WILLIAM IRWIN THOMPSON
We will become sensitive to the emergence of the collective unconscious of the human race. The shadow side of this will be the danger of political collectivization in the colossal institutions of a desperate and dying industrial system; the positive aspect is the cultural evolution to a metaindustrial society and a higher level of spiritual consciousness.
William Irwin Thompson, "Beyond Civilization or Savagery," Darkness and Scattered Light: Four Talks on the Future
William Irwin Thompson is an American intellectual. Born in Los Angeles in 1928, he discovered the works of his most important intellectual mentor, the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), early in his development.
Thompson received his B.A. from Pomona College and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. Then he began an academic life as a cultural historian. He taught briefly at Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He wrote The Imagination of an Insurrection (1967), an excellent history of how 19th century Irish thought led to the 1916 Easter Week rebellion.
But Thompson had become dissatisfied with American culture. He moved to Canada, teaching at Toronto's York University from 1967-1973. While there he was exposed to the work of such thinkers as Canadian media theorist Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), author of The Mechanical Bride (1951), The Gutenberg Galaxy (1967) and Understanding Media (1971), and the Austrian-American philosopher and educationist Ivan Illich (1924-2002).
So in the 1970s Thompson dropped out of academe. He said, "I realized I could not live in a new civilization and the university, any more than I could live in the water and still be dry." 1
Thompson had come to believe that a new planetary civilization was being born. With it was a new (as we would now say) global culture. Thompson felt that industrial society around him was passing away, and with it its characteristic institutions, such as the universities in which he taught. To adapt a phrase from Northrop Frye, Thompson felt he was "trapped inside the belly of a dying dragon." 2
(In his beliefs Thompson was running in intellectual tandem with the American freelance futurist Alvin Toffler, whose first important book Future Shock was published in 1971. Toffler believed that the industrial nations were being buffeted by a great many onrushing developments to which they must react, and that they were transforming into what he called "super-industrial" or "post-industrial" information societies.)
Thompson thus set up the Lindisfarne Association in Southampton, New York, in 1973. Lindisfarne was a foundation. It was named after a monastery on Holy Island off the coast of Northumbria in northwest England, set up in 634 C.E. by monks of the Irish Church. The monks had attempted to keep Christian civilization alive by storing, translating, copying and distributing important manuscripts. However, in 664 C.E. the Synod of Whitby "shifted the influence from the Celtic to the Roman Church," according to Thompson. Many of the Lindisfarne monks then left, taking with them and spreading far and wide the manuscripts they had copied. Some monks, for instance, migrated to Iona, the holy island off the coast of Ireland.
Lindisfarne monastery itself was burnt to the ground by the Danes in 793.
Thompson's new Lindisfarne movement attempted to bring together living thinkers to discuss their ideas about the new, Thompson felt, metaindustrial planetary culture sweeping over the world.
Thompson's Lindisfarne movement failed economically several times. Like the influential German Bauhaus movement in modern design (1919-1933), Lindisfarne moved from place to place. In 1976 it migrated to New York City. In 2001 it is in Colorado.
Thompson seems to be preparing to leave his movement. He appears to want to turn it over to younger hands.
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What is important about the career of Thompson is twofold.
First, like Abbé Marin Mersenne in 17th century France, Thompson has been a bringer-together and facilitator of the intellectual transmission of some of his time's important ideas. Second, his own thought and writing, his own style of mind, is poetic, far-reaching and fascinating.
What has Thompson been writing about all these years?
Thompson has been popularizing and extending large-scale ideas about our time in history and the direction of culture. In At the Edge of History (1971) he wrote eloquently of feeling he stood at the birth of a new planetary civilization. In Passages About Earth (1973) he discussed and criticized original thinkers like the Italian architect and habitat designer Paolo Soleri. Soleri spent decades of his life attempting to build an "arcology," a one-building tower in the Arizona desert, to model an ideal city/civilization.
In later works, Thompson popularized and used as ingredients of his thought innovative biological concepts, such as those of American bacteriologist Lynn Margulis (1940?- ), author of Symbiosis and Cell Evolution (1981), and her sometime co-author, the English biologist James E. Lovelock, creator of the "Gaia Hypothesis." (The Gaia Hypothesis models planetary and cellular dynamics.)
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I cannot, however, recommend Thompson's books without reserve.
Though his startling, poetic ability to wield metaphors and his sometimes marvellous insights make most of Thompson's books fascinating, exciting reading, his ideas are often or usually mistaken. These ideas often seem shallow; they are increasingly becoming dated. Thompson has often seemed to announce that an exciting planetary paradise was at hand; he predicted, for instance, that by the year 2000 half of us would have moved out of the cities and into small villages; we would be working with powerful tools to make our villages self-sufficient paradises filled with beautiful objects we had made ourselves. Does this sound like your world?
No. So far Thompson's utopia has not arrived. (In particular, he has seemed to think that industrial corporations would be replaced as producers of goods by spiritual communes and collectives; no, no, no . . . ) Thompson has often tried to predict the cultural shape of the 21st century; I would argue that he is at least half off; it will not, has not, come about -- at least not, so far -- in the manner Thompson predicted. All the big corporations have remained, and even, by mergers, gotten bigger. As Canadian-born American economist John Kenneth Galbraith realized decades ago, we need huge corporations to produce hyper-complex goods with economies of scale.
But with these caveats, I recommend Thompson's works heartily. Go ahead; read something . . . "mind-expanding."
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[To Be Revised]
1 William Irwin Thompson,.
2 Northrop Frye, The Modern Century (Oxford, 1967), p. 62.
Some Books Written or Edited by William Irwin Thompson
The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916. New York: Oxford, 1967; Harper & Row, 1971.
At the Edge of History. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Passages About Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Evil and World Order. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Darkness and Scattered Light. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.
The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light.
Gaia: A Way of Knowing. Great Barrington, MA: The Lindsfarne Press, 1985.
A collection of papers given at the Lindisfarne Institute and edited by Thompson, its subtitle is Political Implications of the New Biology. Among the contributors are James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Gregory Bateson, and Thompson himself. They discuss the Gaia Hypothesis, the Santiago school of congnitive biology, and the Parisian school of self-organizing systems biology. Thompson sees these theories as the foundation of a "new paradigm of wholeness: life as cognition, communication, knowing."
Pacific Shift. San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1986.
This is Thompson on the apparent shift, noted by intellectuals in the 1980s, of world power from Europe and North America to East Asia.
Last modified: 5:39 PM 01/07/2003