On Physicalist Epistemology and Cyclical History

In this excerpt from a longer conversation, I attempt to address the usefulness of the idea of astrological causality, whether it somehow negates the "magic" of the technique. I also address notions of cyclical history such as Turchin and Strauss and Howe, and the use of intuition in understanding history.

My interlocutor writes "It should be clear to most by now that history isn't objective and is as much a construct of convenience and justification as one's personal narrative can be, though the idea that it's all relative seems as arrogant as believing in a singular story. The world is too complex for a singular perspective to be the ultimate truth, but there are some takes that are still more true than others. How to determine this seems like a case by case process, when, say, arguing that the Revolution, Civil War, and WWII were the biggest moments in US history can't be said in terms of quantities of deaths or anything concrete, but depends on intuition, arguing about the nation's mood and spirit." and "I wonder if stripping astrology to [the level of physical processes] is worth the loss of its ritualistic magic"

My response is as follows:

I think the only real way to reconcile natal astrology with physicalist epistemology is to follow a Freudian route, and many astrologers indeed engage with psychoanalysis for its usefulness in grounding. Put in short: the interface between universal biology and individual psychology was, for Freud, the notion of "drive", which pushes an organism to satisfy some sort of internal need. For Freud, those needs could be summarized as "self-preservation" and "organ-pleasure", and from these needs develop the entire psychic apparatus. I believe, in this sense, Freud would've seen Jung as overstepping the boundaries of science in declaring the universality of archetypes, although Jung would likely attempt to counter that with a Kantian argument about innate categories.

Regardless, if we take Freud's stance as given, then we have no need for Ptolemy's stance on astrology as a causal force working within the universe (although it was precisely this stance that saved astrology during the Christian "dark ages"); this is instead the projective aspect of "as above, so below" demonstrating itself, in that our only capacity to make sense of the universe is through the medium of our senses and psyche. With this in mind, the question of "how can astrology work?" returns us to the classic enlightenment problem of "how can the mind observe itself?" Astrology answers by acting as an objective medium, like a gestalt image but far more systematic and explicitly patterned, that allows the reader to locate real and true patterns in their own lives. So the locus of truth is not so much "in" astrology as "through" astrology.

I think it is only when we attempt to place too heavy a burden of truth on the outer rather than the inner world that the magic is lost, and I think this stance comes from two places. First, a fusion of positivist philosophy (Scientism) mixed with behaviorist philosophy, "if either me or you or that guy over there can't see it, then it doesn't exist", which includes a normative stance that denies individual differences and enforces deference to experts of knowledge (ever tried "going against the grain" on Reddit?). Second, and related, an outgrowth of Christian (Platonic) philosophy which requires an orientation toward the external "thing" or object, enclosed as a static phenomenon, rather than toward the flux or motion of interacting forces. This stance requires the basic epistemological question to be "what is it?" rather than "what does it do?", and shifts the focus of knowledge from the process or movement to the object or static thing. Hegel's work was an attempt to break away from this (and although many disprove of the effects of his work, none can deny that it was spiritual in nature), but most folk epistemology remains Platonized in this way.

All of this holds for cyclical theories of history as well, but with a key distinction that world history itself is explicitly conceptualized (by Spengler at least) as an "external subject" or mind, so the problem becomes more complex, because it raises a more fundamental question of "how can we know what even constitutes history?" The constitution of our minds is immanent to a degree, in that we have a direct apprehension of sensory experience, but not so with history, a world-mind constituted by material circumstances and intersubjective discourse. Thus the notion of cyclical history is a higher order phenomenon, of reading patterns into the events that we've collectively agreed are "history". I believe "intuition" shoves the mechanism of history's construction under the rug, so to speak. I feel like it avoids the ethical questions resulting from how we frame history itself by prioritizing an immediate emotional response, which leaves us vulnerable to ideology and propaganda.

My broader moral stance on cyclical history vs astrology is that I view astrology as agency-creating: I can act directly on the insights I gain from my natal chart, but I view cyclical history as a return to fateful predetermination, either agency-denying, or at minimum a cosmological imperative to organize collectively in relation to predictions. It's the political aspect and imperative aspect of cyclical history that turns me away from it, because I tend to follow Marx in seeing immanent lived circumstances as the heart of any political endeavor, at least in the modern sense of the term.

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from simpolism
All posts