Tag Archives: Mary Warnock (The Philosophy of Sartre)


Words matter; the linguistic make-up of discourse is all-important…

One of the reasons for… lack of understanding… is to be found in the language which people speak. This language is full of wrong concepts, wrong classifications, wrong associations. And the chief thing is that… the vagueness and inaccuracy of ordinary thinking happens because every word can have thousands of different meanings according to the material the speaker has at her disposal and the complex of associations at work in her at any one moment. People do not clearly realize to what a degree their language is subjective, that is, what different things each of them says while using the same words. They are not aware that each one of them speaks in a language of their own, understanding other people’s language either vaguely or not at all, and having no idea that each one of them speaks in a language unknown to them or anybody else. People persist in having a very firm conviction, or belief, that they speak the same language, that they understand one another.

GI Gurdjieff (Gurdjieff quotations courtesy of Allan Clews)

‘Social Media’, Chat Shows, the Feuilletons, Pub gatherings ‒ avalanches of words, words, words. From a meta-position one might well ask what any of them signify. And then more generally ‒ What’s the function of language in the ‘conversation of humanunkind’? How do we use words? What do they do for us? What kind of ‘reality’ do they represent? What do they have to do with ‘communication’? Are they anything but a very crude stab at representing what we like to think of as ‘reality’?

In The Glass Bead Game, set in a Castalia of the future, Hermann Hesse calls the 20th Century ‘the Age of the Feuilleton’, when the media served up a trivialities ‘…by the million… They reported on, or rather chatted about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. … A torrent of zealous scribbling poured out over every ephemeral incident and in quality, assortment, and phraseology. All this material bore the mark of mass goods rapidly and irresponsibly turned out.’

‘…People have a very firm conviction, or belief, that they speak the same language, that they understand one another…’ The fact is ‒ they don’t. A biased media uses this insight to manipulate minds: it knows it is safe to churn out words and that nobody is likely to be able to piece together all the contradictions involved.

For a lark, I recently participated briefly in a ludicrous Farcebook exchange (something Hesse would no doubt have scorned) with some local Brexit fanatics. I attempted to point out that, quite irrespective of the arguments for and against leaving the European Union, Referendum voters had been bamboozled by abstractions ‒ word-sounds commonly used by demagogues to brainwash people into voting for their cause. For example, in the current context, ‘control’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘democracy’, ‘leadership’, ‘immigration’, ‘our country’, ‘the people’, their ‘will’, and so on. I challenged them to say what they thought these words actually meant in the context of the Referendum. I pointed out that such words easily become unexamined common currency in a so-called ‘debate’ on the assumption that everybody knows just what they mean ‒ thus subscribing to mass linguistic confusion. I didn’t actually use these words but it’s the gist of what I meant! The level of ‘debate’ goes off with the fairies into the heady realm of abstraction while the solid sticks & stones of things are left miles below.

My local Brexit fanatics either would or could not even address the idea, let alone try to offer something of an opposition. They resorted to the usual ad hominem abuse. I pointed out that such abstract words, meaningless in themselves, gave people the infinite space to fill them with just whatever ‘meaning’ they chose to inject into them so that they then inevitably voted for something that was their very own invention.

They voted for something that was their very own invention; they voted for their own idea not for anything that might be called ‘objective’.

It’s Worth Playing This Little Game…

Entertain an abstraction ‒ any one of the examples above will do ‒ and notice how your inner voice immediately swings into action to provide ‘meaning’. An abstraction always offers space to determine ‘meaning’. Meanings are individually constructed. Gurdjieff calls the phenomenon ‘Internal Considering’. When a million voters indulge in this same game the result is a million different ways of ‘thinking’. It ought not to surprise anybody that the Referendum ‘winners’ can’t agree on a way forward ‒ there was no agreement about the reasons for leaving the EU in the first place; millions of different angles cannot be reduced to purely digital alternatives.

After I’d had my amusement playing around with Deaf Ears and after suffering the unpleasant characteristics of others for a length of time that I deemed sufficient, I eventually blocked my assailants. I was described, with what Mr Polly called ‘allitrition’s artful aid’, as ‘boring Blundell’ because I ‘went on about abstractions’ when they were quite clear that my trouble was being in denial about the Absolute Truth of their Brekshit cause.

The crowd neither wants nor seeks knowledge, and the leaders of the crowd, in their own interests, try to strengthen its fear & dislike of everything new and unknown. The slavery in which mankind lives is based upon this fear. It is even difficult to imagine all the horror of this slavery. We do not understand what people are losing. But in order to understand the cause of this slavery it is enough to see how people live, what constitutes the aim of their existence, the object of their desires, passions, & aspirations, of what they think, of what they talk, what they serve & what they worship.

George Gurdjieff

All abstractions (such as, in the current context, ‘control’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘democracy’, ‘leadership’, ‘immigration’, ‘our country’, ‘the people’, their ‘will’) stimulate internal dialogue ‒ they never sustain themselves as ‘just words’ ‒ they require to be filled with meaning.

Abstractions are ‘Thought Viruses’

They infect what passes for thinking. Thinking becomes diseased.

In the turmoil following the absurd vote to ‘withdraw from Europe’ the abstraction ‘leadership’ kept on being thrown about as though everybody agreed on the meaning of the word. It’s only necessary to point out that the authoritarian personality will fill the word with loud mouth authoritarianism ‒ will require the passion of a Hitler ‒ while what we might call the ‘quiet democrat’ is likely to opt for the kind of person who leads undemonstratively from the rear, like the Baggage Handler in Hesse’s Journey to the East. We identify with our leaders.

I’m going on… The description ‘Boring Blundell’ is very accurate as far as somebody who is prepared to be bored is concerned! But I suppose I do go on a bit ‒ it’s been pointed out to me before in relation to my Globs. I’m unrepentent! There are so many angles to pursue. It seems to me that in general, spoon-fed by triviality and idiot-chat, the human race is less and less able or willing to engage in what I’d call small chunk, ‘genuine thinking’ ‒ which perhaps says something about human attention spans in general. I don’t know whether it’s a recent phenomenon, but I call it ‘the Blue Peter Effect’. Blue Peter was a UK children’s TV programme: it featured five minute slots on this & that and programmed kids into expecting presentations on which they didn’t really have to concentrate for too long. I compare its effect on intellectual expectations with that of Children’s Hour; first broadcast in 1922, it was one of the earliest radio programmes and was part of the BBC’s ethos until 1964 and had a satisfying mix of relatively serious plays and talks, including Helen Henschel on music (where I cut my teeth) and Nature Parliament in which a serious panel answered serious questions about things that happen in nature. It was what I was brought up on. I listened enthusiastically daily at five o’clock teatime for an hour for many years. Everything was low key & serious without all the A Influence razzmatazz that it’s considered children need nowadays. Now I think about it, the need to concentrate was more intense: one learned to concentrate for longer periods. The younger generation has been razzmatazzed.

How do we learn to concentrate? Not by being content with sound bites and a sense of ‘always hurrying on’. Needs peace & quiet & time to consider…

On the other hand part of me always asks why should anybody pay attention to what I think; why do I bother to attempt these long-winded word-assemblages? That’s one of my own ‘thought viruses’. For a long time, for fear of being ‘boring’, it got in the way of my ever opening my mouth! I was called ‘shy’.

What is a Thought Virus?

NLP pushes the phenomenon. It’s a belief possessing negative implications whose origin lies possibly long-buried in our other-than-conscious mind; it’s more or less impossible to discover where & how such a belief came from without a lot of delving into our past ‒ we’ve no idea where we caught the virus, it’s an other-than-conscious mental pattern that helps to determine behaviour. We harbour the virus; it feeds off our energies; it can take over when we are required to face a challenge and feel helpless or up against it in some way. It’s the result of programming, upbringing, education, people we’ve met ‒ the rebuffs, disappointments, set backs not resourcefully dealt with.

Abstractions, seeds of disease, facilitate thought viruses; they block thinking, drain the energy out of it.

How do thought viruses work? One has to investigate the things that drain resolve. I can only think how thought viruses have affected me. As an example, I fight shy of producing poems, music, artwork for competitions. I have long rented out space in my being to a thought virus that appears on competitive occasions. Because I’ve done plenty of what in NLP is called ‘time-lining’ I know exactly how, where & when I caught this particular infection. To ponder it in the first place I literally walked back into the past with a question in mind: ‘Where did this avoidance of competitive occasions originate?’

It’s a curious thing but when you get to the moment-when, you don’t discover it ‒ it just leaps out at you. So I walked back down the years. The moment leapt out at me when I got to the age of 16: I had written a few poems; I sent one to Time and Tide, a literary-political journal long since defunct ‒ they sent me a rejection slip. After that, on the very rare occasions when I entertained the thought of presenting any kind of artefact for display or performance it was always accompanied by the mantra ‘I won’t win’ or ‘This won’t be any good’. I did not resolve this till I was approaching 60! The time-line exercise got rid of the virus simply by bringing the process into consciousness. I still avoid competitive events but only because they seem to me to be a waste of time & energy. I do things now from a conviction that they just have to be done; I push things out into the world without bothering about consequences; their production ‘satisfies my soul’. The virus is eliminated. It’s nice when two or three people respond to what I do but external recognition is not important.

Learning to avoid competition had a Positive Intention for me: it was a defensive gesture helping me to avoid ‘failure’.

The pattern was, “Oops, I’m being asked to compete!” trigger thought virus ‒ “I’ll always get a rejection slip!”. Knowing the pattern robs the thought virus of its power to infect.

Since around 1987 I have just made poems, music, works of art and experimental novels without stopping to think about consequences.

This is the way out of limiting thought viruses: ‘anything is possible…’ ‘I can’.

Another example reconstructed from the behaviour I observed in my very disabled sister. When she was a few years old she overheard doctors telling my mother that she’d only live till she was about 40. I remember her waking in the night screaming out that she didn’t want to die. I don’t know how she did it but she developed a dogged determination to defy the doctors’ prognosis. Perhaps we had the same absolute bloody-mindedness that I know I have in my repertoire. I wonder how she managed to avoid the effects of what could have been a killer thought virus. How did she do that? Perhaps by simply keeping what the doctors had said in her mind, facing up to it, and having a determination to prove them wrong ‒ which she did by 25 years.

My old mum had a thought virus she never got rid of: ‘I don’t do long pieces of reading’: it successfully ensured that she always chose to skip long prose paragraphs in novels, trotting her eyes down the page for the next bit of conversation. I suppose I could have been infected by this. Somehow I developed an immunity. How did I do that? I wonder if she said sometime, “I don’t read the long boring bits!” with the emphasis on ‘don’t read the long boring bits!’ which incited me, being what they call a Polarity Responder, to do just the opposite! I jumped to attention at the call of the hidden imperative ‒ read the long boring bits!

An Otherness-thought-virus…

There’s a deeply embedded thought virus which can infect the absolute capacity to be oneself: instead of building on what you have, it creates a lurking desire to be ‘as good/clever/observant/athletic/handsome as other people are. An Otherness-thought-virus plants a constant wish to be other than what you are.

I suffered from such a virus for many years: ‘What will it be like when I function as other people do?’

By the age of 10, apparently, I use to express deviant opinions of some kind ‒ I don’t remember what they were so perhaps they have come to be the norm for me! I do recall standing on the kitchen step around 1943/44 and saying to my mother, “I don’t suppose that Hitler is all bad…” I was whisked inside lest the neighbours heard what I said!

When I was 10, my mother’s mother sought to re-assure her by saying, “Don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it by the time he’s 30…” I became infected by the Otherness-thought-virus there and then: it goes like this, “When am I going to be other than how I am right now?” The corollary was that I ought to have been different from how I was; things ought to have been different. Life was always about to start in some new mode. For many years I found it difficult to face up to my ‘real being’, warts & all. Have I done so?

Accepting various recognitions (as teacher, creative person, thinker, poem-writer, whistler of obscure pieces of music, not to mention a lot of Beethoven) has always been difficult but I have come to laugh at it all as Absurd in the technical Sartrean sense which leaves just me functioning in the world in the only way I know how.

Thought viruses prevent the healthy functioning of the individual. We all suffer from them; like the common cold they creep up on us unawares…

How do we cultivate a immune system? How might a political leader present their case in order to counteract the effect of a thought virus. It was through spreading the contagion of thought viruses that the EU-quitters won their absurd case.


First, we have to grasp fully the concept ‘thought virus’. Think what exactly a virus is. In modern times (since 1728) a virus is an ‘agent that causes infectious disease’. In the late 14th Century it meant a ‘venomous substance’, from the Latin virus ‘poison, sap of plants, slimy liquid’. Sanskrit visam ‘poison’, transmuted into the Latin viscum ‘sticky substance, birdlime’.

So a virus is a something or other with viscosity ‒ a ‘venomous substance’ that sticks to you. If you were aware of it you would take steps to scrub it off.

Since 1972 it’s been a metaphor in computing. A computer virus is a program or piece of code that is loaded on to your computer without your knowledge and runs against your wishes. It sticks there.

Computer viruses are manufactured. A simple one can make a copy of itself over and over again and is relatively easy to produce. Even such a simple virus is dangerous because it will quickly use all available memory and bring the system to a halt.

A ‘thought virus’ is a mental program deriving from something we’ve coded for ourselves sometime in the past in the way that I’ve suggested. We choose to invent a thought virus; it can infect our entire system in a jiffy. Like an original ordinary virus, thought viruses can also replicate themselves in one’s psycho-physical machine. One’s thinking process is hijacked ‒ it comes to a halt.


For a computer system there are antivirus programs which periodically check it for the best-known types of viruses. Can we develop our own anti-thought-virus program? Can we become thought-virus-resistant? What anti-thought-virus mental programs can we develop? Perhaps we need to practise exercises like these:-

Instead of merely accumulating, one must try to keep constantly the organic sensation of the body. Sense one’s body again, continually without interrupting one’s ordinary occupations ‒ to keep a little energy, to take the habit… Wet a handkerchief, wring it out, put it on your skin. The contact will remind you. When it is dry, begin again. The key to everything ‒ remain apart. Our aim is to have constantly a sensation of oneself, of one’s individuality. This sensation cannot be expressed intellectually, because it is organic. It is something which makes you independent, when you are with other people.

GI Gurdjieff

Thought Viruses and Viscosity ‒ processes that stick to us… What is the solvent?

For Sartre ‘…the viscous, that sticky sliminess of the world’, has a way of revealing an individual notion of ‘reality’. Viscosity is a something-or-other in the interface between observation and whatever’s ‘out there’. Stuff sticks to us. Without realising it, we take the sticky qualities of things to express their ‘reality’ for us. Oiliness, sliminess, viscosity become an inchoate metaphor for our being in the world. Remember that oiliness, sliminess, viscosity are characteristics of the common virus!

Mary Warnock quotes from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness:-

The honey which slides off my spoon on to the honey in the jar first sculptures the surface by fastening itself on to it in relief, and its fusion with the whole is presented as a gradual sinking, a collapse which appears at once as deflation… If an object which I hold in my hands is solid I can let it go when I like; its inertia symbolises my total power… . [But the viscous reverses things]. I, the conscious being, am suddenly compromised. I open my hand. I want to let go of the viscous object and it sticks to me, it draws me, it sucks at me. Its mode of being is neither the reassuring inertia of the solid nor a dynamism like that in water, which is exhausted in fleeing from me. It is a soft yielding action…. It lives obscurely under my fingers… At this moment I suddenly understand the snare of the viscous; it is a fluidity which holds and compromises me… The viscous seems to lend itself to me, it invites me; for a body of viscosity at rest is not noticeably different from a body of very dense liquid. But it is a trap. The viscous is like a liquid seen in a nightmare, where all its properties are animated by a sort of life and turn back against me… A sugary viscosity is the ideal of the viscous; it symbolises the sugary death of consciousness, like the death of a wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns.


Here’s another way of looking at this via the concept of identification.

We identify all the time. It keeps us asleep. We identify with our thoughts, feelings and whatever happens in life. Not properly conscious, we operate mechanically. We take this for normality. We become absorbed in things, lost in what we are doing. This is called identification. Whatever you become interested in, or associated with, sticks to you; it takes over your being like a virus and a ‘you-in yourself’ no longer exists.

I am identified now with getting my ideas straight on the screen and suddenly become aware of the music that’s playing through my headphones which had faded into the background. When we’re not identifying with this we identify with that; one identifying event displaces another ‒ adding to the typing/thinking trance, there comes another moment of identifying because I suddenly notice the green-leafed summer scene outside my window ‒ and there’s a fourth when I become aware of my hands jumping up & down on the keyboard and so on. What might be added to experience if/when we became able to focus on everything that comes at us thus with ‘divided attention’. What if I could focus on many things all at the same time? It might increase our repertoire of ways of concentrating.

Whatever else it might do, divided attention enhances discrimination; instead of being stuck in one mode of being it offers the opportunity for making comparisons… I type. I think, I look out of the window, I notice my hands responding to thinking ‒ what is the difference between these experiences?

Asleep in life, we are identified with every thought we have, every feeling and mood, every sensation, every movement. It’s just ‘life’. The way it is. At moments during the day we could learn to challenge ourselves with asking ‒ what am I identifying with right now? What word? what event? what opinion? what favourite idea? There might be things we’re identifying with that are unnecessary to the task in hand. What is it that’s taken me away from knowing who & where I am? What Attentional Virus has attacked my being? STOP! Remain apart!

Attentional Viruses

There are many different kinds of Attentional Viruses. We identify with them. The common feature is that they all get us to look at things askew. For example:-

‘This AV is called getting angry’ = being in Getting-angry-I
‘This AV is called feeling hurt and left out’ = Being-in-feeling-hurt-I
‘This AV is called being disappointed’ = Being-in-experiencing-disappointment-I
‘This AV is called being disorganised’ = Being-in-disorganised-I
‘This AV is called being enthusiastic’ = Being-in-over-zealous-I

Identification wastes energy. Awareness of the act of dividing attention increases energy ‒ the resulting ability to shift attention helps tell us what’s important and what isn’t. Learning to make a shift away from an ‘I’ that’s identifying with something unnecessary (such as trying to win an argument, as I was briefly in my Farcebook exchange) towards something more important. ‘One must not do anything unnecessary’, said Ouspensky.

In a moment of not being identified you seem to be in a quiet, central place in yourself and you are aware of the different ‘I’s and events trying to advance and capture your attention. It’s like keeping a gap, maintained by some invisible protector, (Meta-I, Protecting-I) between you and the crowd of things. This can be called a ‘Work-state’ as opposed to a ‘Life-state’. So, in order to have the blissful experience of a moment of non-identification it is necessary to put yourself in a ‘Work-state’ every day.

There are many ways of doing this including: remembering your aim and remembering yourself at the same time: ‘this is me here and now reviewing something I’ve read in connection with the system that’s not a system; going over in my mind what happened the previous day…’ Or else bringing to mind something you want to be more conscious of regarding another person or a certain situation; trying to see events and people in the light of the non-system.

Struggling against identification needs practice first in easier moments. As PDOuspensky said: ‘You cannot learn to swim if you fall in the sea during a storm. You must learn in calm water. Then perhaps if you fall in you’ll be able to swim…’


Eliminating thought viruses requires breaking their effects down, discovering their origin, making comparisons, forming discrete discriminations. We can do that with the thought viruses of abstractionism.

Take ‘Control’ and ‘Sovereignty’ ‒ two abstractions by which people were conned into voting to quit the European Union’; they identified uncritically with airy nothings ‒ abstractions.

It’s not that abstractions are totally meaningless; they are shorthand terms, pure representations, of a complex set of factors & events; they result in our losing touch with all the variables; they are airy nothings in themselves.

Unpacking abstractions is an intellectually satisfying thing to do: it harnesses the resources of our whole being ‒ intellect, feeling, action.

Let’s do that with ‘Control’ and ‘Sovereignty’. They relate to ‘Leadership’: when you have personal control over events you have power/authority over them; you are able to lead things your way.

It hardly needs pointing out that the immediate result of the Brexiteers voting for the abstraction ‘Control’ has been that things are spiralling downwards ‘out of control’ ‒ markets falling, monetary collapse, companies closing. ‘Control’ has been lost, whatever that means!

And the two major parties in the UK are plunged into a ‘Leadership’ crisis. The ‘debate’ seems to centre on personality rather than policy ‒ ‘who do we want?’ rather than ‘where do we want to go or be led?’ Or even ‘how do we want to be led?’

The sole challenger to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party says he doesn’t have the qualities of ‘Leadership’ which enables her to hide behind an abstraction rather than deal with the question of ‘where do we want to be?’

We need a strategy for analysing the term ‘leadership’. On the Enneagram, a powerful analytical tool said to be thousands of years old, Fixation 8 is about the qualities of leadership. Take your pick!

1. A Top Form leader is one who

• has a charismatic aura of absolute self-mastery being able to inspire others to action
• is seen by others as a benefactor, creating opportunities for peace & prosperity
• inspires loyalty & devotion
• is able, given a high degree of courage both physical & moral, to restrain any tendency to naked power
• is self-reliant so that set-backs become opportunities ‒ always rises to new challenges
• does not suffer from self-doubt and is not given to introspection or concern with identity
• operates with a kind of innocent & balanced impartiality
• is seen as a protector and provider
• inspires others to work for something larger than themselves
• is benign, possessing great intrinsic authority

2. Leaders who act out of self-interest rather than altruistically fail ultimately because they are

• rugged individualists, adventurers, entrepreneurs, intent on own ends
• not cooperative ‒ not good team players
• driven by the profit motive ‒ money is power
• content to make deals
• on the descent from being healthy leaders towards being dominating bosses
• believers that power is not an abstraction but something you have to succeed at
• inclined to feel that expanding a sphere of influence expands sense of self
• literally and metaphorically craving power to express self
• into domination ‒ being the Big Shot with an egocentric view of the truth
• happy to rule by patronage in order to get supporters
• unlikely to back down because pride is at stake
• of an authoritarian cast of mind

3. Then there are extreme cases of so-called leaders who need to be taken out somehow. They

• become ruthless tyrants, belligerent and bullying ‒ leadership is being tough
• believe that might is right ‒ the law of the jungle applies
• think expedience is all
• forbid all questioning of their commands; only intimidate those they sense are vulnerable ‒ have to be sure they can succeed
• are impossible to be intimate with since friendliness and cooperation are taken to be signs of weakness
• have no compunction about lying, cheating, stealing, reneging on promises
• act in a way that suggests ‘More power ‒ less need to justify’
• are desperate to hold on to power
• have delusional ideas about being god-like
• set themselves up as super-people, beyond morality
• lack any capacity of self-restraint
• want to destroy before being destroyed
• believe that survival is all (‘Better Dead Than Red’!)
• defy death ultimately by stamping on others

Such a taxonomy provides a detailed analysis of the abstraction ‘Leadership’. The key characteristic of somebody with top leadership qualities is ‘a charismatic aura of absolute self-mastery’, that is to say, the ability to be a leader to oneself.

Unfortunately, individuals with an authoritarian mentality can only believe that an authoritarian leader of ‘types’ 2 and 3 is worthy to be a leader. Authoritarianism is a very persuasive abstraction. Authoritarianism is rife. The Brexit campaign was run by people of an authoritarian cast of mind; it was voted for by those with a similar cast of mind.

…when the conquest of nature has secured the possibility of nourishment for everybody, and when the growth of technique has made large-scale co-operation profitable, the conflict of man with man becomes an anachronism, and should end in a political and economic unification such as is sought by the advocates of world government. By this means an external harmony of man with man can be established, but it will not be a stable harmony until men have achieved a genuine harmony within themselves, and have ceased to regard a part of themselves as an enemy fo be vanquished.

Bertrand Russell: New Hopes for a Changing World (1951)


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Bracketing – a Way of Thinking (R10)

Early to rise…

It’s 4 July 2003…  Woke up this morning (4.15am) thinking, “Brackets!”  Explosion of ideas got me up and at my desk in the hour before dawn which the Sufi says is an hour out of paradise..

Where did I get the notion of bracketing from?  It’s long been part of my being. It’s a way of thinking; a way of sorting ideas & experiences—keeping them separate & up for scrutiny.

Husserl & Phenomenology

Bracketing: ‘the analysis of what is available to introspection in its generality, without making use of any extraneous knowledge of causes, or of natural laws which apply to the outside world… The phenomenologist, according to Husserl, sets aside the normal standpoint or performs an epoché: puts into brackets everything she may happen to know or assume about what causes experience… stands apart from [experience]… concentrates on pure experience, as she has it, without presuppositions or concepts derived from elsewhere than the experience itself…’    (Mary Warnock: The Philosophy of Sartre)

Phenomenology is the isolation for study of pure phenomena as they present themselves to us. The exciting thing for me is that the process of bracketing which I’ve used in all kinds of ways not necessarily linked to this starting point for many years—my signature on the front cover of Mary Warnock’s book is dated 1958!—has come to be part of who I am.

It’s easy, for instance, to attach the concept of bracketing to the analysis of the Multiplicity of ‘I’s: it’s exactly what we’re doing when we go from one ‘I’ to another; the process does not deny the ‘I’s that we might have thought we’d left behind—it simply puts them, including the one you’re in now, into brackets. “Yesterday I was in Being-happy-I; today I’m in Being-miserable-I…” Only-kidding-I at work… but if this were true it would mean that this thing with the label CB had leapt from one closed bracket to another overnight.

As in maths, from my dim recollection, brackets can be multiplied together in all sorts of complicated ways! ‘I’s multiply themselves.

One can use Bracketing deliberately in order to keep objects of thought, including ‘I’s, separate from one another for contemplation—which is not at all to deny that, outside the brackets, ‘each thing implies the universe, whose obvious trait is complexity’ (Borges in the Intro to Doctor Brodie’s Report) So, in the case of human thinking one might say that there are three states: Non-reflection = being asleep, in Gurdjieff’s terms;  Reflection = being present to oneself;  Pre-reflective cogito = self-remembering or being in a meta-state.  This is a way of bracketing off models of human thinking. In ‘reality’ they get all scrambled up which is called life as it is lived but which can also be very debilitating and can lead to a lack of clarity. Clarity I presuppose to be an ideal kind of state.  Aristotle, or somebody in that neck of history, proclaimed, quite rightly in my view, that the unreflective life is not worth living; reflection seeks clarity.

The NLP slogan SEPARATION PRECEDES INTEGRATION offers a really exciting practical way to work on reflection.  Bracket first then multiply the brackets (x + y)(z – 9) = xz-9y+yz-9x. If x = a box of flowers,  y = a nanny-goat and z = the Eiffel Tower what’s the answer?

How Does Bracketing Work?

On p108 of The Age of Analysis (Morton White) we find Husserl, the originator of the idea of bracketing, giving a ‘concrete’ picture of the process. This is a good example of how one can move from standpoint to standpoint, moving through different perspectives, bracket to bracket. Notice how he presupposes that ‘I’ represents the same unexamined entity throughout; to get to the notion of the Multiplicity of ‘I’s, which might have been very useful to his analysis, requires additional bracketing, a further meta-position.  How many ‘I’s in this passage?

I am present to myself continually as someone who perceives, represents, thinks, feels, desires, and so forth; and for the most part herein I find myself related in present experience to the fact-world which is constantly about me. But I am not always so related, not every cogito in which I live has for its cogitatum things, men, objects or contents of one kind or another. Perhaps I am busied with pure numbers and the laws they symbolize: nothing of this sort is present in the world about me, this world of ‘real fact’. And yet the world of numbers also is there for me, as the field of objects with which I am arithmetically busied; while I am thus occupied some numbers or constructions of a numerical kind will be at the focus of vision, girt by an arithmetical horizon partly defined, partly not; but obviously this being-there-for-me, like the being there at all, is something very different from this. The arithmetical world is there for me only when and so long as I occupy the arithmetical standpoint.

But the natural world, the world in the ordinary sense of the word, is constantly there for me, so long as I live naturally and look in its direction. I am then at the ‘natural standpoint’, which is just another way of stating the same thing. And there is no need to modify these conclusions when I proceed to appropriate to myself the arithmetical world, and other similar ‘worlds’, by adopting the corresponding standpoint. The natural world still remains ‘present’, I am at the natural stand-point after as well as before, and in this respect undisturbed by the adoption of new standpoints. If my cogito is active only in the worlds proper to the new standpoints, the natural world remains unconsidered; it is now the background for my consciousness as act, but it is not the encircling sphere within which an arithmetical world finds its true and proper place. The two worlds are present together but disconnected, apart, that is, from their relation to the Ego, in virtue of which I can freely direct my glance or my acts to the one or to the other.

Application of Bracketing to Literature, Film & Life

A dismissive critical gesture towards the brilliant novels of Virginia Woolf is that ‘nobody seems to work’—it is said that the characters are a bunch of middle-upper class layabouts who have fallen on soft times.  Similarly with the novels of Iris Murdoch… When you put this in brackets, you can just get on with appreciating the curious situations in which the characters find themselves, the odd relationships, the fictional philosophy, the exciting convolutions and surprises—all of these in their separate brackets.

So bracketing is a way of appreciating authors ‘in-spite-of…’ critical objections.

Take anything that seems to jar or fit badly and put it in brackets to notice what you might be missing by allowing contamination to work its sullen way.

Another example of using bracketing would be in the appreciation of wayward films. For example, I have often tried to make complete sense of the brilliant Humphrey Bogart film The Big Sleep. The plot seems to fall apart but the whole thing is such a great experience when you bracket (incomprehensible plot) against (marvellous set-piece sequences) and just leave them to jostle one another in the mind.

The (extreme violence) of the film Blade-runner is to be set easily against its (sensitivity and humanity)…

(My liking for violent films)   v   (my Pacifism) betokens an acceptance of the Beast in me.

When I had what they call a ‘career’ I operated the brackets (work) &  (home) as a successful survival mechanism

(Life of the Intellect)   v   (Domesticity)             Fact of life

(Tick-tock time)    v      (No-time)                     Serial time

And so on…

Bracketing and the Pendulum


If the bottom of the Pendulum represents the characteristics of Mastering-I then initial separation becomes part of the Mastering-I process.   Pure impressions from general identification.

Buffers and Bracketing

Buffers is a Fourth Way concept denoting the process people resort to when they operate conflicting, unacknowledged, unthought-out contradictions—for example: when a so-called ‘Christian’ leader of the Western world whose Master supposedly preached ‘resist not evil’ is willing, rationalising that it’s on account of ‘democracy’, to bomb innocent civilians for the sake of acquiring sources of oil. Buffering might perhaps be an example of what you could call ‘dishonest’ or ‘self-delusional’ bracketing; the kind of bracketing that helps to maintain  living with comfortably with oneself whilst not practising what one preaches, not sticking to principles.  The brackets of Buffering are kept completely separate; buffers put out of action any scruples a person might have according to some other part of their thinking-being; buffers consign scruples to the waste-bin, the never-to-be-admitted part of the psyche.

True bracketing, by contrast, puts things into temporary disconnection: here one is always aware of what’s in the other brackets; the separation gives you the opportunity to consider your actions reflectively and healthily without denying the possibility of contradiction.  Consider the case of a friend who has nurtured a strawberry plant, brought home from her mother’s garden, through the summer and is now contemplating the five ripe strawberries that are the result of her efforts; the rest of the family happens to be ‘in a Mood’ so she decides to eat the five strawberries herself.  She is surprised that she doesn’t feel guilty but the action of eating the strawberries was not in order to ‘get her own back’ on the family (=making accounts) but simply to savour (in brackets) the fruits of her own caring for the plant; the fact (in brackets) that the family was ‘in a mood’ is a factor but it is in brackets.  She serves the family bought strawberries (in brackets) so they will participate to some extent in her treat.   Keeping all the bits of the total events separate from one another enables everybody to be taken care of in their own unique way.  This friend is a uniquely caring person.

A corollary of all this is that real ‘Consciousness’ is a vacancy or an emptiness…  essentially… a gap between thought and the object of thought…’   Sartre has the concept of the ‘pre-reflective cogito’ which we might call meta-cogitation in which ‘consciousness knowingly places itself at a distance from its objects…’  Understanding and enthusiastically embracing the gap of consciousness relies on non-identification with the outside world or with one’s own thoughts-etc in Mr G’s terms; the result is to be able to receive ‘pure impressions’—the highest form of food.  Subsequently, this gives one the power to affirm or deny.  ‘Conscious beings are essentially free, not only to act as they choose, but to see the world under the headings and categories that they choose.’ (Quotations in this paragraph are from Mary Warnock: The Philosophy of Sartre)

Maurice Nicoll says somewhere that we have a right to choose not to be negative, not to put ourselves through unnecessary suffering.

Consciousness as a Gap, Vacancy or Emptiness

Husserl talks of bringing all thinking back to ‘immediate data’, shorn of all possible conceptualisation, ‘free from all theory’.  All Reality that comes about mediated through any kind of presupposition ‘has now no validity for us; it must be set in brackets, untested indeed but also uncontested.  Similarly all theories and sciences, positivistic or otherwise, which relate to this world, however good they may be, succumb to the same fate.’  The bracketing process can be applied to anything that forms the subject of human thought.

Charles Fort, whose memory has been debased into the Fortean Times which you can buy on station bookstalls, wrote a great book called Lo! (1931) which I bought in the Cinema in Hay-on-Wye (or it might have been the fire station!) Hay-on-Wye is the secondhand book capital of England. Lo! is a compendium of the inexplicable things that come within the undeniable province of human experience; its underlying assumption is that everything that humans seem to have experienced from the phenomenon of  ‘Spontaneous Human Combustion’, that Dickens reported on in some novel that I can’t remember the name of (Martin Chuzzlewit, it might have been), to visions of cities and battles in the sky, is worthy of serious attention in the expectation that sooner or later after diligent collection and comparison ‘the underlying oneness in all confusions’ would begin to manifest itself; further, that the human desire to understand results in too early closure; whatever doesn’t fit is just discarded…  Charles Fort was a very ironical fellow, person after my own heart!  A master of the art of putting things in brackets to preserve their notional integrity, though he’d never have described it thus.

… mystery versus the fishmonger… Upon May 28th, 1881, near the city of Worcester, England, a fishmonger, with a procession of carts, loaded with several kinds of crabs and periwinkles, and with a dozen energetic assistants, appeared at a time when nobody on a busy road was looking. The fishmonger and his assistants grabbed sacks of periwinkles, and ran in a frenzy, slinging the things into fields on both sides of the road. They raced to gardens, and some assistants, standing on the shoulders of other assistants, had sacks lifted to them, and dumped sacks over the high walls. Meanwhile other assistants, in a dozen carts, were furiously shovelling out periwinkles, about a mile along the road. Also, meanwhile, several boys were busily mixing in crabs. They were not advertising anything. Above all there was secrecy. The cost must have been hundreds of dollars. They appeared without having been seen on the way, and they melted away equally mysteriously. There were houses all around, but nobody saw them.

Would I be so kind as to tell what, in the name of some slight approximation to sanity, I mean by telling such a story ?

But it is not my story. The details are mine, but I have put them in, strictly in accordance with the circumstances. There was, upon May 28th, 1881, an occurrence near Worcester, and the conventional explanation was that a fishmonger did it. Inasmuch as he did it unobserved, if he did it, and inasmuch as he did it with tons upon acres, if he did it, he did it as I have described, if he did it.

In Land and Water, June 4, 1881, a correspondent writes that, in a violent thunderstorm, near Worcester, tons of periwinkles had come down from the sky, covering fields and a road, for about a mile. In the issue of June 11th, the Editor of Land and Water writes that specimens had been sent to him. He notes the mysterious circumstance… that appears in virtually all the accounts. He comments upon an enormous fall of sea creatures, unaccompanied by sand, pebbles, other shells, or seaweed.

In the Worcester Daily Times, May 3, it is said that, upon the 28th, news had reached Worcester of a wonderful fall from the sky, of periwinkles on Cromer Gardens Road, and spread far around in fields and gardens. Mostly, people of Worcester were incredulous, but some had gone to the place. Those who had faith returned with periwinkles.

Two correspondents then wrote that they had seen the periwinkles upon the road before the storm, where probably a fishmonger had got rid of them. So the occurrence conventionalised, and out of these surmises arose the story of the fishmonger, though it has never been told before, as I have told it.

Mr. J. Lloyd Bozward, a writer whose notes on meteorological subjects are familiar to readers of scientific periodicals of this time, was investigating, and his findings were published in the Worcester Evening Post, June 9th. As to the story of  the fishmonger, note his statement that the value of periwinkles was 16 shillings a bushel. He says that a wide area on both sides of the road was strewn with periwinkles, hermit crabs, and small crabs of an unascertained species. Worcester is about 30 miles from the mouth of the River Severn, or say about 50 miles from the sea. Probably no fishmonger in the world ever had, at one time, so many periwinkles, but as to anybody having got rid of a stock, because of a glutted market, for instance, Mr. Bozward says: “Neither upon Saturday, the 28th, nor Friday, the 27th, was there such a thing procurable in Worcester as a live periwinkle…” Gardens as well as fields were strewn. There were high walls around these gardens. Mr. Bozward tells of about 10 sacks of periwinkles, of a value of about £20, in the markets of Worcester, that, to his knowledge, had been picked up. Crowds had filled pots and pans and bags and trunks before he got to the place. “In Mr. Maund’s garden, two sacks were filled with them.” It is his conclusion that the things fell from the sky during the thunderstorm.

There are extraordinary occurrences, and conventionalisation cloaks them, and the more commonplace the cloakery, the more satisfactory. Periwinkles appear upon a tract of land, through which there is a road. A fishmonger did it.

But the crabs and the fishmonger—and if the fishmonger did the periwinkles, did he do the crabs, if he did it?

Or the crabs and the whirlwind—and, if the periwinkles were segregated from pebbles and seaweed, why not from the crabs, if segregation did it ?

The strongest point for the segregationists is in their own mental processes, which illustrate that segregations, whether by wind action, or not, do occur. If they have periwinkles and crabs to explain, and, say, that with a story of a fishmonger, or of a whirlwind, they can explain the periwinkles, though so they cannot explain the crabs, a separation of data occurs in their mentalities. They forget the crabs and tell of the periwinkles.

What happens between the brackets?

Trance and Bracketing

Trance = ‘I’ = bracketed bits of oneself.
Memory-I’s = I-tags = brackets, one ‘I’ set against another.

Rediscovering old memories takes place in brackets, creates brackets; this particular memory was written down and fits the thinking on brackets since it is about the process of bracketing.

The following is a bit of in parenthesis thinking about brackets from 25 years ago (end-1978)

Bracketing: a Technique for Stripping Contradictory Realities of Their Power to Confound

The mind is worked into a turmoil by the confluence of irreconcilable ideas from many random sources; then it contrives to make connections between them which begin to fly off in all directions—a heady feeling emerges, an inability to hold on to the present moment, to see things as they are.  Then you must be ready to note them all down in their separateness before they begin to escape the precise atmosphere of the mind on which they have their starting point.  ‘Separateness’, separating things out is the process of Bracketing; brackets, putting things in parenthesis, can be so useful in thinking things out.  For instance, you can cope with the most impossible situations, people, ideas by putting them, or bits of them, in brackets for the time being—what’s bracketed does not have to remain so forever.  Brackets within brackets.  Brackets make whole, make separate, one idea-etc from another but they also give you great opportunities to multiply things together: so, for instance, you identify a person’s deficiencies (as you see them…) but, at the same time, you see opportunities to make the observation and your perception of them work positively for you.  All this by bracketing off. What’s in the brackets you don’t have to respond to in any way; lack of brackets builds antipathy, cuts off possibilities, releases Negative Emotion, decreases the space in which you can work. Brackets are temporary secure conceptual positions where anxiety, anger, antipathy (things which reduce wholeness) can cease to function, where the small emotions of everyday life don’t have to wallow away at the back of everything.  Everything can lead into a bracket; everything you read is in a bracket; put this piece of writing into a bracket and then multiply it with your own experience to understand the sense {or non-sense} of it.

To make a bracket concrete, handleable, express it as a deliberate fiction {it is not a fiction in the usual sense however—merely part of the idea that we tell ourselves stories}; the fiction is a way of depicting a bracket, a temporary expression of a thought-nexus that can be threaded into all your other thinkings.  For instance, the person you do not trust {express it fictionally—it’s part of your story} for various reasons {express them fictionally} becomes the central bracket around which another bracket can be placed which contains an interpretation of their behaviour {still part of your story} and another round that to make the interpretation relate to other concerns {whatever they may be}; at which point the reading {bracketed off from all these considerations} of a passage in a book {bracketed even within the book…} alerts you to other possibilities.

Jung, Memories, Dreams & Reflections p211

Every evening I wrote conscientiously, for I thought if I did not write, there would be no way for the anima to get at my fantasies.  Also, by writing them out I gave her no chance to twist them into intrigues.  There is a tremendous difference between intending to tell something and actually telling it.  In order to be as honest as possible with myself, I wrote everything down very carefully, following the old Greek maxim: ‘Give away all that thou hast, then shalt thou receive…’

Without brackets, things get ‘twisted into intrigues’.  In story-writing, adopting a third person mode, a kind of bracketing, differentiates self from effects, holds at arm’s length forces that might otherwise be difficult to manage; perhaps this is why some parents adopt the third person stance with little children: “Let mummy do that for you…”

One who has power over him gives him to read a short story by Ray Bradbury—Powerhouse—which is supposed to show him how she conceives of God, which it does… but it also contains a phrase which sums up something which he had haltingly tried to explain to her on and off for a couple of days: ‘He was a capped jug; the contents there for sure’.  What he had been tryting to explain was his need for experience—and now he had the right metaphor—to be a capped jug; the contents there for sure.  It might be a succession of capped jugs or encapsulations.  His need for experience to be like that and his belief that under certain conditions it could be like that.   Bracketed off areas of experience, held tight for inspection were sometimes the only way to survive in a world that insists on togetherness and talking constantly to one another in which everything is constantly twisted into intrigues.

Provided you don’t succumb to the simple-minded happiness drive, life can be a succession of ecstasies that are not lived through without pain or low spots.

This is an I-tag that recalls for me how I was thinking all those years ago: 25 years go into brackets.  Bracketing-I has existed for many years.

All this now in another Glob-bracket ten years on…

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