I am reading "Nature, Man and Woman" by Alan Watts and I am not able to grasp the meaning of the sentence highlighted below fully.

There is a prevalent belief in the West that intellectual and philosophical pursuits are unessential ornaments of far less value than active and technological accomplishments. This attitude is in great danger of being confused with the Eastern view that real knowledge is nonverbal and beyond the reach of concepts. But our actions are almost invariably directed by a philosophy of ends and values, and to the extent that this is unconscious it is liable to be bad philosophy with disastrous active consequences. The so-called "nonintellectually" of the east lies as far above thought as mere activism lies below it.

I am quite confused about the meaning that the word "thought" has in this context.

Also, I am not able to understand whether the words "above" and "below" have a connotation of "good/better" and "bad/worse" respectively.

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    He is equating thought with the state of consciousness. In the East there are essentially three states of consciousness. There is the subconscious, the conscious, and the superconscious. The superconscious is not a state of thought as we think of the conscious state. The superconscious state is also called Samadhi in Hinduism or Nirvana in Buddhism. There is no thought in that state because it is the Knower, it is Supreme Awareness. From the state of conscious, the superconscious appears the same as the subconscious, but it is far above the conscious state. Jan 2, 2016 at 9:14

2 Answers 2


Some idea of above, between and below might be illustrated by the following quotes:

Lankavatara Sutra, Ch IV Perfect Knowledge, or Knowledge of Reality

When appearances and names are put away and all discrimination ceases, that which remains is the true and essential nature of things and, as nothing can be predicated as to the nature of essence, it is called the "Suchness" of Reality. This universal, undifferentiated, inscrutable, "Suchness" is the only Reality but it is variously characterised as Truth, Mind-essence, Transcendental Intelligence, Noble Wisdom, etc. This Dharma of the imagelessness of the Essence-nature of Ultimate Reality is the Dharma which has been proclaimed by all the Buddhas, and when all things are understood in full agreement with it, one is in possession of Perfect Knowledge, and is on his way to the attainment of the Transcendental Intelligence of the Tathagatas.

Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason and the Domination of Nature

The capitalist system can be seen to have a directly proportionate relationship with instrumental reason. Horkheimer goes beyond this comparison to suggest that the gradual reification – the mastery of nature – has its end in Fascism, however liberal democracy and capitalism were very much the target of the Frankfurt School. The capitalist agent looks to commodify the world toward his/her own ends, primarily the individualistic pursuit of self-preservation. Instrumental reason is the greatest tool in this process. In any case, substantial reason, which guides moral judgements and values, a veritable looking glass into reality and the truth of the world, has in today’s capitalist society become obsolete.

So here we have Perfect Knowledge as 'the so-called "nonintellectually" of the east' standing above 'thought', as 'substantial reason'. Below 'thought' we have 'activism' as 'instrumental reason' (loosely, instrumental activity/activism).


@Robbo The passage from Alan Watts expresses a view which is often heard when opposing so called Eastern and Western thinking.

Then Western culture is characterized by science, technological progess and target orientation. While Eastern culture is characterized by meditation and experiences which cannot be expressed by words - as Western people are told.

Of course, both characterizations are much too simple and hold at best as a first approximation.

I understand thought in the quoted passage as “rationality”, characterized by logcial thinking with argumentation. According to Watts, “above” is the Eastern culture, “below” is Western activism. Both terms above and below are taken as evaluation as you assume.

Aside: In my opinion Watts re-echos a cliché.

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