Towards A Post-Traditional Gnoseology of Potentiality and Prediction: Preliminaries

Towards A Post-Traditional Gnoseology of Potentiality and Prediction: Preliminaries

Niranjan Rajah

“whatever does not happen was not really a possibility, but only ignorantly conceived to have been so”
— Ananda Coomaraswamy [1]


In 1905 my grandfather, Arumugam, emigrated from Jaffna, in the British Ceylon, to British Malaya to work in the Colonial Civil service[2] and, after an eventful sojourn, returned to Jaffna in his old age. My father Deva Rajah and his four siblings was born in Malaya but when he was seven years old, he returned to Jaffna with his mother. This is where he grew up, qualified as a lawyer and married my mother, Sathiavathy. My younger sister, Shyamala, and I were both born in Jaffna. In 1962, my father went back to independent Malaysia and with his young family. My grandfather’s friends and our relatives were on hand to offer advice and support to my father and his young family. One such person was Uncle Gnanapragasam, whose name means ‘enlightenment,’ and who was regarded in the community as a powerful astrologer. My father acknowledged his kindness but, being of a modern mindset, eschewed the benefit of his expertise. Uncle did not impose his astrological insights upon us except, on one occasion, when he came to visit us with a bearing of urgency. It transpired that Uncle had taken it upon himself to cast our nativity charts and had identified, in my sister’s, a worrying malefic influence. He felt compelled to inform my father that there would be a period of danger approaching and that we should be vigilant. 

He felt compelled to inform my father that there would be a period of danger approaching and that we should be vigilant.

Uncle indicated a specific window of concern and although my parents had been upset by the warning, they quickly forgot, and we carried on with our lives. Soon after this visit, I got a new bicycle as a present for my seventh birthday. It was a shiny red beauty with a rear carrier rack and training wheels. I hopped on eagerly. Shyamala, who had just turned five, sat on the rack and off we went! Given its training wheels, the bike was easy to balance and, very quickly, I became comfortable riding around with my excited passenger. We were riding in circles in the area of the car porch at the bottom of our driveway which sloped steeply down from the main road. I was rapidly gaining confidence, and, without warning, I shot up the slope. Perhaps I had intended to take a turn and zoom back down but whatever it was that I had wanted to do, I did not make it. The weight of my passenger over the rear wheel caused the bike to tip backwards and we both came tumbling down. I fell on top of my little sister and the bike landed on top of me. 

Shyamala suffered a concussion and had to be taken to the hospital. This event occurred precisely within the window of time foreseen in Uncle’s reading of her horoscope. While my family’s sense of reality had been shaken, my sister recovered, and we settled back into our predominantly modern outlook. Looking back at this event, however, I realize that as the protagonist, the one who crashed the bike, I had been apprised of the interpenetration of scientific and the celestial realities in my Jaffna Tamil milieu. This essay prepares the ground for the consilience of a priori and a posteriori praxes of potentiality and prediction. It is the first foray in a 'meta-analysis' of astrology and of big data analytics in which different conceptions and techniques of prediction will be synthesized in terms of a shared field of potentiality. Applying analytical reason and anagogical intuition, I endeavour to reconcile traditional and scientific epistemologies within a post-traditional philosophy of knowledge.

Foresight and Free-will

In his exposition on Fate, Foresight, and Free-will, Ananda Coomaraswamy states, “No event can be thought of as taking place apart from a logically antecedent and actually imminent possibility of its taking place.”[3] He distinguishes this anticipatory view from a retrospective one thus, “whatever does not happen was not really a possibility, but only ignorantly conceived to have been so.” Coomaraswamy shows how both the potential and the uncertainty of an event, exist or appear to exist only up to the point of its occurrence, at which moment the potential is extinguished and all the alternative possibilities are all shown to have been impossible all along. A similar understanding, albeit concerning only future events, is expressed aphoristically in the 15th Century heraldic motto Que Sera, Sera and in the Quranic expression Insha Allah - ‘what will be, will be’[4] and ‘if Allah wills,’[5] respectively.

Coomaraswamy extends his precise analysis of eventuality to the birth, life and death of the human being, incorporating the notion of free-will.

[E]very new individual is the forthcoming of an antenatal potentiality, which dies as a potentiality in the first place at the creature’s first conception and thereafter throughout life as the various aspects of this potentiality are reduced to act, in accordance with a partly conscious and partly unconscious will that ever seeks to realize itself… The field of procedure from potentiality to act is that of the individual’s liberty: the “free-will” of the theologian is… a freedom to make use of or to neglect the opportunity to become what one can become under the circumstances into which one is born.[6]

He goes on to explain that “to be forced to act or suffer against one’s will is not a coercion of the will, but of its implements and only in appearance a coercion of the individual himself to the extent that he identifies “himself” with his implements.”[7] The will is the motivation of the self and asserts ‘its’ self by means of verbal expressions and bodily dispositions, both of which can be restrained. Constraints upon these ‘implements’ are coercions upon the self only to the extent that the individual misidentifies them as the self. Free-will is the freedom to do, or refrain from doing, whatever it is that the will can do and, in this light, the destiny of the individual might be known to them by knowing their own nature. As past potential is extinguished in the moment, to regret is folly, and, as the individual’s liberty is realized in action, the future is written in resolve. In the ‘procedure’ or movement from ‘potentiality’ to ‘act,’ fate and foresight are not inconsistent with free-will.

The Enigma of Probability

Bertrand Russell is reputed to have uttered the provocation, “Probability is the most important concept in modern science, especially as nobody has the slightest notion what it means.”[8] Probability is a concept that enables representations of aspects of the world of events that lie beyond experience. In mathematics, probability is a numerical value that denotes the likelihood of the occurrence of a ‘designated outcome,’ given the range of ‘possible outcomes’ of a ‘discrete random variable’ or ‘event.’ If the variable or event is a coin toss, a hypothetical ‘fair coin’ is such that, in any given toss, it has an equal chance of falling on either 1 of its 2 faces. The occurrence of a chosen side, or designated outcome, has the ‘true’ or theoretical probability of ½. If we did have such a perfectly fair coin, we could demonstrate this theoretical probability of ½ in an experiment involving a large number of tosses. At the heart of such modelling of the predictability of events, however, lies the enigma of the relationship between the probability of any designated outcome and the actual outcome of the event.

To vivify this mystery, let us move from the coin toss to a game of Russian Roulette. Let us take a revolver in our own hand. Load a bullet into 1 of the 6 chambers and spin the barrel. Put the revolver to your temple and begin to squeeze on the trigger. Now hold it... regardless of whether it is of consequence or not, let us assume that there are no anomalies in the chamber that have skewed the theoretical probability of ⅙. Now, remember, there is cold steel against your temple ... if you were to continue with the action of squeezing the trigger, does this probability of ⅙, this symbol, have a bearing on the actual outcome? I think not! The only relevance of a given probability, to the actual outcome of its event, is the insight it brings to decisions attendant to that event. If you were offered increasing sums of money for each pull of the trigger, probability might help you evaluate costs and benefits and, thereby, enable you to mark a threshold for the action. Now, put another bullet in one of the two chambers adjacent to the previous bullet and spin the cylinder again. With the gun pointing skywards, pull the trigger one time. Click! The gun does not fire. Return the gun to your head and decide, before pulling the trigger for the second time, whether to spin the cylinder once more or pull the trigger directly. [9] If you are forced to make this choice, probability will help you in discerning which of the two actions is preferable.

Unlike statistics, which analyzes the frequency of past events, probability evaluates the likelihood of future occurrences. Statisticians use various probabilistic approaches to draw inferences from their data and this interplay of probability and statistics has, as anticipated by Russell, generated an increasingly powerful array of computer-based techniques that aid in the decision-making process. As our data extraction and computing capacities have grown, we have developed corresponding capacities for accurate prediction, which have, in turn, brought about the sense that much of the world is a fait accompli. The mathematician James Bernoulli, who derived the first version of the Law of Large Numbers, thereby establishing the relationship between theoretical and experimental probabilities, articulates the metaphysical aspect of his theorem thus,

“if observations of all events were to be continued throughout all eternity, (and hence the ultimate probability would tend toward perfect certainty), everything in the world would be perceived to happen in fixed ratios and according to a constant law of alternation, so that even in the most accidental and fortuitous occurrences we would be bound to recognize, as it were, a certain necessity and, so to speak, a certain fate.”[10]

The Post-traditional Paradigm

By the dawn of the 20th century, the humanism that had begun during the European Renaissance had, via the Enlightenment and Romanticism, evolved into the social, ethical, aesthetic and scientific modalities we refer to as modernism. This stridently secular outlook was impressed upon the whole world in the course of European imperialism and has, since, been internalized by many postcolonial societies in light of the material progress it affords. This worldview remained unassailable until the latter part of the 20th century when it was displaced by postmodernism. While modernism heralded universalism and progress, postmodernism valorizes fragmentation, relativism and stasis. The sociologist Anthony Giddens has identified, in its modalities, the persistence of a late modernism.[11] He suggests that ‘postmodernism’ is a misnomer and that both ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ be subsumed under the rubric of ‘post-tradition.’ Significantly, Giddens asserts that since the reign of tradition ended with the birth of modernism, tradition is now, neither a source of social authority, nor a basis of identity formation.[12] I agree with Giddens’ conflation of modernism and postmodernism, and I accept that traditions have lost their sense of immutability, but I must reject his pronouncement of the death of tradition.

What is common to postcolonial societies the world over, is the fact that despite the disruption of the traditional order, many archaic modes of being and knowing have persisted, and some have even flourished. In this regard, it is important to note that the term ‘post-tradition’ had, previously, been used by Robert Bellah, in the context of theology, in order to index a modernity in which the abandonment of archaic strictures has enabled a more direct Christian spirituality.[13] Significantly, while his initial use of the term prefigures Giddens’ disavowal, Bellah appears to have subsequently reversed his position, stating categorically that “only living traditions make it possible to have a world at all.”[14] In my usage, the term ‘post-tradition’ indexes a plurality of traditions, competing, negotiating and merging with one another under the condition of contemporary life.[15] While I insist that tradition continues to be meaningful, I recognize that its insular, static and monolithic view of itself is no longer tenable. Post-tradition is a euphemism for ‘late tradition,’ and in this sense, it snipes at ‘modern’ entitlement and hubris. From a post-colonial perspective, ‘post-tradition’ also carries an essential recuperative import. As Raman Srinivasan[16] notes in his work on the poetics of technology, a post-traditional society is “a meeting ground of several ‘great traditions,’ a locus for traditionalizing modernity.” Finally, in a conciliatory sense, ‘post-tradition’ serves as a lexical amelioration of the prevailing schism of modernity from theophany.

Social Theory

If traditional society understands itself as an a priori order, upheld collectively by its members, modern society sees itself as being shaped, a posteriori, by individual actors. In both paradigms, there is a relationship between individual subjectivity, the objectivity of the social world and an integrative order. Edmund Husserl has expressed this tripartite relationship as the ‘intersubjectivity’ of the ‘self’ in the ‘lifeworld.’ He presents the self as an accretion of three tempers of the ego; an immanent ego that is inseparable from the sensory domain, a transcendent ego that surveys the flow of sensation with the intentionality of a particular consciousness, and an intersubjective ego that experiences itself as a part of its community.[17] Pierre Bourdieu disavows Husserl’s interiority but, nevertheless, imports his subjectivity into his own more exoteric social theory.[18] In his book, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu situates the individual within a ‘social world,’ which ‘appears as self-evident.’ There is an external order, constituted in codes, symbols, rituals and practices, that impinges on the individual’s subjectivity. It is the idealized and interiorized aspect of this order the Bourdieu calls the ‘doxa.’ This ‘doxa’ then becomes the foil against which, the individual develops their own set of ingrained attitudes and habits, their ‘disposition in the world,’ their ‘habitus.’[19] For Bourdieu, “the habitus is not only a structuring structure, which organizes practices and the perception of practices but also a structured structure.”[20] While the habitus might constrain the individual by constituting a horizon of thought, action and language, the individual can make representations that exceed this horizon, which is, after all, just a projection. It is the capacity for such excess that allows the individual to shape their habitus and thereby impinge upon the social world.

Bourdieu calls the social world of the individual their ‘field’ and I venture to suggest that in a traditional field, the habitus is stable and the doxa, immutable, while in a modern field, the habitus and doxa are both evolving configurations. Indeed, while tradition purports to uphold revealed orthodoxies, modernism trumpets an innovative ‘habitus of the new.’[21] In both scenarios, the unspoken values of the field, and the attitude of the individual, the doxa and the habitus respectively, are involved in a reflexive structuring relationship. The resulting ‘social reality’ is expressed, not only in the attitudes of the individual but also in their demeanour. Bourdieu’s term for this bodily comportment is hexis. Doxa, habitus and hexis might, then, be seen as stations in a process of reification in which the values of the social field are realized in the mental and material reality of the individual. At the same time, the individual’s mental and material realities are abstracted into the order of the field. It is in this interaction of hexis, habitus and doxa, that the thoughts, feelings and gestures of a given individual gain a sense of fit or rightness in their social milieu.[22] Bourdieu himself has said that “when the habitus encounters a social world of which it is the product, it finds itself ‘as a fish in water,’ it does not feel the weight of water and takes the world about itself for granted.”[23] It is, indeed, with such a piscine fluidity that I find myself integrating, in my post-traditional gnoseology, the static doxa of tradition with the teleological ‘habitus of the new.’

Debunking Scientism

One impediment to the conciliation of tradition and modernity is the fundamentalism that belies the scientific world view. This ‘scientism’ is couched in a doctrinaire expression of logical empiricism. It privileges the natural sciences over other forms of knowing, and in its extremist manifestation, posits that science is the only way of knowing the world.[24] Thus, the logic of mathematics and the evidence of experiment are misapplied. In striving to free knowledge from the presumed habitual possession and ad hoc solutions of tradition, scientism asserts itself against all alternatives, blithely unaware of its own habituations and limitations. I suggest that this attitude is left over from the revolutionary attitude that enabled science to usurp the prior theological order. The exultation of the moment of ascendency is exemplified in the words of Henri de Saint-Simon,[25] “A scientist, my dear friends, is a man who foresees; it is because science provides the means to predict that it is useful, and that scientists are superior to all other men.” Implicit in science’s triumph over theologians and soothsayers, is the acknowledgement of a shared social field. 

In striving to free knowledge from the presumed habitual possession and ad hoc solutions of tradition, scientism asserts itself against all alternatives, blithely unaware of its own habituations and limitations.

In his essay on Beliefs,[26] Aldous Huxley cites the Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, in which E. A. Burtt reveals how the purportedly universal ‘laws of nature,’ are couched in the particularities of Cartesian dualism and mathematical modelling. Huxley notes that while science generates representations based on aspects of experience that can be weighed, measured or numbered, we have come to take this quantitative abstraction of reality for reality itself.[27] This misdesignation of the symbols of science as the world that they symbolize, arises from what Bourdieu might call a ‘misrecognition,’[28] which is the inherent failure of the actors in a social field, to recognize the underlying principles of their milieu. Huxley goes on to explain how the ‘abstract reasoning’ upon which scientific thinking is grounded, can do no more than create a presumption in favour of one hypothesis over another, and how ‘experimental reasoning,’ which addresses matters of fact or evidence, can only increase such presumptions. [29] Any conviction in the truth of scientific reasoning must be held in faith and, further, the source of all inspired hypotheses must also be from the very same font of faith. What scientism fails to recognize, even in its more modest claims of improved reliability and rationality,[30] is that the objectivity of science floats in the subjectivity of faith.

A techne of the habitus

It is only by science’s ‘misrecognition’ of its own premises that astrology is dismissed for such failings as not being experimentally falsifiable or not bearing solvable problems. Such shortcomings are, clearly, grounds for astrology’s disqualification as science, but they are not the basis for discounting it as knowledge. It is quite revealing that Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn,[31] who make the above arguments, conduct their debate on the nature of science, at the expense of Astrology. I will not challenge these obviously misplaced criticisms per se but will, instead, develop an integrative view of the two fields. I will try to show, in Bourdieu’s terms, how the symbols and expressions of science and astrology can be understood as belonging to a common doxa. These symbols are made by the workers possessed of different methods that the ancient Greeks might have referred to, collectively, as techne. While techne specifically means the ‘knowledge of practical things,’ this word seems to have been used interchangeably with episteme[32] which in turn, means ‘theoretical knowledge.’ In the present inquiry, astrology and big data analytics will be approached as different techne for structuring the habitus of a shared social field. While the symbols of the first might be made by hieratic craftsmen,[33] and those of the second by certified professionals, they have in common the aspect of making, they are both, ‘techne of the habitus.’

To be Continued …

W.B. Yeats opens his celebrated poem, The Second Coming, with, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre.”[34] In this image of the ‘widening gyre,’ Yeats presents, by way of a synecdoche, his vision of the entirety of humanity’s passage in time and eternity. Based on psychographic fragments received through his wife George,[35] Yeats developed this expansive visualization of eschatology in the two versions of his book, A Vision.[36] Yeats’s image of an infinite array of opposing pairs of interpenetrating gyres, is reduced, in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, to the geometry of a pair of interpenetrating cones, “the narrow end of each cone being in the centre of the broad end of the other.”[37] Yeats was both a reviver of tradition and a precursor to modernism in English poetry. He was, simultaneously, an antagonist and an exemplar of modernism,[38] and his striking image of interpenetrating cones is the quintessential post-traditional conceit. It is an authorial invention that intimates a revelation. As Rabindranath Tagore puts it, Yeats was “capable of comprehending the world through the un-trammelled power of his soul.”[39] While my own sense of such matters is less idealist than Tagore’s and less occult than Yeats,’ I see in the geometric reduction of Yeats’s system of gyres to the lines of two interpenetrating cones, the shape of the reconciliation I seek between traditional and contemporary approaches. I opened this essay with this image from 'The Second Coming' and I close with words from the same place,

“The mind, whether expressed in history or in the individual life, has... a fundamental mathematical movement... and when you have found this movement and calculated its relations, you can foretell the entire future of that mind… the whole past and future of humanity, or of an individual man, shall be present to the intellect as if it were accomplished in a single moment." [40]

The Astrology Tapes

This conversation between Niranjan Rajah and Derek Robinson took place on October 19, 2020. It was conducted in the context of Niranjan’s writing of his essay, Towards A Post-Traditional Gnoseology of Potentiality and Prediction: Preliminaries.

0:00:00 Introduction
0:00:32 The Book of the 24 Philosophers
0:09:43 Foucault and Chomsky
0:11:34 Potentiality and Prediction
0:12:31 The Traditional School
0:16:19 Beginnings
0:18:17 Post Tradition
0:23:17 The Fours and the Threes
0:34:50 The 13th Cone
0:36:35 Sacred and Secular
0:42:33 Debunking Scientism
0:51:44 Tamil Tradition
0:57:05 Social Theory
0:59:53 Astrology
1:07:37 Conclusion

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  • [1] Coomaraswamy, What is Civilisation?, 87.
  • [2] Raja Singam, A Hundred Years of Ceylonese, 235.
  • [3] Coomaraswamy, What Is Civilisation?, 86.
  • [4] Hartman, “‘Que Sera Sera’,” 51.
  • [5] Hilālī and Khan, Translation of the meanings of the Noble Qurʼan, 603.
  • [6] Coomaraswamy, What Is Civilisation?, 86.
  • [7] Coomaraswamy, What Is Civilisation?, 86.
  • [8] Bell, Development of Mathematics, 587.
  • [9] Poundstone, “Beware the Interview Inquisition.”
  • [10] Grinstead and Snell, Introduction to Probability, 312.
  • [11] Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 27.
  • [12] Beck, Giddens, and Lash, Reflexive Modernization, 104-5.
  • [13] Bellah, Beyond Belief.
  • [14] Bellah, “Finding the Church,” 107.
  • [15] Rajah, Niranjan, “Convener’s Passe-Partout,” 22.
  • [16] Srinivasan, “Goods and Gods.” 3.
  • [17] Phenomenology Blog, “Husserl, Intersubjectivity, and Life Worlds.”
  • [18] Throop, and Murphy, “Bourdieu and Phenomenology,” 185–207.
  • [19] Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 159-171.
  • [20] Bourdieu, Distinction, 70.
  • [21] Papacharissi, and Zizi, “In the Habitus of the New,” 171-184.
  • [22] Wacquant, ''Habitus.'' 316.
  • [23] Wacquant, “Towards a Reflexive Sociology,” 43.
  • [24] Hietanen et al., “How Not to Criticize Scientism,” 522–47.
  • [25] Saint-Simon, The Political Thought of Saint-Simon, 76.
  • [26] Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, PS, 6-22.
  • [27] Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, PS, 6.
  • [28] Bourdieu and Nice, The Logic of Practice, 118.
  • [29] Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, PS, 14.
  • [30] Peels, “The Fundamental Argument against Scientism,” 181.
  • [31] Kuhn, “Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research?,” 798-819.
  • [32] Parry, “Episteme and Techne.”
  • [33] Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, 5-7.
  • [34] Yeats, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 19.
  • [35] Mann, Gibson, and Nally. W.B. Yeats’s A Vision 138.
  • [36] Yeats, A Vision.
  • [37] Yeats, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 32.
  • [38] Albright, “Yeats and Modernism,” 57-76.
  • [39] Dutta, and Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore, 217.
  • [40] Yeats, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 30.