Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

Two modes of knowing: abstract and narrative
      f. The passion of the Western mind: Tarnas 
Breaking mind-forged manacles

    For a particularly vivid and succinct description of the modern condition see Richard Tarnas's wonderful book, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped our World View,  (Pimlico, London, 1998). These excerpts are from pages 420-440:

    “The modern condition is an extraordinarily encompassing and fundamental double bind, made less immediately conspicuous simply because it is so universal. We have:

· the post-Copernician dilemma of being a peripheral and insignificant inhabitant of a vast cosmos, and 
 the post-Cartesian dilemma of being a conscious purposeful, and personal subject confronting an unconscious, purposeless and impersonal universe, with these compounded by 
· the post-Kantian dilemma of there being no possible means by which the human subject can know the universe in its essence. We are evolved from, embedded in, and defined by a reality that is radically alien to our own, and moreover we cannot ever be directly contacted in cognition… [420]
    “[So]…we.. receive two messages from our existential situation: on the one hand, strive, give oneself to the quest for meaning and spiritual fulfillment; but on the other hand, know that the universe, of whose substance we are derived, is entirely indifferent to that quest, soulless in character, and nullifying in its effects. We are at once aroused and crushed. For inexplicably, absurdly, the cosmos is inhuman, yet we are not. The situation is profoundly unintelligible…. [420]

     “It should not be surprising what kinds of response the modern psyche has made to this situation… Either inner or outer realities tend to be distorted: inner feelings are repressed and denied, as in apathy and psychic numbing, or they are inflated in compensation, as in narcissism or egocentrism; or the outer world is slavishly submitted to as the only reality, or is aggressively objectified and exploited. There is also the strategy of flight, through various forms of escapism… When avoidance mechanisms cannot be sustained, there is anxiety, paranoia, chronic hostility, a feeling of helpless victimization, a tendency to suspect all meanings, an impulse toward self-negation, a sense of purposelessness and absurdity…And at the extreme, there are the full-blown psychopathological reactions of the schizophrenic… [420-1]

    “….By and large the philosophy that has dominated our century and our universities resembles nothing so much as a severe obsessive-compulsive sitting on his bed repeatedly tying and untying his shoes because he never quite gets it right…” [421]

    Tarnas notes that the modern human being has not simply been a helpless and passive victim of the situation:  “… the modern mind … has actively engaged the world and pursued a specific strategy and mode of activity – a Promethean project of freeing itself from and controlling nature. The modern mind has demanded a specific type of interpretation of the world: its scientific method has required explanations of phenomena that are concretely predictive, and therefore impersonal, mechanistic, structural. To fulfill their purposes, these explanations of the universe have been systematically “cleansed” of all spiritual and human qualities. Of course we cannot be certain that the world is in fact what these explanations suggest. We can be certain only that the world is to an indeterminate extent susceptible to this way of interpretation.”[421]
[Tarnas emphasizes the word “susceptible” but one is also tempted to accentuate the phrase “to an indeterminate extent”: it is the growing awareness of the limited extent to which the world is susceptible to a mechanistic  interpretation, which seems to leave out many of the things that make life worth living, that spurs the search for complementary interpretations.]

   “Kant’s insight is a sword that cuts two ways. Although on the one hand it appears to place the world beyond the grasp of the human mind, on the other hand it recognizes that the impersonal and soulless world of modern scientific cognition is not necessarily the whole story. Rather that world is the only kind of story that for the past three centuries the Western mind has considered intellectually justifiable… ‘It was Kant’s merit to see that this compulsion for the mechanistic impersonal explanation is in us, not in things. … And it was Weber’s to see that it is historically a specific kind of mind, not human mind as such, that is subject to this compulsion.’ (Ernest Gellner, The Legitimation of Belief, Cambridge, 1975, p.206-7) [421-2]

    “…the fundamental subject-object dichotomy that has governed and defined modern consciousness – that has constituted modern consciousness, that has been generally assumed to be absolute, taken for granted as the basis for any “realistic” perspective and experience of the world – appears to be rooted in a specific archetypal condition associated with the unresolved trauma of human birth, in which an original consciousness of undifferentiated organismic unity with the mother, a participation mystique with nature, has been outgrown, disrupted, and lost… Here is the [source of] experience of the universe as ultimately indifferent, hostile, inscrutable. Here is the [source of the] compulsive striving to liberate oneself from nature’s power, to control and dominate the forces of nature, even to revenge oneself against nature… [430-431]

    “This fundamental sense of separation is then structured into the ..interpretive principles of the modern mind. It was no accident that the man who first systematically formulated the separate modern rational self, Descartes, was also the man who first systematically formulated the mechanistic cosmos for the Copernician revolution. The basic a priori categories and premises of modern science, with its assumption of an independent external world that must be investigated by an autonomous human reason, with its insistence on impersonal mechanistic explanation, with its rejection of spiritual qualities in the cosmos, its repudiation of any intrinsic meaning or purpose in nature, its demand for a univocal, literal interpretation of a world of hard facts – all of these ensure the construction of a disenchanted and alienating world view… [431]

    “From this perspective, the …philosophical assumptions that have governed the modern mind, and that have informed and impelled the modern scientific achievement reflect .. an experiential template that selectively filters and shapes human awareness in such a manner that reality is perceived to be opaque, literal, objective, and alien… Such a world view is… a kind of metaphysical and epistemological box, a hermetically closed system … [431]

     “The great irony .. is that it is just when the modern mind believes it has most fully purified itself from any anthropomorphic projections, when it actively construes the world as unconscious, mechanistic, and impersonal, it is just then that the world is most completely a selective construct of the human mind. The human mind has abstracted from the whole all conscious intelligence and purpose and meaning, and claimed these exclusively for itself, and then projected onto the world a machine. As Rupert Sheldrake has pointed out (in A New Science of Life, Tarcher, LA, 1981), this is the ultimate anthropomorphic projections: a man-made machine, something not in fact ever found in nature. From this perspective, it is the modern mind’s own impersonal soullessness that has been projected from within onto the world… [432]

    “Thus the modern condition begins as a Promethean movement toward human freedom, toward autonomy from the encompassing matrix of nature, toward individuation from the collective, yet gradually and ineluctably the … condition evolves into a Kafka-Beckett-like state of existential isolation and absurdity – an intolerable double bind leading to a kind of deconstructive frenzy.  [432]

Breaking the mind-forged manacles

    “For Popper, as for the modern mind, man approaches the world as a stranger – but a stranger who has a thirst for explanation, and an ability to invent myths, stories, theories, and a willingness to test these. Sometimes by luck and hard work and many mistakes, a myth is found to work… Why do these myths work?…Popper answered this question by saying that, in the end, it is “luck” – but this answer never satisfied… [437]

    “[And the] fundamental problem left by Kuhn [was] the problem of explaining why in the history of science one paradigm is chosen over another if paradigms are ultimately not commensurable, if they cannot ever be rigorously compared…. Kuhn answered this problem by saying that ultimately the decision lies with the ongoing scientific community, which provides a final basis for justification. Yet, as many scientists have complained, this answer seems to undercut the very foundation of the scientific enterprise, leaving it to the mercy of sociological and personal factors that subjectively distort the scientific judgment…. What then ultimately explains the progress of science from one paradigm to another? Does the evolution of scientific knowledge have anything to do with “truth”, or is it a mere artifact of sociology? [437-8]

     “The answer [that Tarnas suggests] .. is that a paradigm emerges in the history of science, it is recognized as superior, as true and valid, precisely when that paradigm resonates with the current archetypal state of the evolving collective psyche. A paradigm appears to account for more data, and for more important data, it seems more relevant, more cogent, more attractive, fundamentally because it has become archetypally appropriate to that culture or individual at that moment in its evolution.  [438]

    “And here we can see why the same paradigm, such as the Aristotelian or the Newtonian, is perceived as a liberation at one time and then a constriction, a prison, at another. For the birth of every new paradigm is also a conception in a new conceptual matrix, which begins the process of gestation, growth, crisis, and revolution all over again. Each paradigm is a stage in an unfolding evolutionary sequence, and when that paradigm has fulfilled its purpose, when it has been developed and exploited to its fullest extent, then it loses its numinosity, ... it becomes felt as oppressive, limiting, opaque, something to be overcome – while the new paradigm that is emerging is felt as a liberating birth into a new, luminously intelligible universe. 

   "Thus the ancient symbolically resonant geocentric universe of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Dante gradually loses its numinosity, becomes seen as a problem full of contradictions, and with Copernicus and Kepler that numinosity is fully transferred to the heliocentric cosmos… [439]

     “Thus the Copernican revolution that emerged during the Renaissance and Reformation perfectly reflected the archetypal moment of modern humanity’s birth out of the ancient-medieval cosmic-ecclesiastical womb. And at the other end, the 20th century’s massive and radical breakdown of so many structures – cultural, philosophical, scientific, religious, moral, artistic, social, economic, political, atomic, ecological – all this suggests the necessary deconstruction prior to a new birth. And why is there evident now such a widespread and constantly growing collective impetus in the Western mind to articulate a holistic and participatory world view, visible in virtually every field? The collective psyche seems to be in the grip of a powerful archetypal dynamic in which the long-alienated modern mind is breaking through, out of the contractions of its birth process, out of what Blake called its “mind-forg’d manacles”, to rediscover its intimate relationship with nature and larger cosmos. [440]”

From The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped our World View, Richard Tarnas, (Pimlico, London, 1998) pp 420-440
   "We may be seeing the beginnings of the reintegration of our culture, a new possibility of the unity of consciousness. If so, it will not be on the basis of any new orthodoxy, either religious or scientific. Such a new integration will be based on the rejection of all univocal understandings of reality, of all identifications of one conception of reality with reality itself. It will recognize the multiplicity of the human spirit, and the necessity to translate constantly between different scientific and imaginative vocabularies. It will recognize the human proclivity to fall comfortably into some single literal interpretation of the world and therefore to be continuously open to rebirth in a new heaven and a new earth. It will recognize that in both scientific and religious culture all we have finally are symbols, but that there is an enormous difference between the dead letter and the living word."
From Robert Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, New York, Harper and Row, 1970
Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
The views expressed on this website are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of any person or organization
Site optimized in 800x600: webmaster CR WEB CONSULTING
Best experienced with