REVIEW ARTICLE: THE MIRROR OF CONSCIOUSNESS 1
Imprint Academic, PO Box 1, Thorverton, EX5 5YX, UK
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 5, No. 2, 1998, pp. 235–44
Out flew the
web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse has come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott. Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Building on the work of the Russian emigré sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, Glyn-Jones argues that the answer a society offers to the question ‘is there any reality other than the material world of experience, that we can see, hear, smell and touch?’ is an accurate portent of its social, moral and technological condition. Different civilizations throughout history have answered this question in a variety of ways, which Sorokin classified in a three-fold taxonomy. For societies which are dominated by belief in some other non-material world, ‘the purpose of life on earth is to obey the Unseen Powers’ (p.7). Whether the imperative is based on fear or adoration (awe being a combination of the two), the morality is strict and is firmly enforced by law. Sorokin classified ancient Greece (before the fifth century BC), and Europe during the early middle ages3 in this ‘ideational’ phase, and Glyn-Jones suggests that Khomeini’s Iran is an obvious modern example. In such societies, all knowledge is tested by reference to sacred books and traditions and low esteem is given to the evidence of the senses. Many non-Western civilizations would also fit the description, but fall outside the remit of this book.
Ideational civilizations have tended to hold sway only until the total dependency on unseen transcendental forces is moderated by a growing confidence in human abilities and a more relaxed view is taken to the enjoyment of the material world. The Unseen Powers are envisaged as more benign in their attitude towards human beings4 and the pursuit of happiness becomes an acceptable goal (but strictly in the context of the moral framework established by the transcendental world). Although the material world comes to be seen increasingly as a thing of beauty, to be valued for its own sake, it does not have any authority in the realm of morals and values. Sorokin called such societies ‘idealist’, and took Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, and pre-Renaissance Europe as typical examples.
Once the senses are accepted as a valid source of knowledge, the wisdom of sacred books and traditions comes into opposition with knowledge derived from the new empirical sources. The conflict between Galileo and the Papacy is an obvious example. As the benefits of ‘natural philosophy’, or science, become manifest, faith in the truths of revelation diminish, the ethical framework imposed by transcendental beliefs becomes increasingly irksome and dubious, and the pursuit of happiness becomes the dominant social goal. Sorokin coined the word ‘sensate’ to characterise such civilizations, and Glyn-Jones illustrates how Greece from the third century BC, Rome from the second century BC, and Europe and America from the eighteenth century exemplify the trend. The word ‘sensate’ should not be taken to mean simply a preoccupation with sensual satisfaction (although Glyn-Jones emphasises this aspect of ‘over-ripe’ sensate societies), but refers to the acknowledgement of the senses as the ultimate criterion of validity; knowledge must be tested by practical experiments, and thus the values of the physical world come to be all-important. I shall argue later on in this review that consciousness studies present a serious challenge to the materialist ontology of the sensate society.5
Sensate societies, so the argument goes, prove terminally unstable because rationality, unsupported by any form of transcendental authority, fails to provide a moral dynamic, despite the sincere efforts of Stoic, Epicurean, Rationalist, Utilitarian, Humanist and other moral philosophers who have through the ages sought to ground moral conduct in rational precepts disseminated through education. Lacking moral discipline, the sensate society’s goals of happiness and prosperity disintegrate into family breakdown, gender rancour and criminality to a degree which robs people both of personal security and, ultimately, prosperity; to which must be added a falling indigenous birth-rate. Historically, there comes a point at which the sensate society ceases to evolve, and is superseded, either by external conquest, or by internal repudiation, with a return to the repressive conditions of the ideational society.6
Glyn-Jones readily admits that this three-fold taxonomy is an oversimplification — nothing more than an ‘ideal type’. All societies exhibit ideational, idealist and sensate characteristics, and the transitional phases between these types are long and overlapping. And, it may be added, the link between religion, ethics, law, science and technology is a complex one and causal relationships are hard to establish. Sorokin argued that the arts are a useful barometer of the values of a society, and paid particular attention to painting — charting the movement towards naturalism as a sign of the development of sensate values. He argues that the seemingly crude art of primitive people is a deliberate attempt to be symbolic rather than representational. Christians have always had an abhorrence of idolatry (though they have not always agreed as to what this means) and the ikons of the early Byzantine church are designed to be a ‘window on the divine’ rather than a depiction of the physical world.
Glyn-Jones chose the theatre for her own study, partly, I suspect, due to her own time spent ‘treading the boards’ in repertory and on television, as part of a varied career which included working as a wartime telegraphist at one of Alan Turing’s Bletchley Park Y-Stations, and assisting Harold Macmillan in the writing of his memoirs. But she also agrees with Shakespeare that the theatre ‘holds up a mirror’ to society, and she charts the movement from the ideational to the sensate:
Sweeping ‘theories of everything’ are currently unfashionable in the history of ideas. Critical theory has introduced a robust scepticism into our attempt to understand modern texts, and is thus totally unsympathetic to the sort of hermeneutics this book depends upon.7 According to such theorists, the reader will simply impose his own viewpoint on the text: the role of the historian is simply to enjoy the ‘speech acts’ of dead authors. Glyn-Jones would probably argue that such extreme relativism is itself just a sign of an aberrant culture. But it is a weakness of the book that these concerns are nowhere addressed.
It also has to be said that most modern historians are nominalists and just as mistrustful of general theories as their literary colleagues. Books like this are too often gross simplifications by people who don’t know much history. While situations in history do bear comparison and similar patterns come up, the cycles of development are never quite the same. It is also the case that so much depends on what you care to pick out of history — people in the sixteenth century were doing a lot more than experiencing the Reformation! Even if one concentrates on the Church, the fact that people lived in 10,000 different parishes means, then as now, that religion was never a simple matter. Such criticisms have always been levelled at general theories, for example the controversy generated by the publication of Rousseau’s first Discourse. Critics pointed out that he had played fast and loose with a lot of his supporting evidence, to which Rousseau replied in his Letter to the Abbé Raynal that his aim had only been to put forward a general theory of the relationship between progress in science and the arts and moral decadence, rather than to trace the course of any particular set of events. However, the obvious retort would have to be that if the generalisation is found wanting in every particular case then it is invalid.
One good example of the need for scepticism is Glyn-Jones’ treatment of the Reformation. Judging by her portrayal of the unreformed church as corrupt, ineffective and unpopular, it’s clear that she has been reading historians of a Protestant persuasion. But a new generation of revisionist historians have painted an altogether different picture. Duffy (1992) argues that the English Reformation was imposed by a political elite on a largely unwilling populace — the unreformed church was alive and healthy in the English parishes (his book does not address any problems with the monastic traditions). If such a well-documented (and comparatively recent) event as the Reformation is open to such a range of interpretations, then how can we possibly hope to understand the mindset of classical civilizations?
But even if we leave such caveats aside for the moment, to what extent does the evidence she presents confirm her thesis? At the risk of abusing her own metaphor, the central question is ‘does our religious cosmology play an important causal role in the health and ultimate survival of a civilization or does it just mirror other factors?’ (in the military, economic and technological sphere). The social scientist can amass a wealth of correlation, but attempts to move beyond to some sort of causal model are notoriously perilous. For example, the development of scientific medicine is heavily dependent on the prevailing ethical and religious perspective of a society — most religions attribute disease to sinfulness and this is a major impediment to the development of scientific medicine, another being taboos on human dissection and vivisection.8 But once scientific medicine is available and found to be effective it tends to undermine the credibility of traditional religion, as illness is increasingly perceived as a matter for pharmacology rather than morality.9
One of the other areas of contemporary interest is the effect of commercial and technological development on our culture — for example the influence of television on communal life (it has been suggested that the Forsyte Saga was responsible for killing off Sunday evening Evensong in the Church of England!). According to the ecological critique of writers like Lasch (1977), it is nigh-impossible for traditional values to resist the ever-rising consumerism (one of the principal signs of a sensate society) that is a product of commercial and technological factors:
Meanwhile, across the English Channel, in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued an even gloomier thesis — progress in science and the arts inevitably leads to the corruption of public morals. Science, according to Rousseau, is the bastard offspring of the vices resulting from idleness and the arts are the product of luxury: this led him to favour the civilization of Sparta over Athens. The fall of civilizations as diverse as ancient China, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Byzantium is proof of how the pursuit of learning is of lesser value than the pursuit of virtue. Rousseau, despite his dislike of dogmatic, sacramental Christianity, was also aware of the need for a civic religion to maintain virtue against the onslaught of progress in science and the arts. In this sense his analysis is broadly in line with that of Sorokin and Glyn-Jones, but it was conspicuously thin on evidence and full of contradictions:
The two revivals I want to consider are first the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and secondly the continuing growth of Methodism along with the Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic revivals in Victorian England. Although Glyn-Jones clearly sees the Reformation as a return to idealist values, she admits that her mentor, Sorokin, viewed it as just another spur towards a sensate society. And some commentators would agree with Sorokin: Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930), clearly sees Luther’s conception of the ‘calling’ and Calvin’s relaxation of the prohibitions on usury as important contributors to the growth of western capitalism. And sociologists like Mauss and Leydesdorff have shown how the doctrine of personal salvation has led directly to a loosening of collective ties. However most historians would, like Glyn-Jones, view the Reformation as anti- sensate, on account of its hostility to images and ceremonial and its restoration of the idea of obedience to ends other than human gratification.10
Without doubt Victorian society was enormously influenced by the continuing growth in Methodism and the upsurge of enthusiasm at both ends of the candle within the Church of England. The problem is that it really didn’t last very long, and with time will probably be seen as a momentary hiccup in the exponential curve towards the ‘ripe’ sensate society. Although most thoughtful people expressed an allegiance to the Church, the Victorians were well known for the gap between public faith and private belief — the growing evidence from palaeontology and evolutionary biology indicated that the biblical story was simply wrong, and by the start of the present century agnosticism and atheism were commonplace throughout the intelligentsia.
The march of science and technology has continued apace during our century and has been mirrored by a steady decline in religious belief (although some claim that we have overstated belief in the past). Whether or not this is viewed as a cause for concern depends on one’s view of the connection between religion and ethics, some people arguing that you can have one without the other. This is clearly not the view of Glyn-Jones, who cites the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s (1986) account of how the children of the Clapham Evangelicals rejected their parents’ faith but retained their high moral code, seeking to re-ground ethics in reason and science, rather than revelation. However their children, in turn, rejected the ethics of their parents and the result was the worship of sensual satisfaction and art-for-art’s sake that came to characterise the Bloomsbury set. Himmelfarb goes on to draw a direct affinity between the Bloomsbury ethos of immediate satisfaction and Keynesian economics (‘In the long run we’re all dead’).
And many other commentators have argued that you cannot have morality without religion, for example Oakeshott (1947):
The underlying philosophy of the sensate society is reductive materialism — which includes the idea that all mental processes can ultimately be reduced to the activity of our brain, and that there is literally nothing more to the world than physics. And, of course, this is the prevailing view in psychology and philosophy of mind. But a challenge to this view comes from the emerging field of consciousness studies, as David Chalmers (1995, p. 201) famously put it:
It’s interesting to see how this is changing the whole climate of intellectual opinion: theorists like Penrose and Hameroff a few years ago claimed that ‘consciousness also appears to have emerged at some point in evolution’ (Hameroff, 1994, p. 92). However, only two years later they are proposing a model depicting ‘consciousness as sequences of non-computable self-selections in fundamental space-time geometry.’ (Hameroff and Penrose, 1996, p. 51). Added to all the breast-beating on the ‘hard problem’ of conscious experience, this journal is also tackling two related, and equally intractable problems that arise from a materialist cosmology, the problem of selfhood and the problem of free will and volition.
But what practical conclusions can we draw, assuming that we would prefer our own civilization not to go the way of Greece and Rome? Can our civilization be regenerated in the same way that the teachings of Wesley, Newman and the Evangelicals brought about a transformation in the last century?
I doubt it. It seems to me that although there are some parallels between the state of society at the end of the eighteenth century and now, the other conditions are simply not in place. Although there was a rising tide of scientific humanism, which in the end would usurp the authority of traditional religion, at the time this only affected a small minority of intellectuals. However, although most people have not read a single word of Darwin, Durkheim, Freud or Marx, their ideas have had an all-pervading influence on our culture, such that our general scepticism with the teaching and authority of religion would seem to be terminal. Viewed against this general cultural backdrop, the rise in charismatic and evangelical Christianity would have to be seen as an insignificant blip,11 and the general sceptical trend has to be irreversible. It also has to be admitted that religious ideas have a strong breeding ground in conditions of poverty and adversity, and there was still plenty of this in eighteenth-century Britain when John Wesley was preaching his sermons.
The other difference is that electronic media have now firmly created a ‘global village’ in which different religions are just seen as competing myths and stories, none of which can make any claim to absolute truth. This, along with other factors, has created a general climate of intellectual scepticism.12
And yet the spiritual and emotional poverty of the western world seems to be growing apace with our material prosperity. Glyn-Jones is clearly not alone in her dismay at the trend of events in a ‘ripe’ sensate society, and the correlation of the statistics with the decline in religious belief is clear. The rapid development of evolutionary psychology and its extension into the social sphere provide added arguments for the social and psychological value of religion. If religion is as important as this book makes out, what sort of religion would make sense in the next millennium? Are there any hopeful clues from consciousness studies?
The separation between our subjective experience and our scientific descriptions of the world goes back to the writings of Bacon and Descartes. Without the ‘Cartesian cut’ the enormous progress of science and technology would not have been possible. But this has also led to a science which, in the end, has to dismiss our most intimate and cherished feelings — consciousness, selfhood and free will — as insupportable illusions. This is increasingly felt to be unacceptable, as it paints an impoverished picture of the human condition, and scientists and theorists are competing to develop a model which does full justice to all the elements in the ‘naturalistic triangle’ of psychology, neurology and phenomenology. The final shape that a new theory of subjectivity takes will of necessity shape our future religious views.
This book has been a delight both to read (I found it hard to put down) and review. Although, at some 580 pages of text, it is rather long, it is packed with fascinating detail and written in an easygoing style. The scholarly apparatus is well crafted, with a host of endnotes and a full bibliography, all of which the lay reader can happily ignore. But for students of cultural trends, and the theatre in particular, the references alone turn this into an invaluable sourcebook, so the book should be of interest both to scholars and the general reader.13
1 Review of, Anne Glyn-Jones, Holding up a Mirror: how civilizations decline, London: Century Books Ltd., 1996, ISBN 0 7126 7633 3, 652 pp. £20 (hbk.) Paperback edition: Exeter: Imprint Academic, 0907845606, 1999, $24.95 / £14.95.
2 I am grateful to Anthony Freeman and Nicholas Orme for their comments on an earlier draft of this review.
3 However, as Nicholas Orme pointed out, in the early middle ages the laws of morality were complex, different authorities did not always agree and they were widely disregarded in practice. Some morality was quite relaxed, for example the attitude to clerical marriage and lay divorce.
4 Again it isn’t quite that straightforward, as in late mediaeval Europe an ‘indulgence culture’ coexisted with a very genuine fear of purgatory and hell.
5 Readers of this journal might also want to consider whether there is any correspondence between Sorokin’s model and the equally speculative hermeneutics of writers like Julian Jaynes and Michael Oakeshott. Jaynes (1993) is well known for his theory that primitive ‘bicameral’ people did not possess the reflective self-consciousness that characterises modernity, and that bicameral man was ruled directly by the ‘command of the gods’, which he equates with hallucinated voices originating in the right cerebral hemisphere. There is an obvious correspondence here with the ‘ideational’ phase, even though Jaynes locates the transition to self-consciousness (in his study of Mesopotamian, Greek and Hebrew civilizations) earlier on than Sorokin.
Similarly, Michael Oakeshott, in his study The Tower of Babel (1948), argues that primitive societies are characterised by a form of indigenous non-reflective morality which finds its expression in traditions of moral behaviour, which are not subject to self-conscious scrutiny. But he then identifies a sea change around the same time that Sorokin and Glyn-Jones observe the transition to a sensate society:
Jaynes (and here interesting parallels can be drawn with Rousseau’s second Discourse and Essay on the Origin of Languages) is quite explicit that the transition from bicamerality to self consciousness is to be equated with the biblical fall from grace (1993, p. 299), and Oakeshott is equally clear about his preference for traditional morality — he views western philosophical morality as something of an intellectual disease. Despite some differences in dating, and inversions of terminology (Oakeshott refers to Greek philosophical morality as ‘idealist’), the parallels are interesting.
6 It is a widespread fallacy to think that postmodern moral relativism necessarily leads to liberal pluralism, and that the waning of religious dogmatism has cleared the way for modern religious toleration. The writings of Thomas Hobbes illustrate that there is no reason why this should be so:
8 These were largely overcome in Hellenistic times, though never formally accepted by the Romans. Dissection of corpses has until comparatively recently been problematic in Europe, where controls have moved from occasional access to a non-local executed criminal to the nineteenth-century permissions to use the bodies of unclaimed paupers, a provision that hugely enhanced the terrors of the workhouse.
9 Are the current disenchantment with conventional medicine, and the upsurge of interest in alternative and ‘folk’ remedies indications of a return to an idealist society? Sickness is often seen in ‘new age’ circles as a result of ‘social immorality’ (such as environmental pollution). However we are certainly not witnessing a return to the sort of resigned acceptance of suffering which is more characteristic of ideational societies. The decision by the editors of this journal to publish Ivan Illich’s (1994) article, which advocated just such an attitude, led to a storm of readers’ protests.
10 Seeing as the title under review would be viewed by many scholars as a massive over-generalisation, I’m going to borrow a few of the author’s tricks and indulge in a generalisation or two of my own in an attempt to cast some light on this controversy. Sociologists (like Weber, Mauss and Leydesdorff) are concerned with the unintended consequences of social action, and consequently focus on the outcome of doctrinal changes on social and economic trends. On this reading, Weber and Sorokin’s view of the Reformation would seem quite convincing. Historians, however, share a similar hermeneutic and contextual approach to their colleagues in literary criticism and tend to focus on the intention of the actors, as recorded in the contemporary documentary evidence. In the study of the history of political theory, this is a comparatively recent approach, pioneered by Quentin Skinner in his study on Hobbes and the Commonwealth ‘engagement theorists’:
Exceptions to the crude distinction between the sociologist and the historian are easy to find — Weber himself sometimes advocated the hermeneutic approach with his concept of verstehen, and economic historians are almost totally concerned with historical trends, but nevertheless the analytical distinction is of interest. Perhaps the only conclusion that we can draw from this long digression is that a dialectic of the hermeneutic and ‘sociological’ approach, taken together with a large dose of scepticism, is the best that we can hope for in the study of history.
11 Or, in its more trenchant forms, an attempt to return to an ideational society based, in the main, on Old Testament precepts.
12 An interesting parallel can be drawn with the humanistic scepticism that accompanied the revolt against Aristotelian science at the end of the sixteenth century. This was not overcome until Galileo, Bacon, Descartes and Hobbes developed a new epistemology which served us well (at least in scientific and technological terms) for three hundred years, but this of course led in turn to the sort of sceptical attacks we have witnessed this century.
13 The book is available through UK booksellers, but as overseas readers may experience some difficulties in obtaining copies, the book can also be ordered (at a discount off the publisher's price) mail order from Imprint Academic. Enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Chalmers, D.J. (1995), ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’, JCS, 2 (3), pp. 200–219.
Duffy, E. (1992), The Stripping of the Altars: traditional religion in England c. 1400–c.1580 (Yale U.P.).
Foley, G. (1997), ‘The family beseiged’, The Ecologist, 27 (5), pp. 204–6.
Fox, M. (1990), Original Blessing: primer in creation spirituality (San Francisco: Bear and Co.).
Hameroff, S.R. (1994), ‘Quantum coherence in microtubules’, JCS, 1 (1), pp. 91–118.
Hameroff, S.R. and Penrose, R. (1996), ‘Conscious events as orchestrated space–time selections’, JCS, 3
Heilbroner, R.L. (1973), ‘The paradox of progress’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 34, pp. 243–62.
Hill, L., ‘Adam Ferguson and the paradox of progress and decline’, History of Political Thought, XVIII.
Himmelfarb, G. (1986), Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians (London: Faber).
Illich, I. (1994), ‘Health as one’s own responsibility: No thank you!’, JCS, 1 (1) , pp. 25–31.
Jaynes, J. (1993), The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Harmondsworth).
Lanier, J. (1997), ‘Death: the skeleton key of consciousness studies?’, JCS, 4 (2 ), pp. 181–5.
Lasch, C. (1977), Haven in a Heartless World. (W.W. Norton)
Longley, C. (1988), The Times (London: 15 February 1988).
Maharishi, M.Y. (1969), On the Bhagavad-Gita (Harmondswoth: Penguin Books), p. 13.
Oakeshott, M. (1947), ‘Rationalism in politics’, reprinted in ibid (London: Methuen, 1962).
Oakeshott, M. (1948), ‘The tower of Babel’, reprinted in Rationalism in Politics.
Tuck, R. (1989), Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Wokler, R. (1995), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Oxford: Oxford University Press).