Cosmic Consciousness

An Introduction to "Cosmic Consciousness" by R.M. Bucke

For a number of years now I've had Bucke's classic work in my "To Read" basket as a very large (and legal) pdf file without ever getting around to doing just that. A bit daunting at first glance. Written a little over a hundred years ago, (1902) his ideas can seem a little strange to those of us brought up in more recent times, more especially as much of his support has subsequently come from writers we typically characterise as "New Age" or as precursors of the New Age, and paper reprints, at least in my neck of the woods, are not easy to locate.

(Pdf files are obtainable online, but often poorly scanned and difficult to follow.)

In the Auckland Public Library system for example, there is only one copy in the entire catalogue, and its status is listed as "missing". For the most part, he appears to be ignored by the modern academics in the field, more or less confined as they are to the scientific model of investigation: If something cannot be perceived through the five physical senses, or measured in a laboratory it is held to have no independent existence.

Nevertheless, in one respect at least, Bucke was ahead of his time. Darwin's Theory of Evolution was widely seen as a challenge to existing, creation-based, religion. Bucke saw Darwin's evolutionary principle as one that should be applied to all of existence, and in particular he saw evolution as a key to understanding consciousness, and as a key to a proper understanding of religion.

I have at last read the book.


The following excerpt from Cosmic Cosciousness lays the groundwork for his understanding:

[p. 12]

"It remains to say a few words upon the psychological origin of what is called in this book Cosmic Consciousness, which must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supranormal—as anything more or less than a natural growth.

Although in the birth of Cosmic Consciousness the moral nature plays an important part, it will be better for many reasons to confine our attention at present to the evolution of the intellect. In this evolution there are four distinct steps. The first of them was taken when upon the primary quality of excitability sensation was established. At this point began the acquisition and more or less perfect registration of sense impressions--that is, of percepts.

A percept is of course a sense impression—a sound is heard or an object seen and the impression made is a percept.

If we could go back far enough we should find among our ancestors a creature whose whole intellect was made up simply of these percepts. But this creature (whatever name it ought to bear) had in it what may be called an eligibility of growth, and what happened with it was something like this: Individually and from generation to generation it accumulated these percepts, the constant repetition of which, calling for further and further registration, led, in the struggle for existence and, under the law of natural selection, to an accumulation of cells in the central sense ganglia; the multiplication of cells made further registration possible; that, again, made further growth of the ganglia necessary, and so on.

[Bucke's explanation here may draw objection from modern scientists, but what matters is surely not the detail but the possibility of such a shift as he suggests, by whatever means it occurs. DCW]

At last a condition was reached in which it became possible for our ancestor to combine groups of these percepts into what we to-day call a recept. This process is very similar to that of composite photography. Similar percepts (as of a tree) are registered one over the other until (the nerve center having become competent to the task) they are generalized into, as it were, one percept; but that compound percept is neither more nor less than a recept—a something that has been received.

Now the work of accumulation begins again on a higher plane:

[p. 13]

the sensory organs keep steadily at work manufacturing percepts; the receptual centers keep steadily at work manufacturing more and yet more recepts from the old and the new percepts; the capacities of the central ganglia are constantly taxed to do the necessary registration of percepts, the necessary elaboration of these into recepts and the necessary registration of recepts; then as the ganglia by use and selection are improved they constantly manufacture from percepts and from the initial simple recepts, more and more complex, that is, higher and higher recepts.

At last, after many thousands of generations have lived and died, comes a time when the mind of the animal we are considering has reached the highest possible point of purely receptual intelligence; the accumulation of percepts and of recepts has gone on until no greater stores of impressions can be laid up and no further elaboration of these can be accomplished on the plane of receptual intelligence.

Then another break is made and the higher recepts are replaced by concepts. The relation of a concept to a recept is somewhat similar to the relation of algebra to arithmetic. A recept is, as I have said, a composite image of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of percepts; it is itself an image abstracted from many images; but a concept is that same composite image—that same recept—named, ticketed, and, as it were, dismissed. A concept is in fact neither more nor less than a named recept—the name, that is, the sign (as in algebra), standing henceforth for the thing itself, that is, for the recept.

Now it is as clear as day to any one who will give the least thought to the subject, that the revolution by which concepts are substituted for recepts increases the efficiency of the brain for thought as much as the introduction of machinery increased the capacity of the race for work—or as much as the use of algebra increases the power of the mind in mathematical calculations. To replace a great cumbersome recept by a simple sign was almost like replacing actual goods—as wheat, fabrics and hardware—by entries in the ledger.

But, as hinted above, in order that a recept may be replaced by a concept it must be named, or, in other words, marked with a sign

[p. 14]

which stands for it—just as a check stands for a piece of baggage or as an entry in a ledger stands for a piece of goods; in other words, the race that is in possession of concepts is also, and necessarily, in possession of language. Further, it should be noted, as the possession of concepts implies the possession of language, so the possession of concepts and language (which are in reality two aspects of the same thing) implies the possession of self consciousness. All this means that there is a moment in the evolution of mind when the receptual intellect, capable of simple consciousness only, becomes almost or quite instantaneously a conceptual intellect in possession of language and self-consciousness.

When we say that an individual, whether an adult individual long ago or a child to-day does not matter, came into possession of concepts, of language and of self consciousness in an instant, we, of course, mean that the individual came into possession of self consciousness and of one or a few concepts and of one or a few true words instantaneously and not that he entered into possession of a whole language in that short time. In the history of the individual man the point in question is reached and passed at about the age of three years; in the history of the race it was reached and passed several hundred thousand years ago.

We have now, in our analysis, reached the point where we each individually stand, the point, namely, of the conceptual, self conscious mind. In acquiring this new and higher form of consciousness it must not for a moment be supposed that we have dropped either our receptual intelligence or our old perceptual mind; as a matter of fact we could not live without these any more than could the animal who has no other mind than them. Our intellect, then, to-day is made up of a very complex mixture of percepts, recepts and concepts.

Let us now for a moment consider the concept. This may be considered as a large and complex recept; but larger and more complex than any recept. It is made up of one or more recepts combined with probably several percepts. This extremely complex recept is then marked by a sign; that is, it is named and in virtue of its name it becomes a concept. The concept, after being

[p. 15]

named or marked, is (as it were) laid away, just as a piece of checked baggage is marked by its check and piled in the baggage-room. By means of this check we can send the trunk to any part of America without ever seeing it or knowing just where it is at a given moment. So by means of their signs we can build concepts into elaborate calculations, into poems and into systems of philosophy, without knowing half the time anything about the thing represented by the individual concepts that we are using.

And here a remark must be made aside from the main argument. It has been noticed thousands of times that the brain of a thinking man does not exceed in size the brain of a non-thinking wild man in anything like the proportion in which the mind of the thinker exceeds the mind of the savage. The reason is that the brain of a Herbert Spencer has very little more work to do than has the brain of a native Australian, for this reason, that Spencer does all his characteristic mental work by signs or counters which stand for concepts, while the savage does all or nearly all his by means of cumbersome recepts.

The savage is in a position comparable to that of the astronomer who makes his calculations by arithmetic, while Spencer is in the position of one who makes them by algebra. The first will fill many great sheets of paper with figures and go through immense labor; the other will make the same calculations on an envelope and with comparatively little mental work.

The next chapter in the story is the accumulation of concepts. This is a double process. From the age, we will say, of three years each one accumulates year by year a larger and larger number, while at the same time the individual concepts are becoming constantly more and more complex. Consider for instance the concept science as it exists in the mind of a boy and of a middle aged thinking man; with the former it stood for a few dozen or a few hundred facts; with the latter for many thousands.

Is there to be any limit to this growth of concepts in number and complexity? Whoever will seriously consider that question will see that there must be a limit. No such process could go on

[p. 16]

to infinity. Should nature attempt such a feat the brain would have to grow until it could no longer be fed and a condition of deadlock be reached which would forbid further progress. We have seen that the expansion of the perceptual mind had a necessary limit; that its own continued life led it inevitably up to and into the receptual mind. That the receptual mind by its own growth was inevitably led up to and into the conceptual mind.

A priori considerations make it certain that a corresponding outlet will be found for the conceptual mind.

But we do not need to depend on abstract reasoning to demonstrate the necessary existence of the supra conceptual mind, since it exists and can be studied with no more difficulty than other natural phenomena. The supra conceptual intellect, the elements of which instead of being concepts are intuitions, is already (in small numbers it is true) an established fact, and the form of consciousness that belongs to that intellect may be called—and has been called—Cosmic Consciousness.

Thus we have four distinct stages of intellect, all abundantly illustrated in the animal and human worlds about us—all equally illustrated in the individual growth of the cosmic conscious mind and all four existing together in that mind as the first three exist together in the ordinary human mind.

These four stages are, first, the perceptual mind—the mind made up of percepts or sense impressions; second, the mind made up of these and recepts—the so called receptual mind, or in other words the mind of simple consciousness; third, we have the mind made up of percepts, recepts and concepts, called sometimes the conceptual mind or otherwise the self-conscious mind—the mind of self consciousness; and, fourth, and last, we have the intuitional mind—the mind whose highest element is not a recept or a concept but an intuition. This is the mind in which sensation, simple consciousness and self consciousness are supplemented and crowned with cosmic consciousness.

But it is necessary to show more clearly still the nature of these four stages and their relation one to the other. The perceptual or sensational stage of intellect is easy enough to understand, so

[p. 17]

may be passed by in this place with only one remark, namely, that in a mind made up wholly of percepts there is no consciousness of any sort. When, however, the receptual mind comes into existence simple consciousness is born, which means that animals are conscious (as we know they are) of the things they see about them. But the receptual mind is capable of simple consciousness only—that is, the animal is conscious of the object which he sees, but he does not know he is conscious of it; neither is the animal conscious of itself as a distinct entity or personality. In still other words, the animal cannot stand outside of itself and look at itself as any self conscious creature can.

This, then, is simple consciousness: to be conscious of the things about one, but not to be conscious of one's self. But when I have reached self consciousness I am not only conscious of what I see, but I know I am conscious of it. Also I am conscious of myself as a separate entity and personality and I can stand apart from myself and contemplate myself, and can analyze and judge the operations of my own mind as I would analyze and judge anything else.

This self-consciousness is only possible after the formation of concepts and the consequent birth of language. Upon self-consciousness is based all distinctively human life so far, except what has proceeded from the few cosmic conscious minds of the last three thousand years. Finally the basic fact in cosmic consciousness is implied in its name—that fact is consciousness of the cosmos—this is what is called
in the East the "Brahmic Splendour," which is in Dante's phrase capable of transhumanizing a man into a god. Whitman, who has an immense deal to say about it, speaks of it in one place as "ineffable light—light rare, untellable, lighting the very light—beyond all signs, descriptions, languages."

This consciousness shows the cosmos to consist not of dead matter governed by unconscious, rigid, and unintending law; it shows it on the contrary as entirely immaterial, entirely spiritual and entirely alive; it shows that death is an absurdity, that everyone and everything has eternal life; it shows that the universe is God and that God is the universe, and that no evil ever did or ever will enter into it; a great deal of this is, of course, from the point of view of self-consciousness, absurd;

[p. 18]

it is nevertheless undoubtedly true. Now all this does not mean that when a man has cosmic consciousness he knows everything about the universe. We all know that when at three years of age we acquired self consciousness we did not at once know all about ourselves; we know, on the contrary, that after a great many thousands of years of experience of himself man still to-day knows comparatively little about himself considered even as a self conscious personality. So neither does a man know all about the cosmos merely because he becomes conscious of it. If it has taken the race several hundred thousand years to learn a smattering of the science of humanity since its of self-consciousness, so it may take it millions of years to acquire a smattering of the science of God after its acquisition of cosmic consciousness.

As on self-consciousness is based the human world as we see it with all its works and ways, so on cosmic consciousness is based the higher religions and the higher philosophies and what comes from them, and on it will be based, when it becomes more general, a new world of which it would be idle to try to speak to-day.

The philosophy of the birth of cosmic consciousness in the individual is very similar to that of the birth of self consciousness. The mind becomes overcrowded (as it were) with concepts and these are constantly becoming larger, more numerous and more and more complex; some day (the conditions being all favorable) the fusion, or what might be called the chemical union, of several of them and of certain moral elements takes place; the result is an intuition and the establishment of the intuitional mind, or, in other words, cosmic consciousness.

The scheme by which the mind is built up is uniform from beginning to end: a recept is made of many percepts; a concept of many or several recepts and percepts, and an intuition is made of many concepts, recepts and percepts together with other elements belonging to and drawn from the moral nature. The cosmic vision or the cosmic intuition, from which what may be called the new mind takes its name, is thus seen to be simply the complex and union of all prior thought and experience— just as self-consciousness is the complex and union of all thought and experience prior to it.

[It is interesting to speculate on Bucke's possible response to the response of our cyber-society, at once enabling the handling of concepts many times more complex than before, but at the same time postponing the absolute need for cosmic consciousness. DCW]

Next, he sets out to chart the course of "mental evolution", noting the smooth and even ascent until the first of the great divides is reached.

The first of the great divides occurs between Organic and Inorganic Matter. Later, he describes the beginning of Simple Consciousness:

"Certain individuals in some one leading species in the slowly unfolding life of the planet, some day—for the first time— become conscious; know that there exists a world, a something, without them.

Again he points to the slow process of change over thousands of years until the next divide is reached:

"—the hiatus, namely, or the seeming hiatus between Simple and Self Consciousness: the deep chasm

[p. 21]

or ravine upon one side of which roams the brute while upon the other dwells man.

From self consciousness he traces again the long path to the society we know today.

Is that all? Is that the end? No. As life arose in a world without life; as Simple Consciousness came into existence where before was mere vitality without perception; as Self Consciousness leaping widewinged from Simple Consciousness soared forth over land and sea, so shall the race of man which has been thus established, continuing its beginningless and endless ascent, make other steps (the next of which it is now in act of climbing) and attain to a yet higher life than any heretofore experienced or even conceived.

And let it be clearly understood that the new step (to explain which this volume is written) is not simply an expansion of self consciousness but as distinct from it as that is from simple consciousness or as is this last from mere vitality without any consciousness at all, or as is the latter from the world of inorganic matter and force which preceded it and from which it proceeded.


Bucke maintains that there are a number of common features among possessors of cosmic consciousness:




R.M. Bucke