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From Issue Eighteen, January 2012 « Previous Article Next Article »

The Timing of Paradigm Shifts

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Ed. Note: There are few scholars in the world better equipped to evaluate where civilization is headed than eminent professor of philosophy and cultural history Richard Tarnas. In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series, Shifting Paradigms, IONS Senior Scientist Dean Radin talks with Dr. Tarnas about the notion of paradigm shifts and what is required for a society to make such a leap. To read a chapter from Tarnas’s book, Cosmos and Psyche, go here.

Radin: In your first book, The Passion of the Western Mind (1993), you explain the context in which we find ourselves, how we got where we are. Most people most of the time don’t think much about why they believe the things that they do and why society works the way that it does. In your second book, Cosmos and Psyche (2006), you use an enchanted view of reality, in a sense, to show why some of the aspects of traditional astrology are actually quite useful in seeing where we are and where we are going.

Tarnas: I wrote The Passion of the Western Mind as a kind of overview of the history of the Western worldview up until the late twentieth century. I wanted to try to see the larger paradigm shifts that took place and the major factors that were at work in forming our current worldview. We really can’t understand ourselves or the present without having a good grasp of the historical factors that shaped us. I love that sentence from historian Daniel Boorstein: “Trying to understand and create the future without knowing the past is like planting cut flowers.” We need a sense of our roots. The Passion of the Western Mind gives that kind of overview.

It’s particularly focused on the West, starting from the ancient Greeks, because that’s the cultural worldview that is so fundamental in shaping the global context today. For better or worse, modernity is the most powerful influence on our global civilization now, and that history goes from the ancient Greeks up through the Roman period, right through the medieval era to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and so forth, up to the modern and postmodern periods. In my first book, I attempted to see the big picture as well as the ways in which a culture’s philosophy, religion, and science interact in any given era; it will shape the worldview, the cosmology, the notion of the divine, the notion of our understanding of the human self and its place in the universe. All these things constitute a worldview. So, in that book, I sought to understand that evolution of consciousness as well as I could.

My second book, Cosmos and Psyche, is actually the reason I wrote the first book, which served as a kind of prelude and a foundation to the second one—I’ll go into that in a second.

But perhaps we might want to engage some of the larger issues that go into paradigm shifts and why a culture seems ready or ripe for a major change of vision at a particular time? What makes a difference?

Radin: Yes.

Tarnas: I am thinking of the most consequential paradigm shift in our civilization—at the level of our cosmology, which is the container for everything else. A cosmology is that within which all of a culture’s assumptions and activities take place. The biggest paradigm shift was the Copernican Revolution. As you know, we got the term paradigm shift from Thomas Kuhn, who focused on understanding the Copernican Revolution and then branched out to look at many more scientific revolutions beyond that one. But it was the Copernican Revolution that shaped his vision of revolutionary science versus normal science and of how a paradigm shift takes place.

In 1968 and 1969, I took a course on the history of astronomy that Kuhn helped create some years before at Harvard when he was writing The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his earlier book, The Copernican Revolution. That was a major influence on my own thinking, and you can sort of see it as a spine within the narrative of The Passion of the Western Mind. When we look at the Copernican Revolution, we can see that really everything in the intellectual history of the West, even religious as well as scientific history, feeds into making the Copernican Revolution possible. It depends on Platonic and Pythagorean understandings and concepts, the Aristotelian development, and medieval scholasticism. Christianity plays a crucial role, and not just as an opponent, which is the popular myth—you know, Galileo versus the Catholic Church.

In fact, the Catholic Church was very supportive of Copernicus. He ran into no difficulties during his life and was supported by the Church in a number of ways. But more than that, in the course of the Middle Ages, the Church started the most powerful engine of education of the human mind and a cultivation of critical reason on the largest scale that had ever been achieved. That was the whole scholasticism phenomenon, with the founding of universities, and it was those developments that made possible the Copernican Revolution. All those things led to it. Afterward, we see how many things lead out of it—the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the radical change in our understanding of the human being’s place in the cosmos in which the earth is now a planet. It deconstructs and moves the old, sacred hierarchy of a cosmic womb within which the earth was imbedded to a new universe with new structures that eventually lead us to the disenchanted universe of mainstream modern understanding.

A big question here is why did the Copernican Revolution happen in the sixteenth century, with Copernicus himself, and in the early seventeenth century, with Kepler and Galileo. Why did it take until then, when a number of people prior to Copernicus had hypothesized the heliocentric universe and a planetary earth? There’s evidence of this being proposed among the ancient Greeks and in India and Islamic cultures during the European Middle Ages. I think this question shows the extent to which a major paradigm shift depends on more than just some additional empirical data and more than just a brilliant new theory using a new concept. It really depends on a much larger context so that the seed of a potentially powerful idea falls on a whole different soil, out of which this organism, this new conceptual framework, can grow—literally a “conception” in a new cultural and historical womb or matrix.

In this case, the Copernican Revolution depended on both a new image of the human self, as far more autonomous and individual, and a new confidence in human reason, as not only illuminated by the divine mind but also able itself to engage in understanding reality in a very effective way. It depended on the recovery of the Platonic tradition at the time of the Renaissance, which wasn’t available during much of the Middle Ages, largely because translations were not available. So, for all those reasons, a major a new set of factors are at work. The recovery of old manuscripts, the new sense of intellectual confidence and individualism, and the Reformation are happening at the exact same time that Copernicus is having his breakthrough. Luther is also having his breakthrough in the theological sphere, Leonardo and Michelangelo are creating their masterworks, and literacy is spreading with the printing press. It’s a time of tremendous collective Promethean creativity.

The point I want to emphasize here is that a new paradigm, a new scientific understanding—or even a new philosophical or religious paradigm—that informs an entire civilization can only take place when it fits the larger archetypal dynamic of the culture at that time, otherwise it will not take hold and spread. It won’t become viral, to use a very twenty-first century term.

Radin: What do you mean in this context by an archetype?

Tarnas: Well, the term comes out of the Platonic tradition. Plato had the understanding that everything we see in our sensory experience and the empirical world receives its qualities from an archetypal dimension. To give the classic example: anything that is beautiful—a person, an experience, a flower, a work of music—is beautiful to the precise extent that it participates in archetypal beauty, which Plato saw as the timeless principle of Beauty itself, with a capital B.

It’s clear from Plato’s own words, in one of his letters, that he had some powerful experience or experiences—perhaps related to the ancient mysteries or mystery religions—that gave him reason to believe that this archetypal reality was an eternal dimension that transcended and informed this world. This archetypal reality had greater reality than what we normally experience as reality in the light of common day. Plato gave the analogy of a person breaking out of a cave and discovering that what he thought of as reality turns out to be shadows. The actual light that is creating shadows on the wall of the cave turns out to be this archetypal dimension.

Ironically, as a result of the Copernican Revolution and many other impulses at work in the modern mind, the Platonic conviction of a transcendent reality was destroyed. We came to see this world as the concrete reality, without any other dimension that would serve as a spiritual, transcendent locus of all its meanings and purposes and so forth. We were left with “what we see is what we get.”

Now when depth psychology emerges—a hundred years ago—Carl Jung reclaims the term archetype because he sees archetypes at work in people’s psychological experience—in their dreams, in their visions, in the unconscious, as the recently published Red Book reveals. More generally, he saw it in the psychological phenomena of human experience, whether in a person’s artistic expressions, dreams, or psychopathological phenomena. Jung believed that these enduring forms that structure the human psyche, which he called archetypes, were the fundamental structural principles of human experience and the human psyche. He wouldn’t say, however, that they are the fundamental principles of the world, of reality itself.

Jung argued that all of our experience is ultimately psychologically shaped. So seeing these archetypes empirically within the human psyche, as when people have experiences of gods and goddesses or of God or other numinous qualities, doesn’t mean that gods and goddesses or God actually exist in the way that another time would have assumed. They might. But Jung said he couldn’t conclude that on the basis of these experiences people have. He could only conclude that these archetypal factors are fundamental to the human being but couldn’t tell whether they transcend the human psyche.

However, in the later years of his life, Jung fully developed something he’d been noticing through much of his adult life, the phenomenon of synchronicity. He noticed that external events could happen that perfectly reflect with great coincidental force what is going on internally in a person’s psyche at that time. It was as if there were some orchestrating factor, something that was bringing the inner and the outer worlds into a coincidental correlation that could be so significant in meaning that it could act like a paradigm shift for them. They could feel as though suddenly they’d moved away from a reality where their experiences, their sufferings, and so on were more or less accidental phenomena and toward a sense that some ordering principle was at work, that something seems to be paying attention to them and their inner life. Often these synchronicities would give a person a sense of being rooted in a meaningful reality that could help shape the direction of the person’s life.

With innumerable cases and examples of these synchronicities in his files and in his own experience, Jung labored to formulate an understanding of synchronicities that basically opened up the notion of archetypes to represent something larger. He saw archetypes in some way informing the outer world as well as the inner world, matter as well as spirit or psyche. In that sense, Jung made a crucial move out of the kind of dualistic prison of the conventional modern mind we all were educated to believe, which is that we are all purposeful, personal, conscious selves who exist in a universe that is basically impersonal, unconscious, and lacks any intrinsic purpose or meaning. And that contradiction between inner and outer—human self, psyche, on the one hand, and a randomly evolving, material universe, on the other—is a great paradox, a challenge for us to root our spiritual aspirations in a coherent, meaningful universe. Jung’s notion of synchronicity took a major step toward breaking out of that prison and into something approaching what the ancients called an anima mundi, a sense of the world being ensouled—or enchanted, as you used the term at the beginning of our conversation.

Radin: What is then the relationship between the participatory universe, as it was originally imagined, and the archetype? Is the archetype something that you participate with, or does it participate you, in a sense?

Tarnas: Well, the words participate and participatory are complicated. They actually come into Western philosophy through the Platonic tradition, in the way that we were talking about earlier—that the individual participates in the archetypal realm. For example, a young girl becomes a mature woman and may then become a mother. When she does so, she is participating in the archetypal Mother. From this point of view, the Great Mother Goddess has, in some sense, manifested in her. This view of participation, coming out of the mythic and Platonic traditions, is a source for how we use the word participate today. But of course, now we have a whole range of ways in which we use that term.

About a decade ago, the Fetzer Institute held a conference entirely devoted to the notion of participation, and I gave a small lecture on the twenty or so different meanings of the word participatory. For example, participatory democracy, or participation of all the voices that can be marginalized in a culture, represents more of the social-political dimension of participation. But we also have an epistemological notion of participation, which is crucial to your question, because one of the great advances that has been made, in the last hundred years in particular although it has earlier roots, is the idea that the reality we see and experience and know is a reality that is cocreated by our own subjectivity. In that sense, we are participating in the world that we are, that we know. We’re not removed spectators, who are simply registering a fully objective world. The world is in profound ways unfolding and being shaped by the very assumptions, principles, and nature of the knowing apparatus that is engaging reality. And so, in that sense, we are participating in the reality we seek to know, and that allows us a sense of responsibility as well as empowerment for the world that we create. In other words, the assumptions that we engage the universe with will affect the universe that reveals itself.

To return to the notion of archetypes and synchronicities and to make a link to Cosmos and Psyche, one of the great astonishments of my life came out of work Stanislav Grof and I started in the mid 1970s when we were at Esalen.

Stan was the scholar-in-residence there, and I eventually became the director of programs. We were very interested in how to understand the radical paradigm shifts individuals go through in their psychological life, particularly because Stan had done a lot of work using psychoactive substances, starting in the 1950s in Prague and then again with the National Institute of Mental Health here in the United States. He was particularly fascinated by this riddle, how to understand the fact that two people could take the exact same substance, the exact same amount, yet have such radically different experiences. One person could have the experience of spiritual unity and euphoric mystical transcendence, while another person who had taken the exact same substance and quantity could have an experience of metaphysical panic or a whole other wide range of experiences. In the different clinics Stan had worked in, they had tried all these different standard psychological tests—such as the MMPI, the Rorschach, or the Thematic Apperception Test—but none of them had any predictive value in this context.

Jung opened up another possibility with his conviction that astrology provided a window into understanding the qualitative dimension of time. That is, that time isn’t just quantitative, going minute by minute, day by day, in a neutral way, but that it also has a qualitative dimension. In Jung’s experience, the qualitative dimension of time seemed to be mysteriously connected to the movements of the planets and the sun and our moon with respect to the earth.

Astrology was pretty much the last new age or ancient esoteric perspective that Stan or I could take seriously, but we decided to explore it. To our astonishment, we found that indeed the movements of the planets with respect to individuals’ birth charts—that is, where the planets were at the time the person was born—had a powerful relationship to the kinds of experiences they had at that time. When understood using the symbolic interpretative principles inherited from thousands of years of astrological tradition, the planetary movements turned out to have tremendous predictive value in understanding both the archetypal character of the experience and its timing.

We already had very good records of many people’s psychedelic experiences, so I began there. But as I continued to extend the research, I started looking at the transits—that is, the planetary movements in relation to a person’s birth chart—that major cultural figures had at critical moments in their lives: that Galileo had when he turned the telescope to the heavens, that Newton had when he wrote his Principia, that Rosa Parks had when she refused to get up from her seat on the bus and helped to catalyze the civil rights movement, and so forth. And to my continuing wonder, with great precision and consistency, there was a correlation. I hasten to add: not a correlation that suggested astrology was concretely predictive, but rather that pointed toward its being archetypally predictive. It suggested what overall qualitative traits or characteristics would be present in the field of either an individual or a collective looking at the overall world transits. This turned out to be very illuminating, and eventually I wrote Cosmos and Psyche to give an overview of the larger paradigm shifts and qualitative dimensions of the sequence of eras in world history.

So, there you have a kind of opening up of our understanding of not only the archetypal dimension but also the quality of time and the openness or the susceptibility to major transformations of consciousness that can exist in an individual at a particular time or in the collective at a particular time.

Radin: On a collective scale, the likelihood that something would happen now seems to be quite big. So, given where we are now and lots of interest about 2012 and changes in the world economic and political structures, can you give us a glimpse of where you see these trends pushing us in the future, the near future?

Tarnas: Well, there is a fundamental principle of uncertainty or indeterminacy that is as true for this perspective as it is for quantum physics. That being said, we can definitely see certain major patterns at work. For example, we saw this tremendous upheaval and transformation and liberation of the Egyptian people, yet it is clearly not something happening for this one country but seems to be part of a whole wave. I think on the first of January 2011, there was a BBC story about twenty-five different countries that were undergoing massive demonstrations, strikes, revolts, that type of phenomena. This is the same kind of energy that has happened and been visible in other eras.

Right now we are going through an approximately fifteen-year world transit involving Uranus and Pluto coming into a significant alignment. This is the first such alignment since the 1960s, when they were in conjunction from 1960 to 1972. If you look systematically in history at every time these two bodies, Uranus and Pluto, come into a conjunction, an opposition, or a ninety-degree square alignment, it’s with great consistency that there is a very powerful, mass insurgence of emancipatory and creative energies in the collective psyche, which express themselves typically in a great deal of social and political turmoil and ferment through impulses toward reform and liberation. Scientific and technological advances tend to be sharply increased. There can also be a kind of mass will to power with a shadow dimension to it as well. No moral vector is pre-given. That’s up in the air. This is where participation is required. How we shape or inflect these energies is absolutely critical. It’s not that something is just pre-given by the cosmos.

I believe in many ways that the reengagement with an anima mundi, or with these powerful forces that astrology helps illuminate, is coming into our consciousness in the modern period—after a sufficiently robust, autonomous self has been established and very painstakingly forged over the centuries. Now we’re in a position to relate to these powerful energies, to make them more conscious, intelligently. With greater moral direction, we can shape the expression of these energies to be more life enhancing rather than problematic.

But this is hardly doing justice to your question. Over the next decade, this particular archetypal complex will be very potent, and I believe we will continue to see very significant impulses at work at every level, social, political—radical change, faster often than even the change makers can control or at times wish for. There is also typically quite strong feminist, civil rights, and democratizing impulses at work as well as more general creative drives that are enhanced and accelerated. So that’s one very large archetypal dynamic that’s at work in the collective psyche.

I think there are even larger trends that are coming to a head now in this several-year period that we are in the midst of. But since we don’t have the time now to explore them, I encourage those who are interested to read an article I wrote summing up the current world transits for the 2000 to 2020 period. It’s available as a free download at the website for Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology. We also have an archetypal research collective here in the Bay Area, about eighty individuals who are doing research, much of which is being published in Archai.

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    mjvanburen Jan 04, 2012

    Fascinating discussion, with many possibilities for further exploration. I have not read Cosmos & Psyche, and hope to find it summarizes the research linking astrology and individual experiences as well as world events. I have found astrology a "guilty pleasure," useful in my own self-understanding, but not something I can defend as reasonable.

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    rogelio Jan 04, 2012

    Having read this article, I'm wondering why Dr. Tarnas didn't explore a deeper correlation between the Paradigm Shift and "Consciousness" as the catalyst seeing that he is also the foundtng director...But I admit to having enjoyed it.

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    stevew Jan 08, 2012

    While this is not the focus of the article, its comments about the Catholic Church and Copernicus are potentially misleading. This is a very long story, which I will attempt to briefly summarize. Copernicus was a church official for most of his life (his "day job"). But, while he had written a short summary (much transcribed and circulated) of his astronomical conclusions, he never actually published them until much later, until shortly before his death. (He corrected the page proofs of "De Revolutionibus" in stages, but legend has it that the last batch reached him on his deathbed.) Thus the Church was unaware of his heliocentric theory during his life. Copernicus was very much an observational astronomer, and his observations, contained in De Revolutionibus, were used by the Church in a very essential way in determining the actual length of the year and in its calendrical reform (replacing the Julian by the Gregorian calendar). This put the Church in a bit of a difficult position when the heliocentric theory, which it unequivocally condemned, came to its attention, but nevertheless De Revolutionibus was placed on the Church's Index of Prohibited Books, though it was not actually prohibited, like most of the books on the Index, but rather suspended, until its deficiencies could be remedied.

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    stevew Jan 08, 2012

    This is in the main a thoughtful and thought-provoking article, but is marred by its descent into astrology, which calls into severe question the rest of its conclusions. (If somebody tells you two things, one of which you would have to think about, and the other of which is pure nonsense, it is only rational for you to give his views on the potentially reasonable one little weight.)

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    EDinWAState Jan 13, 2012

    Thought provoking and stimulating discussion.
    @stevew, Are you judging the authors opinions or his research? You may hold opinions based on religious or philosophical principles that others, including myself, would deem pure nonsense. However, until you actually do the research yourself, how can you pass judgment on his findings concerning the apparent synchronisity of paradigm shifts between culture and astrology? The correlations do exist whether you wish to believe it or not. Notice that the author did not claim that astrology is a hard and fast rule.

    You may be brilliant at your "Day Job" so, according to your logic, I should dismiss everything you do and say because you deny the findings of Richard Tarnas? I think not.

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