Collective Wisdom in the West: Shadows of the Enlightenment

It is time we confront that the wisdom of the West is insufficient to address our greatest challenges.

Western society is deeply attached to ”Enlightenment” ideals of rationality, individualism and equality. These ideals have become dogma, taboo to even question, yet inability to discuss their limits creates blindspots central to the ecological and political crises we face. By looking into these three blindspots we can rediscover our capacity for deep intuition, collective action, and politics motivated by love.

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Rationality

The power of our ability to create precise, rational theories is in evidence all around us — it can be seen in our medicines, access to pure and plentiful water, air travel and computers. This power has led some of us to believe that science, technology and rational thought will provide answers to all our problems. In doing so, we reject the deep intuition that is in fact our best guide in highly complex and fluid environments. In the case of climate change, our faith in rationality means we wait for technological solutions and more precise scientific predictions, while dangerously delaying the collective action we must take to avert ecological crisis.

Individuality

The belief that we are truly individuals who can — and should — live our lives as such, owing nothing to anyone else, is deep in Western culture. This belief is in obvious tension with the mutual commitments and obligations of relationships and community. Is it any wonder that loneliness and broken communities are becoming the norm, or that we are failing to coordinate to solve collective problems such as climate change? Though we all notice the problems that arise from our attachment to individualism, addressing them will require delving into the emotional appeal of individualistic culture.

Equality

When we consider human rights struggles throughout history and the present day, it is little wonder that conversations about equality can be so incendiary. However, in this time of increasing political polarisation, it is vital we recognise that disagreements are rarely resolved through contempt or hatred. Moreover, if this is how we react, it becomes harder to acknowledge where we ourselves fall short of our ideals. If we are to find a way forward we must respond to differences of opinion with acceptance, compassion and desire for understanding. In order for us to face our collective challenges, our ideals of equality must come to be a complement to — rather than a replacement for — a culture of compassion and love.

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