At the end of this whirlwind tour of the Great Chain of Being, let me say that what I discovered was quite different from what I had set out to unearth. I had started with the premise that the modern world marked a major departure from what came before (which I still believe) and then outline the cognitive transformations behind the shift.
But what I found is that (cognitively, if not historically), is that the Great Chain of Being and its faith in the rational intelligibility of the world actually laid the foundations for what followed and if anything, the revolution in ideas depends on digesting and reformulating the GCB. It requires faith in reason to remap the origins of reason from the divine intellect to the human intellect, and then in a second step (that Kant took) to acknowledge the finitude of the human intellect to draw the boundaries of reason.
It’s said that revolutions eat their own children, but that can be inverted and said that the revolution is caused by eating one’s parents. Ontological openings - i.e., a reordering of our map of reality - are made possible by the existing map.
The ‘human question’ is a natural outgrowth of the ‘divine question,’ and in turn, the ‘planetary question’ will be a natural outgrowth of the human question.
All of this would be somewhat of a curiosity if it were not for the prospects of a similar ontological opening in another part of the world. I have in mind an insight that animates much of Indian (and India-influenced) culture, including our religious and intellectual traditions. It’s the Bhavacakra, the wheel of existence:
Like the GCB, the Bhavacakra renders the world intelligible, and just like the GCB, the Bhavacakra is also rendered around the centrality of human existence in the cosmological scheme of things.
What might it look like for the Bhavacakra to eat itself and a new tradition to emerge in its place?
I am convinced that underlying the feel good attempts at ‘bringing Buddhism and Science together’ or ‘Indian Philosophy in the Modern Age’ - a favorite pastime of retired scientists and modernizing monks - is an attempt to create a new ontological opening.
How should we go about it?
From the Chain to the Self
I will do a jugalbandi with Charles Taylor next week.
It’s impossible to cover such a rich book in such a short period of time, but the goal isn’t to absorb its arguments in five days, but to get a taste of why the self became the locus of intellectual and artistic energy in the modern era.