The Thinking Poet


Perception & The Enabling Unconscious 2001


(1) We feel before we think and speak.

(2) Thinking and the means whereby articulation of thought occurs takes place by means of embedded neural symbolism.

(3) What is philosophically in question is the relationship between symbol and referent.

(4) The idea is propounded that meaning has its origins in pre-conceptual experience. This notion is supported by Cassirer's distinction between mythic and discursive thinking.

(5) There is reason to believe that a pre-conscious deliberation of ideas takes place before they cross the threshold of consciousness. The pre-conscious is holistic and precedes the conceptually mapped "world" of the conscious.

(6) When intuitive experience is conceptualised the subject/object dichotomy results, and an "I" is created.

(7) The "I" is a conceptually contrived entity. We should question its assumed ability to:

(a) Deny the mythic reality, or

(b) Attempt to explain it.

(8) The unconscious/conscious interface should be recognised. It should cause us to guard against the often assumed autonomy of the closed conceptual system of knowledge.

(9) It is essential that one distinguishes between literal and evocative symbols and the role they attempt to fulfil.

(10) The concept of an enabling unconscious would seem to support the idea and importance of pre-conceptual experience.

(11) Religious and aesthetic values would appear to have substance in mythic reality.


How does language begin?

I suggest language has its beginnings in feelings stimulated by perception.

 I gaze out of the window. The scene has radically changed from that of the morning. Blue skies and brilliant sunshine have given way to dull, grey wetness. The silver birch is bedecked with thousands of silver globules. Puddles have formed in low-lying places. These, and countless other sensory clues all come together to impregnate my being with a dampened, collective emotion somewhat analogous to "what is out there".

 It is true that as language has developed in sophistication and usage it has in part been stripped of "feeling content". The verbal exchange in a court of law, and a mathematical paper delivered to a Learned Society are examples of this.

Yet as William James comments: "In its inner nature, belief or the sense of reality is a sort of "feeling" more allied to the emotions than to anything else."


Mental pictures

A mental picture is formed; human beings are compulsive communicators: we desire, at least in part, to transfer our "picture" to someone else's mind. Language communicates "pictures" using conventions: I go downstairs and announce to my wife "It is raining".

 This transference of "pictures" by voiced sounds is taken for granted, but to very early man it must have seemed akin to magic. What, then, is involved in this magic?

 Although Wittgenstein in his later writings repudiated his "picture theory" of meaning, it is, I think, worth seeing what he had to say in his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus":-

"In order to be a picture a fact must have something in common with what it pictures (prop 2.16). The picture can represent every reality whose form it has (2.182). Every picture is also a logical picture (3). The logical picture of the facts is the thought (3.1)."



As a starting point let us accept William James' initial reality as a "mental picture as felt".Next, it is suggested that this felt picture, this emotional aura, becomes thought through a process of neural mapping. Language in its structure mirrors the surrounding world in its primal, pre-conceptual state. In Wittgenstein's terms, that which is mapped possesses a common form with the "felt picture". It has a logical structure (implicit in the original picture), and the mapped "logical picture", when activated, is the thought. What has happened is a symbolic translation. As Bertrand Russell puts it:

"Words all have meaning, in the simple sense that they are symbols which stand for something other than themselves".

 In the sentence "It is raining", we have a simple symbolic structure that is logical. Conceptually we analyze the sentence in terms of a pronoun "it" - the abstract thing in question; and a verb, "is raining" (or simply "rains") which specifically denotes an action attributed to the pronoun.

 Ogden and Richards in their study "The Meaning of Meaning" make one of their prime targets of attention the influence of language upon thought. The development of symbolism as a science, they assert, is the study of this influence which is regarded as "the essential preliminary to all other sciences". They list three factors involved when any statement is made, or interpreted:

(1) Mental processes - thought or reference.

(2) The symbol.

(3) The referent - something which is thought "of".

 The theoretical problem of symbolism is how these three are related.

A triangular diagram is used to indicate the relationships:


                       Thought or Reference


                  Symbol                      Referent

 To the relations: Symbol/Thought, and Referent/Thought a causal connection is assigned and a definition given:

"A true symbol is one which correctly records an adequate reference. It is usually a set of words in the form of a proposition or sentence. It correctly records an adequate reference when it will cause a similar reference to occur in a suitable interpreter".

 However, the authors say, "Between the symbol and the referent there is no relevant relation other than the indirect one, which consists in its being used by someone to stand for a referent". The relation is imputed.

 The "Meaning of Meaning" is largely an attempt to dispel what is called "the magical theory", i.e. that the name is part of "thing", and that there is an inherent connection between symbols and referents.

 This challenge to the so-called "magical theory" is reflected in the following:

"A theory of thinking which discards mystical relations between the knower and the known and treats knowledge as a causal affair open to ordinary scientific investigation, is one which will appeal to common-sense inquirers".

It is well beyond the scope of this essay to attempt even a summary of the Development of Symbolism as a Science which, I quote: "is a study of signs in general, leading up to a referential Theory of Definition by which the phantom problems resulting from such superstitions may be avoided".(my underlining).

 Two modes of awareness.

A well developed body of knowledge (1) has been established which indicates that "meaning" has its origins in pre-conceptual experience which is delivered to consciousness for development as discursive thought through the mediation of symbols.

 A theory of thinking that treats knowledge as a causal affair open to scientific investigation, depending as it does upon exclusively discursive thought may pride itself on exorcizing what it chooses to call "phantom problems". By doing so, however, it necessarily ignores the "genesis of meaning" and takes upon itself the entire weight of explanation.

 In the matter of the definition of "meaning" there is accord:

Ogden and Richards: "The meaning of any sentence is what the speaker intends to be understood from it by the listener".

Cassirer: "A signal is part of the physical world of being; a symbol is a part of the human world of meaning. Signals are "operators"; Symbols are "designators". Signals, even when understood and used as such, have nevertheless a sort of physical or substantial being; symbols have only a functional value".

Langer: "We call the symbol itself a projection of what it symbolizes".

Barfield: "Where you have a symbol, you have a meaning of some sort".

 It is Ernst Cassirer who makes the bold assertion that it is in the "intuitive creative form of myth, and not in the formation of our discursive theoretical concepts, that we must look for the key which may unlock for us the secrets of the original conceptions of language". Cassirer delineates two distinct forms of thinking: theoretical and mythic thinking. Theoretical thinking is discursive and its aim is to achieve "one unified conception, one closed system".

Mythic thinking is "pre-logical thought", and its real substratum is not that of thought but of feeling. Reality is self-evident and not causally experienced. Cassirer describes this as a focusing of all forces on a single point. Thought (or rather, feeling) comes to rest in the immediate experience.

 Eric Mascall in his book "Words and Images" refers to the philosophy of the Medieval Schoolmen in which a distinction is drawn between the understanding as ratio: the power of discursive, logical thought, and intellectus which "is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision in which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye".

 I discern in this duality a similarity with the two "modes of thinking" of Cassirer.

Understanding, as Mascall sees it, includes an element of pure, receptive contemplation which would seem to be one and the same as Cassirer's mythic thinking. Mascall considers the sense-object of perception as not intelligible. Its function is to be sensed, not to be understood. It is the medium, or symbol, through which the intellect apprehends the intelligible object of which it is a manifestation.

 The thesis so far presented is as follows:

(1) Initially language sprang from direct perceptual experience. That which man articulated was an expression of observed unity. The observer is not conscious of relationships resulting from the conceptual fragmentation of experience.

(2) In a later, and more recent phase, received perception is primarily split up into isolated concepts and groups of concepts through processes of discursive thought.

 Pre-conceptual experience.

In order to understand the latter development of consciousness (2 above) it would seem to be essential to acknowledge the primitive consciousness (1 above) from which discursive thought is derived.

 Concepts, the building-bricks of analytical thought, are a relatively recent manifestation in the evolution of language. As Cassirer says: "before man thinks in terms of logical concepts, he holds his experiences by means of clear, separate, mythical images. The prelude to conceptual thinking is, in Barfield's words, "a sort of preconscious deliberation", and it is these sub-liminal processes that have the characteristics of symbols. Our senses are bombarded by stimuli, not by "things". Intuitively we may consciously be one with a manifested "world" in which there is no sense of self. Alternatively we may become a self-conscious observer detached from the "world" which we have constructed from conceptual bricks; a symbolic universe. But the process by which this has been achieved is through the conversion of percepts into concepts and systems of concepts, "before we even know we have been hit by them". This vivid phrase of Barfield's emphasizes the idea of an eruption from the unconscious of that which makes consciousness possible. In his words:"As far as our conscious experience is concerned, the perceptual world comes over its horizon already organised".

 Reality that was once unitive and therefore not conceptually experienced becomes conceptually mapped by a conjectured "I". From this arises a dualism of inner/outer, subjective/objective, self/not-self. The dualism is a product of this conceptual orientation. The subject, "I", does not think because it is a subject. It conceives itself to be a subject because it thinks within a specific neural (conceptual) map.


It is the sense of "newness" that is characteristic of pre-conceptual experience. It marks or initiates the "moment of insight" (knowing) that fuels creativity. But we are no sooner in the creative inspirational state than we are, as it were, propelled into self- aware consciousness. In the moment of knowing, of sensing "newness", the knower ceases to exist as subject at all. When he comes fully to himself as subject he ceases to know. Then the struggle begins. The former feeling or precognitive sense becomes formalised in imaginative thought associated with me.  The "idea" seeks some habitation within my perceptual "world". The difficulty is that of trying to retain the "magical freshness" of the former experience now that it has been captured, tamed, and found a slot within the conceptual limitations imposed.

 We experience a dualism of "inner" holistic feeling, and of "outer" conceptualization of a "world"; not-self and self; of knowledge and self-knowledge; of "newness" prior to a logical mode of intellection. Meaning is derived from both sides of the duality, but the two meanings are distinctive.

 Descartes has been seen by some as a thinker who has wrong-footed generations through the implanting of a misleading but tenacious idea. There are so many non-rational ways in which awareness "possesses us". For artist, mystic, composer and scientist alike, meaning suddenly bursts upon its recipient.

 Laurens van der Post (2) regards this revelation as an act of recognition; a kind of remembering. He maintains that "one of the most appalling things that ever happened was that people believed Descartes' statement; "I think: therefore I am", because really there is something thinking through us".(My underlining). A thought we didn't even know we had, strikes us like a flash of lightening, and is recognised. It is then that the real self upon which our being is grounded, is known, and the normally ascendent "I" fades into obscurity.


We are symbol-makers. Meaning is a singularity, the "creation agent", and symbols are the key to meaning. We ignore most of what the environment has to offer. A tiny sub-set reaches consciousness in the form of neurally embedded symbols. In Cassirer's phrase: "the potential between 'symbol' and 'meaning' is resolved ... a complete congruence between 'image' and 'object', between the name and the thing" is achieved. But always language results in a detraction of that which lies beyond all thought.

 It is of the utmost importance to understand that symbolism takes two distinct forms. Neglect of this has, more than anything else, caused the hiatus that traditionally exists between scientific thinking and the humanities.

 W.T.Stace (3) writes: "Scientific language is descriptive, religious language evocative", and he makes the point that religious language is akin to poetry and music. I quote him at length:

"What the religious symbolic proposition stands for is not a literal proposition but an experience... whereas in non-religious symbolism the  relation between the symbol and the symbolizandum is that of 'meaning', in religious symbolism the relation is that of 'evocation'.

 The difference in meaning is crucial. Science gives conceptual meaning to experience indirectly through the symbol. Religious/aesthetic symbolism attempts to recapture the original holistic feeling by directly evoking the experience.

 The two types of symbol, therefore, perform quite different functions. One restores that primitive engagement with a world directly felt and lacking in subject/object differentiation. The other provides an abstract "map of meaning" for a resident conscious ego.

 Neural pattern

Half a century ago Russell Brain drew attention to evidence that patterns play an integral part in our recognition of objects, in our understanding of words and sentences and in our comprehension of ideas.

 T.H.Bullock (4) makes a similar observation, corroborated by the ever increasing evidence coming out of cognitive science:

"The output of single neurons and of groups of neurons is normally probably always patterned, i.e. temporally and spatially distributed in a meaningful, non-random way". 

The probings of science reveal that what is significant about the brain with its billions of neurons each with its multiple synaptic connections is its patterned structure, the dynamic aspect of which correlates with consciousness. Consequent upon the objective/subjective dichotomy of the scientific method, the human observer with his consciousness and subjectivity is omitted. Science is therefore obliged to search for these within the patterned dynamism of the brain itself. Meaning is equated with pattern, and the whole pattern-making process reduces to an inevitable "evolutionary fall-out", assisted from time to time by "emergent phenomena". Science has no other logical position to adopt than that of affirming that: the mind is the brain", or is a dependent aspect of brain.

 What has been argued is that what is left out by science is the vital aspect of "self" associated with holistic, contemplative, and receptive "pre-conceptual vision". This "self" is the participating observer which grasps a reality that includes  itself.

 A justification for the need to augment scientific method

An attempt has been made to present an alternative or additional approach to that which is presently implicit in cognitive science. We have, in a sense, to un-think what has become an almost instinctive and exclusive preoccupation with logical processes.


As professor J.M.Baldwin (5) observes: "An individual's nervous system is a remarkably effective tool for "turning all the series of external things into copy whereby all objects alike become his objects, his content of meaning, his experience".

 It is the ego-possessiveness, this almost compulsive autonomy that claims (I believe mistakenly) meaning and experience as its own, to be explained in its own objectively detached manner.

It is primitive man, that "naive simpleton" we are tempted to regard with condescension, and the infant child that once was us, that should remind us that pre-conceptual awareness is our ancient legacy. Macaulay (6) asserted that "half-civilized nations are poetic simply because they perceive without abstracting, and absolutely regardless of what they perceive".

For our ancestors, reality was once self-evident, and therefore not conceptually experienced. They were aware of the resemblance between things in a unity. Metaphor for them was an habitual mode of expression. Poets now attempt to restore the lost sense of unity through the conscious effort of grasping and employing metaphor.

 There are tentative indications that some are looking to pre-cognitive processes, not as an explanation of "unsolved problems" so much as an alternative appreciation of experience. In an "In our time" radio programme on language chaired by Melvyn Bragg, Steven Pinker commented that "what bridges the gap between the physical and subjective may be something we don't have the mental categories to appreciate". And on the subject of language he declared that most processing is unconscious: "None of us knows what the rules are that allow us to string sentences together to make ourselves understood".


Jonathan Miller, in the same discussion, thought that the popularization of the Freudian unconscious, (custodian and repressive), has done irreparable harm to the positive conception of the unconscious as conceived by William B. Carpenter and Thomas Laycock as far back as 1870. They referred to reflex functions of the brain, and unconscious cerebrations; that enabling unconscious which allows us to do things like speaking, and to process a problem in sleep to yield a solution next morning.

 It has been the excessive preoccupation with Freudian psychology followed by the excesses of Behaviourism in the last century that has swept the concept of the enabling unconscious almost to oblivion.

 Perception and the unconscious

The line of thought being presented is that feelings are translated into thought through a process of neural mapping. There is an analogous relationship between the felt idea, patterns of neural activity in the brain, and patterns of words on paper or as articulated. Every idea expressed becomes a neural pattern mapped in terms of perceptual and conceptual symbols. A symbol may be regarded, poetically, as the quintessence of meaning distilled from the unconscious when it combines with a particular sense-impression. Pattern and meaning are implicit in primary unitive experience. Every time we grasp a meaning a concept combines with a percept. From the vast sensory potential available to us we extract from an object the percept, say, of "redness", and in response to its form we apply the concept, say of "spherical".

 A concept is an holistic idea intuitively grasped from the unconscious and becomes conscious when neurally implanted.  

 Once embedded within the neural map a concept becomes an abstraction which, through its universality serves to collect and select experience without further access to the enabling unconscious. It is the gradual laying down of the map together with the rational power thereby accrued that leads to the ultimate illusion of autonomy.

 Involuntary memory

The "mental picture" as felt is not the thought that is symbolized and articulated. Yet in some remarkable way, as Proust was at pains to tell us, the "mental picture" as felt is not lost, but in a timeless sense, eternally is.

 Reactivating the neural map voluntarily is conventional memory-recall. We recall through linguistic symbols. Proust's special memory has been termed involuntary memory. In contrast to map-activated memory it is triggered involuntarily: for instance by suddenly coming into contact with a snatch of tune, or a taste familiar long ago in childhood.

 Most importantly what is resurrected is the total aura of feeling, not the symbolic translation of an aura. In this respect what is experienced may be regarded as a gratuitous intervention of the enabling unconscious.


Those who dote upon the idea that rational explanation alone can satisfy enquiry will ask how it is that a seemingly nebulous body of ideas centred upon the unconscious could possibly have gone unnoticed for so long, Susanne Langer (7) offers an explanation:

"It may seem strange that the most immediate experiences in our lives should be the least recognized, but there is a reason for this apparent paradox, and the reason is precisely their immediacy. They pass unrecorded because they are known without any symbolic mediation, and therefore without conceptual form".    




(1) Ernst Cassirer: "Language and Myth"; "An Essay on Man".

    Susanne K. Langer: "Feeling and Form"; "Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling".

    Owen Barfield: "Poetic Diction"; "Saving the Appearances"; "Worlds Apart".

    Brian Lancaster: "Mind, Brain and Human Potential".

    Ernest G. Schachtel: "Metamorphosis".

    The list is not exhaustive.

(2) Sir Laurens van der Post: "Revelations" Ed. Ronald S. Lello.

(3) W.T.Stace: "Time and Eternity".

(4) T.H.Bullock: "The Origins of Patterned Nervous Discharge".

(5) J.M.Baldwin: "Thought and Things".

(6) Macaulay: "Essay on Milton".

(7) Susanne K. Langer: "Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling".