Fritjof Capra is best known as the author of The Tao of Physics, in which he claimed that there are meaningful similarities between the pronouncements of the mystics and modern science. In the present book he looks at the same idea in a different context. His theme is the bankruptcy of the mechanistic world view of Newton and Descartes and the need to replace it with a holistic outlook, more in keeping with modern physics, which he considers to be the model or 'paradigm' for how we should be thinking about life in general and our place in the universe in particular.
The book has two main sections. In the first part Capra considers the failings of the old order in terms of the prevailing view of medicine, psychology, and economics. In all these areas, he says, materialistic, authoritarian, male-dominated ways of thinking have led to a dangerously narrow-minded view of how things are. In the second part, 'A New Vision of Reality', Capra sets forth his vision of what should replace the old outlook. In medicine, the kind of thing we need is exemplified by homeopathy; in psychology we could look to Wilhelm Reich, the eccentric associate of Freud who later claimed to have discovered something he called orgone energy, which Capra relates to the Chinese concept of chi. Jung is endorsed too, and so are various psychotherapeutic movements popular on the West Coast of America. Even the egregious Carlos Castaneda and his alleged guru Don Juan get a favourable mention. (I regard a willingness to take Castaneda seriously as a useful touchstone test for gullibility in an author.)
The book first appeared nearly twenty years ago, at which time the ideas Capra was advocating were still to some extent unfamiliar and unsettling for many people. Today they are the common currency of popular magazines and television programmes; astrology columns and articles about feng shui appear even in 'serious' newspapers. It's interesting to speculate how far writers like Capra have contributed to the upsurge in interest in such New Age thinking and how far they are simply passengers, riding on the crest of a cultural wave like so many West Coast surfers on a Pacific roller.
So, does the book repay reading today? Only, I think, for its historical interest. It says nothing that can't be found in dozens of more recent books, and the writing is hardly distinguished; in fact, it is quite dull. By now I find I've read so many attacks on 'reductionism' that I have no wish to read another; I know the arguments very well by now, and I don't want to hear them rehearsed yet again. It's all very well to criticize old-fashioned rationalism, but too often what we're offered instead is a soppy mass of half-truths, dubious analogies, and loose thinking. Capra's book has its share of these things. But as a milestone on the road that has taken us to where we are today, it's worth looking at.
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