Beyond the Post-Modern Mind brings together thirteen essays that examine our current postmodern predicament in the West. Huston Smith describes the book as an effort "to step outside our current Western outlook to see it in perspective." Smith has a magisterial command of the central religious and philosophical issues of our time, a firm grasp of the existential implications of recent developments in science, as well as a wonderfully engaging approach to his subject.
As he sees it, the Western worldview has its roots in the Graeco-Roman, or classical, outlook, which flourished up to the 4th century A.D. With the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire, this outlook was replaced by the Christian worldview which proceeded to dominate Europe until the 17th century. The rise of modern science ushered in the modern outlook which has, until the latter half of the 20th century, held sway in the West.
Smith observes that although the modern mind took its cues from the Enlightenment, 20th century science has moved beyond the worldview of Newton and Descartes. "Contemporary science has crashed through the cosmology which the 17th-to-19th century scientists constructed as if through a sound barrier, leaving us without replacement," he writes. "The absence of a new cosmology is due to the fact that physics has cut away so radically from our capacity to imagine the way things are that we do not see how the two can get back together." He quotes a striking comment by Harvard's P.W. Bridgman: "The structure of nature may eventually be such that our processes of thought do not correspond to it sufficiently to permit us to think about it at all."
The postmodern predicament, as Smith defines it, is one in which we no longer believe that reality is personal and ordered in a way that reason can comprehend. Unlike both the modern mind, which assumed that reality is objectively ordered, and the Christian mind, which assumed it to be regulated by God's will, the postmodern mind eschews all belief in an embracing outlook. While it acknowledges the validity of partial truths, socially constructed narratives, and "situated" knowledge, it is fundamentally "blurred and amorphous." "There are merits in seeing things this way," Smith says, "the obvious one being the tolerance which, on the surface at least it seems to augur. If there is no reality in the singular but only realities, each sponsored by its respective society, these multiple realities would seem to be on an equal footing and therefore deserving of equal respect. Beneath this genial view, though, lurk problems which can be gathered under an inclusive head: the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of multiplicity." Ultimately, he says, postmodernism may turn out to be a transitional phase. "A meaningful life is not finally possible in a meaningless world. It is provisionally possible — there can be a temporary standoff between self and world — but finally it is not possible."
If postmodernism turns out to be provisional, as Smith believes, then what lies beyond it is most likely a return to what he calls the "perennial philosophy" — an outlook which "in its broad outlines is carried in the bloodstream of the human race." Aldous Huxley, in his classic 1945 anthology on the subject, defined it as "the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being." This, Smith says, is the philosophy of the "human majority." No culture save our own has disjoined the individual from the world, life from what is presumed to be nonlife, in the alienating way that we have.
If the modern mind is characterized by a loss of faith in transcendence and a sense of the sacred, in a reality that encompasses but surpasses our quotidian affairs, and the postmodern mind is rooted in a rejection of that worldview, then what lies "beyond the postmodern mind" can only be an attempt to reestablish our link with the primordial tradition and embrace a more expansive view of ourselves and our place in nature, one that leaves room for transcendence and for the ageless insights of the perennial philosophy. Science can still play an important role in this new epistemology, but it will no longer be seen as the ultimate source of authority. Since science has no place for intrinsic and normative values, for purposes, for quality, and for ultimate and existential meanings, the view of the world it gives us is inherently limited and partial.
Some of the most interesting essays in this collection deal with the turn in recent years toward deconstructive postmodernism in philosophy and the humanities. Smith points out that contemporary social philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Jurgen Habermas, and Hans-Georg Gadamer recognize that philosophy can no longer address itself chiefly to the problems of science, to metaphysics, or to politics. But their turn to social science, or to what Smith refers to as "social holism" — to collective predicaments, cultural-linguistic wholes, and the realization that thinking is invariably "situated" — also turns out to be problematic. There is no court of appeal for adjudicating the various claims to truth when reality is conceived in terms of "narratives" or socially constructed realities. This perspective is at best a "way-station on philosophy's sojourn," he says. "The roots of thinking do not stop with collectivities. They extend deeper into soil that human collectivities share in common."
There is a good deal of repetition in these essays. It is to be expected, perhaps, given that all but one of the pieces (Chapter 11, "Beyond Postmodernism") were originally delivered as lectures or previously published. The fact that some extended quotes crop us as many as three times and that many of the themes are repeated over and over is a bit irritating. But otherwise this is an excellent book. Like Richard Tarnas's masterful intellectual history, The Passion of the Western Mind, or Brian Appleyard's recent Understanding the Present, which describes our current infatuation with science as a Faustian bargain, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind is one of those rare books which not only helps us to make sense of our conflicted moment in history but also points to a way forward that speaks to the highest in us.
Copyright 2003 by Scott London. All rights reserved.