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William Irwin Thompson, theUtopian Tradition and American Transcendentalism Zacha1y T.Irwin and CharlesM. Redenius Introduction Many utopian writers would affirm with William Irwin Thompson that their thinking presents an apposite assessment of society and offers a practical prescriptionfor its transformation. As cultural historians, such thinkers critiquetheir societies from perspectives that challenge existing complacencies . Moreover, these critiques often uncover in the disintegration of the culturein which they live out their lives the materials for building a new and radicallydifferent society. It isin describing their vision of a transformed humanity or a drastically altered civilization that Thompson and other likeminded authors are most often branded utopian dreamers. Yet,fewwriters wish their critical thought described as fanciful, quixotic orrepresentative of an impossible ideal. Thus it is more useful, and possibly moreflattering, to ask if any author is capable of thought which fulfills the"utopian" function as understood by Karl Mannheim, that is, to create ideas which transcend reality and which at the same time act as agents of social change. These ideas "tend to shatter, either partially or wholly, the orderof things prevailing at the time." 1 Ever since Mannheim's classic Ideology and Utopia first appeared, scholars have paid close attention to the modes of thought he described in the "sociology of knowledge." By studying various writings in the light of these "utopian" modes, it becomes possible to reach some conclusions about their internal consistency. Yet "utopianism" Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 15,Number 3, Fall 1984,271-286 272 Zachary T.Irwin and Charles M. Redenius represents, from another perspective, a failure of judgment about thepossibilities of human volition in creating the future. As a consequence much effort isinvested in arguing about the future because it is assumed that beliefs will affect outcomes. 2 Without some guidance from Mannheim and others who have carefully analyzed utopian thought, the scholarly debate caninvoke claims for an author's efforts at "forecasting" (a rational exercise?), oragainst a writers' attempts at "futurology" (a pseudoscience?), or for an author's creative use of "utopianism" (a literary device?). Depending on one'sperspective , the thought of William Irwin Thompson could be accommodated byany or all of these categories. One caveat is required at this point. Although Thompson's methodsare not the focus of this investigation, his departure from traditional canonsof scholarship, and the reservations such a departure engenders, must benoted. Some of the more problematic aspects of Thompson's work arise fromhis aspiration to transcend what he perceives as the fetters that form an inher· ent feature of the paradigm of modem-day, empirical, social science. Such high level criticism enables Thompson to pass easily from analysis to pre· scription to "salvation." By "revisioning" society, he becomes the heraldof a new age. A new paradigm of thought, a "planetary" myth more attuned to our humanity and our technical potential, is a necessary pre-condition if mankind is to avoid chaos during the transition to the new age. Thompson 's methods abjure mechanistic Cartesian thinking that explains reality by separation, analysis and reduction in favor of the holistic wisdomembedded in esoteric myths. For many scholars, such methods may present insurmountable obstacles to a careful examination of Thompson's work. Our concerns, however, lie elsewhere. In this paper we examine Thompson's most important writings, andwe speculate upon their potential to serve as agents of social change in the sense introduced by Mannheim. We argue that Thompson's most significant contribution to utopian thought is to have created an ideal that may bemost successful because it can be appropriated by different intellectual capacities for different purposes. This does not mean that his adherents, nor hiscritics, have found his work to be without flaws. What is central to Thompson's work is a core of writings that offers a philosophy of history, a universal faith, the foundations for a ''planetary" community, and a rationale for ecological awareness. These purposes could be readily adapted to servethe objectives Mannheim envisioned for utopian thought. Thompson and the Utopian Tradition Thompson considers "utopian" in the negative sense to pertain to those thinkers whose idea of the future stands radically opposed to his own.He argues that their "vision'' of the future neglects the tragic...


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