A Phenomenology of Mechanism: The Esoteric Spaces of Evolution
"The idea is eternal and single; that we also use the plural is not appropriate. All things of which we become aware and about which we are able to speak are only manifestations of the idea."
In the previous installment, we looked at the temporal perceptions of musical beats, notes, and chords and discerned how their liminal spacing - the 'empty' durations between one perceptual state and another - stimulates our cognitive activity to go searching for meaning within them. At the lowest perceptual threshold of 33 bpm, our normal cognition struggles but eventually fills in the voids, while, at the highest threshold of 240 bpm, that same cognition finds it near impossible to ever gain entry into Nature's voids of meaning. By reflecting on what these musical tempos disclosed to our cognition, we made temporal experience another aspect of the phenomena we were contemplating. Normally, time is abstractly sensed as a uniformly linear flow in which all other phenomenal events occur. By deepening our cognition to reflect on the temporal aspect of the phenomena, even if abstractly, we began perceiving how, it is not only the 'horizontal' spacing between perceptions which invites our conceptual meanings into them, but also the qualitative timespans of those liminal spaces. This temporal consideration acts as a natural stimulant for our cognitive activity, but instead of making it race faster and expand horizontally, it allows that activity to move vertically and deeply, mining the meaningful subconscious 'layers' of the phenomena in question.
This fact can also be confirmed in our immanent experience whenever we engage in an activity which is deeply meaningful to us, whether it is our work, our hobbies, or even our chores. That is when time 'speeds up' in our experience and hours pass by in what feels like minutes. Time then becomes another qualitative property of the phenomenal activity we are observing and engaging, like the pages we turn when coasting through a great book that we can't put down. It is no longer a quantity of seconds, minutes, and hours which imprisons our cognitive activity, but a quality of meaning which enriches that activity and sets it free to explore all facets of the phenomena from all angles. The same meaningful quality of Time holds fast over even longer timespans of our existence. If we are always wishing to add more waking hours to the day, then we are mining deep cognitive meaning from the various activities we are pursuing. On the other hand, if we are always staring at our phones, counting down the minutes until we can break for lunch, and then counting down the minutes until our day ends so we can retire on the couch or bed, then this deep cognitive meaning is lacking in our daily activities.
We don't just happen upon activities which are meaningful, but rather we make them meaningful through our cognitive engagement with the perceptual phenomena. That is not to say we "invent" the meaning, but rather that the meaning only becomes manifest in the perceptible world after our cognitive activity has engaged in its co-creative tango with the negative images of perception. That is how "some-thing" comes out of "no-thing", or how meaning comes out of "no-where". Each individual person betrothed to Nature in this manner perceives different shades of the same conceptual space. The phenomenology we are pursuing should really help us build confidence in this essential truth. We will see soon enough what all of this temporal discussion has to do with the phenomena of mechanism in the digital age. First, we should be perfectly clear about what capacities digital technology potentially hinders human individuals from developing. By understanding what is potentially gained from those capacities, we also come to understand what can be actually lost. The qualitative experience of Time is most important for maintaining the inner essence of living organisms from deteriorating precipitously, and perhaps semi-permanently, into the mere fossilized remains of dead 'matter'.
There are rhythmic thresholds in musical tempo, i.e. perceptual limits of our own current cognition, below or above which we cannot perceive any more qualitative difference in the musical speed, as seen in the previous installment. The most important takeaway here is that the perceptual limits are reflections of any particular individual's mode of cognition at any particular state of cognitive development. These limits are not built into the structure of Reality itself. We can sense a 'law of diminishing returns' for normal cognition as the liminal spaces of temporal phenomenon become larger and a threshold arrives where the fruits of this activity level off. It is at this threshold where Nature discloses to us - sometimes by gentle hints, other times by chaotic irruption - that a new sort of thoughtful effort is required to be granted further access into her deepest secrets. Is any such new effort possible for 21st-century man? Below is a brief survey of quotes on the phenomenon of Time from thinkers writing in the late 19th-century onwards who expressed an approach to the Time-phenomena which, to the best of my knowledge, is not found in any centuries prior. Readers are encouraged to verify this claim for themselves, perhaps by searching for any similar expressions on the Time-phenomena in their favorite pre-19th century musings on metaphysics and aesthetics.
“Everyone knows that time passes at a rate which varies according to the inner dispositions of the subject and to the events that come to affect his consciousness. Expectation, boredom, anguish, pleasure and pain, contemplation—all of these thus come to appear as different categories in the midst of which our life unfolds, and each of these determines a special psychological process, a particular tempo. These variations in psychological time are perceptible only as they are related to the primary sensation—whether conscious or unconscious—of real time, ontological time. . . . What gives the concept of musical time its special stamp is that this concept is born and develops as well outside of the categories of psychological time as it does simultaneously with them.” - Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music (1947) “The polyrhythm of the following example occurs in the ‘Eroica.’ No ear can analyze the plenitude of contrasts although it can experience it audially. In our enjoyment of music we employ levels of capacity far in advance of our organic development. The musical work of art [since Beethoven] permits us to establish capacities in practice enabling us to intuit subsequent man and his reality. It points once again to the absurdity of the old adage 'nothing is new under the sun’ invoked to discredit the limitless drive of creativity.” - Hermann Scherchen, On the Essence of Music (1946) “When a sound or a scent once sensed and long inhaled—at once present and past, real and not just factual, ideal yet not abstract—come to life again, the enduring and usually hidden essence of things is soon liberated, and our true, seemingly long-expired Self awakens, reanimated by the heavenly nourishment that infuses it. A minute, free from the order of time, has, so that we may feel it, recreated the human in us free from the order of time.” - Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (1913) In the “perception of a melody", we distinguish the tone given now,which we term the “perceived”, from those which have gone by, which we say are “not perceived.” On the other hand, we call the whole melody one that is perceived, although only the now-point actually is... Objectively considered, the measure no longer appears as “present” but as “past.” The whole melody, however, appears as present so long as it still sounds, so long as the notes belonging to it, intended in the one nexus of apprehensions, still sound. The melody is past only after the last note has gone. - Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1928)
Husserl was speaking of the musical melody as an overarching idea which unites the 'frames' of the particular notes. We all have the experience of listening to new music and anticipating notes and lyrics before they are played and spoken. How do we explain this prophetic capacity? It is only because we perceive the overarching ideas of "melody" and "story" with our cognition - ideas which 'hover above' the individual parts of the song and invisibly unites them - that our cognition is able to discern those particular aspects of the composition within the ideal structure before they are individually perceived (heard). Take a few moments and let the implications of that observation sink in. What holds true for the "melody"-idea in music holds true for all overarching temporal ideas in our experience, such as "getting out of bed to take a shower", "finishing a paper for school", "going to work for the day", "taking a two-week vacation", "entering my 35th year of life", and so on. It is as if the ideal content of all activities, past and future, is already present in the ideal "now". We can also perceive how many ideas with shorter timespans are nested within increasingly fewer ideas as the timespans increase. The meaning of "going to work for the day" has no separate existence apart from the overarching idea of "living through my 35th year of life". Without the latter, the former ceases to have meaning.
This entire 'cone' of nested ideas structures all experience and that structuring explains the regularities of our inner experiences, i.e. our desires, feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. Remember, in genuine phenomenology we do not add any assumptions to the givens of experience, such as the assumption that "non-experiential material entities give rise to ideal structures". What is given to our experience is that ideal structures exist and we are assuming nothing more. Whenever we speak of the "spirit of a" people, culture, nation, epoch, or age, we are also referring directly to these overarching ideas which structure everything from the most personal to the most collective aspects of our existence. Now we can see why Goethe's quote at the beginning rings so true in our intuitive experience. Our cognitive activity always manifests ideal sub-structures of a single, eternal Idea which enframes all of those nested ideas. All other ideas emanate 'downward' from the tip of the Idea-cone, so to speak, and cannot have any existence independent of it. Let's now consider this ideal temporal phenomena in terms of human history. We first consider the crudely graphed Biblical history below which structures our collective experience. Regardless of how we feel about their 'historical accuracy', it is a given that the shared imagination of Western civilization is grounded in this history.
The image above represents history when it is perceived mostly as spatial and temporal abstraction - the events are spaced out on the linear graph above, and that is also how we normally think of them. We picture one event occurring in our mind, a couple hundred years passing through linear time (which we assume to exist independently of the events occurring within it), then another event occurring, a couple more hundreds of years passing in linear time, and then another event, and so on. This mode of perceiving historical phenomena goes wide, but not at all deep. To go deep into the perceptual phenomena is to also cognize, in addition to the distinct events which are occurring, the overarching ideas which unite the events into a harmonized and consonant 'historical melody'. Let's take another look at the image above with 'soft eyes', so that we perceive the effect of receding depth as events radiate out from the Center bar towards the arrows (some may have already perceived this effect). Now we are beginning to perceive with some depth, metaphorically and literally, which conveys to us the meaning that the events are all linked to the Center bar in some way. Through their connection to the Center, the events are all linked to each other as well. Now let's take a look at another version of the image:
The spiral here represents the overarching Idea which 'hovers above' the distinct historical events and unites them into a structured whole of our experience. Even by perceiving a highly abstracted rendition of this Idea at work, we are deepening our cognitive activity to attain a perspective on the temporal relations and their rich qualities of meaning. These qualities are always present, but we also always fail to notice them unless we know to look for them. It should be no surprise that a person will never find something they have made it impossible to look for, by assuming beforehand that there is no value to be gained by looking. Here, we can perceive one major overarching Idea to all these events which reveals itself as something akin to, "the evolution of individual sovereignty and inner thought-life over the last 3000 years". Our mere prosaic words and abstract concepts cannot capture the richness of this four-dimensional Idea which structures our experience, but our purpose here is only to confirm that this overarching ideal structure exists and that it is absolutely critical to our meaningful continuity of experience at all scales between the individual and collective poles of existence. To view this trans-temporal aspect of Biblical history from a slightly different angle, we can contemplate the graph below, which depicts the Biblical texts as a 'hyper-linked' whole when the verses which reference each other are connected.
We previously considered how the meaning of perceptual phenomena, such as written sentences and musical rhythms, resides within their 'liminal spaces'. What in the Bible timeline image may act as the liminal spaces between the perceptions of Biblical events unfolding in human history? In certain spiritual traditions, the outer perceptual structures of these events are referred to as the "exoteric" history, while the liminal spaces between them are referred to as the "esoteric" history. Just as the words perceived in this essay have an outer syntactical structure and an inner semantic meaning which arises within the empty spaces between letters and words, so too do the events of human history possess an outer exoteric and inner esoteric structure. The exoteric events, as recorded in standard historical accounts, are negative images which invite our cognition in to perceive the inner esoteric meanings residing 'between' them. Readers must decide for themselves whether, after contemplating these various illustrations with sound logical reason, the consistent outer-inner images of all phenomena, spatial and temporal, are real ones or the product of mere "fantasy". All I can do in these essays is to help build confidence by way of some more illustrations and commentary.
In the images we considered above, there are the big 'empty spaces' which lay on either side of the arrows in the remote past or distant future. There is no fundamental limitation on our perception and cognition which dictates to us that we cannot consider those spaces if we broaden out the relevant timespan and deepen our own cognition. For our purposes here, though, we will remain within the timespan of the image. Within that period, there are three great candidates for liminal esoteric spaces which may reveal the overarching, spiraling historical idea we have identified as, "the evolution of individual sovereignty and inner thought-life". This overarching ideal content is clearly reflected in the development of Western society and its social, cultural, legal, political, and scientific institutions over the last 3000 odd years. In our consideration here, however, we are searching for the even deeper ideal content which lays beneath that which we find flowing along with those surface currents of Western civilization. We are asking why those surface currents were flowing as they did in the past epochs and as they continue to do in our current epoch. That is how we begin to recover insights from the exoteric phenomena which will prove invaluable to navigating the immanent perils of digital mechanistic technology in the years to come.
(1) The "Inter-Testamentary" period (~250 BC - 0)
Between the close of the standard scriptural canons of the Old and New Testaments, there are very meaningful (yet seldom noticed) events described in the apocryphal writings, such as the Maccabean revolt against the persecutory rule of the Greek King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In Chapter 7 of Second Maccabees, it is related to us that the seven Maccabean brothers who were revolting against the persecution of the Jewish people were tortured and murdered, one by one, and in gruesome fashion, by the command of Antiochus. When the seventh and youngest son is brought up to either renounce his faith or suffer the same terrible fate as his six older brothers, he responds, "And though the living Lord be angry with us a little while for our chastening and correction, yet shall he be at one again with his servants." When the faithful young man's mother is asked by the cruel King to talk some sense to her last living son, she says to her son, "I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise... Fear not this tormentor, but, being worthy of thy brethren, take thy death, that I may receive thee again in mercy with thy brethren."
These are crystal clear images of two individuals who are looking forward with steadfast courage to the promise of being reunited with their Lord. They see in the world of suffering and death an invisible Power who has fashioned the visible creation "of things that were not" for precisely that purpose. Besides this reference to the liminal spaces of Nature's creation where Divine meaning resides, we should observe and contemplate the deeply personal nature of this inter-testimony of the esoteric Christian tradition. Throughout the 15 chapters of this Second Book, the individual characters are fleshed out in their own personal qualities and relations with the Lord in such a manner that is really nowhere to be found in any of the earlier exoteric Old Testament traditions. Even the great patriarchs, kings, and most of the prophets were functioning more as agents of the Hebrew collective rather than individual revolutionaries against imperial powers. Still, the absolute Maccabean faith in the Lord remains the predominant theme of these texts and the individual impulse to inner knowledge is largely overshadowed by that faith.
(2) The "Dark Ages" i.e. the early medieval period (~500-1000 AD).
Across the Central exoteric perceptual structure, the impulse to inner knowledge, through an extremely disciplined inner thought-life, finds its clear expression in the early medieval Christian mystics. These mystics included personalities such as Dionysius the Areopagite and John Duns Scotus Erigena. It is clear that, by this time, direct sense-perception of spiritual meaning in outer Nature was entirely lacking, so many turned inward to mine the depths of their souls for that meaning. The Areopagite stands at the beginning of the Dark Ages like an emblem of all that is, at once, both esoteric and exoteric, hidden and revealed, mystical and thoughtful, submerged in pitch black darkness and shining forth with exceeding brilliance. This deep spiritual tension reflects the individual human soul who feels himself as an increasingly sovereign entity with more spiritual responsibility laid at his feet than ever before, yet who is still caught between the old traditions and the new impulse to knowledge - between the outer Divine revelations and the rigorous inner thought-life. Consider that tension and spiritual struggle in this passage below.
TRIAD supernal, both super-God and super-good, Guardian of the Theosophy of Christian men, direct us aright to the super-unknown and super-brilliant and highest summit of the mystic Oracles, where the simple and absolute and changeless mysteries of theology lie hidden within the super-luminous gloom of the silence, revealing hidden things, which in its deepest darkness shines above the most super-brilliant, and in the altogether impalpable and invisible, fills to overflowing the eyeless minds with glories of surpassing beauty. This then be my prayer; but thou, O dear Timothy, by thy persistent commerce with the mystic visions, leave behind both sensible perceptions and intellectual efforts, and all objects of sense and intelligence, and all things not being and being, and be raised aloft unknowingly to the union, as far as attainable, with Him Who is above every essence and knowledge. For by the resistless and absolute ecstasy in all purity, from thyself and all, thou wilt be carried on high, to the superessential ray of the Divine darkness, when thou hast cast away all, and become free from all. - Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology - "What is Divine Gloom?"
(3) The Modern Age (~1500 AD-Present)
As we move through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution, it will feel as though the impulse to inner knowledge is altogether missing. Knowledge of the outer phenomenal perceptions grows vastly more clear and precise, but the role of inner experience and meaning is largely ignored. The modern exoteric history is a direct reflection of the Hebrew people escaping the clutches of slavery in Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the wildnerness for 40 years. In this same manner, modern man has escaped the rule of tyrannical Kings and corrupt Popes to exoteric freedom, only to find himself striking a soul-crushing bargain with Mephistopheles and a spirit-crushing bargain with the forces of reactionary religious dogmatism. Reading between the lines of those two negative images, however, the esoteric history remains there for our cognition to engage. The individual soul, wandering through this modern desert of meaning, oscillating between the nihilist and dogmatist abysses on either side of him, acquired tools he would have otherwise never had. Against all exoteric odds, modern man once again regains some vision, however limited at first, of the promised land which lies ahead of him.
With his laser-focus on the outer phenomena of Nature, the individual acquires a highly disciplined and precise thought-life. Through his reactionary religious tendency, he begins to reassert the reality of his soul. The fruits of these twin developments in the modern age are seldom highlighted in the exoteric history of the 20th century, but are patently obvious to anyone who cares to look for them. In philosophy, the field of phenomenology emerges, reflected in thinkers such as Husserl (who we quoted above), highlighting the role of the knowing subject in the objective world with precise logic. In science, the field of theoretical physics, as exemplified by quantum mechanics and general relativity, makes even more direct and experimentally verified connections between the knowing subject and measurements of the outer perceptions. A field such as depth psychology also becomes possible, turning its attention specifically to the soul-life of inner experience and its influence on all perception and cognition of the world content. In spirituality, a wide variety of brilliant minds turn their attention to the broad meaningful overlaps between ancient mythology, spirituality, and modern philosophy and science.
The above are not strictly "esoteric" in the sense of pre-modern history. In fact, many 20th century thinkers did all they could to make their findings more visible to the general public. With the aid of modern communications technology, some were rather successful. These findings are now available to anyone with access to a computer or phone with minimal effort. When viewed across a long enough timespan, therefore, there is an evolving and integrating relationship between perception and cognition; between matter and mind; phenomenal and noumenal; exoteric and esoteric. The voids of liminal spaces are naturally being integrated with conceptual meaning, narrowing the gap between perception and conception. However, certain forces still prevent the individual human from taking notice and seizing hold of this opportunity in a hyper-fragmented world of phenomena. Just as Nature welcomes us so lovingly into a conceptual marriage with her perceptions - to give new birth to our inner meaning - we lose all interest in her. As this union with Nature becomes most attainable for the human individual, we stop paying attention to her as a result of digital mechanism. There are plenty of kindred souls in the world, easier than ever before to find, but very few are motivated to seek out and know their better half.
The new mutation of consciousness [in the modern age], on the other hand, as a consequence of arationality, receives its decisive stamp from the manifest perceptual emergence of the spiritual...
Two apocryphal statements of Christian doctrine clarify in their way what is meant here: “This world is a bridge, cross it but do not make of it your dwelling place,” and “I have chosen you before the earth began.” They point to the spiritual origin prior to all spatio-temporal materialization. We may regard such materialization as a bridge that makes possible the merging or coalescence, the concrescere of origin and the present. The great church father Irenaeus presumably had these sayings in mind when he stated: “Blessed is he who was before the coming of man.” We have seen him; he revealed himself in space and time. In his departure he was beheld by his disciples in his transparency, a transparency appropriate only to the spiritual origin (if anything can be appropriated to it), the transparency which a time-free and ego-free person can presentiate in the most fortunate certainty of life. The grand and painful path of consciousness emergence, or, more appropriately, the unfolding and intensification of consciousness, manifests itself as an increasingly intense luminescence of the spiritual in man.
Throughout the millennia the traditionalists, the “initiates,” have seen man’s previous journey as a decline, a departure from the affinity to and a distanciation from origin. Painful as this distanciation may be, it has served the requisite intensification of consciousness. Only distanciation contains the possibility for the awakening of consciousness. The phenomenon releasing origin is spiritual, and with each consciousness mutation it becomes more realizable by man. With respect to the presently emerging mutation we may speak of a concretion of the spiritual.
- Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin (1953)
It should now be apparent that, when we expand our functional knowledge of the natural perceptual-cognitive processes and their evolution, as we are doing now, we are also uncovering their vulnerabilities to digital mechanized technology. By understanding those vulnerabilities, we are also coming to understand the phenomena of mechanism and its relation to what Gebser calls above, the "awakening of consciousness" and the "concretion of the spiritual". The polar relation between perception and conception is the most instructive of all the pedagogical tools in our immanent experience. It is Nature's school and her primary lesson always revolves around the revelation of who we truly are in relation to who we only appear to be at any particular stage of development. In Nietzsche's famous words, her lesson is the ceaseless pursuit of "becoming who we are". As Rudolf Steiner, the great phenomenologist and pedagogue, observed, "all knowledge of what is visible must plunge again and again into the invisible in order to evolve." All seeing of outer surfaces, all hearing of rhythmic melodies, and all contemplating of human histories must continuously plunge into the liminal spaces where their overarching esoteric ideas reside. That is how Nature's 'secret' intentions are brought into the light of consciousness and are born again into new life through our heartfelt cognition.
"Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited. They educate both the Understanding and the Reason. Every property of matter is a school for the understanding,— its solidity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility. The understanding adds, divides, combines, measures, and finds nutriment and room for its activity in this worthy scene. Meantime, Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
The mechanisms of digital technology tear asunder this marriage of matter and mind; of perception and cognition; of outer surfaces and inner meaning; of exoteric events of history and the esoteric ideas which unite them. They block the pathways for this marriage to be consummated through effortful knowing. This divorce of perception-cognition is attained to varying degrees and in varying ways, which we will explore in more detail in the next installment of this essay. As mentioned before, the pathology revolves around the severe distortion of our cognitive relationship with space and time. Our overarching ideas which unite the phenomenal relations of the world, as we see reflected very clearly in phenomena ranging from a single musical composition to all of human history, are aborted or stillborn through the contrivances of mechanistic thoughts and thought-formation. Even worse still, those archetypal ideas are never even conceived in the liminal spaces of Nature's womb. It is no wonder, then, that the modern human soul feels ever-more isolated, alienated, and fragmented in the modern mechanized desert of meaning. Our natural capacity to extend the perceptual limits of our own cognition is unnaturally broken by the pervasive influence of mechanism.
To restore our relationship with ideal Space and Time, by restoring and evolving our natural cognitive processes, is to free them from the cold shackles of mechanized existence and resurrect them into a new organic life. Some may feel the above to be "counter-intuitive" - after all, is it not digital technology which has allowed us to extend the reach of our perception and cognition in previously inconceivable ways? Here we should remember the caution against going wide instead of deep and the 'law of diminishing returns'. We should remember that all evil is untimely good. What once nourished the inner thought-life of modern man becomes a poisioned well for that same life, which now only draws on the flesh of putrefied corpses. Our addiction to mechanical horizontal thinking, so long as it ensnares us in its tight grip, makes our deepened vertical thinking impossible. Before we move on to the next part of this essay, I want to remind readers that the phenomena of modern mechanism is, above all, a tool for learning how to navigate an integral life in the times and worlds to come. Therefore, we will all do well to keep the quote below in mind as we begin closing out our phenomenological consideration.
"Do not think I want to come before you as a typical reactionary who would like to put a stop to cars and typewriters, or even to this terrible handwriting. Anyone who realises how the world is going knows very well that such things have to be; they are justified. Hence there is no question of abolishing them; I am saying only that in dealing with them we should be on our guard. These things have to come and must be accepted in the same way that we accept night and day... all this has to be faced in order that men should rightly develop a vigorous approach to spiritual knowledge, spiritual feeling, and spiritual will. There is no question of fighting against the material, but of getting to know its reality and necessity; and also of seeing how essential it is that strength of spirit should be brought to bear against the crushing weight of physical existence."
- Rudolf Steiner