A philosophical view of astrology

When we make an appointment to meet someone, we are orientating ourselves within concepts of time and space that have pre-existed us by thousands of years. The very 'every-day-ness' of such moments, as philosophers such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein have described, hold unconsidered origins. We tend to be unaware of the history that underpins our actions when we look at our watch, or locate a town on a map. As Wittgenstein put it, all sorts of 'stage-settings' have to be put in place before our everyday behaviour is comprehensible1.

But from where did these concepts emerge? We use a watch to fix the time, using an object that derived its name from the ancient 'watch-man' who watched the sky to mark his time of duty, a practice that lives on in all the navies of the world. Once eyesight was enough, then came the sextant, derived from the Arabic astrolabe, which allowed the mariner to locate his position by the Sun and stars.

Today we have Global Position Satellites, now routinely accessed by cars and mobile phones, that tell us where we are at every moment. However remote this technology might seem from our ancestors, it draws on the same source to establish its accuracy: the position of the stars. It seems that we still need the sky to tell us when and where we are on Earth.

The way in which the Earth is mapped, and the manner in which we measure time is rooted in astrology. The reference system of latitude and longitude that we use to map our planet is framed in astrological language. The four quadrants of the year – the movement of the Sun into the signs of Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn – have their equivalent on the surface of the earth. The Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn mark the highest and lowest points of the Sun's apparent movement above and below the equator, which itself is symbolised by the axis of Aries and Libra.

Astrologers have bequeathed to us the spherical trigonometry that has made possible our grasp of the physical world, our navigation of it, and, our ability to move beyond it. Astrology has also left its mark in our measurement of the week. The seven planets known to the ancient world name our days. Saturn gave us Saturday, the Sun and Moon name Sunday and Monday, Tuesday comes from Mars, Wednesday from Mercury, Thursday from Jupiter and Friday from Venus.

They surface, too in Shakespeare's 'seven ages of Man', where an ancient planetary relationship is shown to mirror our progress from birth to death; each stage a reflection of one of the seven visible celestial bodies in our solar system. Such numbering and naming are not just western conventions. Asian and Japanese cultures similarly divide their days into blocks of seven. In many traditional African philosophies the days are also divided by that number, and seen as falling to the power of seven different deities.

The basic co-ordinates of life – the seasons of the year and the times of the day – are imbued with their astrological origins. In both Greek and Roman life the number twelve played a central part in custom and mythology. Odysseus journeyed with twelve ships, Hercules had twelve labours and only twelve gods could dwell on Mount Olympus. The measure of twelve still touches many areas of our lives, it numbers the tribes of Israel, the disciples, and the days of Christmas. Just as the twelve months of the year emerged from the signs of the Zodiac, so have the twelve hours of daylight and darkness left their mark on our digital clock.

Astrology names more than our sense of time and place. Our wishes and desires also echo the language of the planets. The word 'desire' itself comes from sidus, the Latin for star. The ancients saw the planets as symbolizing our wishes, and those uncanny events, which we often call coincidences, have a similar root. When our ancestors considered, they acted in accord 'with the stars'. The Christian church still does, setting the date for Easter on the Sunday following the first Full Moon after the Sun has entered the sign of Aries2.

We wish our friends 'many happy returns', for on each birthday the Sun returns to the position it held when they were born. We may describe some of our associates at mercurial, saturnine or jovial (from Jupiter); others might be venal (from Venus), or the belligerent seen as martial (from Mars). In such ways our everyday language is imbued with astrological meaning in the same manner as our mapping of time and space.

 Astrology and Culture

There is an interesting paradox here. While much of contemporary thinking rejects astrology, even the most sceptical of people will known their 'sign', and in doing so effortlessly grasp astrology's basic concept: what takes place on earth is in some manner mirrored in the heavens. At this level, probably more people on earth recognise the fundamentals of astrology than believe in, or understand, any other coherent world view. This should not surprise us, for all the major civilisations of the world – Asian, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, Mayan and Roman – have developed, or extended rich and complex world views which saw no separation between the earth and the heavens, and used the language of astrology as a matter of daily routine.

Many other cultures used their own variants of astrological ideas in the siting of their stone circles or buildings, to align the lives of their communities with the cycles of the sun and moon. There seems to be an instinctive recognition that we have a place within a wider framework, and that the movements of the sun, moon and planets can be used as a mirror our existence. This fact – that there exists an inchoate recognition of astrology's paradigm, which in many cases emerged from cultures that had no historical connections – is a puzzle that sceptics have yet to address.

At its core, astrology is both a philosophical and a practical system, practical for exploring and describing the nature of time, and our place within its shifting frame. As such it is incomplete, and the claims made for its accuracy are often over-stated, as are those supporting many other disciplines, but the task of coming to an understanding of time, and our existence within it, is enormous. From Plato onwards, time has been a central problem for philosophers. St. Augustine famously stated that he knew exactly what time was, until someone asked him what he meant3.

As with the concept 'the self', the concept of time is endlessly intriguing. In neither case can we point to 'something', as we can to a table or a chair, and identify clearly what we mean. As Nietzsche put it, when challenging the idea of a fixed 'self', we are stuck with concept, as with many others4. How true! In recognising that astrologers are generally consulted for their views as to the nature of their clients, and what might befall them, they are similarly caught up in these complex ideas.

 Astrology and Language

Over millennia astrologers have developed a unique language that engages with what it is to be born at one time rather than another, in one place rather than elsewhere, and what might follow in each case. This language, which is rooted in the geometry of our Solar System, explores the implications of planetary dynamics both mathematically and symbolically.

In doing so it introduces ways of considering the human situation that incorporates a variety of established systems of thought. These may include ancient mythologies, philosophy, theories of depth psychology, and astronomical discoveries. For the astrologer, the planets are not remote, causal agents, but signify a wealth of human experience, and thus hold profound images that allow ways of talking about our ourselves that embraces a wider context than any one discipline embraces.

As with all languages, astrology gives us particular words and ideas that can be used to explore the possibilities of ourselves and our world. Here astrology has much in common with the ideas that emerged during the last century, and shares a view of the individual that questions whether clear distinctions can be made between inner and outer, mind and body, above and below, self and other.

In keeping with 'post-modern' philosophy – or perhaps even anticipating it – astrology does not diminish our experience to causal explanations, but opens us up to the complexity and enormity of life, in which our experience can be examined from many perspectives. It is both an investigation and a description of our ourselves and our world, carried out within the framework of that which makes life possible: time.

The astrologer will cast a chart for a moment of time. Generally this is the time of your birth. The chart will depict the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets as they appear in the sky relative to the place of birth. Thus charts for the same moment, but set in different places, will hold essential differences. Where we are born is as important as when. This echo of Einstein's claim that time is experienced differently, depending on the location of the 'observer', has been a part of astrology since its beginning, though astrology extends this idea by considering what else might be taking place when setting a chart for the moment of your birth.

Strictly speaking, this is not 'your' chart, any more than the language you speak is yours alone. The chart is a diagram of the sky for a particular place and moment, in which all sorts of things may be taking place. While you are being born, someone nearby may have had a great idea for a novel. Another might be opening a new shop, and eagerly awaits the first customer. Someone else may have decided to quit their job; another has just received an offer of marriage; yet another may have placed their savings on a share deal and has fingers crossed for a fortune; while just round the corner from the maternity ward two strangers bump into each other and start a conversation that may lead to… what?

As Wittgenstein put it, when addressing the issue of how we come to understand a particular meaning within the complexity of human speech, we have to acknowledge that we are all caught up in what he called the 'hurly burly' of life, where a phrase in one context means something else in another5. (Try asking for a screwdriver in a hardware shop, and then in a cocktail bar!) Thus also with the chart. How it is understood will depend on what the chart is for.

Charts can be drawn for many purposes. Besides exploring our own potential, and the various relationships we may have with others, astrology can also shed light on the affinities we may have with particular places in the world, the social and business organisations we may become involved with – and what might be going on for them when we find ourselves drawn to their endeavours – it can also be used to explore any recurring cycle, be it in the world of business, or within the patterns of nature6.

Astrological symbols are exceptionally rich, and loaded with imagery that draws on many centuries and cultures. Planets in a birth chart will not be interpreted in the same way as their equivalents in a chart set for the start of new business, the coming into being a country, or one set for the moment of a thought or question that holds importance for the querent. All these different events are part of the same moment, and will have their place within the same chart. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung captured astrology's central belief with his observation that whatever is born or done at this moment of time has the qualities of this moment of time7. It is almost as if time has different moods and possibilities, depending on how an event is being considered.

While the every-day phrase 'good times, bad times' effortlessly catches this theme, it also begs the question: good or bad for what? If you'd just bought shares the day before a market crash you'd be understandably aggrieved. Not so if you'd just sold all your stock. Similarly, it is not uncommon to hear people admit that a painful event, such as being fired, was the best thing that could have happened, as it forced them out of rut, and made them reconsider their priorities. Such occurrences challenge simplistic concepts of a 'fate' that we are powerless to escape, and are actually echoed within astrology's paradigm: that each moment holds many possibilities, if we can recognise their potential.

Astrology and Science

There is another way in which we can consider what our chart is 'for', in the sense that 'for' implies a future purpose. In many respects we are always living ahead of ourselves. Each morning we wake up to the needs of the day, be they profound or banal, which hold the implication that, if engaged with, will result in our not being quite the same person as when we go to bed.

Thinkers as different as Jung and Heidegger draw attention to a sense of 'incompleteness' that pulls us, knowingly, or unwittingly towards our potential, and in doing so often reveals how we are tangled up in unconsidered aspects of ourselves. The questions we have about life, be they clear or confused, are similarly 'ahead of ourselves'; they draw us both onwards and inwards towards the fundamental challenge of our existence that Tolstoy's foresaw: one day science will explain everything, except who am I, and what should I do?8

While it would be absurd to suggest that astrology can unravel all the implications of this profound observation, the astrologer is prepared to engage with its twin themes by offering a view of a person, and also by suggesting ways in which the individual might explore their potential within the various cycles of their life, as portrayed by the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets. Given that the motions of these bodies are predictable, does this mean that our lives are similarly mapped out, as if we have no say in the matter?

While the subject of Fate and Freewill is too vast to cover here, there can be little doubt that someone born to a wealthy family, with every opportunity open to them, is in a very different position from a subsistence farmer born in a country beset by civil war and drought. Time and place matter, however they may be interpreted. So how does astrology engage with the enduring arguments of nature and nurture, and why might the positions of the planets play a part in this discussion?

Philosophers call our innate capacities, biological attributes, and social circumstances, the 'givens' of life9. While we might all wish to excel in one field or another, few can believe that wishing, or even strenuous effort, will automatically take us to the top of the league, be it football or grand opera. Star Quality (an astrological concept if ever there was one) still seems to be required, and all of us will have to face the limits of our abilities. But even here, many of our 'limitations' are time and culturally dependant, in that they are made more or less possible as a consequence of when are where we are born, and thus subject to prevailing social attitudes, and not reducible to finite values.

Nowadays the idea of 'essential attributes' tends to be viewed in terms of genetics, but even here the idea that we are ultimately determined by our genetic makeup is being seriously questioned by a new generation of geneticists. Here the focus is on a vast range of 'environmental factors' which can impact on an individual's life, and subverts the original claim that we are no more than self-contained biological machines that have emerged from the matrix of random mutation. But what is an 'environmental factor' than another way of talking about the consequences of being born now rather than then, or here rather than there?

How we make sense of ourselves is always in terms of our environment, but where do we draw the line as to its limits? The astronomer Carl Sagan wrote that 'we are all made of star stuff'10. With this thought in mind we can also consider the planets a part of our natural environment, as the physical reality of our existence is inextricable entangled with the beginnings of the cosmos, and must share something of its own evolution. It is with such an attitude that the astrologer sets a chart for a time and place on the surface of our world, and seeks to explore what it might mean to come into being, orientated in a certain way to all that is.

In making this move astrology radically extends the concept of 'culture' to include factors that go far beyond the typical usage of this term. Indeed, we could extend Wittgenstein's remark that we can only understand ourselves within the 'hurly-burly of life' , which he also described as 'a very complicated filigree pattern', to encompass a wider framework. And it is in the understanding of ourselves that the unravelling of time marks out its greatest changes.

The cliché that we are all 'children of our time' could have been written by an astrologer, and its implications are profound. For the astrologer, the nature of the human being does not reside in fixed attributes, but rather within a range of qualities – ways of being and perceiving – that are in a constant state of evolution, open to change and self-reflection. Just as current science no longer thinks of genes in the same way as Mendel in 1865, nor in the initial ideas of Crick & Watson when they discovered the DNA helix in 1953, so the idea of a 'person' is always on the move. While we may share the same emotions of our ancestors, and can empathise with the joy and sadness expressed in a love poem written 2000 years ago, we are also profoundly different from its author. It is not that the pain of love is alien to us, it is more how we locate our perceptions within the confines of our time that is radically different.

How we comprehend ourselves, and consequently the nature of our world, is always on the move. Just as the astrological perspective has evolved from its various beginnings, so has science. Though these two disciplines have diverged dramatically since the 17th century, when astrology was a required subject at many European universities11, it would be unwise to suggest that the success of scientific thought has demolished the astrological world view. Rather this divergence reveals different ways of thinking. Astrology's breadth of vision allows connections to be made between different aspects of our existence that science's increasing compartmentalisation would be unable to recognise, much less articulate.

Science tends to describe its advances in terms of constantly refining experiments and observations. Nietzsche took a more caustic view with his claim that science is built on accumulated errors12. By this he meant that scientists often overlook all the theories that were once held to be true, but have now been proved false. Nietzsche asked how can we be certain that today's 'truths' will not suffer a similar fate. While there is abundant evidence for the efficacy of the scientific method in the modern world, Nietzsche's observations still hold relevance.

A Middle Path

However, there is a middle path. Thomas Kuhn's classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions offers a different perspective by introducing what he called 'paradigm shifts'. Far from science proceeding on orderly lines, Kuhn demonstrates how scientific development makes sudden turns when radically new ideas supplant convention. What allows such paradigm shifts to take place ultimately returns, not to the intricacies of argument, but ultimately to the fact that those who upheld the prevailing views passed away, leaving a new generation of thinkers to find their place within the world of ideas.

Thus we return again to astrology's fundamental claim, which can be found equally in Heidegger's statement that 'Time must be brought to light … as the horizon for all understanding of Being and for any way of interpreting it'13. How we experience life, how we consider what it is to be who we are, and how we make sense of our world are inextricably entwined within the movements of the cosmos, whose 'filigree patterns' form the language that each generation will give voice to, and which the astrologer seeks to interpret.

It is the purpose of the Urania Trust to encourage an astrological understanding of our shifting relationship with the cosmos by supporting those projects that seek to illuminate this phenomenon, whether it be shown by statistical research, or through a re-evaluation of psychological, sociological or philosophical theories.


1 Wittgenstein, L. - Philosophical Investigations, Part 1, page 92. Published by Blackwell Books, Oxford. 1980.

2 The Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church, page 437. Published by the Oxford University Press, London, 1974.

3 St. Augustine. - Confessions, Section 8. Published by the Oxford University Press, London, 1991.

4 Nietzsche, F. - The Will To Power, section 483, Edited by Walter Kaufman, Vintage Books, New York, 1968.

5 Wittgenstein, L. - Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol 2. Page 117. Published by Blackwell, Books, Oxford. 1980.

6 The Foundation for the Study of Cycles holds a vast database of natural and economic cycles, many of which can be demonstrated to correlate with solar, lunar or planetary rhythms. See their website at http://www.foundationforthestudyofcycles.org/ Those interested in economic cycles are referred to Man and Cosmos, by Clifford C Matlock, published by Development Cycles Research Project, Waynesville, USA., 1977.

7 Jung, C.J. - Collected Works, Vol 15, page 56. Published by Routlege, London, 1966.

8 Tolstoy, L.N. - On the Significance of Science and Art. Published by IndyPublish.com, Boston USA.

9 Spinelli, E - The Interpreted World: an Introduction to Phenomenological Psychology, Sage, London 1989. As its title suggests, this introduces the reader to the application of phenomenology to an understanding of human behaviour.

10 Sagan, C - Cosmos, published by Abacus Books, London 1995.

11 The literature on the relationship of astronomy and astrology is extensive. To date, the most comprehensive discussion of the shift of views that took place during the 17th century can be found in A History of Western Astrology Vol 2: The Medieval and Modern Worlds, by Nicholas Campion. Published by Continuum, London 2009.

12 Nietzsche, F - The Gay Science, page 219, published by Vintage Books, New York. 1974.

13 Heidegger, M - Basic Writings, page 60: ed. D.F.Krell, Routledge. London. 1993.

Tim Addey

Author: Mike Harding

Mike Harding spent many years as a Faculty Council Member in the Faculty of Astrological Studies, and was Director of the Faculty’s Counselling Within Astrology course. He is also a past chairman of the Astrological Association of Great Britain and of the Association of Professional Astrologers. He worked together with Charles Harvey for many years, primarily in business and mundane astrology and wrote with Charles the invaluable book 'Working with Astrology'. Mike is also author of 'Hymns to the Ancient Gods' and of numerous articles for various astrological publications. Currently, Mike is working as an existential psychotherapist and is Chair of the Society of Existential Analysis. He is interested in the cross-over points between psychoanalysis, existential practice and the ancient wisdom traditions. Mike is also a Course Leader, Foundation Programme, at Regent's University London in Humanities & Social Sciences. (Photo: Regent's University.)