The Within, The Without

The German forester Peter Wohlleben has aroused the ire of some scientists, as reported in The Guardian, with his book on The Hidden Life of Trees. Some scientists, it seems, have accused Wohlleben of writing “fairy tales” about the inner life of trees and forests.

This controversy is, in some ways, an excellent illustration of the dichotomy of the “outside” and “inside”, or of the explicate and implicate, or subjective and objective orientations that was raised in the comments to the previous post. I only know of the contents of Wohlleben’s book from hearsay, but the notion of “the secret life of plants” or plant consciousness is hardly a new one, even among some plant ecologists.

I would say, from what I have read of Wohlleben’s book in The Guardian or elsewhere, that this German forester is highly sensitive to the inwardness of plants and trees, and that his knowledge of their inwardness or “secret life” is gained through what I previously called “empathetic epistemics”. That is, he is able to enter himself, consciously, into the life of the trees. In fact, his “method” as such he makes quite clear. It is “love”, and to that extent also, he may well be an incipient example of what Jean Gebser refers to as “the transparency of the world” in his perceptions of the inner life of the trees and the forests. And I don’t consider “empathetic epistemics” any less “scientific” in that respect than the more objective methods that simply stay glued to the surface of things — their “outside”.

What we normally call “science” is a method of knowing and of verification of that knowledge, and also of what constitutes valid knowledge — the determination of the facts of the matter. However, that knowledge, however worthy and valid it is, touches only upon the “outside” of things, by establishment — the “evident”, the obvious, the objective, and which precludes the whole area of “subjective values” (or interiority) as faulty science, even where it admits to the reality of such “subjective values”, or even the facts of consciousness, at all. This was, for example, a complaint against orthodox or standard evolutionary theory made by Lancelot Lyle White in his book Internal Factors in Evolution.

There is a long tradition in science, or natural philosophy, dating back at least to Rene Descartes, that the cosmos is to be treated as if it were a machine (the Clockwork Universe) and living organisms little more than automatons functioning within, and as an echo of, the great Cosmic Machine. We have referred to that worldview here as “the Mechanical Philosophy” (and have contrasted that with “the Hermetic Philosophy”). This distinction between the Mechanical and the Hermetic arises from the dichotomisation of Being into objective and subjective aspects, or body and mind dualism, or an outside and an inside, the difference being, of course, that the Mechanical Philosophy pretty much denies that an “inside” exists at all.

Wohlleben acknowledges, though, the validity of the objective approach. He simply denies that it is complete in itself. And this deliberate ignorance of subjective or inner factors by the Mechanical Philosophy is the common (and valid) complaint by everyone from LL Whyte, William Blake, Jean Gebser, Jung, Nietzsche, Rosenstock-Huessy and so on — in fact, going at least as far back as Heraclitus and his philosophical conflict with his arch-foe Parmenides. I would say that this argument between Parmenides and Heraclitus represented the seed-germ of what was later to develop into the divergent branches of the Mechanical and the Hermetic Philosophies, or into what came to be characterised as the “classical” and “romantic” consciousness.

The irritation of some scientists with Wohlleben, seemingly because of his lack of “disinterested objectivity”  or assuming “the objective stance” — or intellectual and psychic distantiation from what Gebser calls “perspectivising” consciousness — is not a sufficient objection against his supposed “fairy tales” about the “hidden” or inner life of trees. It could well be true insight. It could well be an example of Gebser’s “transparency of the world”. Wohlleben does, indeed, insist that he has his own “method” of validating knowledge, which he calls “love”, and which we call “empathetic epistemics”. And, yes, that is involved in what we traditionally understand as belonging to “the magical structure of consciousness”. The shape-shifter or polymorph who is able to enter into the consciousness of other beings empathetically.

And the problem of the “culture of narcissism” is the empathy deficit, so it’s not surprising that a purely perspectivising and objectivating science would discount empathy as a valid mode of knowing that true inner life of things or the phenomena. Wohlleben seems as sensitive to the inner reality of trees and forests as much as Blake was sensitive to that inner life. And I’m not so ready to dismiss his “fairy tales” as those scientists who seem to believe he’s making things up simply because they haven’t developed in themselves the same empathetic access to the inner life of other beings themselves.

I’m all for science and reason. I’m just not for a science that has deliberately limited itself and narrowed its vision to a very small spectrum of our full reality — the “objective” — and then normalises this as “the one best way”, or what William Blake called “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”. It’s quite clear that in limiting the life of other beings, we have also limited our own. And in treating other living organisms, or the cosmos even, as automatons, we have become ourselves automatons. “They became what they beheld finally”. That’s the meaning of “narcissism”, but also of “idolatry”.

What Gebser calls “the transparency of the world”, or “diaphaneity“, is precisely insight into this inner life of beings, into their energetic nature. Mr. Wohlleben, far from penning “fairy tales”, may actually be one of our incipient consciousness “mutants” in Gebser’s sense. I wouldn’t discount his experience of the inner life of trees and forests quite so readily.



24 responses to “The Within, The Without”

    • Scott Preston says :

      Wow, Steve, you have an amazing talent for digging up the most pertinent material for illustrating, or deepening the meaning, of topics brought up in The Chrysalis. That’s quite a useful essay on Goethean science. I made note of one passage,especially

      “Goethe saw that progress in science depends upon the
      development of inner capacities and sensibilities—and not
      only on the ever further refinement of external instruments
      and methods and ever grander generalizations. You could
      say that it’s an effort to create a science that is itself more
      whole by integrating it into the whole—and that means the
      developing—human being.”

      In that sense, then, we might say that Wohlleben’s “method” as such is Goethean. But the passage also gets to the crux of the problem of the “megamachine” or “technological system” more generally — ie, that our over-reliance on abstraction, generalisation, and instrumentalisation is diminishing our potentiality to develop those “inner capacities and sensibilities”, or new faculties, that would allow us to reach that “diaphaneity” or “transparency of the world” that Gebser also describes, whose own work could well be said to be “Goethean” as well.

      In fact, Goethe was the initial model for Nietzsche’s idea of the uebermensch, which is a fact that has been lost on some self-described “Nietzscheans” (or “vulgar Nietzscheans” like Milos Yiannopoulis). Even Napoleon was reportedly awestruck by his meeting with Goethe.

      In a nutshell, what Holdrege, Goethe, Wohlleben into the mix conclude is that plants or trees are not just things acted upon by the elements, but are themselves active agents. This is what marks the distinction between the “sensible” and the “supersensible” ways of knowledge. Goethe’s achievement, which is the achievement that Holdrege admires most about Goethe, was to integrate the sensible and the supersensible.

      This stuckness of purely objectivating science on the level of the “sensible” is what I mean about thought merely ricocheting off the surface of things and never achieving true insight which comes only with the perception of the supersensible — that is, not the non-sensible, but the use of “inner senses” and faculties such as meant by “inner capacities and sensibilities”. that are, today, atrophying, withering and shriveling because devalued and discounted.

      That’s something we see, for example, in much of the apparent orthodox science reaction to Wohlleben’s “hidden life of trees”. Goethean science would not be so quick to dismiss Wohlleben’s experience as “fairy tale” at all.

  1. Dwig says :

    Wohlleben’s method reminds me of some of David Abram’s writing, in “The Spell of the Sensuous” and essays on his blog. One of his main points is that we don’t really know a thing until we’ve had direct experience of it, unmediated by linguistic descriptions​. It’s fine to make formal, abstract models, but until you interpret them, they’re pictures of nothing. If I remember rightly, Einstein made a similar point, emphasizing the role of imagination.

  2. dadaharm says :


    I came across a review of Frans de Waals book “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”. The review contained the following rather stunning observation:

    ….it seemed to some to be the height of philosophical sophistication to hold that while software might think one day, elephants certainly don’t. Even today there is a mainstream preference for “simpler” mechanistic explanation of animal behaviour combined with optimism about building thinking machines. We talk down animal behaviour and talk up machine behaviour. We regard anthropomorphism as a cause of failure in the one case, but make it the criterion of success in the other.

    It seems to point to some kind of strange distortion in our thinking. The megamachine seems to prefer thinking machines and to consider non-human living beings in some sense as a kind of failed machines.

    Welcome to the anthropocene.

    • Scott Preston says :

      yes, the irony — if not the irrationality — in all this is just overwhelming at times.

    • John Lawlor says :

      Instincts are pure principle and wisdom and animals are multidimensioned teachers who need to be felt, understood, seen to be a part of the infinite expression, appreciated and validated for our order that we may keep our souls.. what a child knows

      • John Lawlor says :


        • John Lawlor says :

          Rosenstock Huessy said that the ‘we’ is actually our nearest original perspective or method of identification instead of the ‘I’ right?? Although i suppose the identification is inherent and ‘unconscious’ in the child

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      It seems to point to some kind of strange distortion in our thinking.

      Assimilation vs integration, perhaps. The artist’s task to “make the invisible visible” is as easily phrased as making the subconscious conscious.

  3. John Lawlor says :

    “….Examples of ” psychological “, ” logical ” and ” defective ” thinking abound
    around us. Occasionally we meet with the psychological method in science. In
    psychology itself the ” psychological method ” leads inevitably to the recognition of
    the fact that human consciousness is merely a particular instance of consciousness,
    and that an intelligence exists which is many times superior to the ordinary human
    intelligence. And only a psychology which starts from this proposition and has this proposition as its foundation can be called scientific. In other
    spheres of knowledge psychological thinking lies at the root of all real discoveries,
    but it usually does not keep long. I mean that as soon as ideas which have been found
    and established by the psychological method become everybody’s property and begin
    to be looked upon as permanent and accepted, they become logical and, in their
    application to phenomena of a greater size, defective. For instance, Darwin�his
    discoveries and his ideas were the product of psychological thinking of the very
    highest quality. But they had already become logical with his followers and, later on,
    they became undoubtedly defective, because they stood in the way of the free
    development of thought.
    This is exactly what Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann meant when he spoke about ageing
    There are truths, he says, which have attained such an age that they have really
    outlived themselves. And when a truth becomes as old as this it is on the best way to
    become a lie. . . . Yes, yes, you may believe me or not, but truths are not such long
    lived Methuselahs as people imagine them to be. A normally constructed truth lives
    as a rule, let us say, fifteen, sixteen, at the most twenty, years, seldom longer. But
    such ageing truths become terribly lean and tough. And the majority, having first of
    all been created by them, later recommends them to humanity as healthy spiritual
    food. But I can assure you there is not much nourishment in such food. I must speak
    about this as a doctor. All the truths belonging to the majority are like ancient rancid
    bacon or like rotten green ham; and from them comes all the moral scurvy which is
    eating itself into the life of the people around us.
    The idea of the degeneration of accepted truths cannot be expressed better. Truths
    that become old become decrepit and unreliable;
    sometimes they may be kept going artificially for a certain time, but there is no life in
    them. This explains why reverting to old ideas, when people become disappointed in
    new ideas, does not help much. Ideas can be too old.
    But in other cases old ideas may be more psychological than the new. New ideas
    can just as easily be too logical and therefore defective.
    We can see many curious examples of the conflict between psycho­logical and
    logical thinking, which then of necessity becomes defective, in various ” intellectual
    ” reforms of old habits and customs. Take, for instance, reforms in weights and
    measures. Weights and measures which have been created through the centuries, and
    which are different in different countries, appear at the first glance to have taken one
    or another form by chance, and to be too complicated. But in reality they are always
    based on one definite principle. In each separate…”

    This description of logical/pschological/esoteric maybe can be likened to gebsers description of the efficient and deficient aspects of the mental-rational structure for the former two..and the efficient aspect of the integral for the latter??

    • John Lawlor says :

      From Ouspensky’s introduction to ‘A New Model of the Universe’

      Just discovering it again.

    • John Lawlor says :

      No that didnt come out right.. but it seems he was writing around the same time and is another example of irruption of time

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Truths that become old become decrepit and unreliable; sometimes they may be kept going artificially for a certain time, but there is no life in them.

      Seems to me the author, in so saying, is still in (Freudian) psychological land. Truth is eternal and truth is truth, imo. This might apply to ideas or beliefs, but not truth, I wouldn’t think. What’s been true for thousands of years — love, compassion, etc. — is as true today as ever.

      I’m not particularly interested to know how or why or “what” consciousness is, if that’s even possible. Being conscious is enough for me and Gebser’s “integral consciousness” is our natural state, imho — the state of mind and consciousness with which we were born. Thus, ancient teachings such as “Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” and “Show me your original face before you were born.” This doesn’t mean being childish, of course. It’s intended as a prompt of remembrance.

      “Structures,” though I’m not fond of the term (intimates solid, unyielding, and I wonder if that’s the best translation), strikes me as learned and are particular to cultures whereas “integral consciousness,” which I think of as “wisdom,” has always been with us, just not on a culture-wide scale, much less a “global” one.

      Apologies if I’m misinterpreting (or mistranslating, as the case may be) Gebser.

      • Scott Preston says :

        If you’re uncomfortable with the term “structure”, just substitute “pattern” or “Gestalt”, since these work equally well. The German word which translates as “structure” has some different connotations than the English word, closely associated with the word Bildung, which is, yes, related to “build” and “building”, but has more the meaning of “cultured” or “educated”, or even “breeding” or “character”, and in that sense with the notion of “ethos”.

        No, we aren’t born integral. We’re born actually archaic, or very close to the archaic. The archaic isn’t the integral, but is a aspect of the integral, along with the magical, the mythical and the mental. It isn’t a question of OUR return to the past. It’s the return of the past to us that is the issue of integral.

        This is also what Holdrege means in his essay on Goethe, that we are just catching up with Goethe now. But the same can be said of the Buddha, or Jesus, or Rumi or many of the great prophets — that they were people ahead of their time, and we are only slowly catching up with them. They were already (and still remain) “future”.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          just substitute “pattern” or “Gestalt”, since these work equally well

          I tend to substitute “form,” which is much like Seth’s “species.”

          No, we aren’t born integral.

          Oops. Sorry. I didn’t mean we were. Potentially, perhaps…until our consciousness is hacked at, molded and shaped by whatever “structure(s)” we’re embedded in and/or is drilled into our heads from an early age. Thus, the importance of “becoming like little children” or “reborn” in the sense of “metanoia” as opposed to “conversion,” so we can re-member what is was like to have access to unfettered imagination and creativity. (<– Minor, off-topic

          The archaic isn’t the integral, but is an aspect of the integral, along with the magical, the mythical and the mental.

          Thanks for clarifying my comment. It’s been nine years since I waded through EPO, then lent it to a friend. Guess where it is now? Must revisit it.

          “Ever-present Origin,” or “Eternal Now,” as opposed to “the past,” is what got lost in the shuffle. Returning to “Origin” or “Eternal Now” is quite a different thing than “returning to the past” or going “back to the future.”

          we are just catching up with Goethe now. But the same can be said of the Buddha, or Jesus, or Rumi or many of the great prophets — that they were people ahead of their time, and we are only slowly catching up with them. They were already (and still remain) “future”.

          Are we really only “slowly catching up with them?” And how long, do we suppose, will they (or “integral consciousness” or “kingdom of heaven,” etc.) remain “future?” Or are we just a little confused about that?

          Not disagreeing or trying to upset anyone. And, as mikemd, I don’t want to appear “terse.” Not much time and it’s just a question. But isn’t that “Western” (as well as ancient) linear thinking about time (and “evolution”) in a nutshell? Didn’t Gebser warn us about thinking of consciousness in terms of “evolution?” Isn’t that why millions of people are still awaiting the coming of this or that?

          “People ahead of their time” and “they…remain future” would seem to be Western shorthand, just as my “past and future times” is shorthand for Rosenstock’s more poignant “prejective” and “trajective.” It’s misleading shorthand because Rosenstock pins those onto the springboard of the present moment. (Perhaps there should be a petition to get those two last into the dictionary. “Interbeing” has made it into the ancillary dictionaries, at least.)

          “Past” and “future” are categories of the mind in the sense that the present moment is only moment that truly exists.

          It isn’t a question of OUR return to the past. It’s the return of the past to us

          Does it make a difference whether we think of it as our return to the past or the return of the past to us? Either way, aren’t we talking about entertaining a memory and/or a thought about the future in the present moment?

          Deductive reasoning is the easy part. Nietzche’s “two centuries of nihilism,” for example. We had to see that coming. “Prophecy?” Nietzche’s “Ubermensch?” Blake’s “Albion?” “Integral Consciousness?” Ad infinitum…. Doom?

          As we were recently reminded, no one foresaw the Berlin Wall coming down. Perhaps we would better off with non-prophets. After all, none of the people mentioned considered or called themselves “prophets.”

      • John Lawlor says :

        But, according to Hinton, there is no necessity to visualise objects of the
        external world in a distorted form. The power of visualisation is not limited by the
        power of vision. We see objects distorted, but we know them as they are. And we
        can free ourselves from the habit of visualising objects as we see them, and we can
        learn to visualise them as we know they really are. Hinton’s idea is precisely that
        before thinking of developing the capacity of seeing in the fourth dimension, we
        must learn to visualise objects as they would be seen from the fourth dimension, i.e.
        first of all, not in perspective, but from all sides at once, as they are known to our ”
        consciousness “. It is just this power that should be developed by Hinton’s exercises.
        The development of this power to visualise objects from all sides at once will be the
        casting out of the self­elements in mental images. According to Hinton, ” casting out
        the self­elements in mental images must lead to casting out the self­elements in
        perceptions “. In this way, the development of the power of visualising objects from
        all sides will be the first step towards the development of the power of seeing objects
        as they are in a geometrical sense, i.e. the development of what Hinton calls a ”
        higher consciousness “.

        I like this description and relate it to the spherical diaphanous “sight” of the Time aware/free

        • John Lawlor says :

          The first chunk of text starying with “but according to Hinton” should be in quotes ..

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          before thinking of developing the capacity of seeing in the fourth dimension, we must learn to visualise objects as they would be seen from the fourth dimension, i.e.first of all, not in perspective, but from all sides at once, as they are known to our consciousness “

          Some of us seem fairly adept at that, but then go on to describe the visualization in “shades of gray.”

          : (

          I swear, if I hear that phrase one more time, I’m very likely to smack somebody. You’d think we were all still watching black and white TVs. Is there some reason I’m unaware of that we’re not supposed to see (and describe) forms (thought and otherwise) in living color? “Black and white;” off and on; 0 and 1; no and yes; false and true; apply to one thing: making a decision. That’s it. Where exactly do “shades of gray” supposedly come in? (The last time someone accused me of being “black and white,” I just shrugged and took it as a compliment. He must’ve thought I’m a decisive person.)

          In this way, the development of the power of visualising objects from all sides will be the first step towards the development of the power of seeing objects as they are in a geometrical sense, i.e. the development of what Hinton calls a ‘higher consciousness’

          I’ll just substitute “form” for instances of “object” there and it’ll make perfect sense.

          Thanks for sharing that. I like his description, too.

    • Scott Preston says :

      True enough it is that “truths” have a shelf-life, but that most everyone takes their “common sense” as being based in “timeless truths”. why does truth change and evolve if not because consciousness or the mode of perception, is mutable and, indeed, mutates?

      But, in fact,we must distinguish between “the truth that sets free” and “the facts of the matter”, and that these relate as the immutable and the mutable relate, or the eternal and the temporal, or the infinite and the finite relate. A deficient “truth” is almost never strictly speaking a bald-faced lie, but is a distorted image of a truth. “Anything possible to be believed is an image of the truth” says one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. It’s basically, also, the idea of the “shadow world” or Plato’s Parable of the Cave, or the notion of “the camouflage universe” which Blake calls “Ulro”. Here, the Shadowland as camouflage universe isn’t exactly a lie so much as a half-truth, or less, incompletely realised.

  4. John Lawlor says :

    And to the mention at the innerstanding of plants, Stephen Buhner’s ‘Secret Teachings of Plants.. The Intelligence of the Heart In the Direct Perception of Nature’ I remember being fully loaded and enlightening.

    Need to find a copy again. Talks about the emf information filter that is the heart [full of neurons more thsn the brain i believe]

  5. abdulmonem says :

    Nothing in our cosmos run blindly. It is the humans that get stale in understanding or get astray in their assumptions and assertions. This is the
    way of god to find out who have run themselves rightly and who have let themselves fall in the den of decadence. Renewal of knowledge is also an intrinsic part of his program as a result of his knowledge of the human nature. Let us not forget that there is one universal god that has created everything and continues to watch everything. The god that all prophets have come to remind us of him and our obligations to him. God never gets old nor does his truth, nor does he die or get tired, nor he forgets, nor things evade his attention, the first ,the last ,the visible and the invisible, everything perishes but his face. Once we slip from the main true starting point we get puzzled and confused as Goethe warned from slipping in the external instruments and methods and forget the cultivation of the inner capacity and sensibilities thus, putting our steps in the wrong direction. It is the soul, our inner teacher that never stops attending the divine school, once stop attending, it falls and the story of Adam bears witness . It is our consciousness that must never forget the one that has given the consciousness. Ibn Arabi has insist on activating that connection all the time in order to expand our consciousness. He said in one of his messages titled the script of triumph, the closer we come to him the wider our knowledge will become. He said the doors of knowledge will be opened, He will move us into the domain of the plants where each plants will communicate to us its benefits and its negative traits, so also with the others domains of his creation providing that we do not forget ourselves with creations and forget the creator. The tragedy of our time, that did not stop in falling in creation but went as far as to call the divine creation as a failed creation. I read once some of the intelligentsia saying that god made mistake in not putting a third eye on the back of the human. This expansion in knowledge and aggression on the sacred is not out of his program, Oxford university did not establish an institution to study the spiritual method of Ibn Arabi , only after realizing that the mechanical method that arrested the western mind for decades has reached a dead end. No wonder all this stirrings away from the mechanical into the realm of every thing is alive and has sensibilities like you and me. My soul memory is my document to reach him and I have never forget the bond He has concluded with His humanity, that is why we have memory that extends beyond this life if only we activate the faculties provided to us. They say death and sleep are the same, the only difference is in the length of the absence of the soul from the body. We are resurrected every morning to remember our resurrection after death. It will be absurd if nothing happened after death. Everyone has to do his own reading and refrain from dependence on others readings. It is a unique personal experience, pure and simple. Divine story can not be falsified but alas most humans can not go along without a hard hit. It seems we are in a such time.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I read once some of the intelligentsia saying that god made mistake in not putting a third eye on the back of the human.

      “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man … a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.” ~ Rod Serling

      Or the “quint-essential.” Or the “third eye.” Or the “pineal,” as the case may be.

      Yeah…. Four?

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