The Spirit of Our Times

Hole I begin with a summary of Jozef Maria Bochenski's article, "The Spiritual Situation of Our Time" ("Duchowa Sytuacja Czasu").

Bochenski's subject is our present zeitgeist. He states that we are at a turning point as regards the basis of our thinking, our frame of reference. He writes that our world view depends on the state of scientific knowledge and on the collective human experience.

He calls the framework created by knowledge and experience the spiritual situation, and the common features of the various world views the fundamental vision of an epoch. His thesis is that we (the intellectual elite) are currently passing through a crisis caused by a change in the spiritual situation, and the associated break with the fundamental visions accepted in the past.

There are two groups of phenomena in question: the turning point in the zeitgeist and the decline of the West. He mentions the symptoms of decay: weakening of social ties, unwillingness to defend one's country militarily, and scepticism. He does not see the decline as being due to the change in world view, but that the effects of these two independent phenomena are hard to separate.

The fundamental vision is the set of answers given to the questions that are deemed fundamental in a given period. Bochenski selects the following as the fundamental questions of our epoch:

What is man's place in the universe?
Does progress exist?
What can knowledge give us?
How great is man's power or weakness?

He sees two fundamental visions as exerting influence over the educated masses: the mediaeval (basically Christian) view and the enlightenment. The latter includes the fundamental ideas of liberal-agnostic and Marxist-Leninist thought, deriving ultimately from 18th century philosophy. The contemporary crisis is due to the breaking with the enlightenment and mediaeval visions.

Mediaeval thought gives the following answers to the four fundamental questions.

Man is seen as the epicentre of the universe and its raison d'etre. The view of both the world and of society is static; there is no progress. There is moderate belief in human knowledge, but it is sharply contrasted with faith, which always has primacy. Man is seen as weak.

So the mediaeval fundamental view is static, anthropocentric, moderately rational, and sees man's possibilities as limited.

Enlightenment thought gives the following answers to the four fundamental questions.

It takes the anthropocentrism of mediaeval thought even further.
It believes in unlimited progress.
There is unlimited belief in rationality and no limits to human understanding are recognised.
It believes in the unlimited power of man.

So the enlightenment view is one of extreme anthropocentrism, extreme rationalism, belief in progress, and unlimited human possibilities.

Though both these visions still have a great influence on the masses (including educated people), their time has passed, as both are contrary to the contemporary spiritual situation.

The contemporary answers to the four questions are as follows.

The discoveries of biology (evolution) and astronomy force us to reject anthropocentrism altogether. Man cannot be considered the centre of the universe.

Both scientific results and historical events force us to abandon belief in progress. There is no evidence for cosmic progress. In fact, both the big bang theory and the second law of thermodynamics argue for cosmic degradation.

As for man's historical progress, the only field where this has occurred is science and technology. In addition, the fear of nuclear war and ecological disasters make scientific progress a threat to mankind. Due to the human cruelty shown in the first half of the 20th century, we cannot talk of man's moral progress.

As for the value of science, there have been grave doubts ever since Hiroshima. There are also theoretical doubts regarding the worth of scientific knowledge. These come from the theory of science, where Kuhn argues that science is analogous to a monastic order. There is also the realisation that science is unable to answer the most important questions, or when it attempts to do so, its results are far from certain. So the contemporary view denies to science the right to answer all questions, absolute certainty, and its role as an agent of progress.

The contemporary spiritual situation gives us the sense that man is powerless. There is also a sense of meaninglessness because of the loss of faith in progress.

What is our reaction to this crisis of the spiritual situation? Most educated people still live by the dead world-view of the enlightenment. Bochenski thinks people are reluctant to accept the new spiritual situation because of conservatism and because it is so disquieting. He argues that if life is not to lose its meaning then we must rethink our world view. His tentative programme is as follows.

Religion must be reshaped, with new basic concepts. Nothing has been done in this area.

Philosophy needs to acknowledge the difference between world view and knowledge.

We need to rethink our ideas about science.

The same applies to the social sciences, where, for example, the current opposition of socialism against capitalism has been outmoded.

My Commentary

My first problem is with his term 'spiritual situation', which may be just an error of translation. I would prefer to call it intellectual framework. However, I agree with his premise that this framework is undergoing radical change in modern times.

I think his view is too narrow when he claims that this framework is determined only by the state of knowledge and collective experience.

There are other factors that may be more important than these two. Bochenski is taking a rigidly rationalistic view - one that is itself very much a product of enlightenment thinking.

In my view, the following factors contribute towards determining the intellectual framework of our time.

Firstly, factors other than knowledge and group experience: the global interconnectedness of information and ideas (as well as mass migrations); the rate of change in the world and the consequent instability of our world view - including our unshockability - also the consequent insecurity; the rebellious spirit of our age - iconoclasm and cynicism, going far beyond the scepticism of the enlightenment - a fundamental distrust of authority, tradition, past thinking, Western medicine, and belief in general; the fact that ours is the first secular society in history; the unparalleled freedom of thought and behaviour; the fundamentally new social factor called alienation.

Secondly, factors that come under knowledge or collective experience, but whose effect Bochenski seems to ignore. These include radical Western psychologies, such as that of Jung; the influence of Eastern philosophy. Western thought is no longer insular and is emerging out of the straight-jacket of rationalism; the negative results of hard science (such as the incompleteness theorem and the uncertainty principle); the perceived emptiness of materialism; the de facto bankruptcy of idealism (whether socialist or welfare state) and the general disillusionment with ideology; what I call the loss of innocence - there is no more unthinking patriotism as there was until the last world war.

Which of the above are causes and which effects? Which parts are basic and which contingent? The situation is far less neat and simple than Bochenski makes it out to be.

A third basic factor contributes to the intellectual framework. It is a broad category that includes beliefs, attitudes and various emotional factors, such as insecurity. In his fascination with the intellect and rational thinking, Bochenski ignores these aspects.

So our framework is more than just the product of knowledge and experience, and it is no simple matter to determine what else contributes to it.

I disagree that the decline and the turning point in the fundamental vision are independent phenomena. Even if it is hard to decide which is the chicken and which the omelette. It seems that Bochenski wants to see things in the abstract, divorced from social events that tend to be messy and not amenable to philosophic analysis.

More importantly, I wonder whether he has identified the fundamental questions for our epoch. For one thing, what are the criteria for deciding that a question is fundamental? This is a basic oversight in his argument. Surely it is our fundamental vision that determines which questions we regard as being the most important. Or taking it the other way around, by simply framing the questions we already go half way towards defining the contemporary framework.

Undoubtedly, his questions are important, but I can think of other ones that seem more significant to me:

What is the purpose or meaning of human life?
What values is man to live by?
What does "human progress" mean?
What is the nature of ultimate reality?

These are just personal choices - someone else would choose differently. It is a matter of individual preference whether one thinks the basic questions are personal, social or political, abstract, religious, historical, or psychological. It would be hard to achieve consensus on what the basic questions are.

I wish that Bochenski had given some kind of justification for his choices. He gives the impression of writing within a well-defined framework (such as academic philosophy), but he has not made this explicit. Of course, this a priori orientation undermines his article, since he is trying to determine what the framework is.

The attempt to find a consensus also raises another and very important loose end in Bochenski's essay. Namely who are the intellectual elite? I don't think I am splitting hairs here. Are academics, writers, and political and religious leaders the chief candidates? In fact, I am uncomfortable with the very idea of an elite. It smacks of archaic views of society and the growth of ideas. Intellectual life is now so diversified and lacking in any common centre, that the old conception of the leaders and the led is more difficult to apply than in the past. Who are the true leaders and who is following whom? A conspicuous example is the way that politicians lead from behind.

In particular, I have serious doubts about the role of academics as a class of creative people (except in the hard sciences). Looking at the Australian context, it is very hard to decide who the intellectual leaders are.

A related question is: does the world view of the ordinary man matter, or is only the elite to be considered? Sure, many ordinary people do not have a world view they could articulate at will. But that does not alter the fact that they do have a range of attitudes to all kinds of subjects, from which a world view of sorts could be assembled.

On the other hand, I agree that the elite is not cut off from everyone else, and that it largely articulates and clarifies what is felt or thought by people generally.

I have no argument with what he writes about the mediaeval and enlightenment views, nor with the fact that they have both been superseded. Where I part company is in regard to the modern answers.


I agree that science has done away with the kind of anthropocentrism that characterised both mediaeval and enlightenment thinking. There is, however, a modern current of thought that raises man's value. It is the group of Western psychologies known collectively as transpersonal psychology, of which the Jungian is the best-known variety. Finding common cause with Eastern philosophies, these psychologies emphasise the pre-eminence of consciousness. There is no question of returning to the arrogance enshrined in the Bible, that the world is just there for man's unrestricted use. Rather, it is an orientation towards finding the richness that is inside us, towards venturing into our own hidden depths. In a nutshell, transpersonal psychology teaches that meaning is to be found inside man, not without.


Whether or not there is cosmic progress is, in my view, irrelevant to the human situation. As for man's historical progress, I think the situation is far less clear than Bochenski would have us believe. Certainly, it is true of our time that human cruelty has reached new depths, and on an unprecedented scale. Yet there are counter-indications.

While it may be true that human nature has not itself improved, there is abundant evidence that society has become less cruel. The idea that all people have basic human rights is so entrenched in the West that we take it entirely for granted. We have come a very long way from the sort of society that countenanced the human tragedies associated with the industrial revolution. The rabid conservative of today would have be seen as a radical libertarian a hundred years ago. Characteristically contemporary movements such as feminism, the greens, the beginnings of global awareness, decrease of hypocrisy, increasing sexual freedom, a turning away from materialism, Amnesty International, conscientious objection, the fight against racism, democratic trends worldwide, and New Age thought, indicate that things are happening that lead in a positive direction. Even the growth of cynicism has its plus side - people are far less gullible than they were fifty years ago. Whatever its underlying causes, the anno mirabilis (1989) of eastern Europe was not an accident.


The only one of Bochenski's answers with which I agree is the dethronement of science. In particular, there is the retreat towards trivialisation and irrelevance, the sacrifice of meaning in favour of logical certainty, on the part of both academic philosophy and academic psychology. Not to mention that academic psychology is still labouring under a mechanistic world-view, one that the physicists abandoned some seventy years ago. This argues eloquently in favour of Bochenski's case.

Man's Power

So to his final point, regarding the contemporary feeling of powerlessness and meaninglessness. I don't understand Bochenski's argument in support of this notion. (Perhaps he means the individual's feeling that he doesn't count on the political and economic scales). It is a difficult question to answer; nor is it one with an unambiguous solution.


What all these rather scattered comments add up to, is that how we would go about deciding on an intellectual framework is highly problematic at present. At best, Bochenski has merely opened the discussion.

An outline of the contemporary intellectual framework is not easily traced. In fact, modern thought is too diverse and contradictory to allow any simple generalisations. How could a consensus be achieved?

I agree with his assertion that we need to rethink our world view, if life is not to lose its meaning. However, Bochenski seems unaware or uninterested. in the radical developments that have taken place in psychology, nor in the relevance of Eastern thought. I have the strong impression that his outlook does not extend beyond the confines of academia.

Tad Boniecki

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