Tertium Organum, Chapter 1 (Knowledge)


Reference: Tertium Organum

The following is a summary as well as a commentary on Chapter 1 of Tertium Organum by P D Ouspensky:

In this chapter Ouspensky starts out brilliantly as follows,

“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.”

In my opinion it is best to start out with direct perceptions, with as few assumptions as possible. This would be the starting point of something that we accept as known. We then look at how our considerations are consistent with such perceptions before accepting them as known.

We must be careful not to confuse presuppositions with direct perceptions. Positivist philosophy of nineteenth century takes as its basis the existence of matter. It then uses that basis to promote materialism. Matter as the basis is a presupposition. It is not entirely consistent with direct perception.

We cannot accept a presupposition as something known. So when we define a presupposition in terms of another presupposition, it is still something unknown. In Positivist philosophy, matter is that in which the changes called motion take place: and motion is those changes which take place in matter. Matter and motion are presuppositions defined in terms of each other. So, they still remain unknown.

However, there is no question that there is consciousness of a world out there. We may start with this datum as the foundation of what we know.

Ouspensky now postulates an outer world of objects and an inner psychological world. These two worlds appear to be very different from each other. In my view, we are looking at two different aspects of reality. We are not necessarily looking at two distinct and separate worlds.

For now, we have no reason to question the existence of consciousness and something to be conscious of. We can take these two as known data. However, at this point we do not know if there is a clear dividing line between these two data. We shall return to examine it in greater detail later.

Starting from these two fundamental data, we need to establish how the rest follows, such as, the considerations of space, time, energy, matter, atoms, electrons, ether, cause, effect, identity, differences, life, death, etc., that is laid down as the basis of our usual knowledge,

Ouspensky then explains who we are as follows.

“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.

“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. 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 would 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. 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.”

So we are this ‘subjective world’ as opposed to the ‘objective world’. The causes of the ‘subjective world’ may lie in the ‘objective world’. But there is no way of telling whether our cognition of the subjective and objective worlds is correct or incorrect.

We may only determine the relative correctness of one sensation with respect to another sensation, or the correctness of one object relative to another object. From this we get the criterion of relative consistency among perceptions.

The idea that there are absolute principles out there is an illusion because such principles do not exist independently of our sensations.

Ouspensky introduces Kant’s system as follows.

“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.

“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.”

Subjective and objective are categories postulated for convenience.  We say that the causes of sensations lie in the objective world. Obviously, then, what we perceive through senses is a representation of those causes as objects, and not the causes themselves. If we could perceive the causes we can make the objective world disappear.

Kant established that we perceive the objects through our senses as existing in space and time. This is how the causes of sensation are represented by our senses. Kant refers to these causes as ‘things in themselves.’ According to Kant, we cannot perceive ‘things in themselves’ because they lie beyond space and time.

The world appears to be extended in space and time only because of our physical senses. This is an appearance only and not the actuality.

According to Kant, space and time help differentiate among things and phenomena in the objective world, and, therefore, they are categories of our reason. Similar categories may exist in other organisms too but not in the same way as they do in us.

Kant is limiting perception to what is perceived through the physical sense organs of eyes, ears, body, nose and tongue. Things exist only as we represent them in space and time. We cannot know the true nature of things through our senses. But when we think in terms of abstraction and concepts, we are no longer visualizing in space and time.

It is to be noted that Eastern philosophy looks upon the mind as another sense-organ that perceives ‘mental objects’ of the subjective world outside of space and time

According to Kant, even the conception of things has nothing in common with the things as they are in themselves, because of presuppositions of space and time. The very act of perception and thinking adds space, time and presupposition to what is there.

Kant has merely put forward a riddle without giving a solution to it. The whole of our positive science – physics, chemistry and biology – is based on hypotheses contradictory to Kant’s propositions.

We are back to square one in that there is consciousness of things, which includes our feelings, sensations, emotions, thoughts and imaginations as well.

The positivist philosophy agrees with Kant about the subjectivity associated with our senses, but it believes that mental sense could be applied per the scientific method to approach the understanding of the very substance of things.

One may ignore Kant, but one cannot ignore the contribution of consciousness to how we perceive things and phenomena. Until the factor of consciousness is fully taken into account, ‘science’ would be forced to accept a great many purely hypothetical propositions as known and unquestionable data, requiring no proof.

It is a major inconsistency to accept ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ as different principles, co-existing but independent of one another. This kind of state of affairs leads to a great accumulation of facts disrupting the harmony of the accepted systems.

Based on the above, the following is my firm belief.

All knowledge is inherently consistent. Underlying any inconsistency, there lies an arbitrary supposition that is masking some unknown.

Therefore, the duality of  ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ is an inconsistency that is masking some unknown. A discussion of this duality may be found at The Logic of Spirituality.


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