Five Themes: Mind, Life, Self, Truth, & Knowledge

Five Themes: Mind, Life, Self, Truth, & Knowledge is now available in paperback and Kindle editions.


How each the whole, its substance gives
Each in the other works and lives.

—Goethe’s Faust

In writing an introduction, the author is charged with an impossible task of attempting to say in the space a several paragraphs that for which he felt no less than an entire book was necessary. Still, a few remarks may serve to guide the reader through the four wings of this work. The center from which each departs is the essential and timeless question that echoes through the halls of history, from the injunction to self-knowledge at Delphi, to the psalterian wonder of King David over the human condition: “What is Man, that thou are mindful of him?” How should we live?

Something that we all sense implicitly in the recesses of our hearts is becoming explicit to many thinkers today: that the all but unimaginable explosion of a certain kind of knowledge since the Scientific Revolution has increasingly estranged the human being from the very world that is the ostensible object of that knowledge. It is thus imagined that human life is an accident of physics. A crucial argument of this book is that any eventual conclusion, such as the one above, for instance, supervenes on the method of inquiry whereby that question is approached. It follows from this that the picture we get from physical science is very far from revealing the truth of existence in any comprehensive sense. This book is an attempt to live into the question introduced at the end of the last paragraph. But it is an attempt to do so while sustaining the lucid awareness and responsibility of ourselves as the ones who are asking that question, and that the tenor of our inquisition will influence the world’s response to it. “What is Man, that thou are mindful of him?” How should we live in this world? Any satisfactory answer to this moral question, implies as its necessary correlative a thorough knowledge of what kind of place this world is, as well as a thorough self-knowledge of the knower and doer who poses the question. This integral relation of the inner and the outer runs, like an artery from the heart, outward to nourish each chapter of this text.

The first theme that the work takes up is mind and consciousness. The specific departure point for this theme is the contemporary aporia amongst philosophers and scientists over the nature of the most immediate and incontrovertible facts of our experience. How is it that mensurable material processes appear to give rise to immeasurable immaterial experience? I have attempted to treat the question both synchronically and diachronically in the interest of elucidating the topic to the fullest measure. Put another way, one has attempted to trace the phylogeny as well as the ontogeny of “the hard problem of consciousness” with the understanding that neither approach is, by itself, sufficient.

The second theme takes up the subject of life. Plato writes, in the Sophist dialogue that “perhaps our minds are in this same condition as regards Being also; we may think that it is plain sailing and that we understand when the word is used, though we are in difficulties about non-Being, whereas really we understand equally little of both.” In this spirit, one does not merely assume that because we can use the word, that we have understood its meaning. The reader will be the judge of whether, in this study, the author has managed to transcend such vacuous nominalism. In any case, any eventual judgement must be the conclusion of an inquiry into the matter and not a foregone supposition at the outset of it.

The third theme is an axis of sorts. It is not a wing, but the center from which the four wings extend. This crux of a question is none other than that of self-knowledge. Bona fide self-knowledge is approached apophatically through a study of narcissism. By this via negativa, self-knowledge is brought into sharper relief through contrast to what is not it. The self that can be an object of knowledge is not the self, but the self-image. True self-knowledge is to know oneself as the knower.

Truth is the fourth theme of this book. “Quid est veritas?” Pilate’s notorious words sound like an tacit slughorn through the theme and enkindle an attempt to navigate betwixt the Scylla of analytic scientism and the Charybdis of nihilism. Between a rock and an abyss, one endeavours to hold to the middle way, which reveals itself to be neither a compromise nor a capitulation, but something of an apotheosis.

The final theme of the book is a way of knowledge or science (Wissenschaft). One attempts to explicate Goethe’s approach in both letter and spirit. Goethe’s way of science is both qualitative and rigorous, and also evolutionary. And through this evolution, it achieves fruition in the work of Rudolf Steiner.

Thus, in the five themes of this book, I have attempted to treat essential questions of life and philosophy in a manner that is pertinent to the present day but also to the perennial concerns of the human spirit. I have attempted to simultaneously maintain fidelity to the great thinkers and traditions of the past while also allowing the present moment to inflect itself on these same questions. One has attempted, without relinquishing the lifeline of the ancient philosophical tradition, to look forward to the age that our own lives and deeds will usher in. If the reader does not feel, upon laying down this book, that the world shimmers with a secret lustre, which she recognises as the intimate and super-essential coinciding of her own light of thought and warmth of feeling with the world at large whence both were born, then the writing of this book will have been in vain.

—Max Leyf, Spring 2019