The Patterning Instinct

Now and again a book comes out which seems to put its finger on a central issue regarding the nature of human knowledge and its consequences. Such a book, for me, is The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent (May 2017, Prometheus Books). The book’s subtitle, a cultural history of humanity’s search for meaning, encapsulates its focus, scope and ambitions. It attempts to identify the hidden patterns which have shaped human cultures and how the latter have been expressed in terms of the values which have defined and guided each civilisation and generation. The author’s plea is if one wants to understand the present, only a deep, wide and sustained look at our past can illuminate the question of how we got here and why. What the author has done is to have applied TOK to (pretty much) the whole of human history in an attempt to highlight the manifold patterns which have shaped every aspect of human cultures and behaviour. What did he find and how might this be of interest to TOK students and teachers?

His findings can be summarised in the following ways. Firstly, to understand any aspect of human culture or history you need to identify the deep-lying patterns which have informed and shaped human societies in different parts of the world. He postulates that the emergence of the Prefrontal Cortex some seventy thousand years ago is the matrix within which people first created theses patterns. Secondly, these patterns were primarily expressed in the form of metaphors and these were embedded in mythological and cosmological narratives which guaranteed their coherence, authority and longevity. Thirdly, humanity developed increasingly sophisticated patterning abilities and this continues to this day. Fourthly, these patterns determined many key aspects of human cultures, from one’s sense of identity to one’s relationship to the natural world, via the kind of technology a culture would produce and for what purpose. Underpinning all this were culture specific values. Fifthly, Jeremy Lent proposes that East and West have been operating under quite different models. The former a more holistic (everything is interconnected) structure whilst the latter followed a more dualistic one (matter and spirit are forever separate and opposites). Lastly, the author suggests that the only way for humanity to save itself from destruction is to change the destructive patterns we have followed for millennia and to adopt new metaphors, ones where the tension between the head and the heart, reason and emotion are reconciled and work in tandem rather than against each other.

If you look up the word pattern in a thesaurus you will find quite a long list of synonyms which highlight the incredibly varied, flexible and all-encompassing nature of the concept. Every Area of Knowledge uses or creates patterns in the context of producing or using knowledge. Patterns also clearly play a role in what we choose to identify as knowledge or the way we acquire it, whether as personal or shared knowledge. Whether one agrees with Jeremy Lent’s conclusion that the dominant metaphors in the West have been essentially destructive whilst those of the East have been primarily constructive; it does suggest a possible reason behind the cultural misunderstandings which occur when people from different parts of the world meet. Understanding the role of patterns in our own learning is important in TOK, but seeking to understand the patterns guiding ways of thinking which are alien to us may be as, if not more, important for a fruitful and constructive dialogue as we seek to identify new solutions to the age old problems afflicting our world.

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