A Guide for the Perplexed

A Guide for the Perplexed by E. F. Schumacher (Book Summary)

In “A Guide for the Perplexed” the economist E.F. Schumacher dismantles the modern materialistic worldview, showing the limits of science and presenting a more holistic map for understanding life. Schumacher presents the four fields of knowledge and four levels of being. Science can only operate in one field of knowledge and can only truly understand the lowest level of being (inanimate matter). Science has provided an invaluable contribution to humanity but what matters most in human life lies in fields in which it cannot operate. A holistic understanding of ourselves and reality requires that we develop and relate all four fields of knowledge to the four levels of being.  

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*All sentences in quotations are direct quotes from “A Guide for the perplexed” and are attributed to E.F. Schumacher. Bold is added for skimmability. 


The problem of Modern Materialistic Scientism  

  • “The maps produced by modern materialistic scientism leave all the questions that really matter unanswered; more than that, they deny the validity of the questions.”
  • “Without the qualitative concepts of “higher “and “lower “it is impossible even to think of guidelines for a living which lead beyond an individual or collective utilitarianism and selfishness.” 
  • “A materialistic scientist, believes that life, consciousness, and self-awareness are nothing but manifestations of complex arrangements of inanimate particles — a “faith” which makes it perfectly rational for him to place exclusive reliance on the bodily senses, to “stay in the head,” and to reject any interference from the “powers” situated in the heart.”
  • “Physics and other instructional sciences limit themselves to the lifeless aspect of reality, and this is necessarily so if the aim and purpose of science is to produce predictable results.”
  • ““Good scientists,” says P.B. Medawar, “study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them. This is fair enough; it clearly demonstrates, at the same time, that “good scientists” in this sense can deal only with the dead aspect of the Universe. But the real problems of life have to be grappled with.”
  • “Evolutionism is not science; it is science fiction, even a kind of hoax. It is a hoax that has succeeded too well and has imprisoned modern man in what looks like an irreconcilable conflict between “science” and “religion.””
  • “The progressive elimination of “science for understanding” — or “wisdom” — from Western civilization turns the rapid and ever-accelerating accumulation of “knowledge for manipulation” into a most serious threat”
  • “The modern world tends to be skeptical about everything that makes demands on man’s higher faculties. But it is not at all skeptical about skepticism, which demands hardly anything.”
  • The difference between directed and captured attention is the same as the difference between doing things and letting things take their course, or between living and “being lived.” No subject could be of greater interest; no subject occupies a more central place in all traditional teachings, and no subject suffers more neglect, misunderstanding, and distortion in the thinking of the modern world.”


Thoughts on Thinking, Awareness & consciousness

  • “To accept anything as true means to encourage the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time, I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important, and most rewarding things in life.
  • “Philosophy has been defined as the love of, and seeking after, wisdom.”
  • “The most important part of any inquiry or exploration is it’s beginning. As has often been pointed out, if one makes a foster superficial beginning, no matter how rigorous the methods follow during the succeeding investigation they will never remedy the initial error.” 
  • The mind of a man can doubt everything he cannot grasp with ease, and some men are more prone to doubt than others.”
  • “Man is not only able to think but is also able to be aware of his thinking.”
  • “People within whom the power of self-awareness is poorly developed cannot grasp it as a separate power and tend to take it as nothing but a slight extension of consciousness.” 
  • “The powers of self-awareness are essentially a limitless potentiality rather than an actuality. They have to be developed and “realized” by each human individual if he is to become truly human, that is to say, a person.”
  • “Self-awareness can disappear while consciousness continues; consciousness can disappear while life continues; and life can disappear leaving an inanimate body behind.”
  • “It is outside our power to give life to inanimate matter, to give consciousness to living matter, and finally to add the power of self-awareness to conscious beings.”
  • “The pairs of opposites, of which freedom and order and growth and decay are the most basic, put tension into the world, a tension that sharpens man’s sensitivity and increases his self-awareness.”
  • “It is not physical sleep that is the enemy of man; it is the drifting, wandering, shiftless moving of his attention that makes him incompetent, miserable, and less-than-fully-human.” 
  • “To live means to cope, to contend and keep level with all sorts of circumstances, many of them difficult. Difficult circumstances present problems, and it might be said that living means, above all else, dealing with problems.”
  • “The main concern of existentialism, is that experience has to be admitted as evidence, which implies that without experience there is no evidence.”
  • “In the whole philosophy, there is no subject in greater disarray than ethics. Anyone asking the professors of ethics for the bread of guidance or how to conduct himself, will receive not even a stone but just a torrent of “opinions.” 


A map for understanding life holistically  

  • “A map or guidebook — let this be understood as clearly as possible — does not “solve” problems and does not “explain” mysteries; it merely helps to identify them”
  • “The guidebook, it might be said, is about how “Man lives in the world.” This simple statement indicates that we shall need to study …..
  1. “The world”;
  2. “Man” — his equipment to meet the world;
  3. His way of learning about the world; and
  4. What it means to “live” in this world. “
  • ““The Great Truth about the world is that it is a hierarchic structure of at least four great “Levels of Being.”
  • “The Great Truth about man’s equipment to meet the world is the principle of “adequateness”
  • “The Great Truth about man’s learning concerns the “Four Fields of Knowledge.”
  • “The Great Truth about living in this life, living in this world, relates to the distinction between two types of problems, “convergent” and “divergent.” “


Two Types of Problems 

  • “There are two different types of problems with which we have to deal on our journey through life — “convergent” and “divergent” problems”
  • “Convergent problems relate to the dead aspect of the Universe, where manipulation can proceed without let or hindrance and where man can make himself “master and possessor” because the subtle, higher forces — which we have labeled life, consciousness, and self-awareness — are not present to complicate matters.”
  • With a convergent problem, the answers suggested for its solution tend to converge, to become increasingly precise until finally they can be written down in the form of an instruction.”
  • “Convergence may be expected with regard to any problem which does not involve life, consciousness, self-awareness, which means in the fields of physics, chemistry, astronomy  and also in an abstract spheres like geometry and mathematics, or games like chess.”  
  • ““What is the best method of education?” Presents, in short, a divergent problem par excellence. The answers tend to diverge, and the more logical and consistent they are, the greater is the divergence.”
  • Divergent problems cannot be killed; they cannot be solved in the sense of establishing a “correct formula”; they can, however, be transcended.”

The Levels of Being 

  • “Our ancestors have always seen: a great Chain of Being which seems to divide naturally into four sections — four “kingdoms,” as they used to be called: mineral, plant, animal, and human.”
  • Matter, life, consciousness, self-awareness — these four elements are ontologically — that is, in their fundamental nature — different, incomparable, incommensurable, and discontinuous. Only one of them is directly accessible to objective, scientific observation by means of our five senses. The other three are nonetheless known to us because we ourselves, every one of us, can verify their existence from our own inner experience.”
  • “The four great levels of Being exhibit certain characteristics in a manner which I shall call progressions.”
  • The most striking progression is the movement from Passivity to Activity.” 
  • Inanimate matter cannot be other than what it is; it has no choice, no possibility of “developing” or in any way changing its nature.
  • “A person may move to another place not because present conditions motivate him to do so, but because he anticipates in his mind certain future developments.”
  • “The progression from physical cause to stimulus to motive to will would then be completed by a perfection of will capable of overriding all the causative forces which operate at the four Levels of Being known to us.”
  • “Human beings are highly predictable as physiochemical systems; less so as living bodies; much less so as conscious beings; and hardly at all as self-aware persons.”
  • “In a hierarchic structure, the higher does not merely possess powers that are additional to and exceed those possessed by the lower; it also has power over the lower: it has the power to organize the lower and use it for its own purposes.”
  • “The higher the Level of Being, the greater is the importance of inner experience as compared with outer appearance”
  • “The degree of integration, of inner coherence and strength, is closely related to the kind of “world” that exists for beings at different levels.”
  • “A man’s highest values are reached when he claims that something is a good in itself, requiring no justification in terms of any higher good.” 
  • “To ask whether the human being has freedom is like asking whether man is a millionaire. He is not, but can become a millionaire.” 
  • “The great majority of mankind throughout its known history, until very recently, has been unshakenly convinced that the Chain of Being extends upward beyond man. This universal conviction of mankind is impressive for both its duration and its intensity.”
  • “This is the most important insight that follows from the contemplation of the four great levels of Being: At the level of man, there is no discernible limit or ceiling.”


The Four Fields Of Knowledge 

  • “Though inner experiences unquestionably exist, they cannot be observed by our ordinary senses. From these two pairs( “I” and “The World”) & (“Outer Appearance” and “Inner Experience”_ We obtain four “combinations,” which we can indicate thus:
  •  I – Inner
  • The World (you) — inner
  • I – outer
  • The world (you) — outer. 

“The four questions which lead to these fields of knowledge may be put like this:

  1. What is really going on in my own inner world? (What do I feel like?)
  2. What is going on in the inner world of other beings? (What do you feel like?)
  3. What do I look like in the eyes of other beings? (What do I look like?)
  4. What do I actually observe in the world around me? (What do you look like?)
  • “We have direct access to only field 1 and field 4”
  • “The first subject for study in what I have called “Field 1” is therefore attention”
  • “The systematic study of the inner worlds of myself (Field I) and of other beings (Field 2) must be balanced and complemented by an equally systematic study of myself as an objective phenomenon.”
  • Self-knowledge, to be healthy and complete, must consist of two parts — knowing my own inner world (field I) and “knowing myself as I am known” by others (field 3). Without the latter, the former may indeed lead to the grossest and most destructive delusions.” 
  • “We have direct access to Field 1, but no direct access to Field 3. As a result, our intentions tend to be much more real to us than our actions, and this can lead to a great deal of misunderstanding with other people, to whom our actions tend to be much more real than our intentions.”
  • “The best way to obtain the requisite knowledge about ourselves, therefore, is to observe and understand the needs, perplexities, and difficulties of others, putting ourselves in their situation.”
  • “The most “real” world we live in is that of our fellow human beings. Without them we should experience a sense of enormous emptiness; we could hardly be human ourselves, for we are made or marred by our relations with other people. The company of animals could console us only because, and to the extent to which, they were reminders, even caricatures, of human beings.”
  • “In the Fourth Field of Knowledge the decisive question is always “What do I actually observe? And progress is attained by eliminating assumptions, notions, presuppositions as to causes, etc., which cannot be verified by sense observation.”
  • Field 4, therefore, is the real homeland of every kind of behaviorism: only strictly observable behavior is of interest. All the sciences are busy in this field, and many people believe that it is the only field in which true knowledge can be obtained.” 


The Unity of Knowledge 

  • “The four fields of knowledge can be clearly distinguished; nevertheless, knowledge itself is a unity.”
  • “The main purpose of showing the four fields separately is to make the unity appear in its plenitude.”
  • The unity of knowledge is destroyed when one or several of the four fields  of knowledge remain uncultivated, and also when a field is cultivated with instruments and methodologies which are appropriate only in quite another field.”
  • “To obtain a clear view of reality it is necessary to relate the four fields of knowledge to the four levels of Being.”
  • “The instructional sciences do well to confine their attention exclusively to field 4, since only in this field of appearances can mathematical precision be obtained. The descriptive sciences, on the other hand, betray their calling when they ape the instructional sciences and confine themselves to the observation of appearances.”
  • “Self-knowledge, so universally praised as the most valuable, remains worse than useless if it is based solely on the study of Field 1, one’s own inner experiences; it must be balanced by an equally intensive study of Field 3, through which we learn to know ourselves as others know us.”
  • “There is social knowledge, that is, the knowledge needed for the establishing of harmonious relationships among people. Since we have no direct access to Field 2 — the inner experiences of other beings — obtaining indirect access is one of man’s most important tasks as a social being.” 


Understanding Faith 

  • “We are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people’s imaginations.”
  • “The level of significance to which an observer or investigator tries to attune himself is chosen, not by his intelligence, but by his faith.”
  • “Faith is not in conflict with reason, not is it a substitute for reason. Faith chooses the grade of significance or Level of Being at which the search for knowledge and understanding is to aim.” 
  • Higher grades of significance and Levels of Being cannot be recognized without faith and the help of the higher abilities of the inner man.” 
  • “Our ordinary mind always tries to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but that is of interest only to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something much better: that we can become oak trees.”
  • “What is good and what is bad? What is virtuous and what is evil? It all depends on our faith.”


Regaining our sense of sacredness and divinity 

  • “Anything that we can destroy but are unable to make is, in a sense, sacred, and all our “explanations” of it do not really explain anything.”
  • When there are so many gods, all competing with one another and claiming first priority, and there is no supreme god, no supreme good or value in terms of which everything else needs to justify itself, society cannot but drift into chaos.”
  • “As Ouspensky says: “Psychology is sometimes called a new science. This is quite wrong. Psychology is, perhaps, the oldest science, and, unfortunately, in its most essential features a forgotten science.” These “most essential features” presented themselves primarily in religious teachings, and their disappearance is accounted for largely by the decline of religion during the last few centuries.”   
  • “It may conceivably be possible to live without churches; but it is not possible to live without religion, that is, without systematic work to keep in contact with, and develop toward, Higher Levels than those of “ordinary life” with all its pleasure or pain, sensation, gratification, refinement of crudity — whatever it may be.”
  • “All traditional wisdom, of which both Dante and Shakespeare are outstanding representatives, transcends ordinary, calculating logic and defines “The Good” as that which helps us to become truly human by developing our higher faculties — which are conditional on, and also part of, self-awareness.”
  • Without them there is no humanity, as distinct from the animal kingdom, and the question of what is “The Good” reduces itself to Darwinian questions of adaptation and survival and the utilitarianism of  “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” where happiness rarely implies anything more than comfort and excitement.”
  • “Religion is the reconnection of man with reality, whether this Reality be called God, Truth, Allah, Sat-Chit-Ananda, or Nirvana.” 
  • Reality, Truth, God, Nirvana cannot be found by thought, because thought belongs to the Level of Being established by self-awareness.”
  • “According to the greatest of yoga teachers Patanjali, “Yoga is the control of the ideas in the mind.””
  • ““Applied sciences in the sense understood in yoga” means a science that finds its material for study not in the appearances of other beings but in the inner world of the scientist himself.”
  • “All great works of art are “about God” in the sense that they show the perplexed human being the path, the way up the mountain, providing a Guide for the Perplexed.”


The True Progression of a Human Being 

What constitutes the true progress of a human being:

  1. One’s first task is to learn from society and “tradition” and to find one’s temporary happiness in receiving directions from outside.
  2. One’s second task is to interiorize the knowledge one has gained, sift it, sort it out, keeping the good and jettisoning the bad; this process may be called “individuation,” becoming self-directed.

One’s third task cannot be tackled until one has accomplished the first two, and is one for which one needs the very best help that can possibly be found: It is “dying to oneself,” to one’s likes and dislikes, to all one’s egocentric preoccupations. To the extent that one succeeds in this, one ceases to be directed from outside, also ceases to be self-directed. One has gained freedom or, one might say, one is then God-directed.”