The “Modern Western Mindset”?

The “Modern Western Mindset”? July 13, 2019


At home in the cosmos
A Wikimedia Commons public domain image


My late friend Huston Smith (1919-2016), whom I first met when he was retired from a career of teaching at Washington University in St. Louis (1947-1958), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1958-1973) and Syracuse University (1973-1983) and was serving as a visiting professor of Religious Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a number of books.  I quote from one of them about what he sometimes called the “Modern Western Mindset”:


The clue to it can be stated in a single sentence: An epistemology that aims relentlessly at control rules out the possibility of transcendence in principle.  By transcendence I mean something that is better than we are by every measure of value we know and some that elude us.  To expect a transcendental object to appear on a viewing screen wired by an epistemology that aims at control would be tantamount to expecting the melody as well as the lyrics of a song to issue from a typewriter.  We can “put nature on the rack,” as Bacon advised, because it is inferior to us; possessing (in its elemental parts at least) neither mind nor freedom in the genuine sense, these parts can be pushed around.  But if things that are superior to us exist, they are not going to fit into our controlled experiments, any more than self-consciousness or advanced forms of abstract thinking would fit into (and hence be brought to light by) experiments woodchucks hypothetically might devise.  It being as impossible for us to acquire “effective knowledge” over them as it is to nail a drop of mercury with our thumb, an epistemology that drives single-mindedly toward effective knowledge is not going to allow transcendent realities to exist.

(Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, updated and revised edition [Wheaton, Madras, and London: Quest Books, 1989], 200 [italics in the original])


It is usually said that the Copernican revolution humbled man by displacing him from the center of the universe, but this spatial dislodgement was nothing compared with the arrogance that followed in its wake, the arrogance of assuming that nothing exists that quite equals ourselves.  For is it not we who ride the crest of evolution’s advance?  And what source of worth is there save evolution?  For the MWM [the “Modern Western Mindset”] the question is rhetorical.  

(Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, 208)


[W]orldviews arise from epistemologies, which in turn are generated by the motivations that control them.

(Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, 197)



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