Collective Wisdom in the West: Shadows of the Enlightenment

The recieved wisdom of The West is not meeting our greatest challenges ─ what next?

Western society is deeply attached to ”Enlightenment” ideals of rationality, individualism and equality. These have become dogma, taboo to even question, which creates blindspots central to unfolding ecological and political crises. Looking into these blindspots is way of rediscovering the capacity for deep intuition, collective action, and politics motivated by love.

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The power of rational theories is on display all around us — in our medicines, access to pure and plentiful water, air travel and computers. The power of science, technology and rational thought to deliver such material freedom and security has lead Westerners to feel drawn to rationality for answers to most problems. However skepticism of both our automatic intutions and our knowledge, and contemplating the mystery of a situation is usually our best guide in highly complex and fluid environments. In the case of climate change, our faith in rationality means we wait for purely technological solutions and more precise scientific predictions, delaying the decisive collective action that ecological crisis demands.


The belief that we are truly individuals who can — and should — live our lives as such is deep in Western culture. 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? Addressing them will require understanding the emotional appeal of individualism, which has to do with the emotion of control, so deeply related to rational certainty. Fanatic hopes for technical solutions to political problems (like electric cars & crypto) or denial of such problems, is fed by fears of losing invidual control.


Equality is a moral pillar of modern societies, but there’s something about that pillar which makes us afraid to examine it. We cannot do without equality, but equality also cannot be understood in a merely rational way (as we’ve tried), and cannot be reconciled with valuing each other by our successes (as we’ve also tried). Dealing with these contradictions is part of becoming deeply committed to equality, rather than only personally protected by it, and is the route to culture peace, rather than culture war.

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