our actions and feelings, but they determine the very sense and purpose of our lives: our hopes and fears, expectations and regrets, anxieties and satisfactions; in sum, our very sense of self -- who we are and how we feel about our self and our world. We are story-telling creatures. We are enchanted by stories. We are continually making them up, whether fictitious or real, about ourselves and others. The very meaning of our life tends to find expression in our own story or set of stories, which locates us in a wider cultural context, providing coherence and direction to our personal endeavors. Myths and religions are basically the publicly authorized cosmic frame within which individual life has traditionally found its existential roots, and from which it has been able to be cultivated and grow.
These cosmic stories cannot be viewed, however, as only that--stories, made up for their “literary” amusement. They have been, and must be, taken quite seriously by their believers, if they are to perform their emotionally vitalizing and metaphysically sustaining function. For who can believe what they know to be untrue and still feel good about him or her self? That is so odd, if not impossible, that it is practically a contradiction in terms to say that we believe what we know to be false. Belief practically means by definition thinking that something is true. We live with and through our beliefs, which we must take for true.
And there’s the rub. For these same mythic stories and religious traditions gave birth-- initially and primarily in the West--to a technical and scientific revolution that, in transforming the daily lives of individuals, has increasingly undermined the intellectual coherence, personal credibility, and practical relevance of those very traditions. Increasingly, the practical world of the everyday operates independently of, if not at odds with, the mythic frame of traditional religions. More and more, individuals find themselves living in two incompatible worlds, “earning a living” in a world dominated by the institutions and thought patterns of modern science, business, and technology, while interpreting and celebrating our life in the ceremonial world of traditional moral and religions observance. No doubt, we try to “make a go” of it – seeking to make these worlds cohere, with much personal and social energy expended in seeking to convince ourselves of the success of that effort--in fact, of demonstrating that there isn’t even a problem. But, however much this effort appears to succeed on the conscious level, the fault line is too profound, the tension too pervasive, the foundation too uncertain, to be so easily patched up. Rather, the disintegrative effects of modernity are eating away at the roots of the traditions, evacuating them of their meaning while they impose modes of thought that make a mockery of intellectual inquiry and place awesome technological means at the disposal of increasingly incoherent and profoundly dangerous belief systems and institutional practices that threaten the very foundations of civilized life.
No doubt, this mythopoetic “quest for certainty” and psychological re-assurance to which traditional religions appeal takes hold at a deeper level of our being and is far more compelling than any need for factual truth and rational confirmation. Yet the pervasive structure of our daily lives is increasingly determined by social institutions and technological instruments whose very existence would be inconceivable without that very science whose factual claims are so psychologically and religiously scandalous. Modern civilization is thus confronted with an increasingly agonizing contradiction--between the science (and technology) upon which its survival and development depends and the mythology and religion without which humans seem to feel totally lost.
One “solution” to this profound ontological crisis has been the proliferation of both “secular” and “new age” substitutes for traditional religions. From the French Revolution’s efforts to institute a “Republic of Virtue,” through the rise and fall of Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and Scientism, on the one hand, to the multi-form proliferation of spiritualist cults, on the other, the “cure” has often been worse than the “disease.” But a “dis-ease” it truly is. There is no need here to dwell upon the disasters occasioned by these messianic secular efforts to create a “New Man,” by bringing “heaven to earth,” through technology, or to create a “Master Race” by “purifying” humanity of the “scum of the earth,” other than noting their testimony to the extent to which humans will go to satisfy their craving for a Definitive Solution and Salvific Resolution to the human condition. Our challenge is both to understand the ontological roots of these “demonic” strategies and to develop well-founded and constructive theoretical, social, cultural, and personal alternatives.
Section 2: Modern World In Crisis.
The “existential” drama at the heart of modernity is the recent result of a truly cataclysmic transformation in our institutions and modes of belief that at least rivals in scope and significance, if it does not surpass, the transformation occasioned by the “Scientific Revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It was that revolution in the Western world that led to the transformation of an agriculturally-based and theologically-centered medieval world into the scientifically-based commercial and industrial civilization of the modern nation state. Originally initiated in Western Europe, this transformation has increasingly become global, first spreading essentially east and south across Europe and west across the Atlantic Ocean, and then incorporating Asia, Africa, and Oceania. By the end of the twentieth century, only a relatively few remote regions remained significantly unaffected by the pervasive influence of an ever- expanding Euro-centered civilization.
Consider only the most obvious. Throughout most of the modern era--from roughly 1600 to 1900--it seemed to all that Copernicus had radically expanded the Western view of the universe, while Newton had given its definitive laws of motion. Only the details had to be worked out.3 The Copernican-Newtonian universe had finally placed the Sun at the center of the Solar System, with the Earth as but one of nine planets revolving in elliptical orbits around it. This Solar System in effect shattered the medieval Cosmos, dethroning Humanity's home from its purported Christiano-cosmic centrality. Not only was the Earth effectively dethroned, but the very meaning of Heaven was radically transformed. No longer the abode of the angels hovering overhead among the celestial spheres, the stars were despiritualized and removed millions, if not billions, of miles away.
The scope of that transformation can be suggested just by listing some of the major "events" that took place from roughly 1450 to 1650: the "discovery" of the "New World"; Guttenberg’s invention of moveable type; the emergence of capitalism and the nation state; the Protestant Reformation and the destruction of a unitary western Christendom; the Muslim conquest of Constantinople; and the Scientific Revolution. These transformations effectively put an end to feudalism. They transformed a way of life that had characterized the West since the end of the Roman Empire, that is, for 1,000 years, setting us on the path to "modernity." It will be instructive to review these transformations later on, but now we wish simply to note them in order to suggest the scope of the transformations currently underway. It is often easier to appreciate the significance of an event in the past, than to take in what is currently so close that it tends to pass unseen.
As with the emergence of modernity, all our major institutions, practices, and belief systems are now undergoing fundamental transformation. We are participant-observers to the apparent end of the following essential structures of the modern Western world, each of which will be addressed in some detail in the chapters that follow:
**classical science with its Copernican solar system and Newtonian mechanical causality; an Earth-centered cosmos;
**traditional monotheistic religions and biblical “history”;
**the purposeful, even providential, unfolding of cosmic development and human history; the nation state and what was left of economic autonomy;
**the dominance of the “free” market;
**the ability to treat nature as essentially raw material and a substitutable factor of production;
**relatively insular and ethnically homogeneous societies;
**the doctrine of individualism and the social contract;
**“liberal” democracy and local self-government;
**the mind-body duality and the autonomous self; and
**relatively fixed and apparently biologically determined gender and even species identities.
Traditional certainties are under attack across the board. As the commercial and industrial revolutions and the Protestant Reformation undermined the feudal order in the West in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so the globalization of information, communication, production, and investment have undermined traditional national and local sovereignty in the late twentieth century. Similarly, breakthroughs in the natural sciences continue to fuel technological transformations that vastly expand the scope of these revolutionary political changes, while forcing radical revisions in our conceptions of the nature of time and space, of matter and energy, of society, self, consciousness and life.
Few can still doubt--even if they do not yet appreciate--the comprehensive and global scope of this “Second Scientific Revolution.” It is one of the central theses of this work that we are currently in the midst of a global cultural and metaphysical transformation at least equal in scope to that which began to transform the planetary culture four centuries ago. Our fundamental modes of thought and action, institutional structure, personal identity, economic development, and relation to nature, all require radical revision if human life on this planet (and beyond) is to survive and prosper. We are thus confronted with a world whose structures of meaning and corresponding institutional foundations are being undermined, thus presaging a revolutionary transformation the import of which, however unclear at present, cannot fail to be radical and comprehensive. My task in this work will be both to critically evaluate the contours of that transformation, and then to outline the structures of an alternative metaphysic and sketch a frame for the social and institutional order it suggests.
Section 3: Metaphysical Problems and Methodological Concerns
Let me be clear, however. My primary concern in this work is essentially metaphysical, not social or political. By that I mean an effort to understand “how” we think and “what” we believe to be real: the basic dramatic story line of our lived world. I propose to explore the basic structures of our thought and of the reality that it seeks to express. It is these structures that crucially determine what we experience as real, as possible, and as worth doing. How we make sense of the world depends in large part on what we are "looking for." And what we are looking for is largely determined by what we have been taught, or brought up, to expect to find. It is here that the “existential” and “philosophical” significance of traditional myth and religion is to be found. For our education, both formal and informal, trains us to “see” the world in a certain way- -to unself-consciously interpret events in accordance with pervasive patterns of thoughts--those generative “paradigms” and prevailing “conceptual matrices,” in the suggestive words of Thomas Kuhn--that provide a culture with its distinctive structure of meanings and the conceptual ground-plan for its interpretation of the world. In effect, they structure the mental space within which private aspiration and public debate take place--determining the range of options considered and the scale of values in terms of which priorities are established.
I might then rephrase a central thesis of this work as the claim that our traditional and taken-for-granted paradigms have failed. By a paradigm I mean a representative model graphically suggesting that set of perceptual and conceptual lenses through which we look at and interpret what is real. It is the patterned way we make sense of what is "out there." Things happen. Events regularly take place that impact upon us, directly or indirectly. We must adjust, compensate, re-act. But first, and certainly if we are to respond effectively, we must interpret, make sense of, what has happened, and why it has occurred. Perceiving is not just having our senses stimulated with nerve impulses flowing, our brain processing, and our muscles reacting. It is interpreting, making sense of--which also involves however minimally explaining. We have to have some theory of causality, why what happened happened, if we are to respond in an ordered and hopefully successful manner.
All of this presupposes a way of seeing and thinking. A conceptual framework that tells us what kind of things there are, and how they are likely to behave. Usually this pattern can be expressed in a rather simple model (or paradigm), often using what is most familiar to provide an interpretive pattern for that which is less so. For example, we now tend to use computers to model the way the brain works, as years ago, when automobiles were first invented they tended to be viewed as “horseless carriages.” (On the other hand, the ancient Hebrews tended to view their successes and failures in terms of the actions of their God.) Thus, our paradigms guide us in perceiving and interpreting the world. They structure our thinking about the real, what it is and how it acts. They provide the "metaphysical" mapping of ordinary experience. At the most basic level, metaphysics is simply the study of root or fundamental paradigms, of their structure, and possibilities for and resistances to change.4
Our personal experience is both nurtured and weighed down by the history of our culture. The meaning of events is essentially determined by the objective patterns of cultural interpretations. The ruling powers predominate, no doubt. But they too are essentially reproducing a set of values and beliefs by which they have been nurtured--usually with little self- consciousness about its strengths and weaknesses.5
It is as if we were looking at the world through conceptual lenses of whose contours we were essentially unaware. As rose colored glasses initially produce a rosy world to which one ultimately adapts, so a subject-predicate grammar structures a metaphysics of substantive things, which act and interact, to which we have become totally acclimated. Such a world allows for clear designation of self and non-self. It draws clear boundaries, thus placing the person in front of a horizon of fixed things over which he or she may better exercise effective control. It facilitates practical activities by separating the self from things, and inviting their impartial and utilitarian organization. It clearly has survival value in the "struggle for existence."
It is important not only to appreciate the limitations and inadequacies of the prevailing metaphysics, but to understand how it may subtly lead us to view things in a false, misleading, and often destructive fashion. For metaphysics constitutes the essentially taken-for-granted interpretive frame within which people, places, actions, things, events, and structures obtain meaning. It is what I have elsewhere called the mindscape through which we view, frame, and interpret the world.6The existent only becomes a meaningful world for us to the extent to which it is interpreted within the conceptual frame provided by our personal and cultural mindscape. Thus we see what we see, as we see it, at least in large part because our particular mindscape unself-consciously predisposes us to see it that way. (That is not, of course, to suggest that we are totally free to “see it” any way we want. The force of brute fact, the recalcitrance of the existent, as well as the inertia of cultural patterns and historical interpretations, certainly have their say. But there is a remarkable range for the “creative imagination” of individuals and cultures, to which both experience and anthropology well attest.)
Let me briefly underscore the practical and potentially liberatory significance of these initial remarks. Human action presupposes beliefs and desires. In order to act, one must believe some--in fact, many--things, and one must have some more or less clearly defined preferences.7 We must want something. Hence, how we act is framed by what we believe and want. And these are mutually interrelated. It makes no sense to want what you believe it is not possible to obtain, nor to act in order to bring about that which you are convinced is unobtainable. Even more, the existence and functioning of social institutions presuppose beliefs about human nature, desires, motives, capacities, and possibilities. Thus it is conceivable that some institutions exist only because of systematic misunderstandings about human nature and possibilities, or because of theoretical misinterpretations of natural or social processes, whether willful or inadvertent.8 To the extent, therefore, that our “mindscape” systematically “deforms” natural or social experience, to that extent we may be said to be its “prisoners,” in need of liberatory conceptual therapy.
The preceding remarks are provided as a brief explanation and example of the meaning and significance of the metaphysical, about which, more later. They are offered in order to better situate the inquiry here being undertaken. For I am most concerned to explore those fault-lines in our culturally-embedded world view that will crucially determine the emerging new world order. Only then can I suggest a possible alternative metaphysical paradigm, and use that revised framework to re-frame discussions of our personal, social, and cultural problems. Finally, I will offer some practical suggestions for the reconstruction of meaningful community life in the world thus reconfigured.
To be more precise. Chapter Two will provide a comprehensive but brief overview of the existential challenge confronting the modern world. Chapter Three will outline key fault lines in modernity’s dominant scientific metaphysic. Chapter Four will provide both a detailed critical analysis of the materialist reductionism that lies coiled at the heart of that scientific world view and will offer the outlines of an alternative (naturalistic and non-reductionist) metaphysic. It is hoped that this perspective will provide both a more sound framework for scientific research programs and a more intellectually coherent and existentially fruitful grounding for new and vitalizing cultural stories. That will complete the historical and metaphysical overview that constitutes Part One. Part Two will then address the theoretical and practical implications of this metaphysical reframing. Chapter Five will build on the metaphysic of emergent fields developed in the previous chapter to reframe our understanding of the world of culture, society, and the individual. Chapter Six will locate that social world within the frame of an ecologically reconfigured evolutionary world of global economics. Chapter Seven will apply these ideas to an analysis of modern Western Civilization, focusing on a critique of Western Individualism. Chapter Eight will provide the outlines for a case study of American culture. And Chapter Nine will seek to sketch the contours of a program for the reconstitution of cultural life within the dramatic frame of a scientifically defensible mythology consistent with this “New World Order.” This will require re-rooting the human drama within an evolutionary and eco-communal framework that articulates and sustains a celebratory and quasi-cyclical conception of a non- directional history.
No doubt, this is a highly ambitious undertaking. And I have a quite modest sense of my capacity to adequately address the issues raised. But I will offer analyses and suggestions that may stimulate and guide others to take this effort further. I believe such a common endeavor to reconstitute a transformed world view is necessary if we are to provide a dramatically sustaining vision within which to inscribe the scientific, cultural, and metaphysical challenges by which civilization is now confronted. For we are both the producers and products of the world that is coming to an end. What is yet to be determined, however, is the nature of that end, and of the new world to which it is giving birth. Not believing in any divinely ordained providence--which the nightmarish history of the twentieth century should certainly have dispelled for those not already disabused by both the results and the procedures of modern science--nor in the “Enlightenment's” secular faith in “progress”--we must recognize the inherent uncertainty of historical change. The dying world does not presage a new and better one. Civilizations and cultures die as well as grow.9 The results await human action--though they are often more than not the unintended consequences of what we are trying to accomplish. Hence the emerging world remains to be constructed -- though not out of whole cloth. Rather our possibilities and prospects are deeply grained by the world of the present, by both its material and theoretical structures. To understand that world in its strengths and weaknesses holds the key to framing our common future.
David Sprintzen, Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory, 2009, Palgrave Macmillan in the United States, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press LLC.
This extract is taken from the author's original manuscript and has not been edited. The definitive version of this piece may be found in Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory by David Sprintzen which can be accessed from www.palgrave.com
Endnotes to Chapter One
1 And this is without considering the implications of the theory of inflationary expansion as developed by Alan Guth in the early 1980s, and now, however improbable, generally accepted by the physics community as the basic framework for understanding cosmic development. According to that theory the universe underwent an almost instantaneous expansion on the order of 100 doublings in size at 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang. From that perspective, the entire known universe is but a spec of the totality.
2 Cf. Collapse., by Jared Diamond.
3 Note Lord Kelvin’s famous comment that all the laws of nature are now (1890s) known, only a few details need to be worked out
4 Let me use this footnote to be a little more technically precise. Metaphysics refers to the most fundamental categories of the World as we know it. It refers both to that which is fundamentally Real for us, and to the basic concepts with which we interpret and understand that Real. The latter may be called the root metaphors, conceptual matrices, or basic paradigms that constitutes our “pre-analytic vision” of the way things really are. This vision then pre-selects the nature of the interpretive field, the kind of “objects” that make it up, the dramatic structure of our experience, the essential patterns and nature of their interaction, the manner of interpreting encountered problems, or anomalies, the range of “legitimate” possible interpretations, research programs, and envisaged solutions.
We may sum up this discussion by saying that metaphysics is the reflective inquiry into the most fundamental structure of the Real. That Real is a regulative ideal behind inquiry into the World as we experience it, which World is our personal perspective on that historically developed pre-analytic cultural vision that has emerged out of our encounter with what is. Experientially, the World--our World--is given to us as the way things really are. What is “out there” for us, and how we think about what is out there, are given together, and usually taken more or less unselfconsciously as obviously and self-evidently true. It constitutes for most of us most of the time simply what is, within the reality of which we encounter problems that need interpretation and solution. If we speak of a person’s or culture's metaphysics, we mean both what they think is the nature of the Real, and the basic ideas or categories in terms of which they understand the Real. The fact that the word metaphysics may be used interchangeably to refer both to the “objective” and “subjective” side of the experienced World--to the existent “out there,” and to the concepts “in here” in terms of which we think the existent--simply highlights the existentially given unity of these two poles of the World as experientially given.
By World then, I mean that which is existentially given as Real. By metaphysics, I mean the inquiry into the presuppositions of that World. This inquiry may focus on either its “objective” or “subjective” poles. When I speak of another’s metaphysics, I mean both that which they take to be fundamentally Real, and that in terms of which they interpret that existent--since each is the experienced pole of the other, bound together in one unitary experience.
Another way of thinking about the metaphysical is as providing myths by which we live. Such myths are dramatizations of the thematic patterns that energize and pervade our more mundane concerns. Caught up in the events of daily life, we tend to lose perspective. Potentially revelatory patterns suggesting more pervasive concerns escape us. How often do similar themes reappear in different guises--what the Hindus no doubt intend by the notion of avatars, different embodiments of a single divine being.
Our lives have an enduring structure, and a set of sustaining concerns that tend to motivate and vitalize daily events. These more pervasive themes and structures are the terrain of the metaphysical. Albert Camus spoke of “bringing myths to life,” stripping events to their fundamentals, shorn of the diverse particularities of specific times, places, and people. We may speak of the pervasive themes of a culture, a nation, an era, a civilization, or a species. At every level of generality, there are abiding structural forces, vitalizing themes and concerns, distinguishing problems and hopes. These tend to be the dynamic shapers of the more mundane affairs of daily life. They tend to express themselves in pervasive modes of thinking and generative root metaphors.
The mythic dimension thus refers to these dynamic and vitalizing themes and ideas that give shape and pattern to the pervasive concerns of daily life. Camus’ literary success is but one of many that suggests that, when dramatized, such myths are sure to find a receptive and responsive audience, speaking as they do to our most important concerns, even--or most particularly--when they are not explicitly recognized. So also, at a more mundane level, are the recurrent patterns in the story lines of popular television and movies. Such drama grabs us where it hurts, bringing us into direct and vital connection with our most profound hopes, fears, and anxieties, thus offering an opportunity to live out, and perhaps work out, those deeper un-addressed and so far unresolved concerns. At its visionary best, such art opens up an existentially transformed space in which these concerns can appear in new light.
Whether viewed as paradigms, conceptual matrices, or dramatizing myths, the metaphysical determines the contours and parameters of our World. It constitutes the meaningful context within which action and thought take place. It both guides our inquiry and constrains our choices. It pre-selects both our problematic focus and our envisaged range of possible solutions. It may--and I will try to show how in fact it often and crucially does--rule out in advance ways of understanding, relating to, and even reconstituting our World that might be both theoretically more adequate and practically more fruitful.
5 An example of John Maynard Keynes’ statement about the role of visionary theorists in creating the common sense of future generations.
7 “Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action....” (MacIntyre, p. 61)
8 We will address this is some detail in Chapters 5 and 7.
9 In Collapse Jarod Diamond, after a detailed study of societies that destroyed themselves and others that have survived and prospered, concludes that their relative success or failure traces in part to their “willingness to re- examine long-held core values.”