CfA's Op Ed

Practicing Tri-Une Thinking

by Douglas Gerwin

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the poet and scientist who perhaps offered the closest thing to a protocol for cultivating what in an earlier essay I have called mobile tri-une thinking. To be sure, he was not a systematic writer, and the four steps that follow are not to be found anywhere in his rambling body of work. And yet I hope he would concur with the suggestion that tri-une thinking can be practiced using these steps:

  1. Take up an object of study and submit it to careful phenomenological observation. Resist the urge to explain it or infer or speculate. Goethe’s first admonition is: “Hold to the phenomenon. It itself is the lesson!” Indeed, Goethe was skeptical of all hypotheses, a form of cognition he called “lullabies that teachers use to sing their pupils to sleep.” Instead, he encourages the observer to relate the object of his study to its polar complement. Perhaps his most famous example of this exercise is to be found in his study of plants, which begins with a careful observation of the rose in its gestures of expansion from seed to leaf, contraction from leaf to bud, a further expansion into blossom and contraction into hip, and culminates in a final expansion into pistil and stamen. Goethe calls this initial stage of study the apperception of Polarität.
  2. In observing these objects of study, pay special attention to the play of their polar complementarity. The risk here is that one falls back all to easily into binary thinking resulting in juxtaposition of logical opposites, rather than perceiving genuine polar complements. In the example of the plant study, Goethe reframes the conventional logical opposition of expansion and contraction into two polar complementary gestures which give rise to a third term that recasts both earlier poles in a new dimension. Goethe calls this second stage of what I am calling tri-une thinking Steigerung, a term I prefer to translate (admittedly without the authority of any dictionary) as the activity of “potentizing” — as, for instance, in the preparation of homeopathic remedies.
  3. Discern, if you can, that transcendent third term, which may — or may not — arise out of the play of polar complements. You may feel reassured that you have actually apprehended this third term if it is a complete transformation of the two terms out of which it has come and is now manifest as something of an entirely new order of being. In studying light and dark as polar complements, for instance, Goethe demonstrates that the color spectrum, when viewed through a prism or even through squinted eyes, appears between light and dark (not simply as the break-up of the light, as Newton would have it). And this band of color is of an entirely new order of being: there is neither black nor white in the rainbow. Goethe calls this third step the apperception of
  4. A fourth step should be added here: if this third stage is achieved (and often it is not, even if one has accurately identified the play of a genuine pair of polar complementary conditions), then take a moment to give thanks. Like all growth and development, this form of thinking becomes more successful if its cultivation is bathed in the warm glow of gratitude.

From Binary Thoughts to Tri-Une Thinking

image of a cylinder casting a circle shadow on one wall, and a square on another. There are many ways for teachers and prospective teachers in training to practice these four steps. In each of the examples that follows, thinking is first lifted from a world of physical objects to their etheric, organic, or systemic nature. In educating teenagers, starting with seventh grade and extending through the senior year of high school, we move from initial “object” thinking to “process” thinking, in which the laws of causality (“if/then”) are superseded by the lawfulness of relationships (“when-then”). This move is akin to shifting attention from localized organs in the physical body — brain, heart, liver — to the dynamic etheric processes or systems of sense awareness, circulation, and digestion. And by the last two years of high school, we try to go beyond a systems approach to a genuinely tri-une way of thinking, in which out of polar complementary elements within these processes or fields a third element arises that transcends them both:
  • In biology, take any two organisms that enjoy a symbiotic relationship (a plant and an animal, for instance, or two plants or two animals) and follow in close observation their polar complementarity until they reveal — or do not reveal, since each will be uniquely different — some transcendent third reality. One way to prepare the imaginative leap needed to arrive at this third term is to transform careful observations of the two complementary terms (in words, but also in sketched drawings) into a parable that reveals the lawfulness of their relationship. What, for instance, are they able to do in symbiosis that neither partner in the relationship can achieve on its own?
  • In embryology, set in juxtaposition the richly polar complementary qualities of ovum and sperm, then with a high resolution stereoscope — or the eye of imagination — follow their mutual dance or “PCAC” (pre-conception attraction complex) before sperm and ovum are united and both of their nuclei dissolve in a momentary hiatus of creation. Thereafter there arises the beginnings of a new organism (no longer a cell) that far transcends anything ovum or sperm could have accomplished on its own.1
  • In physics, study magnetism or electricity and see what arises from the relationship of so-called positive and negative terminals or from forces of attraction and repulsion.
  • In the study of Shakespeare’s plays, juxtapose the characters of Ariel (who flies too high) and Caliban (who grovels too low), or Guildenstern (a voyager from the Persian East) and Rosencrantz (who is headed off to the Western island of Britain) and see if a third term — not just another character, however — arises between them that makes deeper sense of their roles in The Tempest or in
  • In history, discover what can come to birth — though, tragically, it rarely does — when social forces of left and right, rich and poor, master and slave, dependent and independent, Atlantic and Pacific, Kaos and Kosmos are not simply related to each other or pitted against each other but when both of these complementary terms are transcended in some third transformed reality.
  • In listening closely to music, hear beyond the juxtaposition of musical notes the intervals that arise between the notes — a new and higher musical reality utterly dependent on the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes and yet transcending their “note-ness”. An interval is not the addition of notes; it is the transcendence of notes.

1For a thorough treatment of this process, see the essay by Jaap van der Wal, “Human Conception: How to Overcome Reproduction”, in Trailing Clouds of Glory: Essays on Human Sexuality and the Education of Youth in Waldorf Schools, ed. Douglas Gerwin (Chatham, NY: Waldorf Publications, 2014), pp. 96-114.