In our time, it seems that wherever we turn our gaze, we are confronted by ‘experts’ ready in an instant to explain this or that situation to us. We have an expert for everything, and in most cases more than one. No matter what the field of knowledge or social life, there is, to be sure, always an expert on hand willing to share his or her expertise with us.
A vast amount of items on the nightly news, for example, feature a quote or brief conversation with an expert in a relevant field. Experts are now to be found everywhere, no matter what the phenomenon in question.
Many of these experts are academics, but not all of them. Yet, while not all experts are practicing academics, they do, on the whole, share a common academic methodology. This methodology underpins the whole nature of expertise itself. And so, what is this methodology?
The academic methodology of our time involves the citing and referencing of those experts who have explored a field of knowledge prior to our own exploration. These previous experts also tend to be academics. Whether or not they acknowledge it as such, their work is generally based upon scientific empiricism – that is, upon evidence as discovered through experiments. The modern academic methodology has itself become empirical. The data or evidence it studies is the expertise of previous experts, while the experiment is to see whether such evidence explains phenomena in our time.
In this way, expertise is added brick by brick onto that which has come before, sometimes adding a brick from another discipline, sometimes not, gradually building up upon the past. Its fundamental characteristic is that it works, essentially, with the past.
We can get a feeling of the prevailing academic methodology of our time as being a kind of walking backwards through a certain landscape. This landscape lies dark behind us – we walk backwards into the darkness, into the future – and shed light only upon that which we can see in the past through that which has come from even further in the past.
This approach is, of course, much needed. It gives us the capacity to understand a vast amount of the world as it has existed up until now. The scientific precision inherent within its methodology must continue. We cannot say enough in praise of such scientific precision and all it has offered the world and the human being.
At the same time, we must also ask, In what state has this methodology – on its own – left the world and the human being today? Any quick scan over the current health of the cultural, political, economic, spiritual, environmental and social landscapes of our time must surely raise some serious questions. If we have ‘outsourced’ our knowledge to the experts of the world and their methodologies, we must surely, in this time of extensive global crises, ask ourselves about the appropriateness of dealing exclusively in such expertise and methodologies.
It seems, as we walk backward through the darkened landscape of time, that we are finding ourselves more and more ‘tripped-up’ by that which we did not see coming towards us, no matter what level of expertise we have attained – no matter how big the bricks we have laid in the past. From behind us, out of the dark future, numerous trip-ups (in an economic sense, we have given them the term, not without a certain wisdom, ‘corrections’) seem to await our blind footsteps. The best we can do, using this approach, is to then study, once it lies far enough behind us, that which we have already tripped over, even as we continue walking backwards (and, indeed, continue tripping over).
We are left with the question, therefore, What else is needed in our time in order that we may begin to see and work with that which is approaching us from out of the future?
To the experts of our time we have granted a great deal of authority. The word ‘authority’ was originally used to mean ‘a quotation from a book’. In time it has also come to mean ‘the power of controlling’. It may well be said, as Owen Barfield mentions, that from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries the latter meaning was contained within the first. Today, it is also possible to say that the first meaning is contained within the latter. To observe this, even outside of academia, we need only look at the way in which government, business and civil society rely upon the written evidence of reports (and the quotations they contain) before anything is acted upon. And, again, even if non-academics do not associate authority with book quotations (or even consider such matters), still there exists today the outsourcing of expertise and knowledge, if not to the academics of the world, at least to the prevailing academic-scientific methodology. (This outsourcing takes place both externally as well as inwardly.)
It seems there are two ways, therefore, that we can approach this situation. The first is that within academia we can begin to work with a methodology that allows us to ‘turn around’ as we walk through the landscape of modern times. Of course, there are those who already attempt to shine their own torch (out of their observation of the past) into the darkness that streams ever towards us, lighting up a thin line here or there. But they do so, however, not in a way that reveals anything truly new, but only in a way that predicts what will come out of what has already unfolded. This is the light of prediction, and it throws off a cold and feeble light at best, and many confusing shadows. Essentially, it is only a kind of mirror light shining not clearly into the future as we walk forward, but reflecting dimly into the future the light we shed upon objects of the past, even as we continue walking backwards.
What is being asked for seems to be somewhat different. Within academia, therefore, we must begin to use the academic method itself in such a way that it begins to light up the future for us in very real ways. That is, we must give authority to (quote and reference) those previous experts who have employed a different methodology from that which has left us with the crises that we find ourselves in today. In academia, we must give authority to those who build not only from the past, but who, in studying the phenomena of today, allow the future to shine through the present. In so doing we will not be giving our authority away, but rather reclaiming it for ourselves. For the methodology of the phenomenologist, particularly the methodology implicit in the work of Goethe and all those after him, reveals a way of studying the world that allows the light of the future to shine through whatever phenomena we are ourselves observing.
In quoting and referencing the methodology of Goethe or others who have employed similar methodologies (including, for example, in our time, MIT’s Otto Scharmer), we thereby employ a methodology inside the existing methodology that changes the paradigm from within. We use the existing paradigm to take the whole academic paradigm a step further. Or rather, we use it to begin to turn around – to see, in greater clarity, that which is coming towards us. Like a great ship turning slowly in a harbour, so too can academia itself begin to turn if academics turn within it.
In referencing such a methodology – a methodology that does not overlay bricks from the past onto the phenomena of the world, but rather lets the world speak its own expertise in us – we thereby ‘in-source’ our own expertise (which is, at the same time, the world’s). In referencing, quoting, giving authority to and employing such a methodology within academia, so can academia and academics begin to rise to the true challenges of our time, and gain the relevance that the world so desperately needs from them, and that they need to be giving to the world.
And what of those who do not work directly within academia? Again, we all live with the effects of academia, its existing methodology and the consequences of this. The authority of the book has also become the authority of the expert today. How easily we can defer to individuals with degrees, diplomas, certificates, positions – with letters after their name. Even these letters themselves represent (and are) a bookish authority. Or take the great contemporary fount of popular expertise – the ‘open source’ Wikipedia – this too is built upon and with the bricks of citation and referencing.
What can be done here? The answer in this case is to look upon the phenomena of the world itself as a book; that all of the world around us is a book awaiting our reading and subsequent expertise. Indeed, Goethe himself spoke of nature’s ‘open secret’ – that nature is a secret revealed everywhere – that nature is a secret, a book, that is awaiting our reading. But we must include all phenomena in this reading – nature, culture, even thoughts and all that works within our own thinking, feeling and willing activity; that is, all of life. We must become proficient ‘readers’ of the book of life – the ultimate ‘open-source’ – and so regain our own authority. Of course, this path exists for the academic as much as anybody else. Importantly, it remains open to everybody, no matter what our social standing or situation.
The world – all of life – is a book awaiting our reading and understanding. This is the second way in which we can approach the situation we are exploring here. That is, if we are able to look upon the world with all of the full scientific clarity that we have gained as humanity, and then at the point at which we would usually overlay an old (or even new) hypothesis or theory onto the phenomena which we observe, we instead allow the facts of the phenomena to instead speak its own theory, its own hypothesis, in us, then we shall gain not only a true theory or hypothesis, but we shall begin to turn around, and take a necessary next step not only for ourselves, but also for the world; for science, for academia, and for all fields of knowledge and social life. We all have the opportunity to become scientists, to become academics, to become experts and authorities in such a way as this. And in so doing not only do we begin to read the book of the world, we begin to co-author (‘author-ity’) it also.
And yet the authorship and authority we thereby make is not merely or solely our own – the light we shed into the future is not a cold and feeble light emanating solely from the torches within our own hands or mind, or one that reflects dimly off the objects of the past. It is, rather, a light that shines out from within the essence of phenomena – from the chapters, paragraphs, sentences and words of the book of life – itself. In such an activity as this do we move beyond the weak, though tempting, self-light of solely intellectual speculation. We, rather, after thoroughly and precisely observing the facts of the situation at hand, allow, through (as Scharmer puts it) an “open mind, open heart, and open will,” the phenomena of the world to light itself in us. In reading a book we do not encounter a letter or word here and another there while perhaps speculating as to why this one is there and another here, before re-arranging them as we see fit in order to create a meaning that is of our own making. Rather, only through reading the book as it appears before us do we, through an open mind, heart and will, make a space for the meaning of the text to arise in us. And it would appear that it is meaning that is lacking most of all in the world today, as well as within human beings. We seem to have lost the overall story, and are left only with a very precise and meticulous study of individual letters and words.
Observing the world as we would read a book, however, we are able to put our study of individual letters and words to real, consequential and practical purpose. Interestingly, the word ‘observe’ shifted its meaning around the sixteenth century from ‘to obey a rule’ or ‘to inspect auguries (i.e. to inspect a sign of future events)’ to its more modern meaning. This shift points to a great shift in the consciousness of the human being. In observing the story of this word itself, we can see that it reveals a meaning that speaks of the human being’s emancipation from ‘obeying rules’ and from what we might call ‘spiritual superstition’. The great fruit of this story is the gaining of both freedom from compulsion, as well as intellectual clarity and understanding of the world around us. The current state of the world as a whole is telling us now, however, that we need to turn a new chapter in this story. And this chapter, unlike any other that has come before, awaits our co-writing, because we are in a position where we can, as free individuals, choose to do so.
For in precisely and scientifically making a space in ourselves for the meaning of the true book – the true story of the world – to reveal itself in us, we take a conscious step not backwards into the dark night, but forward into a future that waits for our arrival. And it is a future that reveals itself constantly in the phenomena of the world today, if only we have the open mind, heart and will to observe these phenomena in such a way that we can now, choosing to do so with intellectual clarity and freedom, inspect them as signs of future events because they are events which contain the light of the future within them. We shall then find ourselves, freely, within a landscape and on a path that grows ever luminous with the spiritual meaning and story that shines both from out of phenomena themselves, and from out of us – and that we ourselves can now be active co-participants in the creation and shaping of the future itself. We can begin to shape the world, in true freedom, with the spiritual and creative ‘rules’ of the cosmos, which shed their creative light not only in the phenomena of the world but also within us. In so doing, can we walk clearly upon a path of true reading, true authority, true expertise and true speaking; adding to research a kind of pre-search, and putting ourselves freely in service of the completely new – of the next chapter in the long story of world and human becoming.
John Stubley, Ph.D.
 Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Massachusetts: Lindisfarne, 2007, pp. 135).
 See, for example, Rudolf Steiner, Goethean Science (New York: Mercury Press, 1988).
 See Otto Scharmer, Theory U (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009).
 A brief glance at the etymology connected to the word ‘author’ reveals earlier meanings such as “originator, creator, instigator,” as well as “enlarger, founder, master, leader,” literally, “one who causes to grow”…to “increase”. (See http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=author&allowed_in_frame=0)
 Otto Scharmer, Theory U (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009).
 Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Massachusetts: Lindisfarne, 2007, pp. 151).
Thanks for this John.
Travis Henry, B.A. 🙂
Beautiful! Thanks for sharing this John. I started down an academic road myself and then left because I felt too constrained in creating anything fresh, “edgy” or transformative. I wanted to explore different ways of “knowing” and to use more of my mind.
I love your comment that “it would appear that it is meaning that is lacking most of all in the world today, as well as within human beings. We seem to have lost the overall story, and are left only with a very precise and meticulous study of individual letters and words.”
I agree that many of us are looking for new meaning (as old myths in society have crumbled). Beyond meaning, people are also looking for fulfillment (i.e. the feeling of being fully alive / the satisfaction or happiness that comes from fully developing one’s potential). It’s easy to make meaning out of anything. It’s more challenging to create stories to live by that help us all to feel fulfilled.