The Double Bind of Modern Consciousness

By Richard Tarnas

In a narrow sense, the Copernican revolution can be understood as simply a specific paradigm shift in modern astronomy and cosmology, initiated by Copernicus, established by Kepler and Galileo, and completed by Newton. Yet the Copernican revolution can also be understood in a much wider and more significant sense. For when Copernicus recognized that the Earth was not the absolute fixed center of the universe, and, equally important, when he recognized that the movement of the heavens could be explained in terms of the movement of the observer, he brought forth what was perhaps the pivotal insight of the modern mind. The Copernican shift of perspective can be seen as a fundamental metaphor for the entire modern world view: the profound deconstruction of the naive understanding, the critical recognition that the apparent condition of the objective world was unconsciously determined by the condition of the subject, the consequent liberation from the ancient and medieval cosmic womb, the radical displacement of the human being to a relative and peripheral position in a vast and impersonal universe, the ensuing disenchantment of the natural world. In this broadest sense–as an event that took place not only in astronomy and the sciences but in philosophy and religion and in the collective human psyche–the Copernican revolution can be seen as constituting the epochal shift of the modern age. It was a primordial event, world-destroying and world-constituting.

In philosophy and epistemology, this larger Copernican revolution took place in the dramatic series of intellectual advances that began with Descartes and culminated in Kant. It has been said that Descartes and Kant were both inevitable in the development of the modern mind, and I believe this is correct. For it was Descartes who first fully grasped and articulated the experience of the emerging autonomous modern self as being fundamentally distinct and separate from an objective external world that it seeks to understand and master. Descartes “woke up in a Copernican universe” after Copernicus, humankind was on its own in the universe, its cosmic place irrevocably relativized. Descartes then drew out and expressed in philosophical terms the experiential consequence of that new cosmological context, starting from a position of fundamental doubt vis-a-vis the world, and ending in the cogito. In doing this, he set into motion a train of philosophical events–leading from Locke to Berkeley and Hume and culminating in Kant–that eventually produced a great epistemological crisis. Descartes was in this sense the crucial midpoint between Copernicus and Kant, between the Copernican revolution in cosmology and the Copernican revolution in epistemology.

For if the human mind was in some sense fundamentally distinct and different from the external world, and if the only reality that the human mind had direct access to was its own experience, then the world apprehended by the mind was ultimately only the mind’s interpretation of the world. Human knowledge of reality had to be forever incommensurate with its goal, for there was no guarantee that the human mind could ever accurately mirror a world with which its connection was so indirect and mediated. Instead, everything that this mind could perceive and judge would be to some undefined extent determined by its own character, its own subjective structures. The mind could experience only phenomena, not things-in-themselves; appearances, not an independent reality. In the modern universe, the human mind was on its own.

Thus Kant, building on his empiricist predecessors, drew out the epistemological consequences of the Cartesian cogito. Of course Kant himself set forth cognitive principles, subjective structures, that he thought were absolute–the a priori forms and categories–on the basis of the apparent certainties of Newtonian physics. As time passed, however, what endured from Kant was not the specifics of his solution but rather the profound problem he articulated. For Kant had drawn attention to the crucial fact that all human knowledge is interpretive. The human mind can claim no direct mirrorlike knowledge of the objective world, for the object it experiences has already been structured by the subject’s own internal organization. The human being knows not the world-in-itself but rather the world-as-rendered-by-the-human-mind. Thus Descartes’s ontological schism was both made more absolute and superseded by Kant’s epistemological schism. The gap between subject and object could not be certifiably bridged. From the Cartesian premise came the Kantian result.

In the subsequent evolution of the modern mind, each of these fundamental shifts, which I am associating here symbolically with the figures of Copernicus, Descartes, and Kant, has been sustained, extended, and pressed to its extreme. Thus Copernicus’s radical displacement of the human being from the cosmic center was emphatically reinforced and intensified by Darwin’s relativization of the human being in the flux of evolution–no longer divinely ordained, no longer absolute and secure, no longer the crown of creation, the favored child of the universe, but rather just one more ephemeral species. Placed in the vastly expanded cosmos of modern astronomy, the human being now spins adrift, once the noble center of the cosmos, now an insignificant inhabitant of a tiny planet revolving around an undistinguished star–the familiar litany–at the edge of one galaxy among billions, in an indifferent and ultimately hostile universe.

In the same way, Descartes’s schism between the personal and conscious human subject and the impersonal and unconscious material universe was systematically ratified and augmented by the long procession of subsequent scientific developments, from Newtonian physics all the way to contemporary big-bang cosmology, black holes, quarks, W and Z particles, and grand unified superforce theories. The world revealed by modern science has been a world devoid of spiritual purpose, opaque, ruled by chance and necessity, without intrinsic meaning. The human soul has not felt at home in the modern cosmos: the soul can hold dear its poetry and its music, its private metaphysics and religion, but these find no certain foundation in the empirical universe.

And so too with the third of this trinity of modern alienation, the great schism established by Kant–and here we see the pivot of the shift from the modern to the postmodern. For Kant’s recognition of the human mind’s subjective ordering of reality, and thus, finally, the relative and unrooted nature of human knowledge, has been extended and deepened by a host of subsequent developments, from anthropology, linguistics, sociology of knowledge, and quantum physics to cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, semiotics, and philosophy of science; from Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, and Freud to Heisenberg, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, and Foucault. The consensus is decisive: The world is in some essential sense a construct. Human knowledge is radically interpretive. There are no perspective-independent facts. Every act of perception and cognition is contingent, mediated, situated, contextual, theory-soaked. Human language cannot establish its ground in an independent reality. Meaning is rendered by the mind and cannot be assumed to inhere in the object, in the world beyond the mind, for that world can never be contacted without having already been saturated by the mind’s own nature. That world cannot even be justifiably postulated. Radical uncertainty prevails, for in the end what one knows and experiences is to an indeterminate extent a projection.

Thus the cosmological estrangement of modern consciousness initiated by Copernicus and the ontological estrangement initiated by Descartes were completed by the epistemological estrangement initiated by Kant: a threefold mutually enforced prison of modern alienation.

I would like to point out here the striking resemblance between this state of affairs and the condition that Gregory Bateson famously described as the “double bind”: the impossibly problematic situation in which mutually contradictory demands eventually lead a person to become schizophrenic. In Bateson’s formulation, there were four basic premises necessary to constitute a double bind situation between a child and a “schizophrenogenic” mother: (1) The child’s relationship to the mother is one of vital dependency, thereby making it critical for the child to assess communications from the mother accurately. (2) The child receives contradictory or incompatible information from the mother at different levels, whereby, for example, her explicit verbal communication is fundamentally denied by the “metacommunication,” the nonverbal context in which the explicit message is conveyed (thus the mother who says to her child with hostile eyes and a rigid body, “Darling, you know I love you so much”). The two sets of signals cannot be understood as coherent. (3) The child is not given any opportunity to ask questions of the mother that would clarify the communication or resolve the contradiction. And (4) the child cannot leave the field, i.e., the relationship. In such circumstances, Bateson found, the child is forced to distort his or her perception of both outer and inner realities, with serious psychopathological consequences.

Now if we substitute in these four premises world for mother, and human being for child, we have the modern double bind in a nutshell: (1) The human being’s relationship to the world is one of vital dependency, thereby making it critical for the human being to assess the nature of that world accurately. (2) The human mind receives contradictory or incompatible information about its situation with respect to the world, whereby its inner psychological and spiritual sense of things is incoherent with the scientific metacommunication. (3) Epistemologically, the human mind cannot achieve direct communication with the world. 4) Existentially the human being cannot leave the field.

The differences between Bateson’s psychiatric double bind and the modern existential condition are more in degree than in kind: the modern condition is an extraordinarily encompassing and fundamental double bind, made less immediately conspicuous simply because it is so universal. We have the post-Copernican dilemma of being a peripheral and insignificant inhabitant of a vast cosmos, and the post-Cartesian dilemma of being a conscious, purposeful, and personal subject confronting an unconscious, purposeless, and impersonal universe, with these compounded by the post-Kantian dilemma of there being no possible means by which the human subject can know the universe in its essence. We are evolved from, embedded in, and defined by a reality that is radically alien to our own, and moreover cannot ever be directly contacted in cognition.

This double bind of modern consciousness has been recognized in one form or another since at least Pascal: “I am terrified by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces.” Our psychological and spiritual predispositions are absurdly at variance with the world revealed by our scientific method. We seem to receive two messages from our existential situation: on the one hand, strive, give oneself to the quest for meaning and spiritual fulfillment; but on the other hand, know that the universe, of whose substance we are derived, is entirely indifferent to that quest, soulless in character, and nullifying in its effects. We are at once aroused and crushed. For inexplicably, absurdly, the cosmos is inhuman, yet we are not. The situation is profoundly unintelligible.

If we follow Bateson’s diagnosis and apply it to the larger modern condition, it should not be surprising what kinds of response the modern psyche has made to this situation as it attempts to escape the double bind’s inherent contradictions. Either inner or outer realities tend to be distorted: inner feelings are repressed and denied, as in apathy and psychic numbing, or they are inflated in compensation, as in narcissism and egocentrism; or the outer world is slavishly submitted to as the only reality, or it is aggressively objectified and exploited. There is also the strategy of flight, through various forms of escapism: compulsive economic consumption, absorption in the mass media, faddism, cults, ideologies, nationalistic fervor, alcoholism, drug addiction. When avoidance mechanisms cannot be sustained, there is anxiety, paranoia, chronic hostility, a feeling of helpless victimization, a tendency to suspect all meanings, an impulse toward self-negation, a sense of purposelessness and absurdity, a feeling of irresolvable inner contradiction, a fragmenting of consciousness. And at the extreme, there are the full-blown psychopathological reactions of the schizophrenic: self-destructive violence, delusional states, massive amnesia, catatonia, automatism, mania, nihilism. The modern world knows each of these reactions in various combinations and compromise formations, and its social and political life is notoriously so determined.

Nor should it be surprising that twentieth-century philosophy finds itself in the condition we now see. Of course modern philosophy has brought forth some courageous intellectual responses to the post-Copernican situation, but by and large the philosophy that has dominated our century and our universities resembles nothing so much as a severe obsessive-compulsive sitting on his bed repeatedly tying and untying his shoes because he never quite gets it right–while in the meantime Socrates and Hegel and Aquinas are already high up the mountain on their hike, breathing the bracing alpine air, seeing new and unexpected vistas.

But there is one crucial way in which the modern situation is not identical to the psychiatric double bind, and this is the fact that the modern human being has not simply been a helpless child, but has actively engaged the world and pursued a specific strategy and mode of activity– a Promethean project of freeing itself from and controlling nature. The modern mind has demanded a specific type of interpretation of the world: its scientific method has required explanations of phenomena that are concretely predictive, and therefore impersonal, mechanistic, structural. To fulfill their purposes, these explanations of the universe have been systematically “cleansed” of all spiritual and human qualities. Of course we cannot be certain that the world is in fact what these explanations suggest. We can be certain only that the world is to an indeterminate extent susceptible to this way of interpretation. Kant’s insight is a sword that cuts two ways. Although on the one hand it appears to place the world beyond the grasp of the human mind, on the other hand it recognizes that the impersonal and soulless world of modern scientific cognition is not necessarily the whole story. Rather, that world is the only kind of story that for the past three centuries the Western mind has considered intellectually justifiable. In Ernest Gellner’s words, “It was Kant’s merit to see that this compulsion [for mechanistic impersonal explanations] is in us, not in things.” And “it was Weber’s to see that it is historically a specific kind of mind, not human mind as such, that is subject to this compulsion.”

Hence one crucial part of the modern double bind is not airtight. In the case of Bateson’s schizophrenogenic mother and child, the mother more or less holds all the cards, for she unilaterally controls the communication. But the lesson of Kant is that the locus of the communication problem–i.e., the problem of human knowledge of the world –must first be viewed as centering in the human mind, not in the world as such. Therefore it is theoretically possible that the human mind has more cards than it has been playing. The pivot of the modern predicament is epistemological, and it is here that we should look for an opening.

The above article is an excerpt from the epilogue of The Passion of the Western Mind. The entire epilogue is available, here.

Read a previously published review of the book, by Gaura-vijaya dasa, here.

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3 Responses to The Double Bind of Modern Consciousness

  1. What an amazing piece!
    It’s wonderful to read someone from inside the western academia who is able to see the causes and consequences of the “modern alienation” so clearly.

    It’s a nice point that he alludes to in the end of the article that to find solutions to the double bind of the modern man we have to go within ourselves instead of looking for external solutions.

  2. This article really sums up the insane existence humanity has embraced. The author really seems to powerfully feel the situation at hand. It took me to the edge of my seat. I suspect that what he has described may be the subconscious dilemma of the developed world.
    This one is one of the more obvious dilemmas:

    Our psychological and spiritual predispositions are absurdly at variance with the world revealed by our scientific method. We seem to receive two messages from our existential situation: on the one hand, strive, give oneself to the quest for meaning and spiritual fulfillment; but on the other hand, know that the universe, of whose substance we are derived, is entirely indifferent to that quest, soulless in character, and nullifying in its effects.

    The pivot of the modern predicament is epistemological, and it is here that we should look for an opening.

    The opening is descending knowledge. Go toward the light!

  3. “It was Kant’s merit to see that this compulsion [for mechanistic impersonal explanations] is in us, not in things.”

    This is the foundation of Kant’s critique of the rationalists (Descartes) and the empiricists (Hume). Descartes wanted to explain everything as matter in motion and Hume wanted to say there’s no such thing as a “first cause”, nor if there were, would we have any means to access it. Kant rescued both science and reason.

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