A Field of Pure Knowing
What is the human soul? Is it some phantom-like part of us or is it a living dimension of the universe from which all life flows? The later is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge taught and his brilliant description of this living soul was so powerful that it ignited a vision that entranced the American Transcendentalists and was passed along and incorporated into the philosophy of the American Pragmatists.
Let’s start with a quote from Coleridge.
LIFE is the one universal soul, which, by virtue of the enlivening Breath, and the informing Word, all organized bodies have in common, each after its kind. This, therefore, all animals possess, and man as an animal. But, in addition to this, God transfused into man a higher gift, and specially inbreathed: — even a living (that is, self-subsisting) soul, a soul having its life in itself. “And man became a living soul.” He did not merely possess it, he became it. It was his proper being, his truest self, the man in the man.
Later in this paragraph he claims that in this soul “nothing is wanted but the eye, which is the light of this house, the light which is the eye of this soul, this seeing light, this enlightening eye, is Reflection.”
Underneath all of the universe and underling all human beings is a self-subsisting soul. How can we picture such a soul? We might be tempted to imagine it as a ghost like apparition that lives just under our skin, the man in the man – our spiritual self. I think Coleridge meant something much more profound than this. He seems to be referring to a field of pure knowing. He called it Reason.
I believe that when Ralph Waldo Emerson writes “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” He is being directly inspired by Coleridge. Emerson, again echoing Coleridge, spoke of the soul as “the background of our being” and explained that “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things.” Decades later when Charles Sanders Peirce formulated his understanding of “firstness” and William James claimed that we lived in “a world of pure experience” both were, directly or indirectly, carrying forward Coleridge’s vision.
What is this vision of the human soul? The soul is pure knowing without any object known. It is pure subjectivity with no object in existence. And it can be pictured using the image that both Coleridge and Emerson employed…light. Imagine a field of pure light emanating from within or from behind you. If the light were coming from within or from behind you and were spreading out in all directions, what would you see? Nothing. The light would spread out from where you were but none of it would reflect back into your eye because there were no objects for the light to reflect off of. Imagine this for a minute. You exist within a field of pure light, but you see nothing. This is the vision of the human soul that Coleridge sent to America and it lodged itself into American philosophy.
Thee we float in an ocean of light, seeing nothing. We can picture ourselves as Emerson’s transparent eyeball – the seeing light, the enlightening eye. We are surrounded by infinite potential for knowing with nothing yet known. Then an object appears in the blackness of this field of light and instantly we see it. The potential for seeing was there all along, the transparent eyeball was waiting in anticipation As soon as an object appeared it was seen immediately. Emerson said that these “announcements of the soul” are what are commonly called “Revelations.”
The human soul, or the Reason, is a dimension of pure knowing that is the substrate of reality. We live in a universe that is at its core pure universal intelligence. This concept will find its way into the evolutionary philosophies of both Charles Sanders Peirce and William James and I will explore both in future posts.