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William Irwin Thompson (born July 16, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but has recently been writing mostly poetry. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as "mind-jazz on ancient texts". He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
Thompson was born in Chicago and grew up in Los Angeles. Thompson received his Ph.D. at Cornell University and was professor of humanities at MIT and then at York University in Toronto. He has held visiting appointments at Syracuse University, the University of Hawaii, University of Toronto, Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, and the California Institute of Integral Studies.
He left academia to found the Lindisfarne Association, a group of scientists, poets, and religious scholars who met in order to discuss and to participate in the emerging planetary consciousness, or noosphere. Thompson lived in Switzerland for 17 years. He describes his most recent work, Canticum Turicum, as "a long poem on Western Civilization, that begins with folktales and traces of Charlemagne in Zurich and ends with the completion of Western Civilization as expressed in Finnegans Wake and the traces of James Joyce in Zurich."
More recently, Thompson has been on the board of the private K-12 Ross School in East Hampton, New York and, with mathematician Ralph Abraham, he has designed a new type of humanistic curriculum based on their theories about the structure of the human mind. He now lives at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Crestone, Colorado.
Thompson is influenced by the Vedantin philosopher Sri Aurobindo, British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, Swiss cultural historian Jean Gebser, the German mystic Rudolf Steiner and media ecologist Marshall McLuhan.
Thompson engages a diverse set of traditions, including the autopoetic epistemology of Francisco Varela, the endosymbiotic theory of evolution of Lynn Margulis, the Gaia Theory of James Lovelock, the complex systems thought of Stuart Kauffman, the novels of Thomas Pynchon, and mystic David Spangler.
Thompson's work has, in turn, influenced such cultural critics as John David Ebert, Leonard Shlain, John Lobell and others.
Since the 1960s, Thompson's work has emphasized that story-telling is an inescapable feature of human existence:
Science wrought to its uttermost becomes myth. History wrought to its uttermost becomes myth. But what is myth that it returns to mind even when we would most escape it?
Thompson finds his role as a cultural historian to be a potential vehicle for transcendence:
Anything can deliver us from our lost memory of the soul; science, history, art, or the sunlight on the grass taitami mats in the Zendo. And anything can enslave us: science, history, art, or the militarism of a Zen monastery. But if we are lost in time and suffering racial amnesia, then we need something to startle us into recollection. If history is the sentence of our imprisonment, then history, recoded, can become the password of our release.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
The concept of performance is central to Thompson's approach. Performances either open new horizons for the future or close them down, and should be judged on that basis. Thompson thought that with the emergence of the integral era and its electronic media expressions that a new mode of discourse was required. He sought "to turn non-fiction into a work of art on its own terms. Rather than trying to be a scholar or a journalist writing on the political and cultural news of the day, I worked to become a poetic reporter on the evolutionary news of the epoch". He espoused the notion that one must express an integral approach not just in content but in the very means of expressing it. Thompson did this in the way he approached teaching: "The traditional academic lecture also became for me an occasion to transform the genre, to present not an academic reading of a paper, but a form of Bardic performance–not stories of battles but of the new ideas that were emerging around the world...The course was meant to be a performance of the very reality it sought to describe".
"Wissenskunst" (literally, "knowledge-art") is a German term that Thompson coined to describe his own work. Contrasting it with Wissenschaft, the German term for science, Thompson defines Wissenskunst as "the play of knowledge in a world of serious data-processors."
As fiction and music are coming closer to reorganizing knowledge, scholarship is becoming closer to art. Our culture is changing, and so the genres of literature and history are changing as well. In an agricultural-warrior society, the genre is the epic, an Iliad. In an industrial-bourgeois society, the genre is the novel, a Moll Flanders. In our electronic, cybernetic society, the genre is Wissenkunst: the play of knowledge in a world of serious data-processors. The scholarly fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, or the reviews of non-existent books by Stanislaw Lem, are examples of new art forms of a society in which humanity live, not innocently in nature nor confidently in cities, but apocalyptically in a civilization cracking up to the universe. At such a moment as this the novelist becomes a prophet, the composer a magician, and the historian a bard, a voice recalling ancient identities.
The Time Falling Bodies Take to LightEdit
In his acclaimed 1981 work The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture, Thompson criticized the hubristic pretensions of E. O. Wilson's sociobiology, which attempted to subsume the humanities to evolutionary biology. Thompson then reviewed and critiqued the scholarship on the emergence of civilization from the Paleolithic to the historical period. He attempted to determine the unconscious assumptions and prejudices of the various anthropologists and historians who have written on the subject, and to paint a more balanced picture. He described the task of the historian as closer to that of the artist and poet than to that of the scientist.
Because we have separated humanity from nature, subject from object, values from analysis, knowledge from myth, and universities from the universe, it is enormously difficult for anyone but a poet or a mystic to understand what is going on in the holistic and mythopoetic thought of Ice Age humanity. The very language we use to discuss the past speaks of tools, hunters, and men, when every statue and painting we discover cries out to us that this Ice Age humanity was a culture of art, the love of animals, and women.
Thompson sees the Stone Age religion expressed in the Venus figurines, Lascaux cave paintings, Çatal Hüyük, and other Pre-historic artifacts to be an early form of shamanism. He believes that as humanity spread across the globe and was divided into separate cultures, this universal shamanistic Mother Goddess religion became the various esoteric traditions and religions of the world. Using this model, he analyzed Egyptian mythology, Sumerian hymns, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the cult of Quetzalcoatl, and many other stories, myths, and traditions. Thompson refers to the concepts of kundalini yoga throughout these analyses, and this seems to be the spiritual tradition with which he is most comfortable.
Coming Into BeingEdit
In his 1996 work Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, Thompson applied an approach that was similar to his 1981 book to many other artifacts, cultures and historical periods. (A notable difference is that the 1996 work was influenced by the work of cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser.) Works and authors analyzed include the Enuma Elish, Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, the Book of Judges, the Rig Veda, Ramayana, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao te Ching. Thompson analyzed these works using the vocabulary of contemporary cognitive theory and chaos theory, as well as theories of history. An expanded paperback version was released in 1998.
Thompson has critiqued postmodern literary criticism, artificial intelligence, the technological futurism of Raymond Kurzweil, the contemporary philosophy of mind theories of Daniel Dennett and Paul Churchland, and the astrobiological cosmogony of Zecharia Sitchin.
Thompson founded the Lindisfarne Association in an attempt to help usher in what Jean Gebser referred to as the integral structure of consciousness, and to help humanity avoid a potential dark age. (Lindisfarne takes its name from a Viking-threatened Irish monastery.) In recent books, he has expressed doubt that a dark age has been avoided.
- "That shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being is the landscape of myth." (The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture, 87)
- "A myth is never known; it is a relationship between the known and the unknowable" (The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, 87)
- "At the edge of consciousness, there are no explanations; there are only invocations of myth." (The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, 94)
- "If you do not create your destiny, you will have your fate inflicted upon you" (attributed)
- "Late capitalism is a plantation mentality." ("2006 Lindisfarne Lecture")
- ↑ The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture, 3
- ↑ Thompson, "The Cultural Phenomenology of Literature", 89 http://web.archive.org/web/20050513222402/http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/ltonword/complete.pdf
- ↑ Thompson, "The Cultural Phenomenology of Literature", 89-90 http://web.archive.org/web/20050513222402/http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/ltonword/complete.pdf
- ↑ The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture, 4
- ↑ The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, 102
- Collapsed universe and structured poem: An essay in Whiteheadian criticism (thesis), College English, October 1966
- The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916: A Study of an Ideological Movement, 1967
- At the Edge of History: Speculations on the Transformation of Culture, 1971
- "The Individual as Institution: The Example of Paolo Soleri." Harper's, 1972
- Passages about Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture, 1974
- Evil and World Order, 1976
- Darkness and Scattered Light, 1978
- The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality and the Origins of Culture, 1981, 2001 ISBN 0-312-80512-8
- Blue Jade from the Morning Star: An Essay and a Cycle of Poems on Quetzalcoatl, 1983
- Pacific Shift, 1986
- Gaia, A Way of Knowing, 1988 (editor)
- Selected Poems, 1959-1980, 1989
- Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science, 1990
- Gaia Two: Emergence, The New Science of Becoming, 1991 (editor)
- Islands Out of Time: A Memoir of the Last Days of Atlantis: A Novel, 1990
- Reimagination of the World: A Critique of the New Age, Science, and Popular Culture (with David Spangler), 1991
- The American Replacement of Nature: The Everyday Acts and Outrageous Evolution of Economic Life, 1991 ISBN 0-385-42025-0
- Worlds Interpenetrating and Apart: Collected Poems, 1959-1995, 1997
- Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, 1996, 1998 ISBN 0-312-17692-9
- Transforming History: A Curriculum for Cultural Evolution, 2001
- Self and Society: Studies in the Evolution of Culture, 2004 ISBN 0-907845-82-7
- A Diary of Sorts and Streets, Poems, 2007 (Onteros Press: P. O. Box 5720, Santa Fe NM 87502)
- Thompson's website
- The Evolution of William Irwin Thompson Cultural Historian a 2006 essay by Joy E. Stocke
- The Science of Myth, an interview.
- Audio cassette sales of Thompson's lectures
- Thompson's Curriculum Vitae
- Foreword to Canticum, Turicum, 2005
- "This Time, Let's Build a New Venice and Not Another New Orleans" and "The Need for a Tricameral Legislature", 2005
- "The Case for Teaching Geometry before Algebra", 2005 (PDF file)
- "Al Qaeda, the Neocons, and the Transition from Nation-State to Noetic Polity (RTF file)
- "The Borg or Borges?" (PDF file), 2003
- "The Cultural Phenomenology of Literature", 2002
- "Studies in the Evolution of Culture" (Introduction to Self and Society) (PDF file), 2002
- "The Evolution of the Afterlife" (PDF file), 2002
- "Speculations on the City and the Evolution of Conscousness", 2000 (PDF file)
- The Ross School Supplemental webpages by Ralph Herman Abraham and William Irwin Thompson
- "The Four Cultural Ecologies of the West", 1998
- "Cultural History and the Ethos of the Ross School", 1998
- "Nine Theses For A Gaia Politique", 1986
- "It's Already Begun: The Planetary Age is an unacknowledged daily reality", 1986
- "The Metaindustrial Village: A possible future encapsulates history...and moves beyond", 1983
- Canticum, Turicum, 2006
- "Cambridge Rant"
- "The Lessons of History" a poem-essay
- "Sunset at Point Lobos", 1964
- "A Little Light Verse"
- The Gaian Politics of Lindisfarne’s William Irwin Thompson by Ralph Peters, 2002
- "Wiliam Irwin Thompson" by Grant Schuyler
- "Coming Into Being: A Reader's Journal" by Bobby Matherne, 1997
- Booklist review of Coming into Being by Patricia Monaghan
- Union of Int'l Associations' Global Strategies Project "Patterns of alternation: toward an enantiomorphic policy"
- NYT review of The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, January 22, 1981
- Encyclopedia Barfieldiana entry on Thompson
- tr:William Irwin Thompson
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