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Chap 5. The end of representation


The previous chapter ended with some reflections on language and world-view. We will continue this general exploration by looking at the various ways we represent the world in everything from art and science to the way we speak. In fact, the way we picture the world within the mind deeply influences what we actually see and, in turn, how we think about ourselves and structure society. And by "seeing" I mean both literally, as vision though the eyes, and as seeing within the mind and "picturing" the world mentally.

At first sight it seems rather extravagant to claim that the way we see the world influences what we think about ourselves. How can that be true? To understand how it is could be the way we picture and see the world influences what we think about ourselves let us begin with the Copernican revolution, which radically changed our sense of our position in the universe. Before Copernicus we located the earth firmly in the center of things. For two thousand years and more human beings had pictured themselves as being contained, like a mandala, within a series of protecting spheres, planetary and divine.

The Christian vision, which dominated thinking throughout the Middle Ages, pictured humanity as the pinnacle of creation. Our task, according to Genesis, was to "subdue the earth." Christ's incarnation and crucifixion were not simply concerned with the fate of human beings but represented a cosmic event at the core of the universe. After the Fall, not only was the human race cast out of the Garden of Eden, but from that moment matter itself also fell from grace and awaited redemption. As Jakob Bohme wrote, "all of creation groans towards the day of fulfillment" and, in Marlow's Faustus the doomed Faustus cries out, "See Christ's blood stream through the firmament." The entire cosmos circled around humanity. Human beings were the descendents of the Fall, and following that Fall the universe entered a state of expectant waiting.

All this changed with the Copernican revolution. Earth was demoted to become just another planet circling the sun and humanity was removed from its throne at the heart and center of the cosmos. Later, following the invention of powerful telescopes, the sun was found to be just another star amongst countless billions. The Copernican revolution therefore produced a dramatic dislocation in our mental map of our place in the scheme of the universe. This shift in our picture of ourselves in relation to the cosmos gave rise to a fracture between inner, psychological space (where we felt ourselves to be) and the way we represented ourselves in relation to the new geometry of the cosmos.

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