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Tags: thinking, creativity, freedom, philosophy, spirituality, transcendence, mysticism, logic, history of philosophy

The School of Athens

In the centre of the fresco “The School of Athens” (by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, painted between 1509 and 1511 in the Vatican, Apostolic Palace) Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right are gesturing their disagreement, each pointing to what he takes to be the most important focus of philosophical curiosity and thinking, and in doing so setting the agenda of western thinking generally for a couple of thousand years. Plato points skyward, asserting his metaphysics, which features the cosmic dominance of otherworldly and timeless Ideal Forms, anticipating Christian spirituality. Aristotle has his hand extended horizontally, palm open and facing downward, indicating that it is more important to understand the concrete world as encountered in ordinary living, anticipating science. Regrettably, they were both wrong. The focus revealed in the key question What is thinking? is the power of spirituality on a strictly personal-scale.

The intense spiritual effort known as mysticism is based on a conviction that there are profound spiritual features of the human situation which remain generally unrecognized either because they are metaphysically remote from the ordinary circumstances of human living (as in the metaphysics of Plato, for example), or else they are somehow hidden in plain sight, occupying an unidentified blind spot in human perception, especially as that perception is guided by normal cultural influences. Part of the claim and program of any mysticism, of course, is that those unrecognized features can (and should!) be disclosed and explored with certain special techniques. In the case of philosophical thinking on the question What is thinking?, the techniques available are familiar enough: questioning, self-questioning, and re-conceptualization. However, even such philosophical thinking can carry a whiff of mysticism in acknowledging a shocking strangeness lurking within the ordinary, a strangeness concerning human spirituality, and that appropriate acquaintance with spirituality has a transforming effect on experience generally.


To say that spirituality is personally ‘interior’ is to say nothing more than that it is not an actuality among things, but is still the marker of what is most local for any particular person. In the work of Martin Luther, such subjective interiority was called inwardness. In Stoicism, as well as in the work of Luther and Immanuel Kant, freedom was recognized as an important reality but entirely limited to that personal inwardness, and everything overt and public was conceived as completely pre-determined either by divine plan (logos for Stoics) or by material cause/ effect, so by God or nature. However, all of those ways of thinking were guided in what they conceived by ideas of cosmic hierarchy, in which the power of the almighty eternal was so comprehensive that no ephemeral and finite force could divert it in any way. Such ideas of cosmic hierarchy are unjustified.

The creative freedom that is personal spirituality is not a formless nothing, and is much more than passive consciousness ‘of’ something. It is teleological time: an interventionist bearing into actuality conceived as open futurity shaped by the personal specifics of anticipation, aspiration, and evaluation, including pre-actual anticipations of alternative discretionary interventions. Freedom has the form of time as open futurity constructed of non-actual and increasingly remote possibilities and probabilities, incorporating lessons learned, all in continuity with the most local actuality of embodiment. That the actuality of the present state of affairs categorically and specifically excludes and negates the actuality of all other states of affairs (temporal discontinuity), means that the existence of other states, which is required for the existence of time, can only be existence as non-actualities ‘interior to’ some living person. This spiritual ‘interiority’ is an individual’s ever-present embodied orientation in a time-structure of non-actuality (the non-actual future, the non-actual past). As freedom-empowering non-actuality, teleological time is the form of transcendent spirituality. A very elaborated orientation and directionality of interventionist bearing is certainly ‘in here’, continuously self-building with a streaming force of original questioning, creativity, and basic sociability, along with variably intense anxiety, desperation, and gratification. Power is not something that originates from the barrel of a gun, nor is it created by institutional customs and habits of stratification, authority, and subordination. Power originates in this spirituality at the level of the embodied individual.

That Whiff of Mysticism

The idea of metaphysical transcendence (effective non-actuality or immateriality), of course, contains a whiff of mysticism, suggesting ideas about what is supernatural, typically conceived as divinity, and about how humans should bring ourselves into an appropriate relationship to the supernatural. However, what is encountered in recognizing the personally interior non-actualities in freedom and time, although transcendent, is emphatically embodied, not all-knowing or all-powerful, and certainly lacks universal jurisdiction, so is not divine in any usual sense. This transcendence suggests a scattered multitude of equals instead of “something than which nothing can be greater”. Here there is nothing to be known about how to evade oppressive astral powers on the path up to divinity, no divine messages or powers in letters, words, numbers, events or images, nor anything else that could be cultish. This is transcendent spirituality without the dissolving of personal individuality which is typical of mysticism. There are no glimpses here of an almighty provider, legislator, and enforcer. This transcendence involves no debt, and so no guilt or gratitude, and has no involvement of any kind with disembodied intelligent entities. This transcendence is without the “all is one” or cosmic consciousness, without the supreme-source or cosmic moral ledger keeping and final day of reckoning. There is only this whiff of personal creative freedom which is not a thing. Perhaps the surprise is that spirituality and transcendence are still recognizable as such without the more grandiose features of mysticism.

Still, the personal use of thinking (on the question: What is thinking?) as a gateway to the experience of spirituality carries a distinct whiff of mysticism. For one thing, there is the recognition that working up a theory of spirituality is insufficient. In this thinking, the task at hand is not the construction of conceptual or abstract knowledge, but instead a personal experience, an encounter with and recognition of ‘interior’ non-actuality as transcendent spirituality. It is more a re-orientation to a grounding in that transcendence than any word-based knowledge or model-building. This is a personal and practical re-orientation as opposed to critiquing and tweaking the logic of theories and intervening in theoretical puzzles, which quite properly make up the important substance of academic work. This is personal in ways that theory never is. Nobody does this for money, but for intrinsic value, just as with mysticism. This alone is enough to put such thinking at the outer fringe of philosophy, where it should be unable to cast an unwelcome light on institutional philosophy, already considered fringy enough with respect to scientific knowledge.

Thinking and Time

To think is, sometimes, to question (doubt) in a way that is profoundly different from requesting information from a catalogue, such as people do with internet search engines or in the student – teacher interaction. This different kind of questioning or curiosity is not something with definite linguistic form. It is to have personal orientation progress outside previously habitual markers, categories, rules, and boundaries. It is a sense of unknowing and vigilant curiosity which specifically rejects established patterns. Questioning is a dissolving or failing of previously stable elements of subjective orientation: expectations of identities and relationships. They dissolve frequently in the process of an individual’s developing orientation. To think is to be vigilant to that dissolving, and so to unleash the gushing interior stream of alternative possible reconstructions: new and incompatible ‘propositions’ to be considered. This thinking as the movement between questioning and re-conceptualization is done in the context of both a person’s interventionist bearing, and the simultaneously expanding overall orientation at this moment of flight into actuality toward the openness of futurity. So, thinking is re-making the provisional stability of futurity, the personal specifics of anticipating, aspiring, evaluating, planning and executing interventions: re-conceptualization. There is no modelling or representation of this mental operation in logic theory, neither in inductive or deductive logic. The whole spirit of formal logic is to be coldly rule-governed and determinate, but re-conceptualization is indeterminate and warm, which is to say, creative. The active presence of a scattered multiplicity of embodied spiritualities, intervening as individuals into local actuality, makes the whole world indefinite, indeterminate, not yet a completed particular. Time is the incompleteness of everything. Thinking is a way of being in an indeterminate world, a world of possibility, a way of making such a world. This isn’t psychology, but rather the metaphysics of time.

Descartes was Right

If there is to be an event of questioning (thinking on the way to re-conceptualization) there must be an oriented bearing of intervention, anticipation, aspiration, evaluation, and so a thinking subject in flight between past and future. The inseparable combination of the temporality of thinking and the subjectivity of time establishes that Descartes was right about “Cogito, ergo sum.”.

Missing Spirituality

In an era when the decline of spiritual ideologies from antique religions is no longer seriously lamented, potentially clearing the field for better guides, the vacuum was filled instead by the modern ideology of competitive materialism, celebrated relentlessly in mass media and aided and encouraged by science in its role as dominant intellectual discourse. Thoroughly secular people still inclined to have spirituality in their lives, and there are many, often do so by involvement with the arts, cultivating appreciation of art and beauty. It is a positive thing that there are still so many determined to keep a sense of spirituality alive. However, ascribing spirituality to beauty directs attention outward toward some eternally mysterious source, remote and unattainable. Contemplation and appreciation of art and beauty, as a way of being spiritual, invokes a kind of Platonic idealism in which beauty represents a transcendent world which is otherwise inaccessible, almost perfectly alien to individuals. In such a context, the human connection to spirituality is occasional, passive, unreliable, and dependent on treasured properties for possession of which the most wealthy compete. This is a misconception of transcendence. The top-down metaphysical orientation re-enforces the hierarchy that is typical of arts culture, largely overlapping the hierarchy of competitive materialism.

The promise of philosophy reclaiming the metaphysical question of transcendence as its historically essential issue, even with its whiff of mysticism, is to open a more appropriate experience and discourse of spirituality. Regrettably, reputable philosophy has made itself as science-like and un-spiritual as possible, and so unavailable as a source of spiritual discourse. However, there is plenty of spiritual discourse in the history of philosophy, some of it cited above. Spiritually relevant philosophy comes of personally making something important of the question: What is thinking? What thinks is spirituality, a flight of creativity and so of indeterminacy, projecting creativity into actuality. Such a conception of spirituality upsets the Platonic-scientific sense of the world (including the social world) as a rigidly furnished bundle of structures waiting to be discovered, with all essences already finished and in place, and so where everything is as it must always be. As an act of creation, thinking is the reality of freedom at the level of the embodied individual, and keeps open the indeterminacy and incompleteness of the self and the world. Emphasizing thinking as spiritual power also shifts the sense of human wellbeing in a way that upsets the ideology of competitive materialism. Thinking itself is the best and essential achievement, self-conferred. Tapping the personally interior gusher of spirituality (intelligence), and bringing creations into the world is the way to fulfillment for both individuals and collectives.


* Some observations in this posting are responses to points made in:

What is Existenz Philosophy, written by Hannah Arendt, published in Partisan Review 8/1 (Winter 1946): pp. 34-56.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.