Monday, 25 February 2013

The Perennial Philosophy

"These teachings are, therefore, no novelties, no inventions of today, but long since stated, if not stressed; our doctrine here is the explanation of an earlier and can show the antiquity of these opinions on the testimony of Plato himself."
PlotinusEnneads, V, I, 8

The term "Perennial Philosophy" refers to the thesis that the same timeless truths about the nature of the self, the world, the meaning of life, and deity, reappear time and again, regardless of culture or belief-system, differeing only in external culturally-determined details. The existence of such a universal wisdom tradition has been variously argued by Amazon com Aldous HuxleyHuston SmithKen Wilber, and representatives of the Traditionalist movement, among others
The ubiquity of the Perennial Philosophy can variously be explained as due to either that
  1. Reality has a specific "structure" which mystics and visionaries of all times and cultures have tuned into
  2. The human brain has a specific "structure" which mystics and visionaries of all times and cultures have tuned into. This describes the "deep structures" of the brain (or mind) but has nothing to say about reality itself
  3. Some paleolithic genius came up with a central idea or set of ideas and this was carried down and eventually spread through all cultures. Different traditions added their own embelleshments (again sometimes borrowing from each other)
Of these options we can easily reject the last; it does not explain how mystics came upon these ideas independent of religion or background, or schizophrenics or patients undergoing psychoanalysis can come up with alchemical or gnostic wisdom without knowing anything about the original (often very obscure and little known sources, as C. G. Jung found), and the comprehensive scope of the Perennial Philosophy is too integral to be carried on without fragmentation or distortion.
The second option assumes metaphysical nihilism or at least metaphysical agnosticism; we cannot know about Reality in itself, only about the brain or other things in the physical world. But this basically materialistic or quasi-materialistic itself makes huge assumptions about there being a physical world of such and such properties, human knowledge is limited in such and such a way, etc etc, and these assumptions are specifically part and parcel of the cultural-memetic bias of the secular west. Since there is no reason why the secular west should be any more insightful than say the wisdom traditions of sages past and present, there is no reason this option should be preferred to any other (one cannot say "because the secular west perfect science, and science is so accurate in explaining the world", because science makes no metaphysical statements either way)
That leaves only the first option, which is the position I adopt here
The Perennial Philosophy can thus be considered a valid or reliable source of knowledge
But - important! - to say the Perennial Philosophy consitutes a form of authentic knowledge does not mean that anything that is included under the Perennial Philosophy is automatically gospel truth, and conversely that anything that is not part of the Perennial Philosophy must therefore deficient or unreliable. Such a position - taken by the anti-modernist school of Rene Guenon (i.e. "Traditionalism") - is, like all such literalist statements, both incorrect as far as understanding the physical universe goes (e.g. the struct Traditionalists reject Evolution in favour of a modified (monotheistic-ecumenical) Creationism, although it has external linkconclusively been shown that Creationism is incorrect both factually and in terms of its methodology), seriously narrows the scope of the knowable and denies new frontiers of knowledge, thus creating a new straightjacket to replace the straightjacket of reductionist materilaism.
Because the Perennial Philosophy constitutes the majority view of pre-modernist understanding, that does not mean it is the only view.
So, while we can say that the Perennial Philosophy constitutes one form of authentic knowledge, and as such serves as an essential reference for the creation of any Provisional Metaphysical Theory of Everything; it is necessary to also acknowledge that there are many things that are not included in the Perennial Philosophy, indeed some that actually go against the Perennial Philosophy (e.g. nirvana or liberation is not the highest goal of existence, or science gives a reliable account of external physical reality, or animals have as developed a soul as man) which are I would contend are also equally valid

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