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Astrology, Patriarchy and Postmodernism

This article was first published in The Mountain Astrologer, Issue no.84, April/May 1999. Copyright 1999 Bill Sheeran. All Rights Reserved.

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There was a time in the not too distant past when astrology stopped making sense. After two thousand years, a whole cosmology unravelled in the space of a couple of life times. Astrology was ejected from its safe cocoon, supplanted by cold metallic Reason and the new occult force of Gravity. In the academic institutions of the West it became a subject unfit for study, and over three centuries later, the situation still holds. But despite this prolonged exclusion from the officially sanctioned world view, astrology is still alive within the culture, albeit in a somewhat malnourished state. Restricted access to a wide range of resources and facilities over a prolonged period of time has had its effects, particularly in terms of research and the establishment of solid institutions. Counterbalancing this is the unprecedented amount of astrology-related activity evident today, whether in terms of client work, book and journal publishing, or presence on the Internet. Even so, in the context of western society, astrology exists in a kind of ghetto, ostracised, misrepresented and on the margins.

Although efforts have been made to validate astrology in objective terms using the methods of science (thereby rendering it generally acceptable), they have not been very successful so far. As an interpretative craft, the practice of astrology entails a high degree of subjective evaluation. The literalism of scientific objectivity is not well suited to modelling symbol systems such as astrology. From a conventional scientific perspective, it is almost impossible for astrology to fulfil the criteria which would attest to its reality. And yet astrology is a very resilient feature of humanity's subjective experience. An alternative approach would be to attempt to formulate a theoretical or philosophical understanding of the nature of astrology uncoupled from the literalism of science, and based on the evidence of that subjective experience (i.e. on its own terms). The manifestations of astrology in the past as well as the present, in both western and non-western cultures, provide a huge amount of material from which to distil conceptual models.

The Value of Conceptual Models
Why bother with conceptual models? After all, astrology is a craft whose value and application does not hinge on its rationalisation. One answer to that question is that we live in a culture and time when blind faith is not enough - we like things to make sense. This does not mean that astrology has to be explained according to universal laws defined by orthodoxy. There is a middle way between rational objectivity and individual subjective fancy. It is possible for something to make sense non-rationally, for it to feel OK in terms of the logic of imagination. From this point of view, conceptual models are not literal representations of phenomena, but instead act as metaphors which carry explanatory power. Such metaphorical models mediate understanding, and evolve through experience, becoming consolidated through consensus. Most importantly they also facilitate the communication of astrology's nature in a way that makes sense to the imagination - it becomes conceivable. There are aspects of life (and astrology) which are impervious to reason, but which assume a degree of clarity when considered non-rationally.

Another reason for developing conceptual models is that they provide a framework within which astrologers can discuss and debate the merits of approaches or techniques (both old and new) as a complement to empirical observation. With the possible exception of Jungian ideas about synchronicity and divination, which have proved to be very useful for psychological astrology in particular, such theoretical constructions are thin on the ground. The absence of conceptual frameworks puts astrologers on the defensive when challenged, inducing an insecurity which becomes globally visible as flame wars on the Internet discussion groups, or locally as the frequent animosity which can erupt between individual astrologers who embrace different and seemingly mutually exclusive approaches. And of course such an absence provides critics of astrology with all the fun of a turkey shoot. It is also intellectually dissatisfying to have to live with a situation where internal inconsistencies such as the myriad of house systems, a handful of zodiacs, or the question of hypothetical planets remain unaddressed simply for want of a framework within which they can be usefully debated. At this stage it is pretty clear that quantitative science alone cannot provide that framework, and other strategies need to be developed.

Questioning Absolutes
As it happens, in this century the aspiration of achieving an absolute and objective scientific definition of reality has been severely dented [1]. Increasingly, it is being recognised that it is impossible to escape the "contaminating" influence of subjectivity and imagination, and that the conceptual modelling of reality is rooted in a wide range of variables which together constitute the "cognitive landscape" of our culture. Today, the pole position is still given to rational logic and scientific methodology, which of course has a potent value. However, these are nevertheless bound to cultural determinants (such as physical embodiment, language, history, mythology, religion, philosophy, climate, geographical location, etc.) which at the very least modulate which questions will be asked and which answers are acceptable. The modelling of reality does not happen in a cultural vacuum [2].

More generally, the current expanding post-modern sensibility promotes a liberation from the constraints of absolutes and certainty. Central to the Modern world view is the idea that there are authoritative over-arching theories which provide universal explanations (e.g. Marxism, religions, scientific "theories of everything", etc.). This is being seriously questioned by post-modern philosophers. One of the problems highlighted is the extent of exclusion, intolerance and cultural bias implicit in such authoritarian perspectives. This has been as much an issue for astrology as it has for the barely tolerated world views which have emerged from non-western cultures. The shift away from attachment to universal absolutes is in its infancy, and creates many problems which are ably highlighted by critics of postmodernism. It is beyond the scope of this article to enter into the various arguments. However, the genie is out of the bottle, and certain conceptual bridges have been crossed which set the scene for cultural evolution during the next century [3].

Astrology is a Social Activity
This destabilisation has implications for astrology. First of all, it promises to absolve astrologers from feeling driven to validate astrology in terms of the current dogmas of orthodox thinking, which are largely defined by science. On the other hand, it puts pressure on astrologers to develop their own theories, ones which makes sense both internally and within a broad cultural context that can embrace diversity. It also implies that astrology itself is not necessarily the expression of a closed set of fixed and timeless truths. The form it takes in any given era and culture is grounded in the appropriate cognitive landscape. In other words, what astrology means, its structural elements, the way it is practised, its social function, etc., are open to evolution. Obviously, this does not mean that it can be re-invented willy-nilly - it has a lineage and tradition which sustains it like the roots of a tree, and which has substantial and lasting value. On the other hand, astrology is first and foremost a human societal activity, and is not to be literally equated with the phenomena it studies. It could perhaps be partially defined as the evolving record of humanity's efforts to model a subjectively experienced phenomenon - the correlation between celestial rhythms and the rhythms of life on Earth. If the shift towards a post-modern perspective becomes further consolidated in the next century, what forms will astrology take on as it evolves in response to the profound cultural changes we have witnessed during this one?

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[1] An accessible overview of various philosophical perspectives on science's claims to objectivity can be found in What is this thing called Science?, A.F.Chalmers, The Open University Press, Milton Keynes, England, 1978. For a classic critique of the supposed rational objectivity of science, see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S.Kuhn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970.  back

[2] In Metaphors We Live By, G.Lakoff, M.Johnson, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1980 forceful arguments are made promoting the idea that truth is always relative to a conceptual system defined by metaphors, which themselves are culturally determined. The concept of absolute and objective truth is considered as a western cultural myth.  back

[3] For a good and readable introduction to postmodernism, see The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought, edited by Stuart Sim, Icon Books, Cambridge, England, 1998.  back