Meta-Linguistics (dialoguing with Layman Pascal)

Thanks to Bruce Alderman, Layman Pascal, and The Integral Stage for another great conversation! Here’s Bruce’s description:

How does our understanding of the relationship between language and reality evolve as we develop, individually and culturally? What does it mean for language to be the house of being? Is there any sense in seeking a universal language? What is the impact of the new social media on our communication habits, patterns, and expectations? What new metamodern or integral skills and attitudes to language might help us navigate our current meaning crises? How might we be empowered by confronting, and owning, language’s limits?

Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology

I’m in the middle of writing a long essay on Schelling and the resurgence of interest in his work of late, at least in the Anglophone world. I’ll be posting the essay in installments as I finish each section. For now, here is Jerry Day, from his book on Schelling’s influence on Eric Voegelin, describing Schelling’s philosophy of mythology, including also how it was interpreted by Coleridge.  Incidentally, I’ve just confirmed a speaking engagement at the PCC Forum with Paul Caringella, a Voegelin scholar, in October. I’m hoping to record and post it here.

At one point in Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology, the work that Voegelin claims brought the “crash” to his History, one finds the following claim: “[I]t is not we who have placed mythology, but mythology has placed us in the perspective from which, at present, we shall consider it. The content of this conference is henceforth no longer mythology explained by us; it is mythology as it explains itself [die sich selbst erklärende Mythologie].” This comment occurs after a lengthy discussion of deficient approaches to the interpretation of myth. Schelling begins to argue that mythological experience and the symbols it engenders are self-interpretive. Genuine mythic symbols do not arise as reflective signs that a clever person has intentionally fashioned in order to construct an arbitrary “reality” of his or her own making. They arise from the human soul’s prereflective immersion in the divine substance of the cosmos. Accordingly, Schelling continues, mythical symbols are not properly interpreted as merely “allegorical.” Such interpretation mistakenly assumes that symbols are best understood with reference to other symbols, perhaps even within an essentially closed system of meaning. Considered linguistically, allegorical interpretation suggests that words interpret only other words—a point, we might add, that makes allegorical interpretation closely related to the structuralist account of language. Schelling argues, to the contrary, that the origin of symbols cannot be understood with reference only to other symbols. His particular understanding of the self-establishing character of symbols leads him to contend that they are best interpreted as “tautegorical.” It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was first led to formulate the specific term tautegorical after reading one of Schelling’s previous works, Die Gottheiten von Samothrake, which dealt in part with the proper interpretation of myth. Schelling commends Coleridge as “the first of his English compatriots to have understood and put to intelligent use German poetry, scholarship [Wissenschaft], and especially philosophy.” Schelling defends Coleridge against being “too severely criticized” by his fellow countrymen for his “unacknowledged borrowings [Entlehnungen] ” from Schelling himself. He states: “Because of this excellent term that I borrow from him, I voluntarily pardon him for all of the borrowings which he himself has made from my works, without mentioning my name.” But Schelling also notes that his use of the term tautegorical may be more radical than that which he finds in Coleridge. For Coleridge, according to Schelling, the term appears to be synonymous with “philosopheme,” which may still convey the sense that mythic symbols are signs for other phenomena (natural or euhemeristic), thus leaving open the possibility of allegorical interpretations. In his use of the term tautegorical, Schelling wishes to suggest a most intimate connection between mythic symbols and the experiences that give rise to them. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that mythic symbols are what they symbolize. They arise beyond conscious control and are, in some sense, identical to the experiences that have engendered them. For example, he contends that the “Prometheus” of Æschylus is “not a human thought.” It is one of the “primordial thoughts which pushes itself into existence.” This point suggests that not all words simply interpret other words; some break loose from linguistic conventions and effectively call attention, at least, to what remain essentially inarticulate experiences of natural order, or what Schelling calls “primordial thoughts” (Urgedanken). What is more, when such thoughts arise in human consciousness, they are said to create a meaningful historical divide before and after the symbol came into existence. For Schelling, this divide has an objective quality about it, giving the history of symbolization a discernible order. Consequently, his Philosophy of Mythology and Philosophy of Revelation undertake an extraordinarily complex effort to interpret this general history of order as it emerges in the specific order of human experience. Precisely with this historical aspect of symbolization in mind, he is able to claim that “mythology has placed us in the perspective from which, at present, we shall consider it.” Voegelin’s tacit agreement with Schelling’s “tautegorical” interpretation of myth is found in the third volume of Order and History, only a few pages before Schelling’s philosophy of myth is explicitly dismissed for its allegedly “gnostic inclination to intellectualize the unconscious.” Voegelin says that “the ‘truth’ of the myth will arise from the unconscious, stratified in depth into the collective unconscious of the people, the generic unconscious of mankind, and the deepest level where it is in communication with the primordial forces of the cosmos.” Mythic truth is self-authenticating, Voegelin argues, “because the forces which animate its imagery are at the same time its subject matter.” The truth of mythic symbols is therefore tautegorical.  “A myth can never be ‘untrue,’” he continues, “because it would not exist unless it had its experiential basis in the movements of the soul which it symbolizes.” Clearly, Voegelin and Schelling agree that mythic symbols arise from the soul’s unconscious depth and break forth into the conscious articulation of experiences. But they also agree that what holds true for mythic symbols is true of linguistic symbolization in general. Consider Schelling’s remarks on the formation of language. He contends that the development of language cannot be understood in a “piecemeal or atomistic” way. An atomistic account of the origin of language could easily lead one to believe that the soul is fundamentally in conscious control of the symbols it makes. This notion is declared to be patently false when Schelling reflects on how nascent symbols come into existence. Language must have developed as a whole, he argues, in an “organic” (organisch) way. It must have originated, like mythic symbols in particular, from the soul’s unconscious depth. “Since neither philosophical nor even generally human consciousness is possible without language,” Schelling maintains, “it is inconceivable that consciousness can be the ground of language; and so the more we penetrate its nature, the more we acquire the certitude that it transcends by its profundity any conscious creation.” This realization leads Schelling to discern an objective (objectiv) quality in language itself (Sprache selbst), a point that allows him to argue, in effect, that nascent symbols must be understood as selfgenerating and self-interpretive, when properly traced back to their engendering experiences. (from p. 71-74 of Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence).

I’m curious what those who reject myth outright in favor of a sort of Enlightenment rationalism (see an exchange I had with Levi Bryant a while back HERE and HERE) would say to this sort of perspective. Schelling seems to fully ground his philosophy of myth and language in the material conditions of cultural genesis (i.e., there is no consciousness without language).  But precisely for this reason he would never argue that myth can be overcome and replaced by scientific literalism. We simply cannot step out of the mythocosmic forces that have constituted our language and consciousness in order to explain it from outside, as though objectively. We give accounts of ourselves in narrative form, which are not allegorical, since there is no outside referent for the story to attempt to represent. The story is self-interpreting, and so we, as self-conscious creatures, are also self-interpreting.

The Power of Adjectives: Two Poems on Imagination by Patrick Lane and P. K. Page

“Albino Pheasants” (1977) by Patrick Lane 

At the bottom of the field
where thistles throw their seeds
and poplars grow from cotton into trees
in a single season I stand among the weeds.
Fenceposts hold each other up with sagging wire.
Here no man walks except in wasted time.
Men circle me with cattle, cars and wheat.
Machines rot on my margins.
They say the land is wasted when it’s wild
and offer plows and apple trees to tame
but in the fall when I have driven them away
with their guns and dogs and dreams
I walk alone. While those who’d kill
lie sleeping in soft beds
huddled against the bodies of their wives
I go with speargrass and hooked burrs
and wait upon the ice alone.

Delicate across the mesh of snow
I watch the pale birds come
with beaks the colour of discarded flesh.
White, their feathers are white,
as if they had been born in caves
and only now have risen to the earth
to watch with pink and darting eyes
the slowly moving shadows of the moon.
There is no way to tell men what to do…
the dance they make in sleep
withholds its meaning from their dreams.
That which has been nursed in bone
rests easy upon frozen stone
and what is wild is lost behind closed eyes:
albino birds, pale sisters, succubi.

Sestina for Pat Lane After Reading ‘Albino Pheasants’  (1978) by  P. K. Page 

Pale beak…pale eye…the dark imagination
flares like magnesium. And but, pale flesh
and I am lifted to a weightless world:
watered cerulean, chrome-yellow, light
and green, veronese – if I remember – a soft wash
recalls a summer evening sky.

At Barro de Navidad we watched the sky
fade softly like a bruise. Was it imagination
that showed us Venus phosphorescent in a wash
of air and ozone? – a phosphorescence flesh
wears like a mantle in bright moonlight,
a natural skin-tone in that other world.

Why do I wish to escape this world?
Why do three phrases alter the color of the sky
the clarity, texture even, of light?
What is there about the irrepressible imagination
that the adjective pale modifying beak, eye and flesh,
can set my sensibilities awash?

If with my thickest brush I were to lay a wash
of thinnest water-color I could make a world
as unlike my own dense flesh
as the high-noon midsummer sky;
but it would not catch at my imagintion
or change the waves or particles of light

yet pale can tip the scales, make light
this heavy planet. If I were to wash
everything I own in mercury, would imagination
run rampant in that suddenly silver world –
free me from gravity, set me floating sky-
ward – thistledown – permanently disburdened of my flesh?

Like cygnets hatched by ducks, our minds and flesh
are imprinted early – what to me is light
may be dark to one born under a sunny sky.
And however cool the water my truth won’t wash
without shrinking except in my own world
which is one part matter, nine parts imagination.

I fear flesh which blocks imagination,
the light of reason which contracts the world.
Pale beak…pale eye…pale flesh…My sky’s awash.


I’m particularly fascinated by the role of adjectives in these poems, a role explicitly thematized by Page (“what is it about the irrepressible imagination that the adjective…can set my sensibilities awash?”). J. R. R. Tolkein, a philologist as well as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, discusses the liberating power of adjectives in his short essay, “On Fairy Stories,” from which I will quote at length. Speaking of mythology, after declaring that “Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret,” since truly it is “modern European languages [that] are a disease of mythology”, Tolkein writes:

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

As Page and Tolkein both attempt to articulate, the human imagination makes us potential sub-creators – participants in the ongoing poetry of creation. The magic of our incarnate minds is borne principally through language, which skillfully crafted, can shift not only our thoughts about the world, but our very perception of the world. An imaginative phrase can “change the waves or particles of light” not of some other fantasized world, but of this world.

I’m reminded again, in connection with the creative power of adjectives, of Alfred North Whitehead‘s eternal objects. In human beings, whose mental capacities “rise to the peak of free imagination” (Process and Reality, 161), adjectives like green or pale allow us to bring forth novel perceptual worlds not determined by past actualities. See HERE, HERE, and HERE for some of my other recent reflections on eternal objects.

Thinking in media res.

My Muse’s ideas remain mute to the world until given voice by the poet who courts her.  For this I use my mouth, my tongue, my teeth, and my lungs. As I inhale and prepare to name the world, it dawns on me that I have lost the ability to tell the difference between my thinking and my words.

A problematic statement: Thinking itself, the I behind the me I “use” language to call myself, cannot be written.

But then what did I just say? If my I cannot be predicated, if nothing at all can be said about it but what it says of itself as me, then what relation does my I bear to its body, other bodies, and the world?

An important confession: I cannot but think in media res. I am a bodying, a worlding. My thoughts are always already events in the world.

Language cannot be “used” like some kind of tool, because the me that is supposed to employ it is in fact (re)constructed in the act of speaking. Language is a technology, but in the ancient sense of techne, a craftwork or artworkrather than the modern sense of tool or machine.

Is not language the Archetype itself most fully incarnated into the material dimension, the Word become almost fully flesh and bone? I speak, therefore I am, and in speaking I become mediated, my consciousness awakened from the dream of solipsism into the pulsing, breading, bleeding matrices of inter-bodily co-existence.

Because of a series of technological “advancements” and economic “developments,” I can now type my thinking into a laptop, which then teleports it around the world in an instant. Miniaturized by my laptop is the alphabet, an ancient technology still every bit as essential to our kind of consciousness as neurons and microchips. My mind accesses the meaning of this screen through the symbolic sounds my fingers have learned to play on the keyboard. My alphabetic computer becomes the condition for my thinking being heard (by myself and others). I think with it, and so my identity has hybridized with it. We are/I am a cyborg.

Whatever the Internet “is,” I think we can say with some assurance that it is already sutured into the human nervous system, and the planetary ecosystem, at a very deep level, so deep as to have fundamentally transformed what it means, materially and spiritually, to be an earthling. There is a computer consciousness binding the world together in an electrical co-presencing of faces and words, a digital concrescence of souls. Problem is these techno-human lines of communication are completely out of rhythm with the rest of the earthly and cosmic lines of force. Industrial civilization has turned up the volume of our technosphere’s speakers so loud, and so brightened the bulbs that light it, that the rest of the gaian ecosystem and galactic community can hardly be seen or heard anywhere on earth. At least not by human ears.

We are embedded, creatures within creation, each an individualized organ of world-perception, another unique example of the Cosmic Psyche’s desire to see deeper into a universe in which there is always more to see.

Think with the heart of the world, or there will be no earth worth living in.

On Oral and Literate Consciousness, from “Becoming Animal” by David Abram

“While persons brought up within literate culture often speak about the natural world, indigenous, oral peoples sometimes speak directly to that world, acknowledging certain animals, plants, and even landforms as expressive subjects with whom they might find themselves in conversation. Obviously these other beings do not speak with a human tongue; they do not speak in words. They may speak in song, like many birds, or in rhythm, like the crickets and the ocean waves. They may speak a language of movements and gestures, or articulate themselves in shifting shadows. Among many native people, such forms of expressive speech are assumed to be as communicative, in their own way, as the more verbal discourse of our species (which after all can also be thought of as a kind of vocal gesticulation, or even as a sort of singing). Language, for traditionally oral peoples, is not a specifically human possession, but is a property of the animate earth, in which we humans participate. Oral language gusts through us–our sounded phrases borne by the same air that nourishes the cedars and swells the cumulus clouds. Laid out and immobilized on the flat surface, our words tend to forget that they are sustained by this windswept earth; they begin to imagine that their primary task is to provide a representation of the world (as though they were outside of, and not really a part of, this world). Nonetheless, the power of language remains, first and foremost, a way of singing oneself into contact with others and with the cosmos–a way of bridging the silence between oneself and another person, or a startled black bear, or the crescent moon soaring like a billowed sail above the roof. Whether sounded on the tongue, printed on the page, or shimmering on the screen, language’s primary gift is not to re-present the world around us, but to call ourselves into the vital presence of that world–and into deep and attentive presence with one another. This ancestral capacity of speech necessarily underlies and supports all the other roles that language has come to have. Whether we wield our words to describe a landscape, to analyze a problem, or to explain how some gadget works, none of these roles would be possible without the primordial power of utterance to make our bodies resonate with one another and with the other rhythms that surround us. The autumn bugling of the elk does this, too, and the echoed honks of geese vee-ing south for the winter. This tonal layer of meaning–the stratum of spontaneous, bodily expression that oral cultures steadily deploy, and that literate cultures all too easily forget–is the very dimension of language that we two-leggeds share in common with other animals. We share it, as well, with the mutter and moan of the wind through the winter branches outside my studio. In the spring the buds on those branches will unfurl new leaves, and by summer the wind will speak with a thousand green tongues as it rushes through those same trees, releasing a chorus of rustles and whispers and loudly swelling rattles very different from the low, plaintive sighs of winter. And all those chattering leaves will feed my thoughts as I sit by the open door, next summer, scribbling and pondering. These pages, too, are nothing other than talking leaves–their insights stirred by the winds, their vitality reliant on periodic sunlight and on cool, dark water seeping up from within the ground. Step into their shade. Listen close. Something other than the human mind is at play here.” -p. 10-12 from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010) by David Abram

Rudolf Steiner on the Evolution of Consciousness and the Alphabet

Here are the first few paragraphs of a lecture by Steiner (given in Dornach, 18th December 1921) on the relationship between alphabetic technologies and the evolution of Greek and Roman consciousness:

For some time we have been occupied with gaining a more accurate knowledge of Man’s relation to the universe, and today we would like to supplement our past studies. If we consider how Man lives in the present period of his evolution — taking this period so widely that it encompasses not only what is historical but also in part the pre-historical — we must conclude that speech is a preeminent characteristic at this moment of the cosmic evolution of mankind. It is speech that elevates Man above the other kingdoms of nature.

In the lectures last week, I mentioned that in the course of mankind’s evolution, language, speech as a whole, has also undergone a development. I alluded to how, in very ancient times, speech was something that Man formed out of himself as his most primal ability; how, with the help of his organs of speech he was able to manifest the divine spiritual forces living within him. I also referred to how, in the transition from the Greek culture to the Roman-Latin culture, that is to say in the fourth Post-Atlantean period, the single sounds in language lose their names and, as in contemporary usage, merely have value as sounds. In Greek culture we still have a name for the first letter of the alphabet but in Latin it is just ‘A’. In passing from the Greek to the Latin culture something living in speech, something eminently concrete changes into abstraction. It might be said: as long as Man called the first letter of the alphabet ‘Alpha’, he experienced a certain amount of inspiration in it, but the moment he called it just ‘A’, the letters conformed to outer convention, to the prosaic aspects of life, replacing inspiration and inner experience. This constituted the actual transition from everything belonging to Greece to what is Roman-Latin — men of culture became estranged from the spiritual world of poetry and entered into the prose of life.

The people of Rome were a sober, prosaic race, a race of jurists, who brought prose and jurisprudence into the culture of later years. What lived in the people of Greece developed within mankind more or less like a cultural dream which men approach through their own revelations when they have inner experiences and wish to give expression to them. It might be said that all poetry has in it something which makes it appear to Europeans as a daughter of Greece, whereas all jurisprudence, all outer compartmentalization, all the prose of life, suggest descent from the Roman-Latin people.

I have previously called your attention to how a real understanding of the Alpha — Aleph in Hebrew — leads us to recognize in it the desire to express Man in a symbol. If one seeks the nearest modern words to convey the meaning of Alpha, these would be: ‘The one who experiences his own breathing’. In this name we have a direct reference to the Old Testament words: ‘And God formed Man … and breathed into nostrils the breath of life’. What at that time was done with the breath, to make Man a Man of Earth, the being who had his Manhood imprinted on him by becoming the experiencer, the feeler of his own breathing, by receiving into himself consciousness of his breathing, is meant to be expressed in the first letter of the alphabet.

And the name ‘Beta’ considered with an open mind, turning here to the Hebrew equivalent, represents something of the nature of a wrapping, a covering, a house. Thus, if we were to put our experience on uttering ‘Alpha, Beta,’ into modern language we could say: ‘Man in his house’. And we could go through the whole alphabet in this way, giving expression to a concept, a meaning, a truth about Man simply by saying the names of the letters of the alphabet one after another. A comprehensive sentence would be uttered giving expression to the Mystery of Man. This sentence would begin by our being shown Man in his building, in his temple. The following parts of the sentence would go on to express how Man conducts himself in his temple and how he relates to the cosmos. In short, what would be expressed by speaking the names of the alphabet consecutively, would not be the abstraction we have today when we say ABC, without any accompanying thoughts, but it would be the expression of the Mystery of Man and of how his roots are in the universe.

When today, in various societies ‘the lost archetypal word’ is talked about, there is no recognition that it is actually contained in the sentence that comprises the names of the alphabet. Thus we can look back on a time in the evolution of humanity when Man, in repeating his alphabet, did not express what was related to external events, external needs, but what the divine spiritual mystery of his being brought to expression through his larynx and his speech organs.

It might be said that what belongs to the alphabet was applied later to external objects, and forgotten was all that can be revealed to Man through his speech about the mystery of his soul and spirit. Man’s original word of truth, his word of wisdom, was lost. Speech was poured out over the matter-of-factness of life. In speaking today, Man is no longer conscious that the original primordial sentence has been forgotten; the sentence through which the divine revealed its own being to him. He is no longer aware that the single words, the single sentences uttered today, represent the mere shreds of that primordial sentence.

The poet, by avoiding the prose element in speech, and going back to the inner experience, the inner feeling, the inner formation of speech, attempts to return to its inspired archetypal element. One could perhaps say that every true poem, the humblest as well as the greatest, is an attempt to return to the word that has been lost, to retrace the steps from a life arranged in accordance with utility to times when cosmic being still revealed itself in the inner organism of speech.

Today we distinguish the consonant from the vowel element in speech. I have spoken of how it would appear to Man if he were to dive beneath the threshold of his consciousness. In ordinary consciousness memories are reflected upwards or, in other words, thoughts are reflections of what is experienced between birth and death. Normally we do not penetrate Man’s actual being beyond this recollection, this thought left behind in memory. From another point of view I have indicated how, beneath the threshold of consciousness, there lives what may be called a universal tragedy of mankind. This can also be described in the following way: When Man wakes up in the morning and his ego and astral body dive down into his etheric body and his physical body, he does not perceive these bodies from within outwards, what he perceives is something quite different.

Read the rest.

The Ears, Eyes, and Mind of the Wor(l)d

What is language, and how did it evolve? The flurry of recent posts concerned with media ecology and the way the content of philosophical thinking depends upon the form in which it is expressed has redirected my attention to the significance of the Word. I think grammatically, which is to say that my alphabetic consciousness, whether text or hyper-text based, conforms to a preconscious regime of universally imposed rules of meaning. I cannot think but by assuming the meaningfulness of the public language given to me at birth. I cannot get beyond the givenness of this language in order to inspect its legitimacy. I can only explore it from within. Language has no outside. Truth, then, is a matter of coherence, rather than correspondence. Or at least philosophical thinking cannot begin but by having faith in the meaning-making capacity of its culturally inherited tongue.

Contra Brassier, intelligibility cannot be separated from meaning. Wisdom can be reached with logic, but logic itself originates in the songs of the mouth and the perception/passion of the h/ear/t. Science has telescoped vision and mathematized reason to reach distances divine in time, but it has not found chaos and disorder even at the edge of the universe. There, at the end of time as we know it, the scientific imagination witnesses the creation of space in itself. Mind you, this is not the creation of any thing in particular, but the creation of the very possibility of there being things at all. Scientific consciousness has now known its own conditions of possibility. Brassier believes this entails nihilism. He believes it despite his eliminativist ploy to elevate cognition beyond its contextual emergence out of “folk psychology,” or common sense. The fact is that our having come to see and to understand that our universe has a beginning in space-time is no demotion of the human being. The speculative claims of scientific investigation are still dependent upon the meaning of language (even if mathematical) and the sensuality of the body (even if technologically extended). Scientific cosmology is only disorienting if aesthetic participation in the phenomena it has revealed lags behind their cognitive theorization. Not only has human finitude been thought, it has been seen, and seen through! And what a sublime sight! We can witness the creation of our finite universe and know nonetheless that this universe is unbounded. Space is not inside of or given within a bigger space: it has no outside. Space is self-forming. The world is full of the Word.

Metaphor and the Allure of Objects

I’ve just finished Harman‘s chapters on Metaphor and Humor in Guerrilla Metaphysics. He explores the meaning-making capacities of language and laughter in the hopes that they might help account for how objects are capable of interaction despite their infinite concealment from one another. Through his explorations into Ortega y Gasset‘s ontology of metaphor and Bergson‘s account of humor, Harman develops the concept of allure, which functions as a sort of atom-smasher to reveal the molten core of objects, what he calls their style. Harman marks a difference between normal experience, wherein we habitually assume that an object can be defined by the sum of its properties, and the experience of allurement, wherein “a special sort of interference occurs in the usual relation between a concealed sensual object and its visual symptoms” (p. 150).

In the case of the construction of a metaphor, normal experience leads us to assume that saying “the sky is an ocean” really only means that the sky has qualities (blueness, vastness, etc.) similar to the ocean. But, suggests Harman, this is to reduce a metaphor to a simile, when in reality, what fascinates us about an especially beautiful metaphor is that it brings to our attention a connection between things that are supposed to be separate.

“The result, says Ortega,

“is the annihilation of what both objects are as practical images. When they collide with one another their hard carapaces crack and the internal matter, in a molten state, acquires the softness of plasm, ready to receive a new form and structure” (quoted on p. 107).

In this way, metaphor allows us to allude to the elusive inner core of things, their “I,” as Ortega puts it (which reminds me of how Christopher Alexander describes the I-beings that manifest in certain architectural forms). But the poet cannot actually produce an identity between such things as oceans and skies. The poet is “an audacious liar who claims absolute identity” between different objects, when what has actually been produced is an identification of our feeling for the style of the ocean and the style of the sky. The style or image I have of the sky forms a distinct unity in my experience, as does my image of the ocean. Through the surprise of the metaphor, both these images take on a new formation in my imagination.

“The [ocean] is not only an image sparkling with diverse features, but also a murky underground unity for me, and not just in its inner executant self. And it is from this strange concealed integrity of individual images that metaphor draws its power–not from the genuine reality of each thing, which language is powerless to unveil” (p. 108).

What Harman seems to be saying here, with both his style of writing and the content of his argument, is that an object-oriented view of the world demands a more imaginative view of language that takes metaphor seriously as a form of expression whose meaning cannot be conveyed literally. It is impossible to exhaust the significance of the identification between the ocean and the sky by cataloging the many properties they may share. Something exceeds every attempted reduction of this identification to a list of similar qualities, preserving a good metaphor’s ability to “dig underground into the cryptic life of things” (p. 122).

In short, philosophies of human access seem to have been shackled by simile, comparing properties instead of forging new objects; the return to speculative realism is made possible by the ontologization of metaphor. Normal perception is pushed to the point of a paradigm shift (see p. 152) by alluring objects that forever recede from their appearances. What really makes the concept of allure interesting is Harman’s demand that we

“globalize the rift between a thing and its features, no longer placing it under quarantine at the unique fissure where human meets world, but allowing it to spread throughout the cosmos to account for all interactions, including inanimate ones” (p. 152).

I’ll have to read on to better understand the implications of this more-than-human allure between objects.

Logos of a Living Earth: Towards a Gaian Praxecology

Logos of the Living Earth:

Towards a Gaian Praxecology

By Matthew Segall



The word “praxeology” has been employed with various meanings in 20th century French and Austrian discourse.[1] Praxecology is a distinct, though not entirely unrelated neologism invented for the purposes of this essay. A new word is not without a history, nor a text without context—praxecology is the mutated kin of its discursive ancestors whose semiotic relation cannot be denied. But my neologism is not just a sign; it is also a materially inscribed event emerging in my life and, having been read and understood, in the lives of each of you, my audience. Words have real effects in the world of material-semiotic cyborgs[2] like us.

Praxecology is the embodied practice of a living planetary systems theory, the enacting of a Gaian way of life. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, developed in the 1960s while working for NASA to detect life on other planets, has played an important psycho-spiritual role in the environmental movement[3], but half a century later has not been fully realized as an eco-cultural revolt against modern techno-industrialism and the alienation, fetishization, and commodification of self, society, and nature that such a system requires. The results of this Enlightenment project of disembedded rationality are well known: loss of place, self-alienation, social injustice and ecological devastation chief among them.[4] A scientific theory of Earth as a self-regulating system is not enough in itself to overturn any of these aspects of our post-industrial malaise, but the knowledge of a living Earth is compelling enough, I believe, to inspire both the aesthetic skill and religious will of humanity into a renewed relationship with the Earth.

In this essay, I will try to lay down a path in walking toward a Gaian praxecology by offering a more integral, or at least nonmodern (Latour, 1993) narration of embodied practice concerning human-earth relations. As Latour argues in his critique of modern science, the only myth is that there could be science without myth (p. 93, ibid.). I will seek a planetary (and so seemingly universal) mythos, though careful attention will be paid to nature as place, or topos (commonplace).

As Donna Haraway has written,

“We turn to this topic [nature] to order our discourse, to compose our memory …[because] nature is the place to rebuild public culture…[and] is a topic of public discourse on which much turns, even the Earth” (p. 296, 1992).

The title, “Gaia,” has been criticized for its gender essentialism and mythic connotations.[5] I will try to convey why Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess, is among the most appropriate of names for the living Earth. Her theogonic origins in the poetry of Hesiod, Ovid, and others is an apt reminder that disentanglement of science from myth, or knowledge from narrative, while logically possible, is vacuous in practice.[6] Praxecology is not theory or praxis alone, but human understanding-as-participation in the meaningful cycles and evolutions of the Earth community. Science (logos) and story (mythos) are distinct, but in no way separate expressions of the underlying human yearning for knowledge born out of a recognition of our origins in a larger cosmogenic whole. “The Earth,” says cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser, “is nothing but an event [self-enacted/autopoietic unfolding] which in materialization has become progressively slower” (p. 541, Gebser). Matter and mind, embodied action and theoretical discourse, are not isolated influences or opposed forces, but friendly poles in a holistic process of evolutionary autobiography. As Haraway puts it, “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44, 1997).

The protagonists in my story include Haraway, who reminds us that modern technoscientific biology is not life itself, but a cultural discourse about life; Thomas Berry, who evokes an original relationship to the universe by reminding us that an ongoing cosmogenesis is the origin of our existence; Bruno Latour, who demystifies science in action by unveiling the networks of relationships supporting its facts; William Irwin Thompson, whose vision of a Gaian polity helps us re-imagine the world; Francisco Varela, whose enactive cognitive science shows how worlds are brought forth through autopoietic structural coupling; and Gaia, our common ground, producer of all bodies and muse of every mind.Others, too, will lend a helping hand along the way of this logos of the living Earth.

“Ecology,” according to Thomas Berry, “is functional cosmology” (p. 84, 1999). This suggests that an adequate understanding of the universe as a whole is not at all separate from knowing how to live sustainably within one’s particular community of life. The whole and the part are mutually implicated in any “functional cosmology.” Any truly universal knowledge should also be applicable and adaptable to life at home. Such a relational approach to cognition-as-living will guide us along our journey through various philosophical holzwege, or wood paths (German: wegen– “to make a way,” wagen– “to risk”), with the hope that we emerge at a clearing revealing new, perhaps unexpected, ways forward.

Neither representational, nor constructionist epistemologies will suffice for such thoughtful and heartfelt wanderings, as I am concerned here with concrete matters of life and death, not decontextualized ideas of transcendent truth or the moral resignation of unmoored relativism. This discourse concerning the Earth is an attempt to refigure the way words relate to worlds, in part because

“humans are not the ones who arbitrarily add the ‘symbolic dimension’ to pure material forces. These forces are as transcendent, active, agitated, spiritual, as we are” (p. 128, Latour, 1995).

The following pages will record the traces of my struggle to enact a story, not about Earth, but of, as, and for an Earth personified: Gaia.[7] The clearing I hope will be discovered at the end of my praxecological textual way-making is but the beginning of our long overdue transformation from disembedded techno-industrial consumers into symbiotic participants in a flourishing Gaian polity.[8]

“The urgent task of ecological culture,” says Rosemary Radford Ruether,

“is to convert human consciousness to the Earth, so that we can use our minds to understand the web of life and to live in that web of life as sustainers, rather than destroyers, of it” (p. 250, 1992).

It is my hope that my words may participate in the Great Work of weaving Western consciousness back into the tapestry of life from which it sprang by inspiring a renewed call to situated eco-action.[9]

Praxeology Becomes Praxecology

Praxeology is a word with a mixed history of discursive use. Murray N. Rothbard suggests that: “Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals” (p. 58, 1997). Arnold Kaufmann defines praxeology as “the science of human decision-making,” and models his approach after the Cartesian method of logical analysis (p. 12, 1968). Both Rothbard and Kaufmann seek universal, a priori laws of human action; but unlike Kaufmann (best known for his work in computer science), Rothbard criticizes the notion that conscious human beings can be treated like “stones or molecules whose course can be scientifically tracked in alleged constants or quantitative laws” (p. 74). I am in agreement with Rothbard’s (and before his, Ludwig von Mises’) rejection of a quantitative or positivistic account of human action, but because he fails to recognize the feelings, values, and purposes of all the species sharing this planet with humanity, his narrowly humanistic praxeology falls short of enacting the Gaian polity implied by a praxecology.

Kaufmann’s praxeology is even more problematic, as his account of the human nervous system by analogy to a “combinatorial machine [i.e., parallel computer]” (p. 224) neglects the autopoietic nature of living cognitive processes. As will be discussed at length in the following section, the nervous system is not a linear “chain of perception-analysis-decision-action” (p. 228, ibid.), but a recursive and operationally closed loop of sensorimotor coordination within endogenously specified environments of relevancy (see p. 12). Construing cognition as if analysis and decision-making took place as independent steps in a causal chain between perception and action neglects the physiological fact that thinking (i.e., analyzing and deciding) is always already an embodied and embedded sensorimotor activity. Kaufmann’s praxeology re-inscribes the Cartesian dualism responsible for the metaphysical confusions at the root of the ecological crisis. Praxecology is my attempt to re-embody the human being’s conscious analytic capacities by re-imagining the way mind and body, thought and action, knowing and being relate to one another.

Autopoietic Biology and Enactive Cognition

The particular discourse of biology is one that I, like Haraway, “value, want to participate in and make better…and believe to be culturally, politically, and epistemologically important” (p. 218, ibid.). The biology of the late Francisco Varela, more recently carried forward by Evan Thompson, strikes me as especially important because it arises out of an awareness of the “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing” (p. 25, Maturana & Varela, 1988). In other words, deep inquiry into biology can reveal that our ontology, praxis, and epistemology are knotted together such that “…every act of knowing brings forth a world” (p. 26, ibid.).

Varela’s central conceptual contribution (along with Humberto Maturana) to the study of life is the theory of autopoiesis.[10] The theory is part of a larger move away from current orthodoxy in biology that understands organisms as “heteronomous units operating by a logic of correspondence”; instead, Varela offers a new biology that sees organisms as “autonomous units operating by a logic of coherence” (p. 50, ed. by William Irwin Thompson, 1987). The standard, gene-centric perspective of neo-Darwinist biology maintains that individual organisms are the puppets of their DNA, struggling to achieve fitness by way of natural selection into pre-given niches.[11] They are “other-determined” (heteronomous) because the forms of their bodies and behaviors are imposed extrasomatically by a supposedly objective world[12] and endosomatically by supposedly objective genetic algorithms. Evolutionary success is retroactively explained as the result of a correspondence between an organism’s body, instincts, and thoughts (all reducible to genetic coding) and the external world. Varela’s autopoietic view, in contrast, allows us to see organisms as autonomous and purposeful beings whose success is explained not by correct representation of a pre-given, objective reality, but by adequate structural coupling[13] with others allowing for the enaction of coherent and durable material-semiotic worlds.

Further, an autopoietic biology makes clear that self-production is at least logically (if not also temporally) prior to reproduction (p. 131, E. Thompson). The basis of living organization, therefore, is not the ability to genetically replicate, but to produce a membrane-bound, self-organizing identity distinguishing organism from environment. In this way, the ecopoiesis[14] of Gaia grants it living status, contrary to gene-centric neo-Darwinian criticisms.

Varela’s penchant for transdisciplinarity lead him to link his autopoietic biology to cognitive science, and his enactive theory of cognition to sociology. Varela has described enaction by borrowing the words of the poet Antonio Machado: “Wanderer the road is your footsteps, nothing else; you lay down a path in walking” (p. 63, 1987).

The scientific principles underlying this poetic insight have been highlighted by Evan Thompson, who offers five features central to the theory of enactive cognition (p. 13, 2007):

1.“…living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and thereby also enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains.”

2.“…the nervous system is an autonomous dynamic system [that] actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity according to its operation as a circular and reentrant network of interacting neurons.”

3.“…cognition is the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.”

a.“Cognitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action.”

b.Sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment modulates, but does not determine, the formation of endogenous, dynamic patterns of neural activity, which in turn inform sensorimotor coupling.”

4.“…a cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment.”

5.“…experience is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner.”

One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular “cognitive domain” (see # 1) made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed (see # 2), its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.

As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance.[15]

Referring to technoscience, as opposed to just science, emphasizes the extent to which knowledge emerges out of skillful action in embodied situations (see #’s 3 and 4). Science has always been dependent upon technological sensorimotor extensions to deepen its understanding of that commonplace called by its peculiar culture “nature.” Artifacts and their articulations, including alphabetic technologies, shape the kinds of worlds scientists are capable of enacting. Even mathematics is a figurative language (p.11, ibid.), constructing analogies between otherwise unrelated domains of experience.[16]

Varela’s biology has implications not only for scientific epistemology, but also for society and human-earth relations. Echoing the sentiments of Haraway, Varela writes that:

“…biology is the source of most metaphors in current thinking…and expresses the possibility of a worldview beyond the split between us and it…what we do is what we know, and ours is but one of many possible worlds. [Enactive cognition] is…the laying down of a world, with no warfare between self and other” (p. 62, ed. by William Irwin Thompson, 1987).

It is our shared biological lineage that secures the basic structure of the worlds we can bring forth together via linguistic and empathic structural coupling. But culture is not bound by nature, or rather human nature is sufficiently malleable that diverse cultural expressions can emerge within isolated social groups. It is often only through inter-cultural confrontation and misunderstanding that members of one society come to recognize the unthought background of their enacted worlds. Varela is at pains to convey to us the message of his biology, that “…as human beings, we have only the world which we create with others” (p. 246, 1988). Unless I can encounter the differences between my (or my culture’s) cognitive domain and another’s with the willingness to make room for their meanings besides my own, I undermine the biological process of structural coupling that produces livable worlds. Meaning emerges out of difference (p. 167, Hornborg), and as W. I. Thompson suggests, “the recognition of differences [is] the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal” (p. 167, 1985). Bringing forth worlds with others requires tapping into a universal substratum of empathic relation, not to erase difference, but to celebrate it.

Varela calls this willingness to forego self-certainty for the sake of enacting inclusive worlds with others love. Love, says Varela (and Maturana), “is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness” (p. 264, 1988). Most scientists would dismiss such claims because they overshoot the objective scope of the scientific enterprise. But Varela’s biology is an attempt to break down the Cartesian divide between rationality and emotion, between what is and what ought to be. Biology is the study of life, but in the context of the recursive logic of enactivism, it becomes the self-study of our own living. Perhaps some physicists can study the mathematical regularities of measurable matter without too much personal investment, but to study the processes that birth and sustain our very being inevitably calls for profound personal and interpersonal involvement. And because of the identity between knowing and doing, the stories we tell about how life came to be and what it is doing here will determine what sorts of future worlds we bring forth together.

“Whatever we do in every domain, whether concrete (walking) or abstract (philosophical reflection), involves us totally in the body, for it takes place through our structural dynamics and through our structural interactions. Everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence” (p. 248, ibid.).

Varela’s autopoietic biology is a critical response to the mechanistic trends of mainstream studies of living organization. He emphasizes the autonomy of individual organisms while also situating them within the eco-social environments that sustain them materially and semiotically. Varela also engages the philosophical implications of biology in a more penetrating way than most other scientists when he recognizes the dynamic unity of mind and body. Thought, perception, and action are knotted together in the process of living, and life is by its very nature a co-creative, world-making affair. Acknowledging this, a Gaian praxecology strives, not to disembed local cultures (whether scientific or indigenous) from their specific histories of structural coupling, but to expand their cognitive domains such that they begin to comport themselves appropriately in light of the knowledge of the whole Earth as a single living system—in mythopoeic fact, a person—that all beings, no matter our cultural or even biological differences, depend upon for survival. The task of our planetary age is to situate the parts in the whole (so human persons can relate to Gaia) while not forgetting that the whole is also to be found in each of the parts (humans are, first and foremost, earthlings). Personifying the Earth not only leads to renewed respect for our home planet, but reminds us of the encompassing and interconnected natural processes responsible for breathing life into individual human persons and all other earthlings. Personhood, it could be said, is granted only when beings are able to meet each other in loving social spaces.

Discursive Earth

Language is the primary instrument of human knowing, the tool of tools that opens up worlds of meaning more flexible (and reflexive) than the bio-semiotic endowments granted to most other organisms. But the virtue of human language is also its tragic flaw, as the creative power of words enable the imagination to almost entirely detach from the actuality of the body and the Earth. One result of such disengagement is what A. N. Whitehead has called the fallacy of “misplaced concreteness” (p. 51, 1925): abstract worlds of words and images restructure not only thought, but perception and action, such that the concrete lived experience of the uniqueness of individual persons, to take one example, becomes obscured by pre-conceived notions of culture, race, and class (etc.), leading to an objectification of others that short-circuits the process of linguistic and empathic structural coupling.

Varela suggests that human language evolved as a result of increased socialization and loving cooperation between our hominid ancestors (p. 220, 1988). The female shift from estral cycles to nonseasonal sexuality and the frontal coitus resulting from upright posture are mentioned as possible reasons for the development of such a complex and expressive behavior as speech[17] (p. 219, ibid.).

Evan Thompson points also to “…the evolution of a new stage of development, namely, childhood,” which provides developing human beings with an incredible plasticity, so much in fact that

“…individual subjectivity is from the outset intersubjectivity, a result of the communally handed down norms, conventions, symbolic artifacts, and cultural traditions in which the individual is always already embedded” (p. 409-411, 2007).

Writing may have arisen later (around the 4th millennium BCE) for economic reasons (p. 13, Jean, 1987), but the spoken word appears to have emerged originally as a result of the desire for increased interpersonal intimacy. This is, of course, a revisionist account of the origins of human language, focusing more on the evolution of consciousness than economic progress or the invention of technologies. W. I. Thompson offers evidence contrary to the standard technophilic and androcentric explanations, citing the work of prehistorian Alexander Marshack, who, like E. Thompson and Varela, argues language arose as a result of neoteny and increased social cohesion:

“If, at any point in the evolutionary process ‘language’ or proto-language was to be learned, it would not have been in the context of the hunt. It would have been learned young, before the individual was economically productive…in the context of the child’s widening, increasingly complex relational competence” (p. 91, W. I. Thompson, 1981).

A Gaian praxecology requires a novel way of relating to language as primarily communicative, rather than descriptive or representational. The meaning of our words comes not from a correspondence between them, our brains, and objects or events in the world, but from the consensual coordination of our lived bodies and their linguistic intentions.[18] Social coherence, rather than representational correspondence, produces meaningful intersubjective linguistic domains.

The communicative origins of language should make it clear that claims to establish a pure observer language free of cultural idiosyncrasy (and so capable of objective description of phenomena) are more political than scientific. Human beings speak with one another in order to share emotion and direct attention, and so any notion of descriptive or explanatory truth must include at least the potential for agreement between structurally coupled agents. If one group’s emically verified description contradicts another’s, there has not been a factual conflict but a failure to communicate. Such conflicts of description are especially insidious when political power is used to enforce “true” accounts of reality despite the resistance of marginalized social enactments of meaning.

The move away from representational accounts of language is the first step toward “…[placing] the human within the dynamics of the planet rather than [placing] the planet within the dynamics of the human” (p. 160, T. Berry, 1999). By recognizing language as a poetic product of the Earth’s own desire to know itself through autobiography, perhaps the psychological alienation and spiritual disenchantment so characteristic of our historical moment can be overcome.[19] According to Berry, “this awakening is our human participation in the dream of the Earth” (p. 165, ibid.). As I shared above, our language and the imaginative capacities it facilitates evolved because humans grew more capable of empathic structural coupling. As the cultural and symbolic systems that emerged became more complex, they began to reify differences between one another and, at least in the Western world, between humanity and nature. In effect, Western consciousness detached from the dream of the Earth and fell into its own nightmare of endless economic growth fueled by technological progress.[20]

A flourishing Gaian-polity will require rooting human imagination and language back in the body of the Earth and Cosmos, such that our evolutionary journey from protozoa to speaking primates becomes an expression of the planet’s own joie de vivre.

As Rick Tarnas has written:

“The human spirit does not merely prescribe nature’s phenomenal order; rather, the spirit of nature brings forth its own order through the human mind when that mind is employing its full complement of faculties–intellectual, volitional, emotional, sensory, imaginative, aesthetic, epiphanic…human language itself can be recognized as rooted in a deeper reality, as reflecting the universe’s unfolding meaning…Human thought does not and cannot mirror a ready-made objective truth in the world; rather, the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind” (p. 435, 1991).

A participatory approach like Tarnas’ is exactly the kind of relationship between language, culture, and nature that praxecology seeks. Humanity, rather than the alienated dominator of Earth, can become Gaia’s most articulate storyteller and most potent dream weaver. Logos did not arrive in the universe in human form from beyond at some point in history, but has been a part of cosmogenesis since the beginning.[21]

Gaian Mythos

Humanity is unique, in the double sense of being both one with (Latin: unus) the Earth/Cosmos and undeniably alone. What it is that makes our species so special is a matter of contention. The risk one takes in defining the difference between human and nonhuman is that some group be marginalized by not being included in the favored category. History makes it quite apparent that societies become more willing to commit atrocities when they adopt antagonistic linguistic classifications (race, class, gender, species, etc.). But even to deny the difference is already to have marked the topic as a forbidden fruit. I cannot avoid this risk if I wish to tell my story (cross-cultural communication depends, at least etymologically, on munitions—on firing an opening shot). I can only provisionally offer that what makes us human is our being always already embedded participants in evolving worlds of meaning, and knowing so. Knowledge is what distinguishes humanity, but all knowing is situated within the promiscuous meanings and romantic-comedic-tragic narratives of embodied life among others, both human and non.

Our human capacity for knowledge also clues us into our ignorance, the fact that we lack, perhaps indefinitely, a complete understanding of how we came to be and how best to live. Nonetheless, as Wendell Berry has written, “…we have to act on the basis of what we know, [even if] what we know is incomplete” (p. 10, 2000). Our cultures must provide us with a flexible way to navigate the unmappable complexities of the terrain of life on this evolving planet. A renewed engagement with the mythopoeic dimensions of consciousness is one way to keep our balance while walking upon such uncertain ground.

Myth, according to W. I. Thompson, “is a state of being, analogous to music [and so] not simply a description, but a performance of the very reality it seeks to describe” (p. 6, 1996). Any knowledge we pretend to have regarding the world simultaneously participates in the bringing forth of exactly such a world. Even modern technosciences of life have deep mythological roots, and so to properly contextualize matters of fact I must invoke the poetic images of the ancient past (of at least our Western, alphabetic tradition).

Hesiod, Ovid, Homer and other Greek orators have given poetic, divinatory, or dramatic tribute to Gaia, the “mother of all [and] eldest of all beings” (Homeric hymn XXX). She is imagined to have emerged at the beginning of the world from the undifferentiated, lifeless mass of Chaos. Once her earthly foundation was in place, she birthed the sky, the mountains, and the sea, along with countless other beings, mortal and immortal. She was, for ancient humanity (on all continents, though by other names), personified as Grandmother, revered for her creative generativity and life-sustaining soils.[22]

For us, despite living thousands of years later in an age of “Reason,” it remains wise to remember with W. I. Thompson that a Gaian evolutionary theory and practice (a praxecology) “requires not simply training and data collection, but imagination” (p. 252, 1991).

Imagination, for Thompson, is what integrates perception and enacts coherent worlds of situated meaning:

“What brings forth a world is the human body as a field of metaphoric extension of the known into the unknown… [Imagination’s] ability to stabilize a world derives from…preverbal geometries of behavior we have come to cognize as the way things happen” (p. 253, ibid).

These preverbal geometries of behavior archetypally structure our unconscious experience of the Earth. In those “mythic times called the ‘Scientific Revolution’” (p. 1, Haraway, 1997), the Cartesian coordinate plane emerged to refigure the human body-mind, constructing a flattened background upon which the Western imagination could perform its world-making magic at relative distance from the local complexities and particular faces of Earth.

The re-imagining of the world I am after requires locating the supposedly universal scientific truths responsible for disenchanting the Earth and Cosmos. “[The scientific tribe], says Latour, “like earlier ones, projects its own special categories onto Nature; what is new is that it pretends it has not done so” (p. 102, 1993). This pretense to objectivity, ironically, is what allowed Lovelock to publish his first hypotheses (p. 568-570, Nature, 1965) concerning how best to detect extraterrestrial life (by searching for “order” and “non-equilibrium”). The ambiguous boundaries between life and non-life, much like those between human and nonhuman, are fraught with controversy.[23] Lovelock’s generalizations, however, seem to offer at least relatively universal characteristics applicable even to alien worlds. As far as Lovelock is concerned, life is a planetary affair[24], involving even the physiosphere in its metabolic processes of growth and evolution (through regulation of atmosphere and plate tectonics [Mann, 1991]).

Our living planet has produced not only complex eco-semiotic webs of organic community, but also a special primate who can know the difference between sign and thing (and who surfs the mystery in between with myth). This differential knowing raises the specter of minds separate from bodies, of a noosphere over and above the biosphere using it as a means for its own elevated ends. But we need not reproduce the Sacred Image of the Same by reifying the human difference; we can instead, through a self-critical and diffractive consciousness, bring forth histories of entangled meaning where reality and idea, science and story, nature and culture mutually constitute one another (Haraway, 1997). The cosmogenesis of Earth is as much mental, cultural, and transcendent as it is physical, natural, and immanent. There is no one true and ideal copy of the world that might be reproduced culturally or technologically. Reality is not a reflected image in the human mind, but co-emerges out of the interference patterns generated by the varied material-semiotic activities of countless earthlings, most of whom are not human (p. 299, Haraway, 1992). A Gaian praxecology attempts to make this radically inter-species realization explicit in both our ecological practices and our discourse.

Imagine a world where Lovelock’s scientific narratives about the “Ages of Gaia” are tied together in a distributed and layered way (p. 121, Haraway, 1997.) with the ancient myths and mysterious organic origins of so many other human and nonhuman natures-cultures. Gaian praxecology requires not hegemonic universalism or globalization, but a shared discourse of common origins always open to interpellation (p. 49-50, ibid.). Humanity does not yet share a sacred story of creation, but our global techno-industrial activities have already inextricably linked our biological destinies. The future of our species depends upon a more integral relation between economic theory and ecological practice, myth and science, and imagination and knowledge. A Gaian praxecology is at least an opening gesture toward a more appropriate relation between these dualisms.

Earth recognized and lived with as what Ian Hacking (p. 31-32, 1999) has called an “interactive kind,” a person, would bring our species even closer to what a Gaian praxecology implies. Reconnecting on a personal level with the Earth makes evident the real ways that our ideas are actualized in the bringing forth of worlds. For too long, Gaia has been conceived of as a dead rock mutely bearing oil drills and explosives, a mere standing reserve of resources fed into the human market, and only then made valuable. The result is that much of her body (including the parts of her that we are) has become toxic and infertile. The time has come to pay respect again to the Grandmother of all who eat and breathe beneath the sun. I call for a polyphonic Gaian mythos sung by humans and nonhumans alike, “…for things [quasi-objects] too have to be elevated to the dignity of narrative” (p. 90, Latour, 1993).


The spiritual import of a logos of the living Earth cannot be underestimated. Unless the human spirit can begin to feel at home again upon the planet of its birth, it will surely soon become the planet of its death.

“As physical resources become less available,” says Berry,

“psychic [or spiritual] energy must support the human project in a special manner. This situation brings us to a new reliance on powers within the universe and also to experience of the deeper self. The universe must be experienced as the Great Self. Each is fulfilled in the other: the Great Self is fulfilled in the individual self, and the individual self is fulfilled in the Great Self. Alienation is overcome as soon as we experience this surge of energy from the source that has brought the universe through the centuries. New fields of energy become available to support the human venture. These new energies find expression and support in celebration. For in the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration” (p. 170, 1999).

The ongoing celebration of the Cosmos and Earth community, indeed, provides us with a mythos worth performing and participating in. Indigenous peoples have ritually participated in Gaia’s seasonal rhythms for thousands of generations, recognizing the celebratory significance of all life’s activities. A similar re-sacralization of life goes hand in hand with a Gaian praxecology. Ritual is the concrete foundation of culture, the source of our most fundamental habits and dispositions. Renewing our connection with the “mother of all things” can bring an end to the fragmented Chaos of post-industrial civilization, giving us the inspiration to tell the meaningful stories of creation and regeneration going on around, between, and within us. It is through such scientifically informed, mythically imbued narratives and rituals that a Gaian praxecology can be brought forth. All of our cultural institutions must seek their guidance from the roles granted them by such numinous, celebratory stories such that they perform their world-making work for the glory of Gaia, rather than for the profit of a few corporations.

My story has now reached its end, but hopefully the holzwege I have laid down in walking has provided an opening for fellow terrestrial trekkers to follow in my footsteps. Our ultimate destination cannot be prematurely known, as the mythic landscapes we must travel are dense and full of mystery.

“The landscape of myth,” says W. I. Thompson,

“…is that shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being…When we come to [such] an edge we have to shift our mode of thought…from rational analysis to intuitive meditation” (p. 87, 1981).

We can only hope to understand the current planetary moment by wholeheartedly participating in the multibillion-year cosmic performance of powers that produced and continues to nourish us. Science and spirituality must mutually aid us in any joint venture to enact a Gaian praxecology, because only a more integral relation between intelligence and imagination will allow the human being to dream with the Earth once again.

[1] In the next section (see p. 6), I will unpack the implications and limitations of praxeology, explaining why praxecology provides a more appropriate plan of action for our historical moment.

[2] Cyborgs are “the offspring of…technoscientific wombs—imploded germinal entities, densely packed condensations of worlds, shocked into being from the force of the implosion of the natural and the artificial, nature and culture, subject and object, machine and organic body, money and lives, narrative and reality” (p. 14, Haraway, 1997).

[3] See Weston, A. ‘Forms of Gaian ethics,’ pgs. 217-230, Environmental Ethics 9. 1987. Lovelock himself sees his work as strictly scientific, but this has not stopped others from extending the implications of his theory into ethics and spirituality via critiques of anthropocentrism and materialism.

[4] “…the intensified misery of billions of men and women [and nonhuman species] seems organically rooted in the freedoms of transnational capitalism and technoscience” (p. 3, Haraway, 1997). Another result of techno-industrialism is mechanistic biology. I explore the metaphysical substructure of this disembedded perspective in my essay “On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics” (2009).

[5] Refers to class discussion (11/4/09). Also see Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype (1983), where he argues that natural selection could not have produced a self-regulating planetary organism. Dawkins’ definition of life in terms of genetic replication is too narrow for reasons discussed on page 9.

[6] “Even Hegel, for whom the Absolute is fully grasped as such only as Concept or Idea, recognized that art, religion and philosophy all share the same substance, that in fact it is only as reflection on (or refraction through) the myths and symbols of religion in particular that ‘absolute knowing’ can arise in the first place.” –Sean Kelly, Evolutionary Panentheism for the Planetary Era, 2009

[7] This is, essentially, a move away from representationalist epistemology to participatory epistemology, where knowledge “about” a system or process is understood to be an integral part of the same system or process. Personality is not the sole possession of our species, but a refined expression of the primordial personhood of the living Earth.

[8] For more on what a Gaian polity entails, see Gaia, A Way of Knowing: Political Implications of the New Biology, ed. by W.I. Thompson. Several principles are suggested, including the move away from one-sided ideologies to an “ecology of consciousness” (Bateson) and the supersession of nation-state territorialism through a recognition of the atmosphere as our global commons. See also section X (p. 67) of my essay On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics (2009).

[9] Eco-action is action in service of one’s earthly home and all the kin who live there (oikos– household, or family).

[10] The details of the technical definition of “autopoiesis” (self-production) need not concern us in this paper, but in short, a system is generally defined as autopoietic if it is composed of a network of dynamic chemical transformations that produces its own components and the membrane that spatially defines it as a system (p. 46, M. & V., 1988). The paradigmatic example of autopoiesis is the cell.

[11] See Dawkins 1989 and Dennett 1995

[12] Lovelock’s Gaia theory allows us to see that life does not adapt to fit the fixed parameters of a lifeless planet, but remakes its host into a complex, self-regulating living system.

[13] “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems” (p. 74, M. &V., 1988).

[14] “In one of his articles Lovelock uses the term ecopoiesis to describe Gaia (Lovelock, 1987). This term seems just right for conveying both the resemblance and difference between Gaia and the autopoietic cell. The resemblance is due to the ecosphere and the cell being autonomous systems, the difference to the scale and manner in which their autonomy takes form” (p. 122, E. Thompson).

[15] “…we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).

[16] For example, Thomas Edison wove a chain of associations together to relate Joule’s and Ohm’s equations with economic principles. The result was the electric light bulb (p. 239-240, Latour, 1988).

[17] W. I. Thompson (p. 21-26, 1981) similarly links the evolution of language and sexuality, pointing to, among other things, Alfred Kinsey’s studies in the 1950s showing the intelligentsia (those who have mastered language), unlike the working classes, tended to revel in oral sexuality.

[18] See Maturana’s Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality (1978), where he points to structural coupling as the origin of language. This is in contrast to denotative or representational theories of language, where words stand for things independent of consensual coordination between human organisms.

[19] “The governing dream of the twentieth century appears as a kind of ultimate manifestation of that deep inner rage of Western society against its earthly condition as a vital member of the life community” (p. 165, ibid.).

[20] See section VIII of my essay On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics (2009) for a possible account of why Western consciousness became so detached from the ecopoiesis of the Earth.

[21] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through [the Word] and without [the Word] was not anything made that hath been made” (John 1:1-1:4).

[22] See James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (3rd ed., 1915). Frazer points to the common origin of all modern religions in the ancient goddess worshipping traditions of the world. Especially significant in the context of my essay is his statement that “…imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid” (ch. 22).

[23] Autopoiesis has been suggested in an earlier section on Varela’s systems biology as a possible scientific definition of “life” that recognizes self-production and self-regulation (rather than genetic replication) as essential to living organization, thereby granting Gaia living status. The economic implications of the controversy over what counts as “life” are central to my essay On the Matter of Life (2009), where I argue, with the help of Whitehead and Varela, that all actual occasions are autopoietic organisms.

[24] While Lovelock was working with NASA to detect life on Mars, he had “a gentle discussion with Carl Sagan, who thought it might be possible that life existed in oases where local conditions would be more favorable. Long before Viking set course from Earth I felt intuitively that life could not exist on a planet sparsely; it could not hang on in a few oases, except at the beginning or at the end of its tenure. As Gaia theory developed, this intuition grew; now I view it as a fact” (p. 6, 1988).


Works Cited

  1. Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. 1988. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

2) Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. 1999. Bell Tower: New York.

3) Berry, Wendell. Life is a Miracle: Essays Against Modern Superstition. 2000. Counterpoint: Washington D.C.

4) Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? 1999. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

5) Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. 1997. Routledge: New York.

6) Haraway, Donna J. The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others. Printed in Cultural Studies. 1992. Eds. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., Treichler, A. Routledge: New York.

7) Hesiod. Theogony. 1953. Bobbs-Merrill: New York.

8) Hornborg, Alf. The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment. 2001. AltaMira Press: Walnut Creek.

9)Jean, Georges. Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. 1992. Abrams: New York.

10) Kaufmann, Arnold. Transl. from French by Rex Audley. The Science of Decision-Making: An Intro to Praxeology. 1968. McGraw-Hill: New York.

11) Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. 1987. Harvard: Cambridge.

12) Lovelock, James. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of our Living Earth. 1988. Bantam Books: New York.

13) Mann, Charles. Lynn Margulis: Science’s Unruly Earth Mother. Science 19 April 1991. Pgs. 378-381

14) Maturana, Humberto and Varela, J. Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. 1988. Shambala: Boston.

15) Rothbard, Murray N. The Logic of Action I: Method, Money, and the Austrian School. 1997. Edward Elgar Publishing: Cheltenham, UK.

16) Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. 1989. Harper: San Francisco.

17) Segall, Matthew. On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics. 2009.

18) Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. 1991. Ballantine Books: New York.

19) Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. 2007. Harvard: Cambridge.

20) Thompson, William Irwin (editor). Gaia: A Way of Knowing, Political Implications of the New Biology. 1987. Lindisfarne: New York.

21) Thompson, William Irwin (editor). Gaia 2: Emergence, The New Science of Becoming. 1991. Lindisfarne: New York.

22) Thompson, William Irwin. Pacific Shift. 1985. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

23) Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. 1981. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

24) Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. 1925. The Free Press: New York.

Curing Philosophy

Wittgenstein’s model philosopher would act like a physician, though instead of trying to cure physical ailments, he would attempt to relieve metaphysical tension. The philosopher is a doctor of the mind, more commonly known as a psychologist. His task is to keep the language from misunderstanding itself. This, in turn, prevents people from becoming insane.
Insanity is not a measure of a person’s deviancy from normal. Insanity is an imbalanced soul. Entire cultures can be insane. Normalcy is currently insanity.

Playing a language game wherein subjects are necessarily separate from objects, and causes from effects, leads to insanity. The world cannot be made sense of when it is broken into two domains, irreconcilable one with the other. Out from another body comes our body, kicking and screaming. Soon enough it is taught to speak and acquires a mind all its own. We may not be born alone, but after internalizing our own name, we surely die alone.

A lonely death was Wittgenstein’s worst nightmare. This sickness unto death, the sickness of philosophy, causes one to question their own being, which immediately throws the whole enterprise of thought backwards over one’s head up into the air. The symptoms of this condition include nausea and alienation, even suicidal feelings in some. The cause is confused thinking.

As the old story goes, there is me and there is you, and an impossible to leap gap between us. You have private sensations and ideas unreachable by me, and I hide the same from you. We cannot share our lives, nor can we share our deaths.

But is it true? is there a you separate from me, or a me from you? Speaking, even writing, is addressing an other. Language implies dialogue. The question, however, is whether there is such a thing as a thought before a word.

I am.

The ‘I am’ is God consciousness. God is the thought that gives rise to all other thoughts. The story of Genesis is the invention of time, the codification of language, the construction of culture and the meaning of Man. History is a thought in dialogue with itself: history is reading and writing, thinking and speaking, remembering and willing.

But where and for who does history really exist? In the mind of each individual? Hardly a trace of it could possibly exist there! History is a common agreement, a shared story we must all participate in telling. No single person could know history without telling it to all.

Our supposedly private thoughts have no meaning until they are pronounced. Until we communicate, not even we know what we mean.

Is it really necessary to draw such a sharp line between meaning and truth, between the mind and the world, between appearance and reality?

How could a reality ever appear? By definition, it seems out of our reach. As beings with minds, we perceive only appearances. The structure of reality itself remains hidden.

But wait. What could we possibly mean by “reality” in this sense? Why is it that we would even posit something that is impossible to know? Is it because it appears to exist? Well then reality is “only” an appearance!

Everything is exactly as it appears; the world is all that is the case.
How on earth did an animal gain a conscience? When did we start hearing voices in our head? When did we become mortal souls in need of divine salvation?

When the thought “I am” was uttered, all other things followed.

It took only 1600 years for Descartes to make explicit what had been implied all along: I think, therefore I am. I do not have to speak or live with others to exist–I can stand alone. The meaning of my mind is my own.

This, of course, is insane. The body cannot live on doubt or the measured knowledge it provides.

Wittgenstein sought a cure. It was to view all thought as public. Everyone already knows your secrets, because your secrets are the same as the people you talk to. What they don’t know, you don’t know.

(Telepathy becomes impossible. There are no comprehensible thoughts that could be silently transfered from my mind to yours. If there were comprehensible thoughts, speaking them would accomplish the same “trick.”)

This is all very difficult for the ego to accept, no doubt. It enjoys its suffering, because its short releases of pain are intensely pleasurable. To release completely, though, amounts to the ego’s death; so it’s no wonder it returns endlessly to suffering.

Being a thinking thing trapped in a body that is decaying daily is no mind’s idea of a good time!
We need the cure. We need to locate the drain, unscrew it, and squeeze all the me juice out until privacy and secrecy become, not embarrassing, but impossible.

Wittgenstein and Language

What is language? Wittgenstein’s early project was to define language in the terms most familiar to the Western tradition, running through Augustine up until Russell. His aim was to show that all philosophy consisted in defining the logical form of sentences. A certain proposition was thought to be isomorphic to a certain event in the world. When this isomorphism lined up (i.e., when the sentence referred to a real state of affairs in the world) then the sentence was true. This project, of course, rests on the basic assumption that the world is independent of the proposition (and presumably the being who proposes it). This separation between the world and its description (and describer) is what lead the early Wittgenstein to see language as a mirroring of the world’s pre-given state [i.e., as a sharing of its logical form, or an accurate depiction (picturing) of it]. In this sense, a true thought is a thought that logically matches an event that occurs in the world. Philosophy’s job was to analyze these thoughts and sentences to make sure they were expressed in their true logical form. The driving force behind this project was, quite simply, to end all philosophy.

As far as the early Wittgenstein was concerned, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was the solution to every philosophical problem. To get the book published, however, Wittgenstein needed to include an introduction to his work courtesy of the more popular Russell. Russell seemed convinced that Wittgenstein was a genius. Wittgenstein himself, on the other hand, remained skeptical that Russell even understood the book. Nonetheless, the book was published and Wittgenstein left philosophy to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher. Years latter, he came into contact with the Vienna Circle, an influential group of thinkers that had built themselves up around what they took to be the central tenets of the Tractatus: a) we get knowledge only from sensory experience, and b) we can accurately understand that experience only in terms of logical analysis. These maxims are based on the Tractatus’ characterization of language as being composed of simple atomistic statements referring to empirical truths discovered in the world, such as “It is raining,” or “The ground is wet.” Such linguistic atoms can then be built into meaningful molecules of propositional thought, such as the statement: “It is raining outside, therefore the ground is wet.” The building and clarification of such statements is, for the Circle, the goal of all logically sound philosophical discourse. Their goal was to usher in a new age of thought centered around scientific positivism and linguistic analysis. Their biggest target was metaphysics, both theological and existential. For the Circle, any statement about the world that did not make reference to some sensory state given by that world is meaningless (i.e., it is a pseudo-statement). They saw the struggle between metaphysics and positivism as identical to the one between an out-dated, childish religion and a mature, levelheaded science. One ought to face up, the Circle would say, to modern human existence, an existence in which a statement’s meaning referred to its logical accuracy in comparison to the objective world, rather than to its value in relation to some silent and unseen transcendental realm unreachable with analysis. Wittgenstein, however, thought his work had been misunderstood once again.

The whole purpose of the Tractatus, he would try to explain to the Circle, was to show the limits of philosophy and logical analysis. It was not, as the Circle saw it, to make such logical positivism the be all and end all of humanity’s understanding of itself; quite the contrary, it was to show that logic, objectivism, and any breed of universalizing philosophy was necessarily silent on issues concerning genuine human life. In the final pages of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein discusses what his supposedly complete picture of language and its relationship to the world leaves out. He begins by asserting that “all propositions are of equal value” (6.4) In other words, every true statement about the world is just as true as any other true statement about the world. None of them are in any way more important or more valuable than any others. He does so to set the stage for the actual point of the whole book, which is to substantiate the ethical to a sphere beyond anything logical positivism could ever swallow up into its methods of analysis. The ethical is the intuitive sense an existing individual has concerning what is most important about life. Wittgenstein did not think being such an ethical being was optional, as even the members of the Circle made a value judgment by assuming their method of investigation was the most important among all other methods. One cannot live without making ethical judgments. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein thought “the sense of the world must lie outside the world” (6.41). If all propositions are of equal value, and yet “there is a value which is of value” (i.e., a value which is important), then “it must lie outside the world.” It does indeed follow from this that “there can be no ethical propositions” (6.42), which the Circle certainly agreed with. However, Wittgenstein did not mean to say that ethics was therefore meaningless. His claim was that ethics only existed outside the world of objects known to empirical/logical investigation. It was one of those areas of human existence that Wittgenstein chose to remain relatively silent about in the more philosophically oriented Tractatus because he felt it was transcendent and therefore propositionally inexpressible. For Wittgenstein, the question of ethics was always intermingled with the question of religion, as both are equally transcendent in his view. He saw the question of religion as being essentially about personal identity and the notion of an immortal soul. “The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say, its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive forever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.” (6.4312). In other words, because it seems that our current temporal existence is no less mysterious than any supposed eternal existence would be, we can only suppose that the solution to the problem of life comes from another dimension entirely. This removes the problem of life from the set of logical problems that natural science might attempt to solve. It makes a question of life that positivism cannot even begin to answer because it transcends the world that positivism can make propositional claims about.

“How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world” (6.432). What is “higher” is what is important, what has value, what senses the world from outside the world. The religious, for Wittgenstein, has nothing to do with how the world is, but that it is. “The contemplation of the world from the view of eternity is its contemplation as a limited whole. The feeling that the world is a limited whole is the mystical feeling” (6.45). “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer” (6.52). Wittgenstein has already defined the only proper and true use of language as being the logical picturing of the world. He then showed how the problem of life, of its meaning and value, does not fall within the world that can be so pictured. The problem of life is transcendent because its value is not equal to the value of all other logically definable propositions, but is somehow higher. But because it transcends the world, one cannot speak about it and make any sense because all language can refer meaningfully only to facts within the world. Therefore: “The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other-he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy-but it would be the only strictly correct method” (6.53). The other “would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy” because there is an insincerity, a sophistry, about such a philosophical method. However, if philosophy is to leave behind its metaphysical past and come to terms with the empirical knowledge of science, it must let go of its otherworldly strivings and concentrate on logically mapping language to the facts of the world. This was Wittgenstein’s prescription for what he considered to be the disease of philosophy. He hoped it would also lead those who actually understood it to a solution to the problem of life, as “for an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed” (6.5). In other words, because science and philosophy are silent when it comes to the riddle of life, then there must not be any riddle to begin with. If there were, surely we would be able to answer it using their methods. “If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered” (6.5). If we doubt that we understand the riddle of life, we do so only because we question our own existence. But no question can be posed that cannot be answered, as if the question itself is meaningful then the answer must be implied by its logical structure. That Wittgenstein would have preferred to remain silent about all of this we can infer from the final lines of the Tractatus: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly” (6.54). He goes on to give what some might argue is the central thesis of the entire work: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (7).

The Tractatus was motivated by the early Wittgenstein’s desire to lift the ethical, religious, and mystical spheres of life so far above the hands of science and positivist philosophy that none of their methods could ever, even in theory, touch them. He wanted to save the transcendent from those who might try to call it sheer nonsense by removing it from the world of objects that is supposed to make sense. In a way, he was attempting to beat the positivists at their own game by pointing out the meaningless nature of metaphysical statements better than even they could hope to do. However, he did so not to make the purpose of such statements insignificant, but to elevate them beyond the “lower” significance of language (where value comes only by virtue of mirroring a true state of affairs in the world) into the “higher” significance of life (where value is assigned by virtue of what is beautiful). In so doing, he separated language and life in an attempt to preserve the best of both. However, by giving up the possibility of making meaningful statements about life and demanding that we pass over it in silence, Wittgenstein may have done more harm than good. Truth (science, the “It” world) had the persuasive power of language on its side, and so it was much more intellectually convincing than the mere silence offered by the Beautiful (life, “I” world).

Wittgenstein realized his mistake in his later works, most notably Philosophical Investigations. He totally revamped his theory of language in order to give life back its linguistic sense. Instead of seeing meaning as the correct representation of the world, Wittgenstein realized that language was the very fabric of life itself. It’s meaning did not rest on the empirically verifiable facts of the physical world, but on the use it was put to in the every day conversations of people. If philosophy attempted to take language out of this context in order to find the underlying essence or logical structure of a phenomenon, it would only force the meaning of the words themselves to dissolve into uncertainty and confusion. Meaning emerges in the context of use, rather than logico-empirical designation. Our ability to communicate depends on the silent context of grammatical normativity, not the correspondence of our words to an independent world.

This new view of language makes it resemble what complex systems theorists call an emergent property. Our ability to speak, write, and think (in short, our ability to exist as a mind) seems to emerge from our simpler bodily skills into a domain all its own. To say that the mind is an emergent property is to say that it forms its own autopoietic totality. In other words, the mind enacts a world, and this mental world cannot be explained away by reference to lower autopoietic levels (such as the biological or physical levels). If we view the entire kosmos as a nested hierarchy, from matter, to body, to mind, we find that the physiosphere (matter) must make up the lowest rung on the ladder. That is to say, the physical universe composes the most fundamental, and therefore the simplest and most common, level on the hierarchy. Positivist empirical science progressed as quickly and triumphantly as it did precisely because its object of inquiry (the physical world) was the easiest to understand. Emerging out of this lowest level is the biosphere. To emerge means to transcend the prior level while still obeying its basic laws. So the biosphere does something more complex that the physiosphere could ever do on its own, but never does it contradict the laws of matter. Organisms begin to enact their own autopoietic domains, building on the laws of matter to create a higher level of complexity. In so doing, they swallow up the world of the physiosphere, so to speak, forever altering our understanding of what it means for the kosmos to exist as it does. Once life is taken into consideration, no purely reductionistic explanation will ever satisfy us. That organisms, made of nothing but atoms, are somehow “alive” proves that matter is not at all what the materialists would have us believe. And when we begin to consider the emergence of mind, we see that life, too, is not at all what we expected. With the mind we have an even more complex autopoietic system built atop both matter and body. It is this level of mind that gave rise to our linguistic ability, and we can see in the work of the early Wittgenstein that this higher ability was mixed up in a kind of level crossing with the lower, physical level. He believed that language (or the mind) can state (or think of) nothing but what it finds in the material world. This belief was based on the power of the empirical method of investigation, which had proved so valuable when applied to the world of matter. When applied to the mind, however, it begins to show its limits. Sensory empiricism does indeed reveal the hidden laws of the physical world, but when we try to explain our use of language based solely on sensory experience we end up turning it into a kind of calculus or measuring device. To say that the only correct use of language is to logically map the facts of the external world is to revoke the very sense from language, destroying the significance that is vital for a full, ethical life. Language is not merely a tool designed to describe the physical world, though it can be put to this use. Rather, it is the “house of being” as Heidegger put it. It forms the matrix of our cultural worldspace. It brings us into a domain far above the physical world where ideas, values, and meanings take on a life of their own.

The End of the Word (preliminary remarks)

To engage in philosophy is to attempt to wake up from a dream. I had one once where I dreamt of these men’s thoughts:

I believe one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life.) It says that wisdom is all cold; and that you can no more use it for setting your life to rights than you can forge iron when it is cold. The point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you; you can follow it as you would a doctor’s prescription. –But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction. Once you have been turned round, you must stay turned round. Wisdom is passionless. But faith by contrast is what Kierkegaard calls a passion.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein (Culture and Value, p. 53)

The truly apocalyptic view of the world is that things do not repeat themselves. It isn’t absurd to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is a delusion, along with the idea that the truth will ultimately be known; that there is something good or desirable about scientific knowledge and that mankind, in seeking it, is falling into a trap. It is by no means obvious that this is not how things are.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein (Culture and Value, p. 55)

The miracles of nature. One might say: art shows us the miracle of nature. It is based on the concept of the miracle of nature. (The blossom, just opening out. What is marvelous about it?) We say: “Just look at it opening out!”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein (Culture and Value, p. 55)

The philosophical I is not the human being, nor the human body or the human soul with its psychological properties, but the metaphysical subject, the boundary (not a part) of the world. The human body, however, my body in particular, is a part of the world among others, among animals, plants, stones etc., etc. Whoever realizes this will not want to procure a pre-eminent place for his own body or for the human body. He will regard humans and animals quite naively as objects which are similar and which belong together.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein (On Certainty, p. 84)

It is certain that this I (that is to say, my soul by which I am what I am) is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it.
-Rene Descartes (Meditations, p. 190)

The dreams are subsiding, the ocean is breathing in and revealing the light. I’m straining to open my eyes and remember…

Reality is no longer self-evident. As a result, only fiction is real. Even a book about the death of philosophy must itself be presented as fiction, as a story told by an author who can’t be sure what has happened until it has been written. This story is mostly about words. But words are mere senseless scratches on a page without a world to give them meaning. And so this story of words is also the story of the world, of its creation and its destruction. But the world, too, is a meaningless concept until words have been mastered. Without a language, what about the world can be known? Indeed, what world could exist without the word?

Surely, nature exists. But to say that nature is contained by the world, that nature is a part of the world, is to suppose that what can be known trumps what cannot. We often speak of the mysteries of nature, as though any such thing could exist in the known world of man. We say that the nature of death remains a mystery, but even to phrase it in such a way supposes that life were not also mysterious. We suppose we know the meaning of the word “world” and from this follows all our claims to knowledge.

…I see the clock, I see the calendar, I see my desk and the world outside my window.

In the following pages, we proclaim the end of the word, and by proxy, the world. All will go on as before, though our idea of it will have changed completely.

What is the world? The world is the place where I am. But where am I? I am here, as my body. So what is the world I live with as my body?

Before we can answer that question, we must find our way toward the beginnings of a technique of inquiry. To discover the body’s relationship with the world, we should first look at its parent’s with their worlds. The mother is overwhelmed. She works to mend the sick day and night, but her children are too busy to notice. She supplies the bread, the water, the oil, the paper. But we pay her no attention even as her heart begins to skip. The father is regretful. He loves his children, but he cannot express it because his mind is overwhelmed. He knows nothing about their lives; he has lost himself in his own. The children are confused; they cannot understand their futures.

See through the lens of the family and focus your view of the world. The mother is earth, her resources exploited and her ecosystem destroyed. The father is culture, his conscience on Prozac, unable to feel, distracted by gadgetry. The children are the ones without a future, the ones with no time.

The world is on fire; my heart burns silently through the night as my mind stares blankly into darkness. I cannot think, cannot feel, can only lay and learn to die. Unable to communicate, we wage war to defend our dictionaries. Bible vs. Science, Spirit vs. Matter, America vs. The World. It ends when the pages begin to burn and the fire cannot be stopped.

For a moment, I am afraid to comprehend it all. I chase after the receding sea, calling for the surf to return. But darkness leaves too soon. The brightness of the light burns my face. I manage to squint and steal a few more drops of water…

What is going to happen, language? Speak. Reveal your secret plan.

Let it be known: You will not be able to understand each other. Everyone will become blind and forget their own names and no one will be able to sleep. The plants and animals will die. The air will run out. The volcanoes will erupt and the sky will blacken. The waves will roll over the land. Winter will turn water into ice. Everything will end, everything will be dead. The Sun will explode and nothing will remain.

I open my eyes, and they begin to speak to one another:

The Cartographer (right eye): What, would you say, is the essential difference between humanity and nature?

The Sailor (left eye): The essential difference seems to me to amount to mere words.

The Cartographer (right eye): Do you mean that we ought not to ask such a question? That it is a meaningless proposition?

The Sailor (left eye): I may mean that, but really I mean that the difference seems to be that we speak and nature does not. We have words, and while the stars may shine serenely, the rivers rumble romantically, the birds chirp cheerfully, and the dolphins echo excitedly, all have contained in their gestures an immediately present and available meaning, a self-evident truth. Only humans can delay their meaning; only they have the ability (or desire) to exchange mere symbols in place of reality.

The Cartographer (right eye): Surely there are times when a human gesture expresses an immediate meaning, such as when a hand is waved goodbye or a middle finger is cocked in disgust. But I take it you do not mean to discount this possibility?

The Sailor (left eye): Certainly, I do not discount it. I seek to promote it! Such immediately meaningful gestures are the only remaining life in man. All else has been covered over with culture, with a fear of death. Humanity today is an aging, possibly near dead author who long ago finished its encyclopedia explaining everything and who has now fallen asleep atop its pages to dream merrily of the conceptual conquest of nature compiled therein. Humanity inherits a world created by the imaginations of an original and elite few that long ago carved theoretical paths through the dark forests of the mind, paths we continue to follow up until this day. Indeed, most humans do so with great pride and with a sense of sacred duty. Seldom has anyone mustered up the faith to think otherwise, but the few who have seen outside the cave are confronted with a new and unexpected challenge.

The Cartographer (right eye): Is the challenge one of convincing those chained within the cave that there is an outside that they have never seen?

The Sailor (left eye): On the surface, it is exactly that. But it is also more than that. It is also that the few who have seen immediately realize that they are incapable of accurately conveying the truth, beauty, and goodness of what they have been privy to experiencing on the outside in the language of the cave dwellers trapped on the inside. In order to be understood, they must speak the language of the ignorant, but to do so is already to falter.

The Cartographer (right eye): Why does the language falter in itself? It would seem at first glance that the English language were dynamic enough that it could be manipulated to convey almost every possible meaning that could be understood.

The Sailor (left eye): The problem is not so much with the language itself, but with the way it is used. The cave dwellers treat their words poorly, and they therefore derive from their use a dualistic view of what exists. It is thought that there are two kinds of propositions: true and false. All statements are examined under the assumption of this fundamental dichotomy. This separation between the real and the unreal is a by-product of the aforementioned ability and desire of humanity to make a symbol of reality so that it can exchange the former and ignore the latter. Only after this abstraction has occurred can there ever be a distinction between a true statement and a false one. When one attempts to speak about the outside of the cave, however, there are no longer true and false statements. Any talk of the outside must be heard for what it is, for its self-evident meaning.

The Cartographer (right eye): Are you suggesting that we typically use our language only in order to get something else, i.e., to prove a thing correct or incorrect? Further, are you then meaning to say that in order for the few who have seen the light to be properly understood, those in the darkness need just open up and let the light in?

The Sailor (left eye): This seems to be exactly what I would want to say. The everyday use of language is rigged from the beginning to provide only a perpetual pointing toward something more, toward what is always and inevitably absent. It is never satisfying and we could go on talking about everything and nothing for ten thousand years and never once would a worthwhile thought be uttered. When everyone speaks in order to be right, to be correct and true as opposed to false, then no one can ever agree because each person desires to go on arguing until they themselves are declared the winner and sole possessor of the truth. Such declarations, if they ever occur, are usually short lived. A new and more inclusive truth will always be discovered, and if not then some inconsistency will be pointed out in the reigning idea and its claims will be torn down, for it is better to have no truth than have my own truth be in the wrong. If the ignorant could simply open up and let the light in, I am sure that they would understand. But such an opening is made to seem laughable by caveman standards. Taking anyone’s mere words for granted is a cardinal sin.

The Cartographer (right eye): In what lies the great power you here seem to be attributing to words?

The Sailor (left eye): The secret power of words is that it is they and they alone that make humans conscious. Cave dwellers have a dual relationship with the influence of words. On the one hand, they enact a strange kind of worship toward them by viewing nature always through their lenses. Hurricanes become something we hear the meteorologist talk about on TV, a digital swirl superimposed atop a cartoonish map of the world, not something we actually experience first hand. The flooding, the lightning, the devastating wind; all of the actual event’s terrible reality becomes simply “hurricane.” When actual hurricanes really do hit, people are at a loss and feel as though reality has come crashing down all around them. What has really come crashing down is their ordered and conceptualized dictionary-like understanding of the world. The other, seemingly contradictory view of language taken by the ignorant is that it should never be mistaken for the reality. In other words, one should always be on the look out for liars, cheats, and propagandists. Humanity is therefore under the unconscious spell of its words while at the same time pretending with all its conscious might not to be.

The Cartographer (right eye): “Language alone makes humans conscious.” Might you say more about this?

The Sailor (left eye): The way a person speaks is not necessarily the way they think, but it is the only way they can be conscious of what they think. Human consciousness is generally thought to exist ontologically in each individual as some separate substance or quality, however what we call “consciousness” is actually nothing more than a continual dialogue that goes on throughout the entire speaking/listening/reading/writing community. The words that humans use to communicate form the vessels of conscious thought. Without the right vessel, no thought can be conveyed. The vessels themselves are not owned by any one, but are shared by all. I must, in a sense, ask permission to use each word in whatever context I wish to employ it. If my request is denied, the statement I was trying to make will not have been understood. The unconscious thoughts that occur within each individual that cannot be communicated are still present for the one experiencing them; however, for the community they amount to nothing whatsoever and are totally absent.

My conscious mind awakens finally and unifies the duality of the eyes into a single I. My vision becomes my voice, the world becomes the word. The ocean is but an echo, the darkness but a dream. It is time to go to work, time to be me.

It is going to be quite difficult for me to write this book. I have felt the need to for some time, but the reason I have never written one yet is that I find it difficult to systematize my ideas. That is because they are not my ideas. I don’t understand what most of the things I say mean. I only write them down in fits of passion and inspiration where they seem to pass through me, rather then origination within me. I cannot write intentionally. I cannot intend to be correct. I am too aware of my left hand to trust entirely my right. So don’t expect this book to make sense or follow an outline. There is no table of contents or list of characters. I don’t know what I am going to write, who it will be for, or who it will be about. I may never know. I am writing only because the words need to be heard, if not by you, then by me.

Every highway leads to Babylon. A simple midnight drive home turns into a tour of the apocalypse.

I am a philosopher in hell, a mind trapped inside a body that doesn’t belong to me. See, Descartes didn’t just create a new philosophical outlook, he invented the modern self. YOU are an invention of Rene Descartes! Welcome to Copernicus’ New World Order!

But of course, Descartes believed in God. God was one of his beliefs, one of his assumptions, an archetype still too unconscious for him to understand. Nietzsche went crazy giving birth to the beast, to the idea that man could possibly ever murder God. Most of us haven’t yet realized that God is dead. Or maybe we have, but we are afraid to admit that assuming we can know is already to give God the finger. Descartes assumed that man could have knowledge of himself, that all of the mind was conscious because God had decided to give man a soul, a complete soul!, with every outfit, ability, function, and tool to get the job of life done. He assumed that God had commanded nature to obey the mind of man, to conform to his ideas and his wishes and his beliefs. But Nietzsche saw that man was alone to face nature, and that nature would not look kindly upon our increasing stupidity and morality. We were alone to face the chaos and terror of the wild, not to mention the void nothingness of meaningless black space. But of course Descartes knew this all along. He just checked out, so to speak. He died before his body died by irreversibly amputating himself from the existing world of flesh and bone. He declared himself already a ghost, already a dead man walking. His only way of reaching the outside world was through his symbols. Through the ideas of his own mind, his letters and his words and his sentences. If he cannot be heard or read, he is silent, because his body cannot say a word. His body is worthless and unintelligent, an assembly of gears and oil that sometimes the mind can reason into intentional motion, but that usually follows the predetermined patterns of its form and nature. But Nietzsche could not commit suicide, he was determined to live, to discover what it meant to be a man without God, a superman. He could still feel his body, he was connected to the sensation of the decay of his own existence…. and yet, and yet… what did he do but write about it? And what can I do but write about it? How can either of us return to nature if all we can do is make more symbols that point towards it?

But back to the drive… I started thinking, i.e., existing, about how all the signs on the highway were written specifically for me. For my eyes, for me to read. But then I started thinking about what all those symbols meant, about what they were referring to. An idea? But what is that? Is it the memory of my prior experiences of following those particular arrows? But forget all this talk of signs, the point of this book is that the signs don’t point anywhere! There are no destinations, there are only directions. So I was driving down the highway, east, towards the ocean. My heart began to burn, and I mean that quite literally. A police motorcycle with blue LED lights on the back end spend by in the far left lane. Then it hit me. I looked at all the other cars on the road.

I said out loud, “There are so many people here…”

“So many people are going to die.”

I started to cry, but don’t take this like a prophecy. I just felt it, every other car out there had a person in it, and that person’s heart was beating right then, because they were alive (just like me). But just like me, they were all going to die one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe 50 years from now. But none of them were aware of it. And there are SO MANY PEOPLE… I loved each and every one of them and I had no idea what they looked like, or sounded like (or smelt like, or tasted like). It was as though my heart was opening up and with it, each of my senses. I could feel again, with more than just my eyes. It was as though I could know with my ears, with my nose, and with my tongue! Not only that, I could know with my heart. The heart’s knowledge was that I was not alone, that there were billions of others just like me! I couldn’t sense them with my face, but I could feel them with my heart.

Others just like me! As the Mayans say: “In La’ kech,” or I am another yourself. There is only reflection, there is no separation. Your have no representations of the world in your mind, you have only reflections of it. The inside of your head is much like the outside of the world, both are full of stuff and nonsense. Sometimes some stuff pairs up with nonsense and a symbol is born. Form is assigned to substance, just like the moment of creation when God made Adam from the dust of the earth. The mind of man claims knowledge of nature by replacing it with a sign.

Duality is a dizzying game to play. For most of history, man has compared himself to God in order to understand his place. A few men along the way saw they had only themselves to judge, and fewer understood that no judge existed at all.

We are all here together. The ego in your gut does not need to die, it just needs a new master. The heart is our connection to each other, it keeps us all in rhythm. You cannot identify with your heart because all identities are ideas and all ideas are for you and you alone. You can share an idea, but you must put it into words to pass it on. And there is no telling what will happen to your words once you send them out to sea to be read by the stormy minds of others. The weather will erase random letters and a new story will be revealed. Your intention was drown the moment you set it afloat.

To understand the heart, we must see our reflection. Your eyes are the eye of God. God is a single I. God sees through your dual eyes. You see everything on the screen of a TV while God beams it out from heaven. So wake up and say hello to your fellow selves, shake their hands, and say:

“Hello God. Hello friend. Hello heart. I love you.”

Look into the eyes of God and see the world reflected back. That is you, that is God, welcome home (to where the heart is).

I exited under the familiar sign, “Hollywood Blvd.” Home sweet home. The traffic light shined red. I stopped. A shirtless old man walked the curb beside my car and held another sign, one he’d made himself. It said, “Hungry, Homeless, Need Beer.”
I felt for the quarter in my ash tray, but thought that wasn’t quite enough. The light turned green. My heart jumped as it remembered the $100 bill in my back pocket. My gut responded that that was quite too much. I drove on home. So many people are going to die…

The Limits of Language

The Limits of Language

It seems ironic, at least in light of the premise of this paper, that the thoughts of a man such as Socrates could have given birth to the last twenty-four hundred years of Western philosophical discourse. Was it not he who said “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”? Was it not also he who wandered the streets of Athens constantly reminding his fellow countrymen that they did not know exactly what they meant by the words they were using? And was it not he who suggested that our merely human means of expression is an insufficient tool for the task we have employed it with, namely the pursuit of Truth? Maybe it isn’t ironic at all, for what else could humanity, after having conquered nature to the extent that leisure time became the norm rather than the exception, busy its rational intelligence with but the insoluble game of philosophy? That philosophy is a game that cannot be won, and that is therefore necessarily unconcerned with Truth, is the central premise of this paper. This premise will be elucidated in a detailed look at the medium of language and the impossibility of its describing the fundamental nature of reality itself.

To say that the game of philosophy cannot provide Truth is to say that its mode of operation is incongruent with the apprehension of the ultimate. This is so simply because all philosophy must be done using language, and no thoughts can be written down (or spoken) without unconscious metaphysical assumptions about reality built into them. As one philosopher put it (Alan Watts), “Language based on the sentence composed of subject, verb, and predicate contains the hidden belief system that events are started by nouns—by things.” If we look unassumingly at the natural world, its interconnected nature is hard to miss. Nowhere in nature do we find the separate categories of the sentence; all in nature goes together. Our unconscious assumptions contaminate pure reality, making it impossible for the philosopher to see past the self-invented syntax of his mind. Only poets retain the ability to feel with their language, creating imagery that displays a truth all at once before the mind’s eye. In contrast, for a philosophical treatise to be taken seriously, it must adhere to the strict rules of logic and exhibit a rational structure. Its truths must therefore become linear and flat, losing the extra dimensions present in more musical, directly apprehended presentations. When such treatises concern the nature of reality, and therefore, of Truth, how is it that they deduce that reality itself is rational? On what is such an assertion based? We must save this question for later, saying only that it originates from a misunderstanding of the nature of Truth. For now we will maintain that it is impossible to make such an assertion, as reality itself is neither rational nor irrational, but arational. That is, reality itself is unconcerned with the categories of the human mind, being neither ordered nor chaotic, but both at the same time.

A lot has been asserted thus far, and in order that it is properly understood and defended, we must now begin a bit of unpacking. Examples will be drawn from quantum physics, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Plato and the Pythagorean school of Ancient Greece, as well as various other insights from mystical traditions and persons.

To begin, we must further define Truth. A range of definitions are possible, but for our purposes, Truth shall be synonymous with reality as it actually is. Reality as it actually is, in this case, means reality before words and concepts break it up into more understandable bits and pieces. Truth then, is not something that can be communicated or described in its entirety in any way. Descriptions that point the way toward Truth may be called knowledge, but ultimately, they are relative. In other words, knowledge is always provisional: its validity is dependent upon certain preconditions remaining constant. Its conditional nature is exemplified by the progress of science, as new paradigms replace the old and our knowledge adapts to fresh observations.

The fresh observations made by physicists in the past century of the smallest bits of matter yet discovered are still struggling to find their proper context in a coherent universal theory of the physical world. In fact, to call the observed phenomena “the smallest bits” of matter may be misleading, as it would be just as correct to refer to them as waves, or patterns of probability spread throughout space and time. But the true physical make-up of the world is not our problem at the moment. Our problem, and the problem of most of the greatest physicists of the past hundred years, concerns the impossibility of ever knowing the true physical make-up of the world. The so-called “physical” nature of the world is not a verifiable aspect of reality. Physicality is merely one of the silently agreed upon assumptions made about the structure of reality that allows us to communicate meaningfully about it. Meaning, in this sense, is nothing more than correspondence. Meaning allows one aspect of the world to correspond to another using various types of representation. Nouns are used to represent especially pronounced or rigid aspects of our environment, while verbs are used to represent the more fluid and rhythmic aspects. But at their constituent level, “All the words or concepts we use to describe ordinary physical objects, such as position, velocity, color, size, and so on, become indefinite and problematic,” as Physicist Werner Heisenberg has said. Heisenberg wasn’t alone in his skepticism of language’s ability to reflect reality, as Erwin Schrödinger, Albert Einstein, Louis de Broglie, Sir James Jeans, Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauli, and Sir Arthur Eddington all agreed. They all believed that to think about the question of quantum physics as if it hinged on the indeterminate nature of the “wavicles” that composed the physical world was to misunderstand the situation entirely. The actual problem was that the physical world, with its supposed separate events and individual objects, was nothing more than a way of speaking. Author Eddington put it wonderfully: “We have found that where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature. We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And Lo! it is our own.” This suggests that human descriptions of the world, down even to the most detailed and abstract of mathematical equations, are not aspects of the world itself, but are superimposed upon it by the linguistically trained mind.

The problem is essentially that all scientific knowledge, having to be syntactically arranged in order to be communicated, necessarily negates the observer. In other words, as Schrödinger explains, “We do not belong to this material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators.” Our direct experience of the world, however, is a constant reminder that we are not passive observers, but active participants. We are in the world, inseparable from it. In this context, it becomes apparent why a being who lives in (and who, in fact, is) reality, but nonetheless wishes to, at the same time, objectively describe that reality, is in for quite a surprise. Were one to succeed at such a task, they would need to devise means no less astonishing than those required to lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

Our language ignores this issue, though, by imposing an a priori separation between observer and observed, or between subject and object. In other words, language becomes useful only when one agrees to assume that each observer has an independent center of consciousness apart from all others, i.e. an individual mind. But this arbitrary distinction between opposite poles of the same essence may actually create more problems than it seems to solve; namely, the problem of the existence of minds other than my own.
The problem of other minds is such that any proposed solution remains frustratingly unverifiable. Behaviorists claim what you directly observe is all that there is, thereby negating the necessity of paying the mind any attention at all. This seems quite silly, though, as such an assertion seems almost contradictory being that the theory itself requires a mind for its manifestation and subsequent application. To “prove,” though, that other minds exist would require that a solution be spelt out here on the page, that some logically coherent intellectual argument be voiced so that you might read it and somehow understand that it were correct. But in the spirit of Wittgenstein, we could say that such an answer was impossible, as “proving” that other minds exist cannot be accomplished using any conventional linguistic means. Rather, the question itself ought to be unasked before anything might be settled. It may be impossible to know that other minds exist, but surely it is quite possible to feel that they do. As Wittgenstein put it, “[See the] consciousness in another’s face. Look into someone else’s face, and see the consciousness in it, and a particular shade of consciousness. You see on it, in it, joy, indifference, interest, excitement, torpor, and so on. [It’s] the light in other people’s faces.” Intuitively, then, the problem of other minds is no problem at all, but a farce—an unnecessary intellectual abstraction of a reality that is easily grasped by anyone willing to admit that “proof” is the burden of language and not the burden of reality as we experience it. In reality, the proof is in the pudding: taste it and you understand. There is no reason another person ought to have a mind, there is only the perception that they do, a perception arrived at through a direct, unmediated experience of reality.

Now, like Wittgenstein’s ladder, take these words and throw them out. You’ve climbed up and arrived at the experience of the truth that other minds exist by following an injunction rather than by understanding a logical proof. Kick aside the ladder and realize the truth as an experience rather than as a rational argument.

Of course, it may be important to define what is meant by “mind” in the first place. Here is John Locke’s view concerning the nature of the self, or mind: “[It is] impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.” Locke’s statement almost perfectly exemplifies the fundamentally contradictory nature of all forms of dualistic knowledge. It is indeed impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive, but notice the necessity of the premise “for any one.” This one is the “mind,” the “I,” the individual person, the illusory place holder given to each human entity by the grammatical structure inherent to his way of describing reality. So it is true then, at least “true enough” in Wittgenstein’s words, that one cannot perceive without knowing he perceives, as it is said “I perceive” such that the perceiving is performed by me and therefore separate from me. But am “I” a real entity, a real thinking substance, or merely a product of the purely functional conventions of language (i.e. Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the meaning of a word is derived from its use)? As Huang Po, a Zen Buddhist monk, once said, “Let me remind you, the perceived cannot perceive.” If “I” am aware of my own perception of myself, which is the real me: my perception or my perception of my perception, or my perception of my perception of my perception, and so on? This indeterminacy appears to be unavoidable, however it arises only because of the dualistic nature of language, because an “I” must “have” perceptions instead of there just being perception alone.

This “perception alone” is the only real quality that can be assigned to reality, although it hardly suggests any specific qualities at all. We all intuitively feel this perception at the deepest level of our experience all the time. It reveals what there is. It is our current experience, our body’s total sensory awareness of our environment as it exists in its entirety before the names and descriptions we then unknowingly superimpose upon it become our only way of thinking about it to describe it to others.

Of course, alphabetized language is only one of the scientific community’s tools of discovery. The other is mathematics, and there is little doubt among scientists that its descriptions of the processes of nature are far more accurate than what words can provide. As physicist Sir James Jeans has said, “The essential fact is simply that all the pictures which science now draws of nature, and which alone seem capable of according with observational fact, are mathematical pictures.” The usefulness of mathematics—its ability to match with astonishing precision the naturally occurring patterns found in the external world—has been known by humans for thousands of years, dating back to the earliest schools of Greek Philosophy. One such school, the Pythagoreans, saw in mathematics a more perfect reality than that which we perceive through our flawed senses. The founder of the school, Pythagoras, carefully studied the sounds made by his lyre, noting that a string could be made to vibrate at different harmonic frequencies. A string half the length would vibrate at twice the frequency. This simple ratio is an example of the early connections found between the pure abstraction of mathematics and the real phenomenal world. But the school had its critics, namely Aristotle, who said of the Pythagoreans that they “did not seek for explanations and theories to suit the facts, but distorted the facts to fit certain theories and favored opinions, and set themselves up, one might say, as co-arrangers of the universe” (Jeans paraphrasing Aristotle). This criticism comes from one of the world’s first great empiricists, and it has been echoed by many since. Most scientists today agree that a certain combination of applied mathematics and empirical investigation is an acceptable means of deriving knowledge from the natural world. Unfortunately, as practical as such a compromise may seem, a growing number of scientists, like the physicists mentioned in this paper, have come to realize the inherent shortcomings of such an approach. The observation of the strange world of quantum particles has forever altered the way science views the world, as the search for the fundamental substance of matter has been shown not only to be difficult, but infeasible. The empiricists can no longer assert a priori that his observations are of an actual, physically subsisting world. In other words, physical science has reached the boundaries of its field of inquiry, not because it has reached the Truth or ultimate ground of being (or because it has come to the conclusion that no such Truth can be said to exist), but because when it tried to do so, it found in nature nothing but its own reflection. If, as Locke said centuries before subsequent empirical observation could prove him correct, that “the real essence of substances” is unknowable, then, to use Jeans words, “We can only progress by discussing the laws which govern the changes of substances, and so produce the phenomena of the external world.” For science to remain viable, it must realize and accept it limits, focusing on bringing hidden patterns (or “laws”) to the surface, rather than on finding the one and only Truth. Mathematics, then, can return to the forefront as the best known map of the phenomenal world. Of all the man-made conceptual molds thus far laid atop nature, mathematics, because of its unique correspondence to the world, remains the one that has allowed us the deepest understanding.

Plato, a Pythagorean, based his theory of Ideas on the supposed perfection of a mathematically-arranged cosmos. His well-known allegory of the cave provides the perfect metaphor of his picture of the universe, in that the world presented as it is to our senses is merely a shadow version of the more ideal world from which it arose. This ideal world, says Plato, is mathematically perfect.

As perfect as this ideal world may be, and as neatly as the mathematician’s calculations may appear to mirror it, there remains an issue of contention. It is as if someone had cast a line into a pond in hopes of catching a fish, had caught a rather large one, and had then proceeded to brag of his accomplishment to another. This other then remarked to the first that he had earlier seen him stock the pond with the fish himself. As Jeans relates, “It would prove nothing if nature had merely been found to act in accordance with the concepts of applied mathematics; these concepts were specially and deliberately designed by man to fit the workings of nature.” Jeans goes on to say that, even if mathematics was not “deliberately designed,” but instead unconsciously remembered from the depths of our mind as a means of translation between it and the world, it remains true that no knowledge is actually gained of the outside world other than that which has been put into it by the mind itself.

So then, we’ve arrived back again at where we started: stumped by the intriguing relationship between mind and matter, thought and substance, ideal and actual. Truth, it would seem, is not some dogmatic claim awaiting human discovery; it is not a secret code etched into nature that might be found and spoken, written, or mathematically formulated and thereafter known for all time. Instead, Truth is that which motivates the formulating. Truth is both that which animates the world and that which makes up its total being. Truth, then, might be said to include but transcend the lesser, knowledge-based notions of true and false that dominate human thought. In this sense, Truth is always one step ahead of our apprehension, consistently outpacing us in our race toward ultimate understanding.

Might it not be said, though, that on account of our current formulating—through the act of our present participation in the cosmic game of pattern formation—we already “know” the Truth? If, as it appears obvious at least to this observer, that the universe, in both its internal/mental and external/material senses, is essentially a continuously forming pattern, then isn’t it more useful to think of Truth as the continuous evolution of the universe as a whole? In this sense, Truth may be closer to a verb than a noun. For the sake of argument, suppose we were to come across some notion of absolute and final Truth about the world we inhabit; would it not become obsolete in the very next moment, as the universe continued to evolve into new forms with altogether different Truths? This is, in effect, another way of saying that, while the mind’s static concepts may not always fit the ever evolving cosmos, the ever evolving cosmos nonetheless always fits the mind, because the cosmos includes and transcends the mind. The cosmos, in other words, includes all time and space in which the mind can theorize. It is then unavoidable that the mind should be enveloped by the Truth always, regardless of how frustrated it may become in its fatuous pursuit of something more. This pursuit, as was said earlier, arises due to a misunderstanding of the nature of Truth. The Truth, by the sheer fact of its namesake, must be directly apprehendable at all times. It is by virtue of this obviousness that the Truth be missed, as we are like fish that swim in the ocean but haven’t yet noticed the water.

Socrates, even though he was doubtless a great philosopher, never wrote a thing. He believed the written word was left too vulnerable to misinterpretation, because the one who reads may pull from the same words something entirely different than what the author himself intended. He also felt that writing made the mind lazy, in that it took over what was formally an internal act of memorization. Knowledge written upon a page no longer needs to be remembered by an individual, and as a result the individual comes to understand less of what he thinks he knows, becoming more focused on the collection and recording of information for its own sake than on the practical application of it in the present moment. Instead of writing, Socrates preferred face-to-face dialogue, as it forced immediate justification of each person’s statements. Truth, for Socrates, was far closer to this kind of immediate, personal discourse than to the abstract realms described by words on a page. Unfortunately, the medium of the page is the one upon which the current set of ideas must be drafted, and as such, the writer can claim only that which the reader has understood. For, as Socrates is still so quick to remind us, we may not have any way of knowing exactly what we mean by the words we use. To conclude a paper on such terms doesn’t leave the claims made in a very convincing light. However, being that the work itself was concerned with exactly this problem, it can only be suggested that the reader take these words, not for what they are, but for what they mean.