a time when fundamentalism, corporatist exploitation, resource depletion
and hatred are sweeping the planet, one may well ask why? Or better,
may be seen as a reaction after the overly bold rise of authoritarian
philosophies allowing unfettered domination. These philosophies of domination have
been held as real and valid for living in what quantum theorists,
mystics and indeginous people have held to be inescapable, with inescapable
responsibilities to an interconnected existence. What we do, really
does MATTER, that is create
Gore's An Inconvenient Truth now seems obvious to most.
the following introduction to philosophical concepts and
the participatory paradgim very hopeful. Perhaps by learning more of
some of the philosophical possibilities we can lessen fear and inspire
cooperation. What we do matters, and what we feel before and after we do,
Bateson, whom Peter Reason mentions here, suggested in his Angels
fear: Towards an epistemology of the sacred (1986) that
we bring our theories into application to quickly. He was talking about
questionable "things" out
of the Mechanos that Peter Reason speaks of here. Physicist F.
David Peat suggests
that we all, especially scientists, need to take a time out to simply reflect
and engage in gentle action©. The participatory world view
provides a clear guide for how we might do that: meet and engage in full
personhood, purposefully, sensitively.
Macy, has long taught: "The
heart that breaks open can contain the universe." Lived
Learning feels that Reason, Peat and Heron do much
to help us understand this profound phenomenon of our human existence. Thank
by Peter Reason
Resurgence, 168, 42-44 (©1998)
writers and commentators are suggesting that the current worldview or
paradigm of Western civilization is reaching the end of its useful life.
It is suggested that there is a fundamental shift occurring in our understanding
of the universe and our place in it, that new patterns of thought and
belief are emerging that will transform our experience, our thinking
and our action. We have, since the Reformation, the beginning of the
era of modern science, and the Industrial Revolution made enormous strides
in our material welfare and our control of our lives. Yet at the same
time we can see the costs of this progress in ecological devastation,
human and social fragmentation, and spiritual impoverishment. So if we
fail to make a transition to new ways of thinking, the argument goes,
our civilization will decline and decay. Gregory Bateson, one of the
great original thinkers of our time, argued that the most important task
facing us is to learn to think in new ways: he was deeply concerned with
what he called the epistemological errors of our time, the errors built
into our ways of thinking. So it seems to me that the challenge of changing
our worldview is central to our times.
The notion of a paradigm or worldview as an overarching framework which organizes
our whole approach to being in the world has become commonplace since Thomas
Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago
Press, 1962). Kuhn showed that normal scientific research takes place within
a taken-for-granted framework which organizes all perception and thinking,
which he called a paradigm. However, from time to time the paradigm itself
shifts in a revolutionary fashion as a new perspective is deemed to make better
sense of the available knowledge. This idea of a paradigm in science can be
transferred to the worldview of a whole culture, and the notion that the Western
worldview may be in revolutionary transition has been part of intellectual
currency for quite a while.
This emergent worldview is multifaceted: it has been particularly described
as systemic, holistic, more feminine. These are all important notions. However,
more recently it seems to me that a defining characteristic of the emerging
worldview is that it is participatory. It is this notion of a participatory
worldview that I want to explore in this article.
Worldviews in the history of the West
Henryk Skolimowski, in his book The Participatory Mind (Arkana, 1994), sketches
out what he describes as the four great cycles of Western mind, each of which
provided us with experience of a different world. If we go back to ancient
Greece the experience of people was defined by a worldview we can call Mythos:
people saw in the stories of their lives the visible presence of the gods,
intervening from Mount Olympus. Around C6 BCE there was a radical transformation
as classical Greek Logos emerged: the search for the coherent and harmonious
order of the Universe. The fusion of Greek Logos with Roman power provided
the hegemony of the Roman Empire. However, it seems that no worldview can persist,
the seeds of decay set in, leading to the Dark Ages. Out of this came Theos,
the Medieval worldview in which all thought and action was inspired by and
dedicated to the glory of a transcendent divinity, which emphasised the transient
nature of physical reality and earthly existence. Theos led to the glories
of Chartres, but disintegrated with the rise of a mercantile middle class and
the increasingly corrupt power of the Church. Skolimowski argues that the Renaissance
which followed the disintegration of Theos was an exuberant outburst and period
of liberation that did not lead to a complete and lasting new worldview, and
we had to wait for Bacon, Galileo, Descartes and Newton to define the new and
powerful worldview that is Mechanos.
Mechanos has been the worldview of modern times: it is based on the frighteningly
simple yet powerful metaphor of the clockwork universe. In this perspective,
there is a real world made up of real things we can identify, operating according
to natural causal laws which govern their behaviour—laws which we can
deduce by analysing the operation of the component parts. Mind and reality
are separate: the rational human, drawing on analytical thought and experimental
methods, can come to know the objective world. So the objective world spawns
the objective mind, which becomes detached, analytical and thus in the end
uncaring and cold. Human progress is dependent on the processes of science,
the purpose of which is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
In the late twentieth century Mechanos is no longer a guide to wise action.
The ecological, political, social, and personal crises we confront at this
time need no rehearsing here. Fundamental to all these crises is the way we
think and how the way we think separates us from our experience, from each
other, and from the rhythms and patterns of the natural world. For example,
since James Lovelock put forward the Gaia hypothesis in Gaia: A New Look at
Life on Earth (Oxford University Press, 1979) it has not been possible to see
the world as an assembly of separate parts, we have been pushed to see the
planet as a living whole, a complex system of separate but interrelated entities—of
which we are a part.
Despite all the challenges, some form of mechanical worldview remains
the "official" view
of knowledge, to which we resort publicly when challenged by BSE (Mad Cow --NP),
AIDS or other crises. It may not be how our understanding is created, but it
remains a central myth of our time. And the funny thing is that this notion
of knowledge is not what we draw on in everyday life, from putting on our trousers
to driving a car to sex: there we draw on knowing that is much more intuitive
and embodied—and increasingly it is clear that this is true even of professionals
such as doctors, who are supposed to practice a scientific profession. As Skolimowski
and others have pointed out, this puts us in a strange situation, with our
consciousness split, schizoid, almost in a classic double-bind, because we
know, deep down, that the official knowledge is breaking down, doesn't represent
everyday life, yet we don't know how to comment on it.
The challenge of relativism
The main challenge to what Charlene Spretnak, in States of Grace (HarperCollins,
1991), calls "the failed certainties of objectivist modernism" have
been various forms of relativism. The argument here is that what we take for
reality is nothing more than a construction of the human mind, supported by
various cultural and political forms to create a reality which favours those
who hold power. Reality is a human creation embedded in language. All is relative.
The extreme relativist position is deconstructive postmodernism which is suspicious
of all overarching theories and "grand narratives", and asserts that
there is no reality behind the "text", the immediate expression of
human understanding we have in front of us. While these perspectives help us
immensely in seeing through the myth that is Mechanos, they don't help us move
beyond the problems it has produced. If we were alienated from our experience
by the separation of mind and matter introduced by Descartes, we are even more
alienated if all we can do is circle round various forms of relativist construction:
any sense of a world in which we are grounded disappears.
One result of all this abstraction is a loss of the concrete, and specifically
a dishonouring of the body and the separation of humanity from the natural
world. Morris Berman drew attention to this in his book Coming to our senses
(Simon and Schuster, 1989), arguing that in a quite literal sense we need
to honour again the wisdom of the body, locating knowing in the experience
sensation instead of in intellectually elaborated paradigms of thought. The
body is the lodge of spirit in this life, yet we have immensely ambivalent
relationship to it, often very concerned with the presentation of a "face",
powerful or beautiful, to the outside world, yet being quite out of touch with
our physical inner processes. The body and the natural world are deeply connected:
our body is that piece of wilderness that we carry around with us all the time,
a living ecology which provides a home to many creatures and life events, which
may be in balance or out of balance.
A basic problem of the objective mind of Mechanos is that it cannot acknowledge
the framing paradigm it has created. It cannot see that the ground on which
it stands to frame its world is itself its own creation. It confuses the
mysterious presence of the given cosmos with the mechanical worldview it
to shape that given. In consequence, its outlook tends to be immodest,
intolerant and imperialist. A basic problem with the relativist mind,
in its postmodern
extreme, is that it dismisses any ground as valid simply because there
is another ground or context beyond it. It confuses relative truth
it thinks that because no ground is final, no ground has any claim to truth.
In consequence, it exacerbates the modern experience of rootlessness and
Of course the systemic worldview, originated by Gregory Bateson and others
and championed in particular by Fritjof Capra in The Web of Life (HarperCollins,
1996) does offer an important counterpoint to both the mechanical and relativist
worldviews. However, systemic thought can remain quite abstract, and miss
the important point that we are embodied participants in the co-creation
world. The human mind makes its world by meeting the given and participating
in its being. Our theories and models of the world are grounded in our
experiential participation in what is present, in what there is. The
notion of participation
must be central to the emerging worldview.
Toward a participatory worldview
Worldviews may be viewed as sets of basic beliefs about the nature of
reality and how it may be known; these beliefs are thrown into relief
by three fundamental
and interrelated questions. There is the ontological question, 'What is
the form and nature of reality and, therefore, what is there than can
about it?'; the epistemological question, 'What is the relationship between
the knower or would-be knower and what can be known'; and the methodological
question, 'How can the an inquiring person go about finding out whatever
she or he believes can be known about?'. In addition, there is the important
question which asks 'What is intrinsically valuable in human life; in particular
what sort of knowledge, if any, is intrinsically valuable?' Let us look
at these three questions a little more closely.
Ontology: what is there to know? While the mechanical worldview
sees a world of things independent of human thought, and the relativist
worldview asserts there is nothing but the constructions of the human
mind, a participative
worldview accepts that there is a given cosmos, a primordial reality,
and that human presence actively participates with it. Mind and the given
are engaged in a co-creative dance, so that what emerges as reality is
the fruit of an interaction of the given cosmos and the way mind engages
it. Mind actively participates in the cosmos, and it is through this
active participation that we meet what is Other: we call these trees,
spirits, and so on. As John Heron puts it in Co-operative Inquiry: research
into the human condition (Sage, 1996) , "Worlds and people are what
we meet, but the meeting is shaped by our own terms of reference". This
shaping brings about a subjectively articulated world, whose objectivity
is relative to the perspective of the knower. Reality is subjective-objective,
always called into being and shaped by the participation of the knower in
what is known.
Epistemology: what is the nature of knowledge? While in Mechanos
knowledge is based on a dualism between mind and reality, and in relativism
all that can be known are the constructions of the human mind, a participative
worldview rests on at least four different kinds of ways of knowing.
We can call this an "extended epistemology"—epistemology meaning
a theory of how you know, and extended because it reaches beyond the primarily
theoretical knowledge of academia.
• Experiential knowing is through direct face-to-face encounter with person,
place or thing; it is knowing through empathy and resonance, and is almost impossible
to put into words.
• Presentational knowing emerges from experiential knowing, and provides
its first expression through forms of imagery such as poetry and story, drawing,
sculpture, movement, dance and so on.
• Propositional knowing "about" something, is knowing through
ideas and theories, and is expressed in abstract language or mathematics.
• Practical knowing is knowing "how to" do something and is expressed
in a skill, knack or competence.
Knowing will be more valid—richer, deeper, more true to life and more
useful—if these four ways of knowing are congruent with each other: if
our knowing is grounded in our experience, expressed through our stories and
images, understood through theories which make sense to us, and expressed in
worthwhile action in our lives.
The relationship between the four ways of knowing is shown in the Figure
1 about here—
Methodology: how do we go about finding out? While within a
traditional scientific view of the world, the creation of knowledge belongs
to specialist researchers, within a participative worldview research
is something people do together to solve problems of concern to them.
Hence a collaborative form of inquiry, in which all involved engage together
in democratic dialogue as co-researchers and as co-subjects. In co-operative
inquiry people work together using the four ways of knowing:
• they define the questions they wish to explore and the methods they will
use for that exploration (propositional knowing);
• they apply this methodology, together or separately, in the world of
their practice (practical knowing);
• this leads to new forms of encounter with their world (experiential knowing);
• they find ways to represent and share this experience in significant
patterns (presentational knowing);
• which feeds into a revised understanding of the originating questions
(propositional knowing again).
Thus co-researchers engage together in cycling several times through the four
forms of knowing in order to enrich their congruence and to deepen the complementary
way they are grounded in each other. This is most fully described in John Heron's
new book Co-operative Inquiry: research into the human condition (Sage, 1996).
There are several other forms of participatory research which have grown up
in different contexts. One of the most significant is called participatory
action research, and is used throughout the world to work with people who are
disadvantaged or oppressed as a way both to help them solve practical problems
and also to reclaim their capacity to create their own knowledge.
Axiology: what is of value, what is worthwhile? The first three
questions—the ontological, the epistemological and the methodological—are
all about matters to do with truth. What is really, truly, there? What is
the nature of truthful knowledge of it? By what method can the truth be reached?
The fourth, axiological, question is about values of being, about what human
states are to be valued simply by virtue of what they are. This is a necessary
complement to balance the concern with truth addressed by the first three
questions. And the first value question to be raised is about the valuing
of knowledge itself. For while in the mechanical worldview truth in propositional
forms is seen as an end in itself, in a participative worldview the purpose
of knowledge is practical: human flourishing, in its widest sense. This means
the flourishing of human communities, and it also must mean reconnecting
the human persons and communities to the ecological networks of which we
are a part.
For while it is possible to divorce thought from action, you cannot divorce
intelligent action in the world from thought. So we learn more profoundly about
our worlds when we are more interested in enhancing them with excellence of
action than in simply learning about them. So the purpose of learning, of knowledge,
of inquiry is to change the world! Our action in the world is based in our
values and in our knowing; valid action must be grounded in our experiential,
presentational and propositional knowing.
The Spiritual Dimension of Knowing
I think there is another important aspect of exploring an emergent participatory
worldview in these times at the end of the modern era: this is not so much
about the search for truth and knowledge as about healing, and above all healing
the alienation, the split that characterises modern experience. For as R.D.Laing
put it in The Politics of Experience (Ballantine Books, 1967), "... the
ordinary person is a shrivelled, desiccated fragment of what a person can be....",
alienated at least in part by the abstracted and disembodied qualities of modern
To heal means to make whole: we can only understand our world as a whole if
we are part of it; as soon as we attempt to stand outside, we divide and separate.
In contrast, making whole necessarily implies participation: one characteristic
of a participative worldview is that the individual person is restored to the
circle of community and the human community to the context of the wider natural
world. To make whole also means to make holy: another characteristic of a participatory
worldview is that meaning and mystery are restored to human experience, so
that the world is once again experienced as a sacred place.
For while paradigms can be sketched out in simple cognitive terms, their nature
is far richer. Lewis Mumford wrote of changes in worldview in The Transformations
of Man. (Allen and Unwin, 1957):
Every transformation of [the human species]... has rested on new a metaphysical
and ideological base; or rather, upon deeper stirrings and intuitions whose
rationalised expression takes the form of a new picture of the cosmos and
the nature of humanity.
I believe that the development of a worldview which will respond to the challenge
of our times requires an imaginative recognition of humanity's fundamental
participation in the natural world, a recognition of the way the human person,
mind and body, is engaged in a co-creative dance with the primeval givenness
of the cosmos. In this vision humanity is nature rendered self-conscious, one
part of the cosmos capable of reflecting on itself, which has evolved so it
stands on the threshold of conscious participation in the unfolding of the
1. After John Heron Co-operative Inquiry: research into the human condition
Peter Reason is Director of The Centre for Action Research in
Professional Practice, School of Management, University of Bath. He is
actively involved in research supervision within a participatory worldview,
and in teaching the new MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice.
His most recent book is Participation in Human Inquiry (Sage, 1995).
Information about the Centre can be found at http://www.bath.ac.uk/carpp