talks with gurdjieff
george ivanovich gurdjieff (1866-1949)

new york, february 1924

for an exact study, an exact language is needed. but our ordinary language in which we speak, set forth what we know and understand, and write books in ordinary life, does not do for even a small amount of exact speech. an inexact speech cannot serve an exact knowledge. the words composing our language are too wide, too foggy and indefinite, while the meaning put into them is too arbitrary and variable. every man who pronounces any word always attaches this or that shade of meaning to it by his imagination, exaggerates or puts forward this or that side of it, sometimes concentrating all the significance of the word on a single feature of the object, that is, designating by this word not all the attributes but those chance external ones which first spring to his notice. another man speaking with the first attaches to the same word another shade of meaning, takes this word in another sense, which is often exactly the opposite. if a third man joins the conversation, he again puts into the same word his own meaning. and if ten people speak, every one of them once more gives his own meaning, and the same word has ten meanings. and men speaking in this way think that they can understand each other, that they can transfer their thoughts one to another.

it can be said with full confidence that the language in which contemporary men speak is so imperfect that whatever they speak about, especially on scientific matters, they can never be sure that they call the same ideas by the same words.

on the contrary, one can say almost certainly that they understand every word differently and, while appearing to speak about the same subject, in practice speak about quite different things. moreover, for every man the meaning of his own words and the meaning which he puts into them changes in accordance with his own thoughts and humors, with the images which he associates at the moment with the words, as well as with what and how his interlocutor speaks, for by an involuntary imitation or contradiction he can involuntarily change the meaning of his words. in addition, nobody is able to define exactly what he means by this or that word, or whether this meaning is constant or subject to change, how, why and for what reason.

if several men speak, everyone speaks in his own way, and no one of them understands another. a professor reads a lecture, a scholar writes a book, and their audience and readers listen to, and read, not them but combinations of the authors' words and their own thoughts, notions, humors and emotions of the given moment.

the people of today are, to a certain degree, conscious of the instability of their language. among the diverse branches of science every one of them works out its own terminology, its own nomenclature and language. in philosophy attempts are made, before using any word, to make clear in what sense it is taken; but however much people nowadays try to establish a constant meaning of words, they have failed in it so far. every writer fixes his own terminology, changes the terminology of his predecessors, contradicts his own terminology; in short, everyone contributes his share to the general confusion.

this teaching points out the cause of this. our words have not and cannot have any constant meaning, and to indicate at every word the meaning and the particular shade which we attach to this word, that is, the relations in which it is taken by us, we have in the first place no means; and secondly we do not aim at this; on the contrary, we invariably wish to establish our constant meaning for a word and to take it always in that sense, which is obviously impossible, as one and the same word used at different times and in various relations has different meanings.

our wrong use of words and the qualities of the words themselves have made them unreliable instruments of an exact speech and an exact knowledge, not to mention the fact that for many notions accessible to our reason we have neither words nor expressions.

the language of numbers alone can serve for an exact expression of thought and knowledge; but the language of numbers is applied only to designate and compare quantities. but things do not differ only in size, and their definition from the point of view of quantities is not sufficient for an exact knowledge and analysis. we do not know how to apply the language of numbers to the attributes of things. if we knew how to do it and could designate all the qualities of things by numbers in relation to some immutable number, this would be an exact language.

the teaching whose principles we are going to expound here has as one of its tasks the bringing of our thinking nearer to an exact mathematical designation of things and events and the giving to men of the possibility of understanding themselves and each other.

if we take any of the most commonly used words and try to see what a varied meaning these words have according to who uses them and in what connection, we shall see why men have no power of expressing their thoughts exactly and why everything men say and think is so unstable and contradictory. apart from the variety of meanings which every word can have, this confusion and contradiction are caused by the fact that men never render any account to themselves of the sense in which they take this or that word and only wonder why others do not understand it although it is so clear to themselves. for example, if we say the word "world" in front of ten hearers, every one of them will understand the word in his own way. if men knew how to catch and write down their thoughts themselves, they would see that they had no ideas connected with the word "world" but that merely a well-known word and an accustomed sound was uttered, the significance of which is supposed to be known. it is as if everybody hearing this word said to himself: "ah, the 'world,' i know what it is." as a matter of fact he does not really know at all. but the word is familiar, and therefore no such question and answer occur to him. it is just accepted. a question comes only in respect of new unknown words and then the man tends to substitute for the unknown word a known one. he calls this "understanding."

if we now ask the man what he understands by the word "world," he will be perplexed by such a question. usually, when he hears or uses the word "world" in conversation, he does not think at all about what it means, having decided once and for all that he knows and that everybody knows. now for the first time he sees that he does not know and that he has never thought about it; but he will not be able to and will not know how to rest with the thought of his ignorance. men are not capable enough of observing and not sufficiently sincere with themselves to do so. he will soon recover himself, that is, he will very quickly deceive himself; and remembering or composing in haste a definition of the word "world" from some familiar source of knowledge or thought, or the first definition of someone else's which enters his head, he will express it as his own understanding of the meaning of the word, though in fact he has never thought about the word "world" in this way and does not know how he has thought.

the man interested in astronomy will say that the "world" consists of an enormous number of suns surrounded by planets, placed at immeasurable distances from one another and composing what we call the milky way, beyond which are still further distances and, beyond the limits of investigation, other stars and other worlds may be supposed to lie.

he who is interested in physics will speak about the world of vibrations and electric discharges, about the theory of energy, or perhaps about the likeness of the world of atoms and electrons to the world of suns and planets.

the man inclined to philosophy will begin to speak about the unreality and illusory character of the whole visible world created in time and space by our feeling and senses. he will say that the world of atoms and electrons, the earth with is mountains and seas, its vegetable and animal life, men and towns, the sun, the stars, and the milky way, all these are the world of phenomena, a deceptive untrue and illusory world, created by our own conception. beyond this world, beyond the limits of our knowledge, there lies a world, incomprehensible for us, of noumena—a shadow, a reflection of which is the phenomenal world.

the man acquainted with the modern theory of many-dimensional space will say that the world is usually regarded as an infinite three-dimensional sphere, but that in reality the three-dimensional world, as such, cannot exist, and represents only an imaginary section of another, a four-dimensional world, from which all our events come and where they go.

a man whose world concept is built on the dogma of religion will say that the world is the creation of god and depends upon god's will, that beyond the visible world, where our life is short and dependent on circumstances or accident, an invisible world exists where life is eternal and where man will receive a reward or punishment for everything he has done in this life.

a theosophist will say that the astral world does not embrace the visible world as a whole, but that seven worlds exist penetrating one another mutually and composed of more or less subtle matter.

a russian peasant, or a peasant of some eastern countries, will say that the world is the village community of which he is a member. this world is nearest to him. he even addresses his fellow villagers at general meetings by calling them the "world."

all these definitions of the word "world" have their merits and defects: their chief defect consists in that each of them excludes its opposite, while all picture one side of the world and examine it only from one point of view. a correct definition will be such as would combine all the separate understandings, showing the place of each and at the same time giving, in each case, the possibility of stating about which side of the world the man speaks, from which point of view and in which relation.

this teaching says that if the question of what the world is were approached in the right way, we could establish quite accurately what we understand by this world. and this definition of a right understanding would include in itself all views upon the world and all approaches to the question. having thus agreed on such a definition, men would be able to understand one another when speaking about the world. only starting from such a definition can one speak about the world.

but how to find this definition? the teaching points out that the first thing is to come to the question as simply as possible; that is, to take the most commonly used expressions with which we speak about the world and to consider about which world we speak. in other words, to look at our own relation to the world and take the world in its relation to ourselves. we shall see that, speaking of the world, we most often speak of the earth, of the terrestrial globe, or rather of the surface of the terrestrial globe, that is, just the world in which we live.

if we now look at the relation of the earth to the universe, we shall see that on the one hand the earth's satellite is included in the sphere of its influence, while on the other the earth enters as a component part into the planetary world of our solar system. the earth is one of the small planets turning round the sun. the mass of the earth forms an almost negligible fraction compared with the whole mass of planets of the solar system, and the planets exert a very great influence on the life of the earth and on all existing and living organisms—a far greater influence than our science imagines. the life of individual men, of collective groups, of humanity, depends upon planetary influences in very many things. the planets also live, as we live upon the earth. but the planetary world in its turn enters into the solar system, and enters as a very unimportant part because the mass of all the planets put together is many times less than the mass of the sun.

the world of the sun is also a world in which we live. the sun in turn enters into the world of stars, in the enormous accumulation of suns forming the milky way.

the starry would is also a world in which we live. taken as a whole, even according to the definition of modern astronomers, the starry world seems to represent a separate entity of which scientific investigation cannot penetrate. but astronomy supposes that at immeasurable distances from our starry world other accumulations may exist. if we accept this supposition, we shall say that our starry world enters as a component part into the total quantity of these worlds. this accumulation of worlds of the "all worlds" is also a world in which we live.

science cannot look further, but philosophical thought will see the ultimate principle lying beyond all the worlds, that is, the absolute, know in hindu terminology as brahman.

all that has been said about the world can be represented by a simple diagram. let us designate the earth by a small circle and mark it with the letter a. inside the circle a let us place a smaller circle, representing the moon, and let us mark it with the letter b. round the circle of the earth let us draw a larger circle showing the world into which the earth enters and let us mark it with the letter c. round this let us draw the circle representing the sun and mark it with the letter d. then round this circle again a circle representing the starry world which we shall mark with the letter e, and then the circle of all worlds which we mark with the letter f. the circle f we shall enclose in the circle g designating the philosophical principle of all things, the absolute.

the diagram will appear as seven concentric circles. keeping this diagram in view, a man in pronouncing the word "world" will always be able to define exactly which world he is speaking about and in what relation to this world he stands.

as we shall explain later, the same diagram will help us to understand and combine together the astronomical definition of the world, the philosophical, physical and physico-chemical definition as well as the mathematical one (the world of many dimensions), and the theosophical (worlds interpenetrating one another) and others.

this also makes clear why men speaking about the world can never understand one another. we live at one and the same time in six worlds, just as we live on a floor of such and such a house, in such and such a street, in such and such a town, such and such a state, and such and such a part of the world.

if a man speaks about the place where he lives without indicating whether he refers to the floor or the town or the part of the word, he certainly will not be understood by his interlocutors. but men always speak in this way about anything having no practical importance; and, as we saw in the example of the "world," they designate too readily by a single word a series of notions which are related to one another as a negligible part is related to an enormous whole, and so on. but an exact speech should point out always and quite exactly in what relation each notion is taken and what it includes in itself. that is, of what parts it consists and into what it enters as a component part.

logically it is intelligible and inevitable, but unfortunately it never comes to pass if only for the reason that men very often do not know, and don't know how to find, the different parts and the relations of the given notion.

the making clear of the relativity of every notion, taking it not in the sense of the general abstract idea that everything in the world is relative but indicating exactly in what and how it relates to the rest, is an important part of the principles of this teaching.

if we now take the notion "man," we shall again see the misunderstanding of this word, we shall see that the same contradictions are put into it. everybody uses this word and thinks he understands what "man" means: but as a matter of fact, each one understands in his own way, and all in different ways.

the learned naturalist sees in man a perfected breed of monkey and defines man by the construction of the teeth and so on.

the religious man, who believes in god and the future life, sees in man his immortal soul confined in a perishable terrestrial envelope, which is surrounded by temptations and leads man into danger.

the political economist considers man as a producing and consuming entity.

all these views seem entirely opposed to one another, contradicting one another and having no points of contact with one another. moreover, the question is further complicated by the fact that we see among men many differences, so great and so sharply defined that it often seems strange to use the general term "man" for these beings of such different categories.

and if, in the face of all this, we ask ourselves what man is, we shall see that we cannot answer the question—we do not know what is man.

neither anatomically, physiologically, psychologically nor economically do the definitions suffice here, as they relate to all men equally, without allowing us to distinguish differences which we see in man.

our teaching points out that our store of information about man would be quite sufficient for the purpose of determining what man is. but we don't know how to approach the matter simply. we ourselves complicate and entangle the question too much.

man is the being who can "do," says this teaching. to do means to act consciously and according to one's will. and we must recognize that we cannot find any more complete definition of man.

animals differ from plants by their power of locomotion. and although a mollusc attached to a rock, and also certain seaweeds capable of moving against the current, seem to violate this law, yet the law is quite true—a plant can neither hunt for food, avoid a shock nor hide itself from its pursuer.

man differs from the animal by his capacity for conscious action, his capacity for doing. we cannot deny this, and we see that this definition satisfies all requirements. it makes it possible to single out man from a series of other beings not possessing the power of conscious action, and at the same time according to the degree of consciousness in his actions.

without any exaggeration we can say that all the differences which strike us among men can be reduced to the differences in the consciousness of their actions. men seem to us to vary so much just because the actions of some of them are, according to our opinion, deeply conscious, while the actions of others are so unconscious that they even seem to surpass the unconsciousness of stones, which at least react rightly to external phenomena. the question is complicated by the mere fact that often one and the same man shows us, side by side with what appear to us entirely conscious actions of will, other quite unconscious animal-mechanical reactions. in virtue of this, man appears to us to be an extraordinarily complicated being this teaching denies this complication and puts before us a very difficult task in connection with man. man is he who can "do" but among ordinary men, as well as among those who are considered extraordinary, there is no one who can "do." in their case, everything from beginning to end is "done," there is nothing they can "do."

in personal, family and social life, in politics, science, art, philosophy and religion, everything from beginning to end is "done," nobody can "do" anything. if two persons, beginning a conversation about man, agree to call him a being capable of action, of "doing," they will always understand one another. certainly they will make sufficiently clear what "doing" means. in order to "do," a very high degree of being and of knowledge is necessary. ordinary men do not even understand what "doing" means because, in their own case and in everything around them, everything is always "done" and has always been "done." and yet man can "do."

a man who sleeps cannot "do." with him everything is done in sleep. sleep is understood here not in the literal sense of our organic sleep, but in the sense of a state of associative existence. first of all he must awake. having awakened, he will see that as he is he cannot "do." he will have to die voluntarily. when he is dead he may be born. but the being who has just been born must grow and learn. when he has grown and knows, then he will "do."

if we analyze what has been said about man, we see that the first half of what has been said, that is, that man cannot "do" anything and that everything is "done" in him, coincides with what positive science says about man. according to the positivist view, man is a very complicated organism which has developed, by the way of evolution, from the simplest organism and is capable of reacting in a very complicated manner to external impressions. this capacity for reaction in man is so complicated, and the answering movements may be so remote from the causes which called them forth and conditioned them, that a man's actions, or at least a part of them, seem to a naive observer to be quite spontaneous and independent.

as a mater of fact, man is not capable of even the smallest independent or spontaneous action. the whole of him is nothing but the result of external influences. man is a process, a transmitting station of forces. if we imagine a man deprived from his birth of all impressions, and by some miracle having preserved his life, such a man would not be capable of a single action or movement. in actual fact he could not live, as he could neither breathe nor feed. life is a very complicated series of actions—breathing, feeding, interchange of matters, growth of cells and tissues, reflexes, nervous impulses and so on. a man lacking external impressions could not have any of these things, and of course he could not show those manifestations, those actions which are usually regarded as of the will and consciousness.

thus from the positivist point of view man differs from animals only by the greater complexity of his reactions to external impressions, and by a longer interval between the impression and the reaction. but both man and animals lack independent actions, born within themselves, and what may be called will in man is nothing but the resultant of his wishes.

such is a clearly positivist view. but there are very few who sincerely and consistently hold this view. most men, while assuring themselves and others that they stand on the ground of a strictly scientific positivist world-concept, actually hold a mixture of theories, that is, they recognize the positivist view of things only to a certain degree, until it begins to be too austere and to offer too little consolation. recognizing on the one hand that all physical and psychical processes in man are reflex in character, they admit at the same time some independent consciousness, some spiritual principle, and free will.

will, from this point of view, is a certain combination derived from certain specially developed qualities, existing in a man capable of doing. will is a sign of a being of a very high order of existence as compared with the being of an ordinary man. only men who are in possession of such a being can do. all other men are merely automata, put into action by external forces like machines or clockwork toys, acting as much and as long as the wound-up spring within them acts, and not capable of adding anything to its force. thus the teaching i am speaking about recognizes great possibilities in man, far greater than those which positive science sees, but denies to man as he is now any value as an entity of independence and will.

man, such as we know him, is a machine. this idea of the mechanicalness of man must be very clearly understood and well-represented to oneself in order to see all its significance and all the consequences and results arising from it.

first of all everyone should understand his own mechanicalness. this understanding can come only as the result of a rightly formulated self-observation. as to self-observation—it is not so simple a thing as it may seem at first sight. therefore the teaching puts as the foundation stone the study of the principles of right self-observation. but before passing to the study of these principles a man must make the decision that he will be absolutely sincere with himself, will not close his eyes to anything, will not turn aside from any results, wherever they may lead him, will not fear any deductions, will not limit himself to any previously erected walls. for a man unaccustomed to thinking in this direction, very much courage is required to accept sincerely the results and conclusions arrived at. they upset man's whole line of thinking and deprive him of his most pleasant and dearest illusions. he sees, first of all, his total impotence and helplessness in the face of literally everything that surrounds him. everything possesses him, everything rules him. he does not possess, does not rule anything. things attract or repel him. all his life is nothing but a blind following of those attractions and repulsions. further, if he is not afraid of the conclusions, he sees how what he calls his character, tastes and habits are formed: in a word, how his personality and individuality are built up. but man's self-observation, however seriously and sincerely it may be carried out, by itself cannot draw for him an absolutely true picture of his internal mechanism.

the teaching which is being expounded gives general principles of the construction of the mechanism, and with the help of self-observation a man checks these principles. the first principle of this teaching is that nothing shall be taken on faith. the scheme of the construction of the human machine which he studies must serve a man only as a plan for his own work, in which the center of gravity lies.

man is born, it is said, with a mechanism adapted for receiving many kinds of impressions. the perception of some of these impressions begins before birth; and during his growth more and more receiving apparatuses spring forth and become perfected.

the construction of these receiving apparatuses is the same, recalling the clean wax discs from which phonograph records are made. on these rolls and reels all the impressions received are noted down, from the first day of life and even before. besides this, the mechanism has one more automatically acting adjustment, thanks to which all newly received impressions are connected with those previously recorded.

in addition to these a chronological record is kept. thus every impression which has been experienced is written down in several places on several rolls. on these rolls it is preserved unchanged. what we call memory is a very imperfect adaptation by means of which we can keep on record only a small part of our store of impressions; but impressions once experienced never disappear; they are preserved on rolls where they are written down. many experiences in hypnosis have been made and it has been stated with irrefutable examples that man remembers everything he has ever experienced down to the minutest detail. he remembers all the details of his surroundings, even the faces and voices of the people round him during his infancy, when he seemed to be an entirely unconscious being.

it is possible by hypnosis to make all the rolls turn, even to the deepest depths of the mechanism. but it may happen that these rolls begin to unroll by themselves as a result of some visible or hidden shock, and scenes, pictures or faces, apparently long forgotten, suddenly come to the surface. all the internal psychic life of man is nothing but an unfolding, before the mental vision, of these rolls with their records of impressions. all the peculiarities of a man's world conception and the characteristic features of his individuality depend on the order in which these records come and upon the quality of the rolls existing in him.

let us suppose that some impression was experienced and recorded in connection with another having nothing in common with the first—for instance, some very bright dance tune has been heard by a man in a moment of intense psychic shock, distress or sorrow. then this tune will always evoke in him the same negative emotion and correspondingly the feeling of distress will recall to him that bright dance tune. science calls this associative thinking and feeling; but science does not realize how much man is bound by these associations and how he cannot get away from them. man's world-conception is entirely defined by the character and quantity of these associations.

now we see to a certain extent why men cannot understand each other when speaking about man. in order to speak about man in any serious manner it is necessary to know much, otherwise the conception of man becomes too entangled and too diffuse. only when one knows the first principles of the human mechanism can one indicate which sides and which qualities one is going to speak about. a man who does not know will entangle both himself and his hearers. a conversation between several persons who speak about man without defining and indicating which man they are speaking about will never be a serious conversation but merely empty words without content. consequently, in order to understand what man is, one must first understand what kinds of man may exist and in what ways they differ from one another. meanwhile we must realize that we do not know.