Adam Blatner

June 26, 2008

Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, notes the idea of paradigm shift. The idea that a whole world-view might change radically was itself at least a slight shift—the generally accepted idea was that knowledge and world-view evolved gradually.

It seems as if  we’ve been going through a number of significant shifts, more noticeably in the last thirty years or so. Here are some examples (in no particular order):

1. From competition among different religions to the idea of learning from one another and seeking common denominators, hinting at types of spirituality that transcend cultural roots: Interfaith spirituality

2. From the pendulum swing from blind acceptance of the “mysteries” of the irrational in religion to the Enlightenment emphasis on the kind of reasoning and knowledge that can be verified through sense-evidence to again an exploration of imagery, the intuitive, and the esoteric in spirituality, psychology, myth, and the like...Esoteric, intuitive,

3. From a general cultural myth of origins based on ancient scriptures (e.g., Bible, Quran, etc.) to a de-mythologized conglomeration of scientific hypotheses to a re-weaving these into a myth-like “great story,” linking it to our hunger for meaning.

4. From the idea that religion is and must be based on ancient traditions to the idea that religion also should be allowed to evolve as a cultural institution, just as education, philosophy, politics, and other cultural trends do

5. From families living in more small-town social networks of extended kinfolk to alienated urban and isolated suburban life to considerations of more selective membership in cooperative housing and communities (recognizing the need for community)

6. From a disdain for the academic and psychoanalytic “weirdness” of psychology to a recognition that folks need a practical psychology for more mature and effective social and business functioning  – “psychological literacy”

7. From an over-done work and competition ethos to a growing recognition of the humanizing powers of play and fantasy, cultivating imagination

8. From an over-focus on language and reason, history and basic subjects to a re-appreciation of the need for the arts to develop a more balanced mind and life

9. From thinking about things to beginning increasingly to think about the way we think about things, questioning assumptions and fostering a more flexible philosophy of mind: i.e. meta-meta-cognition, critical thinking, reflecting (This is explored in greater depth in another essay on this website)

10. From an over-controlling and unrealistic estimate of what we can and cannot do to a more realistic understanding of the limits of our power– humility and surrender

11. Related to the previous item, from an overly enmeshed compassion that evokes personal guilt for not being able to make it all better to a balancing of a modest compassion that also recognizes the limits of helping

12. From thinking that maturity is complete with the achievement of consolidation of career, accumulation of wealth, rearing of children, establishment of marriage (even if it’s 2nd or 3rd marriage)—to recognizing that mid-life opens new possibilities for “deep maturity” in which people go beyond ordinary “normality” and (1) works out the many unresolved complexes, residual addictions, unfinished emotional business, and types of foolishness; (2) develops a more resilient access to a source of self-acceptance and inspiration, whether spiritual or wisdom; etc.

13. As a corollary of #12, from thinking of ageing as being over-the-hill at 40 or 50 to viewing midlife as the establishment of a strong foundation from which one can more personally develop. The flower of youth is incomplete until it becomes not just a fruit-as-parent, but rather the fruit as the fulfillment of the potential (“entelechy”) of the individual—i.e., see above, deep maturity. This tends to become more apparent in those who live actively, reflecting and continuing to develop through their 60s and 70s.

14. From thinking that cheerfulness was something that reflects inner mood to realizing that it involves a mixture of positive attitudes, willed intention, and skills that must be implemented even in the face of negative circumstances or inner sadness or fear. It’s not denial, covering-up or disguising, but rather a turning away from the dark into the light, an act of faith.

15. Similarly, from thinking that wisdom is something that one attains and then has to a more process-oriented idea that wisdom-ing is how you use all your skills along with your highest values to respond to changing circumstances. Like love-ing or faith-ing, it’s an activity, not a static quality.

16. From believing that knowledge is objective and out-there to a recognition that knowledge is continuously created, interpreted, re-created, and subject to often-unconscious biases. This active  type of intellectual humility is the essence of the best part of postmodernism. (There are also foolish types.)

17. From accepting generalities to recognizing that one must exert continuous skills of critical thinking, that this is more than an attitude of questioning, but it involves the development of knowledge and skills in semantics, logic, rhetoric, the analysis of propaganda, and so forth

18. From accepting the authority of past “experts,” recognizing that emerging knowledge and changing circumstances affect and modify even the most seemingly wise pronouncements made in the past. The need then becomes the recognition of the need to re-think in the here-and-now, weaving together best judgment, highest values, the needs of the situation, and most current information. There is no guarantee that the product—the final response—will be effective, so also one becomes open to feedback about what doesn’t work and re-thinks, modifies, and tries again.  The illusion of “being right” is recognized as a type of non-productive vanity.

19. As a corollary, from accepting what is at first experienced as “given,” the way things really are, to questioning this and opening to creativity as a prime value, including re-evaluating, considering interesting alternatives, exploring and improvising, trying out possibilities.

20. From thinking that matter is more real than mind, an unspoken shift that was supported by the hegemony of “science” in our culture, to recognizing that mind is just as real as matter! Certainly, it cannot be “tested” with the same tools that have been designed to test matter, but it must be taken into consideration. Mind pervades everything, although at different levels of complexity. (At more rudimentary levels, it might better be called “interiority” or “experience” or “feeling”—it certainly doesn’t partake of the capacity of self-reflection associated with human consciousness.)

I’ve considered ways of classifying these, but haven’t been able to rank them or order them in any rational fashion. It’s clear that the aforementioned dynamics overlap to varying degrees. Perhaps a Venn diagram (with overlapping circles indicating their inter-relationships) might be better than an outline format.

Future Trends

It’s hard to assess the way some technological developments will affect the emerging culture. My interest in this lecture is more about how people’s attitudes and modes of thinking are changing. One change is a rising of expectations and desire based on seeing how wealthier people live, and this is a product of television and the internet. If they can have it, why can’t I? I wonder what encountering a wealthier life style does to young people’s minds. Does it make them more resentful, more willing to cheat?

I think there may well be cultural shifts associated with the growth of international fashion (in gadgets more than clothes), with large populations in India and China emerging. It’s “cool” to smoke. I suspect many other shifts are in the making.

What further shifts would you add to this provisional list?


The purpose of this essay is to promote awareness and discussion of the changing trends in our culture. How can they be addressed more wisely? What are some pitfalls? (I don’t doubt that within any of these trends there are those who may seek to commercially exploit them, that there are ways of experiencing and reacting to them from a more childish mentality, that these trends may be reflected in styles of mental and physical dis-ease as well as approaches to therapy. The more we understand basic dynamics, though, the more we can effectively anticipate and respond to problems as they arise.