Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D Reviews William Irwin Thompson's "Self and Society"

Over at Metapsychology Online Reviews, Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D reviews William Irwin Thompson's "Self and Society," the 2nd edition of which was published in 2009, but somehow did not get much attention.

Thompson is an integral theorist who has been pretty excluded from the mainstream of integral theory, which I believe is a mistake. The man is brilliant, another polymath like Wilber. His book from 1998, Coming Into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, is excellent, although he does spend a couple of sentences dismissing Wilber. As might guess from the chart included in the review, Thompson's viewpoint is deeply influenced by the work of Jean Gebser.

Self and Society
Review: Self and Society: Studies in the Evolution of Culture
by William Irwin Thompson
Imprint Academic, 2009
Review by Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D.
Jun 8th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 23)

The title, which seems to suggest a conventional sociology text, is misleading -- this is an extraordinary book. Thompson, who describes himself as a poet and cultural historian (in that order) has produced a heady mixture of historical analysis, scientific discourse, poetic/spiritual/artistic vision and, not least, political tract. The work consists of a series of essays, somewhat overlapping in content, in which the past, present, and likely future of world cultures is discussed. Interwoven with this grand theme, especially in the second part, are passionate critiques of (mainly American) politics in general and Bush junior and his neocons in particular.

There is a certain resemblance between the structure of the author's sketch of world history and that of Marx, who had interpreted it as a progress through stages. But while Marx had seen class as the key factor, Thompson cast his net far wider and postulates a series of connections between, for instance, ecology, urbanization, and what the French school of Annales called 'mentalities'; these are shown in a series of tables illustrating stages. A simplified example of correspondences within each of his five stages are set out below:

Ecology State of consciousness Mathematical
1. Riverine Archaic Arithmetic
2. Transcontinental Magical Geometry
3. Mediterranean Mythical Algebraic
4. Oceanic Mental Galilean dynamical
5. Biospheric Complex dynamical Integral

Each transition from one stage to the next is said, not very helpfully, to be due to 'natural drifts' and characterized by an intervening Dark Age. Thompson suggests that we might be in one such between 4. and 5. Put crudely in this way the scheme might appear implausible, but he puts forward a great deal of evidence -- admittedly much of it rather speculative. One convincing but hardly original claim is in a chapter entitled 'We become what we hate', in which he shows that the war against terrorism, (particularly that of Bush) pushes democracies into actions which come close to those of terrorists.

Thompson has a somewhat utopian dream of a world in which nations are fused into a global society in which science, art, and spirituality (rather than religion) will flourish. In this he is probably influenced in part by Marcuse, who had seen art as a possible source of a free society. An even more significant influence is that of Lovelock, who first advanced the 'Gaia' hypothesis.

Thompson's erudition is truly impressive. Apart from history, it includes ancient and modern world literature and art, biology, and mathematics; he is especially keen on Poincaré, originator of chaos theory, about whom he writes enthusiastically. Only specialists will be able to judge the depth of his knowledge. Readers of the book should have a dictionary at hand, and even then they may not find everything.

One might guess that the response to the book will vary with readers' political orientation. Thompson's critics have dismissed him as a Californian 'New Age' prophet, and there is certainly a strong whiff of that. On the other hand, when Lovelock's 'Gaia' paper first appeared, it was regarded by many as fantasy; today it is taken seriously. So perhaps that time will also come for Thompson.

© 2010 Gustav Jahoda

~ Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).

You can read the original introduction to Self and Society - Studies in the Evolution of Culture (PDF file), 2002 - as a download. Here is a taste:
The coeval emergence of calligraphy and algebra represented a bifurcation, a fork in the road in which one line moved into entrancement with notation and the replacement of the concrete with code in a very introverted form of cosmic solitude, while the other line of descent moved in a more extroverted manner toward the Galilean Dynamical mentality with its movements of global capital and ballistic artillery that transformed the world in what became the shift from medievalism to modernism. One path led into the solitude of cabbalistic magisters who thought that they alone understood the world, and the other to the military-industrial complex of those who sought to rule the world and not simply understand it in some esoteric notation. And not until the cabbalistic notation of a small band of mathematical physicists transformed the outer world with the atom bomb did these roads reconverge. Now in the new mathematical mentality of chaos Dynamics, it would seem as if all the historical mentalities are being synthesized in algebraic formulae in which the phase portraits of the geometry of behavior of complex dynamical systems are creating a new evolutionary niche for Artificial Life in which mathematical entities and mathematical domains have theirownontological uprising. Like the holes in space in which other ontological domains leak into ours in the paintings of Adolf Wölfli, other realities, Virtual, Virtuous, and perhaps Unvirtuous as well, are leaking into our conventional world.

Ralph Abraham (chaos mathematician) and I have come to our contemporary culturals bifurcation from two different lines of cultural descent that touched us whenwewere young assistant professors at Princeton and MIT in the sixties, but we do imagine together that the art and science of this new emergent culture is not going to be an embodiment of the reductionism and eliminativism of the present, or the past five hundred years. Neither abstract nor concrete, this new way of knowing seems to us to be a kind of visual math that is also musical, and perhaps just that kind of music of Strings the Calabi-Yau topologies make as they pulse with the fabric of space-time in ways imaginable for heads that have the heart for it. To get ready for this new planetary culture, we climb and turn on the spiral and blink our eyes in wonder and disbelief as we see a history we missed in the settled cities of the plain where the universities lie.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was in prison, when WIT first came to my attention. I believe it was Ernest Becker who first turned me on to WIT. It's interesting that Wit can describe a macrohisrotical description of human activity, and yet it is completely irrelevant to the modern process. It is obviously apparently that there will be a war of a war against all. Life in modern America will not end well.