Negative Knowledge and the Eruption of a Metaphoric Mentality


This essay is fictional. Not in the way fiction is usually defined. But this voice – anyone’s voice, even a scientist’s voice – is the invention of a framework that puts experience in a particular slant and color. And there’s no way to avoid this.

Nothing can be discussed or known without being painted in some fictional color. Even the colorless voice of a realist is a fictional application of colorlessness.

Phrases like “everything is this…” and “nothing can be that…” sound reductive and dogmatic. But in this case I’m talking about what can’t be known, not what can. Reality is unknowable. Stories are all that’s known.

In other words, claiming to know anything conclusive about the nature of reality is a sign of bullshit.

And knowing what is bullshit is a fundamentally different kind of knowledge. It’s not reductive, but expansive, because this discovery releases perception from cages of certainty, and awakens a questioning or metaphoric spirit.

And a metaphoric point of view, even as it continues to paint the world in some fictional color, is no longer tied to that color. Stories, thoughts, then become ways of looking at things, not ways of knowing things. So ideas become more elastic, which makes learning easier.

Knowledge of limits, in other words, raises new questions and metaphors, whereas knowledge which claims some conclusive certainty about the world, puts questions to rest and hardens metaphor into dogma.

I’m calling knowledge of limits Negative Knowledge. And the more familiar knowledge which tries to pin the world down I’m calling Positive Knowledge.

Learning How to Recognize Negative Knowledge

These differences in knowledge are something I was never taught to notice. No teachers described the difference between knowledge that leaves the mind dead certain, and knowledge that restores the liveliness of a metaphoric and questioning frame of mind.

Maybe this was on purpose. Maybe the culture unconsciously wanted to blur that distinction so that the child’s native capacity to recognize bullshit would be replaced by an allegiance to authority. And a culture committed to propaganda isn’t overly eager to recognize a form of knowledge that exposes its lies.

But I’ve only recently started looking at knowledge in these distinct ways. It’s not clear to me yet. That’s why I’m writing, because it helps me learn. Otherwise these perspectives pass by in a blur; and openings into new worlds shut before I have a chance to enter them.

So I’m still puzzled a little by this. I’ve been saying that the observation “everything is a story” is negative knowledge. How is this not dogma in its own right? It sounds positive and conclusive.

However its effect is negative, because an understanding of its meaning leaves me less convinced of my own bullshit explanations, and almost always more curious.

Krishnamurti is the only person I’ve ever encountered who spoke almost exclusively in negative knowledge. He had an assertive style that might appear dogmatic. But he spoke in dogma-erasing observations (what he called “facts”) that cracked the shell of hardened opinion, revealing more penetrating questions, not answers. So the effect was expansive rather than reductive.

That seems to be the key: Negative knowledge might even sound bellicose and righteous, but it’s not dogmatic if it dismantles blind convictions and revives learning.

And another key is that most negative observations are transient discoveries, not everlasting ideologies. Saying the emperor is naked, for instance, is an observation of a passing fact; one that passes faster because it helps me see through the deception. It’s a restorative act, not an ideology of its own.

The only exception to this transience is the realization that a positive state of mind is a bullshit state of mind. The “bullshit rule” doesn’t grow into an ideology, but remains a weed-cutter, trimming the tendency to dogma at the ground. And this means that Negative Knowledge is essentially a synonym of honesty, or self-transparency.

But essentially, positive knowledge tells me what the world IS. Negative knowledge tells me what the world is Not (stirring to life an urge to play with perspectives in the infinite sandbox of an ultimately unknowable world).

And that means having no blind faith in what IS true. It also means having no blind faith in a lack of faith. No cynicism. A walled-off confidence in any direction is bullshit.

But the essential distinction remains this: negative knowledge opens rather than closes the mind.

And an open mind is a metaphoric and questioning state of mind.

Naming the Difference

Positive Knowledge isn’t by nature wrong. I know, for instance, that the walnut is edible. I’m positive about that (for myself at least). However, it’s not a small thing to forget that the walnut is more than just food; more than this reductive lens of a definition. But my species and I forget this far too often, cultivating plants and animals as if they were only food or raw materials, which is why the natural world has become stunted and degraded. It’s good to remember that reality always exceeds knowledge. The “walnut” is still just a metaphor.

The tendency is to forget this negative fact. And this leads to dogma, which is positive blindness about the nature of walnuts and cattle; tomatoes and chickens. And human beings. This is why the Amazon and its people are being destroyed. People who think they know the Amazon — or know its “value” — never encounter the limits of their certainties. Or they so thoroughly conflate their ideas with reality that they’re capable of blithely destroying the lungs of the planet, their own lungs. Then the idea of the Amazon entirely obscures the Amazon itself. This Literalism is tantamount to schizophrenic hallucination.

So maybe positive knowledge is necessary, as long as it’s not “too positive”, but only tentatively “positing” a particular perspective. “Tentative” means being sensitive to the limits of any perspective. And in seeing the limits of something I’m also seeing the extent to which something is valid.

This is similar to the proverbial fish who couldn’t see the surrounding water until it gained a perspective of what is not water. Only against the backdrop of another realm of air, does water become something nameable and real. Confronting the limits of the known simultaneously enriches and softens the knowledge that remains: The knowledge that remains becomes more tentative and easier to alter.

This stabilizing movement of positing tentative answers and seeing the limits of these answers is learning. Learning means constantly sorting out what’s valid and invalid (worth conserving and not). “Constantly” means without coming to a conclusion.

Framing this Distinction as Liberating and Conserving Knowledge

So I could frame positive knowledge as a conserving form of knowledge. And negative knowledge would be equivalent to “the emperor has no clothes”, which liberates the mind from deceptions, restoring honesty. I can’t learn until the self-deceptive resistances to change that accumulate with old ways of thinking are revealed and negated. So negative knowledge could also be framed as a more liberating form of knowledge.

Nobody can survive without this balancing movement of negative and positive/ liberating and conserving (see Funnel Vision for a more psychedelic depiction of this movement). But I can’t conflate this with what is now called “liberal” and “conservative” thought. Those are degraded and sectarian way of picturing this.

Both sides in that conflict are merely opposing forms of positive or conserving dogma, competing Isms. Real liberating knowledge isn’t opposed to conserving knowledge. The perception of what is not worth conserving is also the simultaneous perception of what is worth conserving. It’s like sorting the wheat from the chaff. So these movements function in cooperation, not as oppositional elements.

Think of negation as a knife that is sharp enough to remove the rot from the status quo without injuring the healthy tissue. “Without injuring the healthy tissue” is the conservative element buried in any liberating movement. So the positive and negative (conserving and liberating) movements meld into one seamless whole if they are coherently understood.

But when those movements oppose each other both are lost. Then opposition from the “the Left” tends towards its own excesses, as in the French and Russian revolutions – a blind surgeon cutting aggressively and at the whim of “new” but still excessively positive ideologies.

That is, in the absence of any real liberating knowledge all that remains on every side is a rogue positivism, outwardly critical, but not inwardly honest, which makes it hypocritical. And real conserving thought is lost to this rogue positivism as well. Then conservatism becomes nothing more than a force of retrenchment, an aggressive conservator only of its position in the status quo, rather than a conservator of healthy and necessary parts of life (such as the earth, its creatures, and the climate).

And although negative or liberating knowledge still arises often enough to contribute something to our chances of survival, at present it operates too unconsciously to become a force in life. That’s why putting a name to these different forms of knowledge can almost feel like the rediscovery of a long lost limb. With this limb I can start sorting out the wheat of coherent theory from the fraudulent chaff of propaganda far more easily. The two arms work together.

And the only reason I ever get fooled by propaganda is because I’m straining far too much to look positive and confident. And this self-deceptive hope of certainty is no longer possible when I realize that Everything is a story.

The Eruption of a Metaphoric or Questioning Mentality

In other words, I’m transformed (if only momentarily) by a core insight — a “Little Bang” that sets in motion a far more expansive point of view.

If “everything is a story” then I no longer ask whether something is fact or fiction (the old black and white world), but whether something is an honest or deceptive fiction (which is far more open-ended and prismatic). My magnetic orientation is changed by this confrontation with the limits of knowledge. The eradication of certainty redirects my attention from an overly literal way of knowing into a metaphoric way of relating to my surroundings.

I see this as an alchemical transformation. The closed grasp of positive certainty opens into negative knowledge and metaphor. Using these two open hands it’s possible to feel one’s way into an ever-richer honesty: the positive hand of non-dogmatic metaphor and the dogma-erasing hand of negative knowledge.

Here I’m making no distinction between similes, metaphors, allegories or theories, but am referring to the essence of a metaphoric point of view, which is that words can’t be read literally; they can’t be deceptively conflated with reality itself. And in the absence of Literalism stories become probing, experimental and questioning, which is to say playful in spirit.

The Elusive Essence of a Metaphoric Mentality

This is the elusive essence of a metaphoric mentality: I play in perspectives. I surrender to the negative knowledge that I’m cognitively blind, and that my positive conceptions of the world are never real, and so I stop worrying about being “right”. And so I stop trying to know the world positively and swivel towards a new tactile sense, which resides within uncertainty itself.

The loose ends of stories become interesting. The questions that sprout there, and the hints of something more, which my errors and inconsistencies imply, are what inspire new ways of looking. It’s that elusive “more” that keeps perception tacking towards a fathomless honesty. It’s an honesty that never ends in any vision that lets me rest assured. Only dead things rest assured.

So that’s what I’m trying to do on these pages: Feel my way blindly along an “elephant” (see Matter and Meaning) that is infinite and shifting in shape. This elephant is a misnomer. Whatever this “elephant” is, it will never be named or known conclusively, but only playfully and metaphorically.

But then stories create an intimacy that is deeper than certainty.

Reality as an Aurora

For instance, I could have titled this essay “The Emergence of a Metaphoric Mentality”, rather than “The Eruption…” Emergence is more gradual; and eruption is more abrupt and violent (among other differences).

It’s not a question of which is more accurate, but which potential in the world do I wish to evoke at this moment? “Eruption” highlights the abrupt nature of learning. But from other angles “emergence” might be the better word.

But where is reality in all these shifting descriptions?

Behind the swaying curtain of words there is no reality; no correct description, no answer. Behind that curtain is a pregnant void, an unlimited potential, an actuality that is unknowable until creative stories make them real.

It’s like the northern and southern lights. Thoughts, images and emotions, all the stories I tell, the beliefs and theories I hold, are the colorful eruptions at the meeting point of matter and energy (see footnote). There “mind” erupts in negative and positive charges; first in the one-celled response to stimuli, and then through more complex fears and desires of higher organisms, into more subtle thoughts and feelings, which inevitably reach an almost schizophrenic stage of confusion between thought and thing, before abruptly breaking into self-transparency, which is the discovery of the ungraspable nature of actuality and the fictional nature of reality.

From this distance, the story can be told as a gradual emergence of mind. But in each stage-shift there is also an abrupt change, a negative break from the old ways of making meaning.

At each stage-shift, some structural element under-girding the tacit stories of the culture, breaks down. The ash-tinted glasses that interpret life now as an economic game, or as a game of Realpolitik between nations, shatter. The cynical or blindly optimistic beliefs that color the background of one’s personal life are no longer taken for granted as “facts of nature,” but as artifacts of less creative stories. And then more lively and comprehensive stories start to form (not by choice or wishful thinking, for these new stories are creative responses to a shifting world, and are without prior precedent. They erupt from the small Bangs of insight, and are never chosen from a pre-made selection of ideas. It’s all emergent).

These shifts in lenses have been happening since the earth was born. But now the underlying Literalism itself is breaking apart, which kept the mind swinging from one dogmatic Ism to the next.

And with the shattering of Literalism, the aurora of mind leaps in a way it has never leapt before.


This is the second in a series of essays taking a deeper dive into the relationship between story and reality:

1) An Honest Fairy Tale
2) Negative Knowledge and the Eruption of a Metaphoric Mentality
3) Tentatively titled essay, “Learning to Tell Honest Stories Rather than Truths”:
4) Tentatively titled essay, “Dear Fellow White Men (to start with)” — having second thoughts now (a later me). (Came out as “Starving the Tree of Racism”)
5) Essay on Paraeidolia (came out as “Everyday Schizophrenia”)

Other smaller essays may start forming between these.

Footnote: All I’m trying to say here is that the so-called Big Bang might be seen not only as an explosion of matter/energy, but also of mind or meaning. That’s kind of cool. One can see in this the male-centric image of the Father (meaning), Son (matter) and holy spirit (energy). They are three different phases of the same movement: like one God in three forms. The third, which is meaning or mind, is an emergent phenomenon, probably an inevitable potential of matter and energy. And/or it is the background Actuality, the ungraspable field of information the physicists describe, the meditative mind as the Buddhists put it, that is the primary emergence, from which energy and matter are increasingly more “frozen” forms, or thicker and slower consolidations of mind. But these are stories that will continue to inspire different visions as I and others learn to recognize deceptive ideas before they take root. There are many very different ways of describing the relation between meaning and matter and energy that are also insightful stories.

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