The Great Separation and Other Backstories

In his new book, The Web of Meaning (New Society, 2021), Jeremy Lent writes about the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination,” which describes how “all that arises depends on everything that came before it” (253). I hope I’m not doing too much damage to the concept by understanding it to mean that everything originates from and exists within a context of relations, which for historians, it seems to me, is doctrinal. How could the discipline do what it does without a belief in this concept?

And not historians alone. One of the greatest challenges to storytellers of all kinds is figuring out where to begin. Struck by the insight that he’d begun his story too early, Hemingway famously deleted the first chapter or two from The Sun Also Rises, and the novel was probably better for it. On the other hand, I remember enjoying the long, stage-setting prologue of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls a good deal more than I did the remaining chapters. The point is that all stories have roots that wind back indefinitely; all narratives begin in medias res.

Non-fiction books of persuasive prose have their own ways to set an argument in context. “Capitalism: A Creation Story,” is the title of the first chapter of economist Jason Hickel’s 2020 book, Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. In forty swiftly-moving pages, Hickel surveys 500 years of history, drawing on Marx, Weber, Polanyi, the Frankfort School, E. P. Thompson, as well as more recent feminist takes on the rise of the modern, Carolyn Merchant’s 1980 classic, The Death of Nature, and Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (2004).

Hickel’s story is set in Europe, and it has two parts. The first part begins with the peasant revolts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Elites responded with enclosure. Shared or autonomous spaces, relatively abundant, were violently appropriated, made to be scarce, and those who had drawn livings from them were now forced to compete over the ever-shrinking remainder. Colonization repeated the pattern overseas; slavery applied it to human bodies. At first they called the result “improvement.” Now they call it growth, and it’s the justification and overarching goal of all macro-economic activity.

Simultaneous to the West’s transition in economics was a change in its “theory of being” (31). This is the second part of Hickel’s creation story. I was more familiar with this one. He calls it “the great separation.” Europeans came to think of themselves as separate from nature; the mind became perceived as separate from the body. Bacon and Descartes are identified as major perpetrators, though (due to dependent origination) they were only mining veins of ore running back to Plato and beyond. Bacon’s desacralized nature and Descartes’ dualism replaced the ages-old animist position, which recognized the embeddedness of spirit in matter and saw the whole of nature as intelligent and alive.

This theory’s historical function, however, was to justify the thingification of land and bodies that the enclosure pattern necessitated. The logic of dualism allowed humans to monopolize mind, to see themselves as supreme over the non-human world, and the result was unrestricted plunder. The survival of the fittest. The selfish gene. Homo economicus and the management of scarcity. None of this is natural, Hickel argues. It’s “the product of five centuries of cultural re-programming” (74).

Having set the stage, Hickel devotes the remainder of his book to arguing for the need of a postgrowth economics, to explaining the degrowth concept in detail, to defending it from misunderstandings and criticisms, and to describing alternatives to the growth imperative and the path ahead. This is, of course, the meat of the book, and its chapters work as intended, but my heart was in the backstory.

Jeremey Lent’s The Web of Meaning, as well as its predecessor, The Patterning Instinct (2017), elaborate on many aspects of the great separation, taking the story back to prehistory and the evolution of the human brain. The first separation, one might say, was the development of the prefrontal cortex. Humankind’s awesome powers of cooperative creativity and destructiveness were born in the split between what Lent calls animate consciousness and conceptual consciousness.

I read Lent’s books slowly and with pleasure, pausing at almost every page to examine the extensive footnotes, because he weaves these backstories together with all my other special interests: the intellectual history and contents of systems science, support for its insights in social scientific research—including the postgrowth economics of scholars such as Hickel—and the traditional environmental knowledge of indigenous peoples around the world. To this not unusual merger, Lent adds something of his own: the correspondence between the ecological imagination, which is supported by scientific insights developed mostly in the twentieth century, and Neo-Confucianism, a philosophical synthesis of traditional Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism initiated some eight centuries earlier, during the time of the Song dynasty.

The Song-era philosophers grappled with a problem that had concerned the Greeks: the persistence of form in the midst of flux. Drawing on the traditional thought of the I Ching, they understood that “the entire universe is comprised of a dynamic flow of energy and matter called qi (pronounced chee).” As they pondered this dynamism, “they realized that while everything was composed of qi, the principles by which the qi was organized were just as important. The word they used for these principles was li, which originally referred to the swirling patterns visible in a piece of jade.” For Lent, li is a key concept, and like dependent origination, one at home in the ecological imagination. When the Neo-Confucians wanted to understand the li of a plant, Lent explains, they investigated “its relationship to everything else around it: the soil, other plants, the weather, its own history and the broader context of space and time beyond the plant’s immediate environment.” Their investigation of li led them to “a deeply integrated understanding of how humans relate to the natural world, how core values arise from human embeddedness in nature and how there is no ultimate distinction between what is material and spiritual” (The Web of Meaning, 93-94).

Throughout our history, Westerners have turned to Eastern thought from time to time for alternative, corrective wisdom. Lent is doing more than that. He’s laying out a backstory of world-historical proportions. He identifies the divergence between West and East in the Axial Age. Lent acknowledges the advances in moral philosophy across civilizations that we associate with this period. Nevertheless, it was during this time that the West constructed perception on the basis of “a split cosmos, a split human,” and the Far East built on the notion of a “harmonic web of life.” In short, Confucius and the Taoists went one way while the rationalists, monotheists, and religious dualists went another. (See Part Three of The Patterning Instinct). That set the stage for the great separation of the early modern West, which in turn, set the stage for our present crisis. All this backstory serves a purpose. Lent sees contemporary systems science and Song-era Neo-Confucianism as two pillars, each set widely apart in history, to support a world-cultural transition to an ecological civilization, a second axial age.

One is rightly wary of grand narratives that serve to organize centuries of data into useful interpretations. On the other hand, we currently find our society on several trajectories of cascading collapse, and the collective action necessary to respond requires a basic orientation. To put it simply, we need a story that tells how we got here, one that provides for a radical change of course. More than that, the story requires widespread and immediate dissemination. I find myself wondering where and how that dissemination would take place. I’m an educator. Should I be teaching The Great Separation, and if so, where? In what department, what division does it belong, in what prefix and course number? Should Western Civ be brought back into the core curriculum, this time with a major tonal shift? Maybe Economics is the best avenue, but from the perspective of Ecological rather than Classical Economics, and with short, accessible books by Jason Hickel or Kate Raworth as the texts. Or should there be some interdisciplinary course that mixes systems science, economics, and the history of ideas?

And here’s a related question. If certain partisan factions are upset to the point of violence over stories in our schools that spotlight white supremacy, how would they react to stories that spotlight human supremacy, which goes back further and is even more foundational than is our civilization’s structurally embedded hierarchy of race?

A version of this essay was published on the Society for US Intellectual History blog.