Friday, August 1, 2008


In our early discussions we talked about how history is not just a bunch of dates or a list of incidents and how an analysis of events in the past could illuminate the present and point towards actions to shape the future. We also talked about the idea that no analysis is value free. Here is an article from Resurgence which is thought provoking ...



The decisions humanity has taken in the past have led us to a place of global crisis. Perhaps we took the wrong path. Perhaps it is time to navigate the alternative routes, the ones we discarded in favour of our current language of reductionist science and neo-liberal globalisation.

Life is an unending sequence of bifurcations. The decision I take implies all the decisions I did not take. The route I choose is part of all the routes I did not choose. Our life is inevitably a permanent choice of one among an infinity of ontological possibilities. The fact that I was at a given place, at a very precise moment in time, when a given situation occurred or a given person appeared, may have had a decisive effect on the rest of my life. A few minutes earlier or later or a few metres away in any direction might well have determined a different bifurcation and, hence, a completely different life. As the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset pointed out, “I am myself and my circumstance.”

What holds for individual lives holds for communities and whole societies as well. Our so-called Western (Judaeo-Christian) civilisation is the result of its own bifurcations. We in the West are what we are, but we could also have been something we are not. Let us then revise some of our decisive bifurcations.

Some time during the 12th century in Italy, a young man named Giovanni Bernardone, while still very young and very rich, decided to radically change his life. As a result of his transformation, we remember him today under a different name: Francis of Assisi. When he referred to the world, Francis spoke of brother Sun and sister Moon, of brother wolf; and of water, fire, trees and people as brothers and sisters as well. The world he described and felt was a world where love was not only possible but made sense and had a universal meaning.

Some time later, also in Italy, the resounding voice of the brilliant and astute Machiavelli could be heard, warning us that “it is much safer to be feared than to be loved.” He also described a world, but in addition he created a world.

The world we have today is not that of Francis. It is the world of Machiavelli. Francis was the route not navigated. The navigation we chose was that of Machiavelli, and inspired by it we have constructed our social, political and economic conceptions.

In 1487, at just twenty-three years of age, Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola prepared himself for the public defence of his 900 theses about the concord between the different religions and philosophies. He refused to enclose himself within the narrowness of just one doctrine. Convinced that truths are multiple, and never just one, he longed for a spiritual renovation that could reconcile humanity.

Some years later, Francis Bacon, a fervent believer in absolute truth and in the possibilities of certainty, invited us to torture Nature so that through the delivery of her secrets we could extract the truth.

Again, two worlds, one representing the route we navigated, and the other the route we navigated not. We did not follow the way suggested by Pico della Mirandola. We opted for accepting Bacon’s invitation, and we continue applying his recipe with efficiency and enthusiasm. We continue torturing Nature in order to extract from her what we believe to be the truth.

In the year 1600, Giordano Bruno burned at the stake, victim of his pantheism, since he believed that the Earth is life and has a soul. Everything, for him, is a manifestation of life. Everything is life. Three decades later, René Descartes whispered in his Metaphysical Reflections: “What I see through my window are hats and coats covering automatic machines.” We did not navigate the route of Bruno. We chose that of Descartes, and as a result we have witnessed the triumph of mechanism and reductionism.

For Galileo and Newton, the language of Nature was mathematics. To them, nothing that cannot be measured is important in science. We and Nature, the observer and the observed, are separate entities. Science is the supreme manifestation of reason, and reason is the supreme attribute of the human being.

Goethe, whose scientific contributions have been (unjustly) overshadowed because of his colossal achievements in literature and the arts, felt upset with what he believed to be the limitations of Newtonian physics. For Goethe, “science is as much an inner path of spiritual development as it is a discipline aimed at accumulating knowledge of the physical world. It involves not only a rigorous training of our faculties of observation and thinking, but also of other human faculties which can attune us to the spiritual dimension that underlies and interpenetrates the physical: faculties such as feeling, imagination and intuition.” Science, as Goethe conceived and practised it, has as its highest goal the arousal of the feeling of wonder through contemplative looking (Anschauung), in which the scientist would come to see God in Nature and Nature in God.

Two worlds once more. Another bifurcation. We are still under the spell of the overpowering lustre of Galileo and Newton, and have chosen not to navigate the route of Goethean science. Feeling, intuition, consciousness and spirituality are still banished from the realm of science, some new enlightenment arising from the field of quantum physics notwithstanding. The teaching of conventional economics, which, as incredible as it may sound, claims to be “value free”, is a conspicuous case in point. A discipline where mathematics has become an end in itself instead of a tool and where only that which can be measured is important has generated models and interpretations that are theoretically attractive but totally divorced from reality.

That’s the way it is. A route not navigated remembered only by bookworms, and a navigated route to which we attribute spectacular successes and achievements. Universities in particular have chosen the routes of Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo and Newton. Meanwhile, Francis, Picot, Giordano Bruno and Goethe the scientist have remained as historical footnotes.

Because of the route we have navigated, we have managed to construct a world in which – as suggested by the Catalonian philosopher Jordi Pigem – the Christian virtues such as faith, hope and charity manifest themselves today metamorphosed as schizophrenia, depression and narcissism. The navigation, no doubt, has been fascinating and spectacular. There is much in it to be admired. However, if schizophrenia, depression and narcissism are now the mirror of our existential reality, it is because all of a sudden we find ourselves in a world of confusion; in a world of disenchantment where progress becomes paradoxical and absurd, and reality becomes so incomprehensible that we desperately seek refuge in a technology that offers us an escape into virtual realities.

We have arrived at a point in our human evolution characterised by the fact that we know a lot but we understand very little. Our chosen navigation has been piloted by reason, leading us into the port of knowledge. As such it has been an overwhelmingly successful navigation. We have never in all of our existence accumulated more knowledge than during the last 100 years. We are celebrating the apotheosis of reason, but in the midst of such a splendid celebration we suddenly have the feeling that something is missing.

Yes, we can achieve knowledge about almost anything we want. We can, for instance, guided by our beloved scientific method, study everything there is, from theological, anthropological, sociological, psychological and even biochemical perspectives, about a human phenomenon called love. The result will be that we will know everything that can be known about love. But once we achieve that complete knowledge, we will sooner or later discover that we will never understand love unless we fall in love. We will realise that knowledge is not the road that leads to understanding, because the port of understanding is on another shore, and requires a different navigation. We will then be aware that we can only attempt to understand that of which we become a part. That understanding is the result of integration, while knowledge has been the result of detachment. That understanding is holistic, while knowledge is fragmented.

At least we have reached a point in which (many conventional academics notwithstanding) those of us who, in Goethe’s perspective, are concerned with the relation between science and spirituality are finally becoming aware that knowledge is not enough, and that we have to learn how to attain understanding in order to achieve the completeness of our being and the completeness of our science.

We are, perhaps, beginning to realise that knowledge without understanding is hollow, and that understanding without knowledge is incomplete. We therefore need to undertake, at last, the navigation we have so far postponed. But in order to do so we must face the great challenge of a language shift.

Ortega, the Spanish philosopher already mentioned, used to say that “every generation has its theme.” We might add that every generation or historical period is dominated by or falls under the spell of a particular form of language. That is the way it is, and there is nothing wrong with it, as long as the dominant language of a given period is coherent with the challenges of that period. The important thing to keep in mind is that language influences our perceptions and hence shapes our actions. Let us go through some examples.

During the first three centuries of the second millennium of Western civilisation, the dominant language was of a teleological nature, meaning that human actions had to be justified in terms of a calling that was superior and beyond the needs of everyday life. That made possible the construction of the great cathedrals and monasteries, where time was no issue. The construction would take six hundred years? So what? Nobody was in a hurry. After all, they were constructing for eternity, and eternity is not infinite time, but timelessness. Thank God that the language of ‘economic efficiency’ had not yet been invented. The importance lay in the deed and not in the time it might take. It was a case of coherence between language and historical challenge.

The language dominating the 19th century was basically that of the consolidation of the nation-state. The great speeches of political leaders such as Disraeli, Gladstone and Bismarck are examples. Without going into details, we might also say that the dominant language of the century was coherent with the historical challenge of the times.

It was only in the 20th century that the dominant language became that of economics, especially during the second half. A quick overview shows some interesting perspectives. The late twenties and early thirties, the time of the so-called Great Depression, coincided with the emergence of Keynesian economics. The Keynesian language was in many ways the result of a crisis, having the capacity of interpreting the crisis as well as overcoming it. It is, again, a language (or rather sub-language) coherent with its historical period.

The next sub-language shift occurred during the fifties and sixties with the emergence of so-called developmental language. This was an optimistic, utopian and happy language. Economists writing in those days were mainly dominated by the feeling that, at last, we had discovered how to promote true development and overcome world poverty. However, what should be pointed out is that although the hoped-for goals were not fully achieved, many things during those decades changed in a positive manner. This was a language at least partially coherent with its historical challenges.

And then came the last three decades of the 20th century, with the emergence of the neo-liberal discourse: a language that is still dominating over a period in which global poverty has increased dramatically, debt burden has crippled many national economies and generated brutal over-exploitation of both people and natural resources, destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity have reached levels unknown in human history, and accumulation of financial wealth in ever fewer hands has reached obscene proportions. The disastrous effects of this language, absolutely incoherent with its historical challenges, can be clearly seen by anyone, although decision-makers and holders of power prefer to look in the opposite direction.

WE HAVE a tendency to perceive ourselves as members of a successful culture. However, the truth is that no matter how far we extend the concept of success, we are still incomplete beings, materially overdeveloped and spiritually poor. And it is most probably that incompleteness, that poverty, which is responsible for the uneasiness and anxieties that permeate our existence in the world today.

Perhaps the moment has arrived in which to rest and reflect. We have the opportunity now to analyse with true honesty the map of our navigation, with all its hazards and successes, and with all its tragedies and glories. And then it might be wise to unearth the alternative map of the route we did not navigated, and see whether we can find in it orientations that can rescue us from our existential confusion.

As a consequence of the unearthing of the forgotten map, perhaps it would make sense for us to start seeing brothers and sisters surrounding us. Perhaps it would be good to believe in the possibility of harmony between many possible truths. Perhaps it might be to our advantage to dare to imagine and believe that the Earth has a soul and that everything is life. Perhaps it would be good to realise that there is no reason whatsoever to banish intuition, spirituality and consciousness from the realm of science. Or, to put it in Goethe’s words, “If [we] would seek comfort in the whole, [we] must learn to discover the whole in the smallest part,” because “nothing is more consonant with Nature than that she puts into operation in the smallest detail that which she intends as a whole.”

Our passionate pursuit of knowledge has postponed our navigation towards understanding. There should be nothing to impede the undertaking of such a navigation now, were it not for an economics which, as practised under the spell of the neo-liberal discourse, increasingly distorts reality, thus contributing to our confusion and to the falsification of knowledge itself.

No sustainability (which obviously requires understanding) will or can be achieved without a profound language shift. We need a new language that opens the door of understanding: not a language of power and domination, but a language that may emerge from the depth of our self-discovery as an inseparable part of a whole that is the cradle of the miracle of life. If we manage to provoke such a shift, we may still experience the satisfaction of having brought about a new century worth living in. •

Manfred Max-Neef is an economist who received the 1983 Right Livelihood Award in recognition of his work for development alternatives in Latin America. He is co-author, with Paul Ekins, of Real-Life Economics: Understanding Wealth Creation, published by Routledge in 1992.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of Resurgence magazine and is reproduced here with permission from the Resurgence team. For more information please visit

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