The Thinking Poet


Two Levels 2000


by Ronald Cretchley

Aldous Huxley1 observes that in some mysterious way symbols become more real than the realities to which they refer.

‘We have insisted on using symbols, not merely unrealistically, but idolatrously, even insanely.’


Throughout the history of philosophy one may discern a common thread. It is that in sensory perception and the knowledge derived from it there are two distinct elements: the conceptually interpreted phenomenon, and the unitive grasp of an intelligible object.

Some Medieval scholars expressed this duality by drawing a distinction between understanding as ratio and as intellectus 2. Michael Polanyi 3 attempted to shed light on the process of perception by employing the same distinction between the impact of the sensible phenomena and the intelligible object that is grasped through them. He referred to these respectively as the proximal term which represents the particulars of an entity, and the distal term which is the semantic aspect of tacit knowing. We attend from the particulars to the gestalt meaning which is implied by the particulars. We shape and integrate our awareness without identifying the particulars.

Alfred Korzybski’s notion of two levels of awareness

Alfred Korzybski4 in the first half of the last century, like Polanyi, also distinguished between two levels of awareness. From an evolutionary standpoint, he maintained, there is a primary level of meaning in which we 'know' somehow, but cannot tell (Polanyi’s phrase: ‘we know more than we can say’). Undefined terms have non-elementalistic meanings at this un-speakable level. In Korzybski’s words: ‘This “knowledge” is supplied by the lower nerve centres; it represents affective first order effects, and is interwoven and interlocked with other affective states such as those called “wishes”, “intuitions”, “evaluations”, and many others. It should be noticed that these first order effects have an objective character, as they are un-speakable: are not words.’

The objective level is first in importance, the symbolic next. In our day to day experience we live on the objective, un-speakable level. and not on the verbal level. The verbal level is auxiliary to the objective.

One of the themes repeatedly addressed by Korzybski is that of the natural order of nervous excitation in the human which, because established over an extended evolutionary period, has survival value. In short, the natural order is senses first, mind next; from the old-brain to the new-brain (the cerebral cortex).

Korzybski argues that the upper layers of the nervous system serve as a protection against immediate, and therefore unmediated, responses to stimulation. ‘Sensations’ can be deceptive and may not therefore lead to survival. ‘Intelligence’ therefore evolved from the lowest to the highest levels, and a nervous system developed which retained vestiges or ‘memories’ of former ‘sensations’; and which could combine and shift them to provide a higher survival value.

The natural order, as we have seen, is ‘sensation’ first, and ‘idea’, an abstraction from sensation, next. In some, this order is reversed. This reversal of order in its mildest manifestations involves confusion of orders of abstractions; we act as though an ‘idea’ were an ‘experience’ or originated from our ‘senses’. In its more extreme forms it leads to the mechanism of projection. The reversal transforms the external world into a personal fiction: things are seen that are not there.

In the uncontrolled reversal situation not only does the upper layer (the cortex) not protect against over-stimulation from our internal and external environment, it actually contributes to over-stimulation by creating destructive fantasies.

The recent article by Guy Claxton5 seems to support this notion of a two-way flow of information with respect to the brain. He maintains that intentions are not necessary for intelligent action, and cites car-driving as evidence of this. In fact he goes further and points out that conscious intention is a hindrance to practised skills. Polanyi makes the same observation, i.e. that the conscious scrutiny of particulars destroys meaning.

Guy Claxton’s notion of two modes of human behaviour

Claxton outlines two facets or modes of human behaviour:

(a) Smooth skilled action that flows without any sense of intention.

(b) Anticipatory consciousness in which action is vetoed.

In relation to these two modes he postulates:

(a) An unconscious biocomputer in which pre-conscious processing presumably takes place and from which intentions ‘bubble up’ into consciousness.

(b) A self-system in which an ‘I’ is abstracted as part of the conscious processing of that which it receives from the biocomputer. The ‘I’ assumes autonomy of the self-system which involves the illusion of a causal self; a dummy instigator which vetoes action to satisfy felt desires which the self rationalises as needs.


A comparison of the ideas of Korzybski and Claxton

There is a parallel between Claxton’s biocomputer and its function, and Korzybski’s intuitively felt un-speakable states; and between Claxton’s selfsystem and Korzybski’s structured neural-network from which language is projected upon the world.

Both Claxton and Korzybski argue that reversed behavioural order may result in perceptual distortions leading to delusion; or worse, insanity. Claxton specifically considers what he regards as the illusion of a causal self in the context of the ‘problem’ of Free Will. He does not put his thesis in the general terms of Korzybski, yet it seems clear that he is making the case that a higher-order abstraction, the self, is imposed upon the outside world and in so doing a ‘problem’ is generated.

Korzybski’s main thesis is that man, in assuming the dominance of cortical activity, suffers the potential ills that result from a reversal of the natural order. Other animals are not time-binders or culture-builders. They lack the capacity by which each generation can start where the former left off. Animals appear to function primarily at sub-cortical (low-level; old-brain) levels. As a result animals are never insane. Man alone is capable of projecting and imposing delusional dogmas and abstractions upon the outside world.

Articulating the un-speakable

Thinking and feeling are located in different parts of the neural entity, yet it is desirable that the two should cohere. In artistic creation the goal is always that of unification of experience; to articulate the un-speakable. Words are not the things we speak about. In language we are dealing with terms which are strictly absent in the external world. Consciousness is consciousness of abstracting, a process going on in the higher-level nervous system. Potentially there seems to be no limit to the orders of abstraction. The process is that of translating the structure of the external world into a ‘neural map’ whose structural integration represents an analogous pattern of the environment, or as Polanyi puts it: ‘what is comprehended has the same structure as the act that comprehends it.’ We gain, he adds, a picture of the universe which is filled with strata of realities. Polanyi calls the control exercised by the organizational principle of a higher level on the particulars forming its lower level the principle of marginal control. He argues that the mental process by which this principle is manifest cannot find explanation in terms of physics and chemistry, i.e. in the realm of inanimate nature.

Related views of Perception

The act of perception is seen by some to involve a duality. Expressions of this may be traced from Greek thought to the present day.

(a) Aristotle and Plato influenced scholars of the Middle Ages who drew a distinction between ratio (discursive thought), and intellectus (the passive, effortless, intuitive vision).

(b) Michael Polanyi’s division between the proximal and distal terms of perception, and his concept of tacit knowing.

(c) Alfred Korzybski’s un-speakable level and the neurally structured level.

(d) Guy Claxton’s biocomputer and self-system.

The duality of acquisition and formulation

Associated with the two levels are:-

(a) A smooth, unconscious skilled action with no sense of intention.

(b) A state of anticipatory consciousness.

The former, (a), is preceded by a conscious training period after which the learnt skill is delegated to the unconscious. This is true of other species beside man. The young albatross struggles for a while to master flight. Man concentrates during the first few driving lessons. The higher levels mediate in skill-acquisition before handing over to the lower level.

It is the selective process of abstraction associated with anticipatory consciousness that enables the pursuit of mathematics, science, and the humanities.

There is an inherent duality in all of these disciplines :-

(a) The acquisition of an idea, intuitively.

(b) The formulation of ideas which in turn invites (when genius and the propitious moment meet) a new seminal idea.

This process (common to science and mathematics) proceeds in sequence. But as Gˆdel has shown, the truth of an idea transcends the ability of deductive algorithmic processes to prove that truth.

The formulating, higher-level faculty is servant to the intuitive gestalt that ‘bubbles up’ from the unformulated (un-speakable) level.

The artist too waits upon the intuitive idea that receives its formulation through the rich and varied processes of craftsmanship. The ‘idea’ may be a ‘symphonic gestalt’ as some believe it was for Mozart; or, in the case of a poet, a sense of poetic imagery. Again, the craftsman is servant to the idea.

Survival and non-survival order

Scientific method is self-correcting. Ideally it projects its abstractions upon the world hypothetically in the hope that they will fit an already formulated paradigm. This process admits the possibility of rejection of an idea that is not accommodated within an accepted framework.

The notion of non-survival order results from a process in which an abstraction is projected onto the world dogmatically and without allowing the possibility of its rejection. Examples of this range from the delusional fantasies of the insane, to fallacious and devastating ideologies foisted upon groups and nations.

The genesis of ideas and intentions

Finally we come to the crux of the matter. If it is admitted that intentions bubble-up into consciousness, and further, if it be postulated that ideas also bubble-up; from whence do they come, and what creates the 'bubble'?

Claxton’s metaphor of a biocomputer is surely simplistic and ill-conceived. The premise presented in this essay is that the idea is prime, and that the formulation process is secondary and derivative of the idea. The function of a computer is that of formulating given data, not of originating data, least of all a gestalt or idea that painstakingly requires analysis and development.

The higher neural level (the cortex) may be a computer of sorts. Certainly it formulates and gives structure to what it receives. It makes in its own terms an intelligible map of its acquired experience.

The concept of the unconscious

Consciousness is consciousness of abstracting, but the very concepts that are the building-bricks of this process are themselves ideas that have ‘bubbled-up’ from the unconscious.

The term unconscious is merely a negative abstraction meaning not conscious. In other words it is not a mechanistic entity, a formulator of abstractions but a formulator-provider. To endow the term unconscious with concreteness is a prejudiced piece of hypothesizing. All we are permitted to say, surely, is that the lower, un-speakable level must somehow constitute an interface with meaning itself: the effortless intuitive vision of intellectus; Polanyi’s ‘tacit knowledge’ which is the union of knowledge-feeling in an un-speakable gestalt. What consciousness (the self-system) may be conceived of as doing is translating meaning into symbols of meaning, which thereby are given expression in articulated abstractions or artistic imagery. The inherent weakness of the selfsystem is its inclination to assume autonomy, to become a detached observer of its experience, to claim what it has acquired as its un-derived own, and to possess the right (power) to project this upon the world seen as its ‘object’.


What is desired, as much for the survival of ‘self’ as for the survival of a vulnerable world, is the maintenance of a balance between the ‘unconscious intuitive’ and the ‘conscious structured’, and the acknowledgement of dependence of the latter on the former.

That which bubbles up into consciousness will always resist our attempts to capture, contain, and impose an adequate form upon it.

As William James has written:-

‘Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something which glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught and for which reflection comes too late.’ 6


1. Aldous Huxley, Preface to The First and Last Freedom; J. Krishnamurti, (Victor Gollancz, 1954)

2. Josef Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (Faber and Faber, 1952, p.33)

3. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (The University of Chicago Press, 1958); The Tacit Dimension (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1966

4. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (Science Press, 1933)

5. Guy Claxton, ‘Whodunnit? Unpicking the “Seems” of Free Will’, The Volitional Brain - Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will (Imprint Academic, 1999)

6. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Longmans, Green, 1952, p.446)