A scenario based on cognitive anthropology

By Nold Egenter

The end of life on earth is programmed with a probability near to certainty. Whether this will take 5, 10, 20, 50 or 100 years is open to discussion. What counts is the high degree of certainty of this prognosis. Astonishingly, it is not based on costly 'high-tech' calculations, but is the result rather of some relatively simple philosophical considerations, or more precisely, it is reached by comparing our way of thinking with cognitive ways of other cultures.

Let us start with some fundamental concepts of our daily routine: judgment, division, analysis - who would not be familiar with them. It is not necessary to be a scientist . Daily, hourly, often within minutes or even seconds we have to produce clear decisions. We proceed by making judgments. In the case of conditions which are not in front of our own eyes, we form our judgments over the media. We are presented with all kinds of analyses about technology and science, the economical situation, about regarding our rights in certain situations, and about music, literature and fine art. Some of these things we like, others are unpleasant. One event is laudable, another disgusting. In other words, we judge or classify the world. We divide it in many ways.


To most of us this way of continuously judging and dividing appears as something completely natural. We are used to dissolving things and facts into their constitutive elements. However, these ideas are not only fundamental ideas of our subjective and collective environment. At the same time they are also the general basis of our European scientific outlooks, grown on European soil. That is to say, they are of a systematic character. Using scientific or technical dictionaries, one makes the striking discovery how many words of various European scientific domains refer either directly or indirectly to the idea of splitting or dividing. This is true not only for the fundamental ideas of scientific thinking like judgment, analysis, classification already mentioned above but also specific terms like for example 'element' and 'analysis' in the field of chemistry, 'anatomy' in medicine, 'atom' and 'nuclear fission' in physics, or 'individual' in the social sciences. All these words imply processes of dividing, splitting, breaking up of or specifications of such processes. Also the recent and fervently discussed term of 'gene manipulation' in this context, since this technology of 'genes' dissects the vital whole, replaces certain elements to reach its goals. These are only some few examples, the tip of an enormous iceberg. Science and technology split the world into parts in which we live. The many dissecting words are the program for these processes.


To see this fact more clearly, a comparative glimpse on Asian ways of cognition may be useful. Hermann Köster is one of the leading experts of Chinese thought. In his book 'Symbolism of the Chinese Universalism' he says (1), "In addition to the observation of the reality as something orderly, ..., the thinkers of ancient China made a further discovery - they discovered polarity. To them 'the ten thousand things' were not unrelated, isolated singular things. Rather, they believed that the primordial nucleus of all becoming unfolded itself in the form of two opposed active forces, which are mutually conditioned, change continuously and complement each other mutually." The immense materials of the Chinese history of thought which Köster presents in his book, give an impressive testimony of this "all embracing teaching" (universal teachings) which finds expression in polar relations of opposite terms. 'Polar' - this means thought with black AND white, light AND dark, above AND below, one AND many, male AND female and so on.

Thus, with regard to our Western thought, which proceeds in 'analytical' (or dissolving, splitting) ways the Chinese ideals of cognition have always rather emphasised the synthetic side. Their intentions were on the relationships of opposites, not on individualisation of categories. Their emphasis was on 'joining' and not on isolation. There is consequently a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern thought, which can be clearly and scientifically described.

There is no mysticism at all in this, as it is widely believed (e.g. Capra, Tao of Physics). On the contrary, it is quite clear and real and rationally understandable. One must simply realise the entirely different motives, by which both world-views are separated. Western thinking wants to determine precise facts using judgments. It highhandedly postulates a 'truth' which results from the choice between two opposites. Western thought, in this sense, is somhow characterised by panic and fear of contradictions which it excludes with each 'reasonable' thought!


This is completely alien to the Asian way of thinking. The eastern world emphasises the inevitability of polarity, comprehends it from a primordial 'tension', understands it as something which has evolved culturally. It perceives things and facts in mutual relations, a kind of relativity theory of reality. The fundamental motive? Asiatic thought strives for contrasting units which can be harmonised. Body and mind, light and dark, oneness and manyness, male and female. Asian philosophy is creative, not splitting. This is the great difference!

Our comparison of the different ways of cognition is based on fundamental elements of human world relationship, so-called categories. In his book 'The Teachings on Categories' Aristotle has described these categories as fundamental elements of human consciousness.

Put more simply, spatially, timewise, qualitatively and quantitatively these categories always express direct experiences: below/ above, close/ far, once/ now, bright/ dark, etc. What both eastern and western cultures have in common is that these most basic elements of human world views appear coupled in pairs. In both cultures it is fundamentally impossible to perceive below without above, or to think light without dark. Even for the most abstract instrument of the sciences this is still valuable today. The x/y-coordinate system, like for example temperature curves, with which everybody is familiar provides an endlessly small threshold at its zero-point, the switch point between positive and negative values in both directions.


Now it is important to realise that West and East depict this relationship of opposing complementary pairs in quite different ways. Although this difference is evident, it was not made clear until now, because both systems are fundamentally antithetic. They are mutually exclusive. They are absolutely incompatible. One is an analytical system, the other a harmonious one. Anyone who believes in the one, cannot understand the other. This is valid for the most different of disciplines such as theology, humanities or ethnology (H.P. Duerr: "If the ethnologists arrive, the spirits will leave the island").

As already shown above, the analytical system requests the decision between two opposites in the sense of the logical rule of non-contradiction. The judgment needs to decide for the one or the other partner of a contrasting pair. Analytical thinking needs the judgment to be sure that something is so and not different from what is maintained. It is impossible in this analytical system that something can be A and B at the same time for example one and many, or put in mathematical terms, one equals two. If this were the case, mathematics would be very quickly at an end. Yet, it is exactly this formula which forms the basic rule of Asian thought. Something, an individual object or thing, can only exist insofar as it participates in something entirely different, in its opposition.

The number 'one' is conditioned by the concept of 'many', many can not be conceived without the concept one. For Asian thought black is not simply and independently black, nor white independently white. Black is at least white, white at least black. An Asiatic philosopher, like for instance Platon, would never have come on the idea of declaring the pure and absolute idea, or the highly abstracted mathematics as the basic principles of a world-view. Harmonious thinking never cared to find out what a high sound, or a low sound as an independent thing could be. For Asians, the melody was more important. In Asia one never started to dissect plants or even the human body, in order to know more about the organs or cells. Asiatic thought tried from the outside (aesthetics, social conditions and rituals) to rebalance disbalanced states of humans.

Never in Asia would anyone have defined the human person so absurdly as in the West: as indivisible. Consistently reduced to this concept, he or she could not neither physically exist - think about, say, the maternal relationship - nor could he or she take part in reproduction. He or she would have neither language nor culture; he or she would be like a 'wolf child'. Even today the Japanese language has great difficulties with the Western concept of man. Traditional social concepts are always coupled and imply people who are closely interwoven in certain relationships like husband and wife, parents and children, brother and sister, older and younger brother etc..

It must be emphasised that there is nothing mystical about the differences between East and West, they are merely differently grown relationships to the world. To give some simple illustrations: the analytical world is similar to the dealer, who examines his product exactly, estimates it, weighs it, measures it, and compares it with the corresponding object for exchange. On the other hand the harmonising outlook of the Eastern world is similar to the artist, who creates melodies with high and deep sounds, draws pictures using straight and dynamic lines, creates his own world of paintings with light and dark colours, trying to unite the contradictions between spirit and materiality in his intensive disputes with material and form.


Focussing on the living human being, a completely different aspect comes forward: harmonious thinking is centripetal, analytical thought is centrifugal. If one adheres strictly to a method of thought which cuts up the things of this world, with time passing, more and more things will emerge. More and more will accumulate. Ultimately we are flooded - like today - by a tremendous flood of self-produced facts. On the other hand, the harmonising process is limited.

For a Chinese farmer, the limited harmonious relationships within his village are most essential. He shows no interest at all in being sent to the moon! His interest is focussed on a social organism which is complete in all human aspects, the village. Put in modern terms, his view corresponds to that of a culturally conscious ecologist, but to one who proceeds without script and textbooks (2). Also, the wider world has no meaning for him. This is quite reasonable because in a harmonious system there are no essential cultural differences: everything essentially follows the same harmonious structure and is therefore united.

The farmer from the Chinese village needs no tourism. In contrast to this, analytical thought creates differences. A good illustration of this is given in the European legacy of discoveries and colonialism. There is no better record for the centrifugal spirit of the European civilisation.

In our context it is however essential, how these different world-views of East and West are combined in regard to their pasts. This can be achieved within different frameworks: purely historically (in the narrower sense), in the framework of natural philosophy, or on the level of cultural anthropology. The historical consideration is too superficial. The two systems appear as two independent developments. There is no relation. This allows both to preserve their identity. European logic is derived from Aristotle, it is described as his invention. Aristotle, the genius, the father of Western science. However, this is in fact a way of legitimising Western science.


This shortsighted view produces arrogant European or Western self-convictions as are found, for instance in Bruno Snell's (3) book "The Discovery of the Mind" where he writes at the beginning of his work: "Our European thought begins with the Greeks and since then counts as the only form of thinking altogether." How about the Chinese? Have they not, in more than 4000 years, produced any valuable type of thought? In short, a highly excessive, Eurocentric overestimation of own capabilities, which is nourished by a very nearsighted historicism. In fact, superficially Aristotle appears as a beginning. He is in the middle of a much older process of thought. It is very important to show this wider continuity in the development of European thought. It can fundamentally question the value of analytical thought.

Particularly today, one must have the courage to show, on what questionable basis European science stands: historicism from A to Z! This accounts not only for philosophy, but also for theology, for the history of art, for the social sciences etc. The retarded fixations of the humanities to historically constructed concepts are of catastrophic consequences. Natural sciences and technology, together with industrialisation, continue recklessly to exploit all possible sources and development in autonomous processes which evidently ran out of control. The main reason: the humanities have not yet developed any reliable theory, which - beyond the historical dimensions of established cultures - would stop these devastating processes by a generally accepted anthropologically systematic theory of the human condition in a global sense.

A short digression. It is probably not by chance, that one of the most advanced areas of science, a domain, which is at the margins of the vital and tries to take glimpses of the nomansland of matter, was among the first (50 years ago) which seriously started to question Western logic. Here we mean Bohr, Oppenheimer, Heisenberg etc., the famous names of nuclear physics.

In contrast to the philosopher, the physicists have an advantage, in regard to their relation to the history of European thought. They are committed to the philosophy of nature. For the historian of philosophy, philosophy begins with Attic philosophy. It is there where he places the origins of Western thinking. What is before, is myth to him, so called pre-logical thinking. Philosophy of nature, however, also includes the whole field of presocratic thought. There is continuity, at least as one speculates on the essence of nature.

Thus, the philosophy of nature reaches down without interruption, more deeply in the sense of time, down to early philosophers like Heraclitus. It is very strange, but there one finds exactly the way of thinking, which we have described above as harmonious. However, modern nuclear physicists do not ask any further. In their search for new forms of thought this find is enough. They interpret it as a lucky analogy to the east and consider this strange coincidence as a casual happening of history. Anyway, is it not astonishing, that the super men of our progressive world, the nuclear physicists, huddle in dusty chests of long gone ancient China's thoughts, to find practical types of thought for their super modern edge conditions of a progressive reality?


What we have discussed until now lies up in the air. Fritjof Capra has popularised it with great success. However, he too remains fixed on the historic analogy. And now we come to the essential point. We maintain, one must consider the development of cognition in the wider framework of cultural anthropology. Heraclitus was not dark, as one usually says. Neither was he a mystic. Nor was that 'everything flows' important, which has been attributed to him again and again. He was - in the European line - the last representative of an ancient Near Eastern - Egyptian substrate. With his 'high and deep sounds' that form a melody, he was the last, who represented the very ancient harmonious type of thought.

Let us imagine we could reconstruct for example using structural history in multidisciplinary ways (4) - how man - originally like an artist - over long phases of time developed an aesthetically characterised tradition which allowed him more and more to recognise and form his environment using increasingly differentiated categories and environmental relations to harmonise his environment. In other words, he would continually build up his system of harmonious metaphors. Let us further imagine that for example by organising sources of material culture not historically, but systematically - we were able to show clearly how this system developed, how man used it and how his conscience integrated more and more of the outer world. This would then mean that analytical thought, or science, was not something basically new and it would have to be considered just as a development, which ousted an earlier type of thought. So in that way it took the high and the low sounds out of the melody and started to research each one in isolated terms, defining its oscillations etc.

We can follow up this process with our modern sources, for example in Ancient Egypt where life is articulated into a spatial domain related to this ephemeral life opposed to the domain of the hereafter. The world is composed of "what is and what is not". The religion of Ancient Egypt was evidently still aesthetic, not absolutely spiritual. It was based on the synthesises of physical, or material and spiritual, of defined and illimited categories. Politically too, Ancient Egypt was composed of two 'countries'. Upper- and lower Egypt formed a unit. These are just a few examples. (5)

Heraclitus has to be viewed on this substrate as the last harmonious thinker. Parmenides has attacked him vehemently. His ontology was the fateful hour for European rationalism. With a syntactic trick, the famous tautology 'being can impossibly not be' he launched an assertion of world-wide implications. Until today 'spiritual scientists' (Geisteswissenschaftler) feed on the naive belief in "the structural identity of thought and existence" (6) on which Parmenides' ontology is based. Opposed to this the atomists started the 'indivisible nucleus', the fission of which we all fear today. For the rest the field of the so called presocratic thinkers - as if they had been waiting for Socrates! - were busy with exactly that type of questioning still related to polar categories, as mentioned above. With the difference that categories are increasingly used analytically, "Is the world limited or indefinitely extended?" or "Is the world unity or multiplicity?" Of course, Heraclitus would have told us that the world is at the same time limited and indefinitely expanded, it is at the same time one unit and multiplicity. Presocratic questionings of this kind which started in the Ionian coastal towns of Asia Minor, were evidently stimulated by Ancient Near-Eastern and Egyptian ritual traditions. In these cultures, the world was still organised - as we tried to show - in the harmonious relations of polar categories.

Seen in this context, the further development of European thinking would result in tremendous consequences. Aristotle's analytical thought became effective first in theology, where it helped scholars to construct a complete spirit. In the times of enlightenment this construction loses support. The pendulum of analytical thought now moves towards an absolutely defined materialism and empirism. Matter, in its now "desacralised" state can be manipulated at will. And this brings us into the realm of modern phenomena like industry and technology.


Now, what is catastrophic about this modern situation lies in the fact that the outlined splitting processes of analytical thinking are thrown globally on natural matter. The theological imperialism - the empire of an absolutely spiritual being, God - is followed by a scientific-technical-economical one. Today we split the world in all possible domains and in gigantic dimensiona. We globally use well organised armies of splitting inventors. Their profane 'creations' are set into the world with machines and artificial energies to a never imagined extent. Rationalisation in this sense means nothing more than further perfect splitting. The tragedy of the matter lies in the fact that science looks ahead for the objective truth, but truth lies behind. Objectivity, the pathetic credo of science is not a problem of a rationalistic theory of cognition. It is an anthropological problem, the question how cognition was developed. In short, dividing cognition of science was derived from a harmonising substrate. The process is shown very clearly, if one sets Aristotle's teachings of categories before his logic. A continuum emerges from Heraclitus up to the analytics of Aristotle, where the world begins to break apart.

On the other hand, the anthropological formulation of this substrate now conversely implies the sobering, but at the same time decisive insight, namely, that from this structure which evolved by the use of complementary pairs of categories imposed clear delimitations. Whether we organise them analytically or harmoniously, we are imprisoned in this 'conditio humana', in this cognitive system which evolved on a parallel with culture. Each cognitive attempt always remains a projection of this human order on an essentially unknown nature. In regard to astronomical spaces as well as in the domain of microphysics we are always dualistically watching out for bodies (material concentrations) in these endless voids, particles in a homogeneous space. What we take for granted in terms of our recognition are, in fact, only accidental coincidences between the unknown structure of natural conditions and our evolving human order system.


Finally in conclusion, European logic and science are not the measure of all things. That was a dangerous illusion, perhaps even a deathly dangerous misconception, which might push us back into the pre-zooic ages, into a geological age without any life. Who can maintain for sure, that developments are guaranteed, that it must always go forward? Maybe, we stand shortly before the largest setback of all time! The dinosaurs had a similar setback long ago. However, this setback was not total. Only a small oscillation, in comparison with that which might be ahead of us: suddenly life in its totality is involved! Frightening progress in roughly 40-50 years. At that time the 'annihilation' of nations and their rather short-rooted history was feared. But today we have globally drilled organisations and 'armies' who work on the 'annihilation' of a much larger 'history'.

Life, a process of roughly 1 or 2 thousand millions of years, which also brought forth man, is at the edge of a precipice. The devastations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the potential of nuclear deterrent erected by a handful of falcons, the reactor-catastrophe of Chernobyl, the deformed children of Minamata, the helpless thalidomide babies, the chemical disasters of Bophal and Basel, the deterioration of the forests, the contamination of the rivers and seas, the destruction of the ozone, the intrusion of drug addiction in our otherwise well organised lifestyle and finally even the manipulation of life itself by manipulating its genes, all these are not isolated events.

They are not just locally isolated disturbances of the ecological balance! Rather, they are blazing firesigns of a connected catastrophe which is rolling relentlessly towards us. The signs are menetkels like those that indicated the end of the proud king of the Chalaeans and his empire. Like then, it is probably too late. The unstoppable destruction has started. Each one of us cheerfully pushing it on. There is no return. The end of life is programmed. The fuses of our blinded minds are blown. We are racing unstoppably for disaster on a gigantic time-bomb.

Global connection: we are splitting the world. The programme which is running: the European historicisms, the so called sciences. One thing is irrefutable in this scenario. Be it 5, 10, 20, 50 or 100 years, with absolute certainty, it cannot go on like that.


Stuttgart 1958

He takes his wisdom from local cultic, artistic and social traditions. It is important to know that Christianisation spiritually and artistically greatly impoverished European villages by doing away with their so called 'primitive' cults. Asian villages often are full-fledged autonomous cultures still today.

Studien zur Entstehung des europŠischen Denkens bei den Griechen (studies regarding the origins of European thought among the Greeks) 1948

S. Wernhard, in J. Stagl: Grundfragen der Ethnologie (basic problems in ethnology), 1981

See Hermann Kees: der Götterglaube im alten Ägypten (belief in gods in ancient Egypt) 1980. Similar polarities are found in Mesopotamia in the earliest sources of the Sumerians.

W. Röd: Die Philosophie der Antike 1: Von Thales bis Demokrit (philosophy of antiquity vol. 1, from Thales to Democritus), München 1976 (:116)

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