Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 7: The Intellect > Chapter 8: Intellect, Reality, and The Overself

Intellect, Reality, and The Overself


Its spiritual significance

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The Insufficiency of Intellect and Reason (Essay)

Intellect can perceive what belongs to reality, not reality itself. The metaphysician deludes himself into thinking that he has seen the world in all its varied aspects, but what he has really seen is the world in all its intellectual aspects only. Moreover when he thinks that he has put together the results of one science with another, uniting them all into a harmonious whole, he omits to reckon that such are the limitations of human capacity and such is the rapidly growing vastness of scientific knowledge, that no man could ever combine all the multitudinous results. He could never acquire an intimate knowledge of them during a single lifetime. Therefore he could never develop a complete philosophy of the universe as a whole.

The intellect fulfils itself practically when it discovers that each idea it produces is incomplete and imperfect and therefore passes on to replace it by a further one, but it fulfils itself metaphysically when it discovers that every idea which it can possibly produce will always and necessarily be incomplete and imperfect.

Now so far as they are almost entirely metaphysical works, these two volumes [most likely, The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga and The Wisdom of the Overself are meant--Ed.] have no option but to make their appeal chiefly to reason alone. And expounding the special and unique system called the metaphysics of truth as they do, they have to start where possible from verifiable facts rather than mere speculations. But whatever other importance they ascribe to reasoning as an instrument of truth-attainment applies only to the particular stage for which it is prescribed, which is the stage of metaphysical discipline and certainly not beyond it. Although the status bestowed on reason in every metaphysical system beginning with science must necessarily be a primary one, its status within the larger framework of the integral hidden teaching can only be a secondary one. This teaching possesses a larger view and does not end with science or limit itself to the rational standpoint alone. How can it do so when metaphysics is merely its intermediate phase? We must rightly honour reason to its fullest extent, but we need not therefore accept the unreasonable doctrine that the limits of reason constitute the limits of truth.

Our senses can perceive only what they have been formed to perceive. Our reason similarly cannot grasp what it was never formed to grasp. Within their legitimate spheres of operation, the deliverances of both sense and reason should be acceptable to us, but outside those spheres we must seek for something that transcends both.

But the basic cause why reason is insufficient exists in the fact that intellect--the instrument with which it works--is itself insufficient. Reason is the right arrangement of thinking. Each thought thus arranged depends for its existence on another thought and is unable to exist without such a relation, that is, it suffers from relativity. Hence a thought cannot be considered as an ultimate in itself and therefore reason cannot know the absolute. The intellect can take the forms of existence apart bit by bit and tell us what they consist of. But such surgical dissection cannot tell us what existence itself is. This is something which must be experienced, not merely thought. It can explain what has entered into the composition of a painting but, as may be realized if we reflect a little, it cannot explain why we feel the charm of the painting. The analytic intellect describes reality sufficiently to give some satisfaction to our emotions or our intelligence, but it does not touch this baffling elusive reality at all. What it has dissected is not the living throbbing body but the cold dead image of it.

When reason tells us that God is, it does not actually know God. The antennae of intellectual research cannot penetrate into the Overself because thinking can only establish relations between ideas and thus must forever remain in the realms of dualities, finitudes, and individualities. It cannot grasp the whole but only parts. Therefore reason which depends on thinking is incompetent to comprehend the mysterious Overself. Realization is to be experienced and felt; thought can only indicate what it is likely to be and what it is not likely to be. Hence Al Ghazzali, the Sufi, has said: "To define drunkenness, to know that it is caused by vapours that rise from the stomach and cloud the seat of intelligence, is a different thing from being drunk. So I found ultimate knowledge consists in experiences rather than definitions." The fact that metaphysics tries to explain all existence in intellectual terms alone and tries to force human nature into conceptual molds, causes it to suppress or distort the non-intellectual elements in both. The consequence is that metaphysics alone cannot achieve an adequate understanding. If it insists upon exalting its own results, then it achieves misunderstanding.

Metaphysics proves the existence of reality but is unable to enter into it. Indeed, metaphysics must in the end criticize the desert-sand dryness of its own medium of thinking and not make the mistake of regarding thought-activity as the ultimately real, when it is itself only a section cut from the whole of human experience and existence. The intellect offers a reality which can never be a felt reality but only a described one and then only in negative terms. Intellectual work can only paint the picture of reality; we have to verify this picture by realizing it within our own experience. The final office of reasoned thought is to reveal why reason is not competent to judge reality and why thinking is not competent to know reality.

The moment we attempt to understand what reality is, we get out of our depth because our own thinking must move in a serial sequence which itself prevents us from escaping the particular space-time form which confines us to a particular world of appearance. Just as, because it has entered our space-time experience, we can take hold of an artist's production but not the mind behind it, so and for the same reason we can take hold of the screen which cuts us off. This is because we can think of existence only in a particular shape or relative to a particular thing, not of existence that is formless, bodiless, and infinite. We have to localize it somewhere in space. Because space and time are forms taken by rational knowledge, because they are only conditions existing within personal consciousness, they do not enter into the knowledge of consciousness of that which is beyond both rational thinking and personal selfhood.

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No idea is ever really outside another, nor is any idea ever outside the mind, and all ideas, all that which is seen, can only theoretically be separated from the thinking seeing mind. As psychologists we have had in thought to separate seer from seen, so that we might learn at length what the nature of pure mind really is; but as philosophers we must now merge them together. It is because thinking must always have an object with which to occupy itself that it can never penetrate the Overself, for here there is only the One. We must renounce thoughts and things if we would enter into the Absolute. Because in this ultimate state there is no more awareness of an individual observer and an observed world, the distinction between individual mind and individual body also ceases. Everything, including our separate selfhood, is voided out, as it were. The resultant nothingness however is really the essence of everything. It is not the nothingness of death but of latent life. Human thought can proceed no farther. For when "not-two-ness" is established as the Real, the logical movement from one thought to a second can only prolong the sway of "two-ness" over the mind. In this pure being there can be no "other," no two, hence it is called non-dual. The integrity of its being cannot really be split. If the Overself is to be actually experienced, then it must be as a realization of the Infinite One. To divide itself into knower and known is to dwell in duality. The antithesis of known and knower cannot enter into it just as the opposition of reality and illusion is meaningless for it. The oneness of its being is absolute. The return to this awareness, which regards the world only under its monistic aspect, is the realization of truth possessed by a sage. When rational thinking can perceive that it cannot transcend itself, cannot yield more than another thought, it has travelled as far as it can go and performed its proper function. Metaphysical truth is the intellectual appearance of reality, the rational knowledge of it; but it is not reality itself, not realization. For knowing needs a second thing to be known; hence metaphysical knowledge, being dual, can never yield realization which is non-dual.

Reality must stand grandly alone, without dependence on anything and without relation to anyone; it ever was, is, and ever will be. It is this inability of human reason to grasp the super-rational, the divine ineffable, that Omar Khayyam tried to express in his beautiful quatrains which have been so widely misunderstood by Western readers. If the Rubaiyat of Omar is only a drunken refrain from a wine-shop, then the New Testament is a mere scribble from an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire. The cup of language is too small to hold the wine of the Absolute. A thought of Mind as the Void is still a "something" no less than a thought of great mountains and therefore prevents us from realizing the Void.

Now when we grasp the basic nature of human thinking, that it is possible only by forming two opposing ideas at the same time as the concept of black is formed by the contrast against white, we can then grasp the fundamental reason why such thinking can never rise to awareness of the Absolute unity. We cannot think of eternity without thinking of time too. For our conception of it either prolongs time until imagination falters and ceases or negates time altogether into timelessness. In neither case do we really comprehend eternity. Why? Because intellect cannot lay hold of what lies beyond itself. We humans know a thing by distinguishing it from other things, by limiting its nature and by relating it to its opposite. But the infinite has nothing else from which it can be distinguished or to which it can be related, whilst it certainly cannot be limited in any way.

Our earlier division into a dualism of observer and observed must now come to an end. But let us not make the error of mistaking it for the final stage. There still lies a path beyond, a path which leads to the ultimate where both observer and the observed become one.

The Real can never be stated because it can never be thought. Therefore it is quite clear that ordinary means of knowledge are unable to grasp it. But such knowledge is not useless. For if religion can give us a symbolic idea and mysticism an intuitive idea of the Infinite, metaphysical knowledge can give us a rational idea of it. And to possess such an idea keeps us at least from falling into errors about the reality behind it. If metaphysics can never perform the task it sets itself--to know reality--it can perform the task of knowing what is not reality. And such a service is inestimable. The function of reason is ultimately a negative one; it cannot provide a positive apprehension of the Overself, but it can provide a clear declaration of what It is not. Reason can demonstrate that the Overself can possess no shape and can in no way be imagined.

Nevertheless we may have both the assurance and the satisfaction that our thinking is correct but we have neither the assurance nor the satisfaction of consciously embracing that with which this thinking deals. We may have formed a right mental image of God but we are still not in God's sacred presence. We must not mistake the image for the reality which it represents. Whatever discoveries we have hitherto made have been made only within the limited frontiers of reasoned thinking. Exalted and expanded though our outlook may now be, we can still do no more than think the existence of this reality without actually experiencing it. The mere intellectual recognition of this Oneness of Mind is no more sufficient to make it real to us than the mere intellectual recognition of Australia's existence will suffice to make Australia real to us. In the end all our words about the Overself remain but words. For just as no amount of telling a man who has never touched or drunk any liquid will ever make properly clear to him what wetness is unless and until he puts his finger in a liquid or drinks some of it, so every verbal explanation really fails to explain the Overself unless and until we know it for ourself within ourself and as ourself.



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