Archive for September, 2020

There have issued, from His mighty Pen, various teachings for the prevention of war, and these have been scattered far and wide.

The first is the independent investigation of truth; for blind imitation of the past will stunt the mind. But once every soul inquireth into truth, society will be freed from the darkness of continually repeating the past.

(Selections from the Writings ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  – page 248)

To pick up from where we left off last time, Donaldson, in her book Human Minds: an exploration,[1] establishes that a child has ‘a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way . . . by the end of the first two or three months.’

She goes on to argue[2] that what occurs ‘from two to around eight months,’ is ‘the development of the core self’– a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.’ She adds, ‘the point mode begins as the core self is established.’

The acquisition of conscious memory is a necessary ‘precondition for the development of the second mode’ which she names[3] ‘the line mode’ and defines as[4] ‘a source of much pain.’ We tend to remember more clearly what we regret and anticipate more vividly what we fear. As we age, the line mode can expand to include a concern for others, from family through nation to humanity as a whole. Unfortunately it all too often stops before reaching that last point, with potentially dire consequences.

Construct Mode

Children’s play is the platform upon which another skill is built. We become able[5] to ‘treat thoughts as objects to be manipulated.’ We need to be able to do this if we are to progress to the construct mode. In this third mode we can step beyond our own experiences[6] and even beyond ‘those we have heard about from others.’ We can consider things in general using our imagination to construct what she calls ‘the needed context.’ This is why she calls it the construct mode.

This is where things start to get a bit more complicated but also hugely more significant in terms of some of my main preoccupations. She argues that there are two forms of the construct mode[7] – subcategories is the word she chooses to use because they are both equally valid examples of this mode of thinking, and together comprise the construct mode as a whole. These are the ‘intellectual construct mode and the value-sensing construct mode.’ She unpacks exactly what she means by those terms: ‘The intellectual construct mode is one in which a clear priority is given to thought’ while subordinating emotion: the value-sensing construct mode cannot be quite so simply defined as prioritising feelings at the expense of thought, as we will see.

As we develop, so do our beliefs[8] ‘about the nature of the universe, about our own social group, about other social groups – and about ourselves’ and we cleave to these beliefs all too passionately. An idea about one’s self comes along at about 18 months.

The most developed form of this thinking mode[9] ‘is distinguished by one special characteristic: it is – or at least aspires to be – dispassionate.’

At this point she raises the question that most concerns me:[10] ‘does there exist or could there ever exist, a parallel development for the emotions?’

It clearly concerns her greatly as well:

. . . It is often said that humanity currently suffers from a dangerous imbalance, attributable to progress in science and technology that has not been matched by comparable steps forward in the development of morals and emotions. . . . Is it really the case that only thought can move onwards independently, becoming further disembedded?

It was frustrating on my first reading of her book that she lays these questions aside for the moment to pursue a deeper examination of the intellectual construct mode.

Intellectual Transcendent Mode

Her immediate concern is how the intellectual mode develops:[11]

We move on now from the intellectual construct mode to a further mode that is also intellectual, yet radically different. I shall call it the intellectual transcendent mode. These two modes are alike in that thought has primacy.

She adds that the feeling we get as we enhance our understanding is ‘entirely appropriate to the intellectual modes and can be extremely strong.’

In her view, in this mode, we are no longer concerned with specific events in space-time, as is the case in construct mode. She feels ‘the concern’ now ‘is no longer about something that could happen “sometime, somewhere”; and the need for an imagined setting has dropped away.’ We are free of such constraints.

For her, in terms of the intellectual mode, we have reached the highest possible level.[12]: ‘This is the final stage in the long path from the extreme of embedding at the one end to the extreme of disembedding at the other.’ We are now in the land of ‘logic and mathematics.’ We draw on[13] ‘schematic representation’ to help us escape ‘the dominance of things.’ We also need to be able to record our results, which requires some form of writing.[14]

Before moving on, she summarises her position:[15]

To recapitulate, these (conditions) are: having a way of reducing the prominence of things and increasing the prominence of relationships; having a firm sense of relevance, which means demarcating and holding to ‘this problem and no other’; developing an understanding of the value of proceeding systematically, together with some skill in doing so; and having available for use, with understanding of its function, a written notation well fitted to the particular pattern of relations that is to be explored.

Only now are we ready to move onto to her consideration of what is for me the key question in her book:[16] ‘Is there any evidence that people can function in modes which parallel the intellectual modes but in which emotion, rather than thought, has primacy?’

More of that next time.


[1]. All references are to Human Minds: an exploration unless specified – page 46.
[2]. Pages 46-47.
[3]. Page 58.
[4]. Page 61.
[5]. Page 71.
[6]. Pages 80-81
[7]. Pages 81-82.
[8]. Page 83.
[9]. Page 102.
[10]. Page 103.
[11]. Page 125.
[12]. Page 126.
[13]. Page 127.
[14]. Page 136.
[15]. Page 138.
[16]. Page 141.

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Given the current sequence on consciousness this seems a good poem to include again at this point. 

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If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá from The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 181)

I have been triggered to revisit books I have hoarded which deal with levels of consciousness. This all started with another rapidly abandoned look at Ken Wilber’s model. With moderate enthusiasm I had picked off my shelves Wilber’s Up from Eden, which had lurked up there unread since 1996. I felt that Fontana’s references to his work in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality warranted another look to help me overcome the reservations triggered in my mind by John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

I was not sure this criticism was entirely warranted but it did create reservations in my mind about some aspects of Wilber’s approach.

This was not what put me off this time.

I got as far as page 73 before the feeling that this was not the approach I wanted to immerse myself in right now grew so strong I couldn’t turn another page. His approach in this book was too mythological for my taste. I’ve so far been completely incapable of finishing any of Joseph Campbell’s work for this same reason. My distaste may be irrational but it remains insuperable.

As I sat and stared at my shelves aching for inspiration I remembered how much I had resonated to a book that explored in illuminating ways the split-brain culture we inhabit. No, not Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary this time, much as I value that book and always will. There’s a clue in a comment I left on my blog more than a month ago, about a text that I have now re-read for the third time, but have not yet blogged about. I’ve probably never really attempted to integrate this account into my other explorations of levels of consciousness because the model presented does not easily map onto numerically coded versions such as those of Jenny Wade, Piaget, Wilber, Dabrowski  and Koestenbaum.

It is Margaret Donaldson’s Human Minds: an exploration. On page 135 she writes of what she calls ‘the value-sensing transcendent mode,’ something which our materialistic culture does not cultivate. She describes experiences in this mode as surging up ‘still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them.’ These experiences ‘come occasionally, unexpectedly, like marvellous accidents.’ Her book is partly about our need as a society to learn how to encourage us to access them more consistently. My own such encounters have been extremely rare indeed. Her insightful book also considers, though in less detail, the role of the novel and poetry in enhancing consciousness.

It also focuses on both the need to balance head and heart, science and religion, and on the ways we might get closer to achieving that.

I will deal fairly quickly with her discussion of her more basic modes of experiencing the world, then I will move on to the next highest levels in a bit more detail, before dwelling at greater length on her in depth exploration of the transcendent modes, both intellectual and value-sensing. In all probability this fairly rapid flight over the complex terrain of her richly informative model will fail to do it justice, but, if it at least brings her important work to your attention, that might just be enough.

Basic Modes

Margaret Donaldson deals first of all with the basic modes, the first of which concerns itself purely with the present moment, and begins in our infancy. She calls it point mode.[1] She goes on to add, ‘Later other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future.’ More specific detail on the line mode next time.

Then our capacity expands to ‘the impersonal’ enabling us to think beyond our ‘personal goals.’[2] When this relates to thinking, that fits with our preconceptions about what it should be like. ‘But,’ she asks, ‘what about emotion? Can we take steps towards impersonality in respect of our emotions also?’

This is an issue we will come back to in more detail. For now I’ll just mention that she adds that ‘The process of “opening out” in those two directions is the one that I have previously called disembedding, in an earlier book, Children’s Minds.[3] This relates to some degree to concepts such as reflection and disidentification, dealt with at length elsewhere on this blog.

She emphasises that we modify our perceptions of the world ‘to suit our purposes.’[4] She was particularly taken with some of Freud’s descriptions of how we do that and expresses them in an effective metaphor:[5]

In talking of the defences Freud uses one image which I find illuminating. He likened the activities of a mind shaping its own consciousness to those of an editor revising a text, working towards an acceptable final draft.  The various mechanisms that have different editorial counterparts. For example, amnesic repression is equivalent to complete removal of parts of the text… likewise denial is equivalent to the insertion of ‘not:’… Projection is equivalent to changing the subject of a sentence: ‘He is I am evil, lazy, useless.’ Displacement amounts to changing the sentence object: ‘ I hate my father enemy.’ . . . In this way, we write for ourselves an authorised version of our lives.

In short, ‘. . . our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation.’[6] This maps closely onto my own sense of my perception of the world as a simulation. However, Donaldson explains, this tendency is balanced ‘by another more austere aim: the aim of understanding, of getting at the truth.’ The Bahá’í approach to this stresses the importance of an ‘independent investigation of the truth.’

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

There is another factor she mentions that again resonates with the Bahá’í Faith: ‘The second corrective is to consider shared experience.’ This sounds closely linked to the value attached to consultation, which is central to many processes of interaction encouraged in the Bahá’í community. Obviously these resonances partly explain my attraction to Donaldson’s model of consciousness, but it is not the only reason.

She argues that the foundations for our modes of consciousness are laid down very early.[7]  ‘At what point in life’ she asks, ‘does a child have a mind capable of concerning itself with things in some sort of controlled and organised way?’ and her answer is, ‘We can at least now confidently reply: “Very early, certainly by the end of the first two or three months, possibly sooner. (Stern terms it an emergent self.)’

She amplifies her comment by saying:[8]

There follows, from two to around eight months, the development of the ‘core self’ – a sense of self that is coherent, firmly distinguished from what is other, but not yet informed by an awareness of other minds.

. . . the point mode begins as the core self is established.

In the next post I will be exploring what follows on from that. It’s probably worth pointing out straightaway that, even later in life, as we shall see, point mode is not pointless.


[1]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 11.
[2]. Human Minds: an exploration – page  16.
[3]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 16-17.
[4]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 24.
[5]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 25.
[6]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 27.
[7]. Human Minds: an exploration – page 46.
[8]. Human Minds: an exploration – pages 46-47.

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This seemed a good poem to republish as a bridge between Dickens and my next sequence concerning Margaret Donaldson and Consciousness

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In the previous post, after describing my encounters as a young man with death and Dickens, I paused just as I had began to explore some of the ideas in A N Wilson’s book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens.

Little Dorrit in a way laid the foundations for the upward trajectory I mentioned last time. Wilson wrote:[1] ‘Given the way that Dickens wrote his novels, burrowing deeper and deeper into his psychological history, and reworking experience as his fiction became ever richer and darker, you can see that the writing of Little Dorrit in 1857 probably had as devastating effect on his marriage as the meeting with Nelly Ternan. Creatively speaking, his relationship with his parents was of far greater moment than that with his wife, mistress or children. In Little Dorrit he had re-entered the shades of the prison house,’ by which he meant the period when Dickens’ father was incarcerated in the debtors’ prison known as the Marshalsea. Wilson concludes, ‘For now, in the pursuit of his art, the reworking and rebuilding of experience in fictive form, nothing was going to be spared.’

Earlier[2] Wilson praised Little Dorrit stating ‘The novel tells us that one of these days the whole edifice – of respectability, and family structure, and capitalism – is going to come tumbling down. Dickens achieved few more brilliant things than Little Dorrit.’

Wilson’s unpacking of the details of what drove Dickens in this intense direction needs to be read in its entirety. I shall simply share a few compelling insights.

A fundamental aspect of his early experience was being sent to the blacking factory by his mother at the age of twelve, though[3] Dickens had ’felt unwanted long before she insisted upon him going to work’ there. This darkened his relationship with his wife:[4] ‘Kate Dickens was actually his wife, but having borne ten children, lost her looks and became a fat wretch of misery worn down by his bullying; she had taken the place, in his imaginative life, of the mother he could not forgive for her treatment of him in childhood.’ Wilson feels he ‘reached the depths of the truth’ about his ‘mother-hate’ in Little Dorrit. 

Wilson flags up a key thesis[5] when he writes, ‘We are now able to see what Dickens himself was probably unable to see: that his flawed relationship with his mother is the defining feature, of the man and of his art.’

He was split in two, with a good and an evil self. Though he advocated kindness and did much philanthropic work, he could also be cruelly controlling. The mystery that Wilson pinpoints[6] concerns how this ‘apostle of kindliness’ could have been ’so furiously unkind… to the woman who had borne his children.’

Concerning his frenetic tours giving readings from his novels, A N Wilson quotes Edmund Wilson[7] who ‘thought Dickens was releasing, without entirely controlling, dark forces inside him and his genius that were only implicit on the page…’ Later[8] A N Wilson likens Dickens’ ‘divided self’ to that of ‘a detective [who] also imagined himself as the hunted criminal.’

One of the most insightful comments Wilson makes[9] relates to David Copperfield, as a quasi-autobiographical novel written after layers of disguising masks had been stripped away as a result of his affair with Nelly Ternan. He was faced in life with ‘the raw truth about his own ruthlessness, the impurity of his family hatreds, the psycho-bonds that drove his need for status and money, and the murky origins of his money.’ Wilson added at the end of that paragraph ‘had Dickens fully known what he was doing [in the novel], he could not have done it.’

He concludes[10] that while the divided self is extremely damaging it is ‘also a source of creativity.’

To fully appreciate the richness of his analysis, of which this has been the barest skeleton, you need to read the book. I don’t think you will be disappointed. As for me I’m dithering over whether to risk one more immersion in the fascinating darkness of the later novels, which for me are so closely associated with death and an armchair.


[1]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 140.
[2]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – pages 32-33.
[3]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 94.
[4]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens  – page 31.
[5]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 92.
[6]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 104.
[7]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 203.
[8]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 232.
[9]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 248.
[10]. The Mystery of Charles Dickens – page 254.

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Closer to Death

The image was scanned and edited from the Taschen Munch by Ulrich Bischoff

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