The Science of Nexialism
If you have never read A E van Vogt's novel "The Voyage of the Space Beagle", it's
likely you will have never heard of Nexialism. Fortunately, van Vogt gave his readers
a definition of this then putative new science at the start of Chapter 7.
"Nexialism is the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one
field of learning with that of other fields."
A. E. van Vogt, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, 1950.
Nexialism was an anticipation of the interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary and
multidisciplinary lines of research we now find proliferating in modern scholarship.
But Nexialism was more than just interdisciplinary studies. Van Vogt also saw it as a
way to encourage scientists from different disciplines to work together in a truly
effective manner, with the aid of a properly trained bridge-builder: a specialist in the
mechanics of interdisciplinary studies, who could bring experts together and facilitate
communication between them.
The novel wove together four separate Science Fiction stories. The first, “The Black
Destroyer”, was first published in July 1939, and it was in that story that van Vogt
introduced his idea of Nexialism to the world
, well before the idea of having
interdisciplinary studies or conferences on any subject had become trendy.
As I look back on my life the works of two authors, Colin Wilson and A. E. van Vogt,
stand out as both inspirational and influential on my own intellectual development. It
was from Wilson that I learnt about Phenomenology, the work of Edmund Husserl,
and the idea of the intentionality of perception, on which I shall have more to say later.
And Van Vogt introduced me to the idea of Nexialism.
Already, back in 1939, van Vogt was concerned that the growing trend towards
greater and greater degrees of specialisation in science, could isolate scientists from
each other. Isolate scientists, their ideas and expertise, from other scientists in
different fields. And in their academic isolation, as van Vogt saw it, these scientists
would find themselves unable to solve problems that confront them that went beyond
their own field of expertise. And in the future van Vogt envisioned, this inability
would persist even when all the relevant experts were present, due to their inability to
work together and interweave their knowledge into a comprehensible whole. In van
Vogt’s Space Beagle stories, the experts had become so specialized that it was only
Van Vogt, A. E. The Voyage of the Space Beagle, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1950.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._E._van_Vogt. See also
through the aid of the Nexialist that the scientists could work together to find answers
to the hazardous problems confronting them.
I experienced a classic example of the kind of extreme specialization that van Vogt
envisaged, when I attended a conference on Arthurian Literature in Bangor in 2002.
At the conference one of the speakers delivered a paper on the "First Continuation" to
Chretien de Troyes's unfinished poem, Le Conte du Graal. Chretien's poem was the
first to tell the story of the (Holy) Grail, and because it was left unfinished, a string of
works were penned in an effort to complete the work. The first continuation begins at
the very point where Chretien's narrative breaks off, and its story, at least in the early
part, directly follows on from Chretien’s story.
After the speaker had finished, questions were invited from the floor, and I asked a
question about how events in the early part of the first continuation related to final
incidents of Chretien’s poem. The details don’t matter. What mattered was that the
speaker couldn’t answer the question because she had no real knowledge of Chretien's
poem. Her focus was solely on the “First Continuation”, and on the differences
between the shorter and longer versions of that work. What had happened in the
preceding work was of no importance to understanding the continuation.
Just one example of the growing trend amongst academics to know more and more
about less and less.
But van Vogt was not concerned simply with the trend towards greater specialisation.
Of more concern to him was the prospect that at some time in the future scientists
would become so specialised that they would no longer be able to talk to one another
on subjects of common interest.
While we have not reached that point yet, the risk is there. And one pointer to that is
the trend in all disciplines to develop their own exclusive language through jargon,
acronyms, and specialist terminology. As I delved deeper and deeper into the
medieval Arthurian literature scholarship, I'll admit that it took a while to understand
terms like redaction, and the difference between intertextual and intratextual analysis.
Today redaction is defined as either the process of editing text for publication, or a
version of a text, such as a new edition or an abridged version.
The need to understand that you are looking at a redaction becomes much more
important when you are dealing with ancient and medieval texts, because in almost
every case we do not have the author’s own original work. Instead, we have to rely
on a handwritten copy by someone else, and usually the work that has come down to
us will turn out to be a copy of a copy of a copy. And in each copy the scribe who
makes the copy will make their own mistakes, ‘corrections’ and emendations. Which
is why, when you compare different manuscripts of the same work, you are likely to
find marked differences between the texts, including the inclusion in some texts of
whole passages that are totally absent from other redactions. This leads some scholars
to work at comparing the different redactions in an effort to try and determine the
structure of the content of the original work. While others, dismiss that whole idea as
impossible and choose to concentrate on simply trying to understand the intent of the
particular redactor that they are studying.
In Ancient History, as well as studying the ancient source texts, Epigraphy,
Numismatics, and Prosopography count among the standard tools of the trade.
But today modern archaeology also draws heavily on the technological advances to
resolve old puzzles and make new discoveries.
Aerial photography is used to find the locations of buried ancient ruins for future
excavation. And ground radar devices are allowing scholars to digitally map whole
settlements too big to be excavated in full. But it remains the province of
archaeologists and historians to interpret the data, and it is the responsibility of the
relevant scientists and technologists to present the data in an accessible format to the
archaeologists and historians. And that is where problems can arise.
Not long ago, I watched a TV program on the age of the Sphinx; Secrets of Egypt –
The Sphinx. The Egyptologist was adamant that the Sphinx was built during the Old
Kingdom by the Pharaoh Khafre. A geologist proposed a much older date based on
arguments that the extensive weathering of the stones of the Sphinx could only have
been caused by water erosion. While a third expert argued that the Sphinx was built a
few hundred years before the Pyramids, and that it originally had a lion’s head, which
was only later reshaped into the smaller human head it now bears.
Now TV programs like this are not scholarly works. But what caught my attention
was how unwilling the different ‘experts’ were to consider any evidence that appeared
to contradict their own opinion, especially the Egyptologist.
This is the kind of situation where a properly trained Nexialist could help build
bridges towards a common ground that might be able to resolve the problem. There
are many others, including critical areas such as the debate on climate change.
With regard to this debate, I recently attended a public lecture where the speakers was an
Egyptologist. When I raised the question of the age of the Sphinx and the issues cited above, the
speaker acknowledged that they personally agreed with the geologist that the Sphinx probably was
much older than the pyramids. But they also admitted that to say so publically would put them at odds
with one of the colleagues they were working with. Something that they would prefer to avoid. Out of
respect for their concerns I won’t name them here.
Only there are no Nexialists, are there? Well yes and no.
If you look on line through Google you can find links to the following two American
based organisations that claim to be trying to bring into reality the idea of van Vogt’s
science of Nexialism.
The first is the Nexial Institute of Texas:
“Established in 1994 as a Multi-disciplinary Consulting Institute to help and assist
companies, students, and Individuals in their innovative and creative endeavor
utilizing the nexus (connection) between disciplines in Science and Engineering, and
the Humanities. We find for companies new and simple ways to solve their problems,
with cost-effectiveness in mind. We will start with a fresh outlook, and the emphasis
is on finding new or different, better solutions, not just minor variations of the same
old answer whenever necessary.”
The second is the Institute of Nexialism in Colorado:
“The Institute of Nexialism (ION) will be established in 2000 to develop a
curriculum for training in the art of integrated thinking and conflict resolution.”
The ION site has a markedly New Age feel to it, and appears to have been inactive
since 2000. According to their site:
“Nexialism goes beyond interdisciplinary science and even beyond pan-
disciplinary science to integrate both science and being. Based on research
conducted by the Bear Mountain Institute and neighboring facilities, ION
establishes a formal system of training within which participants learn how to
think from multiple aspects of the mind, combining science and experiential
intuition. In simple terms, this involves combined "left" and "right" brain
thinking, but also a deep understanding of the role of each mode and their
healthy interaction. … ION staff have been active in facilitating groups in their
study of "A Course in Miracles" (n collaboration with Unity of Boulder and the
Foundation for Inner Peace). ION also explores various forms of Eastern
meditation, and spiritual philosophies such as those of Alan Watts, Ken Wilbur,
Sai Baba, and others.” (My italics)
The Nexial Institute site was posted in 2002, and also does not seem to have been
active since that time. And while at first it seems to be soundly based in the goal it
sets itself, a look at the site also suggests some more dubious, and possibly darker
aspects. For example, there is a topic of Social Engineering that reads:
“Historical analysis of assumptions, the “basis” of society, particularly hidden
assumption, what works, what does NOT work, and why; consequences of
selected actions, and how to avoid certain disastrous fallacies. Government is
opposed to Freedom, but freedom is required for progress, thus the optimal
government is the least government. Redistribution of wealth in all forms is
theft, and always destructive of the society in direct proportion to the loss of
incentive (two ways: loss by those from whom stolen, and by those who receive
the stolen values – doubly destructive)/ collectivism thus never works.
Government consumes value that should be capital, thus halting production of
wealth. Key word indicators of those with intent to destroy freedoms, “for the
children”, “entitlement”, “social contract”, “common good” and so on –
Responsibility exists, if at all, only in individual people. Societies have no
social responsibility outside of that exhibited by individuals within the society.
The society is the sum of individual actions, no more no less.”
In both cases the idea of Nexialism would appear to have been adopted to promote
personal or group ideologies very alien to the scholarly ideal originally envisioned.
In contrast there are some academics whose work can be found on Google Scholar
who are making a serious attempt to integrate the Nexialist ideal into their own
research. See for instance, “Nexialism and the Law of Unintended Consequences” by
Dr. Philip A Laplante, Penn State University,
and “Nexialism and translational
research” by C. Ronco.
So, for the moment, we all can say is that:
Almost 80 years on, the idea of a Nexial science still remains an exciting idea
to at least some people;
That there are both individuals and groups still attempting to use, and in some
cases perhaps, abuse van Vogt’s idea for their own ends; but
That Nexialism has never been formally and successfully adopted and
developed into a proper science by any accredited academic institution.
And yes I am aware that van Vogt did in later life become actively involved in Scientology.
“Abstract: What do broken windows, merit systems, and cattle prods have to do with new processes
and compliance rules? Can the laws of unintended consequences be used as an advantage? Find out as
this nexialist explores the interconnectedness of things.”
http://php.scripts.psu.edu/users/p/a/pal11/index.php. See also “A Nonlinear Perspective on Higher
Education”, by Laplante and others, http://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/2010/12/mco2010120090-
International Journal of Artificial Organs. 2006 Dec; 29(12):1103-4.
Why Nexialism has remained so much on the fringe is an interesting question, but one
I would prefer to examine at another time.
The main problem Nexialism faces is that there are no agreed criteria by which one
can lay claim to being a properly qualified Nexialist. This is the issue I would like to
address in the remainder of this paper.
1. The Academic Base
The first principle I would suggest is the need for a broad academic base.
A Nexialist cannot be a specialist. But they need to sufficiently well-versed in a range
of scientific and other academic fields to allow them to understand what specialists
are telling them either directly, on paper, or on-line.
For myself, I am well versed in Pure and Applied Maths,
Physics, Chemistry, and Zoology, having studied them
through High School up to my first couple of years at
This foundation has been firmly overlayed
over time by a range of extracurricular reading and
activities including in my youth heavy involvement in a
local Astronomy club for several years.
But I quickly became disenchanted with science, at least the way it was presented to
me by my University at the time.
So I dropped out. At the same time I'd developed
a strong interest in Literature, Philosophy and Ancient History, in particular, Roman
I’d grown up with a handwriting problem which meant that my handwriting was untidy and also
very slow. In High School, my marks in English, languages and history plunged, because exam essays
were the principle means of assessment for those subjects. So I immersed myself in Maths and Science
This was in the early 1970’s. Back then University Academics held our secondary education system
in low regard. Forget everything you learnt in school. That was the first thing we were told, and it was
a great disincentive to the inquiring mind. Astronomy had no place in the Physics curriculum, and
there seemed little prospect of Relativity theory being addressed, as least not at the Undergraduate level.
This was very frustrating as I had read as much as I could about it while in High School.
I was introduced to the first two by Colin Wilson's Outsider series books. As to Ancient History, it
was a British TV called The Caesars, modelled, if not directly based, on Robert Graves Claudius
novels, which first drew me to Roman history. By the end of High school I'd read I, Claudius,
Claudius the God, and The Brothers Karamazov. And not long after that, T E Lawrence's Seven
Pillars of Wisdom.
My own photo of the Moon ca.
By the time I went back, five years later, the University had moved from full year to
semester subjects, and by then I'd decided to do just the subjects I was interested in.
That saw me focus mainly on Ancient History, with touches of Philosophy, Religion,
Drama, and Astronomy along the way.
And to be frank, my Arts degree, much more than my previous foray into science,
taught me both the art and the science of critical thinking. It was not just about
learning facts and theorems. In Ancient History in particular, you were actively
encouraged to do your own research and put forward and argue your own theories.
The degree taught me the structure and protocols of academic writing. But, it didn't
teach me how to write
and argue my case as well as I could have. In part, this was a
problem of the times. Personal computers were still new and primitive, and I was
doing all my work on a typewriter on foolscap paper. Rewriting meant retyping out
the whole page, and often the whole assignment. And when you were under deadlines,
there was little time for that. Small wonder that my papers often included paragraphs
running the length of the page as I struggled to get all my ideas out in print.
Actually, it was my work in the Australian Public Service, with the training I received
there in writing Reasons for Decisions, and writing in Plain English, that refined my
writing and communication skills. And it was there that I learnt many important
computer skills as well.
If this appears to be a digression, it isn’t really. As I’ve said, the first foundation of
Nexialism must be a broad Academic background. But in this, the school of life can
be almost as important as formal education. Put simply, I would argue that Nexialism
is not a young person’s science. Rather, I would suggest, Nexial studies should be
undertaken at a post-graduate level through a series of courses tailored to the
individual. Such courses would need to be structured to complement the academic
background of the student, while also including core skill training in the Nexial
At its heart Nexialism should be a collaborative endeavour. And to be a good
collaborator, you must have good communication skills. You need to be able to write
and speak plainly, in simple but not simplistic terms.
One of the most important things my time in the Public Service taught me, was the
value of Plain English, or the equivalent in whichever language the aspiring Nexialist
Although I learned more about the rules of English grammar in my three semesters of Latin, than in
all my prior schooling.
To quote the guide that I was given to work from;
“It is the job of plain English to tell the other person naturally, and
unaffectedly, pleasantly and persuasively, what we want them to know.”
The work is many years old now, and was written specifically to address problems of
verbosity, archaic language, and an over-reliance on jargon, in written
communications between public servants in all departments and the general public.
Of course it is equally applicable to verbal communications as well. I can still recall
the number of times I used to cringe at my desk on hearing colleagues use
departmental acronyms when speaking to their clients. Most of our clients were
elderly, and often less well educated, who would have no idea what the acronym
stood for, or meant. GARP, for example, stood for the Guide to the Assessment of
Rates of Pension, a medical manual that set out the parameters for determining the
level of medical impairment arising from specific medical conditions. (Nothing to do
with the novel by John Irving, and subsequent film, The World According to
GARP.) It would only take a few seconds more to explain that under the legislation
we are legally bound by the rules set out in the current Guide to the Assessment of
Rates of Pension.
This is the trap of every organisation, not just the Public Service, and of every
academic field. Acronyms and jargon are the shorthand for efficient communication
between colleagues within a department, organisation or academic field. They are
something you use every day to quickly and clearly convey what you mean. But
because they are so helpful, it is easy to fall into the trap of forgetting that not
everybody knows them outside your own field. And then they too often become a
barrier: a wall that separates those in the know from those who want to know, and
frequently need to know, what you are saying.
The Plain English guide cited above has almost certainly been superseded by
subsequent communication theories and guidelines. But its basic rules, with some
modifications, are still worth bearing in mind.
1. Write as simply as the material will allow.
2. Write as briefly as possible. Be concise.
3. Write as accurately as possible.
4. Write as directly as the circumstances allow.
5. Write pleasantly and try to sound genuinely interested.
The last point may sound patronising and an invitation to insincerity. But in practice
it should be neither. The Nexialist must always be genuinely interested in what others
have to say, even where they may disagree, because their principle role is to bring
people and their ideas together. And the same principles apply for verbal as well as
Plain English, published by the Department of the Premier, Melbourne, Victoria, 1978, p.1.
Ibid., p. 2.
written communications. Not that I would lay claim to be proficient in the practice of
A broad academic base has to go hand in hand with good communication skills if the
Nexialist is to make any real and substantial contribution to scientific and other
scholarly development. It gives him or her at least a degree of familiarity with the
jargon of the experts they are working with. The Nexialist needs to be able to
understand what the experts are telling them, whether directly or in writing. And they
need to be able to translate what they are hearing into terms which they are
comfortable working with, and which they can pass on to others in different fields of
expertise. All, without losing any of the sense or import of the knowledge shared
They therefore need to be good listeners, as well, who are always prepared to seek
clarification where needed. And to provide feedback to those they are communicating
with, in order to ensure that they have properly understood what others are telling
According to his Wikipaedia biography, “Van Vogt was always interested in the idea
of all-encompassing systems of knowledge”. This was the inspiration for his idea of
Nexialism, but clearly he understood that for something like Nexialism to work, a
new approach was needed; drawing together an all-encompassing system of
knowledge required a new way looking at, and dealing with masses of information.
Which is why “he became interested in the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski”.
And he developed his ideas on this in three later novels, which I have not read, The
World of Null-A and The Pawns of Null-A, and Null-A Three. “Null-A, or non-
Aristotelian logic, refers to the capacity for, and practice of, using intuitive, inductive
reasoning (compare fuzzy logic), rather than reflexive, or conditioned, deductive
General Semantics has been presented “as both a theoretical and a practical system
whose adoption can reliably alter human behavior in the direction of greater sanity”.
Korzybski “asserted that general semantics training could eventually unify people and
General semantics is said to have “survived most profoundly in the
cognitive therapies that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s”, such as Gestalt therapy,
although the founders of Gestalt therapy did not credit Korzybski for their ideas.
Whether that is true or not, General Semantics was essentially an attempt to change
the way the way we think. If you want to know more about it, then there is apparently
an ongoing Institute of General Semantics, with its own web-site.
Personally, there are many ideas underlying General Semantics, such as non-
Aristotelian logic and Time-Binding
that I find problematic. However I do
acknowledge the importance that the system placed on behavioural awareness. I cite
it here simply to demonstrate the complexities of the ideas Van Vogt, himself,
grappled with in his quest to find the all-encompassing system of knowledge he
As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, it was Colin Wilson who introduced me
to phenomenology, the work of Edmund Husserl, and the idea of the intentionality of
perception. And it is intentionality of perception that lies at the heart of the
behavioural awareness sought by both Van Vogh and Korzybski.
With regard to phenomenology, intentionality of perception is actually a bit of a two-
Put simply, the way we each perceive the world is always intentional, and subject to
all manner of influences, such as our education, the culture we were brought up in,
and even things as simple as the weather and the kind of mood we are in.
Consequently, everything each of us thinks, does, hears, sees, creates and touches, is
forever overlaid by our own intentionality at the time. And the way all those things
and experiences are perceived by others is similarly overlaid by their own
intentionality. Accordingly, to put it into pseudo-Platonistic terms, all that we see
around us is but an intentional shadow of the underlying reality that we can never
truly know in full.
Taken that way, the Phenomenological perspective could be seen as quite pessimistic.
Certainly, that was what I found when I took a course on the Phenomenology of
Religion, in the first year of my degree. From memory, the core message of the
course was that it is not possible to know what members of any religion really
experience, think, or feel about their faith. This meant that a phenomenological study
of any religion could only really look at the way the religion and its adherents present
themselves and behave in the world.
Ibid. Put simply, the capability to build on the knowledge of prior generations as a basis for an
ethical standard by which to evaluate human behaviour. “Acknowledging our time-binding inheritance
dispels us of the ‘self-made’ notion; as we understand how much we owe to others, we begin to
understand our own limitations”.
A quest that ultimately saw him adopt and become an advocate of L Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, and
That was over 30 years ago.
For a modern perspective, the following comments by Prof. Lisa Guenther, Associate
Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University are worth reading:
“For me phenomenology is a philosophical method that starts with lived
experience in the first person. Starts with a description of just how an
experience such as the perception of a table or the memory of an event, how that
unfolds for the person who is having that experience. And then the second step
of phenomenology is not just to describe but to distil the basic structures of that
experience that make it possible and make it meaningful. And so I think
phenomenology is really well suited to engaging with issues of perception and
issues of perceptual anomalies, or perceptual distortions. Because there is a
very rich tradition from Husserl to Merleau-Ponty, a French Phenomenologist,
of looking in particular at perception and visual perception as one of the basic
types of experience. And one that we rely on, for sighted people at least, to
make sense of the world in a bodily way even before or beyond our linguistic
sunse making. …
“So classical phenomenology, and Husserl would be my go to person for that,
focuses in its analysis of the structures that make meaningful experience
possible on the first person consciousness and its correlation with the world. …
The consciousness is understood as lived in the mode of an “I”; I think, I see, I
remember. And it’s singular. No one else can share my consciousness with me,
or can have direct access to my consciousness, except through the various ways
that I express myself, often bodily, in the world.”
And for Prof. Guenther, phenomenology is not an abstract and impotent way of
looking at the world. Instead, she has used it constructively to present evidence to a
US Congressional hearing on the impact of solitary confinement on those subject to
that form of incarceration. In respect of which she argued;
“And I think that the evidence of deterioration of even basic cognitive skills or
capacities such as the capacity to perceive an object in the world clearly, or the
capacity to remember something that happened; the way that solitary
confinement affects these basic capacities for me puts in question the degree to
which we can be confident that when we start with the first person
consciousness and with “I” as a singular being, that we’re actually getting to the
The passage is my own transcript of an interview presented on the ABC (Australian
Broadcasting Commission) Radio National Program The Philosopher’s Zone. As it was my own
transcript, any faults in the transcription are my own. The full interview can be heard on the
ABC’s website at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/alone-and-
apart/5002594, at least for the time being.
bottom of structure of what makes coherent meaningful experience possible. So
for me the deterioration of these capacities in solitary confinement suggests that
at bottom we’re not just single “I”s, but we’re already inter-relational,
intersubjective and, I would say, intercorporeal, interbodied beings. And this is
why I actually work more with Merleau-Ponty and other phenomenologists who
ground their analysis not just in the first person consciousness but in a kind of
ambiguity between the “I” and third person social structures, or even
physiological structures such as the structure of the body.”
So, to use Prof. Guenther’s words, phenomenology:
1. Starts with a description of just how an experience unfolds for the person
having that experience.
2. Is then used to distil the basic structures of that experience that make it both
possible and meaningful.
3. And all such analyses need to be grounded not just in the first person
consciousness but in a kind of ambiguity between the “I” and third person
social structures, or even physiological structures such as the structure of the
4. Not just single “I”s, but inter-relational, intersubjective, intercorporeal, and
Phenomenology, therefore, does offer us a useful way to extract, analyse and
understand the experiences of others, even though we cannot share their actual
experiences and perceptions.
Another important point to bear in mind is that phenomenology is also about
psychology. To quote from David Woodruff Smith’s online article in the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Phenomenology as we know it was launched by Edmund Husserl in his
Logical Investigations (1900-01). Two importantly different lines of theory
came together in that monumental work: psychological theory ... and logical or
semantic theory ...
“Husserl's Logical Investigations was inspired by Bolzano's ideal of logic, while
taking up Brentano's conception of descriptive psychology. … Logic studies
objective ideas, including propositions, which in turn make up objective
theories as in the sciences. Psychology would, by contrast, study subjective
ideas, the concrete contents (occurrences) of mental activities in particular
minds at a given time. Husserl was after both, within a single discipline.
“For Husserl, then, phenomenology integrates a kind of psychology with a kind
of logic. It develops a descriptive or analytic psychology in that it describes and
analyzes types of subjective mental activity or experience, in short, acts of
consciousness. Yet it develops a kind of logic — a theory of meaning (today
we say logical semantics) — in that it describes and analyzes objective contents
of consciousness: ideas, concepts, images, propositions, in short, ideal meanings
of various types that serve as intentional contents, or noematic meanings, of
various types of experience. These contents are shareable by different acts of
consciousness, and in that sense they are objective, ideal meanings. ... Husserl
opposed any reduction of logic or mathematics or science to mere psychology,
to how people happen to think, and in the same spirit he distinguished
phenomenology from mere psychology. For Husserl, phenomenology would
study consciousness without reducing the objective and shareable meanings that
inhabit experience to merely subjective happenstances.”
Later, in his discussion of Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Mind, Smith notes:
“In the 1980s John Searle argued in Intentionality (1983) (and further in The
Rediscovery of the Mind (1991)) that intentionality and consciousness are
essential properties of mental states. ...
“The analysis of consciousness and intentionality is central to phenomenology
... and Searle's theory of intentionality reads like a modernized version of
Husserl's. ... (with) an important difference in background theory. For Searle
explicitly assumes the basic worldview of natural science, holding that
consciousness is part of nature. But Husserl explicitly brackets that assumption
“Since the mid-1990s a variety of writers working in philosophy of mind have
focused on the fundamental character of consciousness, ultimately a
phenomenological issue. Does consciousness always and essentially involve
self-consciousness, or consciousness-of-consciousness... ? If so, then every act
of consciousness either includes or is adjoined by a consciousness-of-that-
consciousness. Does that self-consciousness take the form of an internal self-
monitoring? If so, is that monitoring of a higher order, where each act of
consciousness is joined by a further mental act monitoring the base act? Or is
such monitoring of the same order as the base act, a proper part of the act
without which the act would not be conscious?”
Which brings me back to what I, personally, took away from Colin Wilson’s works.
The understanding that if perception is intentional, then we have the capacity to:
a. Be aware of the intentionality of our own perceptions;
b. Understand the factors that are influencing our thoughts and perceptions; and
c. Step back from those influences to allow a more objective understanding of
what we are considering.
Copyright © 2008 by David Woodruff Smith, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/
That, at least, is the ideal that I would argue a Nexialist should aspire to with proper
training in Phenomenology.
Through Phenomenology, a trained Nexialist should be able to extract, analyse and
understand the experiences that underlie the theories, opinions and biases of the
scientists and experts they are working with. They should to do this constructively,
not destructively, with an intent awareness of their own intellectual biases and
limitations. Biases that they should always be striving to understand, address and put
aside. Limitations that they should always be willing to acknowledge, address, and in
cooperation with others, overcome, as much as that is possible.
Another reason why good communication skills are also very important.
Since the “analysis of consciousness and intentionality is central to
it follows that some training in elements of psychological theory
is also important to the aspiring Nexialist.
My reference to ‘elements’ is clearly intentional. Modern psychology has become so
complex and diverse that picking your way through it to determine which fields of
study would be most helpful and productive is somewhat akin to picking your way
through an intellectual minefield. As noted on the About.com website, the “following
are just some of the major fields of psychology”:
Abnormal psychology, Biopsychology, Clinical psychology, Cognitive
psychology, Comparative psychology, Counseling psychology, Developmental
Psychology, Educational psychology, Experimental psychology, Forensic
psychology, Health psychology, Human Factors Psychology, Industrial
organizational psychology, Personality psychology, School psychology, Social
psychology, and Sports psychology.
Of these, cognitive psychology is probably the most relevant. “Cognitive psychology
is the scientific investigation of human cognition, that is, all our mental abilities –
perceiving, learning, remembering, thinking, reasoning, and understanding. ...
Fundamentally, cognitive psychology studies how people acquire and apply
knowledge or information. It is closely related to the highly interdisciplinary cognitive
science and influenced by artificial intelligence, computer science, philosophy,
anthropology, linguistics, biology, physics, and neuroscience.”
Woodruff Smith, op.cit.
But other fields such as industrial organizational psychology, personality psychology,
social psychology could also serve as useful tools.
In my former employment in the Australian Public Service (APS) I was heavily
involved in investigating and determining compensation claims for conditions both
physical and mental. This required continual assessment of medical reports as
evidence, including very many, often conflicting, reports from both psychologists and
psychiatrists. From this, I have a strong if indirect background in the area of
And as I advanced through the APS, I was also given a good deal of training in
various types of Human Factors Psychology, depending on what theories were at the
time held to be most relevant and productive from the Department’s perspctive on the
issues of staff supervision and management. In the course of this training I almost
certainly undertook something at least similar to the Myers-Briggs personality test.
Later, we were required to undertake self-assessments to determine the degree to
which our personalities emulated the ascribed characteristics of the eagle, the owl, the
dove and the peacock. Or various combinations of these. From memory, I leant
largely towards the owl, but with some strong dove and eagle aspects. While my then
manager was very much the peacock.
Then, towards the end of my employment I had my “personal profile” assessed using
the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI),
which showed my personal
strength to lie in cognitive function. With a corresponding weakness in matters
The purpose behind all of these tests from the formal management perspective, was to
give middle level managers the skills to both understand themselves and their own
ways of thinking, and to give them insights into the way their colleagues functioned.
So, in theory, it should have been a tool to enable and empower people of very
different styles of thinking and relating to others, to work together more productively
and without conflict. Sadly, it was an ideal too often more honoured in the breach
than the observance. Largely, this was because these tests were something imposed
from above that you were expected to undertake to establish your qualifications for
advancement in the organisation. But they were not something many people took
This kind of profiling and self-analysis could be a very useful tool in helping an
aspiring nexialist to understand their own patterns of behaviour and thinking. But as
an interactive tool, their use is limited, because they can only be used as an aid to
constructive debate with people who have either undertaken the same or similar types
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herrmann_Brain_Dominance_Instrument, and the tests official site
of testing, or who are prepared, whether they have undertaken the test or not, to listen
to and seriously consider what you have taken away from such tests and training.
If their minds are closed, then the best you can hope for is to surreptitiously use your
own skills to analyse their cognitive behaviour patterns as best you can, in an effort to
develop the best strategies of approach for the issues you wish to deal with.
On this subject, there are three other schools of thought I consider worth mentioning
at this time. The first of these was only recently brought to my attention by Jakup
Matya of the University of Huddersfield, via one of is postings on the ResearchGate
site. This is the theory of Enactivism.
From my limited readings to date, Enactivism is “a theory of mind” and “a model of
cognition as ‘embodied action’”.
According to David A Reid’s paper, “A good
starting point to understanding Enactivism is the problem of the relationship between
an entity and its surroundings.” But while Reid considers that the “philosophical
basis of Enactivism can be found, with some effort, in the writings of Wittgenstein on
the philosophy of psychology”, others see it as rooted in phenomenology.
“Enactivism, a combination of Constructivism and Embodied Cognition, is a
theory wherein cognition and environment are inseparable, and learning is
drawn from the interaction between learner and environment. It is rooted in the
phenomenological work of Merleau-Ponty and Bateson’s biological perspective
work. Enactivism is underpinned by the thought that actions are not simply a
display of understanding, but they are themselves understandings. ... Cognition
is an evolving interaction between systems; the cognitive system is a producer
of meaning rather than a processor of information, as in constructivism.
Learning is not about gaining information; instead, it is seen as an ongoing
process of exploration about consciousness, self, context, and interactions of
complex systems in order to adapt to the evolving world.”
Again, this could be a useful tool in helping nexialists understand their own and
others patterns of behaviour and thinking. And it seems to have the potential of
providing a valuable approach to how we learn. But the theory is relatively new, and
not without its critics, and I raise it hear as an avenue for future exploration.
The second “school of thought” I want to look at is to be found in the works of the
American psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow is probably best known for his
Hierarchy of Needs” theory
, and that element of his work was certainly touched on
See the David A Reid’s paper at http://plato.acadiau.ca/courses/educ/reid/enactivism/, and
From a page originally authored by Stacey Bernier (2011) and edited by Neil Busby (2013).
more than once in the many of the management and supervision courses that I
undertook during my previous employment.
But I first read of Maslow’s work well before that, in the writings of Colin Wilson.
And for Wilson, the most exciting thing that he found in Maslow’s writings was his
concept of the Peak Experience. To quote from Wilson:
“Maslow had first contacted me in the mid-1960s after reading a book of mine
called The Age of Defeat ... in which I complained that throughout the 20th
century, there has been a strong ‘defeat-bias’ in literature ... what I called ‘the
fallacy of insignificance’ – the feeling of most serious writers that life is a long-
drawn-out defeat. ...
“Maslow told me he was excited by this because he also had a deep conviction
that human nature has been ‘sold short’ by modern psychology ... and that we
ought to take account of what he, Maslow, called ‘higher ceilings of human
“What fascinated me was Maslow’s concept of the ‘peak experience’ ... the
experience of sudden overwhelming happiness, the feeling that life is wonderful;
this, Maslow discovered, seems to happen to healthy people on a regular
“Maslow discovered that when he talked to his students about peak experiences,
they began remembering peak experiences that they had half forgotten about.
For example, one young man was working his way through college as a jazz
drummer, and he described how, at about two o’clock one morning, he began
drumming so perfectly that he couldn’t do a thing wrong; he went into the peak
experience. What was so interesting was that, as the students talked to one
another every day about their peak experiences, they began having peak
experiences all the time.”
Two things stand out from this. Firstly, what Maslow calls a peak experience is
clearly much more than just an experience of “overwhelming happiness”. It is, or at
least has the potential to be a transcendent self-actualising experience that enables a
person to function as long as the experience lasts, at their full personal potential.
Secondly, what happens with Maslow’s students suggests that we already have the
capacity to develop our potential for Peak Experiences, through familiarity with the
phenomenon and, I would suggest, intentional effort.
Wilson, Colin, Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience, London, Watkins
Publishing Ltd, 2009, Foreword (Kindle edition).
See the discussion of Maslow’s position at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-actualization.
Which brings me to the works of Colin Wilson and his
own almost lifelong quest to achieve what he called
Super Consciousness, the capacity to achieve peak
experiences at will.
It is sadly ironical to note that not long before writing
this, in the course of researching this section I learnt
that Colin Wilson had passed away on 5 December
2013. He was 82.
As his Obituary in The Guardian put it, he was
“Britain's first homegrown existentialist star”.
But he was much more than that, and through his writings sought to distance himself
from the distinctly pessimistic ‘existentialist mainstream’
by making himself the
champion of what he called the New Existentialism.
Wilson wrote his first autobiography, Voyage to a Beginning, when he was only
His second autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, was published in
While I have copies of both in my library, it is simpler to follow here the
summary of his life provided by the already cited Guardian obituary, and that of The
Colin Wilson was very much a self-made man, and an exemplary one at that. He was
the author of more than 100 books (more than 150 according to The Independent
Not a bad achievement for a man of limited education, “the son of a shoemaker”, who
“left school aged 16”.
But as The Independent notes, “Since the age of 12 he had been preoccupied with
asking the meaning of human existence and at 14 had read George Bernard Shaw’s
Man and Superman”. After leaving school for eight years he “took on a variety of
unskilled jobs while writing”, maintaining, in his own words, “a voluminous journal,
which was several million words long by the time I was 24”. Towards the end of this
John Ezard, The Guardian, Monday 9 December 2013,
In particular, “the existentialist insistence on the inherent meaninglessness of the world”. See the
entry on Existentialism and Nihilism” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism.
Wilson, Colin, Voyage to a Beginning, London, Celia and Amelia Woolfe, 1968, p. xi.
Wilson, Colin, Dreaming to Some Purpose, London, Century 2004.
Marcus Williamson, The Independent, Saturday 21 December 2013,
Colin Wilson, taken at
the end of a fleeting visit
to his Cornwall home in
time, he was “living rough on Hampstead Heath, working at a café and spending his
days at the Reading Room of the British Museum”.
Out of this came Wilson’s first book, The Outsider. Published by Victor Gollancz
on 26 May 1956, “it sold out of its initial print run of 5,000 copies in one day”.
yet this was not a work of epic fiction, or a popular novel. Instead, as The Guardian
notes, it “was an attempt to map a single, negotiable path of mysticism from the span
of recent western art and philosophy. Wilson looked for the path through case studies
of the agonies and ecstasies of thinkers, artists and men of action including Friedrich
Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Vaslav Nijinsky,
Vincent van Gogh, Hermann Hesse and Lawrence of Arabia. He condensed them into
a single type, ‘the Outsider’, a questing spirit straddled between devastating
experiences of nothingness and moments of the highest insight.
“‘Our life in modern society is a repetition of Van Gogh's problem,’ Wilson said, ‘the
day-to-day struggle for intensity that disappears overnight, interrupted by human
triviality and endless pettiness.’”
“Cyril Connolly said it was ‘one of the most remarkable first books I have read for a
long time’ while Philip Toynbee called it ‘a real contribution to our understanding of
our deepest predicament’.”
“His passionate inquiry into his themes continued but critics deserted him. He went
out of fashion and ... survived financially only because many of those dealt with
murder or the occult as pathways to the insights that fascinated him.”
Wilson’s works were not without their faults, and I have no wish to dwell on them
here. But as Ezard noted in The Guardian, “He was greatly gifted. Almost entirely
self-educated, he had huge mental energy, read prodigiously and explored the
worldwide resources of literature, philosophy and science with earnestness.” He
“bore his literary disappointments gracefully. He remained sure that he would
triumphantly find and remove the psychic impediment which, he thought, had blocked
all human creativity in his time. It was by no means an ignoble cause, as the praise for
his early work showed.
“Toynbee and the rest panned (his later works) without explaining, or apologising for,
their earlier zeal, or offering any help or counsel to their one-time prophet.” But
again, as Ezard notes, “The key to the collapse of the Wilson phenomenon was
perhaps that philosophy and religion ceased to be seen as mainstream topics after the
1950s. His promise failed as much for lack of a challenging or nourishing climate as
for any other reason.”
This brief summary of Wilson’s life that I’ve put together may seem out of place. But,
as I said at the beginning, his writings had a tremendous influence on my own
intellectual development. And it was Colin Wilson’s work that prompted me to read
Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers’ Karamazov when I was 17, and Lawrence’s Seven
Pillars of Wisdom, not long afterwards.
Wilson was, in many ways, one of the first Nexialists. But he was also a victim of the
society he grew up in, and of the unhelpful disparagement of many of his intellectual
contemporaries. His life is one of the strongest arguments for the need to make
education freely available at all levels to everyone with the skill and willingness to
pursue it. One can only wonder how much more he might have been able to achieve
with some proper formal training to enhance his critical thinking skills. But that was
not to be, and in the end he remained, as he had begun, an Outsider.
While I have not yet read all of Wilson’s Super Consciousness book, it is clear from
his final summation, that his goal; the capacity to achieve peak experiences at will;
continued to elude him. In the end, it wasn’t just the achievement of peak experiences
at will that he was seeking, but the capacity to achieve such experiences and stay there.
As he says of his own experiences, “In these states of concentration and
enlightenment, I catch a glimpse of another level (of consciousness, where) ... my
sense of meaning would be so deep, my interest in everything so great, that I would
have passed the point where ‘regress’ or collapse is possible. I would be sustained by
sheer perception of meaning”.
For both Wilson and Maslow, the level of human consciousness is not a steady state.
We all know this. It fluctuates with our moods, and the circumstances of our life.
When we are tired, or depressed, our level of consciousness; the way we view the
world around us; will often be flat and dreary. And even the things in which we
would normally delight, at such times become uninteresting. It’s hard to concentrate
on work and find the motivation to do what needs to be done. Almost everyone who
reads this will have experienced such feelings at some time.
The trouble is most people just accept this as how life is. We know that there are
things we can do to kick ourselves out of such a depressed state; and I am not talking
about clinical depression here. We can read a book, go for a walk, the list is endless,
and it just depends on making the effort to distract ourselves from our current mental
torpor. And if we can’t pick ourselves up, there’s often someone close to us who can
help. Mostly, we don’t get trapped in such a state. We come back to our usual level
of mental functioning.
Wilson, Colin, Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience, op.cit., p. 197.
But also have the capacity to function above that level as well. To attain a state where,
if you are a writer, for example, the words just flow as if they are writing themselves.
Such experiences are not confined to just our cognitive function. I often find that
when I come out from watching a particularly thrilling and enjoyable action movie,
such as the first Die Hard movie, I emerge from the cinema feeling energised. Then,
for a short time, the world actually look different; more intensely real than the way it
usually seems as I go about my usual day to day tasks.
I can also remember times when I would be running down a gentle slope in my
younger days. Sometimes, I would just give myself up to the experience, turning my
strides into leaps ahead, feeling even as I did that if I could put just a little bit more
effort into it; mental, not physical; my foot need never touch the ground.
This is very akin to the human ‘flying’ potential postulated by the late Douglas
Adams in the third of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, Life, the
Universe and Everything:
“‘… there is an art to flying,’ said Ford, ‘or rather a knack. The knack lies in
learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.’”
An idea elaborated on by the Hitchhiker’s Guide later in the book:
“Clearly, it is … the missing, which presents the difficulties.
“One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally.” If you try to miss
deliberately, “you won’t.”
While the suggestion, like the books themselves, is clearly offered very much tongue
in cheek, it is underlain by a tantalisingly credible subtext: the idea that there are
extraordinary things we should be able to do as thinking human beings. But we can’t,
because we have always believed it was impossible. That’s how we were brought up.
That’s what we were taught. But what might not be possible, if only we could get
past our innate preconceptions.
Think of those savants who can instantly rattle off multi-digit prime numbers in order,
despite being cognitively and socially impaired in many ways. How can they do such
seemingly impossible mathematical feats, while most of us cannot even imagine how
it is possible to do what they do?
Not that I am suggesting that it should be possible to train people to instantly calculate
multi-digit prime numbers, any more than I am suggesting that we could fly if only
Adams, Douglas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts, London, Pan
books, 1992, p. 318.
Ibid. p. 359
we could miss the ground. But I do believe that when I felt I could almost fly, I was
experiencing a higher state of consciousness than usual. A variant of the Peak
Experience that Maslow wrote about. A glimpse of the kind of super-consciousness
Colin Wilson spent much of his life searching for.
It is a very elusive kind of experience, an intensity of thinking that most of us should
be capable of achieving, but which few can hold onto for long. And few can achieve
But how much more might we be able to do cognitively, if we were able to attain and
maintain that kind of intellectual overdrive for extended periods of time. A goal
worth working for, if at all possible. And perhaps a good problem for future
Fundamentally, Nexialism is about solving problems; problems that transcend the
limits of any one field of expertise. Some Nexialists may work alone, especially
initially, picking out and identifying specific problems in their research, whose
solutions have long frustrated the specialists. Problems for which the Nexialist,
thanks to their different perspective, may be able to see a solution, or at least a path to
All expert knowledge, no matter how broadly based, is limited. No one can ever be
an expert on everything. And none of us works in isolation, shielded within an
intellectual cocoon that protects us from ideas outside our own fields of knowledge.
Of course, many may wish it could be otherwise, and will vigorously defend their
own pet theories in the face of the strongest evidence to the contrary. Think of Fred
Hoyle’s refusal to accept the ‘Big Bang’ theory for the origin of the universe, and his
long defence of his Steady-State Theory of Cosmology; his rebuttal of the ‘Big Bang’;
despite all the evidence to the contrary, right up until his death in 2001.
As argued above, a Nexialist should have a broad Academic background with post-
graduate studies on the principles of Nexialism, good communication skills, training
in Phenomenology with particular emphasis on self-awareness and the intentionality
of perception, and a knowledge of modern psychology including cognitive
psychology and Maslow’s theory of Peak Experiences.
“The real tragedy is that this brilliant man simply couldn’t accept new evidence and adjust his world-
view accordingly. And so he died in ignorance, clutching onto his discredited theory, in futility, for
nearly the last forty years of his life.” http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2009/06/23/the-last-
Ideally, the Nexial approach could be compared to weaving a tapestry of ideas that
can help the experts transcend the limitations of their own expertise. They should be
the facilitators for the exchange of knowledge between different specialised fields,
while still remaining free to inject their own ideas and insights wherever it seems
Nexialism is consequently very much collaborative rather than solo work, delivered as
far as possible in a manner that cannot be considered threatening to the intellectual
egos of the experts the Nexialist is working with. Working in cooperation with other
Nexialists as well, who may have come from different academic backgrounds, for the
sake of the ideas and insights they can offer.
A College of Nexialism
In The Voyage of the Space Beagle, Van Vogt's Nexialist was a graduate of a special
school established to train people in the new science of Nexialism. Graduates were
then assigned to work with other scientists; people often hostile to the intrusions of
these intellectual interlopers.
Right now, there is no school of Nexialism. Nexialism is not a recognised science.
And while there are a few practicing scholars who have declared themselves to be
Nexialists, there are currently no agreed standards by which to validate their claim to
As I argued at the beginning, the need for trained Nexialists is already demonstrated
both by the growing number of interdisciplinary conferences being held and by the
reluctance of many experts to accept the ideas of scholars outside their field that
conflict with their own pet theories.
For now that need can only be addressed by gifted 'amateurs' who are prepared to
work outside their areas of expertise, and who are willing to undertake further studies,
formally or informally, to broaden their knowledge base. Here, the internet can be a
great tool, thanks to the proliferation of open-access courses and journals now
available on line. The Internet also offers many ways to open useful contacts with
other academics both within and outside your own fields. ResearchGate is an
excellent tool for this. The site has put me in touch with a number of scholars from
around the world who have proved very helpful to my own work. With regard to my
recent paper on the Assassination of Philip II of Macedon, this included links to
modern studies on the psychology of assassins in the USA, together with references to
late Roman and Byzantine sources that I was completely unfamiliar with.
Websites like ResearchGate
allow scholars to follow online debates on issues of
interest to them, to post their own responses to issues raised, and also post questions
of their own, and open new debates. By such means they can open up new lines of
communication with scholars from around the world, most of whom are quite happy
to help if they can. Such online interactivity can be very useful to aspiring Nexialists,
because it offers real opportunities for collaboration on problems that cross normal
It may be that it will be from sites like ResearchGate that the first self-proclaimed
individual Nexialists will emerge and hopefully gain at least academic recognition if
not accreditation. Such sites may even become our first consultative schools of
Nexialism. Importantly, Nexialists of different backgrounds will have the means to
interact with each other, to debate and determine their own consensus of what
Nexialism should be. And through the academic bridges they can build, new avenues
of intellectual debate should slowly emerge, offering help to both the specialists and
their own research.
In so doing, they may become the inspiration and foundation for future formal
Colleges of Nexialism.
Adams, Douglas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts,
London, Pan books, 1992
Plain English, published by the Department of the Premier, Melbourne, Victoria,
Van Vogt, A. E. The Voyage of the Space Beagle, New York, Simon & Schuster,
Wilson, Colin, Voyage to a Beginning, London, Celia and Amelia Woolfe, 1968, p.
Wilson, Colin, Dreaming to Some Purpose, London, Century 2004
Wilson, Colin, Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience, London,
Watkins Publishing Ltd, 2009
Most of the references cited in the article have been found on-line, with websites
provided in the footnotes.