The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture
In his great work An American Dilemma (1944), Gunnar Myrdal praised the effort made by “a handful of social and biological scientists” to combat racism and hereditarianism—cultural prejudices once so pervasive that white intellectuals throughout the world had portrayed the inferiority of blacks as a self-evident truth. Myrdal then wondered what more general biases might be so deep and unquestioned that we cannot even recognize them:
But there must be still other countless errors of the same sort that no living man can yet detect, because of the fog within which our type of Western culture envelops us. Cultural influences have set up the assumptions about the mind, the body, and the universe with which we begin; pose the questions we ask; influence the facts we seek; determine the interpretation we give these facts; and direct our reaction to these interpretations and conclusions.
In The Turning Point, Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, tries to identify and combat what may be the deepest bias of Western conceptual life, and a primary source (in his opinion) of our current ills and unhappiness. According to him, the trouble started nearly four hundred years ago when a previous organicism yielded to the conceptual paradigm of Cartesian mechanism—an approach pervading all disciplines and characterized by an explanatory tactic that separates, analyzes, and reduces the world to basic particles of atoms and molecules. This reductionist strategy for explanation has been allied with a conceptual machismo: belief in continual progress and growth by exploiting the earth and all its life (which we therefore view as separate from man and available for dominion), and the basic idea that we learn in order to control and manipulate (“knowledge is power,” as Bacon proclaimed).
To halt our slide down this Cartesian path into an abyss of our own construction, Capra offers a new “paradigm of thought” now arising spontaneously, and often in unconscious or inchoate fashion, among troubled and perceptive thinkers in all disciplines. The watchwords of this new way are “holism” and “ecology.” We must recognize inseparable union and interaction as basic realities. Complex systems, not separated building blocks, must be our units of explanation. We must immerse ourselves in nature and work with it, not separate it in order to exploit it.
Capra’s book comes in four parts. The first outlines the current crisis that Cartesianism has imposed upon us and offers some hints for an alternative. The second, in two chapters, sets forth the Cartesian model and then argues, by contrast, that its rationale has disappeared with advances in modern physics which reflect the ecological and interactive themes of many non-Western and mystical traditions. (Capra, a physicist by training, pursues several themes of his earlier book.) The third chronicles the dire influence of Cartesianism in biology, medicine, psychology, economics, and the politics of growth. The fourth proposes a holistic rescue in the same (but now indissoluble) areas.
This enormously right-minded general theme, here somewhat caricatured for brevity, surely wins my approval …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.