Gurdjieff International Review

Gurdjieff’s Philosophy of Nature

Basarab Nicolescu

This is an abbreviated version of an article originally published in Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflection on the Man and His Teaching (1996) New York: Continuum, pp. 37–69, and later published in the Gurdjieff International Review, Vol. I No. 2.


t is becoming very fashionable almost everywhere to find parallels between modern science and this or that teaching, this or that philosophical system, this or that religion.... The methodology and perspective of a teaching, a system of philosophy, or a religion are very different from the methodology and aim of modern science. To compare results or ideas judged to be similar can only lead to the worst illusions, to analogies that are soft and devoid of meaning, and, in the best of cases, to resonances that are felt as “poetic.”

Nevertheless, the search for a real relationship between science and such fields of study would be worthwhile. Such a relationship could be established if the teaching, the philosophical system, or the religion in question derives from a philosophy of nature.[1]

The fact that Gurdjieff’s teaching contains a philosophy of nature is obvious.... The hypothesis of a correspondence between man and nature is formulated without ambiguity by Gurdjieff:

It is impossible to study a system of the universe without studying man. At the same time, it is impossible to study man without studying the universe. Man is an image of the world. He was created by the same laws which created the whole of the world. By knowing and understanding himself, he will know and understand the whole world, all the laws that create and govern the world. And at the same time, by studying the world and the laws that govern the world, he will learn and understand the laws which govern him.... The study of the world and the study of man must therefore run parallel, the one helping the other.[2]

Life, Gaia, and the Anthropic Principle

With rare exceptions, contemporary philosophy considers that life and man are accidents, the products of chance. It is by chance that we appeared one day on a small planet in orbit around a certain star, in the remote suburbs of a galaxy which is nothing out of the ordinary. This sad and dismal vision is propagated with joy and conviction by our philosophers.

Gurdjieff’s point of view in regard to this is completely opposed to that of contemporary philosophy. For him, life and man are products of a cosmic necessity—life cannot exist without the universe and the universe cannot exist without life: “Thus organic life is an indispensable link in the chain of the worlds which cannot exist without it just as it cannot exist without them.”[3] According to the Gurdjieffian cosmology, life appeared as a necessary discontinuity to fill, in conformity with the law of seven, one of the intervals of a cosmic octave: “The conditions to insure the passage of forces are created by the arrangement of a special mechanical contrivance between the planets and the earth. This mechanical contrivance, this ‘transmitting station of forces’ is organic life on earth.”[4]

This point of view on the necessity of life is paradoxically being reinforced, not by philosophy, but by science. Here we wish to speak of the celebrated “anthropic principle.”[5]...

The anthropic principle was introduced by Robert H. Dicke in 1961. Its utility was being demonstrated by the works of Brandon Carter, Stephen Hawking, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, and other researchers.

The anthropic principle is presented today under different formulations. In spite of this diversity, we can recognize a common idea which goes through them all: the existence of a correlation between the appearance of man, “intelligent” life in the cosmos—and so on earth, our only point of reference for this “intelligent” life—and the physical conditions which regulate the evolution of our universe. This correlation seems to be under very strong constraints: if the value of certain physical constants or that of parameters appearing in certain laws varies even slightly, then the physical, chemical, and biological conditions which permit the appearance of man on earth are no longer brought together....

A vast self-consistency thus seems to regulate the evolution of the universe, self-consistency concerning physical interactions as well as the phenomena of life. Galaxies, stars, planets, man, atom, the quantum world thus seem united by one and the same self-consistency. In this sense, the anthropic principle can be considered as a special case of bootstrap and as an illustration of the trogoautoegocratic process....

The fact that, for life to appear on a little planet, an entire galaxy at least had to be created, opens large perspectives on the philosophic and poetic plane. In his groups in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Gurdjieff insisted on the fact that life did not appear by the accidental creation on earth of certain molecular structures, but that it came from “Above,” from the world of celestial bodies. Ouspensky comments: “Organic life ... began in the sun. This last was the most important point because once more ... it contradicted the usual modern idea of life having originated so to speak from below. In his explanations life came from above.”[6] This point of view is completely in accord with the anthropic principle: at least a galaxy had to be present for life to appear, so in this sense, life has a celestial origin. We are the children of the stars.

If the origin of life is celestial, it is interesting to clarify the relationship between life and the earth. For Gurdjieff, life is “the earth’s organ of perception.”[7] For him as for Kepler, the earth is a living being.[8] He even speaks of the “degree of intelligence” which the earth possesses.[9] On the scientific plane, such a point of view may appear completely unrealistic (if not surrealistic). But here too the surprise comes from science itself. After thorough research, the very serious scientist James Lovelock formulated the Gaia hypothesis:[10] the earth operates like a living organism. So the biosphere appears as a self-regulating entity, controlling the physical and chemical environment so as to insure the conditions of life.... (The name of Gaia—goddess of the earth among the Greeks—given to this hypothesis, was suggested by the writer William Golding.)

Even if the notions of “life” or “intelligence” of the earth are richer in meaning in Gurdjieff’s philosophy of nature than in the Gaia hypothesis, a relation between them can nevertheless be established.

Gurdjieff’s philosophy of nature, by the relation that it establishes between life and the earth, succeeds in linking two scientific hypotheses which are quite different and which appear in very different domains: the anthropic principle and the Gaia hypothesis....

The Reason of Knowing and the
Reason of Understanding in Our Time

The hegemony of technoscience in our societies no longer needs to be demonstrated. It is tied in an undeniable manner to the notion of “power.”

But what does knowledge serve? In the name of what does the extraordinary development of technoscience function?

These questions may seem useless, because the association between the words “technoscience” and “progress” is made automatically. The word “progress,” unhappily, is one of the most ambiguous and noxious words in our vocabulary.

In the absence of a value system, the development of technoscience follows its own logic: all that can be done will be done. If we reflect for a moment, we can understand that this logic of technoscience is frightening. The disastrous consequences for our species can be innumerable and some of them are already present among us. Several philosophers have not failed to note the dangers of a technoscience which would exclusively follow its own logic....

For Gurdjieff, the decline and disappearance of civilizations is tied to the disequilibrium between “knowing” and “being.” “In the history of humanity there are known many examples when entire civilizations have perished because knowledge outweighed being or being outweighed knowledge.”[11] Are we not in a world where knowing far surpasses being?

Gurdjieff distinguishes in this way “the reason of knowing” and “the reason of understanding.” “Knowledge is one thing, understanding is another thing.... Understanding depends on the relation of knowledge to being.”[12] Gurdjieff ironically refers to the “scientist of new formation,”[13] who serves only knowing:

And especially in Western culture, it is considered that a man may possess great knowledge, for example he may be an able scientist, make discoveries, advance science, and at the same time he may be, and has the right to be, a petty, egoistic, caviling, mean, envious, vain, naive, and absent-minded man. It seems to be considered here that a professor must always forget his umbrella everywhere.... And they do not understand that a man’s knowledge depends on the level of his being. If knowledge gets far ahead of being, it becomes theoretical and abstract and inapplicable to life, or actually harmful, because instead of serving life and helping people the better to struggle with the difficulties they meet, it begins to complicate man’s life, brings new difficulties into it, new troubles and calamities which were not there before. The reason for this is that knowledge which is not in accordance with being can never be large enough for, or sufficiently suited to, man’s real needs. It will always be a knowledge of one thing together with ignorance of another thing; a knowledge of the detail, without a knowledge of the whole; a knowledge of the form without a knowledge of the essence.... A change in the nature of knowledge is possible only with a change in the nature of being.[14]

So we see all the importance of Gurdjieff’s philosophy of nature in its definition of “reason of understanding”: the relation between the manifestations on the different planes of reality, relation between the part and the whole, the relation between form and structure.

On the other hand, in Gurdjieff’s terminology, the content of the word “to be” is very precise. It is linked to evolution—a central aspect of Gurdjieff’s oral and written teaching. Gurdjieff was revolted by the modern acceptance of the expression “evolution of man.” “Only thought as theoretical and as far removed from fact as modern European thought could have conceived the evolution of man to be possible apart from surrounding nature, or have regarded the evolution of man as a gradual conquest of nature.”[15] Moreover, the very idea of the “conquest of nature” is absurd and pernicious, and it is this that has led us to the disquieting and dangerous character of technoscience. Man is a part of nature and not the conqueror of a nature outside himself. In this sense, each “conquest of nature” can, potentially and paradoxically, be a defeat for man. We should rather envisage a cooperation between man and nature. But this cooperation necessarily takes place through the “reason of understanding.”

In Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Gurdjieff describes in some detail the inner alchemy which leads to the “reason of understanding,”[16] but the full meaning of it requires a complete and effective knowledge of the Gurdjieff teaching. Here it is enough to say that, for Gurdjieff, the “reason of understanding” fuses organically with a man’s being, whereas the “reason of knowing” settles in him merely as information. In any case, it is the “reason of understanding” in one form or another which could help in developing the dialogue between science and meaning.

The contemporary encounter between science and meaning is a major event which, in our view, is probably going to generate the only true revolution of this century.[17] We are perhaps at the threshold of a new Renaissance, one of whose conditions is exactly the dialogue between science and meaning. More and more, science is discovering its own limits, flowing from its own methodology. Science has been able to reveal, in an exemplary way, the signs of nature, but, because of its own methodology, it is incapable of discovering the meaning of these signs. Science carries with it an immense technological development. Technoscience, withdrawn into itself, cut off from philosophy by its dominant position in our society, can only lead to self-destruction. Our self-destruction is necessarily engendered by the ontological incomprehension of the signs of nature, more and more numerous, more and more powerful, and more and more active. This ontological incomprehension leads in its turn to a technological, anarchic development, invariably guided by the concern for efficiency and profit.

We must invent a mediator between science and meaning. This mediator can only be a new philosophy of nature. The point of departure for this new philosophy of nature can only be modern science, but a science which, having arrived at its own limits, tolerates and even cries out for an ontological opening. The discovery of idea-symbols in quantum physics and in other sciences, as well as the interpretation of certain major scientific discoveries, opens a fabulous free space where there arises a trans-disciplinary dialogue between past and present, between science and the philosophies of nature, art, tradition, and other forms of knowledge.

In a realistic way, in the present state of knowledge, and in the actual state of trends in the philosophic, historical, sociological, or religious domains, a return to the ancient philosophy of nature is unthinkable. But the study of certain philosophies of nature, such as that of Gurdjieff, which show deep parallels with modern science, can be a precious guide in the search for a philosophy of nature adapted to our time. Gurdjieff’s philosophy of nature is undoubtedly ahead of our time, as it has been ahead on certain aspects of modern science. It can, in any case, help us in our choice between a new barbarism and a new Renaissance. Only the “reason of understanding” can lead us to this new Renaissance. □

Basarab Nicolescu is an honorary theoretical physicist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris, France; Professor at the Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Member of the Romanian Academy; Founder and President of Honor of the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research and Studies (CIRET). His books include: The Hidden Third, Quantum Prose (2016) New York; From Modernity to Cosmodernity: Science, Culture and Spirituality (2014) SUNY Press; Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002) SUNY Press; Science, Meaning and Evolution: The Cosmology of Jacob Boehme, Parabola Books (1991) New York.

[1] Michel Ambacher, Les Philosophies de la Nature (1974) Presses Universitaires de France, Coll. “Que sais-je?” No. 1589.

[2] p. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous (1949) New York: Harcourt Brace, p. 75.

[3] Ibid., p. 283.

[4] Ibid., p. 138.

[5] “Anthropic” comes from the Greek word Anthropos, which means man.

[6] In Search of the Miraculous, p. 139.

[7] Ibid., p. 138.

[8] Ibid., p. 25.

[9] Ibid.

[10] James E. Lovelock, Gaia—A New Look at Life on Earth (1982) NY: Oxford University Press.

[11] In Search of the Miraculous, pp. 66–67.

[12] Ibid., p. 67.

[13] G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950) New York: Harcourt, Brace, p. 853.

[14] In Search of the Miraculous, pp. 65–66.

[15] Ibid., p. 57.

[16] Beelzebub’s Tales, pp. 1164–1167.

[17] Basarab Nicolescu, La transdisciplinarité (1996) Paris: Rocher.


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Featured: Winter 2019/2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (1)
Revision: August 13, 2020