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Yoga psychology and contemporary research: Part I


My first blog touched on the problem of physicalism (also known, strangely enough, as materialism – strange since nobody seems to know what “matter” is –  and most strangely, “naturalism”, – exceedingly odd since dead matter is perhaps one of the most unnatural, most abstract ideas anybody has ever come up with).  The problem most relevant to this site is that Yogic psychology is not likely to be widely accepted until the problem of physicalism is resolved.

But that resolution is not likely to come about through theoretical means alone.  Research is needed – but not just conventional (so-called) “third person” research (“so-called” because it is impossible to ever remove the “first” person from any form of research, particularly psychological research).

In this and the next several blog posts, I am going to present an essay from the book, “Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness” which provides a few suggestions as to how to go beyond not only third person research, but what is generally referred to as “first person” research.

About 10 years ago, when Jan (my wife) and I were in Puducherry for the 2nd Integral Psychology Conference, I heard a marvelous talk by Dr. Matthijs Cornelissen. He used some terms of Sri Aurobindo to describe different kinds of knowledge. It struck me during the talk that this was an excellent way to “invite” researchers to go “deeper”, to begin to allow the possibility of other kinds of knowledge than the ordinary extreme subject-object disparity which plagues so much of contemporary psychological research (this disparity was eloquently described by Albert North Whitehead as the Cartesian bifurcation, a division which continues to pervade not only all of science, but all of global society – a division of consciousness which, if we don’t get past it, may do us all in).

The essay uses a slightly simplified classification: (a) the ordinary separative knowledge of the surface consciousness (where the Cartesian bifurcation is most prominent); (b) the “knowledge by direct contact” of what Indian philosophy refers to as “swapna” or roughly translated as “the dream state”, in which we “know” that the objects of our “dream” environment are “made of thought” – we know this directly not by analysis but by direct experience; and (c) the “knowledge” of “sushupti” (the deep sleep state, by metaphor, not the ordinary sleep state), what Sri Aurobindo refers to as “knowledge by identity”.  If you have entered the lucid dream state (consciously entered the dream state) and from there, dissolve all objects (and subjects!) yet remain “lucidly” aware, you may have had some glimpse of this ‘causal’ state.

But the altered states of dream and deep sleep are not needed to access these ways of knowing. For an integral research protocol, what is most important – as I tried to get across in the following essay – is that we access these other, less separative, less bifurcated means of knowledge in full waking consciousness.


How might we go about reconciling the yogic view of consciousness with that of science?  In the Renaissance and post-Renaissance period, scientists chose to focus their studies on the physical world in order to avoid conflict with religious authorities. Enlarging their sphere of study over the centuries, scientists in the past 100 years have entered territory previously considered to be the province of religion. Having chosen to explore the nature of the subject – referred to variously as mind, consciousness, soul, or spirit – it is no longer possible to avoid conflict between science and religion by claiming, as did paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, that they investigate separate, non-overlapping fields of study.

From the yogic perspective, most modern versions of science, philosophy and theology have something essential in common: they all make use of the reasoning capacity of the surface thinking mind as their primary tool of investigation. Scientific investigation adds one essential factor – careful use of the physical senses, augmented by various physical instruments.

Sri Aurobindo describes the way of knowing common to the surface thinking mind as “separative knowledge.” Our knowledge of people and the things of the world is limited because we take them to be essentially separate from ourselves. Because of the limitations of this way of knowing, scientists have had to develop compensatory means of gaining information and understanding, such as complex measuring instruments, statistical analyses and painstaking peer review.

There is another kind of knowing, native to the inner or subliminal consciousness, which Sri Aurobindo refers to as “knowledge by direct contact.” By means of this way of knowing it is possible to gain intimate knowledge of people and things that are physically external to ourselves. Once we awaken to the inner consciousness, we discover we have the capacity to know things apparently separate from us in time and space. Paranormal abilities, which are manifest in an extremely limited and unpredictable fashion as long as we are confined to the surface consciousness, become normal, fully utilizable capacities.

There is a still deeper way of knowing, which yogis say is the source of all other knowledge. According to Sri Aurobindo, this ultimate form of knowledge  is altogether beyond the mind – “supramental” – though we can develop a reflection of it in the mind by cultivating our intuitive abilities. Sri Aurobindo describes this way of knowing as “knowledge by identity”; that is, we know something by becoming one in consciousness with that which we seek to know.

If we examine some of the latest scientific developments in the field of consciousness studies with regard to how they make use of these different ways of knowing, we may get a sense of what would be involved in developing a truly yogic science.

Separative Knowledge: Using the Outer Senses and the Surface Thinking Mind

Speculations Based on Pre-existing Research

Several scientists have offered interesting speculations regarding the relationship between consciousness and matter.  For example, physicist Freeman Dyson, describing what he considers to be evidence of the operations of mind in matter, writes, “Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom.” Dyson goes on to say that atoms and humans “may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind.”

Other scientists, reflecting on existing research, have offered more specific suggestions for possible ways that consciousness may relate to matter. Physicist Amit Goswami suggests that consciousness may make use of quantum processes to bring about the kind of creative mutations that lead to the appearance of new species. When it comes to helping a species become more stable within its environment, Goswami maintains that Darwinian natural selection plays an important role. However, he suggests that at the same time this process of stabilization is going on, potential mutations are accumulating in the form of quantum possibilities. These are passed down, in their potential form, to subsequent generations. When a change in the environment calls for it, a number of the potential mutations are then “chosen” to manifest simultaneously, resulting in a new species that will be suited to the new environment.

Aware that this makes no sense in the context of a purely materialistic perspective, Goswami proposes that the quantum possibilities for potential mutations are held in a non-physical field. Both Ervin Laszlo and Daniel Benor propose kindred theories suggesting that non-material fields of subtle energy are in part responsible for adaptive mutations. All three agree that consciousness appears to play a fundamental role in the evolutionary process.

Psychologist Alan Combs and neuroscientist Francisco Varela have developed intricate and compelling theories combining chaos and complexity theory, as well as ideas about self-organization, which they suggest may contribute to understanding the role of consciousness in the material universe.

In each of these instances, scientists have analyzed existing data using their surface thinking minds in an attempt to discern meaningful patterns. They have then, without benefit of direct, intuitive knowledge, simply asserted a causal role for consciousness in bringing about or shaping these patterns. Let’s see if there is anything more to be gained by conducting original research on the relationship of consciousness and matter while still using the surface mind as one’s primary tool for understanding.

Conducting Research Using Conventional Scientific Methods

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake has conducted research suggesting that the experience of animals is somehow recorded in non-phyiscal “morphogenetic” (i.e., form-building) fields, making it easier for future generations to acquire certain behaviors. His research builds on the observations of others, including psychologist William McDougal, “who discovered quite by chance that untrained rats were quick to learn a task (escaping from a water maze) previously acquired by many earlier generations of rats of the same strain.”  Researchers in Scotland and Australia similarly found several years later that rats that had no training picked up the task almost immediately. Physiologist Ivan Pavlov also “observed a similar effect when he trained several generations of white mice to run to a feeding station at the sound of a bell. While the first generation required an average of about three hundred trials to learn the task, the second generation required only about one hundred trials. The third and fourth generations learned in thirty and ten trials respectively.”

After conducting numerous experiments on morphogenetic fields in relation to animals, Sheldrake has since conducted research on the relationship of these fields to human beings. Sheldrake theorizes that, when we focus our attention on something, our mind extends outward to connect us with the object of our attention. Thus, when a person is staring at someone, his field of vision “extends out to touch the person he is staring at.” In addition, the person being looked at has a field around him as well, and the two fields interact – though this interaction may not be experienced consciously. Sheldrake suggests that these interacting fields may be the same as what yogis have referred to for centuries as pranic or vital energy fields.

Sheldrake has developed a simple experiment to test this theory. He has two people sit together, one designated as the starer, the other the person to be stared at. In each round of the experiment, the starer tosses a coin to decide whether he will look at the other person or not. He then signals the initiation of a ten-second period, during which the other person has to guess whether or not he is being stared at. Among the many trials Sheldrake has conducted, by far the largest number were carried out in Amsterdam, Holland, involving more than 18,700 pairs of subjects. He reports that “the statistical significance of the positive results is astronomical: the odds against chance are 10376 to 1.”

The work of psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, while also relying primarily on the use of the ordinary thinking mind, presents a strong challenge to conventional notions of the relationship between consciousness and matter. Over the course of several decades, Stevenson has conducted several thousand case studies of individuals (usually children) claiming to have recollections of a previous life. His work presents a strong challenge. The prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association has written of his “meticulous and extended investigations,” in which he has “painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases in which the evidence for reincarnation is difficult to understand on any other grounds… He has placed on record a large amount of data that cannot be ignored.”

As a young psychiatrist, prior to beginning this research, one of Stevenson’s major interests had been psychosomatic medicine, the study of the relationship between mind and body. Later, in the course of conducting reincarnation research, he became intrigued by the many cases in which birthmarks in a current life could be correlated with wounds reportedly received in a previous life, suggesting the “mind’s influence on the body across the gap of death.”   In many cases, medical records, including autopsy reports, were found describing the precise location of a wound incurred by the person the child claims to have been in a previous life, and which matched the precise location of a birthmark in the current life. Sometimes a child in his current life was found to have a specific disease identical to that of the former personality, and which was entirely absent in the child’s current genetic heritage.

In a particularly dramatic example, “a child in Turkey recalled being a bandit in his former life. He had committed suicide when about to be captured by the French police, [by wedging] the muzzle of his long rifle under the right side of his chin, resting the handle on the ground, and then [pulling] the trigger. In his new life, the boy was born with a huge gash mark under his chin. While Stevenson was investigating the case, an old man turned up who had remembered the bandit’s death and seen the condition of his dead body.”

Thinking as a physician. Stevenson conjectured, “if the bullet had gone through the brain in the manner described, there must be another scar where the bullet exited.” During his investigation, he asked the child if there was another scar, and one was found just to the left of the crown of his head, hidden under a thick crop of hair. In a presentation at the United Engineering Center in New York, Stevenson showed a slide tracing “the line of trajectory the bullet should have taken in its passage [from the gash under the jaw] through the brain…[which] was in perfect alignment with the scar mark on top of the head.”

Interesting though these observations and experiments may be, none of them involve the direct perception of the workings of consciousness. As physicist Arthur Zajonc notes,

Physics, chemistry, and neuroscience provide accounts for the mechanism of consciousness but say nothing about the experience of consciousness itself … Every science, if it would move beyond purely formal mathematical relationships, must incorporate qualities [i.e., subjective experience] into itself. All meaning inheres in qualities. The qualitative connects the formal treatment with experience… If our interest ultimately is consciousness, then we will require a means of investigation that is able to include the full range of conscious experience, and not merely a reduced set of variables easily amenable to quantification.

As long as  researchers continue to rely on the outer thinking mind and outer senses as the primary means of gathering and analyzing data, they will not gain an understanding of the nature of consciousness that is substantially different from that of mainstream science. Limited to the surface consciousness, which takes things to be essentially separate from each other, we have no direct awareness of the relationship between consciousness and the object of study. Even more fundamental, we cannot, using only the surface mind, develop a truly comprehensive understanding, because

[m]ind in its essence is a consciousness which measures, limits, cuts out forms of things from the indivisible whole and contains them as if each were a separate integer. Even with what exists only as obvious parts and fractions, [m]ind establishes this fiction of its ordinary commerce that they are things with which it can deal separately and not merely as aspects of a whole.

NEXT: PART II:  Knowledge by Direct Contact: Research Using the Inner Mind and Inner Senses 

From Sri Aurobindo – Conditions for the Coming of a Subjective Age

The Conditions for the Coming of a Spiritual Age – the contributions of Indian psychology to this process

Here, I think, in a passage from Sri Aurobindo’s “The Human Cycle”, is one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever seen of what Indian psychology has to offer – a vision of a society based on the awakening to the Spirit – the Divine within and without.  And it gives us so many clues as to what all of us can do – right now – to contribute to this collective awakening (a process, which as is made clear in this passage, is something likely to take centuries, not merely years or decades). 

I like particularly Sri Aurobindo’s emphasis on preparing the “common mind”.  This means we don’t have to wait until we are all fully spiritually awakened, nor is it merely mystical, esoteric knowledge that has to be “imparted”.  The work of those like Dean Radin and Alan Wallace in science, and perhaps even those in the “Occupy Spirituality” movement – all of these are in their own ways, I think, contributing to what Sri Aurobindo is talking about here.



What then will be that state of society, what that readiness of the common mind of man which will be most favourable to this change, so that even if it cannot at once effectuate itself, it may at least make for its ways a more decisive preparation than has been hitherto possible? For that seems the most important element, since it is that, it is the unpreparedness, the unfitness of the society or of the common mind of man which is always the chief stumbling-block. It is the readiness of this common mind which is of the first importance; for even if the condition of society and the principle and rule that govern society are opposed to the spiritual change, even if these belong almost wholly to the vital, to the external, the economic, the mechanical order, as is certainly the way at present with human ” masses, yet if the common human mind has begun to admit the ideas proper to the higher order that is in the end to be, and the heart of man has begun to be stirred by aspirations born of these ideas, then there is a hope of some advance in “: the not distant future. And here the first essential sign must be the growth of the subjective idea of life, – the idea of the soul, the inner being, its powers, its possibilities, its growth, its expression and the creation of a true, beautiful and helpful environment for it as the one thing of first and last importance. The signals must be there that are precursors of a subjective age in humanity’s thought and social endeavour.

These ideas are likely first to declare their trend in philosophy, in psychological thinking, in the arts, poetry, painting, sculpture, music, in the main idea of ethics, in the application of subjective principles by thinkers to social questions, even perhaps, though this is a perilous effort, to politics and economics, that hard refractory earth matter which most resists all but a gross utilitarian treatment. There will be new unexpected departures of science or at least of research, – since to such a turn in its most fruitful seekings the orthodox still deny the name of science. Discoveries will be made that thin the walls between soul and matter; attempts there will be to extend exact knowledge into the psychological and psychic realms with a realisation of the truth that these have laws of their own which are other than physical, but not the less laws because they escape the’ external senses and are infinitely plastic and subtle. There will be a labour of religion to reject its past heavy weight of dead matter and revivify its strength in the fountains of the Spirit. These are sure signs, if not of the thing to be, at least of a great possibility of it, of an effort that will surely be made, another endeavour perhaps with a larger sweep and a better equipped intelligence capable not only of feeling but of understanding the Truth that is demanding to be heard. Some such signs we can see at the present time although they are only incipient sporadic and have not yet gone far enough to warrant a confident certitude. It is only when these groping beginnings have found that for which they are seeking, that it can be successfully applied to the remoulding of the life of man. Till then nothing better is likely to be achieved than an inner preparation and, for the rest, radical or revolutionary experiments of a doubtful kind with the details of the vast and cumbrous machinery under which life now groans and labours.

A subjective age may stop very far short of spirituality; for the subjective turn is only a first condition, not the thing itself, not the end of the matter. The search for the Reality, the true self of man, may very easily follow out the natural order described by the Upanishad in the profound apologue of the seekings of Bhrigu, son of Varuna. For first the seeker found the ultimate reality to be Matter and the physical, the material being, the external man our only self and spirit. Next he fixed on Life as the Reality and the vital being as the self and spirit; in the third essay on Mind and the mental being; only afterwards could he get beyond the superficial subjective through the supramental Truth-Consciousness to the eternal, the blissful, the ever creative Reality of which these are the sheaths. But humanity may not be as persistent or as plastic as the son of Varuna, the search may stop short anywhere. Only if it is intended that he shall now at last arrive and discover, will the Spirit break each insufficient formula as soon as it has shaped itself and compel the thought of man to press forward to a larger discovery and in the end to the largest and most luminous of all. Something of the kind has been happening but only in a very external way and on the surface. After the material formula which governed the greater part of the nineteenth century had burdened man with the heaviest servitude to the machinery of the outer material life that he has ever yet been called upon to bear, the first attempt to break through, to get to the living reality in things and away from the mechanical idea of life and living and society, landed us in that surface vitalism which had already begun to govern thought before the two formulas inextricably locked together lit up and flung themselves on the lurid pyre of the World War. The vital elan brought us no deliverance, but only used the machinery already created with a more feverish insistence, a vehement attempt to live more rapidly, more intensely, an inordinate will to act and to succeed, to enlarge the mere force of living, to pile up a gigantic efficiency of life. It could not have been otherwise even if this vitalism had been less superficial and external, more truly subjective. To live, to act, to grow, to increase the vital force, to understand, utilise and fulfil the intuitive impulse of life are not things evil in themselves: rather they are excellent things, if rightly followed and rightly used, that is to say, if they are directed to something beyond the mere vitalistic impulse and are governed by that within which is higher than Life. The Life-power is an instrument, not an aim; it is in the upward scale the first great subjective supra- physical instrument of the Spirit and the base of all action and endeavour. But a Life-power that sees nothing beyond itself, nothing to be served except its own organised demands and impulses, will be very soon like the force of steam driving an engine without the driver or an engine in which the locomotive force has made the driver its servant and not its controller. It can only add the uncontrollable impetus of a high-crested or broad-based Titanism, or it may be even a nether flaming demonism, to the Nature forces of the material world with the intellect as its servant, an impetus of measureless unresting creation, appropriation, expansion which will end in something violent, huge and “colossal”, foredoomed in its very nature to excess and ruin, because light is not in it ‘nor the soul’s truth nor the sanction of the gods and their calm eternal will and knowledge.

But beyond the subjectivism of the vital self there is the possibility of a mental and even a psychic subjectivism which would at first perhaps, leaning upon the already realised idea of the soul as Life in action but correcting it, appear as a highly mentalised pragmatism, but might afterwards rise to the higher idea of man as a soul that develops itself individually and collectively in the life and body through the play of an ever- expanding mental existence. This greater idea would realise that the elevation of the human existence will come not through material efficiency alone or the complex play of his vital and dynamic powers mastering through the aid of the intellect the energies of physical Nature for the satisfaction of the life- instincts, which can only be an intensification of his present mode of existence, but through the greatness of his mental and psychic being and a discovery bringing forward an organisation of his vast subliminal nature and its forces. It would see in life an opportunity for the joy and power of knowledge, for the joy and power of beauty, for the joy and power of the human will mastering not only physical Nature, but vital and mental Nature. It might discover her secret yet undreamed-of mind- powers and life-powers and use them for a freer liberation of man from the limitations of his shackled bodily life. It might arrive at new psychic relations, a more sovereign power of the idea to realise itself in the act, inner means of overcoming obstacles of distance and division which would cast into insignificance even the last miraculous achievements of material Science. A development of this kind is far enough away from the dreams of the mass of men, but there are certain pale hints and presages of such a possibility and ideas which lead to it are already held by a great number who are perhaps in this respect the yet unrecognised vanguard of humanity. It is not impossible that behind the confused morning voices of the hour a light of this kind, still below the horizon, may be waiting to ascend with its splendours.

Such a turn of human thought, effort, ideas of life, if it took hold of the communal mind, would evidently lead to a profound, revolution throughout the whole range of human existence. It would give it from the first a new tone and atmosphere, a loftier spirit, wider horizons, a greater aim. It might easily develop a Science which would bring the powers of the physical world into a real and not only a contingent and mechanical subjection and open perhaps the doors of other worlds. It might develop an achievement of Art and Beauty which would make the greatness of the past a comparatively little thing and would save the world from the astonishingly callous reign of utilitarian ugliness that even now afflicts it. It would open up a closer and freer inter- change between hum3;n minds and, it may well be hoped, a kindlier interchange between human hearts and lives. Nor need its achievements stop here, but might proceed to greater things of which these would be only the beginnings. This mental and psychic subjectivism would have its dangers, greater dangers even than those that attend a vitalistic subjectivism, because its powers of action also would be greater, but it would have what vitalistic subjectivism has not and cannot easily have, the chance of a detecting discernment, strong safeguards and a powerful liberating light.

Moving with difficulty upward from Matter to Spirit, this is perhaps a necessary stage of man’s development. This was one principal reason of the failure of past attempts to spiritualise mankind, that they endeavoured to spiritualise at once the material man by a sort of rapid miracle, and though that can be done, the miracle is not likely to be of an enduring character if it overleaps the stages of his ascent and leaves the intervening levels untrodden and therefore unmastered. The endeavour may succeed with individuals, – Indian thought would say with those who have made themselves ready in a past existence, – but it must fail with the mass. When it passes beyond the few, the forceful miracle of the Spirit flags; unable to transform by inner force, the new religion tries to save by machinery, is en- tangled in the mechanical turning of its own instruments, loses the spirit and perishes quickly or decays slowly. That is the fate which overtakes all attempts of the vitalistic, the intellectual and mental, the spiritual endeavour to deal with material man through his physical mind chiefly or alone; the endeavour is overpowered by the machinery it creates and becomes the slave and victim of the machine. That is the revenge which our material Nature, herself mechanical, takes upon all such violent endeavours; she waits to master them by their concessions to her own law. If mankind is to be spiritualised, it must first in the mass cease to be the material or the vital man and become the psychic and the true mental being. It may be questioned whether such a mass progress or conversion is possible; but if it is not, then the spiritualisation of mankind as a whole is a chimera.

From this point of view it is an excellent thing, a sign of great promise, that the wheel of civilisation’ has been following its past and present curve upward from a so lid physical know- ledge through a successive sounding of higher and higher powers that mediate between Matter and Spirit. The human intellect in modem times has been first drawn to exhaust the possibilities of materialism by an immense dealing with life and the world upon the basis of Matter as the sole reality, Matter as the Eternal, Matter as the Brahman, annam brahma. Afterwards it had begun to turn towards the conception of existence as the large pulsation of a great evolving Life, the creator of Matter, which would have enabled it to deal with our existence on the basis of Life as the original reality, Life as the great Eternal, pr`ano brahma. And already it has in germ, in preparation a third conception, the discovery of a great self-expressing and self-finding inner Mind other than our surface mentality as a master-power of existence, that should lead towards a rich attempt to deal with our possibilities and our ways of living on the basis of Mind as the original reality, the great Eternal, mano brahma. It will also be a sign of promise if these conceptions succeeded each other with rapidity, with a large but swift evocation of the possibilities of each level; for that would show that there is a readiness in our subconscient Nature and that we need not linger in each stage for centuries.

But still a subjective age of mankind must be an adventure full of perils and uncertainties as are all great adventures of the race. It may wander long before it finds itself or may not find itself at all and swing back to a new repetition of the cycle.

The true secret can only be discovered if in the third stage, in an age of mental subjectivism, the idea becomes strong of the Mind itself as no more than a secondary power of the Spirit’s working and of the Spirit as the great Eternal, the original and, in spite of the many terms in which it is both expressed and hidden, the sole reality, ayam âtmâ brahma. Then only will the real, the decisive endeavour begin and life and the world be studied, known, dealt with in all directions as the self-finding and self-expression of the Spirit. Then only will a spiritual age of mankind be possible. To attempt any adequate discussion of what that would mean, and in an inadequate discussion there is no fruit, would need another volume or two of essays; for we should have to examine a knowledge which is rare and nowhere more than initial. It is enough to say that a spiritual human society would start from and try to realise three essential truths of existence which all Nature seems to be an. attempt to hide by their opposites and which therefore are as yet for the mass of mankind only words and dreams, God, freedom, unity. Three things which are one, for you cannot realise freedom and unity unless you realise God, you cannot possess freedom and unity unless you possess God, possess at once your highest self and the self of all creatures. The freedom and unity which otherwise go by that name, are simply attempts of our subjection and our division to get away from themselves by shutting their eyes while they turn somersaults around their own centre. When man is able to see God and to possess him, then he will know real freedom and arrive at real unity, never otherwise. And God is only waiting to be known, while man seeks for him everywhere and creates images of the Divine, but all the while truly finds, effectively erects and worships images only of his own mind-ego and life-ego. When this ego pivot is abandoned and this ego-hunt ceases, then man gets his first real chance of achieving spirituality in his inner and outer life. It will not be enough, but it will be a commencement, a true gate and not a blind entrance.

Overview of Jean Gebser on the evolution of consciousness


by Ed Mahood, jr.

Opening remarks

The German author Jean Paul Ricther once wrote, “What has puzzled us before seem less mysterious, and the crooked paths look straighter as we approach the end.” This seems a fitting motto for our investigations into one of the least understood areas of human knowledge: consciousness. There has been a great wave of interest in this area in recent years, but it is clear that as much as has been accomplished all the more there is yet to do.

Before anything else, we need to come terms with the word itself, not in any final sense, but as a first approach to the matter. What is consciousness? Is it our emotions, our intelligence? Is is equivalent to the term ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ or ‘gnosis’? Does it have anything in common with these terms? Is it a separate and distinct phenomenon or is it embedded in nature and experience (whatever these may be)? When we discover what it is, will we really recognize it? The choice of starting point will seriously impact where we arrive in the end.

Our purpose here is to become acquainted with Jean Gebser’s seminal work, The Ever- Present Origin [1]. To this end, it would be helpful at the onset to gain a little background on Gebser’s life and work, which, in turn, should help us overcome the intellectual inertia present is such a task. This brief paper, then, is comprised of several parts: first, a quick biographical sketch of the author; second, a summary introduction to the work, focusing on Gebser’s approach, third a closer look at each of the structures in exemplary detail; fourth the introduction of two key notions for understanding Gebser’s work, systasis and synairesis; then, finally, a brief summary.

Biographical background

Jean Gebser was born August 20, 1905 in the Prussian town of Poznan (which is now a part of Poland). His lineage dates back through an old Franconian family that had been domiciled in Thuringa since 1236. His uncle was the German Chancellor von Bethmann- Hollweg and on his mother’s side he was a descendent of Luther’s friend Melanchthon. He came into this world at an auspicious time to be sure. Five years earlier, Freud had published his groundbreaking work, The Interpretation of Dreams, that was to form the foundations of psychoanalysis and change the course of the study of psychology. In the very year of his birth, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity that was to have a significant impact on Gebser’s thinking as well as on the world of science as a whole. Max Planck, the great German physicist was promulgating his quantum theory; and Edmund Husserl, a then unknown Austrian philosopher, published his Logical Investigations which were to become the foundation of one of the most influential schools of philosophic thought in the 20th century, namely phenomenology. This was also a time of a great occult revival as well, for the primary rosicrucian organizations that are still operating in the United States, for example, were incorporated around this time as well.

Gebser’s father was a lawyer of some renown; his mother a whimsical, self-seeking beauty many years younger than her husband. He grew up, then, in an educated and cultured environment. Difficulties between his parents drove him inward and he instinctively turned toward literature as his medium of discovery; this was especially true after his father’s death in 1922. Being forced to interrupt his studies upon his father’s death, he spent two years in an apprenticeship in a bank, a task that he disliked severely. A year after beginning this training, however, he and a friend started at literary magazine called the Fischzug, where his first poems were published. In Berlin at the time, and at least a part-time student, he listened to many of the renowned faculty teaching at the university there. Among these was the Catholic philosopher Romano Guardini whose depth of knowledge and spirituality left an indelible impression upon Gebser. During this time he also discovered the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke which had a tremendous impact on his thinking. It was during his Berlin years, however, that he first confronted suicidal despair and the realization that he must venture out into the world in order to find himself. The appearance of the first Brown Shirts in Munich provided him with the reason he needed to leave Germany.

The first stop on his journey was Florence, where he worked for a while in a second-hand bookstore. It was here that he came to the realization that all the books he read had never taught him how to live, hence he began a more active quest toward fulfillment. He tried Germany again, but bade it a final farewell in the Spring of 1931, first going to Paris and then on to Southern France. It was here that he changed his German first name “Hans” to the French “Jean.” Following the footsteps of Rilke, Gebser moved to Spain. He managed to learn the language and obtain a position in the Ministry of Education, in fact, and made friends with many prominent Spaniards, among them Federico Garcia Lorca. Gebser also published a volume of translations of some of these newer Spanish poets. It was in Spain that Gebser first conceived of the ideas that would later take form in his works, Decline and Participation and, of course, The Ever-Present Origin. Shortly before his home in Madrid was bombed in 1936, he managed to flee from Spain. Gebser settled in Paris and made the acquaintances of many of the notable French artists and intelligentsia of the day, including Pablo Picasso. He was involved in writing and literature for the most part, translating Hölderlin’s poetry into Spanish and some of his Spanish friends’ political essays into German; he also produced some of his more minor works. Two hours before the Germans sealed off the borders to France, Gebser again managed to flee, this time to Switzerland, where he would reside from then on. These years were the most productive for Gebser, although life still was not easy for him. He supported himself by freelance writing for the most part, but it was in Basel that he befriended Carl Gustav Jung, at whose institute he also taught for many years. In 1949/1950, his efforts culminated in the publishing of The Ever-Present Origin, his most profound statement regarding the unfoldment of consciousness in man. Throughout all of Gebser’s writings we find him wrestling with this subject, trying to find real answers to the important questions in life, such as “Who am I?,” “Where do I come from?” and “Where am I going?” This work is an answer to all these questions on behalf of us all. During the remainder of his life, Gebser taught, traveled, wrote and lectured. Each subsequent publication elucidated and illuminated various aspects of his most fundamental theme, the evolution of consciousness. He had come into his own and enjoyed a certain, yet modest, renown for his work. On May 14, 1973, Jean Gebser passed through transition, as Feuerstein describes it, “as his death mask bears witness, with a soft and knowing smile.”[2]

The approach

Ancient mythology informs us that the destruction of worlds is accompanied by catastrophic circumstances. Wherever we look today we see evidence of impending catastrophe. Would it be wise to deduce quickly then that our world is coming to an end? Maybe, maybe not. We definitely know that something significant is impending. Many of us feel it, we intuit it; and we are seeking confirmation for this working hypothesis. But where can we find it?
Certain support for this notion of earth-shattering change can be found in the works of Jean Gebser, so it is here that I should like to devote our attention in this presentation. Gebser is not a psychologist, economist, or scientist, in a more narrow sense, but is perhaps best characterized by the concept of Kulturphilosoph, a German term that literally means “cultural philosopher.” A student of literature, poetry, psychology and science, Gebser brings a unique combination of talents to bear upon the subject of his investigation: the unfoldment of consciousness. By better understanding the forces that are at work and our own role in this process, we can better hope to rise to the challenges that confront us so that our world truly becomes “the best of all possible worlds.” The fundamental premise of Gebser’s work is that we are on the threshold of a new structure of consciousness. Overall, Gebser describes four mutations, or evolutional surges, of consciousness that have occurred in the history of man. These mutations are not just changes of perspective, they are not simple paradigm shifts (although the word simple may seem inappropriate at this point); rather they are fundamentally different ways of experiencing reality. These four mutations reflect five separate eras of development that are not distinct and isolated from one another but are, instead, interconnected such that all previous stages are found in subsequent ones. Each of these stages is associated with a dimensionality, beginning with the geometric origin of zero and progressing to the fourth, the transition which we are experiencing at this time. Gebser identifies these five phases as the Archaic, Magical, Mythical, Mental, and Integral stages respectively.

Another key element of Gebser’s theory encompasses two fundamental concepts: latency and transparency. The former deals with what is concealed; as Gebser describes it, latency is the demonstrable presence of the future.[3] In this manner the seeds of all subsequent phases of evolution are contained in the current one. It is on the basis of this aspect that integration takes place. The second term transparency deals with what is revealed. According to Gebser, transparency (diaphaneity) is the form of manifestation (epiphany) of the spiritual.[4] This is perhaps the most important statement he makes. The origin, the source from which all springs, is a spiritual one, and all phases of consciousness evolution are a testimony to the ever less latent and ever more transparent spirituality that is inherent in all that is. Without a recognition of this fundamental and pivotal idea, Gebser cannot be understood and we will not be able to understand ourselves. It is not just an intellectual development that is being described in his theory, rather it is the ever more apparent manifestation of the spiritual that underlies and supports the concept of evolution itself. And finally, one further element must be mentioned. The manifestation of these structures occurs in a quantum-like, discontinuous leap, not in a slowly developing and changing framework as is postulated for Darwinian evolutionary theory, for example. There are overlaps in these structures in as far as different peoples and cultures may be manifesting different structures at the same time, but a clear development can be recognized and it is to be expected that all cultures will eventually go through the same process.

It would seem, then, that we are dealing with a kind of historical description of a linearly unfolding schema, but this would be a grave misinterpretation of his thesis and it does injustice to his approach. At first blush it would appear that Gebser is approaching his subject as we would expect any historian to proceed, but it must be emphasized that Gebser’s approach is quite deductive. We are presented at the very beginning with the model; later we are taken step-by-step through the ‘evidence’ which he believes supports the claim. Consequently, we find a number of historical, archaeological, and philological arguments presented that are not necessarily in keeping with generally agreed-upon theories in these disciplines. At times, these appear quite creative but this is most often a result of reading Gebser in a strictly intellectual and analytical manner. This is not to say that he should be approached uncritically, for he should be, yet the text itself is not a logical argumentation as one would expect to find, let us say, in a philosophical treatise. In accordance with his own model, he attempts to make of his book an example of the type of thinking one would encounter in the Integral structure of consciousness. It is not reasoned in a linear manner; in fact, the book would probably have been better suited to a hypertextual presentation. It would be some years, however, before this form of document would be developed so we are forced to deal with a non-traditional approach to a broader than usual subject that has been forced into a well-known and familiar medium: the book. Failure to recognize this idiosyncrasy can cause the reader untold difficulties from the beginning.

The consequences: A closer look

We should refine this general presentation, of course, and take a closer look, now at each of these structures, in turn. In this way we can perhaps come closer to an understanding of consciousness in general, but of Gebser’s approach in particular.

The Archaic structure of consciousness

The Archaic structure of consciousness is perhaps the most difficult to understand, for it is the one most removed from our present-day way of thinking. Stated succinctly, it can be likened to zero dimensional mentation, a world devoid of any perspectivity at all. It is a stated in which the holder of consciousness is perhaps only minimally aware of himself or his relationship to the world around him. According to Feuerstein, this structure denotes “a consciousness of maximum latency and minimum transparency.”[5] The term “archaic” as used here is derived from the Greek arce, meaning inception, or origin. Origin (or Ursprung, in the original German) is the source from which all springs, but it is that which springs forth itself. It is the essence which is behind and which underlies consciousness. As Gebser understands the term, “conscious is neither knowledge nor conscience but must be understood for the time being in the broadest sense as wakeful presence.”[6] This presence, or being present, excludes two further overpowering by the past (past-orientation) or any future-oriented finality. He writes:

<Q>It is our task to presentiate the past in ourselves, not to lose the present to the transient power of the past. This we can achieve by recognizing the balancing power of the latent “future” with its character of the present, which is to say, its potentiality for consciousness.[7]

At the origin, there is not past to overwhelm and the future is complete potentiality. Consequently, that which we understand to intuit consciousness to be is qualitatively different from this original structure. What hampers any investigation into it is the fact that we have no records, no written testimony, regarding it. It is a state that is swallowed by the primal shadows of a far-distant past. It is referred to in myths and legends, but these references are of a much later time. About all we can say in this regard is that within the Archaic structure the consciousness is quite undifferentiated; it is just there, and things just happen. Man is still unquestionably part of the whole of the universe in which he finds himself. The process of individuation of consciousness, in any sense of the word, has not taken place. This type of consciousness “can be likened to a dimly lit mist devoid of shadows.”[8] This is not consciousness in any sense that we understand it today. Instead, it can be likened to a state of deep sleep; one that eludes the specification of particularity or uniqueness.

The Magic structure of consciousness

Around some unspecified time far back in our past, a change took place. Man entered into a second phase of development and gained a new structure of consciousness, the Magical structure. This structure is characterized by five primary characteristics: (1) its egolessness, (2) its spacelessness and timelessness, (3) its pointlike-unitary world, (4) its interweaving with nature, and (5) its magical reaction to the world.[9] A rudimentary self- sense was emerging and language is the real product of this change. Words as vehicles of power are typical of this time and structure; incantations as precursors to prayer emerged. Consciousness, in this phase, is characterized by man’s intimate association with nature.

This is perhaps the most notable characteristic regarding this structure. Man, at this time, does not really distinguish himself apart from nature. He is a part of all that surrounds him; in the earliest stages it is hard to conceive that he views himself apart from his environment. The plants, animals and other elements of his surroundings share the same fate as he does; they experience in a similar manner. Latency is still dominant; little is transparent. Magic we can define in agreement with Gustav Meyrink as doing without knowing,[10] and it is magic man who is engaged in this activity in all aspects of his existence. The hunting and gathering, the quest for survival are all activities that consume most of his waking hours. But in the quiet of the evening around the fire; there is time for reflection of sorts. The activities of the day were codified (in speech) and recounted. Memory was collective, tribal, and all things were shared and experienced by all. The “I” is not a factor; the “we” is dominant.

This is a one-dimensional, pre-perspectival, point-like existence that occurs in a dream- like state. Unlike the dreamlessness of the previous structure, a recognition is developing in man that he is something different from that around him. Not fully awake to who he is or what his role in the world is, man is recognizing his self as an entity. The forms of expression for this structure can be found in the art and other artifacts that have been recovered from this time. Graven images and idols are what first come to mind. However, ritual should also be considered here, for it is in the specific and directed execution of certain actions and gestures that conveys much about this consciousness structure. Feuerstein feels that this structure persisted till around 40,000 BC and the advent of the Cro-Magnons.

Another feature of this structure that we should bring to mind is its spacelessness and timelessness. The idea that space and time are illusions derives from this stage in our development as human beings. The fact that this is one of the first lessons one learns when embarking upon the esoteric path is further evidence of this idea. To Magic Man, closely linked as he is with others of like mind, space and time need not concern him. In fact, I am not convinced that he would understand them anyway, for there is no need that he do so. Magic, however, is very much alive today, and it comes as no surprise (nor should it be) that there is such a strong interest in magic today. It seems that the fast growing branches of occult study seem to be Wicca (overlayed as it is with feminism) and similar earth magic(k) studies. What is more, it is the most vital and emotional of all structures. We live in very decisive times, potentially catastrophic times. This is a time when emotion rises near the surface of our consciousness and it is here that magic manifests itself. The proliferation of stories and films dealing with Voodoo and similar matters (e.g. The Serpent and the Rainbow) further substantiate our claim. Yet, this is not the only structure that seems to be making a comeback these days.

The Mythical structure of consciousness

With the advent of the Cro-Magnons, man became a tool-making individual, also one who formed into larger social structures. As Feuerstein points out, it is clear from the archaeological finds that the Cro-Magnons had evolved a symbolic universe that was religious and shamanistic. Part of this appears to have been a keen interest in calendric reckoning, and with it we may presume the existence of a fairly complex mythology.[11] This structure can be considered two-dimensional since it is characterized by fundamental polarities. Word was the reflector of inner silence; myth was the reflector of the soul.[12] Religion appears as the interaction between memory and feeling.[13] Man is beginning to recognize himself as opposed to others. The next 30,000 odd years or so spent developing these various mythologies. Language is becoming ever more important, it will be noted, and not only receptive, but active, language at that. Not the ear, but the mouth is important in making transparent what is involved in being and life. The mouth now becomes the spiritual organ. We witness, as well, the initial concretization of the “I” of man.

Many myths deal explicitly with man’s (unperspectival) separation from nature. Witness the story of the Fall in Genesis (and its admonition to go forth and dominate nature); and the myth of Prometheus and the giving of fire to man. These both indicate a strong awareness of man’s differentness from nature. Man is coming into his own, although he is anything but independent of it. One could characterize this as a two-dimensional understanding of the world. Within the circle of believers is where the important acts of life take place. The mere forces of nature have a beingness, often anthropomorphized, but a beingness nevertheless. Myth, then, or the mythologeme is the primary form of expression of this period. Subsets of this basic form would be the gods, symbols and mysteries. These figures provide the emerging consciousness with imaginative images around which to center man’s knowledge and understanding of the world. If the Magic structure of consciousness is the emotional aspect, then the Mythical structure is the imaginative one. It is this fact that makes mythology so difficult for us as moderns to deal with. The plethora of images (gods) and the seeming inconsistent pantheons of deities brings the rational mind quickly to confusion. Who can keep track of all these figures, their meanings, their correspondences and their associations. This is the time of the dream.

Up until this time, that is in the magical structure of consciousness, souls and afterlives were not of great importance (at least we do not find a lot of evidence thereof). Yet in the fully developed mythical consciousness, this is important. The entire civilization of Egypt, as we know it, revolved around this very issue. When we are told, then, in certain rosicrucian documents that we must descend into Egypt, we are being told that we must regain, not revert to, our mythical heritage.

Mouths begin to play a more important role. Not only is the shaman and wise person of the tribe a repository of wisdom, others, the poets, such as Homer, begin to play a more important role in the culture. This does not really begin to happen until the mythical structure of consciousness, however. The “I” of man is not yet fully developed, to be sure, but it has developed to that point that it recognizes and demands a separation from nature, from its environment. We can take this as evidence of an increasing crystallization of the ego. We are on the way to selfhood.

Of course, mythology is very much alive today. This explains the popularity of Joseph Campbell and his work on myth. It explains the appeal that Robert Bly and his “Gathering of Men” workshops have. What both Campbell and Bly do is tell stories: imaginative, intuitively understood stories that reveal to us things that our current rational mode of thinking prohibits us from knowing. We have much to learn from myth, however, and should be ever aware of its influences.

The Mental structure of consciousness

The next shift in consciousness took place between 10,000 B.C. and 500 B.C. This was the transition to the Mental structure of consciousness. It was at this time that man, to use Gebser’s image, stepped out of the mythical circle (two-dimensional) into three- dimensional space. Mythology had become so deficient (and it should be noted that each structure has its “efficient” as well as “deficient” form), that man needed a clean break with the past. The plethora of gods and contradictory stories of creation, formation of institutions, and so on threatened to overwhelm the consciousness of man; he practi- cally stood on the verge of drowning in a deluge of mythological mentation. In reaction to this, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and of course, Pythagoras stepped forth to counteract this trend. The mental structure was inaugurated and this coincides with the “discovery” of “causality,” Abstraction becomes a key word to describe mental activity and we find man using his mind to overcome and “master” the world around him. With abstraction comes philosophizing, hence the philosopheme is the primary form of expression. Monotheism almost universally replaces the plethora of gods of bygone days; dogma, in both allegory and creed, replaces the symbols of previous times; method replaces the mysteries as man develops an ever-increasing desire to penetrate, and, of course, master nature. This has given rise to the idea of science as the dominant religion of today. Also at this time, time itself was conceptualized (spatialized) as an “arrow” that points from the past to the future by way of the present.[14]

About the time of the Renaissance, man came into his own and really mastered space. It was at this time that perspective was actually introduced into art. Since that time, perspective has come to be a major part and aspect of our mental functioning. Perspective is the life blood of reasoning and the Rational structure of consciousness, which Gebser considers to be only a deficient form of the Mental structure. What we have is the full development of the ego and its related centeredness. We conceive things, events and phenomena in terms of our own perspectives, often at the expense of others. The eye, it will be seen (and the last of the openings in the head), becomes the spiritual organ representative of this structure. Our language, our entire imagery and dominant metaphor takes on visual, spatial character. Space is finally overcome, in the true sense of the word. With the supercession of space, man finally accomplishes his egoistic, individual separation from nature. In this concretization of the “I,” we become very aware of our existence, of our beingness, of our individuality. And so it should be. But in a deficient mode, the outcomes, of course, are loneliness, isolation, and alienation, which are so characteristic of our own American culture. In fact, our current materialistic approach to understanding reality is perhaps the final stage of this structure. There is also much everyday evidence to indicate that we are moving through a great change at this time.

We should remember, however, that this is also the time of philosophy. The mental ordering and systematization of thought becomes the real dominant mode of expression. The myths have lost their vibrancy and existential connection to reality. Greek thought followed later by the Scholastics and finally the Enlightenment are all periods in which this particular structure of consciousness flourishes and strongly manifests. It is not without its opposition, of course, since any change will bring about the requisite opposition to its own development. By the time of the Renaissance, though, this structure had firmly established itself and was prepared to move into the next phase of its development. At this time, as was pointed out earlier, a very profound and significant event occurred: man incorporated space into his thought. We cannot underestimate, or overstate, the importance of this development. It is literally at this time that the world begins to shrink. The seeds of our one world community are planted at this time. The ripples begun during the magical structure are widening significantly: first spirit, then soul, now space have become constituents of man’s consciousness. Three dimensions have been established and we are prepared for the next significant step we are taking now.

The Integral Structure of Consciousness

As can be guessed, then, Gebser feels that we are on the threshold of a new structure of consciousness, namely the Integral. For Gebser, this structure integrates those which have come before and enable the human mind to transcend the limitations of three- dimensionality. A fourth dimension, time, if you will, is added. This integration is not simply a union of seemingly disparate opposites, rather it is the “irruption of qualitative time into our consciousness.”[15] The supercession of time is a theme that will play an extremely important role in this structure. In fact, the ideas of arationality (as opposed to the rationality of the current structure), aperspectivity (as opposed to the perspective, spatially determined mentation of the current structure), and diaphaneity (the transparent recognition of the whole, not just parts) are significant characteristics of this new structure. Stated differently, the tensions and relations between things are more important, at times, than the things themselves; how the relationships develop over time takes precedence to the mere fact that a relationship exists. It will be this structure of consciousness that will enable us to overcome the dualism of the mental structure and actually participate in the transparency of self and life. This fourth structure toward which we are moving is one of minimum latency and maximum transparency; diaphaneity is one of its hallmarks. Transparency is not a “not seeing” as one does not see the pane of glass though which one looks out a window, rather one sees through things and perceives their true nature. Statements about truth are superseded by statements as truth. Verition not description is what we experience and know. Philosophy is replaced by eteology; that is, the eteon, or being-in-truth.[16]

This structure is difficult to describe since it depends to a great deal on experience, not just that we have them, but on how intense they are and what we glean from them for now and the future. Intensity is a key characteristic of this mode of consciousness. By intensity, I do not mean simply an emotional relationship to experience or the feeling or deepening of emotion itself. This would be a magical response not an integral one. Perhaps it would be best to review a few examples of what is meant by fourth dimensionality, arationality and aperspectivity.

Let us start with intensity and use the analogy of love. Love is the energy (yet it has only recently been referred to as such) or the driving force behind true spirituality and spiritual growth. We learn early as mystics and students of the other arts, that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. This is, in fact, one of the two great commandments given us by the Christ and the theme of Love is one that was very strongly developed by the great apostle, Saint Paul, as well. However, it is easy to love those who are our neighbors (even though at times they are exasperating) because they are so much like us. We recognize ourselves in them and so we love them. The affinity of interests, locale, or any other of myriad possibilities makes loving those who are like us a joy. We fulfill our spirituality by adhering to this commandment; it is a yoke that we gladly bear. Nevertheless, this love is a three-dimensional love at best. We love those who fit neatly into our perspectives of being and life. We choose who they are and when and how often we extend that love to them. An integral love, a fourth dimensional love, though, would go beyond that. The Christ also informed us of what that love is when he admonished us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is this love that is intense for it is required without asking our opinion (our point of view, our perspective) of it. This is the love of Judas. This is a demanding love that not many are willing to offer.

Gebser’s Eteology

Each structure has had its “method” even if it was not characterized as such. Magic and the ritualistic invocation of other powers is a method, whether we recognize it as such or not. Visualization and mystical contemplation is also a method of knowledge acquisition and it served a useful and valuable purpose at one point in our development. In the transition from Mythical to Mental, however, a rejection of previous method arose, particularly in our now deficient, Rational structure. This was part of a natural process, I believe, for the rational cannot tolerate anything other than itself. This in no way negates the value of the mental approach for the scientific method has proven to be a very useful, albeit limited, way to garner knowledge. But, just as the scientific method became the predominant means of acquiring and evaluating knowledge in the Mental structure of consciousness, a new structure demands a new method. This is the dynamic aspect, then, of Gebser’s approach. Two notions characterize this methodology and both are newly coined terms: systasis and synairesis, and it is upon these that we will focus our attention in this section.

Systasis and Synairesis

It is difficult to separate these concepts for they are intimately related to one another. What is more, such an artificial separation is indicative of a mental-rational approach, to which we are trying not to fall prey. It should be remembered that the analytical separation demanded of this approach ultimately ends in death, and it is life, the birth of a new method, that we seek. The method which Gebser describes is predicated on the idea of the eteologeme which was introduced earlier. It is this “being-in-truth” which lies at the heart of his approach. Up until now, particularly within the scientific community, the necessary, sometimes forceful, separation of subject and object has been required. It is this dualism that must be transcended if we are to arrive at a more comprehensive, intensive understanding of the world around us and ourselves. Consequently, Gebser’s approach should not be considered the building of a system in our current understanding of the term, for such would also be a product of a three-dimensional mentality.

But, the question arises, “What lies beyond system?” And to answer this particular question, Gebser coins a neologism to describe his approach, namely systasis, which he defines as, if you will, “the conjoining or fitting together of parts into integrality,”[17] “a process whereby partials merge or are merged with the whole.”[18] This is a subtle and difficult concept to understand completely and in all its ramifications. It has in common with system building that the end result is a greater or better comprehension than at the outset of the process. System, however, deals always with parts, not with the whole. Also, system deals primarily with the product rather than the process. Gebser goes on:

[Systasis’] acategorical element is the integrating dimension by which the three- dimensional spatial world, which is always a world of parts, is integrated into a whole in such a way that it can be stated. This already implies that it is not an ordering schema paralleling that of system. We must especially avoid the error of considering systasis — which is both process and effect — as that which is effected, for if we do we reduce it to a causal system. We must be aware that systasis has an effective character within every system. Systasis is not a mental concept, nor is it a mythical image (say) in the sense of Heraclitus’ panta rei (“all things are in flux”), nor is it a magic postulation of the interconnection of everything to and with everything else. And finally, it is not integral, but integrating.[19]

Or as Feuerstein phrases it, “Systasis, in contrast to systematization, deals with the proper ‘arrangement’ of intensities (rather than quantified ‘extensities’).”[20]

What, then (to express it in mental rational terms), is the aim of this method. We have spoken of increased understanding, of more complete comprehension, but these are only approximations. It is here that Gebser introduces the second of this important pair of notions, namely synairesis “which is an integral understanding, or perception, of reality.”[21] More specifically, Gebser notes,

Synairesis comes from synaireo, meaning “to synthesize, collect,” notably in the sense of “everything being seized or grasped on all sides, particularly by the mind or spirit.”[22] Whereas synthesis is a logical-causal conclusion, a mental (trinitary) unification of thesis and antithesis (and falls apart because it becomes itself a thesis as a result of the dividing, perspectival perception), synairesis is an integral act of completion “encompassing all sides” and perceiving aperspectivally.[23]

And again:

The synairesis which systasis makes possible integrates phenomena, freeing us in the
diaphany of “a-waring” or perceiving truth from space and time.[24] 

This freedom from space and time is an important notion in Gebser’s entire approach, not just in his method. It will be remembered that one of the key features of this approach is its incorporation of the notions of latency and transparency. What has passed is not dropped and forgotten (although this is what the mental-rational structure of consciousness tempts us to do), rather it is incorporated into our mentation as effective elements thereof. As Feuerstein has pointed out, “it is this insight into the continuing presence and efficacy of the past that distinguishes Gebser’s model of the unfolding of human consciousness from other similar attempts.”[25] I would hasten to add that it is the equal efficacy of the future that rounds out and completes Gebser’s poignant insight. Feuerstein writes,

And that [synairetic] perception, or “verition,” occurs on the basis of the integration of archaic presentiment, magical attunement (or what Gebser calls “symbiosis”), mythical symbolization, and mental-rational systematization in the integrative act of arational systasis. Here it is important to remember that all structures are co-present (and co- active) in us and hence need not be invoked through historical imagination.[26]

Not being bound by merely past or future is a theme that has permeated much of our discussion of Gebser thus far. This time- and space-free approach introduces a further dimension to our ability to perceive and state:

By introducing systasis into simple methodology, we are able to evince a new “method” which is not longer three-dimensional. This new method is four-dimensional diaphany; in this what is merely conceivable and comprehensible becomes transparent. Diaphany is based on synairesis, on the eteological completion of systasis and system to an integral whole, for integrality is only possible where “temporal” elements and spatial magnitudes are brought together synairetically. The concept which makes possible the “comprehension” or, more exactly, the perception of the “temporal elements” is that of systasis. If we also take into account the systatic concepts, the mere methodology of systems is intensified to synairetic diaphany; and this must be achieved unless we are to remain caught in the three-dimensional scheme of thought.[27]

In its supercession of three-dimensionality, Gebser’s method firmly entrenches the observer in the process of perception and “waring.” This grounding, if you will, is described by Gebser through the term “concretion,” “the integrative act by which otherwise merely abstract proposition are anchored in actual life.” Consequently, this approach is immanently practical, yet does not fall prey to the weaknesses of pragmatism, namely its relativism and short-term expediency. It demands that the observer be as aware of his own role in the process as being aware of the process, and its results themselves.

The integrator, then, is compelled to have not only concretized the appearances, be they material or mental, but also to have been able to concretize his own structure. This means that the various structures that constitute him must have become transparent and conscious to him; it also means that he has perceived their effect on his life and destiny, and mastered the deficient components by his insight so that they acquire the degree of maturity and equilibrium necessary for any concretion. Only those components that are in this way themselves balanced, matured, and mastered concretions can effect an integration.[29]

The means of knowing and knowledge itself become integral aspects of Gebser’s methodological approach. The mere illumination of what was not previously known and understood, that is philosophy, must then yield to eteology, or being-in-truth. “The Greek word eteos means ‘true, real’; as an adverb, eteon means ‘in accord with truth, truly, really’ and comes from the root se:es, meaning “to be.”[30]


It is the comprehensiveness of this term that has brought us to choose it as the prime means of describing Gebser’s approach. The new structure of consciousness to which we are transitioning demands new means, new processes, and new methods. It should be repeated that this ushering in of the new in no way indicates or dictates a discarding of what has come before, far from it. We must keep in mind that it is the activity and presence of the past that distinguishes Gebser’s approach from others. Supercession does not mean invalidating; replacement in this context intimates an intensification rather than a nullification. Nevertheless, the inevitability of this transition should be recognized as well. This particular term best illustrates this new way of understanding. Eteology is then a new form of statement. But it should be noted:
We are speaking advisedly of “forms of statement” here and not of forms of representation. Only our concept of “time” is a representational form, bound — like all forms of representation — to space. The search for a new form of representation would give rise to the error of establishing a new philosopheme at the very moment that philosophy of an individual stamp is over. What is necessary today to turn the tide of our situation are not new philosophemes like the phenomenological, ontological, or existential, but eteologemes.
Eteology must replace philosophy just as philosophy once replaced the myths. In the eteologemes, the eteon or being-in-truth comes to veracity or statement of truth, and the “wares” or guards verity and conveys the “verition” which arises from the a-waring and imparting of truth. Eteology, then, is neither a mere ontology, that is, theory of being, nor is it a theory of existence. The dualistic question of being versus non-being which is commensurate only with the mental structure is superseded by eteology, together with the secularized question as to being, whose content — or more exactly whose vacuity — is nothing more than existence.
Every eteologeme is a “verition,” and as such is valid only when it allows origin to become transparent in the present. To do this it must be formulated in such a way as to be free of ego, and this means not just free of subject but also free of object; only then does it sustain the verity of the whole. This has nothing to do with representation; only in philosophical thought can the world be represented; for the integral perception of truth, the world is pure statement, and thus “verition.”[31]

We can see, then, that this approach places great demands upon us all. It is not sufficient to merely describe or approximate, rather we are required to show what is in its fullest essence. This has, I believe, far-reaching ramifications for science and its allocation of recognition and funding. The actual contribution of knowledge, its freedom from the constraints imposed upon the researcher due to fiscal, economic, academic or political reasons must all be let go in favor of a direct, revelation of truth. This will not be an easy task for many, especially those who are bound to what is “right” as opposed to what is “true.” We see this reflected in all aspects of our societal lives. Eteology is an approach of liberation.

It will be noted that we have not attempted a systematization of criteria and measures that are to be used in our subsequent evaluations. This would be out of step with the free-form nature of the approach described thus far. Yet Gebser does not leave us without assistance in this regard. He provides a list of key terms that will assist in identifying the themes and motifs of the aperspectival world, and these are:

The whole,
transparency (diaphaneity),
the spiritual (the diaphainon),
the supercession of the ego,
the realization of timelessness,
the realization of temporicity,
the realization of the concept of time,
the realization of time-freedom (the achronon),
the disruption of the merely systematic,
the incursion of dynamics,
the recognition of energy,
the mastery of movement,
the fourth dimension,
the supercession of patriarchy,
the renunciation of dominance and power,
the acquisition of intensity,
clarity (instead of mere wakefulness),
and the transformation of the creative inceptual basis.[32]


The focus here has been Gebser’s approach to understanding the unfoldment of human consciousness. The first part dealt exclusively with the model examining each of Gebser’s structures of consciousness in turn: the Archaic, Magical, Mythical, Mental, and Integral. We saw the Archaic structure could best be described as a zero- dimensional, non-perspectival world which could be likened to a state of deep sleep. It was characterized by non-differentiation and the total absence of any sense of separation from the environment. This was a world of identity between self and surroundings; not a world in which we could speak of consciousness in any terms that would be meaningful to our modern understanding of the term. By contrast, the Magical structure was characterized by a certain separateness, but not a total separation by any means. Dimensionally this could be described as one-dimensional; a pre-perspectival state of timelessness and spacelessness. It was likened to a state of sleep. Magic man was much a part of his environment, to be sure, and felt secure only within his group, his tribe or clan. It was the transition from the Archaic to Magic structure of consciousness that has probably been mythologically captured in the story of the “Fall of Man.” The clothing of knowledge in myth is what characterized the transition to the Mythical structure of consciousness, the two-dimensional, unperspectival state of consciousness that can best be likened to a dream. Imagination and attunement with natural rhythms became important factors in man’s life. The separation begun in the Magic structure reaches a tensional climax in the Mythical. This structure is superseded by the Mental structure, whose appearance coincides with the rise of Greek civilization. In this regard, it can be seen that modern thought disregards a good deal of mankind’s history, for it is to the Greeks that we most often trace our intellectual roots. By comparison, the Mental structure of consciousness is a three-dimensional, perspectival world that we described with the term wakefulness. The polar tensions of mythology are replaced by the analytical separation of duality and opposition. Thinking is primary, and in its latter phase rational thinking is primary. But this structure, too, is yielding to a final mutation which Gebser identifies as the Integral structure of consciousness. This is described as a four-dimensional, aperspectival world of transparency. This is a time-free, space-free, subject- and object-free world of verition.

Finally, we examined the methodological aspects of Gebser’s approach. Here, three fundamental notions were involved: systasis, synairesis, and eteology. The first term, systasis, best describes Gebser’s approach. It was seen that systasis goes beyond mere synthesis, which is a mental-rational concept, to achieve a total integration of all parts simultaneously. Synairesis was the means of achieving the end just described. It emphasized the how of such total grasping, namely by the mind or spirit. It is synairesis that enables us to achieve the transparency that is indicative of the Integral structure of consciousness. Finally, eteology replaces philosophy as the way of knowing and acquiring knowledge. Eteology becomes the statement of truth in lieu of the philosophical statement about truth. We saw that this approach goes beyond the limitations of space- and time-perception to a complete and liberating understanding of the whole. It should be noted that this transition is in process; it is not yet a completed act.


[1] Jean Gebser, The Ever-present origin (Authorized translation by Noel Barstad with Algis Mikunas. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986).
[2] Georg Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness: The genius of Jean Gebser ­p; An introduction and critique. (Lower Lake, CA: Integral Publishing, 1987), p. 32.
[3] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 6.
[4] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 6.
[5] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 51.
[6] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 42.
[7] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 43.
[8] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 57.
[9] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 61.
[10] Gustav Meyrink, Der Engel vom westlichen Fenster(Bremen: Schuenemann, n.d.),
p. 426, as quoted in Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 60.
[11] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 75.
[12] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 79.
[13] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, pp. 87f.
[14] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 98.
[15] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 130.
[16] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 309.
[17] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 310.
[18] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 292, Note 4; see also Feuerstein, <i>Structures of
Consciousness, p. 194.
[19] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 310.
[20] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 194.
[21] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, pp. 194-195.
[22] Menge-Güthling, Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch(Berlin: Langenscheidt, 281910),
p. 542.
[23] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 312, Note 5.
[24] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 311.
[25] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 192.
[26] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 195.
[27] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 334. It is also interesting to note that Arthur Young
develops his Geometry of meaning (Mill Valley, CA: Richard Briggs, Associates,
1976) on an increase of dimensionality as well. Although approaching the matter from quite
different perspectives, their conclusions are remarkably similary in many regards. The
notion of dimensionality, therefore, may be more fundamental than we generally suppose.
[28] Feuerstein, Structures of consciousness, p. 198.
[29] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 99.
[30] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 312, Note 4.
[31] Gebser, Ever-present origin, p. 309.
[32] Gebser, Ever-present origin, pp. 361-362.

Copyright © 1996 by Ed Mahood, jr. All rights reserved.

Ed Mahood, jr., PhD, MBA
Synairetic Research
PO Box 111504
Campbell, CA 95011-1504

Richard Hocks on Owen Barfields’ Concept of the Evolution of Consciousness

The “Other” Postmodern Theorist: Owen Barfield’s Concept of the Evolution of Consciousness

Richard A. Hocks

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Hocks was a colleague of Owen Barfield in the English Department at the University of Missouri, Columbia, when Barfield was a visiting professor there in the sixties. Barfield and Hocks soon got into the habit of attending philosophy lectures together, and Hocks first heard of Polanyi when Barfield invited him to attend a lecture on Kant by a visiting philosopher , Marjorie Grene. Barfield’ s conversation about Grene immediately stressed her connection with Michael Polanyi, and Barfield himself spoke admiringly of Polanyi’ s work. Hocks’ essay has evolved from an earlier brief article in TAD’ s predecessor, “The Polanyi Society Newsletter” (X, 2, Winter, 1983) in which he commented upon the complementarity of Polanyi and Barfield and included a short annotated Barfield bibliography.]


A number of years ago in the publication which has evolved into this one, I examined Owen Barfield and Michael Polanyi as “Complementary Theorists.” The following essay attempts to give a more comprehensive overview of Barfield’ s conceptual framework than was possible in the earlier brief format. I shall again be concerned, though not equally, with Polanyi and Barfield, whose similarities and compatibility in thought remain tantalizing. Like Polanyi, Barfield’ s thought is at once intricate and far-reaching, incorporating a theoretical perspective that crosses and enriches many disciplines. Readers of Tradition and Discovery may, like the present writer, find it useful periodically to evaluate Barfield’ s doctrine by placing it alongside Polanyi’ s major tenets, exploring certain basic parallels as well as appreciating the discriminations between two major thinkers of our era whose mutual admiration was frequently expressed. I am calling Owen Barfield above “the ‘other’ postmodernist” not only to insinuate this similarity with Michael Polanyi but to propose that both of them comprise an alternative line of thought with sufficient intellectual heft to dialogue fruitfully with some of the reigning postmodern critical theory in the academy, especially French and German deconstruction which, for all its preoccupation with language and various encoding mechanisms, for example, does not regard language as the vehicle of a meaning higher than itself: hence Jacques Derrida’ s well known term “logocentrism,” or the erroneous belief that language does mean more than itself. Contrastingly, Barfield and Polanyi might well be thought of as two postmodern figures interested in what Barfield calls “the rediscovery of meaning” through the translucent power of language. Finally, in order to introduce as much concision as possible into the complexity of Owen Barfield’s theory, I shall organize my exposition around four key “Barfieldian” concepts all of which are deeply interconnected and, hopefully, will mutually constitute the core of his thought.


I: The Appearances

Owen Barfield’s book Saving the Appearances, A Study in Idolatry is still the best overall exposition of his theory of the evolution of consciousness. Yet no one, I believe, has pointed to a certain almost humorous “twist” embedded in his title, which is that it really means saving the phenomena, inasmuch as our word “phenomena” comes to us from the Greek word for appearance, although we now habitually use the word “phenomena” to denote precisely thereverseofwhatmerely“appears”tous.1 ForBarfieldthephilologist,however,thehistoryoflanguageisthegateway into understanding the history of consciousness, so the fact that the word “phenomena” comes from the word for appearance is a matter of far-reaching implications. Barfield believes we must “save” or rescue the phenomena if we are to rescue ourselves. Rescue from what? From the separateness we attribute to them as part and parcel of our subjectivity in our dualism between subject and object, between what Emerson once called the “me” and the “not me.” This belief in dualism frequently goes by the name of Cartesianism, named of course for the philosopher Rene Descartes, who first proposed it in a systematic way. But the issue for Owen Barfield is not really a philosophical armchair debate with Descartes; there are numerous modern thinkers, some, for example, descending from the late work of William James, who dispute Cartesian dualism. Barfield’s concern is not just with the idea of dualism and separateness but with the actual condition and experience of it. To save the phenomena, therefore, it is important both to understand and to experience them as something other than, so to speak, a collective lump of otherness. It is necessary that we come to an awareness of the extra-sensory link between ourselves as subjects and the phenomena with which we are surrounded. This link–a missing link, if you will, so long as it remains unacknowledged–is called by Barfield “participation,” partly to borrow from the well known anthropological school of Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl, but primarily because it conveys better than another word (such as “construct” or “link”) the relationship Barfield wishes to establish. Participation is crucial to saving the phenomena, for an understanding and experience of them can teach us that phenomena are in point of fact appearances–not in any sense of artificiality or illusion, of course, but as that which is made manifest. And what is made manifest, further contends Barfield, is spirit. The phenomena are thus spirit-made-manifest-as-matter (Barfield does not hold to a neo-oriental view that matter is mere illusion). For us to arrive at this realization is potentially to rediscover humanity as spiritual also, both in its nature and in its origin, for it opens the door to the possibility that our relationship with the natural world is and always has been fundamentally “sacramental,” despite our predisposition to lapse, so to speak, from the marriage. Otherwise, as Barfield puts it, “the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it.”2 Participation thus includes the discovery that the nature and origin of phenomena, on the one hand, and the nature and origin of mankind, on the other, are profoundly and inextricably bound together. This viewpoint relates to what we usually call “ecology,” but at a deeper level than that issue is routinely addressed.

In the case of Barfieldian participation, there is at least one major aid and one major obstacle to its persuasion and acceptance. The major aid is the science of physics and its implications. Those various assumptions voiced by Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, or David Bohm, that the activity of the observer implicates what is observed; or the more familiar assumption that all matter is ultimately a dynamic field of sub-atomic particles; even the routine practice of constructing models–these assumptions begin to press home the implication that, if nothing else, participation already resides in each and every act of human perception, for no one yet claims to actually “see” the sub-atomic particles which physics informs us are the ultimate constituent of reality. What occurs in human perception, Barfield argues, is what he calls “figuration”; and what is perceived by us all is a “collective representation” (unless, of course, the reader can see the particles and/or waves!). Let me note, however, that participation in human perception can only take


us so far, for it remains largely unconscious and does not yet reveal the phenomena in a vastly different light. But it is at least a beginning, an important one.

If the implication of physics is a major aid, then the major obstacle to the persuasion and acceptance of participation is the “idolatry” of Owen Barfield’s subtitle–i.e. positivism. For Barfield, positivism as an obstacle lies not so much in its “ism” as in its habitual way of experiencing the world. Yet even ideologically, positivism, to be sure, can mean many things; for Barfield’ s purposes it usually means materialism, the view that matter is all there “really is,” or rather that there is no immaterial agency at work in the very face and appearance of matter, including ourselves. And if a mighty fleet can be said to have a flagship, then positivism–idolatry–has been dominated above all by the doctrines of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution. What is very important to mention at this juncture is that, for Barfield, Darwinism–not evolution per se but Darwinism–is the view which enforces the specious belief in phenomena as separate, as “other,” and, of course, as matter through and through. Darwinism is in that respect the forefront of positivism; and to Barfield, the historian of consciousness, the fact that those two views had their formal birth at the same time–in the middle of the last century–is certainly no accident. Positivism in general and Darwinism in particular are thus the principal obstacles to a renewed sense of the world based on participation and therefore to saving the phenomena by understanding them in their true appearances. Whether it be a special moment of epiphany, as in an art form such as poetry or music which recreates the world anew, or else the more familiar world in response to our perception, the appearances, contends Barfield, are the activity of an immaterial agency made manifest as phenomena.

For Polanyi, I suspect the Barfieldian “appearances” are often comparable to what the chemist/philosopher calls “a physiognomy,” whether in nature or human nature. While many readers might object, however, that Polanyi’s obvious (and important) debt to Gestalt psychology is not the same as Barfield’s “appearances” conceived of as spirit-made-manifest-as-matter, I do think Polanyi frequently overlaps Barfield on this issue, primarily because his distinctive exposition of the Gestalt experience, if you will, is so deeply tethered to his profound concept of “indwelling”–the term itself evocative of Spirit in Augustinian theology. This description from Personal Knowledge is an example of music’s “physiognomy”: “By dwelling in a harmonious sequence of sounds, we acknowledge their joint meaning as a tune: a meaning they have in themselves, existentially.”3

What is hardly disputable is that Polanyi and Barfield share the same critique of Barfield’s “idolatry”–i.e. positivism in general, Darwinian epistemology in particular–and that both see this “inversion” (to use Polanyian terminology) as a hindrance to rediscovering meaning and thus diagnosing our condition of alienation borne of excessive scientism or observationalism. The alternative epistemology to such Barfieldian “idolatry” is, of course, “participation,” the concept most remarkably consanguine with Polanyi’ s theory of indwelling and of tacit knowledge, a parallel I shall return to presently.

II: Participation

I have proposed above that, for Owen Barfield, human participation is crucial in any endeavor to save the phenomena, but in Barfield’s spectrum of thought there are levels and degrees of participation, and there are also categories of it that correspond to epochs of time or periods of history. First, with regard to its levels or degrees: participation as the activity present in human perception, as “figuration,” turns out to be the same power named by Coleridge in his poetics as “primary imagination,” the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the


infinite I AM.”4 Coleridge’s formulation claims a spiritual source for the human imagination present in perception; indeed the vast network that comprises those relationships in Coleridge is the subject of Barfield’s monumental study, What Coleridge Thought (1971). That study epitomizes Barfield’s lifelong interest in the ontology of the poetic imagination proper, what Coleridge went on to define as “secondary imagination.” This, Coleridge tells us, is “an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary [imagination] in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.”5 For our purposes “secondary imagination” is in Barfieldian or Coleridgean terms a higher level of participation than ordinary human perception, inasmuch as the poet or artist consciously expresses the phenomena through language. To put this another way, poetic utterance really “speaks” the participation that human perception fails to reveal easily to us until and unless we are forced to think seriously and deeply about it with the aid, say, of physics and its implication of the presence of human “figuration.” The poetic imagination thereby rescues or “saves” the phenomena from that lump of otherness referred to earlier. It is largely due to Coleridge in particular and the Romantic Movement in general that Barfield believes there were at least some healthy “symptoms of iconoclasm” to positivistic thinking even as it began to settle into idolatry so solidly by the 19th century.

Now despite many shimmering discussions of the vital nature of poetry and language, such as, for example, Emerson’s famous essay “The Poet,” Owen Barfield is anything but naive when it comes to expecting most readers or hearers to agree with him that language has the same kind of extra-sensory link with the represented phenomena that human perception has with the unrepresented particle life within phenomena; and that what poetry accomplishes in the one case is similar to what careful consideration of advanced physics does in the other case. Even so, “the relation,” he writes, “between collective representations and language is of the most intimate nature . . . .Those who insist that words and things are in two mutually exclusive categories of reality are confusing the phenomena with the particles. They are trying to think about the former [the phenomena] as if they were the latter [the particles]. Whereas by definition, it is only the unrepresented which is independent of collective human consciousness and therefore of humanlanguage.”6 Inotherwords,ifconsciousnessiscorrelativetophenomenainparticipation,itisevenmorelikely that language is likewise correlative to our collective representations. Poetry and the artistic imagination that utters and mediates the world through language and other forms of artistic expression point to a level of participation “identical in the kind of its agency,” as Coleridge put it, to primary imagination or normal human perception.

There is, however, still a third level of participation over and beyond that of poetic or artistic utterance, and that is the systematic or trained use of imagination on behalf of the perception of qualities in nature. This level, called by Barfield “final participation,” involves enhancing our figuration to the point of rendering the unrepresented as phenomenal or apparitional–saving the appearances in the fullest, most self-conscious sense. Such “final participa- tion” takes Barfield beyond Coleridge proper and is one of the most difficult doctrines in his entire thought, one that cannot be much elaborated here and, indeed, lies primarily in the future, for it is virtually unfound as yet in western culture except in certain rare instances. Even so, it is a capability Goethe apparently exhibited in his scientific investigations of the morphology of plant life. More importantly, it is the capacity that Rudolph Steiner, Barfield’s principal philosophical mentor, incorporated into his spiritual science.7 What may be most helpful to consider at this stage, I believe, are the stratification and levels of participation we have considered thus far: that of normal human perception rightly understood but not generally experienced, that of poetic or artistic utterance, and, albeit briefly and preliminarily, that of final participation–the systematic imagination, the trained observation of and indwelling in, so to speak, nature’ s “inside.” Now these same three levels of participation correspond in an important way to Barfield’ s three principal stages in the evolution of consciousness, which is, when you think about it, the consideration of participation under the


framework of linear time and history. First, “original participation,” like human perception now, was largely unselfconscious, although the experience of it would necessarily be different from our present experience of perception (we live now, not then, in the wake of the “Cartesian experience”). Second, participation through poetic utterance corresponds to Barfield’ s second stage, for it involves the individual’ s self-conscious attempt to “reattach” to nature and to phenomena those extra-sensory qualities no longer intrinsically experienced; and it should not surprise anyone to discover that the growth of modern science in the 17th century would be the twin, or more properly the alter ego, to this second stage in the evolution of consciousness eventually brought to fruition and epitomized by the early 19th-century Romantic Movement in literature, a movement that produced Coleridge, among others. Lastly, final participation has not yet been achieved, although it may be foreshadowed in certain exceptional individuals. If the reader can think of these three levels of participation and the three stages of the evolution of consciousness as homologous, one might try momentarily borrowing from 19th-century biology the terms “ontogenetic” and “phylogenetic” development: hence the three levels of participation in an individual (the ontogenetic) could be said to “recapitulate” the three major stages in the evolution of human consciousness (the phylogenetic). At which point the same reader might well retort: “Wait a minute! That ontogenetic/phylogenetic recapitulating thesis is old, quasi-outmoded evolutionary jargon; this Barfield is supposed to be anti-Darwinian?” Indeed, he is. But he is not anti-evolution.

When addressing the issue of scientific discovery through tacit inference, Michael Polanyi makes the Coleridgean/Barfieldian point that we “must turn to the example of perception” wherein “the capacity of scientists to perceive in nature the presence of lasting shapes differs from ordinary perception only by the the fact that it can integrate shapes that ordinary perception cannot readily handle.”8 This analogy with Coleridge’s theory stressing the “difference in degree” of perception between primary and secondary imagination results from both thinkers’ similar emphasis on the integration of particulars to meaningful wholes–what Coleridge denominated the imagination’s “esemplastic power” (i.e.molding into oneness), or its “unity in multeity.” Such conceptual apposition between Polanyi and Coleridge/Barfield, whereby the transition from perception to discovery–scientific or creative–is continuous, depends profoundly on their shared view of participation. Polanyi’s recurrent theme that our “seeing” “indwells” the object and changes its nature; or that when we attend from a word or object to its meaning we interiorize as opposed to our looking at a word or thing so as to exteriorize or alienate it–this perspective is the analogue to Barfield’s whole ontology of participation and (differing only in degree) poetics. Polanyi’s analysis of the “from . . . to” act of knowing even parallels Barfield’s distinction between our accessing a “history of consciousness” rather than merely looking at a “history of ideas.” The keynote for both thinkers, then, is the mind’s participatory activity. Although Barfield begins with poetry and Polanyi with scientific discovery, their epistemology and language theory overlap. “A set of sounds,” writes Polanyi, “is converted into the name of the object by an act of tacit knowing which integrates the sounds to the object to which we are attending. . . . When converted into a word they no longer sound as before; they have become as it were transparent: we attend from them (or through them) to the object to which they are integrated.”9 To which Barfield, following Coleridge, might add that the vital ray of relation between the ordinary word and its object is then recapitulated at a higher level through poetic utterance, not unlike a valid scientific theorem in Polanyi’s scheme.

III: Evolution, the False and the True

The fierce debate between evolution and creationism often seems a conflict between science and academia, on one side, and fundamentalist religion, on the other. For by evolution is generally meant Darwinism, or rather a neo-Darwinism buttressed by the science of genetics. Although Owen Barfield’s thought, strictly speaking, is no part


of this debate, his work sheds considerable light on it. His evolutionary perspective may suggest to casual readers a figure like, say, Teilhard de Chardin or perhaps Karl Jung, but one reason such comparisons would be in error is that Barfield, unlike either, challenges directly and forcefully the neo-Darwinian analysis of prehistory. His contention is rather that of the evolution and history of consciousness, an approach he generally contrasts to our more conventional history of ideas, especially when treating human thought, say, from the Graeco-Roman age to the present. And indeed his richest analyses of texts and culture fall within that time frame. Furthermore, any reader of Barfield soon discovers that his deep engagement with philology, the history of language, is the nourishing root of the method by which he engages the past at the level of the history of consciousness. How, then, does this necessarily relate to the broader question of Darwinian evolution? After all, it is not common for someone to be engaged with a history of the Western mind and then impinge on the different topic and vastly different time frame of biological evolution; indeed, should a philologist even want to enter such turbulent waters?

The answer is that Barfield’s precoccupation with the history of consciousness is different from even the most saturated analyses of the past, such as Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Barfield maintains that, in any thoughtful consideration of evolution, it is both more reasonable and more illuminating to hold that mind, or consciousness, precedes matter rather than the reverse–though not individualized mind or self-consciousness. Not only does the origin of language point toward this supposition but also the content of the great myths, indeed even the very archetypes that a thinker like Jung explores so deeply yet without ever considering that that they might inhabit the world “outside” the human head–or a vast collection of human heads. In other words, evolution for Barfield begins with mind as anterior to matter, as a given “field” out of which, as it were, matter compresses. Barfield’s thesis herein does not merely challenge the Darwinian argument; in a sense it turns that argument on its head: for not only does mind precede and bring matter into being, and a form of intentionality replace chance-ridden natural selection, but the very same physical evidence used in support of the received position is never directly challenged or discredited, but interpreted differently.

Furthermore, in Barfield’s view human self-consciousness evolves in turn from world consciousness by the same kind of compression or focusing modality that characterizes the coming into being of matter itself. As he puts it in a wonderful image, mankind “has had to wrestle his subjectivity out of the world of his experience by polarizing that world gradually into a duality.”10 The word “gradually” is most important here in reminding us that Barfield really does mean evolution, but it also suggests why he always illuminates so well the older texts that he interprets: for that gradual “wrestling” process reveals itself especially in the thought, art, and literature of the West from the Graeco-Roman world to the close of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the scientific revolution in the 17th century. His contention that self-consciousness has emerged from a broader world consciousness has, to quote a favorite expression by one of my colleagues, “all the force of unnoticed significance newly made obvious,”11 especially when placed alongside some of the convoluted theories about the origin of language–such as “animism” or “the metaphorical period.” The authority of Barfield’s discussion about the period from the Graeco-Roman world to our own–his illumination of Aristotle, Aquinas, Galileo, the Romantics, and many others–derives from his premise about the centripetal evolution of self-consciousness from world consciousness. To put this another way, his history-of-consciousness approach draws not merely on the ideas of a given period or author from that period, but is really a history of a given period’ s “figuration.” In fact, one of the truly seismic implications of Barfield’ s view is that the phenomena–i.e., the appearances–undergo change in response to the evolution of consciousness itself. And what this means is that participation evolves as well.


A listener can of course reject Barfield’s evolutionary argument out of hand, assume it “unscientific,” and the like; it is not a view which, stated by itself, is likely to compel immediate assent. Nevertheless it does (at the every least) make his discussions of specific historical, philosophical, and literary topics downright luminous. From Poetic Diction, 1928, through Saving the Appearances, 1957, to What Coleridge Thought, 1971, numerous readers have experienced an illumination comparable to that expressed by C.S. Lewis when he dedicated The Allegory of Love to Barfield as the “wisest and best of my unofficial teachers.”

Two additional points should be made. First, if Owen Barfield’s view of evolution seems not to be modern but peculiarly “traditional,” theological, or, say, “mystical” (as opposed to scientific), one might well reconsider the implications of quantum mechanics and the like that were raised earlier. Second, if Barfield’s own view of evolution is carefully thought out, one of our most important discoveries–I mean about the question of its validity–is that The Origin of Species, published in 1859, occurred at a period in recent history when self-consciousness had so fully achieved its ascendency, its hegemony, that it could no longer even feel any extra-sensory link with phenomena in participation: hence one could not even conceive of a concept of prehistory wherein matter wasn’ t assumed to be totally separate from mind; matter, according to Darwin and Lydell and other Victorians, simply must have preceded mind, since it obviously did (and does!) precede self-consciousness. Whenever we think the other person is wrong about such important matters, it is particularly crucial to cast light, not just on that person’s error, or even why the person is wrong; it is especially important to explain how that person inevitably came to the wrong conclusion in the first place. Perhaps more than any other thinker, Barfield enables his reader to go “inside” the thinking of his opponents and get us to understand, on the grounds of his argument, just how the other person came to think the other way around. Evolution, in any case, is not merely about phylogenetic history; evolution also has its own history.

It is probably accurate to describe Polanyi, like Barfield, as both an evolutionist and an opponent of Neo-Darwinism, although the grounds of his explicit critique of Darwin are admittedly very different from Barfield’ s.12 Yet for all the difference in their respective philosophical agendas, including their views of evolution, Barfield and Polanyi really do end up together in opposition to Darwin on similar epistemological and ontological grounds. If Barfield, as we have seen, insists that mind precedes matter, Polanyi’s view of reality as structured by hierarchical boundary conditions offers a comparable generic challenge to the Darwinian mind set, when he concludes that “the operations of a higher level cannot be accounted for by the laws governing its particulars forming the next lower level. Y ou cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics; you cannot derive grammar from a vocabulary; a correct use of grammar does not account for good style; and a good style does not provide the content of a piece of prose.”13

IV: Polarity

A true understanding of the principle of polarity in Owen Barfield is perhaps the ultimate prerequisite to a genuine understanding of all the major facets of his thought, including the evolution of consciousness. It is generally not known that Coleridge was the first person to use the word “polarity” to mean something other than magnetism, and Barfield’ s 1971 study of Coleridge is essentially the study of polarity and its ramifications throughout Coleridge’ s thought: for example, the well known conception by Coleridge of the literary imagination as “the reconciliation of opposites” really derives from his non-literary work in natural philosophy and his contention there of polarity as the exponential law governing individuation, a conception found later in Karl Jung as well as among Coleridge’s own contemporaries in Germany. But Barfield himself has greatly extended Coleridgean polarity in his own thought. One


of the better places to encounter it is in this passage from his book Speaker’ s Meaning. “A polarity of contraries,” he writes, “is not quite the same as the coincidentia oppositorum, which has been stressed by some philosophers, or as the’paradox’ which (whether for the purposes of irony or for other reasons) is beloved by some contemporary writers and critics. A paradox is the violent union of two opposites that simply contradict each other, so that reason assures us we can have one or the other but not both at the same time. Whereas polar contraries (as is illustrated by the use of the term in electrcity) exist by virtue of each other as well as at each other’ s expense. For that very reason the concept of polarity cannot be subsumed under the logical principle of identity; in fact, it is not really a logical concept at all, but one which requires an act of imagination to grasp it. . . . Unlike the logical principles of identity and contradiction, it is not only a form of thought, but also the form of life. It could perhaps be called the principle of seminal identity. It is also the formal principle which underlies meaning itself and the expansion of meaning.”14

Obviously, Barfield’s conception here is altogether different from what we usually mean by polarity, as when we speak of society’ s becoming polarized, for instance; but less obviously it is just as different from Cartesian dualism, which is perhaps more appropriately called dichotomy, certainly not unity or “seminal identity” through opposition. In Speaker’ s Meaning, Barfield is concerned with the polar transformation that recurs between the expressive and communicative meaning in language. Such transformation is revealed through Barfield’s attentive study of philology, especially the history of language. A “speaker’s meaning,” that is to say, reveals polarity with “lexical meaning” when language is studied over a long period of time. Such polarity in language is in fact one of the keys to the evolution of consciousness, for the semantic approach Barfield invokes enables one to look into the past, not just at it. A word like “furniture,” for example, which the OED tells us once meant, or included, “faculty & furniture of mind” has contracted its meaning centripetally over the course of time; whereas, on the other hand, words like “gravity” or “focus” have expanded their meanings centrifugally over time. Such continual polarity occurs, according to Barfield, because “when we use a word, we re-enact, or adopt, or reanimate . . . the thought of previous users of the same word or some part at least of that thought. It may be a very small part indeed. But we must be doing just that thing to some extent; for otherwise we should not be uttering a word at all, but simply making a noise! Of course the same thing is true of the previous speakersthemselves,andofotherspeakersbeforethem.”15 Barfieldhaspointedoutagainandagaininadozenbooks and numerous essays that, when we look back into the history of any so-called abstract or immaterial word, we come to a period when it also had a concrete or outer meaning as well, like “gravity” or “focus”–meaning “heavy” or “weighty” and “fire-burning hearth,” respectively. There are even words still in the process of completing that polar transforma- tion, such as “noble” or “gentle,” which obviously no longer connote only “class” or “blood”–in fact almost do not mean them! But this is also the case with outer or material language, like “furniture”; the process by which these have lost their inner meaning, writes Barfield, “is clearly the obverse, or correlative, of the very process by which so many [more] other words have lost their outer meaning.”16 One notes that he does not say “reverse” but “obverse,” or “correlative” –that is because he is thinking polarity, not just dichotomy. Barfield is especially fond of illustrating both processes, the centrifugal and the centripetal, by the Greek word pneuma, which in St. John’ s Gospel is repeated several times within a very few verses and correctly translated, first, as “spirit,” then “wind,” and then again “spirit.” What we have in that example is a sort of captured moment just before the splitting apart of a word into what eventually would be its outer and inner meanings, a process which in time would be expressed by two different words altogether, “wind” and “spirit.” Barfield sometimes cites a contemporary example of this same process in our own use of the word “heart” to refer at once to the physical organ and to the seat of affections. Should “heart” evolve like pneuma, there could eventually come a time when, say, a word like “cardium” might refer exclusively to the physical organ, and “heart” to the inner meaning. But for us now to say that wind was once “a metaphor” for spirit would be quite as inappropriate as for future generations to look back and assume that “heart” was in our day “merely a metaphor” for the cardium.


This entire issue is what makes a poem like, for example, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” so instructive, for in that poem Shelley consciously reconnects through poetic utterance the meaning of spirit and wind which were originally one. The poet in such instances re-utters imaginatively what was once an utterance outside the confines of any individual creative mind like that of a single poet. It is not accidental, then, that whereas the ancient world thinks of the poet as “inspired,” the modern world thinks of the same poet as “imaginative”; the first is to be “possessed by” a genius or daemon without; the second (as Coleridgean poetics would propose) is rather to be “in possession of” the daemon within. Hence the relation, historically speaking, between “inspiration” and “imagination” is that of a true polarity or “seminal identity.”

This is but some of the philological or semantic context of polarity in Barfield’s analysis. The fact is, polarity properly understood and grasped by the imagination is really a conception that ramifies throughout all of his thought. The main issues about polarity are that it always involves interpenetration as well as juxtaposition, that it requires an act of imagination to grasp it (precisely since it cannot be subsumed under the logical principle of identity and contradiction), and that it is, in Barfield’s words, “not only a form of thought but also the form of life.”17
We have seen already Polanyi’s views about language sufficient to indicate their affinity with the tenor of Barfield’s argument in Speaker’ s Meaning. Barfieldian polarity, inasmuch as he proposes it as a living immaterial agency, may not be quite the same as Polanyi’s concept of “complementarity,” yet they do have more than a little in common. “We can see,” writes Polanyi, “two complementary efforts aiming at the elucidation of a comprehensive unity. One proceeds from a recognition of a whole towards an identification of its particulars; the other, from the recognition of a group of presumed particulars towards the grasping of their relation in the whole.”18 This conceptual model overlaps Barfield in part because it evokes, once again, Coleridge’s concept of “unity in multeity” which he derives from the principle of polarity. “I have called these two efforts complementary,” Polanyi continues, “since they contribute jointly to the same final achievement, yet it is also true that each counteracts the other to some extent at every consecutive step.” In short, “an alternation of analysis and integration leads progressively to an even deeper understanding of a comprehensiveunity.”19 Polanyi’sexpositionintheseandsimilarpassagessufficientlyparallels,Ibelieve,Barfield’s analysis of polarity earlier in regard to the lexical/expressive as well as expanding/contracting relationship within the living history of language.

To restate more generally, then, the Barfield-Polanyi consanguinity: Polanyi’s complex epistemology, including conceptions like “self-giving integration” (as distinct from “self-centered integration”), although primarily a discrimination between cognition in art as opposed to science, is in effect one of many analogues to Barfield’s major and ruling argument about participation and polarity, whether as human perception, poetic imagination, or even the shifting of consciousness in its evolution over the length of Western history. In the distant past of “original participation,” the human mind was far more “subsidiary” than “focal.” Historically speaking, the beginning of modern science in the 17th century corresponds to a shifting emphasis through the development of self-consciousness and a corresponding de-emphasis in participation illustrated, for instance, in the earlier Medieval theory of the humors or the cosmological assumptions dramatized, say, by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image–what Thomas Kuhn might call a preceding “paradigm.” Poetry and imaginative art afterwards would come to articulate in a self-conscious way the participational relationship no longer experienced as part of normal human perception. To put much of this in another way, poetry is to the epistemological act in Barfield what science, if properly understood, is to the epistemological act in Polanyi.

As with knowing, so too, though less obviously, with being. Barfield’s metaphysical views, radiating outward from

his arguments regarding poetry and language history are favorable, I believe, to Polanyi’s explication of reality as 35

stratified structures or “boundary conditions.” Part of their shared view herein no doubt stems from each man’s profound sense of hierarchy traceable to a common source in Augustine, although also in Barfield’s case to such loved texts as the poetry of Milton, Dante, and the Romantics, the philosoiphy of Plato, the scientific thought in Coleridge, and especially the spiritual science of Rudolph Steiner. The two especially meet, moreover, in their energetic opposition to what Barfield calls “idolatry,” i.e. positivism, which holds that one can account for the higher level within a stratified system of reality by the lower. Barfield in particular critiques Darwinism in this context, and both he and Polanyi espouse a non-Darwinian concept of evolution. The fact that Polanyi does not as a philosopher of science propose something like Barfield’s neo-Coleridgean theory of Logos does not alter the “Barfieldian implication” otherwise of Polanyi’s analysis of being. Apart from the parallels in their respective views on imagination and art, then, Polanyi and Barfield complement each other in their fundamental epistemological and ontological perspectives, and in their mutual preoccupation with and commitment to what Barfield calls “the rediscovery of meaning” without resorting to the uneasy “two-truth” solution of science and humanities, a “solution” which seems mainly to have deepened the malaise and made people hunger for something else.20

Let me now end this essay where I began, but with what I hope is a heightened sense of where we have been in these pages. The appearances, as in Barfield’s Saving The Appearances, are ultimately united through polarity with phenomena–recapitulating the very history of that word–so that to rescue the one is to rescue the other by making luminous once more their face and thereby our relationship to them (analogously, Richard Gelwick, commenting on the Gestalt-like nature of factual statements in Polanyi’ s thought asserts that when “this tacit structure is ignored and values are regarded as inferior to facts, we also lessen our humanity”21). Furthermore, a participating relationship between subject and object, between percipient and phenomena, is ultimately for Barfield a polar one; and there is no time in the evolution of Western consciousness when human perception has not been in fact a participating, polar agency. But there certainly have been periods when the ordinary person’ s awareness of this participation has been less, or even minimal. In the middle of the 19th century, for example, such sense of participation was so minimal that out of that experience came the twin doctrines of Darwinism and positivism. Even in our own time, our experience of participation is often minimal; however, we now have the capacity to reconsider it in the light of post-Cartesian philosophy, post-Newtonian physics, as well as post-critical thinking. To really understand polarity at all is to understand polar-predominance, for equilibrium is by definition hardly ever the case. In Barfieldian original participation, the predominating pole was outside the human subject in the world itself. The evolution of consciousness in the West away from original participation has meant also the gradual reversal in predominance from the pole without to the pole within, toward self-consciousness. That centripetal polar-predominance probably reached its peak in the middle of the last century, and The Origin of Species along with the beginnings of positivism are in a sense its appropriate touchstones or markers. Admittedly it remains to be seen whether ecology, the new physics, Polanyi’s post-critical epistemology, or a truly comprehensive theorist like Barfield himself are rather early symptoms of a gradual re-reversal in polar-predominance from a somewhat imprisoning subjectivity outward toward the world and thus in the direction of something like “final participation.” Short of that, it is surely a perspective and a body of thought which, without its exhibiting a scintilla of trendiness, deserves a more frequent hearing in this era of postmodern deconstruction with its denial of the sacramental “transparency” of language affirmed by Polanyi and expostulated so extensively in Barfield.



1. The notable exception to this usage is, of course, the school of phenomenology in philosophy–an important exception that bears on Barfield’s thought, suggesting certain overlapping strands between him and phenomenology.

2. Owen Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning and other Essays (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1977),


3. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge:Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 344.

4. See Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Chapter 13.

5. Ibid

6. Saving The Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), p. 82.
7. An excellent analysis of Barfield’s relation to Rudolph Steiner can be found in Robert J. Reilly, Romantic Religion (Athens: Univ. of Georgia, 1971), pp. 13-97.

8. Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 138.

9. Ibid, p.145.

10. The Rediscovery of Meaning, p. 16-17.

11. See William Holtz, “Thermodynamics and the Comic and Tragic Modes,” Western Humanities Review, 25 (Summer, 1971), p.203.

12. For Polanyi’s views on Darwin and evolution see Personal Knowledge, pp. 382-390; for an excellent analysis of Polanyian thought in this domain see Marjorie Grene, The Knower and the Known (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1974), pp.185-201, and passim.

13. Knowing and Being, pp. 154-55.
14. Owen Barfield, Speaker’ s Meaning (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 38-39. 15. Ibid, pp.23-24.
16. Ibid, p. 56.
17. Ibid, p.39.
18. Knowing and Being, p. 125.


19. Ibid.

20. These two “restatement” paragraphs are extracted almost verbatim from my earlier short article on Polanyi and Barfield (see “Editor’ s Note”). I believe the explosion of postmodernist theory is itself a part of that wider “hunger for something else” other than the “two truths” of science and humanities.

21. Richard Gelwick, The Way of Discovery: An Introduction to the Thought of Michael Polanyi (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 146.


History in English Words (Michigan: Eerdsmans, 1967; first published 1926 by Faber and Faber).

Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (New Y ork: McGraw-Hill, 1964; first published 1928 by Faber and Faber).

Romanticism Comes of Age (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1967; first published 1944 by Rudolph Steiner Press).

Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1965; first published 1957 by Faber and Faber).

Worlds Apart (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1963).
Unancestral Voice (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1965).
Speaker’ s Meaning (Middletown, Weselyan, 1967).
The Case for Anthroposophy (London: Rudolph Steiner Press, 1970). What Coleridge Thought (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1971).

The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1977). This Ever Diverse Pair (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1985).
Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis, ed G.B. Tennyson (Middletown: Wesleyan, 1989).

Recognizing Reality, by Stephen Talbot

Talbott is a remarkable writer, strongly influenced by British poet and barrister Owen Barfield.  This kind of understanding, along with that of McGilchrist and “the divided brain”, is – I believe – essential for understanding the pathology of materialist beliefs.

Recognizing Reality

Stephen L. Talbott

This article is part of a work in progress and is subject to continual revision. Date of last revision: June 5, 2013. The article was originally published in NetFuture #162 (April 5, 2005).Copyright 2005, 2013 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved.

What is a quality? I cannot tell you — at least not in any direct way. This makes it difficult for me when a reader, Maurice Englander, responds to “The Reduction Complex” (NF #158) by complaining that “Talbott never defines what he means by ‘quality'”. Former Wired editor, Kevin Kelly, voices a similar concern when he asks me for a definition of “the exact method of holism — how it runs as a science and not as poetry”.

I respect these requests. This essay is the beginning of a response. But I am afraid my response may not be quite what my correspondents were looking for. The crucial issue, we will find, is whether their insistence upon a definition and an exact method is an insistence upon conformity to the very science we need to reform. After all, we typically try to define a thing by holding it fast, freezing it, nailing it down. We want to say what it is, so that we can point at and delineate it in no uncertain terms. We want to grasp it securely and without ambiguity.

There is, in other words, an aggressive philosophical stance concealed in the seemingly innocent demand for a definition. But what if reality, like water, slips through our clutching fingers? How much good will it do us to pin something down if the reality we are trying to lay hold of is a power of movement and becoming — a living, animating power by which each thing is continually becoming something different? What if the entire business of qualities is to express the moving, pulsing, darting, gliding, ascending and descending, throbbing, living, self-transforming character of the world’s phenomena? Can we exactly define that which is continually transforming itself?

If, from the start, we insist that the poet could not possibly be exercising badly needed cognitive faculties neglected by today’s dominant science — well, then, we are not asking what sort of new science might arise. Rather, we are insisting that, whatever it is, it must embody the limitations of the science we already have.

In this introductory essay I wish only to bring a greater vividness to the problem of qualities. Along the way, a crucial first point should begin to emerge: although my correspondents would hang the question of qualities like an albatross around the neck of the would-be qualitative scientist, the truth is that it weighs first of all — and decisively — upon the reductionist scientist. In fact, as I have suggested before, it is a game-ending problem for reductionism. All science, right down to its most tough-minded, quantitative formulations, remains permeated by qualities wherever its equations and algorithms touch revealingly upon actual physical phenomena — that is, whenever the science gives us understanding of the world. But the reductionist, while relying upon these qualities for the sense of his explanations, refuses to speak about them in any meaningful way.

The willingness of a new science to identify itself with the difficult problem of qualities is not a sign of weakness but rather of a return to health. Even if the initial attempts at understanding prove terribly inadequate, they will be greatly preferable to willful disregard of the qualitative dimensions of conventional science.

Some day we will be dumbfounded at the long-sustained pathology whereby the scientist looked out upon a world consisting of nothing but qualities and then claimed to explain it while refusing to say anything substantial about the nature of those qualities.

Pathologies of Language

Aphasia is a disorder often resulting from lesions to the so-called “language centers” of the left brain. According to the usual definition, people with aphasia lose their ability to understand words as such. Oddly, however, friends and relatives of those afflicted sometimes hardly recognize that anything is amiss. How can this be? How can a person fail to understand words and yet get along reasonably well in many situations involving verbal communication?

Well, the aphasic patient does have a problem. But it may not declare itself clinically, according to neurologist Oliver Sacks, until the physician speaks to the patient in an impersonal, mechanical, and unnatural way, removing “all the extraverbal cues — tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture)….” In order to confirm a diagnosis, Sacks finds he might even need to employ a voice synthesizer or otherwise manage to produce “grossly artificial, mechanical speech — somewhat like that of computers in Star Trek“.

The reason for these special measures, of course, is that the meaning of our speech is conveyed through much more than the abstract, definable, strictly logical and propositional force of the words. Aphasic patients, while unable to receive speech in its more fixed grammatical, logical, and lexical signification, are nevertheless sensitive to a much deeper, more gestural realm of expression. Only when the patient is cut off from this fuller, richer sphere of communication does his deficit most clearly present itself.

Sacks goes on to note that, because aphasics may “preternaturally enhance” their sensitivity to the subtle, expressive aspects of speech, he sometimes has the feeling that

one cannot lie to an aphasic. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely theexpression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can …. They have an infallible ear for every vocal nuance, the tone, the rhythm, the cadences, the music, the subtlest modulations, inflections, intonations, which can give — or remove — verisimilitude to or from a man’s voice. (Sacks 1985, pp. 76-79)

Those with injuries to the opposite (right) side of the brain may suffer difficulties complementary to aphasia. While identifying words correctly in some narrow sense and following grammatical constructions exactly, they lose awareness of everything expressive about a voice. Because they perceive speech to be flat and emotionless, they become wooden and literal-minded in their understanding. Deeply meaningful, or passionate speech becomes confusing and contradictory to them.

Speaking of one such patient, Sacks describes how she paid “extreme attention to exactness of words and word use”, and demanded the same of others. Slang and loose or richly allusive speech were difficult, so that she “more and more required of her interlocutors that they speak prose — ‘proper words in proper places'”. One suspects she would have done very well as a programmer working with computer languages.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

There are pathologies of vision — also due to right-brain lesions — that closely parallel those of the literal-minded woman. Sacks tells how, when he first met “the man who mistook his wife for a hat”, the patient did not look at him in the normal way, but rather “made sudden strange fixations — on my nose, on my right ear, down to my chin, up to my right eye — as if noting (even studying) these individual features, but not seeing my whole face, its changing expressions, ‘me’ as a whole”.

You could hardly have a clearer image of the tendency of science to become a purely analytic discipline and a fragmented collection of facts. The patient (Dr P.) “had no sense whatever of a landscape or a scene”. As for people: “in the absence of obvious ‘markers’, he was utterly lost”. He approached faces — “even of those near and dear — as if they were abstract puzzles or tests. He did not relate to them, he did not behold. No face was familiar to him, seen as a ‘thou’, being just identified as a set of features, an ‘it'”. This is why, when intending to put on his hat, he reached out to grab the head of his wife.

In sum, Dr P. functioned like a machine, indifferent to visual images as such and construing the world “by means of key features and schematic relationships …. without the reality being grasped at all”. It reminds me of the opening pages of a book called The Marriage of Sense and Thought, where the authors speak of a warm smile between friends and then imagine how its reality would be reduced through a mechanistic investigation: “a smile is a widening of the oral aperture, caused by contractions of the cheek musculature”, and so on (Edelglass, Maier, et al. 1997, p. 1).

It is not that such descriptions lack usefulness. The question has to do with how much reality the scientist is content to ignore as if it were not there. We certainly need our powers of isolation and abstraction, but, as Sacks remarks of Dr P., “it was precisely this, his absurd abstractness of attitude — absurd because unleavened with anything else — which rendered him incapable of perceiving identity…” (Sacks 1985, pp. 7-21).

Such cases provide us with a good opportunity to ask, “What is the ‘something else’ that enables us to take in the world in a manner that coheres, holds together, gives it meaningful form?” Such coherence, after all, is the first prerequisite for any science.

Actually, the something else is not really something else. It is the only thing we have. The literal, fragmented, logically precise truth we cherish is never anything but a stripped-down and therefore easily falsified abstraction from a much fuller and more expressive reality.

Complementary Deficiencies

The clinical observations reported by Sacks form one part of a large body of research relating to the two hemispheres of the brain. Although the right brain/left brain distinction is often rendered popularly in coarse, simplistic terms, it is by now well-established that there are differing tendencies at work in the two parts of the brain, albeit in an extremely subtle interplay. A leading authority in the matter, Colwyn Trevarthen, summarizes certain findings this way:

It appeared that the right hemisphere was able to notice the shape of things more completely than the left. Taken with evidence that systematic calculation and forming logical propositions with words were better performed by the left hemisphere, these results favoured the idea that the right hemisphere is better at taking in the structure of things synthetically, without analysis, assimilating all components at once in an ensemble, figure, or Gestalt. (Trevarthen 1987; see also Gazzaniga and Hutsler 1999)

Where the left hemisphere does well with abstractions and with “disembedded or context-free propositions lacking in interpersonal force”, the right hemisphere copes best with language that “is fitted into the world of objects, interpersonal acts, and events, all of which sustain the meaning of what is said”. Similarly, as Gazzaniga and Hutsler report, “the right hemisphere is typically much better at representing the whole object while the left hemisphere shows a slight advantage for recognizing the parts of an object”.

The distinction between hemispheres becomes especially sharp when we recognize faces, a task for which the right hemisphere exhibits “an extraordinary superiority”. The superiority manifests itself most dramatically when there are no isolated, bold, distinguishing marks on a face, such as a scar or mustache. This is because, with the right brain, we take in the impression of the whole and do not focus on separate features analyzed out of the whole. By contrast, the person forced to rely on the left brain alone achieves recognition only through “a laborious check-list of distinctive semantic elements to be memorized and searched for” (Trevarthen 1987).

Two Ways of Looking

Every naturalist is familiar with laborious checklists of distinguishing elements. Such checklists are formalized into the various “keys” used for identifying and classifying plants and animals. An identification key typically presents you with a series of yes-or-no questions. For example, in trying to identify a particular tree, you might be led through the following dialogue, where each succeeding question follows a “yes” answer to the previous one:

Is this a broad-leaved plant with simple rather than compound leaves?
Are the leaves opposite one another on the branches?
Is this an erect tree or shrub?
Are the leaves toothed?
Are the leaves also lobed?
Are the twigs neither red nor hairy?
Are the buds red and blunt with several scales?
Is the trunk bark rough and not flaking?
Then this is a red maple.

The key, in other words, presents you with a neatly logical framework consisting of a set of crisp, yes-or-no forks in your path of inquiry. Such guides are essential for every field naturalist.

Nevertheless, experienced naturalists do not often use a guide of this sort. The recognition they normally rely on in the field is, as zoologist C. F. A. Pantin has pointed out, strikingly different from the tedious, step-by-step logical exercise demanded by the key. “Our recognition of species in the field is commonly instantaneous. We do not consciously traverse a series of dichotomous alternatives, excluding one possibility after another before we arrive at the answer. Indeed it is difficult to believe that we do anything of this sort even unconsciously”.

Pantin also notes that the errors committed in what he calls “aesthetic recognition” (and which I will here call “qualitative recognition”) differ from the wrong turns we take when traversing a logical key. The latter mistakes are “as disastrous as an arithmetical error in calculation”. It is not hard to see why. Taking the wrong fork of a path whose divergences are designed to be clear and unambiguous quite naturally lands you in territory that is clearly and unambiguously the wrong territory. Every fork you take after the first wrong turn only confirms your lostness.

An error in qualitative recognition, on the other hand (“For a moment I thought you were your brother”) is less clear-cut. In general, Pantin suggests, there is truth in such errors. We were not altogether wrong. The mistaken impression was more or less like the thing we were after. “You really do look a little like your brother. In taking you for him, I was truly recognizing in you certain aspects of him”. We do not have neat, yes-or-no judgments so long as we are reckoning with the qualities of things.

This relates to another feature of qualitative recognition, which is that it is not analytical. “It seems to depend on the whole available impression”, and this totality makes possible various associative connections. Pantin illustrates this with wonderful examples:

Even a statement such as “The spines of the sea-urchin I am looking for have something of Chippendale about them — whilst that one looks Hepplewhite” may be significant. And if, when we are collecting Rhynchodemus bilineatus together, I say, “Bring me any worms that sneer at you,” the probability of your collecting the right species becomes high.

In this case, not only is the probability of correct identification high, but the collection rate will be much faster than when the students are directed to look for the various separate anatomical features that might be analyzed out of the “sneer”. Moreover, because the whole impression is an impression of the whole, it does not arbitrarily discard the greater part of what we can recognize in the organism. By contrast, once we have run through our list of yes-or-no features, “a very great deal of the impression which the organism makes upon us still remains ‘unused’. This residue is undoubtedly important in our recognition of species even though it cannot be analyzed in just this [yes-or-no] way” (Pantin 1954).

We have, then, a contrast between propositional knowledge — the kind of knowledge that comes through analysis and results in sharply articulated, logically well-structured statements of atomic fact — and recognitional or qualitative knowledge. To use an example given by Ron Brady: you find yourself engaging in one sort of activity when trying to recognize an old friend in a crowd, and quite a different activity when struggling to identify a stranger in the same crowd by proceeding through a list of discrete features (Brady 2002).

You already have an overall impression of your friend — one perhaps sufficiently rich in its expressive potential to enable nearly instantaneous recognition of him even in postures or activities you have never witnessed before. As you scan the crowd, there are countless possible gestures of form or movement that might tip you off to the presence of the person you are looking for. Each one of them bears, not some literal and specific, easily definable feature, but rather the expressive signature of the friend. That is, they are all shone through by the same qualities, the same unifying whole — a fact demonstrated by your ability to recognize numerous outward, novel manifestations as expressing the character of one individual.

In the analytical approach, by contrast, you are reduced to identifying, one by one, a set of low-level features described in unexpressive and rather more literal terms. Given a set of successful recognitions, you say, “This must be the person” — but you still do not recognize him in the way you would a friend. Time and familiarity are required before you can experience the inner, expressive unity that raises the particulars into a coherent and multi-dimensioned whole.

The Dilemma of Definition

It appears there are two ways we know the world — or, rather, two different, nearly opposite, cognitive movements we make on our way to understanding. This observation is in no way dependent upon functional divisions within the brain. I mentioned the brain research only because it helpfully draws our attention to distinct aspects of our cognitive activity. But we should be able to notice these aspects directly. And, as Pantin’s discussion shows, we can in fact do so, without reference to physiology. Even if the brain hemispheres happened to be absolutely identical in their functioning, it would not affect the points I will be making.

The idea behind the identification key is straightforward and valuable: break the task down into discrete steps so that each one can routinely and reliably be executed. Break the object we are observing down into its parts. We arrive at a series of simple, yes-or-no choices by reducing them to the terms of more-or-less unproblematic givens. The aim is for automatic and sure-fire judgments: This flower has five petals, these leaves are compound … therefore, “this is that”.

The cognitive movement at issue here is one whereby we abstract and calculate, analyze and divide, isolate and decontextualize, define and classify. We strive to achieve an ever sharper focus in order to eliminate all ambiguity and attain the highest possible precision. Above all, we want nailed-down certainty. Through such pinpoint focus we tend to lose thecharacter of what we are looking at. This is because the object of our attention becomes disconnected from everything else, whereas character (and the unity it signifies) can be found only in the qualitative connection of things. That is, the unifying character lies between the analyzed elements or parts. It is not some material thing.

What, then, of the counterbalancing movement, whereby we do not isolate and decontextualize, but rather discover relatedness through the qualitative and expressive character of things? Let me ask the question this way: Can we isolate and define this relatedness with unambiguous, nailed-down precision?

The question itself declares our dilemma. We may, with Pantin, glimpse cognitive processes running in the opposite direction from our well-characterized powers of analysis. But in an analytically biased society, what can we acceptably say about these processes? When reputable scientific discourse is equated with precise, analytical definition, how do we speak about whatever is opposed to precise, analytical definition? Are we not being asked to define the movement of thought running counter to definition? How can we analyze an activity whose whole purpose is to recognize unities and wholes by overcoming analytic separation?

There Is No Escaping Qualities

Clearly, we’ve got a problem here. But however difficult our task in chasing down long-ignored aspects of cognition, it would hardly be seemly for the practitioners of today’s sophisticated and abstruse science to complain of burdensome difficulty. Nor can they honestly retreat from the problem by muttering epithets like “obscurantism” and “mysticism”. The processes of recognition Pantin describes may seem mysterious to our current understanding, but they are not other-worldly. They are as close to us as ourselves, observable in every routine act of perception. Likewise, the bizarre syndromes afflicting patients with right-hemisphere lesions — patients unable to perceive the expressive, unifying qualities of things — are not inaccessible and mystical. We have many clinical descriptions.

What we need is to find the right terms of understanding for abilities we casually demonstrate every day, and it should not surprise us if these terms are as unexpected in relation to familiar habits of thought as were the syndromes resulting from loss of these abilities.

Regarding these syndromes, Sacks tells us that neurologists long ignored lesions to the right side of the brain because their effects seemed much more difficult to get a grip on compared to the disruption of those left-brain functions we rely upon so heavily. He adds that, while the left hemisphere may in some respects be considered the later, more sophisticated, and more specialized one,

it is the right brain which controls the crucial powers of recognising reality which every living creature must have in order to survive. The left hemisphere, like a computer tacked onto the basic creatural brain, is designed for programs and schematics; and classical neurology was more concerned with schematics than with reality, so that when, at last, some of the right-hemisphere syndromes emerged, they were considered bizarre. (Sacks 1985, p. 2)

And so, too, many scientists will consider any reckoning with qualities bizarre — which you can take to mean, “Please! — I’m not comfortable with that. It doesn’t belong to conventional scientific practice”. And so it doesn’t. When will we begin to recognize the obvious, which is that this is a problem?

Just as neurologists have needed to face those aspects of reality that don’t readily submit to their neat logical schemata, so also within physics and every other discipline. If the charge of obscurantism is called for, its fitting target is a science that, fearing what seemed bizarre and threatening to its preferred one-sidedness, simply covered its eyes. How can you pursue an observation-based science while turning a blind eye to the routine and essential role of qualitative recognition in all observation?

After all, it is not as though we can speak of a method of pure analysis, independent of our recognition of expressive qualities. You cannot proceed through a list of discrete features in an analytical key without first being able to recognize each individual feature as expressing its own unifying qualities. A leaf on a tree has its own significant unity, as does a nose on a face. If you relied solely on analysis, you could recognize a nose only with the aid of another analytical key — and each part of a nose with yet another key — so that you would be stuck in an endless, iterative task. In the end, we have no choice but to recognize something on the strength of its unified qualitative and expressive presentation of itself.

The aim of the analytic approach is to make the necessary recognitions so simple and unproblematic that they are absolutely reliable, or nearly so. Then we hardly need to notice that we are recognizing anything or to ask what we are recognizing. Our attention can shift mindlessly to the “yes” or “no” we pronounce at each logical fork of our key. The process begins to seem automatic, and it is easy to ignore the fact that our science is wholly dependent upon acts of qualitative recognition.

We must, of course always strive toward reliability, and analytic methods are important to this striving. But any one-sided resort to these methods is highly problematic, for two reasons: first, it encourages reliance upon habit — upon recognitions so routine that we no longer struggle to question or deepen them in the true scientific spirit; and second, because it beguiles us into the false belief that real knowledge is of a simple, yes-or-no sort, and that we do not have to deal with the qualities of things.

The recognizable expressiveness of things is not something added to their “real” content. It is the fullness of the content itself. Without it, all content disappears. Abstract schemata in general and measurements in particular do not give us reality. Painfully obvious as this is, it remains widely ignored. But our measurements have to be measurements ofsomething, and we have no scientific understanding until we can speak intelligibly about what this something is. Nor can we do this in any terms except qualitative ones. Simply filling in our quantitative notions with unexamined, almost unnoticed qualitative mental pictures does not make our work worthy of science.

Living with Corn

As I have indicated, no scientist can turn entirely away from the world and its qualities. But occasionally one finds a prominent researcher who actually acknowledges and consciously works with the qualitative reality of her subject. One such scientist was the celebrated geneticist, Barbara McClintock, well-known — and considered rather eccentric — for cultivating what has been called a “feeling for the organism”. A life-long student of corn and its genetic organization, she would observe every plant she studied, starting when it was a tiny seedling. “I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along, so I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them” (Keller 1983, p. 198).

McClintock’s biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, tells of the geneticist’s meeting with a group of graduate and postdoctoral biology students at Harvard University. The students were responsive to her exhortation that they “take the time and look”, but they were also troubled. Where does one get the time to look and to think? “They argued that the new technology of molecular biology is self-propelling. It doesn’t leave time. There’s always the next experiment, the next sequencing to do. The pace of current research seems to preclude such a contemplative stance”.

McClintock went on to tell the students how fortunate she had been for having worked with a slow technology, a slow organism. Other researchers disliked corn because you could only grow two crops a year. But she found that even two crops a year were too many. If she was really to observe her plants adequately, one crop was all she could handle.

McClintock had little patience for her many colleagues who were “so intent on making everything numerical”, and who therefore missed much of what could be seen. Because of her commitment to the whole, qualitative organism,

her own method was to “see one kernel [of corn] that was different, and make that understandable.” She felt that her colleagues, in their enthusiasm for “counting,” too often overlooked that single, aberrant kernel (Keller 1983, pp. 198-207).

Through such oversight, those colleagues sacrificed the potential richness of science. “Things”, McClintock remarked, “are much more marvelous than the scientific method allows us to conceive”. In the end, her own work contributed a good deal toward the enlargement of this method. Her “slow” attention to the qualitative nuances of individual corn plants led eventually to discoveries for which, tardily, she was awarded the Nobel Prize.Analytical Collapse

We can contrast McClintock’s work with the body of research that became known as classical Mendelian genetics. When, in his famous experiments laying the foundation for modern genetics, Gregor Mendel counted violet-flowered and white-flowered peas, he did not puzzle over this or that particular flower with its own peculiar shape and shade of violet. Or, if he did, the fact is not reflected in his final tabulation of results.

When Barbara McClintock strove to “see one kernel [of corn] that was different, and make that understandable”, she was led to the principle of genetic transposition (Keller 1983). This in turn helped to loosen the logical structure of genetics, which had become rigid and brittle. If Mendel had been similarly entranced by the nuances of his violet and white flowers — if he had not been content to “digitize” them in his mind, reducing all the qualitative variations so as to achieve a two-valued, schema — if he had not fixated upon neat, arithmetic ratios — we would likely have a far richer and more balanced discipline of genetics today (Holdrege 1996).

As McClintock knew so well, a quality of any part always reveals something about the character of the whole to which it belongs. The analytical key collapses this revelatory potential down to a single yes-or-no value, or a group of such values. Such a narrowing of focus and restriction of insight serves many practical purposes. But if this analytical collapse of the world remains the sole or primary cognitive movement of the scientist, then the world begins to disappear and science verges upon a kind of formal emptiness disguised as formidable technique.

This is rather like what happened to Dr P. While his ability to visualize faces and integral scenes was drastically impaired, Sacks reports that “the visualization of schemata was preserved, perhaps enhanced. Thus when I engaged him in a game of mental chess, he had no difficulty visualizing the chessboard or the moves — indeed, no difficulty in beating me soundly” (Sacks 1985, p. 15). The loss of a meaningful and coherent world apparently may coincide with considerable skill at merely syntactic and technical operations.

Noting that the mental processes constituting our being and life “are not just abstract and mechanical” but involve feeling and aesthetic judgment, Sacks goes on to say,

Our cognitive sciences are themselves suffering from an agnosia essentially similar to Dr P.’s. Dr P. may therefore serve as a warning and parable — of what happens to a science which eschews the judgmental, the particular, the personal, and becomes entirely abstract and computational (Sacks 1985, p. 19).

The Problem Before Us

I have not been trying to identify some strange or paranormal or unapproachable reality called a “quality”. We in fact have nothing but qualities. The question should be turned around and thrown at the scientist who does his best to ignore qualities: “Give us a scientific characterization of the physical world that is not qualitative. And remember that mathematical statements by themselves, as pure mathematics, are not statements about the physical world”. If you want obscurantism, just listen to the strange answers you will receive to this request.

What I have been suggesting is that, in our attempts to apprehend the world, we have two polar opposite movements of consciousness. With one gesture we try to take hold of the world’s truth, narrowing it down to a sharp focus for ease of comprehension. With the other we yield ourselves up to the truth by allowing its expressive fullness to resonate within us and thereby to shape the entire range of our cognitive faculties — to shape us — in its likeness.

Both are essential. When the former tries to dominate, as it does in reductionist science, it becomes a grasping in order to possess and control. It becomes a demand for certainty and a refusal of ambiguity. When the two movements are in balance — the taking hold and the offering of ourselves — we have exchange, conversation, participation in reality.

To the extent we lose our balance and become fixated upon grasping and pinning down, our language (and therefore our understanding) contracts toward the formalisms of grammar, logic, and mathematics. With these we become ever more precise and less ambiguous, but at the cost of losing the world’s content. We sacrifice reality for the sake of certainty. With pure logic (recall the p’s and q’s in textbooks of formal logic) our terms have been so emptied of content that we can speak with great precision, but cannot say anything in particular about the world. If we worship this precision, it is not because we have gained some dependable reality more solid and sure than qualities, but rather because we have abandoned reality. We have abandoned the qualities that are the only reality we have (Talbott 1995).

There are two kinds of clarity and exactness corresponding to the two cognitive movements. We can analyze, and reduce a phenomenon as far as possible to single parts, isolated from all their relations. We thereby gain exactness through simplification and loss of character. Alternatively, we can aim for greater clarity by illuminating and embracing a thing from ever new angles, bringing all its relatedness and diverse qualities fully into the light. One method approaches certainty through reduction, so that we become ever more certain about less and less. The other approaches certainty through ever greater completeness, through the recovery of context, and through richness of insight. The former tends toward automatism; the latter requires extraordinarily hard work and the continual expansion of our inner capacities, including (as we will eventually see) moral ones.

So what are qualities? For now, I offer the same reply Owen Barfield gave to the question, “what is meaning?” (Meaning and qualities are intimately related. We speak more of meaning when we are referring to the human being, and more of qualities when we are referring to the world. But just as qualities are both in us and in the world, so also is meaning.) Barfield wrote that while meaning “is not expressible in definitions and the like (the prosaic), [it] is indirectly expressible in metaphor and simile (the poetic)”:

That is to say, it is suggestible; for meaning itself can never be conveyed from one person to another; words are not bottles; every individual must intuit meaning for himself, and the function of the poetic is to mediate such intuition by suitable suggestion. (Barfield 1973, p. 133)

The suitable suggestion can come from many sides. “All” you need to do, for example, is to enter as deeply as you can into Pantin’s distinction between a logical key and aesthetic recognition (what is it you are recognizing when you recognize a friend in a crowd?), and you will have begun to understand what qualities are. “All” you need to do is to appreciate what is missing in certain right-brain-damaged individuals and you will have learned to appreciate qualities. Or, more generally, all you need to do is develop your artistic sensitivities.

We in fact live within a sea of qualities; there is no problem finding them or learning to work with them. It simply requires an interest in doing so and a willingness to proceed in a rigorous manner.

All, or nearly all, of us have no difficulty reading the smiles of our spouses, children, and friends as much more than “widenings of the oral aperture, caused by contractions of the cheek musculature”. Some among us develop great skill at understanding the entire range of human expression, learning to commune deeply and sympathetically with the self doing the expressing. This sort of understanding — as every one of us (scientist or otherwise) assumes in daily life — is real and objective, even if it is very unlike our schematic knowledge of machines. It leads to possibilities of conversation and exchange that are as deep as our understanding.

There is, then, one inescapable fork in the road to understanding, and it requires something like a yes-or-no commitment from us. We can, on the one hand, deny our full cognitive potentials, splitting the world’s truth down the middle and refusing to accredit half of it as scientific truth. We will then be tempted to equate science with technology and with our ability to manipulate things. But, on the other hand, we can open ourselves to the possibility that the face of the larger world — a face every bit as qualitative and expressive in its own way as the human face — might be read meaningfully and with objective understanding. Then we will find ourselves in a scientific relation to the world that truly enlarges our souls even as we move toward the widening horizons of an ever more ensouled world.


Barfield, Owen (1973). Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Brady, R. H. (2002). “Perception: Connections Between Art and Science”. Available at

Edelglass, Stephen, Georg Maier, Hans Gebert, and John Davy (1997). The Marriage of Sense and Thought: Imaginative Participation in Science. Hudson NY: Lindisfarne Books.

Keller, Evelyn Fox (1983). A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. and Jeffrey J. Hutsler (1999). “Hemispheric Specialization”, in The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, edited by Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 369-72.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1995). Scientific Studies (vol. 12 of Goethe: The Collected Works), edited and translated by Douglas Miller. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Holdrege, Craig (1996). Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context. Hudson NY: Lindisfarne.

Sacks, Oliver (1985). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat — and Other Clinical Tales. New York: Summit Books.

Talbott, Stephen L. (1995). “Can We Transcend Computation”, chapter 23 in The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. Sebastopol CA: O’Reilly and Associates. Available at

Trevarthen, Colwyn (1987). “Split-Brain and the Mind”, in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard L. Gregory with the assistance of O. L. Zangwill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 740-47.

Steve Talbott :: Recognizing Reality

Source materials for rethinking “free will”

From Metaphysical Speculations forum – sciborg2: For convenience, here’s the stuff I think should be incorporated – or at least mentioned – in the Free Will essays lest neither really go beyond mechanistic/materialist thinking:

-Mystery of Causality, only exacerbated in Idealism, as noted by Massimo and further expounded on by Tallis’ The Strange Idea that what Happens has to be Made to be Happen & Talbott’s Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen.
Lucas’ Godelian Argument
-Bergson’s Time and Free Will (useful commentary hereherehere)
-Whitehead’s occasions + teleology (some useful stuff herehere)

There’s also the Thomist-Aristotelian conception, but that’s probably too vast to really incorporate as it’s whole metaphysical paradigm. Also Syntropy, though that’s more conjecture than definitive metaphysics (free will comes from the past being the meeting point between forward causality and retrocausality.)

Wonderful overview of McGilchrist on the left and right hemispheres – foundational way of understanding materialism

There’s really no substitute for Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece, “The Master and His Emissary.”  But short of the 2 or 3 months – minimum – most readers say they need to get the gist of his book, this interview is a marvelous overview.

This is from Brain World magazine (the interviewer is identified in the text as BW)

Q&A with Iain McGilchrist

by Margaret Emory

How many times have you been told, “Oh you’re such a left-brain person,” meaning you think logically, are good with numbers, very analytical and so on? And upon hearing that summation, you long for the right brain’s creative, intuitive, artistic complements. Why can’t they be part of the equation, you wonder.

We used to believe the two parts of the brain work in harmony, but according to London psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, there’s a definite shift in our modern culture which favors left-brain dominance—and it’s something we ought to watch out for and correct. In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009), McGilchrist discusses the hemispheres and their different “personalities,” and then shows a sweeping dissertation on the history of Western civilization as seen from the context of the divided brain.

McGilchrist came to medicine later in life, following a distinguished career in academia. He is interested in a variety of psychiatric conditions, as well as neuropsychiatry. He also has a busy practice as a medico-legal expert and writes for numerous publications.

He named The Master and His Emissary after a parable that Friedrich Nietzsche told about a wise spiritual master who ruled a small but prosperous domain, who grew the land and appointed emissaries, one of which began to see himself as the master and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. The emissary saw his master’s self-control and restraint as weakness, and usurped his master, creating a tyranny and bringing the land to ruins.
McGilchrist likens the right and left hemispheres of the human brain to the master and the emissary of this story, respectively. McGilchrist weaves this cautionary tale to show that while the cerebral hemispheres should cooperate with one another, they have been in conflict for some time, with our current civilization in the hands of the emissary who, although gifted in many ways, functions as “an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart.”

Brain World: Can you speak to us about your theories on the divided brain which you describe in your book, The Master and His Emissary? 
Dr. Ian McGilchrist: I suppose the first thing to say is that the subject of the two hemispheres has become an absolute no-no for any respectable scientist because it was so popularized in the sixties and seventies in a way that relied on some quite simple ideas about the separation between language and visio-spatial phenomena and between reason and emotion. And that is absolutely untrue. In fact practically every single thing that was said about the left hemisphere—it was down to earth and it was boring but at least it told you the truth—all that kind of thing is completely erroneous. I was intrigued by some fairly obvious differences that do come up in different contexts and I wanted to try to find a pattern in them. In so doing and in writing that book I was faced with a problem. When you talk about the brain as though it’s something separate from a human being, there’s a tendency for that to happen and it leads to the fallacy that there’s a machine in there that controls us. That we are somehow separate from this machine. That’s the problem with thinking about it as a machine at all. Because of course it isn’t. It’s part of a person. Our brains don’t experience things. We experience them. I need to make that point because some people who clearly haven’t gotten around to reading my book have put me in the camp of people who reduce the richness of human experience to a lot of physiological data and that’s absolutely not my intention.

BW: What was your intention?
IM: I had to really think of it more as these hemispheres contributing to a person’s experience of the world and as such there is no pre-existing way of describing this. You have to describe it using a metaphor of something and the closest is the metaphor of a person. It’s far closer than the metaphor of a machine. But in doing so you run the risk of people thinking that there are two people in your head or that half a hemisphere is a little person that’s got its own views. That’s also a problem that needs to be steered clear of. When you actually come to look at the data, they (the hemispheres) can be seen as having different goals, different preferences and therefore values, and of being parts of ourselves that have a different focus and a different take on the world. So in the end I make no apologies for making it sound like they have personalities because I’m afraid that’s the nearest way one can get at it without resorting to the “machine in your head” metaphor which is not a good one.

BW: Do the hemispheres work separately or together?
IM: Of course we’re using both hemispheres together all the time. There was never a time when all the activities were in one hemisphere. It’s more a question of what, at any one moment, is governing our actions and it’s bound to be a synthesis. It’s bound to have some of what the left hemisphere gives us and some of what the right gives us. Another thing that can be laid at my door is that I’m dichotomizing and I’m not. I mean there is a great vast dichotomy that nature put there and even though there’s a big divide to be accounted for, in fact these things were made to work together. We’re not conscious of switching. We don’t know what the thing that switches is but there’s a reasonable body of data suggesting that this sort of meta-control may be lodged very low down in the mid-brain which is the uppermost part of the brain stem.

BW: Can you describe the process of how these different hemispheres interact?
IM: The theory that the two hemispheres have differences comes from a simple Darwinian point. In order to survive we need to be able to do two things at once. We need to be able to be busily focused on something that we’ve prioritized is of interest to us already like the bird needing to lock on the seed against the background of the gravel or needing to focus on picking up a twig to build a nest. It’s got that kind of attention which is about manipulating the environment and using it. At the same time, if it’s going to survive, the bird also needs a wide open attention, looking out essentially for predators, not just in that threatening way, but also for its fellow creatures; indeed, for its mate.
Those two ways have somehow to be combined. And yet, if you do look very narrowly at something and bring it into sharp focus in the middle of your vision, it’s very different from the contextual penumbra of other experiences—intuitively-based, body-based, ancient and gathered from a synthesis of all your experience which you also bring to bear on the whole picture. So those two things, the rather narrow here and now moment has to be there but the rest has to be there too.
That’s why I think the two hemispheres have evolved in this way. They need to some extent to be kept apart because you can’t really do both things at once. It’s a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time but it isn’t actually because with practice you can do that. You can’t literally have both types of attention, or at least it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine how this can be done. Probably it’s a matter of keeping them both running and alternating. The two hemispheres are connected by a bridge of tissue called the corpus callosum which is commonly thought of as the thing that communicates between the hemispheres. It does. Although a lot of the communication is activating in its original sense—the nerves are stimulating something to happen—what they’re often stimulating to happen is in fact an inhibition. So their ultimate aim in a majority of cases is not to make something happen in the other hemisphere, but to stop something from happening there. And by filtering like this, things come into existence.

BW: You believe the left brain has been gaining control over the course of human evolution. How did this come about?
IM: I think an aspect of being a conscious being is that you are aware that you can become powerful by manipulation. Other creatures, of course, are competing and manipulating, but they’re probably not aware of the fact that this is a way of becoming powerful—that it seems to work well for a lot of the things that one does as one grows a civilization.
One needs to build structures by putting brick upon brick, or stone on stone. One needs to create drainage and irrigation and so on. One creates these things that seem to make life simpler, easier and better and make you more powerful. It’s enticing, and you can soon begin to think that everything works like this. Everything in your world seems to break down into a lot of machines that we’ve created. While this is a very interesting way of looking at things, it’s basically a practical tool for getting ahead. It’s not really a very good instrument for epistemology or for ontology—for finding out actually what the world is and how we know about it. It can lead us to narrow down the way we think about things to a merely rationalistic set of propositions, a series of algorithms.

BW: What are the effects of the left brain taking over?
IM: One of the interesting elements that comes out in research into the “personalities” or the “takes” of the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere thinks it knows it all, and as a result is extremely optimistic. It overvalues its own ability. It takes us away from the presence of things in all their rich complexity to a useful representation—that representation is always much simpler. And an awful lot is lost in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you need to simplify. For example, if you’re designing a building or if you’re fighting a campaign, you need a map, a scheme. You don’t really need all the richness of what would be there in the real world. But I’m afraid that that representation moves into a world where we have the ability constantly to interact with the world only as a representation, over a screen.
Even Facebook and social networking may look like you have suddenly have loads of friends, but what it may actually do is take you away from your real-life friends so that your life is more crowded and there’s less time, actually, to be aware peacefully of the world around you and to interact socially—a word that used to mean “with your fellow creatures.”

BW: What can we do about this? 

IM: People often ask me this question. I think they’re rather hoping I’ll give them a list of bullet points—“The 12 Things You Need”—like a best-selling paperback. That is really a perfect example of the left hemisphere. “Okay. Fix it by having a little plan. We do this, we do that, and bingo!” But in fact, what I have tried to convey throughout the entire book is that the world, as it is, has its own shape, value, meaning and so on, and that we crowd it out with our own plans, thoughts and beliefs, which are going to be narrow.
A wise thing to do would be not to do certain things. Another theme of my book is that negation is creative. That by having less of something, more comes into being. So actually what we need to do is not create a world. We need to stop doing lots of things and allow the wonderful thing that is already there to evolve, to give it room to grow. That’s also true of a single human mind.

BW: How do you advise your patients in your psychiatric practice?
IM: As a psychiatrist I see people day in and day out who have problems in their lives. One way of looking at these problems might be that their minds are full of things that they feel are important, ways of thinking, and that it’s not so much that I can tell them to think differently. You can give people pointers, but the critical thing for them is to come to a realization that they’re doing things that are damaging. Therapy is always like that. Sometimes when I see a patient I have a pretty shrewd intuition of what they need to do. But if I were to tell them that right off, it would have no meaning. They need to find their way to it by realizing that what they’re doing now is not the right way.
One very practical thing—a recipe for healing for almost every one of my patients—is not forcing things to be the way they would like them to be, but to embrace the way that they’re likely to be and doing those things that will help that forward.

BW: It sounds like a very philosophical attitude.
IM: We are now understanding the benefits of mindfulness, which is officially recommended by the British body NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). The essence of mindfulness is clearing your mind of all the stuff that’s going on in there and stopping you from experiencing life. You’re so busy feeling bad about the past you can’t change and chasing after a future you can’t predict, instead of actually being alive in the moment. That is really the essence of mindfulness. Recent research shows that mindfulness engages wide networks in the right hemisphere, and the EEG studies show that there is a more balancing of the two hemispheres in those who are meditating. So I think meditation and not doing things, making space in your life and switching off your machines, being present in the moment and practicing mindfulness would be a way to start.

BW: We often think about our brain in terms of cognitive processing, but the brain guides all of our activities from breathing and muscle movements to sensations and emotions. What do you think is the ultimate use of the human brain?
IM: I think that’s a terribly good question because it draws attention very beautifully to the fact that we are in fact not brains in a vat, but we are embodied beings. The cognitive processing model is mechanistic and sees us like a complicated heating system with valves and pumps and thermostats that switch things on and off. But one of the interesting things about the hemispheres is that the right hemisphere seems to be better able to take into its vision the information that is coming to it from what was always called the lower parts of the brain, the more ancient parts of the brain, and indeed, from the body. The difficulty with the cognitive model is that we think of the brain as a computer, and we think of memory as something like a data bank.
Memory, of course, is not at all like that. It’s part of the human’s whole world and is distributed in the body. In a way, you can say that the very muscles have memory. Memory is not something that is unchanging. It is contextual—and that’s a weakness of it in some ways, but it’s also very much the strength of it.
We now know that even something like the heart actually communicates with the brain and gives as much information back to the brain—in fact, possibly more—than the brain gives to the heart. Anyone who suffers from depression will know that you have this terribly heavy oppressive feeling in the center of your chest. The things that you feel in your body are of course experienced through the brain, but they then are seen and experienced phenomenologically in the body. Our bodies and our brains can’t be separated in that way. So although cognitive science is a very useful thing, I think it ought to learn less from the Cartesian tradition of philosophy and more from the phenomenological tradition of philosophy, particularly from the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, who is probably the single most important philosopher of the last century for those who are interested in the relationship between mind and the body.

BW: What’s up next for you?
IW: I’m working on a book with the possible title, The Porcupine is a Monkey. In it I describe an experiment done by one of the most distinguished living Anglo-American neuroscientists, Marcel Kinsbourne, with a colleague, Deglin. They were able to interview people with one half of their brain at a time desensitized. Essentially, they were addressing either their left hemisphere or their right hemisphere, or, in a controlled condition, both. They asked them what they made of false syllogisms. (A false syllogism is one where you give a couple of premises and draw a conclusion, but one of the premises is wrong. Truth is either what is consistent with your model—i.e., it follows the logic of your system, and it’s what’s on this piece of paper—or truth is what you know about the world that you’ve gathered from both reading, learning and living, all that rich mass of stuff that goes into your knowledge of the world, which we call common sense.)
I’m thinking of writing this book because you see such staggering examples of this all over our world. Clever guys with techie minds sold the idea that these things would work, and they now administratively run all the professions. Teachers used to create a relationship with their students by using the richness of their experience and knowledge of the world, often in idiosyncratic ways, with their infectious enthusiasm to fire up their students. Instead, it’s [been] replaced by, “You must do this curriculum and you must escort so many on this, and you must have so many of the following.” That is death to the mind, to the imagination, in fact to our civilization. I would like to alert people to that.

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