The Reenchantment of the World. By Morris Berman. Cornell University Press. $34.50, $8.95 paper.
October 19, 1982        

In modern times, modernism is always being reconsidered. Morris Berman has taken up this critique from the direction of epistemology and the philosophy of science. Scientific rationalism, once a liberating heresy, is now, he argues, a stifling orthodoxy. Triumphant, its limitations are revealed; its relentless reductionism has impoverished our imagination, starved our spirit, turned our world "gloomy, Cimmerian, deathlike," as Goethe shuddered after reading Holbach. Only by recovering those aspects of the prescientific world view that enabled premodern men and women to live in union with their surroundings and in harmony with their unconscious, can we survive. Science and capitalism have broken that harmony and disenchanted the world. Somehow, we must reenchant it.

It's an old complaint, but Berman ably brings it up to date. The Reenchantment of the World is both an informative synthesis and a remarkably friendly, good-natured jeremiad. An historian, Berman understands that the prescientific cosmology was doomed and that we cannot simply return to it; we can at most use it to gain the next turn of our evolutionary spiral. And the book has a tentative, exploratory tone, much easier on skeptical rationalists than other, shriller New Age sermons.

How fares his argument? Is there a politics of epistemology, and is scientific positivism an epistemology of domination? Is modernism a destructive project, a fatal cosmic hubris? Even the most buoyant modernist must admit that the times are somewhat out of joint. Drawing on Marcuse, Laing, and many others, Berman persuasively and soberingly depicts the modern landscape as a scene of "mass administration and blatant violence," widespread anxiety, depression, alienation, and despair. The metastasis of drugs, television, tranquilizers, therapy, consumerism--all are symptoms of a contemporary sickness of the soul, which only a new world view can heal.

To this familiar lament one is tempted to reply: il faut imaginer Sisyphe content. Disenchantment has rewards as well as costs. Berman correctly stresses that for 99 per cent of recorded history human consciousness was "enchanted" by belief in the sacredness, or at least the meaningfulness, of the cosmos. But perhaps this implies not that some form of that particular illusion is indispensable, but that humanity may need more than a few hundred years to dispense with it. The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott observed, "psychotherapy (often) makes the patient ill, because illness lies between the defense and the patient's health." Maturation may be no less risky and turbulent for a civilization.

There is another, strictly epistemological difficulty. Berman repeatedly claims that one of the essential features of scientific rationalism is a sharp distinction between mind and nature, or subject and object, leading to a disparagement of the body and "an ideal of the disembodied intellect." This is a puzzling assertion. Precisely these distinctions of traditional metaphysics were overthrown by the British empiricists and French philosophes who gave the scientific world view its philosophic form. Field theories of psychology, logic, and physics, earnestly advocated by Berman as a step toward our healing reintegration with nature, are implicit in the scientific materialism that undermined traditional vitalism. Freud, a true heir of the Enlightenment, pointed out that three major achievements of modern science were to demonstrate that our local environment is not radically different from the rest of the universe (Copernicus), that humans are not radically different from other animals (Darwin), and that thinking is not radically different from feeling (Freud). These are the very distinctions Berman accuses scientific rationalism of inventing.

Faced with the possible demise of our civilization, perhaps we ought to set aside such quibbles over intellectual history. Berman is surely right to warn that one-dimensional rationality may be lethal. And for those who have previously encountered this message mostly in obscure or provocative formulations, Berman's lucid, low-key discussion of the alchemists, Reich, Polanyi, Bateson, and other prophets and visionaries is useful.

Chesterton said: "When going in the wrong direction, one makes progress by turning back." Blake, on the other hand, said: "A fool who persists in his folly will become wise." It's hard to know; more books like The Reenchantment of the World would help.