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Self-Transcendence, Education, and the Thinking Machine


In 1798, the brightest and yet most fleeting star among the German Romanticists, Novalis, wrote that “the highest duty of education is to overcome the transcendental Self, to be at once Ego and Super-Ego. And thus the shortage of full reason and understanding will be less alien for others. Without a complete understanding of the Self, one will never come to understand others.” (Blütenstaub-Fragment No. 30, Novalis Briefe und Werke, vol. 3, p. 62) Like Schiller and Kant, Novalis considered education the ultimate and most powerful agent of human transformation. Education was not a diversion, but a mandate. “We are sent upon a mission: for the education of the earth,” he writes in Fragment No. 35. And like the idealists, Novalis believed that a psychological approach was essential. His analysis is scattered across a number of philosophical-poetic fragments and therefore difficult to assemble as a whole, but it seems clear that self-transcendence is a focal element. To really learn, he supposes, the pupil needs to build from an understanding of his self, but ultimately he must transcend it. Transcendence does not, of course, mean exiting the body, nor even ultimately becoming detached from the Ego. Rather, it requires consciousness of the Ego, together with mastery. The Ego must be educated; but, it inhibits learning.

The Harvard educational philosopher Robert Ulich, whose works were very popular in the fifties, seemed to develop his own theory of self-transcendence in education directly from Novalis. Ulich’s philosophy of self-transcendence was developed in The Human Career of 1955, in which he argues that reason is the “supreme human faculty that guides human action according to the dictate of the self-limiting, normative principle of morality and also of a more positive and creative force, namely the principle of self-realization.” Education, he says, is a long enduring process of cultural self-evolution in which we must discover ourselves as part of a reality that is creative and whose power compels a form of faith. His thinking is religious, but also secular. He writes, “The most radical and comprehensive thinking leads a person beyond the boundaries of the merely empirical and rational into the sphere of the mysterious.” So it seems in the years right after World War II, Novalis reappeared and was living on the banks of the Charles River.

But how do modern men of science come to grips with all of this? Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, of course, have no problem with the Novalis concept–indeed both of them were fascinated by it and did much to validate it. But the B.F. Skinners of the world were assuredly more dismissive. And last night, flipping through Douglas Hofstadter’s classic brain teaser, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), I found that he, too, encountered the Novalis concept and tried to wrestle it to modernity’s floor. Yes, he asks, how can the transcendence principle be reconciled with artificial intelligence?:

It is still of great interest to ponder whether we humans can ever jump out of ourselves–or whether computer programs can jump out of themselves. Certainly it is possible for a program to modify itself–but such modifiability has to be inherent in the program to start with, so that cannot be counter as an example of “jumping out of the system.” No matter how a program twists and turns to get out of itself, it is still following the rules inherent in itself. It is no more possible for it to escape than it is for a human being to decide voluntarily not to obey the laws of physics. Physics is an overriding system, from which it is possible to achieve: that is, one can certainly jump from a subsystem of one’s brain into a wider subsystem. One can step out of ruts on occasion. This is still due to the interaction of various subsystems of one’s brain, but it can feel very much like stepping entirely out of oneself. Similarly, it is entirely conceivable that a partial ability to “step outside of itself” could be embodied in a computer program.

Novalis has entered the space age. But then, he was there in 1798, wasn’t he?

Fantasy will set the world of the future either in the heights above, in the earth below or in us through a process of metempsychosis. We dream of travels through the universe: but is the universe not within us? The depths of our spirit remain unknown to us.–The mysterious path leads within. Within us or nowhere lies eternity with all its worlds, the past and the future. The external world is but a world of shadows, it throws its shadows into the realm of light. At present it appears internally dark, lonely and shapeless, but it will seem quite different when this darkness has passed and the body of shadows has been shoved aside. We will experience more joy than ever before, because our spirit will have done without.

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