WAS G. I. G. A PHILOSPHER?
Was G.I.G. a Philosopher?
John Robert Colombo discusses Paul Beekman Taylor’s “The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff”
Some books have catchy titles that make more sense than others. The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution makes an impact, and it perfectly describes the contents of P.D. Ouspensky’s series of lectures, especially once the reader learns about Ouspensky’s fundamental distinction between “logical thought” and “psychological thought.”
The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution is another title with impact. It may be a late arrival on the scene – first appearing in 1989 – yet it is a “natural” successor to Ouspensky’s book. It consists of a complementary series of lectures on Three, Seven, Ray of Creation, Food Diagram, etc., all of which appear in one form or another in In Search of the Miraculous(another catchy title).
But what about the following title: The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff? It certainly does not bring to mind one of Ouspensky’s books It makes sense but it makes less of an impact than do the other titles. As well, it begs a series of questions: Did Gurdjieff have a philosophy? Was he in any sense of the word a philosopher? Can his work be discussed profitably in the analytic and critical mode? Should it be so discussed?
These are some of the questions that I asked myself as I followed the argument and analysis that comprise Paul Beekman Taylor’s new book. The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff. It follows in the wake of Professor Taylor’s three previous books: one on Gurdjieff’s association with the writer Jean Toomer, one on his relationship with the editor A.R. Orage, and one on his travels in the United States. All three books set a high standard for scholarship and integrity.
Paul Beekman Taylor was born in London, England, in 1930. He holds a doctorate in Literature from Brown University, Rhode Island; he has served as a Fulbright scholar; he has published widely on Old Norse and Old English; he has written eight previous books (including one with W.H. Auden); he has taught at the University of Geneva, Switzerland; he now holds the title Professor Emeritus.
He has a great advantage over other scholars in the field of Fourth Way studies: his mother Edith Taylor was involved in the Work; he never knew the identity of his father so he speculated a lot about paternity; he has clear memories of Gurdjieff and a continuing relationship with his followers; he is a scholar of standing; he understands Ouspensky’s distinction between logical thought and psychological thought.
Let me state right off that his new book, despite being relatively short (about 75,000 words), is not easy reading – it might even be described as difficult reading. It is customary for the word “difficult” to be followed by the word “rewarding,” and it certainly is a rewarding text to consider because it is detailed and informed and reflective. It is “philosophical” in the sense that it asks at least as many questions as it answers – if not more.
The effect of my own graduate work in Philosophy (on Collingwood and
Kant) in 1960 led me to an appreciation of the fact that philosophers in our day and age have a distinct way of looking at the world: they see it as presenting problems, largely of an epistemological nature.
Perhaps this came about as the result of the influence of William James and Pragmatism, but unless a subject or a piece of evidence is weighed and measured and found to “make a difference,” it has no
value: such distinctions make no difference.
As well, it is a characteristic of our time that a philosopher is assumed to be a professional scholar affiliated with a Department of Philosophy at a college or a university. Yet there is a far older tradition that a philosopher is a “lover of wisdom,” a teacher and perhaps a writer, someone like Pythagoras and Plato, Kant and Nietzsche, A.J. Ayre and Bertrand Russell. Gurdjieff was not a philosopher in the first sense of the word (he had no academic credentials or appointment), but he might be considered a philosopher in the second sense of the word. He was certainly a teacher and a writer of works that raise philosophical questions about “being and Being,” to employ Taylor’s distinction between biological “forms of life” and non-biological “essences.” Gurdjieff’s writings (and perhaps also his works and certainly his words) are repeatedly described by Taylor as “psycho-philosophical” in nature. That designation seems to describe the object of the inquiry. If this is philosophy, it is philosophy with a difference.
The author makes his task easier by attempting to place Gurdjieff’s overall work in colloidal suspension, so to speak, and then fastening on Gurdjieff’s words and writings: reported conversations, recorded talks, texts of published books. Had he examined the overall work he would have had to take into account the experience of the movements, the music, reported interactions with followers, leadership roles assumed by disciples, oral teachings, exercises, etc. By scrutinizing Gurdjieff’s words he releases his thoughts and associations on a trio of subjects that have been traditionally reserved for philosophical inquiry: Time, Word, Being. Taylor sees these concepts as constituting a “triad” of forces: space is positive, time is negative, and “human consciousness or Being is neutral or reconciling.”
I could summarize his argument and my own response to his book, but I think it would be more useful to the general reader to be “taken through” much of the book and offered quoted passages and summaries of its arguments. So here is a precis of the book’s text, chapter by chapter.
The Introduction gives the author’s aim as “exposing certain significant features of Gurdjieff’s thought on crucial issues for our time, specifically the possibilities of man to raise his consciousness of both the aim of life and the evolutionary processes of thought he can effect to this end.” He dismisses the notion that he is “vulgarizing”
what he calls “quasi-sacred texts,” and disregards the idea that he may seem “to narrow” the breadth of these ideas.
Taylor is able to draw on his full familiarity with primary and secondary literature of the Fourth Way and he manages to elucidate all the major writings. In all the commentaries of other authors, there is little that focuses on philosophy. “No one has outlined exclusively what one can designate the philosophical content of his writings.”
Past commentators (Nicoll, Ouspensky, Walker, Wilson, Speeth, Bennett, Orage, Mairet, Toomer) have “recognized in his teaching a path to higher knowledge and perfection of Being marked by arcane esoteric signposts on branching ways toward Higher Consciousness. In following this path myself, I distinguish between _being_ as biological form and _Being_ as its essence, or spirit.” In passing he notes how other commentators have found evidence of all kinds of information in “All and Everything” – ranging from the enneagram to the hidden secrets of science and the ancient sages – but he has set his aim “to trace his philosophical idea that the acquisition of real Being requires attention to verbal instruction for husbanding human time to work on oneself.”
In order to accomplish this aim, the author discusses Gurdjieff’s paradoxical regard for the appreciation of the concept of duration or “times” – atomic, subjective, astronomical, etc. Unlike a philosopher, however, Taylor offers anecdotal evidence that Gurdjieff “played games with measures of time.” He adds, “In short, time is the _tertium quid_ conjoining the force of language with the perfecting of Being.” For no reason at all I recall the answer of the child to the question of “What is time?” who happily replied, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” So the “Introduction” sets the pace for the exposition to follow. In the interest of saving space and time, I will “speed up” my account of the exposition.
“Word, Time, and Being: Contexts of Gurdjieff’s Philosophy.”
The author keeps doffing his academic gown: “I am neither physicist, psychologist nor philosopher, but a professional literary critic and dilettante historian of ideas, two roles for which I have been trained at length. From my critical perspective, I note that Gurdjieff’s writings comprise a play with the interweaving of concepts of Being with measure of time and forms of language.” Donning the academic gown again, he explores the triadic relationship of how “time, Being and the word operate in varying proportional relationships.”
References to time and heropass in All and Everything are related to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Existence is existence in time. Taylor is not above uttering the occasional mystagogic aphorism: “Thus, language mediates the ordering of matter and energy in creative time.” Then he offers a clear definition of his intent: “What this chapter proposes is that Gurdjieff’s teaching and writing, in general, can be placed easily within the history of modern philosophy, but they draw time language and the perfection of Being into a tight triadic relationship that has not been explored previously.” Taylor collects references to time in the canon, without condensing them into propositions, in order to discuss these in light of varied and often contradictory discussions of the subject in standard philosophical literature.
The section on Being describes that concept interestingly as “conscious existence” and finds man’s Being at odds with Heidegger’s notion that Being is “phenomenological and existential, rather than spiritual and ‘essential.’” Taylor takes pains to suggest (without really arguing it) that the three parts of All and Everything – “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,” “Meetings with Remarkable Men,” “Life Is Real Only Then When ‘I Am’” – offer complementary approaches to his “triadic relationship.” He includes the interesting insight that “Gurdjieff writes across the ideas of his predecessors rather than into them,” and concludes, “Not only a man of his time, Gurdjieff seems a man of all times.” These statements, while conceivably true, look and sound odd in a work of philosophy.
Other sections discuss Gurdjieff in light of the Western Philosophical Tradition, Sin and Redemption, and Philosophy and the Science of Being. The latter subsection examines Gurdjieff’s ideas in light of William James, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, George Santyana, behaviourists, existentialists, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Theodor Adorno, Karl Popper, Jacques Derrida, and inevitably Michel Foucault. These treatments are necessarily cursory, but nonetheless they present interesting sidelong glances. Taylor concludes “that Gurdjieff, besides proving himself a pedagogue and psychologist, is a philosophical anthropologist of the highest order.” I was surprised by the word “anthropologist”? Did I miss something?
“Cultural Backgrounds of Gurdjieff’s Word.”
There are problems here because Gurdjieff is seen to be “a writer,” something of a literateur, as well as a “raconteur, musician, composer, dancer, choreographer, playwright, architect, handyman and weaver.” (What has this got to do with philosophy? Spinoza was a lens-grinder.) Taylor regards “Beelzebub” as a work with “mythic contours.” “Meetings” reads like “a picaresque novel.” “Life Is Real” is “in journal form.” I think all of these contentions are simultaneously true and false. Despite this false start at definition, the subsections on Myth, Writing Background, Literary Tradition, and Semiotics are insightful. Myth discusses Gurdjieff as “raconteur and writer” and makes the interesting suggestion that lurking behind his conception of the three centres of man are three brothers, Ivan, Alyosha, and Dimitri of Dostoievski’s “The Brothers Karamazov.”
The subsection on Literary Tradition places Gurdjieff in the era of Modernism: essentially the nihilism of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” It is not hard to find parallels between his works and those of W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and other writers who adopted the notion of the “stream of consciousness” coined by William James in 1890. Perhaps Taylor goes a bit far when he writes, “The relationship between deep structures of thought and surface structures of language, thoroughly systematized by the linguist Noam Chomsky (1928- ), is implicit throughout Gurdjieff’s writings on personality and language, and the long sentences in the speech of Beelzebub resemble a stream of consciousness.” (They also resemble Taylor’s own run-on sentence!) He even finds the mention of a Proustian “madeleine” in “Tales.”
The section on Semiotics is largely about linguistics (Owen Barfield, Otto Jespersen, Benjamin lee Whorf). It moves on to music (I learned that in the summer of 1949 Gurdjieff met with the composer John Cage.) Then it returns to his distinctive vocabulary: “It is fruitless to speculate on Gurdjieff’s knowledge or conscious use of the woks of his predecessors and contemporaries. It is enough to acknowledge that he absorbed or ‘crystallized’ in himself, as he would say, the message and the spirit emanating from the repository of artistic ideas circulating before and during his time.” This section and the chapter end with a short but interesting consideration of Gurdjieff’s three works as “three steps to Being.”
“The World View of ‘Beelzebub’s Tales.’”
In a letter to Edith Taylor in 1928, Orange confessed that he could not understand “Beelzebub’s Tales.” He wrote, “I fail to grasp it.” I must admit I heaved a sigh of relief when I read that. Even so the work is recognized to be a mine-field of unexploded charges, or what the Tibetans term “termas,” treasures waiting to be found in the nick of time. Taylor reviews “Tales” in light of insights from Plato, Milton, Shakespeare, etc. He concludes that the work is “an allegory that I try to summarize in terse transparent terms.” What follows is a commentary on various aspects of “Tales.” For instance, the Ray of Creation “recalls the Ptolemaic universe of seven planets whose names are attached to the seven days of the week.” At times the commentary reads more like a sermon than an exposition (“The moral history of the world, Beelzebub explains, devolved as striving for perfection diminished in the helter-skelter of banal survival …. “).
The subsection Story as Philosophy brings to my mind the free association of Northrop Frye with respect to the typological layers of the Old and New Testaments: anticipations, fulfillments, comparisons, contrasts, reconciliations. There is some recognition of the encyclopedic nature of the epic, but not its episodic structure.
Synopsis, the final subsection, wraps up this short chapter by noting that Gurdjieff’s technique is Socratic but also Aristotelian. “He was born Marysas and Apollo, witch and wizard …. ”
“Time and Being in ‘Beelzebub’s Tales.’”
Taylor discusses time and Being with respect to “confusions” in accounts of Gurdjieff’s activities especially with respect to the composition of “Tales.”
The subsection Objective and Absolute Time amounts to an appreciation of the Hindu-like welter of numbers in the text: the universe “was created 4,260,603 years before 1921,” etc. It seems there is energy and entropy and each object in creation has its own duration or time. The subsection Creation and Time finds Biblical and especially Christian parallels for Sun Absolute, Etherokrilno, all-Maintaining-Endlessness, etc. The perspective offers some insights: “In Gurdjieff’s fictional world, humans can re-unite themselves with their Creator by an economy of energy that actualizes potential perfection of Being.”
In the subsection Historical Time, Rudolf Steiner, “Atlantisians,” and Boethius make strange bedfellows, but the ecumenical approach allows Taylor to ring all the changes he wants on the name of the space ship _Karnak_. These take us from the upper Nile to sites in Brittany, the Grail legends, and the Armenian word for “body in the grave.” The High Commissions’s three descents to Earth are given a thematic and spiritual interpretation. The subsection Being in Time begins, “Time is a stream Gurdjieff goes fishing in for human attention.” The restoration of “lost primal human functions” are related to the “five obligations, or strivings, to achieve ‘genuine conscience.’”
Synthesis, the final subsection, which skirts the question of Beelzebub’s reliability as a narrator, contrasts the cosmos, which has no beginning and no end, with time which begins with the instant of creation or the instant of man’s fall, reflected in the life and death of mortal man. Taylor discusses time as heropass, derived from Avesti (Old Person) for “hero, protector” and _pathano_, passage, exchange.
“Word in ‘Beelzebub’s Tales.’”
Taylor spends some time explicating references in “Tales” to events in the 1920s when it was written, and these include the “monkey trial” in Tennessee and Kemal Ataturk’s outlawing of the fez in Turkey. Taylor is able to release doves from top hats. For instance, on the question of a universal language being accessible as Being is perfected, Taylor wrote: “He exhibited this aptitude in my presence, at least. Gurdjieff had always insisted that knowledge and being must develop together, for knowledge without being cannot form wisdom. All this is possible only in time.”
Language leads to a discussion of legominisms “a transparent neologism constructed of _logos_ ‘word’ and _mens_ ‘mind.’” Taylor sees such insights as instances of Gurdjieff’s remarkable abilities in many fields of endeavor. (One thinks of Rudolf Steiner who was described with some justice as “a genius in twelve fields.”) Taylor is led to consider the nature of writing, “marks on durable materials,” with respect to speech and sounds and cultural lore and universal knowledge, associated with Atlantis which devolved over ten thousand years to its status in America. From there it is a short hop to the Art of Legominism, the Gospels, architecture, theatre, so-called primitive cultures, “inexactitudes,” etc. “Gurdjieff the philosopher is a speculator investing in words that can redeem mankind from the rust of time.” These are ideas not normally found in Philosophy, at least these days.
The subsection Word as Advertisement deals briefly with the modern form of “word prostitution,” and the subsection The Rhetorical Styles of Tales sheds light on the story-within-story technique, so it is mainly about structure. Almost as an afterthought, Taylor finds the coordinate of reason, emotion, and instinct. He writes, “Love is engendered from a conscious economy of human energy.” The section ends with a piece of odd information about the first, Harcourt Brace edition of “Tales.” Why is such a long book so stubby in format? “Gurdjieff insisted that ‘Tales’ be printed and bound ‘Bible size’ as an addendum to Christ’s philosophy of Love in the New Testament.”
“The Moral Philosophy of ‘Meetings with Remarkable Men.’”
The subsection Ethics begins with a potted account of Kant’s “counsel of prudence” as distinct from morality. We run the gamut: Kant, Bentham, Mill, James, Peirce, Dewey, Gurdjieff! In the theory of value, “Meetings” is about “wisdom of actions.” The subsection Front Matter refers to textual matters, notably various additions to “Meetings” and to some avoidable irregularities which have to do with translations from the French text which itself was a translation of the original English text. He discusses dates, “inner” and “outer,” and displays a remarkable knowledge of the composition of the supposed memoir. Does it follow the model of Thousand and One Nights? The fable of the boatman’s cargo of the wolf, goat, and cabbage is probed. The five strivings are mentioned again. “In suggesting that his independent stories illustrate particular topics, Gurdjieff is challenging his reader to glean what they are really about.”
The subsection The Nine Stories establishes that the Gurdjieff who is the narrator of the stories is a “critical convenience.” Taylor offers a detailed understanding of each of the stories and reflections: “If Gurdjieff’s father is unnamed, it may be simply because he represents the entire body of those hwo have acquired Higher Being through conscious labour and intentional suffering.” “The Gobi desert, James Webb suggests, is an allegorical form of man’s Being.” “The map of pre-sand Egypt that Gurdjieff and Pogossian come across and copy is in effect a map of man’s higher consciousness hidden beneath the sands of man’s obscured psyche.” Etc. The last subsection is titled The Back Matter as Synthesis and Continuance. Textual questions are asked in technical terms familiar to literary scholars. A new twist is given to the highly readable essay “The Material Question” by regarding it as a pragmatic way to express the need for action.
“Practical Philosophy of Being in ‘Life Is Real Only Then, When “I Am.”’”
This section begins with somewhat appropriate quotations from William Blake, Hegel, and Nabokov. Taylor discusses “Life,” and writes as follows: “Throughout the text, Gurdjieff portrays himself exerting conscious effort to repair disconnections in the triad in order to bring them into unity and thereby coordinate inner and outer worlds with a third world of Being in which time no longer threatens Being. Only in time can time be obliterated.”
The subsection Outer and Inner Time Frames describes the text and action of the book.
The subsection Diversionary Front Matter suggests, again, the preliminary material in various editions of the book may be misleading. The text seems to be in a liquid state: “It is rumoured that there are other versions under lock in the archives of the New York Gurdjieff Foudnation, which is quite possible.” Taylor gives a good explanation for the presence of the “unfinished” final sentence in all editions: it has to do with secrecy or attainment. I would say that on the basis of Taylor’s criticisms of the state of the text, there will one day be a variorum edition of “Life.” Taylor the scholar surpasses himself in this section, which will surely be required reading for an appreciation of the depths of “Life.”
The subsection Temporal Contexts of “Life Is Real” examines the action from the perspective of the composition of the text and its narrative. In “the apparent temporal inconsistencies” he finds evidence of an attempt to “deconstruct” historical time to disturb the “logocentricity” of the style and substance. In the subsection “Life Is Real” as Practical Philosophy, Taylor finds parallels between events when it was being written and events described in the text. Much interesting material appears here but with a proviso: “Though the story can be followed by readers with relative ease and amusement, its hidden meanings are apt to escape notice.”
The next four subsections (Prologue, Introduction, The Talks, The Outer and Inner World of Man) comprise a sensitive gloss on the text, necessary for most readers, full of insights. Synopsis, the final subsection, considers chronology which is time-bound against Higher Consciousness which is not. The author quotes Orage quoting Gurdjieff:
“always to keep deep thoughts under ordinary so to say meaningless outer expressions.”
“Gurdjieff’s name does not appear in current English-langauge encyclopedias and dictionaries of Philosophy, though there are entries on him and Ouspensky in Mircea Eliade’s definitive _Encyclopedia of Religion_ (1987).” Influences of all sorts and many religions may have formed and informed Gurdjieff’s philosophy, including Sufism. But Gurdjieff was not interested in religions per se, but “in opening paths to self-transformation.” Taylor makes an interesting point: “Gurdjieff’s way is neither God’s way nor Nature’s way, but man’s way.”
The subsection Gurdjieff’s Way covers familiar ground in light of Stocism and Gnosticism. Interesting parallels are drawn between Gurdjieffism and Gnosticism. The word “imagination” is seldom found in the Work, and the word “beauty” is not much in evidence. The word “love” is used selectively. “Love everything that breathes,” says Beelzebub. “Behind all of these expositions of ideas is the principle that man cannot achieve Self-Perfection alone. He needs a teacher, a group, a brotherhood or a school to keep him awake and on route to his goal.”
The subsection The Wisdom Tradition looks at Wisdom Literature, notably that of the Greeks and the Hebrews and the Jews. Gurdjieff’s writings “share common features of oral transmission such as maxims, parables, proverbs and aphorisms.” There are also fables and riddles.
The subsection The Eastern Wisdom Tradition glances at Near and Far Eastern literatures and scriptures, especially Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Comparisons and contrasts abound. The subsection Gurdjieff and the Mystics consists of two paragraphs that barely scratch that dark surface. The chapter ends: “by grasping the plural Everything of mortal existence, one can attain union with the singular totality of the All.”
“The Survival of Gurdjieff’s Philosophy.”
Taylor admits that his subject “was not a philosopher in the usual sense of the epithet if only because his philosophy is half-revealed and half-concealed in fiction, biography and history as well as in the psychological exercises of his teaching to a greater degree than could have been enunciated in systematic and inductive or deductive forms.”
Gurdjieffism is compared and contrasted with Theosophy, Spiritualism, and Spiritism. One difference is that Gurdjieff had no need to resort to a world of the spirit. He recognized the “messianic figures” of Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and Lama, but offered “no particular doctrine of faith in a transcendental God to preach.”
Like his spokesman Beelzebub, Gurdjieff stated that what is “law-conformable” is “the surest source of truth.” Observation: A shortcoming of the author’s is a failure relate Gurdjieff’s views to those of such Russian philosophers as Nikolai Berdaev and Vladimir Soloviev. So was Gurdjieff a philosopher? “Gurdjieff is neither a founder of a religion nor an armchair philosopher.”
The subsection Gurdjieff Groups is of genuine interest, not because it says anything about philosophy but because it reveals a strain in the Work today. Should it be protected or should it be promoted – the traditionalists vs. the modernists. Quite interesting pages follow on the nature of the authority that Gurdjieff conferred on his followers to teach and support the Work. It seems that only Orage, Toomer and Jane Heap were given great but still restricted responsibilities. The varied institutes, foundations, and societies that operate in his name have become, “for better or worse, cells with cult character.”
In the last subsection, titled The Survival of Gurdjieff’s Philosophy, Taylor states, “Had Gurdjieff not become a writer, he would have remained a guru whose impact on the lives of others would hardly have survived his death. His writings reveal a philosophy not distinct from but conjoined with his physio-psychological teaching and exercises. Psychology and Philosophy, after all, are intrinsically linked.”
Is the suggestion that Gurdjieff is a philosopher only because he took pains to write books? No author, no philosopher? But it is possible that Ouspensky’s account of his teaching in “In Search of the Miraculous” is remarkable enough to establish him as a philosopher?
After all, some sages in Ancient Greek are known today as philosophers yet their words survive only in paraphrase or citation. Indeed, some like Pythagoras wrote nothing at all. If Gurdjieff is not a philosopher, what is he? A sage? A prophet? A guru? A teacher of dance? These are my questions, not Taylor’s. He does not consider alternative roles or job-descriptions for Gurdjieff.
Taylor ends by observing that “man has passively allowed his consciousness to narrow to the extent that he has estranged it from past and future.” Churches and schools aim to produce “good citizens.” But there is hope: “One can argue that Gurdjieff’s teaching and the ideas discernible in his writings will continue to attract attention as long as there are people who quest for knowledge and understanding of the purpose and aims of life, and who would raise their level of Being to participate in them.”
It is plain to see that The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff will not take its place in the literature of philosophy, but that it will find an honoured place in the literature of the Fourth Way, if only because it will deepen every reader’s understanding of this system’s psychology and its sense of the cosmology of man and the universe.
Taylor, Paul Beekman. The Philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff: Time, Word and Being in All and Everything. Eureka Editions: Utrecht, The Netherlands. Trade paperback, viii + 186 pages. Bibliography. Index.
250 copies published in June 2007. Website: www. eurekaeditions.
JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO, an observer of subjects Ouspenskian and Gurdjieffian, studied English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto, and one morning woke up with an appreciation and understanding (which has since left him) of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Colombo is a Fellow of the Northrop Frye Centre at the University of Toronto as well as the author, editor, or translator of over 180 books. His website is www. colombo. ca.