The Three Orders of Thought

One obstacle to understanding each other is how hard it is to express certain ideas in words. Especially since words can mean vastly different things. For instance, if I say "When I've done the work, I will rise up" this could mean so many things. If it were heard in one context, it could mean that my consciousness would be raised after sadhana. In another context, it might mean that I was confident my repairs on the elevator would be successful. For this purpose, let me present an essay I wrote a while back. It was for another venue, but it fits here just as well. Folks may or may not choose to adopt my terminology, which is fine. However, a grasp of the concepts which are presented will make misunderstanding less common. I see situations all the time, where people just don't have the tools to ask the right question to clear up a discussion. Here are some tools:

Each verbal communication can be understood in many ways. It may be graded in terms of good or bad taste, accuracy or error, clarity or obtuseness, truth or falsehood, goodness or badness, beauty or ugliness, or what have you. Some of these many discernments may be relevant to a given communication, some are not. Regardless of all other criteria, all verbalizations can be classed into one of three orders of thought.

The Third Order of Thought has to do with physical or material reality. "What I want to know is, what really happened?" is a third order question. It seeks to know facts, in a linear, causal, journalistic Who-What-When-Where-Why manner. By far, the greatest proportion of most communication is third order. "I'm going to the library." "What time is it?" "Did you see Janie last night?" "Here's how to replace a leaky faucet."

This is a very useful quality of thought. It's what gets the trash taken out, the food sown and harvested, the daily mail delivered, the Internet up and running. I am not using the term 3rd to suggest that it is third in importance. There is no distinction of importance whatsoever between these 3 Orders of Thought. Each is irreplaceable in its own context. This is the 3rd Order because there are three assumptions involved: 1. Experience; 2. Meaning; 3. Material reality. So all the above statements, such as "I'm going to the library," refer to a material reality, everyday mundane reality, kick the table and your toe hurts sort of thing. This is what the 3rd Order is useful for.

The Second Order of Thought has to do with meaning, significance, or concept. It may be grand or it may be trivial. That last sentence is an example of 2nd order thought. The concepts "grand" and "trivial" do not depend on the existence of material reality for their usefulness. "Grandness" cannot be pinned down by time or space. It can't be measured. You might say that 3rd order has to do with quantity and 2nd order with quality. (Reference: "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M. Pirsig for a sustained reflection on quality.) You might also say that 3rd order is concrete and 2nd order is abstract or conceptual. "Hard" sciences vs. "soft" sciences. Don't carry that too far but it may help give the general sense of the thing.

Remember, there is no value assigned to the number. 2nd order is not "higher" or "better" than 3rd order. Each is useful in its own context. The purpose of recognizing these different orders of thought is to keep straight what type of thought is needed in a given situation. All have their place. If I ask, "What time is it?" and someone answers, "Time for all good men to come to the aid of their country," this may be true, but not much help if my watch is broken. My question for the correct o'clock is a 3rd order question. The answer "Time for all good men etc." is 2nd order. It is invoking a sentiment of patriotism, which is a concept, not giving information about the time of day.

Really good 2nd order thought is rare, mostly because 3rd order thought gets mixed up in it. For instance, the Qabalistic Tree of Life is great 2nd order thought, unless someone thinks that there "really", physically are all these planes that we "ascend" instead of understanding it as a useful allegory for categorizing and communicating experiences which are otherwise plumb hard to describe. Here, as everywhere really, Occam's Razor applies. "Do not multiply entities unnecessarily", or, the simplest explanation which fits all known experience is usually the handiest.
All that stuff about astral planes is usually bad 2nd Order thought, especially since it is usually taken as good 3rd Order stuff. As though going from the physical to the astral to the causal planes were the same as taking an elevator from the basement to the ground floor to the penthouse. What is a useful (although obscure) system of metaphor (astral, causal), becomes in the mind of those who don't think clearly a sort of spiritual "Chutes and Ladders."

2nd order thought, like 3rd order, implies separateness and polarity. If something is grand, then there must be something else which is ignoble. If I am serious and you are funny, then there are two of us (but time and space don't apply, because serious and funny don't need those concepts. Mark Twain is still funny (2nd order), even though he died almost a century ago (3rd order.) Bill Gates is a dweeb (2nd order), even though he is rich (3rd order.)

First order thought only involves the assumption of experience. I Am That I Am. Ouroborous eating its tail. Tat Tvam Asi. The One Source (a poetical image using a 3rd order metaphor, since source-ness implies either space or time or both.) Experience is the only assumption needed for first order, because when I communicate verbally, it is the One Life "talking to" the One Life. Without this one assumption, there is no communication at all. Even this assumption is not necessary. This can be simply tested by one and all. Just go into Nirvikalpa Samadhi and see for yourself. :-)

1st order thought is the rarest of all, partly because we rarely need it (in 3rd order terms of getting through day-to-day life.) Also because there are so few people with the necessary experience to use it. Given the limitations of the English language, we gringos have to use poetical similes or analogies which suggest or evoke what is meant. Even a relatively straightforward 1st order statement, like "Life is a dream," is a metaphor. "I am he as you are me as you are he and we are all together" is not bad.

Another reason why it is rarely used is a practical matter. Going around talking 1st order stuff all the time is, in some cultures, a ticket to a first-rate burning at the stake. In others, high doses of Thorazine. Either way, a bummer. You gotta know your territory.

A friend asked some questions about the 3 Orders of Thought, and here was the response. In part a restatement, but it seemed to make it more clear:

Dear J.,

I've thought about this. My conception of the 3 Orders of Thought is really not about consciousness at all. It is about the nature of ideas, which are artifacts of consciousness. Anyone can parrot the ideas of an Eckhart or Paracelsus, without having the same quality of consciousness. So there is a difference between ideas and consciousness, just as there is a difference between apples, and the tree from which they came, although they are inseparably linked.

So why three instead of 5 or 7? Because when you pare it all down, it comes to this: in order to put ideas into words, certain assumptions are necessary. For all ideas, it takes at least one assumption, which is experience. Not experience in the sense of that which develops judgment, but experience in the sense of sight, sound, touch, cognition, emotion, etc. 1st Order thought does not require the assumption of separation. After all, I have the whole gamut of experience in dreams: sight, sound, taste, emotion, cognition, memory, etc. But the dream is all me. The house I see in my dream is not separate from me, it is part of my dream, it is part of me, it is me. The same is true of waking life, from a 1st Order perspective. I'll come back to that in a bit.

2nd Order thought has two assumptions: experience, and separation (you might say polarity or duality, but separation precedes either.) That is why it is 2nd Order: because there are two assumptions, just as 1st Order has only one assumption. The numbers were chosen simply because they refer to something which can be counted, i.e., the number of assumptions. Because we have now assumed separation, we automatically are able to sort things out by various criteria. If there is separation, then one thing may be more important to us, while another is less important. This refers to qualities, or abstract ideas. Right and wrong are abstract qualities. Free and enslaved are abstract ideas. Elegant and boorish are abstract qualities.

3rd Order thought has three assumptions: experience, separation, and materiality or physicality. If 2nd Order thoughts are abstract and qualitative, then 3rd Order thoughts are concrete and quantitative. You can't measure freedom with an instrument. You can measure up or down, near or far, hot or cold, heavy or light, all of these concrete criteria which we apply to the physical universe.

On the relationship of consciousness to the Orders of Thought: Presumably, animals are aware of things like hot and cold, near and far (3rd Order.) However, as far as we can tell, they don't think about them. Thought of any sort, then is dependent on a form of consciousness which often is called "self-consciousness." This is all that is needed for both 3rd Order and 2nd Order thought. Any moron can talk to you about how far he walked to get to the store, and how tired it made him. This is 3rd Order.

To use 2nd Order thought well requires a degree of intelligence. People of limited intelligence simply do not use abstractions. If they speak of them, they are parroting what they've heard before. Like when some neo-Nazi blusterer rants about purity, which is an abstract concept, but it is clear that he has simply learned a definition of it and is raving on about it; he isn't, and probably can't, really think about it. But the kind of intelligence needed to really do 2nd Order thought still only requires self-consciousness.

1st Order thought does require cosmic consciousness. (Or samadhi, or whatever term you want to use.) As I said before, anyone can parrot an Eckhart, but that is not their own thoughts. So there is a relationship between the kind of thoughts you can have, and your state of consciousness. However, since self-consciousness is all that is needed for 3rd and 2nd Order thoughts, the correlation is not one-to-one.

While I'm on the subject, let me note that intelligence is not a prerequisite for cosmic consciousness. Perhaps it helps, but I doubt it. Sometimes people who think too much have more trouble letting go of their preconceptions. Nor is intelligence sufficient to communicate about cosmic consciousness; it takes intelligence, and common sense, and a flair for poetry, to be able to say anything useful about something which is so hard to put into words.