From Old Thinking to New Thinking 

Margarete van den Brink

Herman WijffelsFritjof Capra

We human beings find ourselves at a transformational turning point in our evolution. An old world is coming to its end. A new one is being born.

Herman Wiffels, a leading figure in the Netherlands regularly points to this transition from the old to the new. Wijffels, once chairman of the Dutch Social-Economic Council and representative at the World Bank in Washington, DC, is now professor of Sustainability and Social Change at Utrecht University.

Like Jiddu Krishnamurti, Rudolf Steiner, Ervin László, Fritjof Capra and others, he keeps reiterating that a new way of thinking is required to combat the current worldwide sociological, ecological, financial and economic problems.

Wijffels refers to this old thinking as 'narrow-track' industrial, Cartesian, Newtonian and Darwinian thinking that has run its course. Elsewhere, and in a similar vein, he speaks of a compartmentalised, egocentric rationality. This way of thinking, he says, while bringing benefits, has also created many negative consequences.

Rational analysis

What do people like Wijffels, but also scientists such as Fritjof Capra, mean when they say that Cartesian, Newtonian thinking has run its course?

To answer this question we need to go back to the 17th and 18th century, to the time of Descartes (1596-1650) and Newton (1643-1727). Descartes and Newton are representatives of a way of thinking that deviated completely from that of the Middle Ages. Whereas in the Middle Ages thinking was still determined by feelings and intuition, René Descartes in the 17th century introduced rational analysis to science. To him, not intuition but analytical thought was the only reliable method to acquire knowledge.

Analytical thought divides a system or a problem into smaller parts (compartments) and studies these parts separately and puts them back together in such a way that they form a logical whole. This is how one tries to comprehend. In other words: instead of beginning with or including the whole and understanding the problem from its position within this whole, it starts with the parts, the separate pieces. This approach is characteristic of current science.

In medical science for example, the human body is divided into areas of expertise: cardiology, ophthalmology, general surgery, etc. Connected with these sub divisions are specialists who approach and treat patients out of their own expert perspective but who too often may not put this in the context of the whole of the physical body (and thus rarely cooperate with each other). In terms of Wijffels and others, this brings about an 'atomic', 'compartmentalised' way of thinking and working.

Descartes and materialistic intellectualism

Descartes is generally considered as the world's founder of rationalism. To this day this rationalism, also called materialistic intellectualism, determines the thinking method in science. From there it gained a strong influence on general thought in society. It is called materialistic because it is precisely aimed at the physical-material as the only one reality. Neither heaven nor the spiritual world exist for a rationalist. That is pure fantasy or simply a matter of religion or belief, a remnant from an ancient time.

Analytical thinking has gained a tremendous influence on our soul and the experience of our self as a person. This has happened because rational thinking typically removes itself from the soul's connectedness, in particular from its connection to feelings. Eventually, this has led to modern man losing the natural sense of connection with the world around him: the environment, the earth, the cosmos, and the divine. Instead of feeling at one with God, other people, nature and all that lives, as was natural in the Middle Ages and before, people nowadays place themselves in opposition to the world around and no longer feel automatically connected with 'the other' or the environment.

Rational analytical thinking and the I-consciousness

Another area where the development of the analytical, rational thinking had great influence is the area of the I-consciousness or self-consciousness. As René Descartes mentioned in his famous sentence 'Cogito ergo sum': 'I think therefore I am', the I-consciousness of human beings is closely connected to rational thinking. Through my rational thinking, I experience that I exist. In my cognitive thinking I experience myself as an 'I', as an independent person, separate from other people.

The strength of my 'I' and my rational thinking help me to bring order into my soul and to understand the world within and outside me. Rational thinking is therefore a very important achievement. It is important to recognise this.


However, the 'I' that I experience through rational thinking, is not my 'true self', my 'spiritual self', but my 'lower I' my 'ego-I'. This is because it is bound to my physical body and so to the world of matter.

One important quality of this 'ego-I' is that it revolves entirely around itself and is therefore fully focused on itself. In other words: it is locks people up in themselves. It is 'ego-centric'.

That means that the 'ego-I' always places us in the centre. That is why we modern humans tend to pull everything towards ourselves: 'I want to have'. And I always want to have more, because the 'ego-I' derives its value and power from the quantity of possession. This pulling from the environment towards oneself also implies a mind-set that the world, nature, natural resources etc. are there for me and that I can take from them as much as I please.

In relationship to other people the 'ego-I' mainly thinks in terms of separation, positioning itself figuratively opposite others, yet with a focus back onto itself. This positioning predisposes the 'ego I' to competition, rivalry and strife: 'I versus you', 'I before the other', 'I am/need to be better or more beautiful than the other, or ' I want to win', 'I will defeat you' etc.

All these factors together: the overwhelming focus on reason, the disconnection with the feeling, the exploitation of nature, the tendency to add to one's possessions and profits, the constant competition and strife with other people, etc, have led to the ecological, financial and economic crises we experience today. Or, as Fritjof Capra says in his book The Turning Point, it has led to technologies, institutions and lifestyles that are deeply unhealthy and destructive. The increasing air and chemical pollution, the threat of radiation, exhaustion of natural resources and so on, are clear signs of an economic system that is obsessed with growth and expansion, with disastrous consequences for the planet and life on earth.

The financial crisis

Herman Wijffels echoes this train of thought, and points out that such atomistic, egocentric and rational behaviour does not only destroy nature, biodiversity and ecosystems, but also caused the financial crises. Essentially we are dealing, he says, with a cultural problem: a combination of anthropocentrism (man and his own needs are central), social Darwinism (man, in his battle for his existence, is only after his own gain) and a tunnel vision that leads to taking what you can. This happens because our economic system has its basis in this compartmentalised, egocentric rationality that only seeks its own benefit, the maximum profit. As a result, little attention is paid to the consequences this behaviour has on the well-being of plants, of animals, of people, indeed on all life on earth. Just consider what genetic manipulation does to the essence of a plant (and therefore also to people) and what factory farming of cattle and chickens does to animals. Animals are seen as living machines that produce milk, meat and eggs. The higher their production, the higher the profit.

A new way of thinking

What other way of thinking is needed? According to Wijffels the Cartesian way of thinking must be reconsidered. Referring to Albert Einstein he says: problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. Fritjof Capra and others believe too that the problems of this time cannot be solved 'within the current fragmented and reductionist framework of our academic disciplines and social institutions'. However, Capra also points to hopeful signals showing that in recent decades fundamental changes are taking place in science and society. Descartes' and Newton's prevailing mechanical, materialistic worldview that sees the cosmos, nature, and also people as machines, is very gradually being exchanged for a perspective in which the earth is found to be a living organism, a self-regulating system that possesses intelligence and consciousness, just like plants, trees, animals and human beings.

This new view shows that every single cell in the human body – and there are many billions of them – ' knows' it is connected to a whole and 'knows' its task within that greater whole. This also applies to organs like the brain, the heart, the immune system, etc. Everything in the human body is permeated with awareness, wisdom and connectivity! In other words: with spirit.

The material world appears to be a system, a network, with interconnected patterns and relationships that possess intelligence. Changes in one have a direct effect on and consequences for the other. This means that when, without the proper knowledge, parts of a whole are separated and then reassembled in a different way (for example in genetic manipulation) the foundation of the entire system, the whole, is affected, including the regulating consciousness that lives within and which keeps everything sound. This is how the natural environment of the earth, the plants, the animals, people, and their interconnectedness deteriorates. And with that, life itself.

Improving the quality of relations and connections

For Wijffels the new thinking or new consciousness means: taking a step to a higher quality of relationships and connection; relationships between people, between people and the earth, and between people and other forms of life. This can only be achieved, he says, if we develop empathy and compassion and become aware of the consequences that our actions have on our environment. In turn, qualities such as empathy and compassion can only be developed if we humans personally connect with our own feelings. For only by using our own feelings can we empathize with our environment, with other people, other life forms, and really move and understand the essence of 'the other'. Only then will we get to the core that opens the door to a deeper connection and understanding.

Integrating rational thinking and feeling

However, developing one's feelings does not mean to stop thinking. We need our thinking in order to become aware of the perceptions that we receive when we use our feelings. We must catch feelings with our thoughts in order to be able to verbalise them.

All this is about learning to integrate our reason, our intelligence, our feeling and our intuition. This does not happen by itself. It is hard work and has to do with our personal development. However, if we succeed, we take ourselves as a person to a higher level. That is because we learn to no longer operate from our own 'ego-I', but from our higher 'I', our spiritual self.

This allows for a completely different attitude: no longer are we only taking, but we also learn to give, and thus to serve the greater whole: the future of the earth, the evolution of humanity, etc.

If taken on by a large group of people, this new attitude will gradually transform our culture to a higher level. For we then take a step away from anthropocentrism to a connection with all forms of life. From conflict and strife to cooperation, and from tunnel vision to an inclusive and integrated vision that is aware of the parts as well as of the greater whole.

Higher level of individual awareness

Wijffels is hopeful about the growing number of people in the world whom he calls the 'cultural creatives'. Cultural creatives are people who, apart from their thinking, are in touch with their feelings, think about what they believe, make conscious decisions, know which values they have and deal responsibly with other people and nature.

Their characteristic values are: simplicity, sustainability, spirituality and social awareness.

This higher level of individual awareness that comes from the higher spiritual self is, for Wijffels, the supporting force that carries the transition from the old to the new world, which has to be sustainable if our planet wishes to survive. In this, we humans, both individually and together, are the all-determining factor. Everything depends on the question of whether we take steps in our personal, social and spiritual development. This means that the task we currently face is - apart from being ecological, financial, economical and cultural - in its deepest essence, of a spiritual nature.

Renewal of the financial-economic system

Wherever possible, both in his work as a professor and in lectures throughout the world, Wijffels emphasizes the necessity of the transition from Old Thinking to New Thinking. He shows the changes that are required in the areas of the environment, the worldwide cooperation between people and governments, and the much needed thorough transformation of the current financial and economic system.

Wijffels is co-chairman of 'Worldconnectors'. In 2012, together with Professor Klaas van Egmond and Peter Blom, CEO of the (anthroposophically oriented) Triodos Bank, he founded the Sustainable Finance Lab. The Sustainable Finance Lab is a 'think tank' of scientists from different disciplines who develop ideas that contribute to a renewal of the financial sector. A financial sector that is no longer only bent on profits and profit maximizing as in the past, but which contributes to an economy that serves human and evolutionary development without exhausting the environment.

It is clear: the new thinking carries in itself the power of the future. We can be thankful that more and more people are making this new thinking their own.


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