Jeremy Lent has taken on an audacious task for himself – synthesizing what he calls the “cognitive history of humanity.” His 2017 book The Patterning Instinct integrates a vast academic and scientific literature to describe humanity’s search for meaning.
This “archaeological exploration of the mind,” ranging from hunter-gatherers to early agricultural civilizations to the cultures of India, China, Islam, and western Christianity, shows how our struggle to create inner meaning for ourselves is connected to our economic and political worldviews.
Now, in a kind of sequel to that book, Lent has just published The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe. This book can be summarized in three short sentences: “Our mainstream worldview has expired. What will replace it? A world of deep interconnectedness.”
I explore these issues with Lent in the latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning, and it’s a fascinating conversation!
The story that Lent tells in The Web of Meaning is filled with fascinating accounts about ancient wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and neo-Confucianism…..and how the insights from these traditions actually intersect with recent findings in biological sciences. What seems to bring the two approaches into closer alignment is their mutual commitment to seeing the world as alive and defined by entangled relationships.
Lent is not just an academic synthesizer sifting through the literature of world history and philosophy. He is on a personal quest, and he comes by his insights honestly. After his wife died an untimely death and the Internet startup company that he founded and led went under, Lent embarked on a deep immersion in a sprawling literature of civilizational history, culture, philsophy, economics, politics, psychology, and religion.
His goal was to clarify for himself the meaning(s) of life. His chapter titles reflect this search -- Who Am I? Where Am I [in the universe]? What Am I? How Should I Live? Why Am I? -- but Lent's book is not a personal memoir, but rather a deep history of various civilizations and their own sense of meaning as lived and expressed through their cultures.
By tracing the origins of the modern worldview and how it has taken humanity to the edge of planetary disaster, Lent wants to suggest how we can construct a new ecologically based civilization. This requires that we absorb lessons that biological and evolutionary sciences are now discovering, seeing how they can transform our perspectives on climate and other ecological challenges, and spur us to rethink our sense of personal meaning and value.
Part of Lent’s goal in the book is to break down the many barriers that modern disciplines and “reason” have erected to deconstruct the world, separating it into parts. “We’re accustomed to thinking of science as existing in a different domain from spirituality,” he writes. “We generally view the intellect as distinct from emotion; the mind as separate from the body; humans as separate from nature; and spiritual insight as separate from political engagement. In the integrated worldview laid out here, each one of these domains is intricately connected with the others in an extended web of meaning.”
This points to the task ahead; Developing a worldview that recognizes our deep interconnectedness will be critical to recognizing how we are personally connected to climate change and to task of building a sustainable world. As Lent notes in his interview, the commons has a role to play in all of this because it is a vehicle for enacting our relationality and stepping away from the transactional culture known as capitalism.
You can listen to Jeremy Lent’s interview on Frontiers of Commoning here.