A Guide for the Perplexed

a guide for the perplexed e f schumacherA Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher, 4/5

Decrying modern science and philosophy’s complete inadequacy to answer such endemic existential questions as “What does it all mean?” or “What am I supposed to do with my life?”, Schumacher creates a short but convincing argument for a more spiritual approach to life that transcends fact-based logic and the “nothing-but-ness” that characterizes modern thinking.

The backbone of the book is Schumacher’s categorization of “levels of being” into four vertical dimensions and the human experience into four “fields of knowledge” as follows:

Four Levels of Being:
Mineral = m
Plant = m + x
Animal = m + x + y
Man = m + x + y + z
(Where m=physical existence, x=life, y=consciousness and z=self-awareness)

Four Fields of Knowledge:
I–inner; that is, “what do I feel like?”
The world (you)–inner; “what do you feel like?”
I–outer; “what do I look like?”
The world (you)–outer; “what do you look like?”

As I understand, Schumacher basically argues that the mysterious, fundamental differences between levels of being, which science is unable to explain or reproduce, are evidence that life is bigger than logic and man is more than a favorable arrangement of atoms and random chemical reactions.  He points out that by allowing science to overstep its bounds by making philosophical, ontological claims, and by limiting philosophy to proof-based, rigorously logical, “dead” arguments, human existence is robbed of richness and mankind renders itself unable to realise its full potential and humanity.  According to Schumacher, an enlightened person who believes that “the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things” (3) is more equipped to deal with the many and varied divergent problems in life (“divergent” meaning polarizing issues for which logical solutions are difficult or impossible to find).

Despite a powerful opening, I found some parts of the book to be unconvincing and outdated; also, I was hoping to find something a bit more practically helpful than being told that happiness and a rich, fulfilling life can be achieved by cultivating the four fields of knowledge and striving towards levels of being above myself.  However, the whole effect was undeniably challenging and uplifting–it is refreshing to read a philosophical treatise written to the end of ennobling man and celebrating the mysterious, temporary and fragile existence we each call life.

[Why I read it: I enjoyed Schumacher’s philosophy much more than his economics in Small is Beautiful, so this book sounded appealing.]



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