CfA's Op Ed

Between and Beyond

by Douglas Gerwin

In a binary way of seeing, the world is comprehended in pairs of “either/or”. William Blake, in a letter to his friend Thomas Butt, identified this way of seeing as the approach of reductionist science, or what he famously called “Single vision & Newton’s sleep”.  On this view, movement — both inner and outer — is accounted for in the logic of cause and effect, and indeed, purely physical events, like a rock falling to earth, can be adequately described by the laws of causality or “if/then”. (Even Albert Einstein, with his theory of relativity, would agree that the earth is more the cause of attracting a falling rock than the rock would be the cause of attracting a rising earth.)

Once we shift from mineral and mechanical objects to living or organic beings, however, the laws of logic no longer provide an adequate account of the phenomena. Now we need an understanding based on relational “when-then” (sometimes called “both-and”) ways of thinking. Chaos theory, field theory, quantum theory, “flow” theory: all are attempts to comprehend the world in terms of “when-then” relationships rather than simply causal “if/then” connections. This approach shifts us away from the study of things as objects into a study of things as processes, and in so doing introduces an element of movement (for instance, “flow”) that is not essential to an understanding of material objects, even if they are set in motion. You don’t need to see a car in motion in order to understand how a car works. The same cannot be said of a river or a growing plant or an animated worm. A river not in motion is no longer a river but rather a stagnant cesspool no longer able to do what a river is supposed to do; a plant that is not growing (or decaying) is a lifeless specimen, deprived of the essential characteristics of a living organism;  a worm that is not able to wiggle is a sterile fossil — noun, no longer a verb.

When we come to studying phenomena in their spiritual, metaphysical, or eschatological nature, we need to shift once more into a broader more all-encompassing form of understanding that needs what I will call tri-une thinking, which, to put it in its most abstract form, requires not simply two terms of “if/then” causality, nor even the relational terms of “when-then”, but rather three terms that have the relation of “when-and-when: THEN!” On this view, we study phenomena not only in terms of their polar complementary relationship (“when and when”) but we watch for a third term that arises out of these two terms as a new “…THEN!” that transcends both both of them while embracing each of them.

Before considering some examples of this way of thinking and its relationship to the training of high school teachers, we need to be clear what is not meant by tri-une thinking. This mode of thinking is no additive model in which two or more elements are combined to yield some third element that simply contains aspects of both elements in a new configuration.  For instance: it does not take tri-une thinking to say that a little white plus a little black yield a new shade called gray.

Nor is tri-une thinking meant to be a way of reconstituting an original whole that has been broken into its constituent parts. This is what was supposed to have happened for Humpty-Dumpty, but as we know, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” failed in their attempt to glue him back “together again.” As any child knows, Humpty-Dumpty is a living, fluid — indeed, a very oversized fluid — integrated organism, not a static lifeless mechanism of separate parts.

So, what is “tri” and what is “une” about tri-une thinking? The essentials of this way of thinking are dramatically captured in Man on Wire, a documentary film shot by the French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who during the hazy dawn hours of 4 August 1974 unrolled a steel cable between what were then — a quarter-century before the events of 9/11 — the unfinished Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and then, carrying only a 50-foot long pole, proceeded to walk back and forth eight times across this swaying metal rope.  At the high point of this film, Man on Wire, you see Petit setting off on his daring stunt by first gingerly stepping off the edge of one of the towers with an anxious, taut expression. After a few tentative steps, however,  a new look comes over his face: his brow relaxes, his posture straightens, the hint of a radiant smile creeps across his countenance — and he is launched across the 200-foot long wire strung between the towers roughly a quarter-mile up in the air.  On both sides of him, to the left and to the right, lie the risks of a precipitous fall, but thanks to these polar complementary forces (assisted by the long pole), a dynamic balance is created that allows him to glide with seeming effortlessness from one tower to the other. Notice again, that both immanent dangers, of falling to the left or falling to the right, are needed for this third direction — straight ahead — to open up. Petit does not wobble or lurch from left to right or right to left: his gait is confident, his step safe and steady, his destination ahead leading in a quite different third dimension of space.

Rudolf Steiner offers countless examples of this tri-une way of understanding in a deeper way all manner of polar phenomena: in the constitution of the human body (birth and death), in the working of the human soul (sympathy and antipathy), in the healthy operation of the threefold social organism, in the relationship of the good to two polar complementary principles of evil — at one pole what Aristotle calls the evil of “too much”; at the other what he calls the evil of “too little” — to say nothing of artistic practices including the art of healing and the art of education. In each of these examples, we are dealing with three elements, but the third arising from the first two is of a quite different order of being. Good is of a different order than the two forces of evil which it transcends; love represents the transcendence of both antipathy and sympathy; life embraces birth as well as death while transcending both.

And what about the “une” in tri-une?  In reconciling opposite poles in a transcendent third term, we experience the overarching unity of this relationship. In the case of Man on Wire, Philippe Petit enters an entirely new yet fully encompassing universe when he sets out across the cable strung between the Twin Towers. In the examples supplied by Rudolf Steiner, “death” is subsumed under the overarching term “life” rather than being set in opposition to it, just as the “good” embraces rather than opposes “evil” in its double guise, and “love” includes the harsh gesture of antipathy — perhaps better known as “tough love” — along with the more commonly accepted gesture of gentle sympathy, as devoted parents must know when they release their children into free adulthood.

In the language of the Romantic poets (and also of Rudolf Steiner), the practice of this kind of disciplined thinking is described as being the cultivation of imagination as a mode of cognition: that is, not as a flight of fancy but as a coherent way of knowing the lawful inwardness of things. Others call this practice metaphorical thinking or holistic thinking (by means of which a greater whole is perceived to transcend any of its parts) or holographic thinking (when that greater whole is revealed in each of its constituent members). Whatever its name, tri-une thinking bridges polar complements and, while retaining both poles, moves into a higher and more dynamic order of being. However, it takes work — constant work — to think in this way, since it requires the exercise of imaginative inner activity that cannot be imposed from without; it can only arise as a free deed ignited from within. Like any worthy human endeavor, it proceeds in gradations of intensity.

The Purpose of Teaching

Ultimately, as high school teachers, we want our students to be alive in their thinking, sensitive in their feeling, responsive in their deeds. Develop in them a living, moving tri-une way of thinking and we promote in them these qualities of soul.

a person balancing on a tight rope

However, as educators we teach truly only what we have ourselves struggled to make our own to a certain level of proficiency (not to be confused with perfection). The teacher who has had to wrestle with the principles of mathematics in order to grasp them has gained an unfair advantage over a math genius; the experiment that a science teacher strains to unfold properly will be remembered more vividly than the flawless demonstration performed by a confident expert. So, too, the more a teacher takes up the arduous discipline of tri-une thinking, the more likely will this struggle inspire students to attempt this mode of cognition, either during their final years of high school or much later when they are adults.

With this mode of thinking we lift slightly the veil that normally conceals, on the one hand, the occult lawfulness of nature and, on the other, the hidden wisdom embedded in the events of society past and present, however dreadful or promising they may seem at first appearance. Seeing through the veil cast over life-in-nature and life-in-society by means of tri-une thinking bestows on us a renewed sense of confidence, since this cognitive practice discerns beyond the apparent randomness of life its lawful purpose and wise destiny.


Note: This article is adapted from a contribution to a book by Torin Finser entitled A Call to Teach: In Service of Waldorf Teacher Education and Lifelong Learning (Hudson, NY: Waldorf Publications, 2020).