Evolutionary Enlightenment and American Philosophy

Before continuing with our fascinating discussion I wanted, in the interest of transparency, to tell a little more about my interest in American Philosophy.

The last decades of the 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in progressive and evolution thinking in both academic as well as popular philosophy. The author Louis Menand in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Metaphysical Club attributes this resurgence of progressive, forward-looking thought to the ending of the cold war and links it back to the classic American philosophy of . Today this line of thinking can be found in the increasingly popular literature of Evolutionary Spirituality. Some of the most prominent contemporary proponents of this philosophy are the recently deceased Pragmatismbut enormously influential Fr. Thomas Berry, the cosmologist Brian Swimme, the futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, the author Ken Wilber and my own spiritual mentor Andrew Cohen.

I first encountered Andrew Cohen in November of 1992 when I saw him speak in Cambridge,Massachusetts. At the time he was teaching a somewhat westernized version of an Eastern Enlightenment tradition called Advaita Vedanta. I left his talk intrigued, but honestly feeling that I had not understood anything of what he was saying. I was inspired enough, however, to pick up a copy of his book Enlightenment is Secret and my imagination was soon captivated by the message that I was reading in it. As I understood it, Cohen’s message was devastatingly simple and profound; if you truly want to be free there is nothing in this world that can stop you! What Cohen was pointing to was the deep sense that most of us have of being victimized by the experience of life. We feel burdened by our emotional and psychological experience and often see our ability to make choices as being severely limited by circumstances, social roles and responsibilities, and our personal inadequacies. This sense of limitation, according to Cohen, was an illusion. It was, in fact, a stance, a position that we were freely choosing to adopt in relationship to the complexity of human life. And because it was a position that we were choosing to take, we could just as easily stop choosing it. That was the mysterious key to liberating the human spirit. I didn’t know it at the time, but this notion revolved around one of the central themes that had developed through the history of American Philosophy; the question of freewill and creative potential.

After reading and rereading Cohen’s book I finally had the chance to see him speak again. This time I was determined to walk away with at least some understanding of what he was saying so I resolved to ask him a question about what I was thinking. “I believe what you are writing and speaking about is true.” I stated, “But, where do I find the faith to follow that path and know that everything is going to turn out OK?” I asked. His answer was as devastating simple and direct as his teaching. “Who says everything is going to turn out OK?” he questioned in response and then continued. “If you knew that everything was going to turn out OK you wouldn’t need any faith.” He went on to speak about the nature of risk and human life, but I had already gotten the answer to my question and although it wasn’t necessarily the answer that I had wanted it was the answer that I was looking for. Again, I had no way of knowing it, but my question about faith and Cohen’s implied instance that human life was a risk was also a central theme in American Philosophy. It was, in fact, the central question that propelled the entire career of America’s great psychologist philosopher William James.

In the year’s since my early encounter with Andrew Cohen his teaching has grown and developed enormously. What began as a plea for personal liberation became increasingly couched in an evolutionary philosophy that always considered the liberation of the individual in the context of their power to affect the development of our world. Again this line of thought is in many ways the central organizing notion that unifies the great tradition of American Philosophy. Over the past few years I have read and studied some of the historical development of American thought and have been continually strengthened to learn that the teaching that Andrew Cohen calls Evolutionary Enlightenment is very directly connected to the development of philosophy in America.

Two of the main roots of American Philosophy rushed into this nation during the period of colonization from two streams of thinking that had burst into being during the age of reason. One of these came directly from the scientific revolution of the European Enlightenment that was painting a picture of a world governed not by god, but by natural law. At the same time the Protestant Reformation was removing power from a church that it saw as an unnecessary obstacle to and direct access to the divine. These two lines of thought found their way into the American mind where they were shaped by the utopian ideals and challenges of colonization. The American mind began to take shape in the decades during and after the war for independence and finally came into its own during the cultural and spiritual movement led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists of Concord. The next generation of thinkers were the first American professional philosophers and they created the greatest original American contribution to world philosophy; Pragmatism.

Pragmatism was an evolutionary philosophy that flourished during the early decades of the 20th century as modernism peaked in American culture. After the great depression and two world wars the progressive spirit of modernisms was called into question by many and Pragmatism and the progressive spirit from which it came was temporarily submerged beneath the post-modernist philosophies  and social movements of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. The resurgence of interest in Evolutionary Spirituality today is perhaps a second look at the evolutionary thinking at the heart of American philosophy and a chance to recreate Pragmatism in light of the many lessons learned through the 20th Century.