It has often been pointed out that Westerners differ from other cultures in their sense of separation from the world around them--we are subjects over here and there are objects over there--but I don't think this is primarily a Western/non-Western difference, but a Modern/premodern difference. It's Western to the degree that Modernity is something given to the World by the West.
But until the modern period all normal human beings, even Westerners, had a more immediate sense of participating in the world and of being embedded in it as a thread woven into a tapestry. The individual thread in isolation is meaningless unless understood in the larger pattern, and that larger pattern in the premodern West had a marvelous sense of order, beauty, and symmetry. It is understandable that many should be nostalgic for its loss. But lost it is, and while parts of it may be retrieved, the world itself as it was represented then is not a model that can make any sense for us now.
So after the modern period began about five hundred years ago, this sense of being part of a web of interconnection gave way to a sense of being separated, of being alienated and disconnected from the world around. And as the modern age progressed, so did the sense of alienation, and nature became something objective, something to be examined as not us, as a non-human-over-there. And as the subject over here began to feel the implications of this separation, he began to feel kind of lonely and anxious in a new, modern idiom.
And if the characteristic of a human being living in a tribal society is to feel connected to his tribe, to his totem spirit, to the brothers and sisters in the animal world, Moderns feel more the disconnections. And the more objective and detached from the subject the world over there becomes, the more it becomes disenchanted, loses its magic, and becomes Hamlet's "sterile promontory".
Moderns feel that they stick out rather than blend in, and they hate that feeling. And so there is a huge temptation for moderns to lose themselves in mass movements, in compulsive behaviors, in substance abuse, in nature, or even in God. But I would argue that all of these, even the last two, are forms of bad faith, because the task is not to lose the Self, but to find it and develop it. And any experience, even mystical experience, which obliterates a sense of the Self is harmful. My argument is that we have to learn to live with the the disenchantment and alienation before we can freely, and in all sobriety, reconnect with the world and to re-enchant it.
Connection is a good thing, but it is no longer a 'given' to us, at least not in the rich deep way it is/was for premoderns. And so we are required as free agents to create our connections. The idea of working on a marriage would have been an impossible idea for a premodern. Marriage had strictly prescribed roles, and the only work was to perform one's duties according to the cultural prescription.
There's very latitude for freedom in such a system, but that's the price you pay for being a thread woven into a larger tapestry. Once freedom and individuality is added to the system, the tapestry comes unraveled. And that's our situation today. Only a minimum is 'given' to us, everything else is chosen and negotiated, and, for better and worse, that requires enormous effort. And it's a cause for endless conflict and stress especially in our personal lives. This is idea of 'given' vs 'chosen' is a key idea for me, and my guess is not one that many readers would accept without further argument. So sooner or later I'll get back to it, but first some more background.
Descartes, the first truly great modern philosopher, gets a mostly bad press these days, insofar as anyone thinks about him anymore. People blame him for the subject/object split and for all the alienation that comes with it, as if his philosophy was the cause of it. But his philosophy would not have been possible had a shift not already occurred, nor would his philosophy have had an impact. Had he written 150 years earlier, he would have been dismissed as an eccentric crank. But I see him as not the creator of the modern mind, but as its herald. Modernity awoke to itself when Descartes in an act of extraordinary philosophical imagination bracketed and cast into doubt the reality of the entire extra-mental world and declared, "Cogito ergo sum." No longer is God or Nature the point of departure for philosophy, but now the thinking Self, the 'I Am' who thinks.
For earlier thinkers the idea of dismissing the world as a dream or delusion could not have been taken seriously. The whole problem of determining what was true or not focused on understanding what the mind must do in order that it conform to what really is, which is what’s out there in the sensible world (if you were an Aristotelian) or in the mind of God (if you were a Platonist). Descartes’ thought is a benchmark in the history of the West because it signified in a dramatic way how meaning as something given from a reality outside the human mind had shifted to a new understanding of meaning as something that depends primarily on the autonomous thinking subject.
Descartes “Cogito” framed the problem for philosophy for everyone who followed him during the Modern Era, and philosophy became preoccupied with epistemological questions that took for granted a split between perceiving subjects and perceived objects. The subject was no longer embedded or immersed in the being of the world, but alienated from it, over against it, and this estrangement from being is one of the chief characteristics that distinguishes the modern from the premodern mind.
Two basic streams of thought developed in post-Cartesian philosophy, depending on which side of the split each thought was the more important. On the one side the dogged empiricists in the Anglo-American tradition continued to see the object as the center of concern. On the other, there developed the continental rationalist or idealist stream that emphasized the centrality of the human subject and the human mind.
The philosophy developed on the continent came to a culmination about one hundred years after Descartes in the thought of Immanuel Kant. Descartes had established the basic problem for modern philosophy, which was to understand how subjects were connected to objects in a way that the subject could know with certainty its ideas about them were true. Few philosophers found his solutions satisfying, and David Hume went so far as to say that any certainty about the objective world was impossible for human thought.
In response to Hume’s radical skepticism, Kant developed a philosophy in his Critique of Pure Reason, which he described as a “Copernican Revolution.” Meaning and human cognition were not something merely given as a fait accompli as the empiricists claimed, nor were they guaranteed because that’s the way God set things up, as Descartes and Berkeley asserted. Meaning was a human creation, constituted by the individual subject’s mind. The human subject was what he called the “world-constituting ego.” The extra-mental world was a jumble of raw data that needed to be deciphered and organized by the mind’s software, which he called the a priori categories. Scientific truth was guaranteed by the inherent lawfulness of the mind’s operations. If there is no mind, there is no lawfulness.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Kant’s philosophy caused an intellectual euphoria among a group of philosophers, poets, and artists whom we now call the German and English Romantics. His philosophy had the effect of turning the world on its head in his emphasizing the centrality of the meaning-creating function of the human “I”. If the world-constituting ego is the source of all meaning, then the extra-mental world is no longer a constraint on human possibility. Human possibility is constrained only by the limits of the human mind’s capacity for creative thought. And so Kant’s philosophy created the conditions for what became the wildest kind of metaphysical speculation. His world-constituting ego was a huge theme in the philosophy of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel who took it much farther than Kant would have allowed—Kant’s philosophy was quite clear in proscribing metaphysics as beyond the scope of reason.
Nevertheless the Romantics, intoxicated with this new idea, were not to be constrained. And at this time was born a tremendous optimism that a new kind of free human being was possible. Such a being would be freed from the shackles of oppressive traditions and would with the unlimited capacity of the free human imagination create a new world. And in the middle of all this exuberance occurred the French Revolution, which Romantics and Idealists at first embraced as the world-historical movement by which this liberation would be delivered to Europe and then to all of mankind. And if their optimism was curbed by the excesses of the Terror, it was fanned back into full flame by the emergence of Napoleon, who they felt would demonstrate to the world what a world-class, world-constituting Ego could do.
By 1848, the last breath of this kind of revolutionary hope had been gasped. Reaction had set in, and a new mood quite cynical about the grandiose assertions of the Romantics took over. In the absence of any high, spiritually oriented metaphysical aspirations, the culture of the West took a very materialistic turn in light of the ideas about human origins proposed by Darwin and the human economically driven future by the progress-minded commercial- and technology-infatuated bourgeois. In a post-Darwinian world any talk of the progressive self-revelation of the Hegelian Absolute or world-constituting egos as a force driving history seemed a little nutty. All such lofty idealism evaporates when confronted with the grittier ‘scientific’ explanation offered by the Darwinians and a new breed of pragmatic materialist thinkers for whom talk about Absolutes was nonsense. The more modest claims for metaphysics elucidated by Kant were once again adopted,
Nevertheless Kant’s subjectivist successors persisted after Darwin, even if they did so in a much more sober mood. The best known were the existentialist thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleu-Ponty through Foucault, and Derrida. Despite their often irreconcilable differences, whether they were nihilists or believers, they all in one way or another affirmed the centrality of the free human subject who is the creator of his own meanings. This stream of thought had little impact in the Anglo-American world, which persisted in the naive empiricism that Hume and Kant had supposedly disposed of. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the continental subjectivist philosophy began in any significant way to influence American thought, at least in the humanities.
My reason for laying out this brief history of philosophy since Descartes is to better understand the thought world in which all of us operate and take for granted but which is really very different from the way people in other cultures and in earlier eras in the West thought. These ideas are what run the operating system of the culture. Lots of different programs can run on this system, but the system limits and shapes what can be said and not said.
Premoderns operated with a completely different operating system. Fundamental for premoderns was the experience of immersion and participation in the world around them. Premoderns are no less intelligent than moderns, but authority and tradition were the important criteria for their attempts to figure out what was right and wrong, true and false.
A deep-seated suspicion of tradition and authority is an intrinsic feature of the modern operating system, and operating within the program moderns understood their task, very much in the Cartesian spirit, to start from scratch using human reason as the only necessary authority. And the hope arose that if reason and the scientific method could be so effective in understanding the physical world, it could also be applied to a far more slippery subject, which was the human being, and a new kind of reason-based society could be developed in which all human ills could be eradicated. Any hope for such a rationalist utopia was crushed in the aftermath of the two great 20th century world wars. The human irrational dramatically reasserted itself, and the West had neither human reason nor God to give it hope for a better future.
All hope, then, lies with the human subject, and for me that's not a cause for despair. Because I believe that what the Gospels say is true, that "the Kingdom is within." I think that this is a truth that has deeper and deeper levels of significance, and we are just scratching the surface in understanding what it means. But for me one thing it means is that it's a Kingdom that operates according to different laws than the Kingdom of the world as we most ordinarily experience it.
And I would also say that if the Kingdom about which the gospels speak first takes root in the soul of the human subject, then, to the extent that those subjects find a way to exteriorize it in their actions in the world, they have the possibility to establish a lawfulness there that is quite different from the lawfulness that we take for granted today. There is such a thing as the Faith that moves mountains; it's just that hardly any of us have a clue what such a Faith might be. And that's because we are not fully grown Selves yet, but at best only seedling Selves.
The kind of naive,romantic utopianism that was so common during the modern period was the effort of seedling Selves drunk with the awakening of new possibilities. That they failed does not mean that what they dreamed to effect in the world was impossible, but only that they had not yet developed the capability to effect it. Our job now is the more sober task to learn what must be done, and then to do it. Both to do the inner work and to explore in modest ways tasks to be accomplished in the outer world. It starts for most of us in getting our human relationships right. And for most of us that's huge.
And any kind of poltics of the future has to start here. It has to begin with communities of Selves establshing an alternataive to the mass consciousness that drives political movements and their propagandistic manipulation. In the meanwhile we do what we can to resist the forces that would de-Selve us, and maybe that's all we can do for the moment. And for me there are no more potent texts to empower our resistance to those forces than the Gospels. Much has been done to try to tame them, but the liberating power in them, for those who are truly vulnerable to it, cannot be suppressed or controlled.
For a related essay, see From Outer to Inner; From Given to Chosen.