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Correlative thinking


Theories of Correspondences -- and potential equivalences between them in correlative thinking (Part #6)


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The term "correlative thinking" was a characterization of Chinese thinking by Joseph Needham (History of Scientific Thought, 1956). It referred to a general propensity to organize natural, political/social, and cosmological information in highly ordered arrays or systems of correspondences. His characterization was very influential as a subsequent focus of sinological studies..

A very helpful exploration of many of the above issues has been provided by Steve Farmer, John B Henderson and Michael Witzel (Neurobiology, Layered Texts and Correlative Cosmologies: a cross-cultural framework for pre-modern history. Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 72, 2000 [2002], pp. 48-90). This study combines neurobiological and textual evidence to develop a cross-cultural model of the evolution of correlative systems of thinking. Despite the focus provided by Needham, the study specifically argues that:

... claims that correlative thought was in some way unique to China have seriously impeded comparative studies; known by other names, correlative tendencies were no less prominent (and were sometimes more extreme) in premodfern India, the Middle East, the West, and Mesoamerica than in China....Our model pictures the growth of "high correlative" -- multileveled reflecting cosmologies, nested hierarchies, abstract systems of correspondences, and similar developments -- as byproducts of exegetical processes operarting in layered textual traditions over extended periods; the origins of primitive correlative thought and related animistic ideas seen at the earliest levels of those traditions, "worked up" abstractly in later strata, are tied in our model to neurobiological data.

The authors argue that:

Correlative structures show up world wide in premodern magical, astrological, and divbinational systems; in the designs of villages, cities, temples, and court complexes; in hierarchical and temporal cosmologies; and in many similar phenomena. The idea that reality consists of multiple "levels", each mirroring all others in some fashion, is a diagnostic feature of premodern cosmologies in general; thracing this idea from its primitive origins to its modern decline is one of the major challenges faced by specialists in premodern thought.

However, whilst the study is extremely valuable in clarifying the nature of correlative thinking cross-culturally, it assumes that such thinking has indeed long been in decline -- presumably on the basis that it is disparaged by currently dominant fashions in mainstream thinking. The authors note, for example, an academic caricaturization of such thinking as the "twaddle of idiots". However their study in no way recognizes the continuing interplay between "symbolist" and "algebraic" notions of correspondences. Nor does it recognize the considerable importance currently attached in some countries to notions of placement, design and explanation specifically dependent on correlative thinking. Whether approved by mainstream thinking or not, failure to take account of the principles of feng shui, for example, is recognized (at the highest official level) as having disastrous financial consequences in contexts as modern as Singapore and Hong Kong [more].

As noted above, Susantha Goonatilake (Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge, 1999), has strongly argued that it is very probable that "deprecated" metaphors natural to other cultures, such as those of the East, may in future drive and condition the formulation of theories fundamental to the sciences. Such "mining" might indeed be extended (by the East?) to "deprecated" metaphors of the West -- in which "fragmentation" is widely deplored, but without any mainstream methodology able to address the cultural schizophrenia of the non-relationship between "symbolist" and "algrebraic" correspondences. This is indeed an apt metaphor of any "clash of civilizations" in a period when the worldwide, cross-cultural attractiveness of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series (drawing on such correlative metaphors) is met with disapproving astonishment by an academic world that has little to match the coherence they offer to those who fund its research.

In striking contrast to mainstream academic schizophrenia, the US military is clearly already somewhat sensitive to the strategic advantages that may derive from correlative thinking, as explored by Susan M. Puska (New Century, Old Thinking: the dangers of the perceptual gap in U.S.-China relations. Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1998). The long tradition of its influence on Chinese policy has been traced by James Miller (The Development of Correlative Thinking about the Body Politic (in: Envisioning the Daoist Body in the Economy of Cosmic Power, Daedalus, Fall 2001).

In demonstrating the premodern commitment to linkages, Farmer et al. highlight an interesting example that:

Claims have been made that all of Vedic philosophy dependended on what sinologists would immediately recognize as "correlative thought" -- although indologists do not use that phrase -- emerging in increasingly complex and abstract forms in successive strata of tightly linked Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, and Sutras in Vedic traditions; indeed, as Renou argued decades ago, the original meaning of upanisad was "connection" or "equivalence" -- which we could just as correctly translate as "correlation"! -- and the aim of the whole of Vedic thought may be expressed as the attempt to formulate upanisads.

As discussed in the main paper, these "premodern" insights do indeed have a contemporary relevance highlighted by the studies of Rg Vedic languages by Antonio de Nicolas (Meditations through the Rg Veda: four-dimensional man, 1978). Given the extensive focus of Farmer et al. on neurobiology, the subsequent work of de Nicolas (The Biocultural Paradigm: the neural connection between science and mysticism, Experimental Gerontology, 33, 1997, 1/2), in collaboration with Maria M. Colavito (The Heresy of Oedipus and the Mind/Mind Split: a study of the biocultural origins of civilization, 1995), are suggestive of expanding the focus of the study by Farmer et al. The biocultural paradigm notably relates these Vedic languages to 5 epistemologically invariant styles (maia, mythos, right brain mimesis, left brain mimesis, and logos), themselves associated with 5 features of the brain (reptilian, limbic, right and left hemisphere, and the interpreter module).

In the current era of increasing emphasis on faith-based governance, irrespective of civilization and the pathetic inadequacies of interfaith dialogue, there is surely a case for responding to integrative clues such as indicated by Farmer et al:

One of the most common syncretic methods harmonized textual conflicts by posiiting the simulataneous truth of conflicting ideas on different "levels" of reality -- in the process generating new cortical "maps" reinterpreted as religious or metaphysical realities. The results of the repeated use of such methods, applied allegorically to poetic as well as to religious and philosophical texts, were the familiar bifurcations of reality universally associated with scholastic traditions.... Despite the cultural differences dividing these concepts, the integrative processes that generated them were basically the same. Similar reconciliative ends were often achieved by assigning conflicting ideas or traditions to different cyclical stages (or "phases") in cosmic history, or to emergent cosmological "types" in linear models of time; in both cases the correlartive structures of these two basic classes of temporal cosmologies (which were often syncretically fused) were normally tightened with each exegetical act.

Given the close links that Farmer et al show to exist between neurobiological and correlative systems, their claim for the relevance of computer simulations in exploring the dynamics of the development of correlative thinking as non-linear dissipative structures bears careful consideration. They develop this discussion in a separate paper (Steve Farmer, John Henderson, Michael Witzel and Peter Robinson, Computer Models of the Evolution of Premodern Religious and Philosophical Systems. 2002).

It is nevertheless extraordinary that the authors -- perhaps wisely -- avoid any specific references to the need for correlative thinking at this time, other than in a concluding generality that highlights the challenges of "differing personal attitudes" of researchers that determines the "path dependencies" of subsequent research. They conclude that:

Recognition of the neurobiological grounds of correlative systems, coupled with cross-cultural studies of how layering processes affected those systems' later growth, can help combat persistent myths concerning "great divides" supposedly separating major world civilizations.


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