Arthur: Arthur Zajonc
what questions have been organizing your work? What was the context
of your own life that first gave rise to these questions?
Arthur: That goes
back more than 30 years to my initial study of physics, which was primarily
animated by a longing to come to a deep insight or understanding of
the world around me. I was probably pretty naïve when I was 20
years old, but that was the animating hope.
Otto: When you
were 20 years old, you ventured into studying physics. Where was that?
Arthur: At the
University of Michigan. I had started in engineering and then quickly
transferred into physics, to pure science.
Otto: Where did
your folks come from? Where did you grow up?
Childhood: Living in Two Worlds
Arthur: My father
came from a Polish family. He was the first in his community to go to
college. His parents were illiterate. They were immigrants at the beginning
of the 20th century. So one early childhood memory was my circle of
Polish relatives cavorting and playing pinochle and what have you. You
could almost describe it as a peasant culture translated into the US.
Otto: Where was
Arthur: In New
York City, Staten Island. By contrast, my mother’s side of the
family was more aristocratic. She had grown up in Richmond, Virginia,
and was a Daughter of the American Revolution. Her father had worked
his way up to become president of a large British and American tobacco
company. Visiting them, which we did quite often, was like moving into
a whole other world, with servants and tapestries, Persian rugs, and
But as a child, I saw these as
simply two worlds, two grandparents, and two communities, one the elegant
South and the other, the immigrant population of the Northeast. In some
ways, my mother and father brought these two dimensions of American
culture together—the old traditions of the plantations and elegant
rituals of the South with the rough-and-tumble immigrant North.
I’ve been grateful for both
of those worlds. They’ve given a lot to me and my family. My father
was a practical person who really wanted me to be in some kind of a
practical field – engineering, business, something like that.
I started in engineering primarily because of his interests, but quickly
transferred into the pure sciences, which had always been my interest.
When you’re 18 or 20, you
don’t have a lot of clarity. In retrospect, you can interpret
it in ways that provide the clarity you didn’t have then. But
I do remember really longing for a large view of the world, something
comprehensive, deep, and luminous. I felt that physics would get me
In ’67, when I went to university,
there was a technology and science boom. It was the Sputnik era. Science
and technology were key.
Entering University in 1967
Otto: 1967 was
an interesting time, wasn’t it?
Arthur: Yes, there
was the Vietnam War era and the Civil Rights Movement. The University
of Michigan was an active campus where a lot took place. SDS was born
I participated at the margins of
the counter-cultural revolution. I haven’t been a political radical
or anything of that sort. My interests have always been more scientific
and philosophical. The things I found most interesting or troubling
were the limitations that I was then discovering at the end of my undergraduate
studies in physics, the limitations of this method. I was trying to
satisfy my large longings through physics, but it was proving more and
more inadequate. As I learned more about physics and became more technically
competent, it seemed physics wasn’t going to provide the answers
I was looking for.
An Empty Vessel
Otto: In retrospect,
how would you articulate the question that back then drove your interest?
For what question were you were looking for an answer?
Arthur: It was
the large question of meaning, of purpose. When I was a junior, I was
extremely discouraged by what I was coming up against in my academic
studies. I’d started off as an A student. The academic stuff wasn’t
so hard; it required some work, but it wasn’t difficult.
But it just didn’t seem to
offer what I was looking for—a longing not just of the intellect,
but also of the heart. I felt like I was going nowhere. Science was
somehow an empty vessel.
By the end of my junior year, I
was going to drop out and try to find some meaningful work, something
that had direct application and provided for the betterment of folks,
rather than pursue increasingly academic and obtuse fields of study.
Otto: An empty
vessel because you were just looking at the exterior?
say empty vessel because I was only dealing with externals. In that
period, I certainly wasn’t so clear. Now, I would say it was a
reductive mode of inquiry. There was really only one kind of answer.
It was in terms of a very simple set of concepts and very simple set
of materialistic primitives. The whole world was supposed to be articulated
in these, and that was supposed to be satisfying.
Intellectually, I could see how
that might be interesting, but it just didn’t speak to the things,
intuitively, that I cared about. Around that time, I made my very first
trip to Europe. I was born in Boston and had lived the first part of
my life on Staten Island. Then, when I was 12, we moved to the Midwest,
near Chicago. I grew up in a very midwestern, suburban neighborhood
of all new houses. I played basketball. But I never had any exposure
to culture. I’d never heard classical music. I’d never seen
a work of art. You’re from Europe. It’s must be hard to
Otto: Never? Until
Arthur: Till I
was in college, age 19, roughly. Then I decided I would become educated
or cultured. At the university there were chamber music concerts. I
saw them advertised and didn’t know what they were. But I started
going to the performances; it was difficult for me to even stay awake,
because the only thing I’d ever heard before was AM rock radio.
I went to the little galleries and the little museum on campus.
Journey of Discovery: “A Whole Universe Opened Up”
Then, between my sophomore and
junior years, I went to Europe for the first time. It is saturated with
history and culture, which the suburban Midwest lacks. We didn’t
even have a downtown in the town where I lived. There was no center
of town, just sprawl.
So my trip was exhilarating in
a way that’s hard to exaggerate. A whole universe opened up.
Otto: Where did
Arthur: I worked
for two months, saved up money, and got a Europass. I went from one
city to the next, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, all the major cities. When
I got out of the train, I would go to the information booth and ask,
“What are the famous things here? Which museum is famous? What
am I supposed to see?” I had no knowledge of any of this; I was
just atabula rasa, a completely blank slate.
In Florence, they sent me to the
Uffizi Gallery. I had never heard of any of the big names, Botticelli,
Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Raphael. These were unknown to me.
So I would stand in front of the
paintings because they were important. I made my way around Europe,
visiting these remarkable buildings, ruins, Rome, the Forum, and the
great museums. I’d listen to concerts, hang out with young people,
and sleep in pensions and the parks.
When I came back, I couldn’t
stop talking about my European experience. I know that I bored everybody
to tears with it back home, because they just couldn’t connect
to any of it. But for me it was a watershed.
Otto: So you were
around 20 or 21?
Arthur: Yes, and
the connection between that world and the world of physics and technology
was not obvious. When I was going to the University of Michigan, I had
to take four non-science courses, out of 40. When I returned from Europe,
I took an art history course, because I wanted to know what had I seen.
A very brilliant lecturer led me
through all the museums that I’d visited in slides and told me
all the stories and history associated with the artists and images.
For the first time, I experienced the joy of history. I mean, as a science
student, you never took history or literature courses. It was all math,
science, and engineering. So that was exhilarating.
That period was when I turned partly
away from the technical dimensions of my education and began to explore
the humanities for the first time. That was turbulent because it upset
the kind of natural trajectory of becoming a scientist or technical
person. It was a cross-cutting experience that opened possibilities
for the human spirit that I had never encountered before.
What Am I Here For? Which Way Do I Go?
In that period, I was experiencing
a crisis of meaning. Here’s this world of Europe, the world of
culture. And here’s the world of technocracy and scientism. Where
do I belong? Where’s meaning to be found? It seems dead over here
in the science side of things. But this is what I’m good at, and
some part of me loves it. At the same time, I want to throw it all away
and rush into a new romance with this other culture. In the 60s and
early 70s, everything’s in upheaval and being challenged.
So I came close to dropping out.
I actually got a D in a physics course. When I went to talk to that
professor, he saw it as a larger, more existential question. I was able
to handle the material; when I took the course again, I got an A. But
it was really the question of why am I here? What am I supposed to do
with my life? Which way do I go? How do I organize my inner and outer
activities and worlds?
Through Professor Ernst Katz, I
came into contact with Goethe, Steiner, and the archetypal questions
living unconsciously within me that became gradually more conscious.
Katz, a physicist, was of Dutch extraction and had these two cultures
very much within him. He introduced me to other people, including a
German professor who was a great scholar of Goethe’s scientific
The Eye of the Needle and Goethean Science
So, during that period, I went
through the eye of the needle and ended up with a very rich set of new
friends who were professors and a circle of students who worked with
them. A small circle of academics, researchers, and quite brilliant
people became very significant mentors for me. Without those two people—the
German professor, Alan Cottrell, and the physics professor, Ernst Katz—I
would have bailed out and left academics.
They held up for me the possibility
that you could bring these orthogonal dimensions of life—the scientific,
technical, and academic—together with the cultural, spiritual,
and meaning dimensions of life, and find some kind of reconciliation.
Otto: So the eye
of the needle is the hidden connection between these two worlds?
Arthur: Yes. It’s
one thing to say that human beings have two sides, the science-knowledge
pole and the other, the meanings-values pole. These are – in Stephen
Jay Gould’s language –two non-overlapping magisteria: the
magisterium of science, knowledge and reason on the one side and the
magisterium of, say, religion, arts and meaning and so forth on the
other side. They have nothing to do with one another; you live a full
life by having some of both, like a balanced diet. You do a little bit
of this and you do a little bit of that.
But these gentlemen at Michigan
suggested that was not the most interesting or best way of connecting
these dimensions of life, but there was a deeper way to bring them into
relationship, by changing our understanding of knowledge itself. That
was what Goethe represented. Goethe knew the romantic tradition and
the great classics. He was fully part of that world of European culture.
He helped define the world of European culture. He also knew enough
science to know that the kind of science that was present – namely,
the Newtonian science that was active in his day – wasn’t
really reconcilable with the arts. You couldn’t really bring those
two worlds together. He refused to go along with that and say that’s
the way things are and we’ll just keep these two worlds separate.
He said there is some way to recraft
science, broaden it, or understand it differently and understand knowledge
differently so that it’s large enough to extend into the world
of aesthetics as well as the moral and spiritual dimensions of life.
These two worlds would then become one world, and the human being, as
opposed to having two parts, could be experienced as really one organic
whole with different aspects, different emphases, but really all of
At 21, I was picking up the study
of Goethe’s science under the tutelage of the German professor,
Alan Cottrell. I actively studied Goethe’s color theory. My first
published paper was on Goethe’s color theory and scientific intuition,
which was published in the American Journal of Physics. I gave talks
to Alan Cottrell’s German classes on color theory and Goethe.
Otto: What then
was the basic proposition Goethe brought into play? How did he try to
reconcile these two worlds?
the way I talked about it then and the way I still think is that Goethe
was first a very thoughtful critic of the unconscious reification of
hypotheses and models. That is to say, the way we do science is largely
one where, with experimental data and because of certain theoretical
and historical predispositions, we create models of the way in which
the world actually is. So we have an atomic theory that is supposed
to account for the light spectrum or whatever. And we have economic
models that are supposed to explain certain kinds of economic processes
that go on between or within countries.
You can ask, what’s the standing
of these models? What’s the ontological status of these models?
Do they have standing in and of themselves? Do the models depict reality
or not? And, of course, in Goethe’s period, most scientists thought
they depicted reality. People thought that models showed us the hidden
way the world was. The world was matter and motion.
Goethe, by contrast, first of all
critiqued those assumptions, that basic attitude. And he took a much
more phenomenological stance. That is to say, he thought that the data
themselves were the reality. The models were useful, but they were basically
a kind of scaffolding, as he described it.
But, Goethe thought that what one
was working with and attempting to come to was not a perfect model,
but an insight. The moment of discovery, where one perceives the hidden
coherence in nature, is the longed-for objective in science, as opposed
to a model that somehow represents that insight in terms of a mathematical
or mechanical system.
The phenomenological engagement
then becomes a kind of focus. So the first factor is, you might say,
a critical function that Goethe brought. This was about 1800. You see
this happening in the philosophy of science effectively around 1900,
because Goethe was about 100 years ahead of the so-called golden era
of the philosophy of science—1900—when the sciences underwent
exactly this kind of critique in the conventional, academic disciplines.
So he anticipated that.
Three Stages of Goethean Science
He also anticipated the phenomenologists,
like Husserl and others. In Goethe’s scientific approach, one
sets aside models and systematically investigates the phenomena themselves
through three stages—what he called the first stage of empirical
phenomena, the second stage of scientific phenomena and the third stage
of pure, archetypal phenomena. Throughout these three stages, one moves
from working with first observations, and empirical phenomena to a systematic
exploration of changing the conditions of appearance, so that you can
distinguish the essential from the unessential factors. That’s
the scientific domain, the scientific phenomena. Then you come, after
having made that whole journey, to a point when you stand before the
archetypal phenomena itself—where only the essential conditions
of appearance are present in the most simple and eloquent instance of
the law, one you see. That is, you’re not writing the law down
mathematically but actually perceiving it.
Otto: What example
would illustrate these stages?
Arthur: The world
of color is filled with casual experiences of color. You open your eyes.
It’s a fall day, the fields are filled with beautiful colors of
nature, and the sky is grey and blue with clouds. The sun is starting
to set; it’s late afternoon.
So you notice the world of color.
You are in the world of the empirical phenomena. You begin to organize
those colors into categories. Some colors are associated with surfaces,
like the color of the table, the books, or the leaves. Other colors
are not, like the blue of the sky. There’s no surface for that
blue patch of sky up there. So we see a definite color, but it’s
not anywhere in particular. It’s not located at 100 meters in
front of us, or 1 mile in front of us. It’s a phenomenon, but
it’s not localized.
So that’s a color experience,
but it’s of a different character. Its nature is different. Goethe,
therefore, made a distinction between what he called chemical colors
on surfaces and physical colors like the blue of the sky. In the latter
case, what he called physical colors were physical only in the sense
that a physical process was generating them, but not locating them on
a surface, which were chemical colors.
The third set would be colors that
are physiological or psychological in origin; when you close your eye
and press on it, you see colors; dream colors is another example. Such
colors don’t depend on an outside stimulus.
So the first thing that starts
to happen is that one moves away from just the naïve experiences
to classifications of experience. One begins to organize one’s
experiences based on their types and based on the conditions of appearance,
as Goethe constantly remarked. And those conditions of appearance can
be varied by the experimenter.
So you begin to realize which conditions
are important and which other ones are not. That helps you to separate
out a certain class of color experiences that share a certain set of
essential conditions of appearance. And then there’s another class
that have a slightly different set of conditions for appearance, or
maybe very different conditions.
Now you’ve got a set of domains.
Let’s say in one of those domains—for example, the domain
that includes the blue of the sky—you can ask, is there a way
of understanding, in terms of actual perception, the simplest features
that constitute the blue sky experience, or the red sunset experience,
something like that? What are the elements that must be present in their
simplest number? There might be complexities that come in, but the simplest
in order to produce, say, the blue experience of a physical color, like
the color of the sky.
For Goethe, the three conditions
were light, darkness, and the turbid medium. You have the light of the
sun, which enters into the turbid medium of the atmosphere. One looks
through that turbid medium, illuminated by light, into darkness, namely,
the depths of space. Take the light away and you have just the depths
of space behind, the night sky. Or take away the turbid atmosphere as
on the moon and again the blue sky disappears. Bring in the combination
of light and atmosphere, look through that turbid medium now illuminated
by light, and you see the blueness of the day sky.
So, an essential condition of appearance
is the luminous quality of the sun, a second is the turbid medium of
the atmosphere, and a third the dark depths of space into which one
looks. However look directly at the sun and you don’t see blue
but the reds of the sunset.
This triad of light, darkness,
and the turbid medium becomes the elementary factors that, in one set
of relationships, give the blue of the sky and, in another, give the
red of the sunset.
Otto: In school,
I remember we did an experiment in which you had a source of light,
you placed that behind the turbid medium, and it comes out yellow or
Otto: And back
Arthur: And as
you increase the turbidity of the medium, the following happens. You
can take a fish tank filled with water, shine a light through it, and
put a little milk or some kind of turbid element into the water. As
you gradually increase the amount of milk, the transmitted light goes
from yellow through orange and, just before extinction, gets quite red.
The sun moves through that same color sequence because as it sets it’s
moving through more and more of the atmosphere and the light path is
longer and longer through the atmosphere.
Otto: I don’t
remember how to create the blue . . .
you take that same turbid medium and, as opposed to looking toward the
light through the turbid medium, you look instead from the side into
the fish tank perpendicular to the direction of the light. First the
water is clear, and then as you put a little bit of that milk in it,
the milky water gradually takes on a bit of a blue color, especially
if you turn off the room lights. Put a piece of black paper or something
dark behind the tank, and you look through the light-filled, turbid
medium that is quite luminous because it’s scattering a lot of
light out. You look through that luminous milky water into the dark
behind and see a blue tinge. It’s not as dramatic as the blue
sky, but it definitely has a blue caste.
It’s the same thing you’ll
see in a smoky pool hall where there’s a kind of blue haze. There
are shaded lights shining on the pool table and a turbid medium—the
smoke passing through the air. You’re looking through that light
into the dark perimeter of the pool hall, which is typically not well
lit, and you see a kind of blue haze.
That is the same thing. Any time
you have this relationship of light filling a medium, such as water
with a bit of milk in it or a hazy, smoke-filled room, and you look
through that light into the dark behind, you’ll get the blue tint.
If it’s of sufficient depth, then you get the blue of the sky
and the blue of the ocean.
Such experiences became for Goethe
an archetypal phenomenon, because it is something that still is a phenomenon
while providing the occasion for insight into the essential conditions
of appearance. That is to say, you see the blue as both phenomenon and
as idea. At the same time that you see the blue of the sky, you see
the relationship. You can either see the blue of the sky knowing it’s
an archetypal phenomenon or you can see it simply as a blue sky. What
distinguishes a blue sky being seen as an archetype is that, at the
same time you’re seeing it, you also bring the cognitive dimension
of light-darkness-turbidity. And you see that triad co-present with
the phenomenon of the blueness of the sky.
Otto: You see
the enabling condition.
Arthur: Yes. You
see them instantiated in the phenomenon. Goethe said that, of course,
you don’t really see the archetypal phenomenon with your eyes,
because it’s a pure ideal. But, on the other hand, you do see
it, because the blue of the sky and the enabling conditions, that triad,
are co-present and have to be present there for the blue.
Real Knowledge is Seeing
So in some ways, it’s the
crossing point between the phenomenal domain and the conceptual domains.
You’re at that threshold. And then, that moment of seeing is the
moment of discovery, of insight, of apercu, as Goethe called it. Everything
hangs on this apercu, the possibility of apperception, of perceiving.
Real knowledge is, for Goethe, a kind of seeing. It’s not just
opening your eyes and seeing what’s around you in the naïve
sense. But it’s basically moving oneself inwardly to the point
where one can stand before the blue of the sky, seeing it not only as
simple blue but also as the co-presence or instantiation of these three
So, one lives in this liminal space
between perception and theory, but theory, in its original sense of
meaning “to behold“—the Greek root, meaning to see
Otto: To behold.
does not mean to compute or to model or to calculate. It actually means
to behold. We still have that in our colloquial expression of, “Oh,
I see,” when we mean “I understand.” You didn’t
see it first. Now you get it, now you see it.
And theory is basically the Greek
way of saying, “Now, I see.” To do theory means to come
to the place where one sees more deeply, where one beholds. So it has,
in that sense, a direct encounter associated with it, as opposed to
one mediated through what we would normally call theory, namely models
that stand between us and experience. It’s quite the obverse.
One actually heightens experience to the point of true, intimate beholding.
Two Types of Science: Distancing from or Participating in the Phenomenon
This view works wonderfully, I
think, across the grain. The whole idea of science is, of course, based
on objectification—to become objective in your knowing, which
typically means distancing. Conventional science objectifies by taking
an experience and replacing it by a set of more “fundamental”
objects such as atoms, molecules, interactions, and so forth. So, as
opposed to the blue of the sky, physics says it’s Mie scattering
and the blue results from small, polarizable molecules interacting with
electromagnetic fields, setting up secondary waves. This leads to a
differential scattering cross-section with a dependence on the fourth
power of the frequency. In this way you have an objectified account.
And it’s now been shorn from the dangers of my subjective experience.
Namely, I see blue. And I like blue a lot or whatever other subjective
association it might be.
Goethe took a very different approach.
He was aware of the dangers of my interpretation and personalization
or becoming subjective in a problematic way. So he sought to mitigate
those dangers in a variety of ways. But, as I see it, his resolution
of the problem was contrary to the above goal of objectification. Rather
than becoming distant from phenomena by taking models as the intermediary,
Goethe sought to refine and cultivate the investigator’s capacities
Science says to step back and gain
a distance, because you’re inevitably going to make a mess of
that which you are investigating. Goethe said, no, become more graceful,
become more delicate in your observing. He called it a delicate empiricism.
He said that there exists a delicate empiricism in which the observer
becomes united with the observed, thereby becoming true theory. He said
this ability belongs to a very highly cultivated age in the future.
So this delicate empiricism allows
one to come close to the phenomenon under investigation, as opposed
to having to move further away. One actually unites with the object
under observation. So, rather than disconnecting from nature, one is
participating it. Through that participation, something happens. Here’s
one of the other elements from Goethe that is key for me, what I call
Bildung, which has two meanings in German: on the one hand it means
education, but really it means formation.
So by attending to an object or
attending to phenomena, one moves into and participates in that phenomenon
and, as a consequence, brings an activity into one’s self, which
is normally outside. I see the blue; I bring the blue into my self.
There’s a blue experience. That blue experience actually cultivates
something in me. The closer I attend, the more shades of blue I will
be able to discern. The conditions of appearance will become more apparent.
So, through the process of attention, there’s also a process in
me of transformation.
Goethe said that, “every
object well-contemplated creates an organ within us.” So, contemplate
the object well; that creates a capacity within. That capacity is then
required for the last step of perceiving the archetypal phenomenon.
If you don’t have the organ, you won’t be able to perceive
it; you’ll just see the blue sky.
So there’s a kind of hermeneutic
circle in which I attend to the outside with the capacities I presently
have. That attention then cultivates capacities within that are built
on the rudimentary—you might say elementary—forms of capacities
and organs I currently have. It cultivates them and develops them into
a new, more vigorous and attentive form of cognition. I bring these
to bear on the phenomenon before me, and it goes again through another
Goethe’s notion of science
is transformative. You do not come with a pre-existing set of capacities
that include, say, rational, deductive capacities, as well as eyes and
ears and so on—the physical senses. Rather there’s a kind
of organic, dynamic sense of the human being and the human being’s
potential. That potential is cultivated and actuated through an active
engagement with the world.
I go back to the story I was telling
before. I’m standing in front of a painting I’ve never seen
before. I don’t know who painted this. What am I doing? I’m
simply trying to give it my attention. Why bother? Why not just read
about it somewhere? Well, to learn to see it. The only way you can learn
to see the painting is to be in front of it. It helps to read about
it, but the main event is just putting yourself in the way of the chamber
music. You may fall asleep at first. Then, gradually, you begin to see.
Oh, yeah, Mozart. I know who Mozart is. That sounds familiar, and I
like this piece of music over that piece of music. You learn to discern
the different elements that comprise the music you are hearing and the
various instruments used to produce it.
So you gradually become more literate,
more perceptive. You develop capacities that allow you to savor and
appreciate what surrounds you in a more refined way. That’s true
for scientists, as well as for artists.
I think Goethe’s form of
science is, in some ways, connected to the contemplative traditions.
You are to attend. That attention provides for transformation. It’s
not necessarily a mantra you’re attending to. It’s an object
in nature. It’s a work of art. And that constant attention is
a kind of schooling. In that sense, the human being’s potentials
are actualized. In that sense, I think it is a contemplative form of
science, a contemplative form of knowing, as opposed to a simply deductive
sequence of thoughts that one works through. Goethe and I both appreciate
the deductive and analytical forms of knowing, that goes without saying.
But they become one-sided and tyrannical if they’re not enlarged
by this fuller epistemology.
Of course, Goethe was primarily
animated not by some kind of hope for a new scientific discovery—although
he did make a couple and was pleased when he did—but by aesthetic,
moral, and spiritual hopes for his form of knowing. The way he got started
on color theory was by painting with a group of expatriate Germans in
the Italian hill countries. He painted with them and he asked questions
concerning the aesthetic use of colors. When he went back to Weimar
after his Italian journey, he wanted to find out the true nature of
color. And the only thing he found were Newton’s corpuscular theories,
which were then very prominent, and a bit of the new wave theories of
light. He said that this was going to be of no help for the aesthetic
use of color.
Otto: He was an
Arthur: Yes. He
was about to give up the whole project and then he thought, “Well,
I can just do this myself. I’ll just jump in.” So he borrowed
a set of prisms and other optical apparatus from a privy counselor in
nearby Jena, Hofrat Buettner, and he did a set of experiments with those.
He began to see what he felt were some fundamental errors made in the
conventional treatment of color and then developed a whole optics laboratory
and sets of experiments that he extended over many years. His main color
writings appeared in three volumes in 1810. His scientific or what he
called the didactic volume leads the reader through many experiments
and observations, but he also wrote a polemical part in which he criticized
Newton, and the final volume was the first proper history of color ever
Goethe’s scholarship was
enormous in this area. He did a very close study of Newton’s optics
experiments and wrote many critical statements about them. He organized
his own didactic part into several hundred paragraphs, each an observation,
experiment or inference leading to the archetypal phenomenon, as I just
described. Goethe’s theory of color is a model of his scientific
Otto: So, looking
again on the blue sky and the three stages, the empirical, the scientific,
and the archetypal, I think I have a sense of the first one.
Arthur: The first
was simply the casual observation. The second I think of as the sequence
of variations. And the variations in the case of the blue sky may be
out of your control. Maybe the blue sky went away. What caused it to
go away? There are clouds. Well, there’s something about clouds
that doesn’t give blueness. They can be white or grey, but they
can’t be blue. Why is that?
Too much humidity, too much moisture
in the air, is an obscuring agent. So an essential condition for appearance
is the absence of that level of humidity, moisture, what have you. If
you want to translate it into a conventional physics’ standpoint,
the relevant factor is the size and density of the scatterers. It’s
essential that the small scattering objects from which the light is
scattered—the turbid medium—not be too big. If the diameter
of the scatters (which might be tiny droplets of water) is larger than
the wavelength of visible light then the law responsible for the blue
sky no longer works; one enters a different regime and the blue sky
Interestingly, although Goethe’s
observations are completely phenomenological and without any reference
to wavelength or things of that sort, you can often find conventional,
reductive analogs. You can say, in hard-nosed scientific terms, what
are the essential conditions of appearance? Well, you wouldn’t
leave it quite so vague as it’s “too cloudy” or there’s
“too much moisture in the air” or what have you. You’d
say “particulate size.”
So you’ll say, okay, it requires
a broad spectrum of visible light. Light’s filling a particular
kind of turbid medium, not too turbid, not too filled with moisture
or particulate matter. But it can’t be absent; if it’s absent,
then you’re on the moon. You don’t get any blue sky on the
moon. You’ve got plenty of light, you’ve got plenty of darkness,
but you don’t have any blue sky, because there’s no turbid
The range of experimental variations
or observations provided by nature is Goethe’s broad second range
of scientific phenomena. After working with these, at some point it
becomes clear that only three elements are needed. Then you’re
converging on the natural, on the archetypal phenomenon. It’s
still a phenomenon. It’s interesting how in each of those stages,
Goethe stayed with the phenomenon and didn’t shift to an abstract
theory. In each case, you’re elevating the phenomenon itself.
Years ago, I read the philosopher
of science Norwood Russell Hanson. He wrote something that stuck with
me, namely that you can’t explain phenomena from the same level
at which the phenomena themselves are. You need a higher level, which
then is the framework and means you use to give an account. In conventional
science the model plays this higher role. But what about Goethe?
You could say that Goethe always
worked with phenomena. How in the world did he manage to give an account?
He managed it through his sequence of three levels to phenomena. Although
remaining with phenomena, Goethe meets Hanson’s requirement of
rising to a higher level, the archetypal phenomenon. If he had been
just hanging out with nature, really grooving on it, having a good time,
observing lots of details, there’s no theoretical element to it.
You’re not seeing anything. You’re not seeing beyond the
specifics. In order to see coherence, you have to move to another level,
an intermediate level of variation and identification of the essential
conditions of appearance. Then you rise to the top: the archetypal level.
I’m Not Interested in Causality
Another important thing for Goethe
is that he said, “I’m not interested in causality.”
We normally explain things through causal networks. The reason such-and-such
takes place is because . . . So the reason for the blue sky is an electromagnetic
wave that strikes the polarizable small particle. That particle oscillates
and has its own accelerated charges. Those accelerated charges produce
secondary waves and so on. So you give a causal account.
Goethe had very little interest
in any of that. He said dramatically, “Man in thinking errs particularly
when inquiring after cause and effect; the two together constitute the
indissoluble phenomenon.” In a sense, cause and effect is an illusion.
It’s something we decide on, something we construct. You can actually
do an interesting analysis. Hanson, the same philosopher, had done this
on cause and effect and the murkiness of the whole question becomes
evident. But, cause and effect were simply not an interest of Goethe’s.
If he was not interested in cause
and effect, well, then what kind of explanation could he offer? What
he was more interested in was what I think of as an organic account.
It’s much closer to the way Aristotle explained things. If you
just think, when these three factors are co-present, with them at the
same time is blue. They don’t cause blue. We tend to think this
caused that, right? But, no, it’s just an organic whole. Blue
goes with these three.
Otto: So Goethe
was interested or maybe describing the different type of causality where
cause and effect are not distant in space and time, but more co-present,
or certain conditions that give rise to the phenomenon?
he probably didn’t like the notion of causality at all.
Arthur: Yes. For
example, you’d say, I drop a ball. Why does it drop? We would
say it drops because of gravity. That is to say, the cause of it is
a gravitational force that pulls it down. Well, Goethe really didn’t
like that picture. That it drops is a fact. That it drops because there’s
a force acting on it is a hypothesis that you do not see, but that you
somehow infer on the basis of a whole set of theoretical notions, in
the modern sense of theoretical. Not seen, but inferred.
Then what is this thing you call
“gravity”? It’s very mysterious. Even today, with
quantum physics, it’s very mysterious. What is gravity? So you
project from your own sense of what you mean, intuitively, by human
force acting on an object. You imagine there must be something similar
happening between the Earth and the falling object. But, of course,
the object is also pulling on the Earth. We don’t see much how
the Earth is falling up to the object, because it’s a larger object.
So Goethe basically said, “I’m
going to stay with the phenomenal domain. I’m going to stick close
to the lived experience as we have it.“ In which case, yes, there’s
light. That’s an essential condition of appearance. Yes, there’s
darkness. And when light, darkness, and the turbid medium are in a particular
arrangement, there is blue. When they’re in a different arrangement,
there is also, with that arrangement, red.
really light, darkness, the turbid, and the observer, right?
Arthur: Yes, and
the observer. Observer is key, that’s true. In fact, he started
his color theory with the observer. In many instances, we may quibble
with him concerning his notions on color, this triad. But he did study
vision and color illusions, what he called physiological and psychological
colors. And he was the first one to do so, in part because he valued
the observer far more than did the conventional science of his day.
Indeed a number of the early scientists of color vision dedicated their
books to Goethe as the person who inspired them. Up until that time,
visual illusions were thought to be nothing more than demonstrations
of the unreliability of vision. Whereas Goethe remarked that, “optical
illusion is optical truth.” That’s another little quip of
his. He held that there’s no such thing as visual illusion.
What I think he really pointed
to in these statements is that the eye sees what it sees, period. You
may have a theory that the length of this line segment is the same as
that length, but they may well look different depending on context.
But when you see something, that’s what you see. So there can’t
be an illusion in that sense. What visual paradox does is open up a
deeper understanding of what vision is. It’s not a one-for-one
registration of the external world on the retina that’s processed
in a one-to-one way. It’s much richer.
An illusion means that you already
have a notion of what vision really is, ideally, as opposed to taking
it for what it actually is. But vision is what it actually is and nothing
other than that. But by idealizing it and then instantiating the ideal
in place of the thing – namely, true vision, just as you and I
have it – you created an artifice. Goethe was very subtle on these
things. It’s an important point because as a consequence Goethe
then says, “Okay, let’s pay attention to what vision actually
is, not to an imagined ideal or fabricated notion of what it is.”
Then visual illusions give you
the best handle on what vision actually is. So researchers who work
with the physiology and psychology of vision—all that research—study
visual illusions as one of the primary tools. How is that we can account
for visual illusions? If you can account for them, then you really know
how vision works.
Or color deficits. Goethe said
that if you want to understand color vision, study the color blind.
It was a whole principle of scientific research for him. Look for pathologies.
Don’t merely go with the perfect, ideal form. Go with the imperfect,
because you learn the most.
So Goethe’s whole focus,
so contrary to the conventions of his time, completely opened up an
area that had been dismissed as unreliable and not worth attention.
But by giving full attention and a certain devotion to the human observer,
the human eye, Goethe opened that domain. So, definitely, you have these
three conditions and then you have the human being throughout.
Goethe and Sheldrake
When Rupert Sheldrake talked about
his own journey—when he began studying biology—he described
how shocked he was to discover that doing science basically means killing
things in order to study them. That’s when he stumbled into Goethe
and that gave him a whole different notion. As you said, the whole attitude
is not to distance yourself, by killing or not killing, but by basically
refining the quality of your attention or by attending to it.
He also mentioned, in describing
his theory or his notion of morphic fields or morphogenetic fields,
that while they are similar to the Goethean approach of doing science,
the main difference would be that, through the mechanism of morphic
resonance, his morphic fields are evolving, so that the field evolves
rather than staying stable all the time.
that’s kind of interesting here. Goethe was pretty faithful to
his own phenomenological orientation. So when he studied plants, about
which I know less, or animals and physiology, he did so with the same
kind of extraordinary attention to the details that he did in color.
There are hundreds and hundreds of examples and sketches and all manner
of careful observations Goethe made in the life sciences.
His conclusions are again drawn
in a very similar, three-fold way. He tries to find the essential transformations
that, say, move from one bone to the next in sequence. How does the
plant leaf metamorphose as it spirals around the stem? And how does
a metamorphosed leaf transform into the calyx, the petal, the blossom,
and even the pistil and stamen? The leaf becomes the Proteus of the
plant and takes on all forms. He invented the word “morphology”;
he’s the inventor of that whole concept, the metamorphic way of
looking at the plant. There’s a single, generative principle,
and the leaf is the archetypal phenomenon. You don’t actually
speculate about a morphogenetic field or introduce something you didn’t
see. It’s like the blue of the sky as the archetypal phenomenon.
Now we could step back and talk
about electromagnetic fields. We could talk about the nature of matter
and its own field structures and the quantum field that may be spawning
wave and particle pairs. And in some way, our whole discussion would
be grounded in the experimental facts of modern science or something
But Goethe’s phenomenological
approach to botany is still very honest. So I think Rupert Sheldrake
is definitely correct in pointing to troubling role of killing that
takes place in most of the life sciences. Also there’s a certain
kind of intellectual slaying, a killing that occurs when we distance
ourselves from the physical world. We replace it with something else,
namely, an intellectual construct. Goethe wants to maintain intimacy.
I think he would say, “Well, listen, the morphogenetic fields
are just another intellectual construct. It’s a particularly interesting
and dynamic one, and there’s a certain kind of holism associated
with it. But basically, it’s a way of importing a set of new concepts
Goethe stayed closer to the phenomena
in ways that go beyond what Rupert Sheldrake wanted. Think back to Goethe’s
aesthetic interests for the use of color. What he wanted to know was
which red to use in painting. He really had a faith in art, as if somehow,
at the deepest level, it had lawfulness, and somehow, it had a kind
of truth in it. As he was going around Rome, he realized that great
art obeyed the same great laws of nature he experienced while studying
plants and color.
Well, what about things like moral
actions? Goethe really wanted to find a way to develop a form of knowing
that could ultimately be extended to include all of human life—the
aesthetic dimensions of human life, the moral and ethical quandaries
that we find ourselves in, a way of knowing which could handle those
things as well.
We might have scaffoldings, as
he called them, or working hypothesis, models, and so forth, that help
us think through certain possibilities. He said a working hypothesis
is better than no hypothesis, if it actually gets you somewhere. But
then you fall in love with your hypothesis. It then becomes what the
English philosopher Owen Barfield called an idol. You forget that the
hypothesis is only meant to point you toward something beyond. Scaffolding
is really meant to help you build the building. But then you take the
scaffolding down, because your real concern is with something greater
than what the scaffolding is, namely, from his standpoint, the apercu,
the actual direct encounter with the das Wesen, the being that’s
livingly before one. How difficult is it to hold onto that living being
before you? In other words, you’re really interested in the plant.
You know, the morphogenetic field might be a useful concept that would
allow you to make certain predictions, and certain kinds of understandings
might be assisted in that regard. But you’ll want to move away
from such concepts at some point, so that you actually experience what
the morphogenetic field is pointing to, say, the possibility for holistic
metamorphosis and development of a particular kind.
Goethe and the Third Base for Valid Cognition
If Goethe was so keen on knowing
as seeing, what are the limits, or are there limits, to human seeing?
You could ask, for example, is it possible to see in some sense, maybe
a different sense, to experience the morphogenetic field?
I had a conversation with the Dalai
Lama on this general point. He responded that in Buddhism, there are
three bases for valid cognition.
The lowest level is authority:
the Buddha said so, the Dalai Lama said so, Claus Otto said so, whatever.
Second is valid inference. I have
a set of facts about plants or whatever. I infer the existence of a
morphogenetic field. If my evidence is really ample, my argument is
tight, and my reasoning is tight, I will make a valid inference about
the existence of the morphogenetic field, which I should be able to
test through other experiments. I may never reach the third form of
The third form of valid cognition
is direct perception, which doesn’t mean just opening your eyes
and seeing something. Direct perception is, in its own way, a very rigorous
form of cognition. You have to be able to distinguish between illusions
and the genuine artifact. But in Buddhism, the highest form of knowing
occurs through a direct perceptual engagement. Perception is associated
not only with the senses but also a direct perception through the mental
sense. There are the five physical senses and also a mental or a mind
sense. So you could say there’s an inner perception as well as
an outer, physical perceptions.
Is it possible to move from one
to the other? Is it possible to move from authority to valid inference
and from valid inference to direct perception? Let’s say that
Rupert Sheldrake proposed morphogenetic fields, which he has. Right
now, I think of them as potentially valid inferences that are pretty
speculative in most people’s thinking, but let’s entertain
them as potentially valid inferences.
If they were a valid inference,
you could ask, is it possible to convert them to a direct perception?
Could you see them in some way or another? I asked that of the Dalai
Lama when we were talking about these three bases. In physics, you have
this all the time. There are many things that you infer, like quarks.
You never see an isolated quark. I asked him, is it possible always,
under all circumstances, to move from valid inference to direct perception?
After laughing a little bit, he said that you may have to work at it
for a long time, meditate for many years, even many lifetimes. But yes,
the Buddhists maintain that it is possible to convert from one to the
next and ultimately come, in all instances, to direct perception if
it’s a valid cognition.
I agree with that. We may have
this intermediate step of valid inference, but if it’s, in principle
. . .
Otto: . . . a
Arthur: Yes. And
it may be completely legit. As long as you understand it for what it
is and don’t take it and reify it into an idol. Or take the idol
for something it is not. But it is an intermediary. I will get to the
point where I have the direct experience. And Goethe really committed
himself to that form of knowing as direct experience. So he was very
reluctant to give much time and energy to the scaffolding.
Again, why is that important? It’s
important if one thinks in terms of participation, because the scaffolding
tends to separate. If you have a lack of participation, that has moral
consequences. So, again, if you think in terms of medical care or the
modern era of warfare, the distancing that takes place between the human
being and the person we’re caring for, teaching, or killing in
war, all those distances that we set up have direct consequences. We
make different kinds of judgments based on the fact that we have no
real connection to the world around us.
So it’s not true to say that
we don’t really need direct perception; we get all the information
we need through valid inference. Such knowing is a rather abstract and
distanced form of knowing that creates all kinds of problems for us,
both intellectual and moral.
If you’re directly participating
and you’re fully inside of that which you are knowing, there’s
a kind of animation of the self. There are possibilities for transformation
of the self. And inasmuch as that which you are imitating or that in
which you have now participated has itself many layers, this is the
other side of it. The blue of the sky is not just a physical process.
It actually creates a feeling in you. It’s an aesthetic feeling,
you could say. Now, when I speak of Mie scattering, it’s a different
feeling. It may be an intellectual or mathematical aesthetic, I may
have an intellectual association that is quite exhilarating, but it
is different from the experience of the blue sky or sunset.
How can you make an aesthetic judgment
on the basis of the physical theory of Mie scattering? You can’t.
But if you can come to the direct perception of the blue of the sky
through Goethe’s way of viewing it, you’ve moved toward
and into it.
So, direct perception in this sense
that Goethe and the Buddhists speak about has enrichment or richness—a
kind of multi-dimensionality—that the abstract version does not.
One gains practical leverage by simplifying and abstracting and allowing
valid inference to do its work. But one often forgets all the things
we had to exclude in order to get to the simple model, whereas the direct
perception often has a kind of richness and fullness that, to me, is
expansive. And that fullness leads one to the other dimensions—the
aesthetic, moral, and spiritual connections.
So if you’re interested in
the full dimensionality of life—the aesthetic, moral, and spiritual—in
addition to the intellectual or cognitive, if you have only scaffolding,
you’re going to miss a lot. Even in morphogenetic fields, it may
be very exciting, but there’s nothing to feel. There’s nothing
to put your hands on. You may get intellectual exhilaration. What does
it feel like to be inside of it?
Goethe, Steiner, and Contemplative Sciences
Let’s say it’s a valid
inference, and I cultivate the capacities within me to inwardly move
into the morphogenetic field, to feel it within me. That would be a
thrill. Well, that takes us to Rudolf Steiner, because if the morphogenetic
field of Rupert Sheldrake is anything like what I think it is, it’s
connected to the life forces that Steiner speaks about—whose forms
are constantly transforming, dynamic, and supersensible, that is not
connected to the physical senses, but to the mind senses. But according
to Steiner one does have the capacities actually to shift our awareness
to that domain of, let’s say, reality. If this new domain becomes
one in which we have authentic experience, then we can proceed very
much as before following the line of Goethe. But now it’s in the
method of Goethe not applied to the sense experiences, which he was
primarily concerned with, but also in the domain of spiritual experiences,
which Steiner was more concerned with.
So Goethe was in some ways laying
out a methodology that I think has many similarities to the ways in
which Buddhists or other the contemplative traditions treat knowledge.
The contemplative traditions, their methodology, and epistemology are
adequate on the one side to the physical world around us, but leave
open the possibility of inquiry into the spiritual dimensions of life,
which are normally excluded from conventional science and conventional
Goethe’s approach to science,
by contrast, kept the doors open. He gave a reasonably good account
of the way science actually is done. But then he also opened the door
for a way a contemplative science might be done. He didn’t really
go too far himself in that direction but he did provide a foundation;
that’s the reason Steiner was so excited about finding Goethe’s
scientific writing as a young scholar. Steiner saw in Goethe an adequate
starting point for a more sophisticated treatment of the philosophy
of knowledge that Goethe was not so interested in. Steiner went on to
develop Goethe’s line of thinking in a meditative and contemplative
direction. He sought a methodology and epistemology that could sustain
a full, supersensible domain of experience that Steiner, along with
many other contemplatives, have had for many centuries.
Going back to the starting point
just to recap, the crisis that I experienced when I was 20 or 21 was
the crisis of getting the scaffolding only. I was looking for the being
within, but the scaffolding seems to be obscuring it. I go to Paris
and stand in front of the Mona Lisa and other works of art, and I’m
getting a hit. I’m having a new set of experiences, which are
of the nature of direct perception, and I’m saying, how do I square
these two realms of experience? I’m studying physics and analytic
reduction on the one side, and I am opening up to art on the other side.
I will not be satisfied with doing one and then going off and doing
the other. These two domains of life must somehow come together.
I was fortunate in having a couple
of mentors who said there is a way to do it. They hadn’t figured
it all out themselves. But, over the past 30 years, I think that I have
discovered some of the pieces. It means being both appreciative and
critical of conventional science, and understanding what it does and
what it does not do. It also means being affirmative of human capacities
for nuanced development, engagement, and participation. Being open to
the possibility that this new epistemology and methodology are not only
valid for the external world in which we find ourselves normally, but
also for an inner contemplative world that is also open to us. And that,
therefore, we have the possibility not only of external knowledge, but
also of an internal or contemplative knowledge.
The Epistemological Reversal
Otto: What I heard
you describe at the heart of the Goethean epistemology is that you really
deal with a different way of approaching data. The phenomenon as you
treat it is different from the conventional approach in which you have
a set of hypotheses and then you run the data against that, confirming
or disconfirming your hypothesis. By contrast, the Goethean investigation
occurs in three stages. You immerse yourself in all the details of the
phenomenon and into the context that gives rise to it. While immersing
yourself and studying all these details of the phenomenon, all of a
sudden, the phenomenon creates a holding place or a supreme . . .
Arthur: . . .
Otto: A coherence
through which the living field of the phenomenon becomes present. So
the frame is no longer constituted by a hypothesis, but by the data
itself, which then opens the space for the living field to become present.
Is that a fair way to describe it? It’s an epistemological reversal.
it’s a kind of reversal. You have to be a little careful there.
There’s another triad. In the philosophy of science one speaks
of the hypothetico-deductive method. In it one frames a hypothesis.
From that hypothesis, you can make a deduction or prediction, and then
you either confirm or disconfirm that deduction. That’s one understanding
of the way science proceeds.
Another understanding is the opposite.
How do you get the hypothetical? Well, you do that inductively. That’s
the Baconian approach. You take a wide range of empirical results and
then you look for a general law. Bacon has a whole series of strategies
by which the researcher was to move inductively to general causes and
general principles. But the problem with that, which many philosophers
have pointed out, is you can never induce your way to any general principle.
It’s just not possible. It requires a leap. Charles Peirce goes
back and picks up a term that I believe Aristotle first used and called
the leap an abduction. You have then induction, deduction, and abduction.
You might say that Goethe was really the abductionist among them. He,
on the one hand, liked much of what he saw in Bacon, but saw it in some
ways as impoverished or as lacking imagination. There’s no real
role in Bacon for the creative capacity to see, the deeper seeing that
you were talking about. Through imaginative seeing, what Goethe once
termedanschauendes Urteilskraft (perceptive power of judgment), you
actually have the possibility of rising to the apercu—not by an
inductive step but by a leap. For Goethe, that’s the important
moment. That’s the “aha” experience of Archimedes.
For Goethe, that moment of insight is the key.
moved into the field of quantum physics with my post doc research, I
started wondering about the relationship between Goethean science and
quantum physics. So I visited Walter Heitler in Zurich at the ETH, he
was one of the great physicists active at the turn of the 20th century,
who invented the theory of covalent bonding. I knew he had written a
couple of articles on Goethe’s science and had been interviewed
about his interest in Goethe.
I spent most of a day with him,
talking about his and my interests and Goethe. Toward the end of our
conversation, I said, “You’re a famous quantum physicist.
I’m a kind of wannabe quantum physicist. Isn’t there some
way we could apply Goethe’s ideas to quantum physics?” He
said, “Why would you want to do that? That just doesn’t
make any sense to me.”
That’s where he left it.
I was much more interested and committed to finding a way to bring Goethe’s
approach into the present. So I lived with that question for a long
time. I think there is a way of doing it, but it’s a slightly
different way. My book, A Quantum Challenge, is an attempt to do that1.
In quantum physics you don’t end with archetypal phenomena, because
the phenomena of quantum mechanics are often imperceptible to the senses.
They occur in a way and at a level that’s inaccessible to sight
and hearing. But one can work on the basis of valid inference beginning
with electronic outputs that in turn go back to detectors of various
types that are sensitive to quantum events.
But then instead of archetypal
phenomena, you have what one might consider to be archetypal experiments
where all the non-essential conditions of appearance are set aside,
where the simplest and most dramatic demonstration of a particular quantum
effect appears. At this point you can try to think your way into the
entire situation, into each piece of the apparatus, and what is occurring,
and then to hold that. The strange thing about quantum mechanics is
that you find again and again that the thoughts you bring are inadequate
to the effects you’re encountering. There’s no consistent
classical thought with which you can somehow circumscribe these phenomena.
It’s like a koan, such as
“one hand clapping.” It doesn’t make any sense. So
you can say it and you can try to think it, but at some point, you hit
the wall. And you have the same kind of encounter with quantum effects.
So as an experimenter you’ve created a kind of archetypal moment,
you’re holding it, you’re giving it your full attention,
the way Goethe suggests you give it attention. But the thought that
comes to it or all the thoughts that you bring to it, you recognize
ultimately as inadequate.
What’s the lesson from that?
Niels Bohr would say it will always be so. You will never form a concept
adequate to the phenomenon because your concepts are all built on classical
percepts. What I say is, if you hold this new phenomenon in front of
you long enough, through this process ofBuilding and personal transformation,
you should be able to gradually come to thoughts that are new, that
are adequate to this new phenomenon.
I am optimistic about the capacity
of the human being to evolve not only so that you’re able to do
experiments in the lab, but in the way that humans think, even if it
means thinking in a way that is nonsense from the viewpoint of the classical
world. If you inwardly move enough, habituate yourself enough, there’ll
be a sufficient transformative force in our own psyche that we’ll
be able to accommodate even the logic of the quantum.
Part of the reason why this is
important to me in the realm of quantum mechanics is that I think it’s
a kind of mirror of what the contemplative encounters on the other side
of the threshold. If you take Goethe’s science and project it
into the modern scientific world, you enter what I sometimes call the
sub-sensible. If Goethe’s world is a world of phenomena that are
open to the physical senses, the micro world of modern physics is closed
to those physical senses and you have a world that’s below the
sensory. It’s too small to sense directly.
So you’ve discovered things
like wave-particle duality. That’s part of the paradoxical nature
of the sub-sensible. There’s something similar on the super-sensible
side that one reaches through contemplation. It too has its paradoxes.
I also think that human beings have the capacity to encompass in their
imaginations and thoughts the full coincidence of opposites (as Nicolas
of Cusa called them), of the super-sensible. So, yes, we’re schooled
mostly in the world of the senses and our concepts are mostly derived
from the sense world, but they aren’t limited to that. But if
one is to go further, it does mean throwing yourself into a phenomenological
engagement with both the sub-sensible—through archetypal experiments,
extending your mind into them as fully as you can—and also creating
nuanced capacities for experiencing through the contemplative method,
which leads to the rich, supersensible realities that also surround
us. In order to really cognize the supersensible and to know something
in those domains requires a new kind of thinking. Not only a new kind
of seeing and perceiving that results in new experiences, but the experiences
then are also approached conceptually, with new tools. When we encountered
quantum effects we needed to develop a new quantum mechanical theory,
a new conceptual structure. We couldn’t use classical mechanics.
We needed new mathematical concepts to handle that which was being discovered.
Likewise for the new experiences brought about through a phenomenological
meditative life. New concepts and thinking is required.
where the Buddhist sense of the sixth consciousness that you mentioned
comes into play?
The Capacity for Collective Presencing
Otto: What is
the language you mentioned that Steiner uses for this?
Arthur: The language
he uses—the language of three faculties—he calls imagination,
inspiration, and intuition. They have their own technical meaning. Imagination
is essentially a domain of meditative experience that we come to appreciate
as not founded or derived from bodily experience. So all of our normal
sense perceptions and even our memory pictures and so forth—memories,
conventional memories—are grounded in the body. But we can ask,
is it possible, through deep meditative practice, to come to domains
of experience where those elements gradually recede? There may be echoes
of them, but we recognize that echo is a nonessential feature. Other
qualitative experiences start to emerge, which we recognize increasingly
are not grounded in our biography or in our current bodily experience.
That first level, which I think
of as a pure domain of experience – unintelligible to begin with,
we have no idea what it means, it’s just happening to us –
is the domain of imagination. It’s associated with a diminution
of body-based experience and a heightening of mind-based experience,
freed from body-based experience. It becomes its own domain of experience,
and one can, through meditation, become familiar with that domain.
Now, in order to bring any clarity
or insight into that domain requires a new faculty, beyond what Steiner
calls imagination, and that’s the level of what he calls inspiration.
When I was talking about the new thinking that would be necessary for
quantum mechanics or for the supersensible, it comes in at this level.
The cognition of spirit at the level of inspiration allows us to interpret
what it is we’re seeing. We begin to find those concepts that
are adequate to what it is we’re seeing.
Plato’s discussion of the
cave is perhaps helpful in this regard. He recounts a tale in which
an individual is trapped in a cave, looking only at conventional things
that everybody else is looking at. Then, through certain circumstances,
he manages to break his fetters and wander out of the cave. En route
he sees certain things about how the shadows are projected and so forth,
and understands how conventional consciousness arises, but then he keeps
moving. He goes to the source of light outside of the cave. But he’s
dazzled by the light. To begin with no cognition takes place. There’s
a long period of accommodation before the rudiments of experience begin.
You can think of it as analogous to a child coming into the sensate
world. The first experience is not interpreted; the child asks “What
is this?” Initially it’s just all a buzzing, blooming confusion,
as William James said. It’s simply an amazing set of colors and
forms and movements. But the world doesn’t have meaning. The child
doesn’t know mother from father, tree from animal. It’s
So as one enters into Plato’s
domain of light—the domain of imagination—the first thing
one has to practice is a kind of Goethean phenomenology. One starts
with the first level, empirical phenomenon. Simply take it in the experience.
Don’t rush to interpret, because you’re going to be interpreting,
just as Bohr said, with classical concepts. And this is the wrong basis
for interpretation. Such concepts are inappropriate to the new domain
of experience. You have to be patient. So you simply enter into the
new domain, and you allow it to develop and to amplify.
Otto: Take in
and suspend judgment.
Arthur: Yes. Hold
off, for as long as it takes. And, gradually, as this terrain becomes
more and more familiar, when it begins to separate out, you start seeing
what belongs together. You may not know what they are, but you recognize
that they belong together, that they always seem to occur together.
And you begin to articulate a landscape for yourself. You begin to recognize
certain patterns and groupings. It begins to organize itself in a certain
And gradually, through that process,
the very rudiments of a certain kind of cognition start to enter. The
onset of cognition basically the recognition that “this is not
that.” Simply distinguishing. Certain meditative practices can
help you with that. What was before a set of inarticulate experiences
begins to become a language at the level of inspiration.
Intuition is the final stage and,
in the achievement of direct perception, the highest level from Steiner’s
standpoint. It’s the place where the observer and the observed
merge. Not the capitulation of consciousness, but a kind of further
heightening of conscious awareness to the point where I can both be
myself and be the other, together at the same time. It’s what
I think most traditions call non-dual consciousness.
Thus, in imagination, one still
has a kind of representation. There’s experience and it’s
experienced as the other. Gradually one’s spiritual consciousness
of the Other begins to discover meaning; one can begin to make judgments.
One can say one has knowledge in this domain. But it’s still,
in a certain sense, knowledge at a distance. And then in the stage of
intuition, one gives away that form of awareness. You have to give away
that kind of knowing to actually co-presence with the Other and know
from the inside.
Otto: So first,
you have representation of knowledge . . .
you have representation, but no knowledge. You just have experience.
It’s like stepping out of the cave into the light, and you enter
a new domain of experience—but what it means remains a mystery.
At the second stage, you add meaning
to the experience. You bring new thinking. A kind of thinking that is
adequate to this domain of experience. The old thinking is inadequate
not only in the concepts that you have but even in the kind of thinking
that you have, which tends to be schematic, rather dead and manipulative.
It’s patterned on inanimate objects and relatively conventional
things around us.
The domain of imaginative cognition
is characterized by movement, constant metamorphosis, and transformation.
Nothing stays still, so you can’t pin it down and say, “Oh,
that’s an X,” and it just stays that way. That’s a
piece of chalk. What happens if it’s like Proteus; it becomes
a bat and flies away, then comes back and sits down next to you like
a friend and shifts into the stool. It’s a world of nonsense from
the classic conceptual standpoint.
But is there a kind of thinking
that can live in transformation? A thinking that is not about object
consciousness, but about movement and about relationships? In one way
of thinking we say: “Here’s one object, here’s a second
object, here’s a third object.” But, forget the objects,
so to speak and ask instead, what is their relationship? It can be a
mathematical relationship or it could be a relationship of affection
or disaffection. It could have a certain inner quality or a different
inner quality. So it’s not about the objects, but what weaves
between them. And then that can also change. How do you live in such
transformations of relationships with your thinking? It means your thinking
itself has to be in transformation constantly and we need to learn to
live cognitively in relationships instead of objects.
That is the kind of thinking that
must be brought into the domain of pure experience associated with imagination
if one is to attain knowledge. The first level has no knowledge. The
second level together with the first gives knowledge, you could say,
adds knowledge to pure experience. And then that third level sets representation
aside entirely; meaning arises through the co-presencing of myself and
the Other. This means finding a way of being a self and, at the same
time, being completely selfless. Because if I hold onto “who I
am,” then I can’t know the Other, because I’m inert
in that sense. I’m too fixed. I can only become the waving of
that tree by in some ways completely losing myself. It’s the practice
of the Buddhist No-self, or the Paulian saying, “not I but Christ
in me.” We each of us have something that Steiner calls the highest
self, within me, the true Self, which is like no-self that I can currently
So I think the Buddhists are largely
right to practice coming to the no-self. Then quietly, they’ll
whisper in your ear, but there is still the Buddha nature which you
and I and all things possess. The Western Christian tradition would
term it the Christ-in-you, or the highest of what that is, which lives
in all things, which allows me to be both myself and the Other simultaneously.
Not just to obliterate. Not just to be a true non-self, then, poof,
you’re gone. But you don’t go.
You can lose absolutely everything
and still cognize. That’s the deepest mystery of all, I think.
Varela Meets Goethe and Steiner
Otto: So it strikes
me that the way you described Steiner’s approach is that he is
grounded in the Goethean method, but he adds two distinctions, which
differentiate the different types of cognition and knowing that emerged
from this, when he applied this method and worked with it.
I see him as grounded in Goethe. You know, the Goethean phenomenology
is a perfect set-up for the new domain of experience that I categorized
as imagination. And then one moves from that domain of empirical experience
up to a level of insight where one gains understanding. This is where
one makes the transition to what Steiner called inspirative cognition
It also strikes me that the three
levels you describe are very much in resonance with Varela’s work
on phenomenology and his whole work during the second half of the 90s.
When I met him first in 1996, he said that a blind spot in cognition
science is experience. So the problem is not that we don’t know
enough about the brain. The problem is that we don’t know about
experience. Then when I visited him again in 2000, I said, “Well,
that resonated with a lot of folks from the management field who read
that statement because often in management and organizational studies,
the issue of experience is a real issue.” So then I asked him
whether he had any further reflection on that.
He said that was the main issue
he had been working on for the past four years. That he had, with his
colleague, identified three methods that approached that issue—psychological
introspection, phenomenology, and the Buddhist contemplative tradition.
What they had been doing [described
in the interview, now published in On Becoming Aware] is that they boiled
down these three methods to three “gestures of awareness”
and the process of becoming aware. That is, if you proceed on this journey,
you are crossing three thresholds, suspension, suspending judgment,
holding back and taking in.
Arthur: Very nice.
Otto: The second
is redirection, which he defines as redirecting the attention from the
object to the source. Number three is letting go. Letting go and letting
come, which is letting go the old, the small self, and letting come
your higher self or Buddha self or Christ or Atma.
beautiful. That’s quite wonderful.
Otto: So it strikes
me that the three key gestures of awareness— as he described it—evolve
exactly along the different stages of cognition and knowing that you
described, developed based on the Goethean method.
You can say that. There is a kind of a language that I’ve used
in trying to nuance some of these things. For example, I am teaching
a course now with an art historian. We’re trying to develop what
we call contemplative knowing within students. One way of talking about
it is in three stages that we call attention, openness, and sustaining
contradiction. The first stage of attention is the ability to give oneself
singly to a particular object of attention or concentration. So, rather
than scattering our attentions, we learn to control and give our free
attention to an object.
One of the dangers that occurs
is that one becomes myopic, narrowly focused. So one needs, after mastering
some element of concentration, to create a kind of openness to variety
and to diversity. So you’re seeing one thing, but you’re
also then turning your attention to another thing . . .
Otto: Using the
a soft, nonfocal awareness. You open out. One can ask, what kind of
an awareness is it that can not only sustain just being open to seeing
various vantage points, but actually heighten and suspend contradictory
elements within consciousness. Great art and most of the important things
in our lives live in that kind of dynamic.
What I have said applies to many
of the things that you were talking about—the ability to suspend,
to sustain a contradiction that feels like it should be resolved. We
need to learn to live in what looks like, from one standpoint, a kind
of confusion or a paradoxical situation before it can lead to a higher
form of resolution. It’s not that one pole of the paradox becomes
true and the other becomes false, but you begin to realize that this
tension is part of the dynamic of, say, raising a child or loving someone.
Living in such relationships, both poles have to be active. Both have
to be fully present. And when they are, then something grows, something
happens. When it’s just one pole dominating the other, it’s
dead. It doesn’t work. A marriage relationship or a group relationship
has to have that complexity. Anything alive has to have that complexity.
To bring a quality of consciousness that is equally capable of holding
that complexity is a great challenge, because usually we attend to a
maximum of one thing. Or no thing, because we’re too distracted.
But, to be open to the variety
of life and then to be even able to enhance and sustain and hold it
is an act of artistic genius, whether it’s in the social sphere
or in the artistic, in community or painting.
The idea of redirection is difficult
because often we have wrong expectations. To redirect, to step into
a space and—as opposed to going with the conventional set of expectations,
going with what we know to be the case already, going with a habit and
so forth—to stop and truly redirect to what’s right now,
right there is enormously difficult. To realize, as something is emerging,
that’s what’s important, this shifts everything. And if
you’re attentive and can suspend judgment and hold on to that
redirected attention, you’re nurturing a part of your own consciousness
that is otherwise neglected. Because you’re on the treadmill of
expectations and fulfillments. You’re always looking to see the
same thing. To suspend and redirect is very important.
The way I think of the letting
go—and this is actual meditative practice—is that when one
has taken an object (be it a stone, flower or the blue of the sky) of
concentration and meditated it, something emerges in one’s awareness,
a quality that is quite specific to the object of attention. There’s
then a stage where, having intensified one’s attention on the
object for as far as it can go, you release, let go. You actually empty
your consciousness of that experience. And then you hold a completely
empty form of consciousness. No expectation, openness to redirection
and the unknown.
So you start with conventional
consciousness, you pull away from that, and you redirect your attention
toward the meditative object. You intensify your attention on that the
meditative object. Then one releases and waits for the unexpected. You
hold the meditative object as long as you can. And then you consciously
put everything to the side and hold the space in which that whole inner
What you’re attending to
is a kind of echo or after image, which is one way Steiner describes.
Let’s say you’re making something, a simple artistic sketch.
You have the sketch in front of you. There’s the sketch; you study
it, move it inwardly, feel its gestures. Now imagine setting the sketch
to the side and holding onto the activity that made the sketch. The
artist actually did something to make the sketch. You also had thought,
inner reactions, and so forth. In this meditative exercise, there was
a whole set of activities associated with the experience, activities
that were selflessly behind the scenes at work. You could say they were
spiritual activities happening in you and through you and with your
Otto: The whole
They surround and permeate. They’re the creative forces that,
if they were visible right away, you wouldn’t actually have had
the experience of the sketch itself. You would have been focused on
the activity. But in some ways, the activities are selfless, they have
become objectified in the sketch. The fact that I’m speaking is
a kind of a miracle, right? If I was conscious of the activities that
go into allowing me to speak, I couldn’t possibly say anything.
But you can stop talking and allow
the activity to presence itself, and in this way to sense what the miracle
was, what the miracle of the presence of all that which had to live
in me in order to have these words come. So there’s a reversal
of awareness that the letting go allows. It’s another level of
reversal. You first go through one set of thresholds. But it doesn’t
stop with that. You have another threshold. I think each threshold experience
has a similar architecture. In other words, you start with the sense
object. You have to give that away; that’s a letting go. Then
you bring something else into attention, namely the imaginative experience.
You give your attention to it, to the felt qualities and movement. You
allow your attention to flourish on in this domain of experience, and
you try to redirect yourself away from your habits of consciousness,
suspending judgment so you don’t automatically bring in old thoughts.
But then you could fall in love
with this experience. And in order to make it to the next step, the
next threshold, you have to let the imaginations go. Then what shows
up is the activity that’s behind everything you have been experiencing.
But living inside that activity, then, can become a problem, can become
too single-minded and a kind of preoccupation. One can be captured by
this realm of experience like any other.
Spiritual traditions East and West
say similar sorts of things. Each speaks of a series of levels of consciousness,
each with its distinct quality. At each level one can reified the kind
of experience one has. Each one can fall into the trap of saying, “Oh,
now I’m where it is all happening. This is reality; all else was
illusion. This is it.” And then you’re captured there.
Arthur: Yes, freeze.
There you are, boom! Done. Just as you are if you’re content with
the self-evident reality that happens to be around you today. So, at
each level, a mobility of consciousness has to be built in, where you
realize that this is another layer, another aspect of the world. But
it’s also open to release, and then a new level can emerge.
Most Men Are Not Good at Social Groups
Otto: It strikes
me that maybe, in a certain way, some core features of the Goethean
method might be most applicable today and are also most important to
be cultivated in the social realm and maybe not in the realm of natural
Well, I can imagine that. I’ve been in a lot of different kinds
of groups over the years. I’ve done a lot of teaching. I’ve
moderated groups over periods of time and also been in groups that had
responsibility, such as boards, study groups, or groups undertaking
a particular project or reseach. Most of them have a direction that’s
given by the community. We decide we’re going to do something
together, whether it’s to read a book and study it or build a
Waldorf school or start a community farm. The group has a task. So it’s
a community, and each person has a part to play. But its objective is
in some ways outside itself.
At the Collective Wisdom Initiative
of Fetzer, there are groups that don’t have any purpose outside
themselves. They are just personal inquiry groups that come together
for the personal benefit of the people who show up. There’s no
agenda. There’s no project that you accomplish. There’s
no study that you’re doing. You bring who you are and enter into
a joint exploration.
Otto: Like a dialogue
Bernhard Lievegoed had an idea of that there are three types of groups—study
groups, social groups, and action groups. He said each has its own laws;
they’re different animals.
Otto: So what
are the laws of the social groups?
Arthur: I can’t
remember. I read this 25 or 30 years ago.
Otto: Maybe he
knew more about the action group than he knew about the social one.
Arthur: I think
most men, frankly, are not good at social groups. That’s what
threw me in some of them, you could say. I always felt . . .
Otto: . . . alien?
Arthur: I did.
I felt, am I learning anything? Are we doing anything? What’s
the outcome? What’s up? I was a good citizen, and I always went.
In the end, I always felt something happened. Some of it was crazy,
some of it was dumb, some of it was sad, but in the end, if you just
hung in there, showed up, tried to be nonjudgmental—trying hard
to be nonjudgmental by being positive, even when things were totally
out of hand—gradually things would cook down. All the stuff flows
over the edges that shouldn’t be there. Gradually, it boils down,
and something actually pretty nice starts to show up. You have to give
it a lot of time.
But I think that the social process
of sitting over tea and talking about family with your community of
friends is much more natural for women; it’s a process. It’s
a way of working through the social realities of life that they do together
collectively, and the outcomes are simply different ways of seeing things,
appreciating the struggles, and being able to hold the difficulties.
Now that you’ve held them in the group, you can go and hold them
more easily back home. Whereas guys tend to hold things in a solitary
way. How many times do I sit down with a friend and ever share anything
personal? A guy friend? Never. Almost never.
Otto: Except when
we’re talking about soccer [laughter].
there are certain things. I don’t know. I guess you brag about
your children or something like that. There are certain problems of
daily life. But it’s a very different dynamic.
Otto: So I guess
that for guys, the opening happens in the context of groups where you
create something together.
Arthur: I think
solidarity comes in a different way for men, by and large. Not to generalize,
but I think it probably goes back to the warrior class. Think back to
the Iliad and the Odyssey or the Middle Ages. Here are people thrown
together, sleeping on the same floor in a room. They swear their filial
loyalties to Agamemnon or their liege lord. They eat together, fight
together, die together. They fight back-to-back. I think the code of
conduct shifts from words to the silent question, “Will you stand
and cover my back?” “Will you defend my life and can I depend
on you?” By contrast, chat is cheap. One can declare, “I
love you, I care for you, I’ll really help you out” …
and then, whisk, I’m off doing something else. I got distracted,
In some ways, I’d rather
say nothing and know that those six people are here. I think that’s
the guy style. Don’t say anything. Just look at me, then stand
with me. You’ll risk everything. That’s not very social
in a certain way. But in another way, it really is social. It’s
a “who stands at the foot of the cross” kind of thing. Who’s
willing to actually stand by Christ? Everybody leaves, but what does
it mean to stand there through the whole of His passion? That’s
the hard one.
Otto: How many
Otto: Almost everybody
Peter felt bad about it.
Otto: His mother?
Arthur: His mother,
right. And John. But, Peter says, “I’ll stand by you.”
And Jesus says, “You’ll deny me three times before the cock
crows.” Which he does. And he’s the one who you could say
had the greatest courage and solidarity. But Christ knows it’s
beyond their capacity to love that much.
The New Group Is a Group of Co-perception
of the Other
I do think there’s a lot
to be learned and discovered from groups. It’s an evolving form.
Steiner talks about the royal art of the ancient, the old Masonic art
of building cathedrals. He says that the new royal art will no longer
be to build in materials, but rather it will be social architecture.
That will be the mystery art.
I think that is true. We don’t
need to build buildings. The relationships and themes that will endure
will be human relationships. But they have to be built like a Knights
Templar temple or Gothic cathedral in the sense that they have strength,
dependency, interweaving, and the sense of solidarity that’s not
mechanical but totally alive.
Otto: And beautiful.
Arthur: Yes. Grace,
filled with light, all of those things. Big, stained glass windows.
And how do we get to that? I think many of the explorations—of
love, vulnerability, and all the openness and redirection—will
be elements. In the old days, groups of trust were often secret societies,
blood brothers, and each had its trials and probations that had to be
passed in order to get in. These proved that you could be trusted. That’s
not necessary or appropriate anymore, such brotherhoods and trials are
a thing of the past. We’ll take more risk and more chances in
a certain kind of way, but somehow the level of earnestness represented
by all those trials and probations shouldn’t get lost. Somehow,
the earnestness should find a new form of being there.
The dangers, as I see them, are
two. One is that we so long for communities that we inappropriately
reanimate old forms. So we hang out with people just like us. Same gender,
same beliefs, same religions and ethnicities and so on.
Otto: Same everything.
Arthur: Same everything,
so it’s the familiar culture. Therefore one danger is the fundamentalist
danger. The other danger is a kind of sentimental future, New Age getting
together, where we pretend to be beyond all those differences. But,
it’s too easy. There’s no earnestness. There’s no
commitment. There’s no responsibility. None of the tough stuff
is really there. We know about the serious of relationships from being
a father and a husband and trying to meet your obligations in conventional
life. Well, it’s going to be more so, more demanding in this new
social architecture, not less so.
Today we live the paradox of knowing
the mystery of solitude or in GermanEinsamkeit,and yet we seek genuine
loving relationships. I see in you your complete difference from me,
I see your complete uniqueness. Then, paraphrasing Rilke, we can say,
“I’ll stand guard over your uniqueness, which is to say
your solitude. I won’t stand back-to-back with you as a warrior
to fight for your physical safety, but I’ll fight for your difference,
your uniqueness. For your being different from me and all others.”
That’s the way the contemporary world has to be. It requires you
to be who you are, and I will stand guard over your uniqueness, your
solitude, as Rilke calls it.
The other thing I love about what
he says is the following: “The greatest gift I can offer to you
is the gift of allowing you to stand guard over my solitude.”
Rather than standing guard over my own solitude, defending myself, my
individuality, and my big ego, I give all that away. That’s the
needed vulnerability. I trust you so much that I give to you my uniqueness.
You won’t treat me like everybody else. Instead you will have
such clarity about me that you will stand guard over me in order to
allow me to become all I can be, without being selfish. I can’t
do this on my own behalf. It’s too egotistical. But by somebody
else saying, Otto, I’m here. You can do that. It’s got your
name on it. It’s who you are. Then I’m a partner.
So I think that the new group is
a group of co-perception—perception of the Other, not perception
of the self.
A Scientist - Dalai Lama Dialogue at MIT
Otto: I did want
to bring up one final example that has been quite an experience for
me—the event you put on with the Dalai Lama and all the others
of your circle. It was quite amazing. There were maybe 1,100 in the
We sat there for a couple of hours,
and something took place. When I returned on that first evening, all
of a sudden I realized that my whole sense of self and my own personal
field were really impacted. It was almost as if I had meditated for
a week or so in nature. You are really operating from an enhanced and
much more open field around you, a sort of clearing, of Lichtung. That’s
when I first realized the impact, apart from all the intellectual stimulus,
which was of course more tangible.
And you have been right at the
center of this Dalai Lama circle. Could you comment on what that experience
was like for you?
first of all, your experience wasn’t unique at all. I was struck
by how many people like you came up afterward, people of accomplishment
with experience in conferences and meetings. I could see they experienced
the field that you are talking about, and it had nothing to do specifically
with the content, although the content was quite interesting and they
found it stimulating. There was something about the geometry of relationships,
the way the whole gathering was held, the nature of the dialogue and
exchange, which created an aura into which they moved. It wasn’t
just us on stage in the aura. The whole assembly moved into it. It was
sustained for the full two days. The next week, I met with three or
four people from the Amherst area and later with a larger group, and
it was still echoing in those who attended. It took a couple of weeks
for it to actually settle out. But, the aura is residual. For a couple
of weeks, this was just simply a part of people’s field.
That was an unusual phenomenon.
I have been to other gatherings that had a similar effect. One was a
three day vigil and memorial for a young person’s death. For days
afterwards, where the vigil and other events took place, the experience
was like a waterscape, because the space was all alive and you felt
it in the landscape itself.
So there are crossings and mergings
that take place. Thresholds are crossed in those situations and this
should I think be noticed, be honored. You could ask why it happens.
What caused it? It would be very un-Goethean to look for the mechanical
cause, to ask what the essential conditions of appearance were.
Otto: And what
a very difficult thing to pin down. I’ve worked now with the Dalai
Lama on several occasions and moderated or led conversations at four
of them, if you count the MIT event. My general experience has been
that in working with him, with the Buddhist scholars, and a good group
of scientists, something of this nature happens to some degree.
Part of the formula is that, first
of all, the Dalai Lama has his own presence. It’s unusual in a
certain way, because he’s a very normal kind of guy. He doesn’t
come across immediately as having a larger field than a normal person.
Arthur: But his
field is a kind of indirection. It’s not projection. It’s
actually an indirection, a kind of self-negation. Just being who he
is, being very understated and very modern in that sense. His presence
works much more from the periphery. The participants, if they’re
chosen reasonably well –and they are not necessarily Buddhists
(in fact, most of the scientists who show up have no Buddhist connections)
– bring the part of them that is their largest and most humane
dimension with them. They don’t factor it out and leave it at
the door as often happens in the academy. They bring it into the conversation
with him. They bring heartfelt questions and problems, even if they’re
framed in very small, scientific terminologies. Something of that deeper
set of commitments and longings are there with them. It’s a bit
like when I was 19 or 20 and going through my existential crisis. I
refused to factor out the cultural and existential questions. I wanted
to bring them with me into my life of science. I believe they all want
to do that, but they haven’t been able to.
Now they’re with him, they
have traveled to India perhaps, because they want to bring their commitments
and longings as well as their science to him and so they bring it to
the whole gathering. So his modest presence does provide a singular
opportunity for people to bring all of who they are into the space.
Second, they discover that when
the Buddhists speak, they speak with such brilliance and such intelligence
that their hopes aren’t dashed. A lot of times in similar settings,
you bring your hopes and you get religious dogma. You want to come as
a scientist with all your intelligence and all your inarticulate longings
and be met on the other side. You long to be met by intelligence concerning
the existential questions that you really aren’t able to deal
with too well. But what you get are pieties. Simple statements about
what you should do and shouldn’t do with your life. Then you think,
“Oh, who needs this? Let’s get back to where I was. At least
I was doing an honest day’s work as a scientist. I’m not
going to go and jump off a cliff or buy into something. Let the others
But you discover with the Buddhist
scholars and the Dalai Lama that you don’t get pieties. The response
you get is the fruit of thousands of years, literally 2,000 years, of
contemplative practice and intellectual effort, with lots of sophistication.
All the big issues are present in their treatment of mind or ethics,
together with a nuanced discussion of consciousness. So s a kind of
joy starts to creep in that sometimes becomes almost intoxicating in
the small group discussions. You’ll start to experience the way
the Buddhists are handling the question, the way the Dalai Lama is chiming
in, the way the scientists are performing right at the top of their
level. They’re asking all the hardest questions of themselves
and everyone is willing to be vulnerable. The Buddhists are not taking
advantage of the scientist’s vulnerability. They’re speaking
right into it with their most precious thoughts and their own questions.
You think, “This is research. This is research at the highest
possible human level. This is what we’re designed to do, not just
think clever thoughts, but deep thoughts, large thoughts, and compassionate
thoughts, to act compassionately, and be good to one another. And have
fun while we’re doing it.”
I recall one such moment vividly.
It was after two days of meetings in 2002, at the end of an afternoon
session in Dharmasala. The Dalai Lama got up, thanked everybody, and
left the room. I looked around. Everybody was standing, of course. They
all looked at me and went, “Wow.” The whole afternoon had
lifted off. Everybody in the room felt so alive. You really felt that
this is what we came to be and do, and it echoed for the whole evening.
Sometimes the sessions are a little
more mundane. There’s good quality material, things happen, but
they expand to a certain point and then contract. But when you get two
or three times like that in a meeting, you’re really pleased.
By the end, you feel that somehow or other a great wealth has been achieved
where each person has brought his or her very best and contributed it,
with great integrity, openness, and no dogma. Everybody is there to
discover. We could all be wrong. We’ll dare to say certain things
normally not said. We’re not pushing anything on the other. We
offer our best with great open-mindedness, great hope, and affection.
As a moderator, what I’ve
discovered is that, in order to create during a relatively short time
a certain capacity for exchange and trust, I have to be willing, in
the right measure and with the right words, to encourage people to dare
to go further. They have to be willing, without prying or pushing beyond
what’s appropriate, to come back to the issue and to go further
with it in the room. I ask people to go a little deeper, to be a little
more open than they just were. You know in your mind, as a good moderator,
who each of these people are. So you know the hidden cards they’re
not playing, the hidden things they long to say. But it’s like
standing guard over them. You honor their reticence, but you encourage
them to go further. You have to open the door and say, “It’s
okay to say what I know you want to say, and it’s okay for you
to respond.” I may know how the dialogue will go ahead of time,
as the moderator. I could write it down for you. But I can’t insert
myself. What I can do is say to you, “Wouldn’t you like
to take what you said before a little further? I think that we could
go further here and open up the question.” And then I turn to
the Dalai Lama, who may be reluctant, and say, “I know he’s
not going as far as he wants to go or could go. But, Your Holiness,
we’ve just heard this and this. Couldn’t the Buddhists say
a little something more about this?” Then you can see him trying
to decide whether he dares to do it or whether it’ll be an affront
or whether it’ll be skillful means. Then, if you’ve judged
correctly, he comes in. The others come back. And then you just feel
that you’ve moved up another notch or two, and the whole room
starts to become more dense and more alive. The field starts to become
So the moderator has to be constantly
listening for opportunities to serve that other purpose, which is not
my goal but the goal of the community. When it works and when you can
then crystallize or summarize what has happened for people so that it
all stays clear and lucid in front of them, then you are of service.
In terms of the group, the collective,
and how to serve the collective, that’s where I’ve had most
of my experience. I’ve tried to play a positive role in the social
groups I’ve been in. But I have not been a convener or an architect
of those groups. The kinds of groups that I have been part of had an
intellectual or a thematic agenda, like the Dalai Lama or the Mind &
Life conferences, or there has been a project agenda, where I and others
want to create a new institution or take on an important task.
Other Centered Leadership
In such cases I think the same
kinds of laws apply, namely that you have to recognize the Other. I
think, frankly, that the old form of “I have a big idea; I’m
going to go out and make that idea happen; it’s basically my ego
in the world,” and it is totally uninteresting.
Very good friends of mine ask me
what I want to do. They say, “You should have something you want
to make happen in the world.” For a long time, I was very embarrassed,
because I felt I should have something, you know? Then at a certain
point, I said, “Listen, I don’t have anything. There’s
nothing I want to make happen.” So how is it I am so busy making
things happen? Mostly I’m in a situation where I say, “My
god, this is ridiculous. This is tragic; this can’t be this way.
There has to be a different way.” Or you’re talking with
others and they agree with your perception. Three or four of you are
together and say, “Well, let’s make it different.”
It’s not like you come with the goal. It’s a perception
of a reality. And who’s going to do this? You look at yourself
and say, “Well, I’m the person here. This is not really
what I had in mind. But nobody else is doing this.” There’s
a reluctance, and usually somebody else says to you, “This is
really something you should help out with.” Then you enroll.
I think there’s a kind of
rightness about this ethic—of people seeing other people. Leadership,
for me, is just this. For some reason you are given the task of identifying
capacities in others. In other words, when I’ve been put in leadership
positions, it was not about me doing anything. It was about me looking
around and saying, for example, “Oh, Joan. This is really for
her. And this is really for him.” And then not just making it
happen over their dead bodies, but recognizing, out of the circle of
acquaintances that you have, that these are the right people therefore
the task. Or, let’s say you have a kind of person in mind, but
there is no such person in your circle. You recognize you need a certain
kind of person and you know that person is out there somewhere. If you
hold the image long enough, they will show up.
So you create the picture; you
hold it, and over the course of a year or two, that person steps into
your life, and you recognize him or her. You feel them out a little
bit, the acquaintanceship builds up, and then you spring on them what
you have in mind. If you’ve been a good judge, they light up.
Because they know that much in their life has been a preparation for
The picture I have is something
like this: The problems of the world are not put there as insoluble,
overwhelming problems. The world is not there to defeat us. I’m
not a pessimist in that way. All of the means are there to handle any
situation we need to, no matter how dire. The good gods have pre-positioned
all the resources we need already, like military strategists the resources
are already in place, and these resources are in people.
The leader is a person who has
the possibility through destiny to know the people, to recognize their
capacities, and to bring them to bear on the problem. That requires,
I think, a certain selflessness, because it’s not me who’s
solving the problem.
But the problem is that often we
don’t really get to know each other. So the leader is a person
who has the possibility through destiny to know the people, to recognize
their capacities, and to bring them to bear on the problem. That requires,
I think, a certain selflessness, because it’s not me who’s
solving the problem. It’s not me who’s making it go away.
As soon as I recognize the person, I give them whatever resources are
needed, whatever I have at my disposal is offered for as long as is
necessary. I give them encouragement, counsel, active support, and then
I go into the background. It’s their success. It has nothing to
do with me.
The great thing is the letting-go
part. You’re on to the next thing. You redirect yourself. Then
you have to hold the next picture or task. You don’t know who
will be connected to it. You’re just holding the picture. The
person shows up, but it’s not who you thought it was likely to
be. You have to be open to that. You try it out. You give them support,
and then you’re off to the next thing.
At least, that’s one form
of leadership. I’m not sure if it’s the only form, because
some people get hold of something and do it their whole lives. But that
hasn’t been my style. In groups, I work with multiple individuals
and many initiatives at once. Usually none of them has much to do with
me, with my grand plan; I don’t have a grand plan. It’s
more a perception of needs in the world and of the individuals who can
be put together with those needs.
I’ve been part of many Dalai
Lama events. I’m on the board of directors and the scientific
board of the Mind and Life Institute. Part of the genius of the events
has been steadfastness over 18 years of history and faithfulness. It
was near collapse two years ago. When Cisco [Francisco Varela] died,
Adam Engle (the president) didn’t see how to go forward. Through
talking with many of his close friends, the right ideas and the courage
came into the group, and he went on without Francisco, finding a slightly
different way of proceeding. I think Cisco would be pleased. But it’s
taken on a different form. I think that ripeness was there. We’ve
done it so many times and knew our roles so well. We had built up a
The remarkable thing is the level
of commitment his illness put into it. When we were Dharamsala in 2002,
Cisco had already died, and His Holiness spoke about his loss.
Then he spoke about the work that
we were doing and how it really wasn’t about any of us. It wasn’t
that he didn’t care for each individual, honor them, and love
them in his own way. Still it wasn’t a personal thing. The Dalai
Lama wasn’t meeting scientists merely out of personal curiosity.
He was interested in many of the scientific discoveries we discussed,
but before long, it was clear this was something that had larger significance,
both for the Buddhist community and, I think he believes also, for the
West. He doesn’t want to say that, but I’ll certainly say
So his level of commitment has
increased over the years to the point where it is one of the three main
focuses of what he’s doing. He’s working for an autonomous
province in Tibet. He’s teaching his monks. And he’s meeting
with science groups. He said to us that he will continue until he can’t
do it anymore, and then it should go on after him. It will go on differently
after he dies, or after he’s incapacitated, but he feels our explorations
should go on.
So an earnestness and quality of
commitment have grown into the whole movement and this has been a real
blessing. The core group is pretty committed and quite diverse. They’re
not all Buddhists but we are committed to seeing the dialogue take place.
This is it!
But, to me, the conferences, Goethe,
and Steiner all share a common theme. It is the relationship between
knowledge and love. The thing I was missing when I was 19 and 20 was
the other axis, the love axis. From it all culture arises. What are
those great monuments? They’re not monuments to knowing, but rather
to communities of aspiration and, ultimately, of love and creation.
When we’re in those fabulous dialogues in the Mind & Life
meetings, we’re learning a lot from each other. But what’s
animating the meeting is ultimately the compassion and love that we
extend to each other in those meetings.
Knowledge and love aren’t
supposed to go together in a conventional world. They’re supposed
to be two parts of the world that are kept separate. The geometry of
our gatherings belies this view and confounds it. It says, “No,
we’re going to do both of these right here on this stage. And
you’re going to be invited in, and we’re all going to experience
it together.” Then it starts to unfold. You’re just caught
up in the lucidity, the clarity, the light, and the love. If the discussion
is only clear and intellectually brilliant, you’d appreciate it
and you’d applaud. But when you feel what’s happening back
and forth, you realize something more is happening here. It’s
not sentimental, but at the same time, it’s filled with sentiment,
in the highest sense of the word.
So it’s a mystery. You can’t
program it. In that sense, it’s not a causal mechanism. It’s
a way of being with each other. It’s a way of opening the heart
to another, being vulnerable and being open. Many of the people in our
meetings have been colleagues or friends for 10 years or 15 years. Alan
Wallace and I used to sit just like this in these chairs. For nearly
four years, we sat and talked like this, every week. I knew at one point
during those conversations that I would be with him and the Dalai Lama
together. I never said anything about it. I just knew that somehow that
was going to happen.
Otto: When was
12 years ago.
Otto: So you met
with him every week?
you could say he was my student. I mean, I was also his student. We’re
almost the same age. He’d done the equivalent of a full Ph.D.,
advanced studies in Tibetan Buddhism while a monk in India and Switzerland.
I’d done my study and research over here. When we met we held
our own Mind & Life dialogue for three and a half years.
And then we get to do it together
with others. You know, there were times in some of my meetings when
I thought that this is what spiritual science really is. I’m now
in the midst of a spiritual, scientific research community. Every question
can be asked. Every tool can be used, contemplative tools, external
scientific tools, the latest things from all sides. It’s all directed
toward human betterment and compassionate action, reducing suffering
and making this world a truly great place. And we’re doing it
with joy and celebrating each other’s capacity. This is how we
should be at every university. Our universities are so remarkable. We
put so much of our resources into creating the place where students
can come for four to eight, nine, ten years of study and research, and
it’s all for them. All those resources. Forget the disciplinary
turf warfare! Do it this way, the way we did at MIT or in Dharamsala.
It doesn’t mean you have to agree with one another; just rejoice
in the dialogue itself, and sometime it all comes together. Sometimes
Developing the Selfless Self
Otto: I wonder
whether you have any advice about how to develop the capacity of the
selfless self that creates the space for others to flourish and tap
into their true purpose.
I had an experience this last weekend. I was in a meeting with a group
at a science museum, eight or ten of us. They wanted to get some input
from me about developing an interdisciplinary program that they had
in mind. I’m bringing this up because we started at the other
end, quite far away from the quality of consciousness we have spoken
about and the field energy as you term it. It was a totally conventional
The people were bright and fast
thinkers. It was very much a kind of popcorn meeting. You know, pop,
this idea! Pop, that idea! We could do this! We could do that! Boom,
boom, boom. And there was no presence. In fact there was a negative
What could I do? I could pop ideas,
but we’ll get nowhere. Part of it is not getting caught up in
the popcorn and in just being smarter than the next person. It’s
the wrong tempo. You can’t bring the quality of awareness and
consciousness that’s required. There are times to be fast and
do popcorn. But there are other times where you have to stop, center,
ask the essential question, and then ask the second essential question.
Get everybody together on the first one. Get everybody together on the
second one. Create a kind of open space of common perception. Okay,
we all agree that this is at the core. You agree, and so-and-so adds
a little something. Now there’s the presence. What about the next
step? These are the defining parameters. What’s the content you
want? Not 26 things that you threw out. What’s the core concern?
What’s the core? Okay, that’s the core element.
Now you start to feel something
starting to move in the space. You can just feel the shift in the energy.
It all moves down from people associating to a sense of breathing. Everyone’s
Then the marvelous starts to unfold.
Someone makes a contribution. I make a contribution. I bring in an example.
There’s a way it’s heard. Then, there’s time to hear
each other, to listen. A little pause. The danger is that the popcorn
will get started again. You have to put the popcorn back in the bag.
There is an awareness you need,
which is not just content-oriented or about the ideas coming forward,
but about the quality of the ideas, the quality of the meeting itself,
and the energy in the room. Whether it’s going to serve or not
serve. Then you find the skillful means to insert yourself.
In this kind of situation, you
have to get the floor. If you’ve got eight or ten people who are
all trying to get their popcorn going first and their next kernel in,
it’s very hard to get even your hand in. But you’ve got
to somehow capture the floor and have enough inward presence of your
own that you can project, move that into the space, ask the essential
question, and not get distracted with any of the nonessential things.
Ask the essential question. Hold on; get in the second question. Open
it out and maybe involve one or two people who have been quiet. Bring
in the right energy. Then the whole thing shifts and you can feel it.
The session takes on a very different quality. I think we ended up with
a very good meeting with some good ideas.
I’ve developed a couple of
little practices. I’ll be in a board meeting where the energy
is tough and maybe I’m up against some hot issue. I don’t
know how to deal with it. There’s a tendency to deal with it superficially
and from a pattern of what I’ve done in the past. I find myself
in those times letting go. It’s a practice of saying, “Okay,
we’ve had full, bloodied attention on this thing. We’ve
really turned over a lot of stuff.” Then I kind of sit back and
expand in non-focal awareness. Empty out.
Sometimes I even pretend there’s
an invisible person next to me. When I was with the Waldorf school,
sometimes I would imagine invisible children at the table. I was actually
working for these children who were not yet born or were not yet there.
They were my reason for being there.
It isn’t just visible people
at the table; the future is also at the table. I’ll say to myself,
“Okay, I want to hear what you who are invisible have to say.
I want to listen into that space.” Not to the visible, not to
the space of the present, but the space of the future, the space of
the invisible. If you’re simply open and quiet with such a picture,
things start to come in, first, a little bit inarticulately, but you
get a presentiment that something’s emerging. Then something new
will come. If you speak concretely out of that space, and if you’re
with a good group of people, they hear it as if it’s spoken from
a different space. That’s my experience. They shift their attention;
They can tell when you’re
speaking out of your conventional consciousness. And they can tell,
by the feel of it, when something unusual has happened. They’re
picking up what it is in your voice.
Arthur: The field
switched. Right, and then they go, “Oh-h-h.” And you can
feel them all move their field into yours.
Then there’s a wonderful
creative moment when everyone recognizes this is a special moment. Let’s
hold onto this. Let’s let this play out. Bring it gently down
to Earth and make it practical, because it starts out a little bit large
and diffuse. But it’s like an infant. We’ve got to bring
it down slowly. Then there’s the excitement of seeing something
new in the room and implementing it. You’re practical people;
you want to make it happen somehow.
So those moments give a lot of
positive energy to a group. There’s a feeling of originality,
can-do, and collaboration. Nobody takes ownership, because the idea
could have come from somebody else across the table. But emptying out,
emptiness, and working with the invisible have become part of what I
do when I’m working with groups.
Thank you for coming. I don’t
know what you’re to make out of all of this, but it’s been
fun talking with you.
Otto: Thank you
so much for this conversation.
1. Zajonc, Arthur and Greenstein, George. 1977. The Quantum Challenge:
Modern Research and the Foundation of Quantum Mechanics. Sudbury, MA:
Jones and Bartlett