Lecture 32 — Philosophy, Theory, and Practice

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

Three Ways of Thinking
Order of Importance
A Fourth-Way School
School Language and Experience
Intellect, Emotion, and Identification
Remember Your Aim
Curiosity and Truth
Expression and Scale
A Cautionary Tale

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See also:

From Aim to Conscience
Active Service
The Immense Problem of Language

Three Ways of Thinking

You must understand that in our system — or, for that matter, in any system, whether it is acknowledged or not — there are three different languages, or three ways of thinking: philosophical, theoretical, and practical. When, in answer to a question, I say 'this is theoretical' or 'this is philosophy', it means that the language is wrong. You cannot ask something in a philosophical way and expect a practical answer. An abstract question cannot have a concrete answer.

The difference in meaning between these words 'philosophical', 'theoretical', and 'practical' is quite contrary to the meaning ordinarily attributed to them. The philosophical is the easiest approach, the theoretical is more difficult and more useful, and the practical is the most difficult and the most useful of all. There can be philosophical knowledge — very general ideas; there can be theoretical knowledge — when you calculate things; and there can be practical knowledge — when you can observe and make experiments. In philosophical language you speak not so much about things as about possibilities; in other words, you do not speak about facts. In theoretical language you speak about laws; and in practical language you speak about things on the same scale as yourself and everything around you — that is, about facts. So it is really a difference of scale.

Things may be taken on these three scales, and many things change completely according to the scale on which they are taken. They are one thing on the philosophical scale, quite different if taken on the theoretical scale, and on the practical scale quite different again. Try to find examples. Some things can be taken on all three scales, some on only two, and some on one. Even when speaking with oneself, one must not mix these three scales; otherwise one will create more confusion than there is already and understand less and less.

An effort to self-remember may be practical, it may be theoretical, and it may be philosophical. Objective consciousness is very practical — although for us, certainly, objective consciousness is a philosophical idea. At the same time the study of descriptions of glimpses of this state is possible. If one studies these descriptions and tries to find similarities, it can become theoretical.

Order of Importance

'Practical' means what you can do — in all senses. But 'doing' can be on one scale or another. Doing is always more important than thinking or talking. So if we take it that philosophical is thinking, theoretical is talking, and practical is doing, the practical is most important.

Philosophical thinking is thinking on a very large scale. A thing may look very beautiful on the philosophical scale; the same thing taken on the theoretical scale may be a very narrow and stupid theory; and, taken practically, it may be a crime.

When I first heard about the division into philosophical, theoretical, and practical, I was told that schools of knowledge which came from higher mind could be divided into three classes. Practical schools were the highest; then came theoretical; and philosophical schools came last. Ordinarily, we understand by practical such things as gardening, making boots, and so on. By theoretical knowledge, we understand mathematics, geology, etc. By philosophical we understand what we usually want — philosophy. But according to this system, philosophical schools are merely preparatory schools. School is not a question of thought; it is a question of doing.

Certainly there must be a certain amount of thinking, for without thinking we can do nothing; but thinking is an auxiliary process, it is not the aim. In a school of thought it is sufficient to think about freedom, whereas what we want is to be free; we are not satisfied with merely thinking about it.

A Fourth-Way School

A Fourth Way school is a school of all three sides. Also, some people take this system philosophically, others theoretically, and yet others practically. We must not forget that the same thing can be taken in different ways.

This system cannot be quite free from philosophy because in some ways it is a legitimate form of thinking. But in thinking of man's development, of man's progress, it is better to look for psychological landmarks rather than philosophical ones. Psychological landmarks are facts; the others may be imagination. Even if a man's intellect is dealing with big psychological problems, his being may be on quite a low level. But if a man is more conscious, then all his sides can develop.

There are definite inner signs by which one can judge psychological values. At a certain point they may become objective. We do not look for philosophical landmarks, we want psychological landmarks. Philosophical conclusions may be mere rhetoric, but we cannot mistake psychological landmarks in ourselves.

However, some things one can study only philosophically — things to which we have no practical approach and for which we must find analogies. When we begin to understand different categories, we may sometimes be able to think in different ways. But we very often think in wrong categories because we do not have enough knowledge. Even in our state, we can think better or worse.

This system provides plenty of material for thought. Try to reconstruct it in your mind, to imagine you are explaining the ideas of the system to somebody else. Try to reconstruct what the system says about man and the Universe. If you do not remember something, ask other people. This is a good exercise. Either you control your thoughts or they turn aside by themselves. If they turn by themselves, you cannot expect positive results; you must drive them.

School Language and Experience

You must not invent new words. There is a definite rule that when you speak of the system you must speak using exactly the same language in which you learnt the system, and refer to the origin. There will never be any necessity for you to disguise it. One example of thinking in new categories is that thinking must be intentional. We do not realise that whether something is intentional or unintentional changes everything.

Everything has a tendency to become mechanical, so when you are trying to do something in a new way, you must watch not only what you intend to do but also many other things. Neither identification nor imagination must be allowed to enter into it, and you must learn to control associations rather than letting them control you by limiting your thinking to a definite point or aim. Associative thinking is accidental. We can go on thinking by old associations without any attempt to change them, or we can try new associations by introducing new points of view.

You must try to find some personal connection, some personal interest, in the question you want to think about, and then that will grow and develop. By personal, I mean what you thought before, questions about it which came to you by themselves and which you could not answer, or something like that. When you find that now you see more, that may push you on to other things.

There is plenty of material. If you cannot find anything in the system worth thinking about, it is because your desire or your effort is limited.

We find it difficult to keep to a definite line of thought because accidental associations come in. Resistance to them is difficult because of lack of knowledge of how to deal with them or lack of experience of intentional thinking on a certain line. This skill must be educated.

I can tell you what is lacking in your thinking, but if you have no observations of your own, it will mean nothing to you. Each thought is too short; our thoughts should be much longer. When you have experience of short thoughts and long thoughts, you will see what I mean.

Intellect, Emotion, and Identification

Development is not so much a matter of intellect as of balance of centres and development of consciousness. Even in the ordinary state, Men 1, 2, and 3 can be more awake or less awake, more conscious or less conscious. A man with a good intellect can be quite asleep, and then he may be too sure of his own intellectual achievement and too identified with it to start working. His intellect may stop him. It often happens that intellectual development prevents study because a man is too argumentative, demands definitions for everything, and so on. Development of intellect alone is not sufficient; very soon, work with emotions becomes necessary.

People who are considered brilliant may be very different, so it is difficult to speak about them all in one category. They may really be brilliant, they may be just pretending to be brilliant, or other people may pretend that they are brilliant. But if you mean people who are very identified with their brilliance, then it may be very difficult — not as a result of their brilliance but as a result of their identification. Sometimes an advantage in life means a disadvantage in work, for the better a Man 1, 2, or 3 one is, the more self-will and wilfulness one has to conquer. The easiest and most advantageous condition from the point of view of the work is to be quite an ordinary man.

Success in life is not dangerous in itself so long as one does not identify with it. The aim is not success or failure, but non-identification. Success may help in many things. Intellect plays a very important part because we begin with it. It is the only centre which obeys itself. But development of intellect can go only so far. Possibilities lie in the emotional centre. If we have interests in the right direction, these interests control all other things to a certain extent. If we are not interested, we have no control.

It often happens that people become disappointed in the work because, from the very beginning, they start choosing and take some things and not others. So after some time they do not have the system but their own selection from it, and this won't work. Other people want to understand only intellectually and do not want to make experiments with themselves and observe, but without practical work it is impossible to move. If you have followed the lectures in a disciplined fashion, you have been doing some practical work from the very first.

Remember Your Aim

As I have often said, the first condition is that we must never forget what we want to get. People come to this system from different sides. Some want to know. They realise there is a certain knowledge and that, maybe, there are somewhere people who know, and they want to get this knowledge. Other people realise their weaknesses and understand that if they get rid of them things will be different. So people come with different aims and they must never forget the beginning. They can be reminded, but that will not help much if they themselves do not remember.

There are no aims in ordinary life, because one aim crosses another aim and destroys it or changes its nature, so that in the end there are no aims.

As they get older, some people get interested in one thing and concentrate upon it. But this is one-sided. There are many other sides of one's being and knowledge that this line does not touch at all. Some people can develop a certain oneness even in life, but they are exceptions. If one becomes interested in one thing, only one group of 'I's develops this interest; others do not know about it; only a small minority is concerned. So there are two questions here: the question of minority and majority, and the fact that if a line of interest appears it does not touch many other things and occupies only a small part of one's being.

I think that what was said before about this question of values in the work and in ordinary life must be understood better. In ordinary life there are so many imaginary values that it is useful to clarify a little. In life the best things have no meaning; people see what is small but miss what is big. In the work you have to do many different things first in order to feel that you are waking up. Then other things come, for this is only the beginning.

Aim is necessary in the work: but it cannot be an ordinary or invented aim. There can be only one aim — to awaken — and it can come only when you realise that you are asleep, otherwise there is no necessity for it. All other aims, however you may formulate them, must be in line with that.

Then, when one wants to awaken, one begins to see obstacles, one sees what keeps one asleep; one finds a quantity of mechanical functions — talk, lying, negative emotions, and so on, and one realises that all life consists of mechanical functions that leave no time for awakening. One then understands the need to suppress them, or at least to make them less strong; then one may have time for awakening.

We cannot say that we do not know what is right and what is wrong in ordinary life. We know, or at least we should know. Nobody can live without certain ideas of right and wrong. But when you come to the system and understand the basis of it, you see that right is connected with consciousness and wrong with mechanicalness. If people are a little conscious, or approximately conscious, they have a better direction. Even standing in one place but turned one way or another makes a difference.

Curiosity and Truth

Curiosity is a normal thing if it is strong enough to make you study and if it is the right kind of curiosity — because there are several different kinds. Right curiosity is a very important intellectual emotion.

Curiosity is a special emotion which exists in each centre. In the intellectual centre it is connected with desire to know. But how do you connect it with the idea of truth? It is simply an intellectual process. Intellectually we distinguish what is true and what is false, and naturally we are curious about what is true and not about what is false, again only in our mind. Although we do not know what truth is, we can know what is definitely not true. Our mind is so made that we can know what is false, although in many cases we cannot say what is true.

Sometimes you may be struggling to do something you don't like doing, and cannot get started. You cannot catch the right point from which you can do it, because work of one or another kind can be done well only from one point in yourself, and it is sometimes very difficult to find this point. For instance, it is often like that when you want to write a letter, but once you start you may write more than you thought you could. The whole thing is finding the right point of the right centre. For everything we do there is a right part of a certain centre that can do it, or at least can do it much better than any other part of the same centre or of other centres.

Expression and Scale

Things people do or say, or certain circumstances, may annoy you. By expressing your annoyance you may create cause for another annoyance. Try to catch yourself on that. When you express annoyance, try to see that you do it not because you realise that you cannot help it but because you deceive yourself by thinking that you do it for a purpose; you wish to change things, to stop people doing things that cause you annoyance, and so on. But after you have expressed your annoyance, it may be worse; they may annoy you even more. Such wrong results are quite useless. If you think about this wrong result, maybe you will find the energy not to express your annoyance, and then the cause may disappear because what annoyed you before may only make you laugh.

We often think we express negative emotions, not because we cannot help it but because we should express them. There is always something deliberate in it. The most dangerous negative emotions come from feeling injustice or indignation. They make you lose more energy, and they are worse if you are right.

If you are wrong, you can see that it is absurd to be angry. But this is not a complete explanation. Start looking at it from the point of view that there are many big things which are wrong. We usually identify with small things and forget the big. If we begin to think about the big things, we realise that it is no use identifying with one small thing that is wrong. One small identifying leads to another small identifying. But again, it is not a complete explanation.


You may allow yourself to be influenced by other people. But if you say to yourself 'I do not want to be influenced', they will have no influence. Remember, they are machines; a machine can influence you only if you let it. If you see a wonderful car and would give your life to have it, it means that you are influenced by this car. It is just the same with people. You are open to the influence of other people as much as you identify or consider.

In relation to work, it is possible to harm people by influencing them in a wrong way. Some people are very easily influenced, so if you give them wrong ideas about the work, it may do harm. That is why in speaking with people, it is always necessary to be careful not to be misunderstood, not to give a wrong impression.

The most important moments to try to remember oneself are moments when one is habitually most identified, for if one can remember oneself at these difficult moments, other moments will be easier.

If a man were to become even a little conscious, if he were able to control himself occasionally even for a few minutes, it would make such an enormous difference that all we know about ordinary men would not apply to him. If a man can remember himself even to the extent of avoiding doing anything more or less serious without knowing what he is doing, he will become conscious when he is doing something particularly important.

A Cautionary Tale

I had better tell you an old story told in Moscow groups in 1916 about the origin of the system, the work, and self-remembering. It happened in an unknown country at an unknown date that a sly man was walking past a café when he met a devil. The devil was in very poor shape, both hungry and thirsty, so the sly man took him into the café, ordered some coffee, and asked him what the trouble was.

The devil said that there was no business. In the old days he used to buy souls and burn them to charcoal, because when people died they had very fat souls that he could take to hell, and all the devils were pleased. But now all the fires in hell were out, because when people died there were no souls.

Then the sly man suggested that perhaps they could do some business together. 'Teach me how to make souls', he said, 'and I will give you a sign to show which people have souls made by me', and he ordered more coffee. The devil explained that he should teach people to remember themselves, not to identify, and so on, and then, after some time, they would grow souls.

The sly man set to work, organised groups, and taught people to remember themselves. Some of them started to work seriously and tried to put into practice what he taught them. Then they died, and when they came to the gates of heaven, there was St Peter with his keys on one side and the devil on the other.

When St Peter was ready to open the gates, the devil would say, 'May I ask just one question — did you remember yourself?'

'Yes, certainly', the man would answer, and thereupon the devil would say, 'Excuse me, this soul is mine'.

This went on for a long time until they managed somehow to communicate with the Earth what was happening at the gates of heaven. Hearing this, the people he was teaching came to the sly man and said, 'Why do you teach us to remember ourselves if, when we say we have remembered ourselves, the devil takes us?'

The sly man asked, 'Did I teach you to say you remember yourselves? I taught you not to talk.'

They said, 'But this was St Peter and the devil!'

The sly man said, 'But have you seen St Peter or the devil at groups? So do not talk. Some people did not talk and so managed to get to heaven. I did not only make an arrangement with the devil; I also made a plan by which to deceive the devil.'