Tertium Organum, Chapter 1 (Knowledge)


The following is Chapter 1 of Tertium Organum by P D Ouspensky with comments in color.


Chapter 1: Knowledge

What do we know and what do we not know? Our known data and our unknown data. Unknown quantities taken as known quantities. Matter and motion. What does positivist philosophy arrive at? Identity of the unknown quantities: x = y, y = x. What do we actually know? The existence of consciousness in us and of the world outside us. Dualism or monism? Subjective and objective cognition. Where do the causes of sensations lie? Kant’s system. Time and space. Mach’s observation. What the physicist actually works with.

“Learn to discern the real from the false.” ~The Voice of the Silence, H.P.B.


The most difficult thing is to know what we do know and what we do not know.

Therefore, if we wish to know something, we must first of all establish what we accept as data, and what we consider requires definition and proof, that is, we must determine what we know already, and what we wish to know.

In relation to our cognition of the world and of ourselves the conditions would be ideal if it were possible to accept nothing as data and regard everything as requiring definition and proof. In other words, it would be best to assume that we know nothing and take this as our starting point.

Unfortunately, however, it is impossible to create such conditions. Something has to be laid down as a foundation, something must be accepted as known; otherwise, we shall be constantly forced to define one unknown by means of another.

When searching for knowledge, we must start with some postulate.

On the other hand, we must be chary of accepting as known—as data—things that, actually, are completely unknown and merely presupposed—the sought for. We have to be careful not to find ourselves in the position occupied by positivist philosophy in the nineteenth century. For a long time, the basis of this philosophy was the recognition of the existence of matter (materialism); and later, of energy, i.e., force or motion (energetics), although in actual fact matter and motion always remained the unknown quantities, x and y, and were always defined by means of one another.

Positive philosophy assumes matter and motion as known quantities.

It is perfectly clear that it is impossible to accept the thing sought for as the thing known; and that we cannot define one unknown by means of another unknown. The result is nothing but the identity of two unknowns: x = y, y = x.

It is precisely this identity of unknown quantities which represents the ultimate conclusion arrived at by positivist philosophy.

Matter is that in which the changes called motion take place: and motion is those changes which take place in matter.

But matter and motion are defined in terms of each other; and are not really known.

What then do we know? We know that, from the very first step towards cognition, a man is struck by two obvious facts: The existence of the world in which he lives, and the existence of consciousness in himself.

Neither the one nor the other can he prove or disprove, but both of them are facts for him, they are reality.

One may speculate about the mutual relationship of these two facts. One may attempt to reduce them to one, that is, to regard the psychological or inner world as a part, or a function, or a reflection of the outer world, or look upon the outer world as a part, or a function, or a reflection of the inner world. But this would mean a digression from facts, and all such concepts would not be self-evident for an ordinary, non-speculative view of the world and of oneself. On the contrary, the only fact that remains self-evident is the antithesis of our inner life and the external world.

Later, we shall return to this fundamental proposition. But meanwhile we have no grounds for arguing against the obvious fact of our own existence –that is, the existence of our inner life—and the existence of the external world in which we live. This, therefore, we must accept as data.

But this is all we have the right to accept as data. All the rest requires proof of its existence and definition on the basis of these two data we already possess.

Ouspensky postulates as his starting point an inner life and an external world. NOTE: I postulate The Static Viewpoint and a universe of motion instead.

Space with its extension; time, with the idea of before, now and after; quantity, mass, materiality; number, equality, inequality; identity and difference; cause and effect; ether, atoms, electrons, energy, life, death—all that is laid down as the basis of our usual knowledge, all these, are unknown quantities.

The direct outcome of these two fundamental data—the existence in us of a psychological life, i.e. sensations, representations, concepts, thinking, feeling, desires and so on, and the existence of the world outside us—is a division of everything we know into subjective and objective, a division perfectly clear to our ordinary perception.

Ouspensky defines the inner psychological life, as the life of sensations, perceptions, conceptions, reasoning, feeling, desires etc. He defines the external world of matter, energy space, time, cause and effect etc., as the foundation of our knowledge.

Everything we take to be the properties of the world, we call objective, and everything we take as properties of our inner life, we call subjective.

The ‘subjective world’ we perceive directly; it is in us; we are one with it. The ‘objective world’ we represent to ourselves as existing outside of us, apart from us as it were, and we take it to be exactly or approximately such as we see it. We and it are different things.

The inner life is considered subjective, and the external world is considered objective.

It seems to us that if we close our eyes, the objective world will continue to exist, just as we saw it, and that, if our inner life, our subjective world, were to disappear, the objective world will go on existing as it existed when we, with our subjective world, were not there.

Our relation to the objective world is most clearly defined by the fact that we perceive it as existing in time and in space and cannot perceive it or represent it to ourselves apart from these conditions. Usually, we say that the objective world consists of things and phenomena, i.e., of things and of changes in the state of things. A phenomenon exists for us in time, a thing exists in space.

The external (objective) world exists in time (phenomena) and space (things). NOTE: I see the external world consisting only of energy—space represents extents of this energy; times represents duration of this energy.

But such a division of the world into subjective and objective does not satisfy us.

By means of reasoning we can establish that, actually, we only know our own sensations, representations and concepts, and that we perceive the objective world by projecting outside of ourselves the presumed causes of our sensations.

We seem to know only our own sensations directly. We postulate the cause of these sensations to be contained in the outer world. NOTE: From the static viewpoint both sensations of the internal life and perceptions of the external world are viewed in objective terms. Both are “external” to the static viewpoint.

Further, we find that our cognition of both the subjective and the objective world may be true or false, correct or incorrect.

The criterion for determining the correctness or incorrectness of our cognition of the subjective world is the form of relationship of one sensation to others, and the force and character of the sensation itself. In other words, the correctness of one sensation is verified by comparing it with another of which we are more sure, or by the intensity and the taste of a given sensation.

The criterion for determining the correctness or incorrectness of our cognition of the objective world is exactly the same. It seems to us that we define things and phenomena of the objective world by means of comparing them one with another; and we imagine that we discover the laws of their existence apart from ourselves and our cognition of them. But this is an illusion. We know nothing about things separately from ourselves, and we have no means of verifying the correctness or incorrectness of our cognition of the objective world apart from sensations.

The criterion for determining the correctness or incorrectness of our sensations and perceptions depends on comparing them among themselves. NOTE: From the static viewpoint the criteria of correctness are the continuity, consistency and harmony of internal sensations and external perceptions.

Since the remotest antiquity, the question of our relation to the true causes of our sensations has been the main subject of philosophical research. Men have always felt that they must find some solution of this question, some answer to it. These answers alternated between two poles, between a complete denial of the causes themselves, and the assertion that the causes of sensations lie in ourselves and not in anything external;­ and the admission that we know these causes, that they are contained in the phenomena of the external world, that these very phenomena constitute the causes of sensations, and that the cause of observable phenomena themselves lies in the movement of ‘atoms’ and the vibrations of ‘ether’. It was presumed that the only reason why we are unable to observe these movements and vibrations is because we are lacking in sufficiently powerful instruments, but that when such instruments become available, we shall be able to see the movement of atoms as clearly as, through powerful telescopes, we now see stars whose very existence had never even been supposed.

Causes of our sensations is not really known with certainty.

In contemporary knowledge, a central position in this problem of the causes of sensations is occupied by Kant’s system, which does not share either of these extreme views and holds a place midway between them. Kant established that our sensations must have causes in the external world, but that we are unable, and shall never be able, to perceive these causes by sensory means, i.e., by the means which serve us to perceive phenomena.

Kant established that our sensations must have causes in the external world, but that we are unable, and shall never be able, to perceive these causes by sensory means.

Kant established the fact that everything perceived by the senses is perceived in time and space, and that outside of time and space we can perceive nothing through the senses, that time and space are the necessary conditions of sensory perception (i.e. perception by means of sense-organs). And, above all, he established the fact that extension in space and existence in time are not properties of things—inherent in them—but merely properties of our sense-perception. This means that, in reality, apart from our sensory perception of them, things exist independently of time and space; but we can never sense them outside of time and space, and the very fact of perceiving things and phenomena through the senses imposes on them the conditions of time and space, since this is our form of representation.

Kant established that time and space are the inherent characteristics of everything we sense. He then postulates that we can never sense anything independent of time and space. NOTE: This is obvious since time and space are not independent of things since they represent their duration and extents respectively.

Thus, by determining everything we know through our senses in terms of space and time, they themselves are only forms of our perception, categories of our reason, the prism through which we look at the world. In other words, space and time are not properties of the world, but merely properties of our perception of the world by means of sense-organs. Consequently, the world, taken apart from our perception of it, has neither extension in space nor existence in time. It is we who invest it with these properties when we sense and perceive it.

The representations of space and time arise in our mind on its contact with the external world through the sense-organs, and they do not exist in the external world apart from our contact with it.

Kant also postulates that time and space are merely properties of our sense-perception. If there is external world beyond our senses, it has neither extension in space nor existence in time. NOTE: Space and time are the characteristics of energy. It is energy that forms the “external world.” That makes the “external world” a property of sense-perception.

Space and time are categories of our reason, i.e., properties which we ascribe to the external world. They are only signposts, landmarks put up by ourselves, for without them we cannot visualize the external world. They are graphs by means of which we depict the world to ourselves. Projecting outside of ourselves the causes of our sensations, we build up these causes in space, and visualize continuous reality in the form of a series of consecutive moments of time. We need this because a thing that has no extension in space, does not occupy a certain part of space, and does not exist for a certain length of time, does not exist for us at all. This means that a thing without space, not placed in space, not taken in the category of space, will not differ in any way from another thing; it will occupy the same place as that other thing, will merge into it. In the same way, all phenomena taken without time, i.e. not placed in time, not taken in one or another position from the standpoint of before, now and after, will happen for us simultaneously, blending with one another, as it were, and our weak reason will be unable to disentangle the infinite variety of one moment.

Space and time are categories of our reason, i.e., properties which we ascribe to the external world. NOTE: It appears that energies of the “external world” themselves form the categories of our reason.

Therefore, our consciousness segregates separate groups out of the chaos of impressions, and we build, in space and time, representations of objects which correspond to these groups of impressions.

We have got to divide things somehow, and we divide them according to categories of space and time.

According to the theory of mental matrix, perceptions come about only after sensations are broken into perceptual elements and assimilated. We may say that reason “divides” the “energy of external world” (sensations) into “categories” of perceptual elements.

But we must remember that these divisions exist only in us, in our perception of things, and not in the things themselves. We must not forget that we neither know the true interrelation of things nor do we know real things. All we know is their phantoms, their shadows, and we do not know what relationship actually exists between them. At the same time, we know quite definitely that our division of things according to time and space in no way corresponds to the division of things in themselves taken independently of our perception of them; and we also know quite definitely that if some sort of division does exist between things in themselves, it can in no case be a division in terms of time and space, as we usually understand these terms, because such a division is not a property of the things but only of our perception of things acquired through the sense-organs. Moreover, we do not know if it is even possible to distinguish those divisions which we see, i.e., divisions according to space and time, when things are looked at, not from the human point of view, not through human eyes. In other words, we do not know whether, for a differently constituted organism, our world would not present an entirely different picture.

Therefore, reason implies how sensations are categorized into perceptual elements. Such categorization may be created differently in different organisms. The sensations could be categorized coarsely in animals; but, very finely in humans.

We cannot picture things outside the categories of space and time, but we constantly think of them outside of time and space.

When we say, ‘this table’, we picture the table to ourselves in time and space. But when we say, ‘an object made of wood’, without meaning any definite object, but speaking generally, it refers to all objects made of wood, throughout the world and at all ages. An imaginative person might take it that we speak of some great object made of wood, composed of all wooden things that have ever existed anywhere and which represent, as it were, its atoms.

Although we do not give a very clear account of this to ourselves, generally, we think in time and space only by representations; but when we think in concepts, we already think outside of time and space.

Perceptions are generated from combining the perceptual elements in the same order as they existed in original sensations. Thinking recombines the perceptual elements in different orders. Concepts recombine the perceptual elements as broad patterns.

Kant called his view critical idealism, to distinguish it from dogmatic idealism, as presented by Berkeley.

According to dogmatic idealism, the whole world—all things, i.e., the true causes of sensations, have no existence except in our knowledge—they exist only in as far as we know them. The whole world as we represent it is only a reflection of ourselves.

Kant’s idealism recognizes the existence of a world of causes outside of us; but asserts that we cannot perceive this world through sense-perception, and that, in general, everything we see is our own creation, the ‘product of the perceiving subject’.

Like Berkeley, Kant does not say that the world reflects us. Instead, Kant seems to say that the energy of the external world (sensations) is, potentially, divisible into infinite categories. But it divides into finite categories in organisms—differently in different organisms. The finite categories (perceptual elements) then combine in the original manner to produce perceptions. They also recombine freely to produce thinking and conceptualization. The finer is the division into perceptual elements, the more conscious the organism is.

Thus, according to Kant, everything we find in objects is put into them by ourselves. We do not know what the world is like independently of ourselves. Moreover, our conception of things has nothing in common with the things as they are in themselves, apart from us. And, most important of all, our ignorance of things in themselves is due not to our insufficient knowledge, but to the fact that we are totally unable to have a correct knowledge of the world by means of sense-perception. To put it differently, it is incorrect to say that, as yet, we know but little, but later we shall know more and, in the end, shall arrive at a right understanding of the world; it is incorrect because our experimental knowledge is not a hazy representation of the real world; it is a very vivid representation of an entirely unreal world, arising around us at the moment of our contact with the world of true causes, which we cannot reach because we have lost our way in the unreal ‘material’ world. Thus, the expansion of objective knowledge brings us no nearer to the cognition of things in themselves or of the true causes.

The world doesn’t really reflect us as Berkeley thought. Instead, the energies of the external world (sensations) exist in themselves, apart from us. We simply generate finite categories (perceptual elements) from them and reason accordingly. But in the limit of generating infinite categories out of these sensations, it is possible to know what these objects of the external world are. This is the calculus of reality. Kant was almost there but created his own limit.

In A Critique of Pure Reason Kant says:

Nothing which is intuited in space is a thing in itself, and space is not a form which belongs as a property to things; but objects are quite unknown to us in themselves, and what we call outward objects arc nothing else but mere representations of our sensibility, whose form is space, but whose real correlate, the thing in itself, is not known by means of these representations, nor ever can be, but respecting which, in experience, no inquiry is ever made. …

The things which we intuit are not in themselves the same as our representations of them in intuition, nor are their relations in themselves so constituted as they appear to us; and if we take away the subject, or even only the subjective constitution of our senses in general, then not only the nature and relations of objects in space and time, but even space and time themselves disappear. …

What may be the nature of objects considered as things in themselves and without reference to the receptivity of our sensibility is quite unknown to us. We know nothing more than our mode of perceiving them. … Supposing that we should carry our empirical intuition [sensory perception] even to the very highest degree of clearness, we should not thereby advance one step nearer to the knowledge of the constitution of objects as things in themselves. …

To say, then, that all our sensibility is nothing but the confused representation of things containing exclusively that which belongs to them as things in themselves, and this under an accumulation of characteristic marks and partial representations which we cannot distinguish in consciousness, is a falsification of the conception of sensibility and phenomenization, which renders our whole doctrine thereof empty and useless.

The difference between a confused and a clear representation is merely logical and has nothing to do with content.

Kant’s propositions still remain in practically the same form in which he left them. In spite of the profusion of new philosophical systems which appeared in the course of the nineteenth century, and notwithstanding the great number of philosophers who specially concerned themselves with commenting on and interpreting Kant’s writings, his main propositions have remained entirely undeveloped, mainly because most people do not know how to read Kant and they concentrate on the unimportant and non-essential, missing the important and the essential.

The new postulate that is introduced here is that reality is one and, therefore, it is continuous, consistent, and harmonious. Thus, the limit reached with infinite categorization is the reality we seek. It is not a substitute for some singularity.

Yet, in actual fact, Kant has merely put forward a question, thrown to the world a problem which has to be solved, without indicating the way to the solution.

This fact is usually overlooked when people speak of Kant. Kant put forward the riddle but gave no solution of it.

And to this day we repeat Kant’s propositions, regarding them as incontrovertible but actually, we have only a very vague idea of what they mean. Nor are they connected with other spheres of our knowledge. The whole of our positive science—physics, chemistry, and biology—is based on hypotheses contradictory to Kant’s propositions.

We are discovering the laws of nature through our sciences, but they are limited by our finite categorizations.

We do not know in what manner we ourselves impose upon the world the properties of space, i.e., extension; and we do not know in what manner the world—earth, sea, trees, people—could not possess this extension.

We do not know how we can see and measure this extension if it does not exist, or what the world can be like if it has no extension.

Does the world really exist? Or, as a logical deduction from Kant’s ideas, should we accept Berkeley’s idea and deny the very existence of the world except in our imagination?

The world is not our imagination. But it is our approximation.

Positivist philosophy adopts a very strange attitude to Kant’s views. It both accepts and does not accept them. To be more exact, it accepts them as correct in relation to the direct experience of the sense-organs, in relation to what we see, hear, touch. That is, positivist philosophy recognizes the subjective character of our perception and admits that everything we perceive in objects is imposed on them by ourselves. But this is only in relation to the direct experience of sense-organs.

As regards ‘scientific experience’, where precise instruments and calculations are used, positivist philosophy appears to consider Kant’s view erroneous and assumes that ‘scientific experience’ acquaints us with the very substance of things, with the true causes of our sensations, or if it does not yet do so, it brings us closer to this acquaintance and may succeed in doing so later.

Contrary to Kant, the ‘positivists’ are convinced that ‘a more clear knowledge of phenomena acquaints them with things in themselves’. They suppose that, by regarding physical phenomena as movements of ether, or of electrons, or as electrical or magnetic influences, and by calculating these movements, they become acquainted with the very essence of things, i.e., with the causes of all phenomena. They believe in the very thing the possibility of which Kant denied, namely in the comprehension of the true essence of things through the study of phenomena. Moreover, many physicists do not even consider it necessary to know Kant, and they would be unable to define exactly in what relation they stand in regard to him. Yet, one may not know Kant but one cannot ignore him. Every description of a physical phenomenon, by its every word, refers in one or another way to the problem raised by Kant and stands in one or another relationship to it.

What seems to be missing here is the concept of The Static Viewpoint that lies beyond both subjectivity and objectivity.

Generally speaking, the position of ‘science’ as regards the question of the limits of the subjectively imposed or the objectively perceived is more than precarious, and in order to draw its conclusions ‘science’ is forced to accept a great many purely hypothetical propositions as known and unquestionable data, requiring no proof.

In addition, physicists overlook one very interesting consideration advanced by Mach in his book Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations:

In the investigation of purely physical processes, we generally employ concepts of so abstract a character that as a rule we think only cursorily, or not at all, of the sensations that lie at their base. … [At the basis of all purely physical definitions lies] an almost unending series of simple sensory observations (sensations), particularly if we take into consideration the observations that assure the adjustment of the apparatus, which may have been performed in part long before the actual experiment. Now it can easily happen to the physicist who does not study the psychology of his operations, that he does not (to reverse a well-known saying) see the trees for the wood, that he slurs over the sensory elements at the foundation of his work. … Psychological analysis has taught us that this is not surprising, since the physicist deals with sensations in all his work.

Here Mach draws attention to a very important side of cognition. Physicists do not consider it necessary to know psychology or to take it into account in their conclusions. But when they are more or less acquainted with psychology, with that part of it which deals with the forms of perception, and when they take it into account, there results in them a most fantastic cleavage of opinions as in a man of orthodox beliefs trying to reconcile the dogma of faith with the arguments of reason.

The essential problem lies in the adequate categorization of sensations into perceptual elements.

Or it may even be worse. Deep down a physicist may feel the real worthlessness of all these new and old scientific theories, but he is afraid to be left hanging in mid-air with nothing but a negation. He has no system to take the place of the one whose falsity he already feels; he is afraid to make a leap into the void. And, lacking the courage to admit openly that he no longer believes in anything he continues to wear all these contradictory theories, like some official uniform, for the sole reason that this uniform is connected with rights and privileges, both inner and outer, consisting of a certain assurance in himself and the surrounding world which he has neither the strength nor the courage to renounce. An ‘unbelieving positivist’ is the tragic figure of modem times, similar to the ‘atheist’ or the ‘unbelieving priest’ of the times of Voltaire.

One sees the anomalies (discontinuities, inconsistencies, and disharmonies) but has no resolution for them at present.

The same fear of a vacuum gives rise to all the dualistic theories which accept ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ as different principles, co-existing but independent of one another.

On the whole, the present state of our ‘science’ would be of great psychological interest to an unbiased observer. In all the domains of scientific knowledge there is a great accumulation of facts disrupting the harmony of the accepted systems. And these systems are able to exist only through the heroic efforts of scientists who strive to shut their eyes to the long series of new facts which threaten to engulf everything in an irresistible flood. Yet if these facts, destructive to the systems, were collected together, their number in every domain would be likely to prove greater than the number of facts on which the systems are founded. The systematization of that which we do not know may provide more for correct knowledge of the world and ourselves than the systematization of what, in the opinion of ‘exact science’, we do know.

We need to isolate all the anomalies and systematize them. That may, hopefully, lead to some resolution toward correct knowledge.


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