Richard Tarnas is author of the acclaimed book, "The Passion of The Western Mind' which describes the transition from one world view to another. Mythologist Joseph Campbell said this book is the "most lucid and concise presentation of the grand lines of what every student should know about history."
DiCarlo: In the Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield, there is a sentence that reads, "History is not just the evolution of technology; it is the evolution of thought. By understanding the reality of the people who came before us, we can see why we look at the world the way we do, and what our contribution is toward further progress. We can pinpoint where we come in so to speak, in the longer development of Civilization, and that gives us a sense of where we are going." Would you care to comment upon that in terms of your book, The Passion of the Western Mind??
Tarnas: The Passion of The Western Mind is a history of Western thought from the ancient Greeks to the postmodern period. I had several different motives in writing the book but one of the motives was this: if we are to understand where we are now in our history, if we are to understand our moment in history and where we are potentially going in the future, we need to know what brought us to this point. That means recovering the sources of our world and our world view. I think the two go together. A world view has a tremendous influence in configuring the way the world turns out to be. The way we approach reality will influence the kind of reality we create. It's very important to know what are the basic principles and presuppositions in our world view because they will go a long way towards revealing how our world has been constellated. A big motive in writing the book was to understand all the different impulses and strands of thought and cultural influences that have gone into creating the way we look at the world and the way our world has come to be in our time.
One of the paradoxes of the Western intellectual tradition is that though it is seen at any given point as "a tradition" and therefore a tradition of conservative elders with an established, authoritarian and therefore potentially oppressive, or stodgy or too traditional character-in fact the major thinkers who have made up that tradition have all been counter-cultural rebels and revolutionaries in their own time, whether we are talking about Socrates, Descartes, Galileo, Nietzsche, or Freud. The rebel in one generation becomes the ruler in a later generation, just as, archetypally speaking, the son becomes the father. We see in the West's whole evolution that we are in many ways deeply informed by this tradition, even when we are rebelling against it. The very principle of critical response to an intellectual tradition is absolutely basic to our Western tradition. Even at the moment we rebel against it, we are fulfilling this grand tradition.
One other general point I might make here: The Western intellectual and spiritual tradition, up until this generation, has been a patrilineal tradition. For the most part it's been constituted by men, who were usually writing for other men. This has had a great influence on the nature of the Western mind and the nature of the Western world view. It has tremendously affected our understanding of the human being, of the relationship of the human being to the world. It's affected our understanding of the divine and the human being's relationship to the divine. It's had a radical influence on our history.
DiCarlo: How would you define a world view? If we are to say that a world view is a paradigm, are there different paradigms for different fields, such as a scientific paradigm let's say, or is there an over-arching, meta-paradigm that is perhaps more basic, and upon which the others are constructed?
Tarnas: I think there are different levels of paradigms. A world view, which is the most general level, is a set of values, of conceptual structures, of implicit assumptions or pre-suppositions about the nature of reality-about human beings, about the nature of the relationship between human beings and nature, about history, the divine, the cosmos- which constellate an entire culture's way of being and acting. There are many levels to a world view, many inflections to it and many ways it can be differentiated. So for example, there can be a general scientific paradigm which is allied with and in some ways reflective of this larger cultural world view. There is a give-and-take relationship between the two. It's not a one way street. Scientific paradigms can affect the cultural world view, but also, the cultural world view can go through shifts such as it is right now, which will in turn affect scientists and how they go about doing their work and how they go about making sense of reality. So it goes both ways.
Not only is there a scientific paradigm, there are many scientific paradigms. There's a different paradigm, say, operative in evolutionary biology than there is in quantum physics or depth psychology. All of these have claimed to be scientific paradigms, and they may have a more or less conscious relationship with each other, but they are all scientific paradigms. Even within each field, such as depth psychology, or quantum physics, there may be several paradigms within that discipline. For example, there are eight different paradigms of reality in quantum physics that are currently in the arena of discussion. So there can be many different paradigms even within a given field.
I would suggest that at any given time in a culture, in a civilization's history, there is usually one overarching meta-paradigm that underlies all the rest and that affects all the rest and is in a reciprocal relationship to all the "sub-paradigms," let's say, which can be active in science, religion, philosophy and so forth.
DiCarlo: How do world views change?
Tarnas: Many factors are involved in a world-view shift. I believe that you can never say that it's a specific rational or empirical factor that shifts a world view. For example, let's say new data comes in through a new scientific instrument, such as the telescope, which revealed the heavens in a new way through Galileo's interpretations and helped bring about the Copernican revolution. I would say that, generally speaking, it's never an exclusively empirical or rational process. Many factors converge to make possible the world-view shift. There are sociological changes that take place and make it possible, including things like the death of old-paradigm thinkers in a given field. As they die, their authoritative views disappear with them and the younger thinkers in the field bring with them a more flexible perspective that hasn't had a life-long investment in a given world view. As a result, what is purely a matter of sociology and demographics has an influence on the cultural world view. There can also be shifts in the religious and psychological orientation of a culture which bring about a shift in world view. There are so many factors that go into it.
For example, in the Copernican revolution, there seems to have been a kind of vast psychological shift that occurred in 15th century Italy, that we now regard as the Humanist Renaissance. This brought with it a certain sense of the world as being numinously alive with divine order and meaning. This helped to create a context within which Copernicus and Kepler's thinking could develop in such as way that the Copernican revolution was made possible. It included the mathematization of the world, the spiritual exaltation of the sun, and the idea that the cosmos could be best understood as the emanation of a divine intelligence whose language was one of supremely beautiful, mathematical order. These are basic presuppositions that were in the air in Renaissance Italy that affected Copernicus, Kepler, and later Galileo, Newton, and Descartes in such a way that the entire Scientific Revolution was deeply influenced by what many scientists would consider non-scientific factors.
So many factors go into a world-view change. Personally, I believe that world views change when the archetypal configuration of the collective psyche-or the collective unconscious, to use Carl Jung's term- goes through some fundamental shift. That shift is only partly responsive to human free will. To a great extent it takes place with a certain autonomous, organic power that we as human beings participate in, and are influenced by. Certainly we are not entirely in charge of this process, although I think we play a crucial role and have a crucial responsibility for its unfolding.
DiCarlo: So there's a shift that takes place at what we would refer to as the unconscious level of the psyche-although unconscious is a misleading term since it is unconscious only in the sense that we are not yet directly aware of these levels-that sort of percolates up to the level of conscious, normal everyday awareness?
Tarnas: That's right.
DiCarlo: Now you've mentioned that a world view would not likely shift simply as a result of the taking in of new scientific data. Expanding on that thought, would you say that a person's world view might change by reading a book, let's say on quantum physics, which might cause them to revise their thoughts on a subject. Must such a shift in world view be preceded in some way by a personal experience which reveals to them that "things are not the way they seem?"
Tarnas: I don't think it necessarily has to be preceded by an experience like that, because sometimes reading a book on quantum physics or on Eastern mysticism can itself suddenly precipitate a shift. But I believe a shift in the individual person's world view can happen only when there has been a certain development-however hidden it may have been-that has brought that person to a point of preparedness, or readiness, or ripeness. In this sense, the book serves as sort of an activating trigger or impulse.
The book itself can play a major role in precipitating a shift in world view, but that shift is not just a purely intellectual process. In a way, I think it is a moment of grace that uses the book as the efficient cause, but ultimately, it was something that person was ready for. He or she was ready to be drawn forth in that way, ready to be led forth. The original meaning of education was "to be led out from within"-to have one's own truth be led out from within by skillful teaching. In that sense, education, or a change in a world view is never something that can be simply imposed from without or that takes place simply due to instruction by an external person or book. It is something inside that is ready to emerge, ready to be born within the individual's consciousness.
DiCarlo: In his ground-breaking work on paradigm shifts, Thomas Kuhn goes so far as to say that a shift in world view is actually a conversion experience. Why is it so profound, seeming to affect an individual at their very core?
Tarnas: A world-view shift is something that reflects a very profound archetypal dynamic in the psyche whereby one goes through what closely resembles a perinatal process-a birth process. One has been within a "womb," that is, a matrix of thought, a conceptual matrix, a conceptual womb for quite a while. You've developed within it, you've seen the world by means of it, and you have gotten more and more developed, complex, large, differentiated, until that conceptual matrix is no longer large enough to contain your evolving mind. It becomes seen as a problem, or constriction. It is seen as something to be overcome and a crisis is created. In the course of a very critical period of transition, of tension, of deconstruction, of disorientation, a sudden new birth is precipitated into a new conceptual matrix. There is a sudden revelation of a new Universe, which seems to open up. I think that this experience of a shift in a world view is such that one in many ways has re-experienced one's own birth on an intellectual level. It involves this very deep archetypal death and re-birth process. So whether it's a shift in a world view or a religious conversion experience, both participate in this larger perinatal sequence, this archetypal dialectic, which I believe underlies what Kuhn calls "the structure of scientific revolution" and which underlies radical spiritual transformations, such as what St. John of the Cross called "The Dark Night of The Soul" and experiences of spiritual rebirth. A similar death-rebirth process can be recognized in the dissolution of the communist empire in eastern Europe and the sudden euphoric birth after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It can manifest in many different ways.