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Beyond a Post-Modern Astrology
a response to Candy Hillenbrand

by Gerry Goddard

In her bold and thought provoking article An Archaic Astrology Cast Adrift in a Post-Modern World Candy Hillenbrand addresses several important points concerning the nature of astrology and the way many, if not most, astrologers understand and practice their craft. Her general thesis is that the search for an objective and rational basis for astrology in order to attain respectability is wedded to a now largely outmoded view of truth. Such an attempt on the part of astrologers to establish astrology on an objective basis is to buy into an epistemology which is actually foundational to the approaches of behaviorism in psychology and positivism in science. Both behaviourism and scientific positivism are grounded on a deterministic and radically objectifying approach to reality -- a view which has been seriously challenged within the postmodern intellectual culture. But the underlying belief in determinism appears in different guises -- cause/effect, fate, karma etc -- and can be found, not only in the predictive practices of non-psychologically oriented astrologers (often grounded in a fear of chaos), but also in the astrological school of Jungian depth psychology and mythology with its notion of projection and inner psychological complexes.

Positivism and behaviourism and the whole modernist view of objective truth (and all deterministic corollaries) have been profoundly challenged by the postmodern contention as to the necessary role of the subject or the observer in any quest for knowledge. According to Candy, general astrological theory and practice has yet to catch up with this more sophisticated postmodern insight. In fact, free choice, growth and self actualization -- the prime values of the humanistic and transpersonal approaches -- are not realizable within the framework of either an objectively or subjectively deterministic astrology. Candy believes that astrologers should admit that astrology is actually a religion necessarily resting on a belief in some sort of metaphysical or divine order and she agrees with Geoffrey Cornelius that astrology is actually divination. She calls for a more openended postmodern approach to our craft, one that recognizes the non-ultimacy of the 'self', where we are in a more free-form, dialogical and less universalistic and authoritative relation to the person and their chart as co-participants in a process of mutual empowerment.

Candy's essay is not only a psychological astrologer's rejection of predictive astrology but is a postmodern protest against both those who are bowing to modernism in trying to establish astrology on an objective basis and those who are importing old medieval and fatalistic notions into psychologically dressed-up current practice. I understand her central contention to be that the religiously charged, metaphysically large, authoritative and totalizing belief systems of astrologers, "in attempting to make all of humanity fit into the constraints" of an "all-embracing, universal and authoritarian 'theory of personality' or 'theory of how-the-world-works'" rob "the individual of her/his own authority."

As much as I appreciate the general thrust of Candy's criticisms, I am uneasy that she sets up an overly constrictive opposition between existential freedom and metaphysical claims, between an openness to the moment and the place of metanarrative. Within the perspective of humanistic psychology with its awareness of the contextual and fluid nature of 'truth', a free and existentially open non authoritative attitude is surely an optimum approach to client centered counseling work. We can be largely non-directive and reflective listeners, but as astrologers we are bringing something else, something very powerful to the session, something which we can use to cut to the core of things, to stop the endless go-round of narrative and story telling in which people readily become entrapped.

Astrology as Practice: Astrology as Essence

I think we need to be careful not to conflate the account of the state of the art with an account of the essential nature of the art -- the postmodern suspicion of 'essences' notwithstanding. Let's say that we are in the 18th century discussing the nature of science by discussing the practices and discoveries of 18th century science; and strictly on that basis we come to certain conclusions about the nature of science. As understandable as this is, we now know (21st century) in retrospect that we would be barely scratching the surface as to what 'science' really is, and what the nature of the universe is that scientific methods have now come to illuminate. Of course present scientific methodology and knowledge is also limited, but the important thing is that science is something much more than the particular methodologies, knowledges and also false theories of a particular period in history. Such an account does not tell us what science 'is', what the universe 'is', in the sense that it still awaits further uncoverings of its mysteries. There is no sense in saying that the universe is only what we say it is at a particular time in history. Of course science and all the arts are historical as postmodernism correctly argues, but they are not only historical!

If as Candy asserts, and as I largely agree, astrological understanding and practice is still hampered by a lot of old baggage, the question becomes whether and how the insights of postmodernism provide a significant evolutionary step forward for astrology. I think I have a lot more problems with postmodernism than does Candy so let me make just a few points beginning with what I see are some important questions which remain after considering her case.

Beyond what astrologers actually happen to believe and how they practice, what about the actual nature of the astrological symbol and its real implications? What about the possible nature of the world suggested by astrological effects, and how such special knowledge or insight might profoundly effect not only what could and does happen in sessions, but also the way that the broad cultural paradigm(s) might continue to evolve? Candy's essay suggests that in light of postmodern insights, such concerns are either old paradigm, or need to be relegated to that poor cousin of all knowledge disciplines, religion. But what if the deeper meanings of the symbols are realizable only through a willingness to engage various grand narratives or metaphysical syntheses? Further, how are we to evaluate the underlying truth claim of postmodernism that there is no truth with a capital T? Is this claim only relatively true? If not, then it is merely a self contradiction. If it is only relatively true, then it has no force. Despite important postmodern insights (albeit necessary as correctives of a previously imbalanced objectivism) as to the contextual and subjectively informed nature of knowledge, the world just may be a certain way -- although very complex and multidimensional.

Subjectivity and Objectivity

Although the postmodern (multiperspectival) perspective frees us up from all sorts of old and narrow constrictions, it can be a treacherous quick sand that replaces the old objectivism with a radically openended and relativistic subjectivism. But rather than replacing the old objectivism with a new openended and purely interpretative subjectivism, we need to find our way to a more adequate and more evolved integration of subject and object. We need to value equally the interpretation and that which is being interpreted. Interpretation is not just interpretation. There does exist some state of affairs being interpreted; it is just that this 'existing state-of-affairs' is partially the product of prior subject/object interactions and interpretations. It is only because there is some state of affairs that we can be said to meaningfully offer less adequate or more adequate interpretations. The modernist belief in an objective state of affairs is incorrect only because it presupposes, but fails to acknowledge the equal importance of the experiencing subject. Some astrological interpretations (both theoretical and in session) are better or more adequate than others even if people may be unable to come to a clear consensus as to that which is more adequate.

Astrologers must not so easily give up their contention that astrology reveals -- albeit with the same interpretative latitude that exists in all the arts and humanities, in the whole realm of human values and meanings -- a larger and containing order of things, one that includes science while going beyond it. It is clearly the case that Quantum theory and relativity more accurately describe the physical world than Newtonian physics which was in turn more adequate than the cosmologies of Aristotle and Ptolemy. It is surely false to claim, as do some postmodernists, that these are just culturally constructed stories which reveal the alleged nature of things no better than the 'stories' of ancient or indigenous cultures. The problem with science is that it does not recognize the multidimensional or ontologically multileveled nature of things, so it tries to explain human beingness, consciousness itself, by inserting it fully into the physical or material dimension, which is simply absurd. But we still have to admit to the reality of the physical sphere beyond our conceptualizations of it. However, we need to admit to it along with the no less real domain of conscious (and unconscious) human experience, values and meanings. In fact, astrology offers precisely that evidence which (along with other things) shows that radical postmodern multiperspectivalism is a less than adequate interpretation of the nature of 'truth'.

Some astrologers allow themselves to be intimidated by science's demand that we show objectively measurable results in order to establish astrology's validity as a knowledge discipline. On the one hand, such intimidation leads to the attempt to prove that astrology is a science or a system of 'objective' and quantifiable knowledge. But on the other, it can also lead to what I think Candy and Cornelius may be doing, namely, abrogating the territory of expanding knowledge by declaring that astrology is a religion or that it is solely divination. I think that there is a perceived problem in ascribing any level of objective meaning to astrological interpretation because the physical sciences have established materiality (the sensed world) as paradigmatic of the 'objective' (despite the participant observer phenomenon at the subatomic level). Hence, anything not experiencable by the senses and their extensions (or inferred as a series of causes and effects capable of quantification and prediction) is not objective, ergo, it must be merely subjective, or even psychic.

But we don't have to buy into this narrow concept of objectivity. We all know that we cannot derive the 'ought' from the 'is'; that we cannot legitimate value claims by reference to matters of fact. But the scientists contend that the 'is' is the only legitimate knowledge possible. This is the ontology in which scientistic skeptics are grounded. It is in terms of this ontology that they demand astrology legitimate itself in order to be called a knowledge discipline, in order to allow that it reveals anything about the actual nature of things! Why are we even listening to these people? We certainly do not have to accept their hijacking of the concept of objectivity. Certainly, the idea of an objective reality can be meaningful beyond its narrow scientific meaning, challenging the division between scientific and material objectivity on the one hand and allegedly non-objective or subjectively 'emotive' art and religion on the other.

Astrology as Religion and as Divination

I am not exactly sure what calling astrology a religion, or calling it a metanarrative means. People may make a 'religion out of it' just as one can make a 'religion' (in the sense here of a noumenously charged belief system) out of anything including science. Perhaps a lot of practioners approach astrology like a religion. But because something goes beyond the objectivity of science and beyond the free imaginative creativity of art, that does not necessarily relegate it to religion. Metaphysical ideas and even profound non-ordinary experiences do not necessarily imply religion. I personally have a metaphysical (and hopefully flexible) framework which acknowledges realms of the transpersonal and the veridical basis of mystical experiences (i.e. they are not illusions), but I am not religious. The world revealed by astrology (or transpersonal experience etc.) cannot be explained in simple naturalistic terms; it implies a reality larger and more dimensional than ordinary materialism. Hence, some sort of metanarrative is necessary, even though no particular metanarrative can be called final. No verbal articulation can ever adequately express that which is larger than concepts and language.

I'd like to touch on Candy's approval of Cornelius' point concerning astrology as divination. Even though some, or even much of the actual practice of astrology may be divination, it is precisely because astrology is something more than divination that it is especially significant in what it says about the nature of things. This is what makes astrology uniquely interesting. Surely, it is more than psychic attunement, synchronicity or imagination. But this 'more than' does not mean that it is scientific and material. Cornelius makes a distinction between what he calls an 'astrology of Nature' (called by others, cosmobiology) and 'Divinatory astrology' where horoscope interpretation is "purely subjective, an imaginative creation". Although Cornelius claims that these two orders can peacefully co-exist, I think he creates an unnecessary dualism between the objective as the physical domain of science and the purely subjective and divinatory.

At best, astrology is not divination, it is a particularly effective mode of interpretation of meaning -- not simply 'subjective' meaning but a level of meaning which brings subjectivity and objectivity together in a higher synthesis. In fact there is no meaning anywhere that is materially objective -- a bunch of atoms or rocks interacting does not have meaning beyond their being perceived within the meaning contexts of consciousness. But this does not imply that meaning is consequently merely subjective! The stuff of astrology is meaning. Astrology is thereby subjective if all meaning is subjective. If this is so, then the humanities, much of the social sciences, all values, all sublime experience, the very essence of being human is merely subjective. But then astrology, would be no more subjective than anything else. If astrology is not a knowledge system but a religious belief system simply because it is not objective, then everything except science and rocks is imagination or religion. But on the contrary -- experience, art, values and astrology are meanings which enfold subjective and objective dimensions.

With reference to the point raised by Candy concerning Cornelius' point that Horary reveals the divinatory quality of astrology: Horary is different to natal interpretation simply because in the latter we are given the concrete manifestation of the symbols (the person's life, patterns, states, communications up to now) to compare with the larger archetypal potential of the symbols. And this process is clearly not divination but interpretation and comparison. Horary -- beyond its concrete predictive uses -- is the play of imagination and technical know-how in relation to the pure symbol, drawing out its pure multidimensional or multivalent potentiality. But psychological and natal astrology has the concrete expression of these symbols to work with so that one is comparing the symbol in its rich meaning with that which is concretely present as one manifestion or set of manifestations of that symbol. This is definitely not divination! Also, related to the issue of inaccurate birth times sometimes providing insights allegedly of equal value to the insights provided by correct birth times: While it is true that meaningful and sometimes useful things can be said based on false data -- or simply on random tea leaves -- deeper and more accurate and effective things can be said if we have the real data. Of course, psychic intuition and divination certainly do come into play here. But a language as complex and multivalent as astrology may often lead us to somewhat accurate conclusions based on the wrong reasons. It is for this reason that we need accurate data so that we can deepen our insights. The insights acquired from wrong data, even if they seem accurate, are nevertheless shallower and less effective than they would be given the right data. Of course, interpersonal interactivity, intuition, empathic or psychic attunement and divination may be quite corrective even in the face of wrong data. I feel this point to be irrelevant in establishing astrology as primarily divination.

Conclusion

We need to be wary of a new sort of subtly prohibitive dogma which comes along with the postmodern outlook. As astrologers we do not have to buy into either modernism or postmodernism. We do not have to retreat into believing that astrology is only about beliefs while science is about knowledge; or alternately, to comfort ourselves with the thought that everything, including science, is belief. As important as postmodern tolerance is socially and politically, it can be intellectually neutralizing. Once their life force has been sapped and all have been reduced to the same level, universal essences, archetypes, higher ontological levels, metaphysical visions are all insipidly tolerated as a postmodern array of mere tastes -- none more ultimately worthy or truer than any other.

References

Hillenbrand, Candy.An Archaic Astrology Cast Adrift in a Post-Modern world. The Wholistic Astrologer. Issue 8. May-July 2001. pp 22-30.
Cornelius, Geoffrey. Is Astrology Divination and Does It Matter?