The Theosophical Forum — July 1943


The meaning to be attached to the word "philosophy" is changing; it is sheering away from the older sense of a dry and formal speculation — what one critic has called "philosophical engineering'(2) — and veering towards a meaning that embraces art and a more truly practical bearing upon life as life is lived. The present volume is a case in point.

Theosophists claim that the influence of Theosophical thought upon the world is not only direct, through the channels of voice and pen, but also indirect through the scattering of seed in the world-atmosphere or cosmic mind. And their claim is justified, for it cannot reasonably be held that great movements in thought arise spontaneously, by "chance'; on the contrary, such movements must have an adequate cause, and the cause is the impact of minds, like leaven quickening the mass. And do we not see the germination of such seeds in the flood of books from all quarters, dealing with every phase of mental activity, and one and all aspiring to a new world-view based on a retreat from the old formalism and mechanicalism, and an approach to the due recognition of the "intangibles" which after all constitute the major part of our life?

This author speaks of a new key and a philosophical reorientation which cuts across familiar lines of cleavage and changes the questions of philosophy. She treats of the meaning of symbols and symbolism, and of the relation of art to epistemology. Such a reorientation, she holds, occurs in every age; every age has its particular genius or common factor, which so characterizes it as to color its views in every department of inquiry, thus making the special character of separate inquiries a matter of minor import. A philosophy is distinguished more by the formulation of its problems than by the solutions offered for them. Whitehead is quoted to the effect that, in criticizing philosophies, we should not attend to the intellectual positions they defend so much as the preliminary assumptions which they unconsciously presuppose. The reactions of Congo negroes and Esquimaux towards the Christian gospel are entirely different: what happens is more due to the national intellectual horizon than to the subject-matter of the Gospel. The Ionian philosophers were interested in matter; but Socrates introduced the idea of purpose and the "Why'?

The Christian gospel eventually runs to seed in an era of logic-chopping, and is succeeded by the Renaissance. Our traditional epistemology is now based on the dichotomy of subject and object, the division of reality into inner experience and the outer world. But the springs of philosophic thought have once more run dry. We are at the end of an epoch. Once more we have arrived at the counsels of despair. Again we seek a reasoned faith. The age of science and technology fails us. A naive confidence in sense impressions furnished science with "facts" for conviction to rest on; there was passion for observation rather than disputation; the experimental technique had the floor.

Yet, says the author, behind all lay a universal key, that of mathematics — a key-science. Number and geometrical relationships are not known by induction from observation; mathematics, though so applicable to physics, can be applied to anything else. Mathematical constructions are only symbols; they have meaning in terms of relationships, not of substances. Science works abstractly in mathematics, and then seeks experimental verification.

The point we wish to emphasize here is that the author descries, underlying all the changing swings of thought, a single invariable factor, seen as form, number, relationship, symbolism. The vaunted inductive method is but a passing over-emphasis of one aspect of inquiry. It was preceded, and is being succeeded, by other phases. But, mark well, these successive changes are not mere replacements, they are transformations. Transformations of what? Of something that is permanent throughout. Now, in H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, what can be more predominant than her insistance on Number, Form, and Symbol, as the golden keys that unlock the mysteries of universal Law? Perhaps, says the author, the philosophic study of symbols holds the seed of a new intellectual harvest, to be reaped in the next season of the human understanding. The new epistemology is no longer satisfied to rest on sensa, but demands a recognition of symbols to attain and organize belief; our interest has shifted from the acquisition of sensory experience to the uses thereof.

A large section of this book deals with "semantics" or the science of "meaning'; a subject which, having a special terminology, may be found somewhat difficult to grasp for those not familiar with it. It represents an important and significant movement towards a due recognition of the meanings behind words; and it would seem that many people who have been accustomed to think in words rather than in ideas have seen the error of their ways. Emphasis is laid upon the relation of all kinds of forms, whether words or otherwise, and the ideas or meanings of which they are the expression; and the author quotes copiously from an extensive literature, both recent and older, upon these topics. All this is part of the characteristic trend of these times away from mechanism toward the forces that move it, away from matter to spirit, from a temporary and assumed reality to a truer reality of which the former is the mere shadow.

Anthropology also occupies considerable space; and we note here likewise an advance upon views recently held on that subject. The myths, customs, and legends of earlier and presumably more primitive humanity are not regarded here as the mere feeble attempts of an infantile mind to understand things, but as a different way of formulating ideas, which way is peculiar to people who translate their ideas into pictures rather than into language. Image-making was the mode of our untutored thinking, and stones are its earliest product.

The reader will find much interesting matter concerning ritual ceremonies, cults, rites, animal symbols, myths, fairy-tales, legends, epics, etc., and the distinctions to be drawn between them: fairytales, a form of wishful thinking — molding the world closer to the heart's desire; myths showing a more closely woven fabric and forming cycles; myth as primitive philosophy, legend as primitive history, fairy-tale as simply entertainment. The moon is cited as an instance of a "condensed symbol expressing the whole mystery of womankind." Great epics and national poems have enshrined in fixed form the fables and mythologies. When we begin to inquire into the literal truth of a myth, we pass from poetic thinking to discursive thinking. Nevertheless emotional attitudes still persist: the vital ideas embodied in myth cannot be repudiated because someone discovers it is not a "fact." The epic is the first flower of a new symbolic mode, the mode of art. It is not merely a receptacle of old symbols, but a new symbolic form, ready to express ideas that have had no vehicle before. Take for instance musical significance (which has a chapter to itself).

Theosophists, in their labors to spread Theosophical ideas in the world, need the co-operation of ripe scholars in the various departments of thought. Both groups may regard themselves as working from different starting-points towards a common goal of convergence, each supplying the deficiencies of the other. Theosophy is able to supply keys and symbols of a most universal and comprehensive character, the use of which, if applied at the outset of an inquiry, would save much labor, just as a map will shorten the wanderings of a journey. On the other hand scholars can furnish that special knowledge in particular fields with which no Theosophist short of an Admirable Crichton would be expected to possess. We may therefore fitly conclude this notice by extending the hand of fellowship to a co-worker whose work we would gladly have reviewed, had it been possible, at greater length.


1. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. By Susanne K. Langer. Harvard University Press. 1942. $3.50. (return to text)

2. See The Theosophical Forum, Feb. 1942, p. 87. (return to text)

The Theosophical Forum