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Encounter at the Edge of the New Paradigm

A Dialogue with E.F. Schumacher
by Fritjof Capra

Fritjof Capra

In the summer of 1973, when I had just begun to write The Tao of Physics, I sat in the London Underground one morning reading The Guardian and as my train rattled through the dusty tunnels of the Northern Line the phrase "Buddhist economics" caught my eye. It was in a review of a book by a British economist, former adviser to the National Coal Board and now, as the reviewer put it, "a sort of economist-guru preaching what he calls 'Buddhist economics.'" The newly published book was entitled Small Is Beautiful; and the author's name was E.F. Schumacher. I was intrigued enough to read on. While I was writing about "Buddhist physics" somebody else had apparently made another connection between Western science and Eastern philosophy.

[Several years later,] when I planned to assemble a group of advisers for my project [of investigating the paradigm shift occurring in various fields], I naturally decided to approach Fritz Schumacher, and when I went to London for a three-week visit in May 1977 I wrote to him and asked him whether he would allow me to visit him to discuss my project.

Schumacher replied to my letter very kindly and suggested that I should call him from London to arrange a visit to Caterham, the small town in Surrey where he lived. When I did so he invited me for tea and said that he would pick me up at the railway station. Several days later I took the train to Caterham in the early afternoon of a glorious spring day, and as I rode through the lush, green countryside, I felt excited and yet calm and peaceful.

My relaxed mood was further enhanced when I met Fritz Schumacher at the Caterham station. He was easygoing and very charming—a tall gentleman in his sixties with longish white hair, a kind, open face and gentle eyes twinkling under bushy white brows. He welcomed me warmly and told me that we could walk to his house, and as we fell into a leisurely stroll I could not help thinking that the phrase "economist-guru" described Schumacher's appearance perfectly.

Schumacher's home was idyllic. The rambling Edwardian house was comfortable and open to the outdoors, and as we sat down to tea we were surrounded by an abundance of nature. The vast garden was luxuriant and overgrown. The flowering trees were alive with the activity of insects and birds, a whole ecosystem basking in the warm spring sun. It was a peaceful oasis where the world still seemed whole. Schumacher spoke with great enthusiasm about his garden. He had spent many years making compost and experimenting with a variety of organic gardening techniques, and I realized that this had been his approach to ecology—a practical approach, grounded in experience, which he was able to integrate with his theoretical analyses into a comprehensive philosophy of life.

After tea we moved to Schumacher's study to begin our discussion in earnest. I opened it by presenting the basic theme of my new book [The Turning Point]. I began with the observation that our social institutions are unable to solve the major problems of our time because they adhere to the concepts of an outdated worldview, the mechanistic worldview of seventeenth-century science. The natural sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences, have all modeled themselves after classical Newtonian physics, and the limitations of the Newtonian worldview are now manifest in the multiple aspects of global crisis. While the Newtonian model is still the dominant paradigm in our academic institutions and in society at large, I continued, physicists have gone far beyond it. I described the worldview I saw emerging from the new physics—its emphasis on interconnectedness, relationship, dynamic patterns, and continual change and transformation—and I expressed my belief that the other sciences would have to change their underlying philosophies accordingly in order to be consistent with this new vision of reality. Such radical change, I maintained, would also be the only way to really solve our urgent economic, social, and environmental problems.

I presented my thesis carefully and concisely, and when I paused at the end I expected Schumacher to agree with me on the essential points. He had expressed very similar ideas in his book and I was confident that he would help me formulate my thesis more concretely.

Schumacher looked at me with his friendly eyes and said slowly: "We have to be very careful to avoid head-on confrontation." I was stunned by this remark, and when he saw my puzzled look, he smiled. "I agree with your call for a cultural transformation," he said. "This is something I have often said myself. An epoch is drawing to a close; a fundamental change is necessary. But I don't think physics can give us any guidance in this matter."

Schumacher went on to point out the difference between what he called "science for understanding" and "science for manipulation." The former, he explained, has often been called wisdom. Its purpose is the enlightenment and liberation of the person, while the purpose of the latter is power. During the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, Schumacher continued, the purpose of science shifted from wisdom to power. "Knowledge itself is power," he said, quoting Francis Bacon, and he observed that since that time the name "science" remained reserved for manipulative science.

"The progressive elimination of wisdom has turned the rapid accumulation of knowledge into a most serious threat," Schumacher declared emphatically. "Western civilization is based on the philosophical error that manipulative science is the truth, and physics has caused and perpetuated this error. Physics got us into the mess we are in today. The great cosmos is nothing but a chaos of particles without purpose or meaning, and the consequences of this materialistic view are felt everywhere. Science is concerned primarily with knowledge that is useful for manipulation, and the manipulation of nature almost invariably leads to the manipulation of people.

"No," Schumacher concluded with a sad smile, "I don't believe at all that physics can help us in solving our problems today."

I was deeply impressed by Schumacher's passionate plea. This was the first I had heard of Bacon's role in shifting the purpose of science from wisdom to manipulation. At that moment, however, as I faced Fritz Schumacher in his study at Caterham, I had not given much thought to these issues. I only felt very deeply that science could be practiced in a very different way, that physics, in particular, could be "a path with a heart," as I had suggested in the opening chapter of The Tao of Physics.

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