The Mind of Al Gore 5

You know right away with Gore that his philosophical ideas were not worked up for him by speech writers. Asked which thinkers he had been influenced by in his brief career as a divinity student, he mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Ed¬mund Husserl. Would that be Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception? Yes, he said, with a flicker (just a flicker) of excite¬ment—did I know it? He had found the work helpful, he said, “in cultivating a capacity for a more refined introspection that gave me better questions that ultimately led to a renewed determination to become involved with the effort to make things better.” It is a little hard to imagine having this conversation with George W. Bush.
The vice president, as it gradually emerged in our talk, is a holist, a post-postmodernist, and a goo-goo. Let us ponder these in se¬quence. Holism is the view that by dividing experience up into dif¬ferent categories—fact and value, science and religion, art and morals—we end up treating a universe that is a living, integrated whole as though it were a machine with detachable parts. We mur¬der to dissect. Beneath appearances a single reality beautifully blooms, holists believe, but we have lost touch with it.
Gore lays the blame for these artificial divisions (his view is nothing if not long) on the scientific revolution. “Clearly one of the large changes under way in our civilization,” he told me, “is that we’re trying to escape from the narrow segmented emphasis on spe¬cialization that began some four hundred years ago with the scien¬tific revolution, seducing the rest of the centers of thought in our civilization into looking at the world in very narrow slices, gaining the great benefits of using this approach to understand in intricate detail ever narrower slices of the world, but at a cost of ignoring the interconnections with the rest of the world.”
The most dangerous of these divisions, Gore believes, is the divi¬sion between the mind and the body, for which he holds responsible Descartes’ theory that the mind can know truth solely by rational in¬trospection. A “philosophical error,” Gore had called this theory in his best-selling book on the environmental crisis, Earth in the Bal¬ance, published in 1992. “The Cartesian model of the disembodied intellect,” he argues there, is responsible not only for our twentieth- century environmental problems—the destruction of the ozone layer, the elimination of plant and animal species, and global warming—but also for what he calls our whole “dysfunctional civiliza¬tion.” Cartesian thinking has cut us off from our feelings.
Feeling is an important category for Gore. “Feelings represent an essential link between mind and body or, to put it another way, the link between our intellect and the physical world,” he says in Earth in the Balance. “Abstract thought is but one dimension of our awareness.” Living for centuries in this artificial way has produced “a kind of psychic pain at the very root of the modern mind.” Gore has, it must be said, a rather abstract way of condemning abstrac¬tion: “Insisting on the supremacy of the neocortex exacts a high price,” he explains in the book, “because the unnatural task of a dis¬embodied mind is to somehow ignore the intense psychic pain that comes from the constant nagging awareness of what is missing: the experience of living in one’s body as a fully integrated physical and mental being.” Fie goes on at some length to explain our relation to modern civilization in the vocabulary of codependency, addiction, denial, and recovery.
The most common misperception of Gore is that he is a techie, a superrationalist out of touch with his inner child. Gore sometimes plays to this image by beginning public appearances with his fright¬eningly convincing impersonation of himself as a block of wood. But one suspects that, like many sobersided and deliberate people, he is extremely brittle, and that it is the brittleness, rather than the self-importance, that accounts for the stubbornness. It took him five years to recover from Vietnam; his son’s accident kept him out of presidential politics for almost three years. It also led him to write Earth in the Balance, and all the discussion in that book about ad¬dictive behavior and dysfunctional families clearly arises—he as much as says so—out of a personal trauma.
When he talked in his office, he connected the sense of lost in¬tegration—the “psychic pain at the root of the modern mind”—to the cynicism he believes is poisoning politics. “Those who are cyni¬cal, those who are overly skeptical about self-government—some of their energy comes from that, too,” he maintained. “And postmod-ernism, also a mistake, came about in reaction to that earlier em¬phasis on overspecialization. There’s a great desire now to find the connections between different parts of our society, our civiliza¬tion—science and religion being the two large subdivisions that need to be reconnected.” He recommended a recent book on the subject, called The Marriage of Sense and Soul. Did I know that one? “That’s one of my new favorites,” he said.
The Marriage of Sense and Soul (research reveals) is by Ken Wilber, who lives in Boulder and has written twelve previous works, including Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality and A Brief History of Ev¬erything. The Marriage of Sense and Soul is endorsed by Deepak Chopra (“Ken Wilber is one of the most important pioneers in the field of consciousness in this century. I regard him as my mentor”), the pollster Daniel Yankelovitch, and Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun. Wilber’s idea is that modern civilization denies the spiritual and emotional side of experience by exalting the rational and the material. The result is what he calls the modernist “flatland,” a world shorn of depth and meaning.

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