The Forms They Are a-Changin’, but It’s the Same Old Unknown

Cynthia Decker House of Fog

 © Cynthia Decker, House of Fog

…in all cases the metaphysician is a man who looks behind and beyond experience for an ultimate ground of all real and possible experience…it is an objective fact that men have been aiming at such knowledge for more than twenty-five centuries, and that, after proving that it should not be sought, and swearing that they would not seek it any more, men have always found themselves seeking it again.”

~ Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937)


“Forms” are concepts, doctrines, deities and methods, attempted pathways to the formless; they are containers into which we try and stuff existential insight. In humankind’s perennial quest for wisdom, truth, and reality, we’ve employed myriad methods of inquisition into what lies beyond conditioned experience – experience in the raw, or the murky depths of human subjectivity in which we hope to find some redemptive experience of the unknown. Forms are attempts at translating experiences of this unknown into the known, created by trailblazers, or lunatics, of human experience.

Forms, essentially, point at the formless. Humans have demonstrated an insatiable, even stubborn tendency towards pursuing the formless for thousands of years. Plato called it the Good; Aristotle the self-thinking Thought; Christian philosophers used Being; Kant, Moral Law; Schopenhauer, Will; Nagarjuna, sunyata, or emptiness; Hinduism’s vedas used Brahman; Paul Tillich, the Ultimate Ground of Being, and so on.

It was the purpose of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy to extricate this common impetus towards the unknown, the formless, from all traditions. He sought to characterize the various forms as all pointing to the same conclusion. But it seems that the unknown cannot be excavated from form itself. The only alternative to form is direct, first-person experience, and this is something that cannot be communicated across individuals. It lives in the caverns of ineffable experience that remain always just beyond linguistic reach.

Despite this impasse in communication, and despite the litany of attacks on metaphysics from all angles, it lives on. French historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson concludes:

A law of the human mind that rests on an experience of twenty-five centuries is at least as safely guaranteed as any empirically established law…Let this, therefore, be our second law: by his very nature, man is a metaphysical animal.”

Forms Come, Forms Go, What Remains?

Why? We can judge, along with Gilson, that humans do have a persistent and demonstrated affinity for the formless unknown from a historical survey. But why hasn’t this spark died out from repeated failures in converting experience of the formless into communicable forms? The promise of such experience is surely attractive. Claims of total existential redemption, peace, bliss, wisdom, and ultimate purpose or meaning abound here. But so do improprieties, scandals, and narcissism. Most ideas in human history that’ve taken as much flack as the purveyors of metaphysical experience are long gone. Gilson responds:

Since man is essentially rational, the constant recurrence of metaphysics in the history of human knowledge must have its explanation in the very structure of reason itself. In other words, the reason why man is a metaphysical animal must lie somewhere in the nature of rationality.”

If this is the case, that somewhere within the structure of reason itself lies the source of humankind’s enduring metaphysical interest, then so too does form emanate from this rational structure. There can be no concept of form without the backdrop of the formless, and vice versa. They imply one another. Since the formless remains, by definition, ineffable, we must deal in forms to grapple with that unknown.

Forms are fascinating in themselves; constructions meant to contort and invert our consciousness to gaze upon itself – the frontiers of the unknown. But forms are human constructions. They aren’t anything special. Human history has endured unfathomable amounts of dogma and violence from people taking their own forms too seriously. “My form is better than yours!”, or “my God is the true God!”, or some other calamitous claim. As any other human construction, forms can, and should, evolve over time to better fit the idiosyncrasies of their environment. Forms of the timeless must always remain timely.

It’s in this spirit that Alan Watts, the spiritual vagrant whose life presents such a rich and creative embodiment of the unknown, left the episcopal church after 5 years of priesthood. He diagnosed the Christian Church as clinging to an archaic form:

Undoubtedly the form of Christian doctrine and worship contains the most profound truth, but I am afraid that the attempt to maintain and revive it is an ineffectual resistance to inevitable change. For so many people, the forms no longer convey their meaning, and the language they speak is both archaic and cumbersome.”

~ Alan Watts, In My Own Way (1972)

Watts felt that conventional Christianity failed to address what was emerging as the prominent contemplative thirst of the times – “changing consciousness itself”:

Used as they are to ideas of changing or transforming thought, feeling, action, or will, Christians hardly ever consider changing consciousness itself, but assume that the usual feeling of “I” is our sensation of the soul and not a socially sanctioned hallucination. But intelligent Christians welcome, and are indeed hungry for, some deeper dimension of religious experience than emotional uplift.”

This very ability of forms to die, and new ones to be erected in their wake, is what Watts saw as the utility, the lifeblood and value in forms at all:

Forms are not contrary to the Spirit, but it is their nature to die; their transiency is their very life, and a permanent form would be monstrosity – a finite thing aping God.”

This notion of adaptive forms appears in thoughtful interpretations of any contemplative tradition. Working with the Western iteration of Buddhist wisdom, “secular Buddhist” scholar and practitioner, Stephen Batchelor, writes:

It is no longer possible to maintain that dharma practice has remained unaltered since the time of the Buddha. It has evolved and continues to evolve distinctive forms peculiar to the conditions of the time. It has survived precisely because of its ability to respond creatively to change.”

~ Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997)

Dharma, in this case, is Batchelor’s label for the formless, akin to Watts’ God. All these different labels floating around tend to confuse things. When a new form emerges, there’s often an accompanying belief that it’s exploring uncharted terrain. Among today’s most potent, burgeoning forms – labels – is “consciousness”. The robust partnership between cognitive science and spiritual practice is creating a new field of scientific study that is, oddly, reinvigorating the oldest of questions.

Yet, as modern spiritual teacher and author, Adyashanti, recently put it at a lecture given in Ithaca, New York:

Consciousness is just a new name for the same old unknown.”

The explosion of interest in contemplative neuroscience is injecting public life with the new, and yet really old question, what is consciousness? Adyashanti likens this question – this quest – to the infamous inquiry championed by Ramana Maharshi, perhaps India’s greatest sage: Who Am I?

The forms may be new, the labels may be updated, but they point to the same thing. That ever-present unknown that seems to remain at the center of any thoughtful life. Always inquiring into it, poking and prodding with our own unique experiential palates, yet never arrogant enough to believe we might bring the full beast into light.

A Modern Metaphysics

The looming question, then, might be: what role can metaphysics play in today’s world? What forms do our times call for? This is precisely the task laid out for us by renowned British economist, E.F. Schumacher:

The task of our generation, I have no doubt, is one of metaphysical reconstruction.”

~ Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (1973)

Looking back at how Western history’s greatest metaphysicians pursued this task, Etienne Gilson writes:

The three greatest metaphysicians who ever existed – Plato, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas – had no system in the idealistic sense of the word. Their ambition was not to achieve philosophy once and for all, but to maintain it and to serve it in their own times, as we have to maintain it and to serve it in ours. For us, as for them, the great thing is not to achieve a system of the world as if being could be deduced from thought, but to relate reality, as we know it, to the permanent principles in whose light all the changing problems of science, of ethics and of art have to be solved.”

In this process of reconstructing metaphysics, relating our world of form to the principles of the formless 1, perhaps a positive step is to rid ourselves of the misuses and misconceptions of form. Alan Watts saw the misuse of form not only as a hotbed of dogma, but an impediment to wisdom:

By such means, belief in God, the hope of immortality, and the quest for salvation, become only escapes from the inner emptiness and insecurity which most of us feel in the depths of our being when confronted with the loneliness, the transiency, and the uncertainty of human life.”

~ Watts, In My Own Way (1972)

Watts calls us to transcend the buffet of escapisms at our fingertips; overgrown and overpriced industries seeking to fill our emptiness with stuff, vacations, and errant ideas about ‘success’. Metaphysics can serve as the discipline that guides us along this odyssey of loneliness, meaninglessness, and transiency that the alleviation of survival motives unearths. To carry us beyond nihilism, into that primordial fascination, and respect, for the mere wonder of being itself. Certainly not to fill the existential void, but to, as Watts suggests, “look through” emptiness itself:

But that inner emptiness is not a void to be filled with comforts; it is a window to be looked through.”

Watts echoes the 14th century Tibetan philosopher, Je Tsongkhapa:

Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves.”

This emptiness, the unknown that can open up at the ground of our being, threatens the very core of our identity and the integrity of the lives we’ve created for ourselves. Stephen Batchelor characterizes the experience of emptiness:

To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit.”

Form ought not keep us from this potent emptiness. Form is not a crutch nor a comfort. It does not appease any apprehensions nor fill any holes. It creates the holes. It rips portals into our neatly arranged conceptions of the Universe, like telescopes fixed upon the unknown. Form cannot make the unknown, known. That’s delusion. Form can only orient us towards it, and keep us from straying too far into our own games.

Acting as a guiding force through the bewilderment of being may be the role of the metaphysician in today’s world. Keeping our gaze’s fixed upon the unknown, despite gigantic gains in the known. Reminding us that no matter how much we may ever come to know, embedded within the very structure of our knowing-tool – reason – lies the enduring cause of the metaphysical unknown, from which rationality is barred, in the same sense that a fire cannot burn itself.

The philosopher cannot spread wisdom, neither can the forms; we know wisdom to be something that is seldom had (perhaps especially by professional philosophers), and defies communication even when glimpsed. But perhaps rekindling the very meaning of philosophy, philo sophia, the love of wisdom, could give rise to new forms for the present:

Were it in my power to do so, I would rather leave you with a gift. Not wisdom, which I have not and no man can give, but the next best thing: the love of wisdom, for which philosophy is but another word. For to love wisdom is also to love science and prudence; it is to seek peace in the inner accord of each mind with itself and in the mutual accord of all minds.”

~ Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937)

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