THEOSOPHY, Vol. 42, No. 12, October, 1954
(Pages 557-563; Size: 21K)


[Part 15 of a 29-part series]

THE word hypothesis may seem at first to be of comparatively little significance for the theosophic student; the term is associated with the disciplined techniques evolved by proponents of scientific method for investigation of physical phenomena, whereas Theosophy is represented by H. P. Blavatsky as "a body of knowledge" pertaining to the soul. Further, the word is often found associated with skepticism and materialism, partly because the early philosophical opponents of formal theology vehemently insisted that all transcendental convictions are of necessity "hypothetical."

However, a thoughtful reading of H.P.B.'s Lucifer article, "What is Truth?" and a search for correlative passages elsewhere in her writings make it clear that hypothesis has a rather special meaning and dignity for the Theosophist, as well as for the honest scientist.

The literal meaning of hypothesis signifies "an underlying thesis," and as such the term is applicable alike to opinions, beliefs, and convictions -- particularly if these are consciously formulated as a part of one's thought-structure. The derivation is from the Greek word hypothesis, meaning "foundation," and it is fitting that a designation of such significance should come to us from the first Western people to know the meaning of philosophy. As a matter of fact, it seems quite clear that only those who are gifted with a judicial turn of mind can understand what hypothesis means, and appreciate its importance. For the true philosopher is not concerned with retaining intact his present sentiments or convictions -- but rather with extending their implications in new directions, in order to add to the sum-total of knowledge. In order to do this, he must experiment with different ways of phrasing the problem he wishes to solve, and examine various tentative solutions. Hypothesis symbolizes this attitude of mind and represents this method of approach. Thus, in considering any subject of debate, question, or problem, the philosopher demonstrates his determination to preserve an unbiased mind for the inquiry by proposing to himself certain possible truths, and then by withholding judgment upon these proposals until the hypotheses in which they are framed are tested.

Webster defines "proposition" in the following manner:

A proposition, condition, or principle which is assumed, perhaps without belief, in order to draw out its logical consequences and by this method to test its accord with facts which are known or may be determined.

A tentative theory or supposition provisionally adopted to explain certain facts and to guide in the investigation of others; -- frequently called a working hypothesis; as, the nebular hypothesis.

As Bosanquet remarked, "most of the great unifying conceptions of science are, of course, hypotheses." So, also, with the "great unifying conceptions" of Theosophy, when they are first encountered by the student. In The Key to Theosophy, at the outset of Section III, H. P. Blavatsky outlines two fundamental teachings of Theosophy, but at the same time makes clear that these fundamental teachings are hypotheses unless and until their truth has been demonstrated by each one for himself. Thus, she places the burden of proof upon the student, rather than, as has always been the case with dogmatic religionists, considering that any talk of a need for proof is a form of heresy. When an inquirer asks how the Theosophists believe themselves capable of successfully combating the "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" discipline of the Mosaic Bible, she replies as follows -- the opening sentence indicating her own emphasis upon the need for proper "scientific method":
Simply by demonstrating on logical, philosophical, metaphysical, and even scientific grounds that:-- (a) All men have spiritually and physically the same origin, which is the fundamental teaching of Theosophy. (b) As mankind is essentially of one and the same essence, and that essence is one -- infinite, uncreate, and eternal, whether we call it God or Nature -- nothing, therefore, can affect one nation or one man without affecting all other nations and all other men.
Now, one who proposes to further the cause of a doctrine by logical demonstration must, of necessity, reduce that doctrine to hypotheses, so that it may be discussed. And if logical demonstration is important, the Theosophists should be far less pleased with new inquirers who become sudden "firm believers" than with those who exercise critical judgment while familiarizing themselves with the teachings. For the latter, as H.P.B. often intimated, will ultimately learn more of what Theosophy means than their religious co-disciples.

It is true that agnostics and skeptics can, and often do, carry formal logical caution to extremes, but this weakness is only intensified by Theosophists who, en masse, habitually speak in a "tone of settled conviction." It is one thing, for instance, to call attention to H.P.B.'s direct statements concerning her Adept teachers, but quite another to speak of those Adepts as if they were as well known to all Theosophists as they apparently were to H.P.B. A cautious inquirer, confronted with a "group belief" of this nature -- and by people who all talk as if they had personal knowledge of the Adepts -- will be quite likely to protest: "But unless you know these beings yourselves, their existence is really only hypothetical." And this inquirer is, after all, quite correct. The chief counter-criticism against his remark is in his use of the word "only," as if a hypothesis is of little account, or necessarily mere blind belief or speculation; it may be supported by many legitimate forms of evidence made available by the student's own experience. And for the philosopher, in any case, every hypothesis adopted merits the full devotion of one's mental and intuitive energies. Thus it is no insult to H.P.B.'s Adept teachers to consider their existence still hypothetical, so far as one's own present experience is concerned -- for this is not to presumptuously claim that these same Adepts were also "only" theoretical to H.P.B. herself.

Further, devotion to the idea and ideal of Masters of Wisdom, or even to particular ones among their number who are said to have been associated with H.P.B., need not be lessened by the admission that one has not yet acquired direct personal knowledge of their existence. If one claims more than hypothetical knowledge of certain adepts, moreover, he implies that he wishes to be recognized as one of their familiars, and, while an inquirer might have deep intuitive respect for a student's thoughts and feelings about Adepts, he is apt to be chary indeed about extreme claims. The philosopher who uses the concept of hypotheses intelligently makes no claims -- save that he is pursuing a line of inquiry he considers of great importance. Such an attitude commands respect, for it shows humility, and that the philosopher still considers himself a student. It may be said that H.P.B. and Judge were not forever talking about "hypotheses," and this is quite true. But each must further ask himself, "Am I an H.P.B. or a Judge? If so, I am clearly entitled to speak like one, but if I am not, my mode of speech should not be that natural to them, and their actual knowledge, but a mode natural to me and the knowledge I presently possess."

The most comprehensive and detailed statement of H.P.B.'s views on the subject of hypothesis occurs on the closing page of "What is Truth?" and is well worth reproducing here. After ten years of reflection upon the habits of mind which characterized many Theosophists who had adopted sectarian attitudes in regard to her own teachings, she explains why Lucifer must hold before the world a cosmopolitan theosophic ideal -- even as did Ammonius Saccas in the Fourth Century. She writes:

The editors are studiously careful not to offer the reader only those truths which they find reflected in their own personal brains. They offer the public a wide choice, and refuse to show bigotry and intolerance, which are the chief landmarks on the path of Sectarianism, while leaving the widest margin possible for comparison.

Concerning the deeper spiritual, and one may almost say religious, beliefs, no true Theosophist ought to degrade these by subjecting them to public discussion, but ought rather to treasure and hide them deep within the sanctuary of his innermost soul. Such beliefs and doctrines should never be rashly given out, as they risk unavoidable profanation by the rough handling of the indifferent and the critical. Nor ought they to be embodied in any publication except as hypotheses offered to the consideration of the thinking portion of the public. Theosophical truths, when they transcend a certain limit of speculation, had better remain concealed from public view, for the "evidence of things not seen" is no evidence save to him who sees, hears, and senses it. It is not to be dragged outside the "Holy of Holies," the temple of the impersonal divine Ego, or the indwelling SELF. For, while every fact outside its perception can, as we have shown, be, at best, only a relative truth, a ray from the absolute truth can reflect itself only in the pure mirror of its own flame -- our highest SPIRITUAL CONSCIOUSNESS. [Note: For those who might like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "What is Truth?" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]

It has long seemed to the present writer that these selections are of incomparable value in focusing the attention of theosophical students upon the manner in which a true synthesis between "religion and science" can be achieved. Bigotry, intolerance, and sectarianism inevitably arise when a man of religious belief insists that he personally possesses the full knowledge of his teacher -- while yet being a mere pupil or listener. Such religionists assume that because a being, such as Buddha or Christ, who evidently possessed great wisdom, asserted certain things to be true, they, the disciples, similarly "know" those statements to be true. But the Theosophists of all ages have called attention to the fact that no "truth" can be gained at second hand, nor even communicated per se. The writings and mantrams of the wise can, indeed, stimulate imagination and awaken the intuition, yet any student who really aspires to become a wise man, in his turn, must undertake personal verification. He must, in other words, maintain the equal-mindedness of the sage even in respect to what the sage tells him. He may neither believe nor reject, as ultimate truth, anything he hears or reads, no matter what its source. Instead, he is counseled to accept the teachings he receives as working hypotheses -- and to represent them, in his turn, as such and in a similar fashion.

Thus the Theosophist who is true to the great tradition he represents will draw to himself, quite naturally, other men of searching mind who strive to approach the mysteries of life humbly and honestly. If many scientists who could easily become Theosophists have judged transcendental philosophy and metaphysics abhorrent, it may be that this is chiefly due to the unphilosophical attitudes of sectarians -- who proclaim their "revelations" to the skies, and claim a direct, personal knowledge in respect to many things they obviously do not really know about.

To formulate a hypothesis is not necessarily to confess a skepticism. A man's deepest conviction may rest with the faith he places in the worthiness of a certain hypothesis -- and a true scientist, philosopher, or Theosophist, who is pursuing a certain road to truth, may be willing to die to defend that road and all it contains. The Wise man in any field of thought does not ask for "certainty," but merely for the right to continue his studies, and to hold to the noblest idea he knows unless and until he finds a still nobler one.

To illustrate some of the natural connections existing between the scientific definitions of the proper role of hypothesis and the theosophic attitude, we quote from Cohen and Nagel's Logic and the Scientific Method. In a lengthy discussion of hypotheses, the authors point out that the distinguished pioneer scientist, Galileo, was not a mere "guesser" or lucky experimenter, but, instead, a man of philosophic convictions -- who also had courage and intelligence to translate his beliefs into working hypotheses and draw them, as such, into the open forum of controversy:

Galileo was well read in ancient philosophy, and had an unbounded confidence that the "Book of Nature" was written in geometric characters. It was not, therefore, with a mind empty of strong convictions and interesting suggestions, that Galileo tried to solve for himself the problems of motion.

We may thus distinguish two sets of ideas which Galileo employed in studying the motions of bodies. One set, by far the larger, consisted of his mathematical, physical, and philosophical convictions, which determined his choice of subjects and their relevant properties. The other set consisted of the special hypotheses he devised for discovering the relations between the relevant factors.

It is these special assumptions which become formulated consciously as hypotheses or theories.

Galileo, then, like the Theosophist defined by H. P. Blavatsky, went beyond his personal intimations of truth; he painstakingly formulated disciplines which would enable him to verify or disprove those "truths"; in other words, he formulated hypotheses.

A further correlation between scientific method and theosophic inquiry comes to light in Cohen and Nagel's discussion of the deductive method and its necessary role in logical thought. They write:

We cannot take a single step forward in any inquiry unless we begin with a suggested explanation or solution of the difficulty which originated it. Such tentative explanations are suggested to us by something in the subject matter and by our previous knowledge. When they are formulated as propositions, they are called hypotheses. The function of a hypothesis is to direct our search for the order among facts. The suggestions formulated in the hypothesis may be solutions to the problem. Whether they are, is the task of the inquiry. No one of the suggestions need necessarily lead to our goal.

The deductive elaboration of a hypothesis must follow its formulation. For we can discover the full meaning of a hypothesis, whether it is relevant and whether it offers a satisfactory solution of the problem, only by discovering what it implies.

We are therefore already in the position to appreciate how important the technique of deduction is for scientific method. In the chapter on mathematics we have seen how a complex set of assumptions may be explored for their implications. The techniques we have discussed there are relevant for the deductive elaboration of any theory. Without writing a textbook on some special science one cannot illustrate the full scope of those methods in a particular subject matter. But by attending to a few more relatively simple examples the reader can appreciate the indispensability for scientific procedure of developing a hypothesis deductively.

The word hypothesis, then, has come to have vital meaning in the language of all philosophically inclined men, because it symbolizes their recognition of the necessity for formulating points of departure for careful investigation. When H. P. Blavatsky remarks that among the Theosophists there are many who have "convictions" but few who have "knowledge," she is not castigating those who have yet to consummate their understanding of theosophical principles by full verification; she is simply pointing out that convictions are, as yet, hypotheses -- that beliefs are not wisdom, nor can they express a completely pure vision. Therefore, the Theosophist who understands this recognizes that while he is concerned with many of the ethical and transcendental matters which occupy the feelings of religionists, he favors equally, and in a more dynamic sense, the insistence of the scientific philosopher upon the "strong search, questions, and humility" required by Krishna of his disciple.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


The intellectual virtues are good in themselves and good as means to happiness. By the intellectual virtues I mean good intellectual habits. The ancients distinguish five intellectual virtues: the three speculative virtues of intuitive knowledge, which is the habit of induction; of scientific knowledge, which is the habit of demonstration; and of philosophical wisdom, which is scientific knowledge, combined with intuitive reason, of things highest by nature, first principles and first causes. To these they add the two virtues of the practical intellect: art, the capacity to make according to a true course of reasoning, and prudence, which is right reason with respect to action.

In short, the intellectual virtues are habits resulting from the training of the intellectual powers. An intellect properly disciplined, an intellect properly habituated, is an intellect able to operate well in all fields. An education that consists of the cultivation of the intellectual virtues, therefore, is the most useful education, whether the student is destined for a life of contemplation or a life of action.

If education is rightly understood, it will be understood as the cultivation of the intellect. The cultivation of the intellect is the same good for all men in all societies. It is, moreover, the good for which all other goods are only means. 


[Note: Here's the link to HPB's article, entitled "What is Truth?", that was mentioned and quoted from in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler]

Next article:
[Iconoclasm. Absolutes.
One-Dimensional Symbols.
Dual Realities. Icons.
Religious & Scientific Symbols.
Mold Breaking. Illusionary Beliefs.
Radical. Images. Dogmas.
Myth. Allegory. Glyph.]
[Part 16 of a 29-part series]

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