I) Introceptualism, A Summary


Why are we interested in Franklin Merrell-Wolff and his philosophy, which he calls Introceptualism? Because he exemplifies in his life, being, and expression an exalted potential for the human spirit that is worth striving for. By understanding his personal journey, it makes it easier for us to Realize1 these values in our own lives.

He is an invaluable and unique resource for the spiritual seeker for several reasons:

  1. His teachings are grounded in his personal Mystical Realizations.
  2. He provides an autobiographical record of his own development and the realizations that comprise the basis for his philosophy.
  3. His background in philosophy, psychology and mathematics comprise a depth and breadth of knowledge from which to express his spiritual findings and to treat the central issues of humankind.


Let us first briefly review his realizations and the resulting fundamental propositions based on them, noting first that one could not—and should not—merely attempt to emulate his personal journey. Of his realizations, the first few are mental—the final two Fundamental. Franklin (as he preferred to be called by his family, friends and peers) distinguishes between the two types by stating that mental realizations may be adequately described in language. Fundamental Realizations are ineffable, that is, beyond all words and concepts, but may be approached by symbols, as they precipitate content into relative consciousness that does permit formulation.

His first realization, I Am Atman, was the sudden profound mental conviction that he was identical with the Self (Atman), but it was twelve years later, on August 7, 1936, that this was transformed into the Fundamental Realization that we may call I AM THAT. It immediately followed a flash of insight (an unacknowledged mental realization), I am already That which I seek. He then ceased striving, isolated the subjective moment in consciousness—allowing objects to continue to arise, but giving them no energy or attention, while consciousness sank back, as it were, into its source.

His second realization, a year or so before this breakthrough, was I Am Nirvana, that is, Nirvana is not objective, but instead is identical with the inmost Self. The third realization (not acknowledged as such at the time) took the form Substantiality Is Inversely Proportional to Ponderability (expressed mathematically as S = 1/P, the basis for the development of his Mandala), which means that the appearances that our minds can most ponder are furthest from what is most Real.

Franklin’s Second Fundamental (and ultimate) Realization, The High Indifference, occurred only 33 days after his First Fundamental Realization. It arose and unfolded spontaneously, entirely without expectation, progressing through four distinct stages:

  1. Initially it produced a state of utter Satisfaction that fulfilled the entire desire realm.
  2. Then arose the supernal state of High Indifference (in extreme contrast to the low indifference of apathy) that was poised in Equilibrium, completely neutral between all pairs of opposites—but superior to the state of Satisfaction.
  3. Eventually all opposites, including the most highly exalted subject (the Self, or “I”) and object (“God”), dissolved into Consciousness without-an-object and without-a-subject.3
  4. As each stage moved progressively to ever greater Depth, self-consciousness was finally extinguished in the darkness of noncognition… until he awakened the next morning.

Three Fundamentals

From the base of his First Fundamental Realization, Franklin had previously held a philosophical position akin to Shankara’s in regarding the Realization of the Self (Atman) as ultimate. However, his Realization of a Primordial Consciousness in The High Indifference, which transcended the Self, required a systematic revision of his philosophy. This resulted in his opus magnum, The Philosophy of Consciousness without-an-Object.4 To dispel any confusion, when he uses this term without qualification, he always means it to include without-a-subject as well.

Much later, he distilled his philosophy into three fundamental propositions, all grounded in his Realizations:

  1. Consciousness is original, self-existent and constitutive of all things.
  2. The subject-to-consciousness transcends the object of consciousness.
  3. There is a third faculty or function of cognition besides sense perception and conceptual cognition—namely, Introception.

The First Fundamental asserts the Primacy of Consciousness in an Absolute or Primordial sense. More precisely, Consciousness without-an-object is a symbol that points to the ineffable nondual Ultimate Reality.

The Transcendence of the subject over the object, attested by the Second Fundamental, is reflective of the Realized Self continuing to exist as a monadic consciousness in the absence of any object.

In his Third Fundamental, the third function of cognition, or way of knowing, he calls Introception, which is knowledge-through-identity. That is, the knower is identical to the known. Here, knower and known are two terms that have the same referent. Its noetic value takes form in relative consciousness under the influence of Transcendent Consciousness. It has the potential for metaphysical knowledge insofar as it satisfies Immanuel Kant’s requirements that there be a nonsensuous content given immediately to consciousness, and subsequently mediated by concepts.

Consciousness-without-an Object

Franklin says of Consciousness without-an-Object and without-a-Subject (which, for elegance, he contracts to Consciousness without-an-Object) that it is “Consciousness that is absolutely neutral with respect to the presence or absence of objects. It transcends the distinction between Samsara (the ‘world field’, where objects are taken as independently existent) and Nirvana (Consciousness-without-an object, but with a subject), which accounts for the dialectical structure of his Aphorisms on Consciousness without-an-Object. For each of the major notions (Space, Time, Law, etc.) that he introduces, Consciousness without-an-object is neither that nor its opposite.

He subsequently found that Consciousness without-an-object corresponds to the state of consciousness that the Tibetans call rig-pa. Of course, the state is not exclusive to the Tibetan tradition, but is simply Primordial Awareness, that is Natural Awareness (free of conceptual overlay)—our Buddha nature (our Enlightened essential nature, which is ordinarily obscured).

There tends to be an Eastern bias against conceptual thought, viewing it as a distraction, thus valuing its cessation. In contrast, Franklin values conceptual thought—the strength of the West—and advocates using it in religious and spiritual development as pointer concepts to symbolize that which ultimately lies beyond all thought.

The paradox of attainment is that what is Realized is beyond cause and effect, and is nothing other than what we already are, so nothing we do in Samsara (our phenomenal existence) can bring it about. From the point of view of Samsara, however, it does seem to matter what we do. Franklin holds that it is the relative or personal consciousness that transforms, and under the impact of Realization it takes on differentiated forms. This is experienced as a process of development, which is the model of spirituality most familiar to us, as well as to Franklin initially in his quest for Enlightenment. After Enlightenment he continued to provide assistance to those who are similarly oriented: “The ultimate purpose is to facilitate… development toward that event which, when achieved, is known as Fundamental Realization, or Enlightenment.5

II) An Alternative Approach to Understanding Introceptualism

Introceptualism: Although Ultimate Reality cannot be described, it can be Realized as Primordial Consciousness.

Clearly, simple here does not mean easy. Each term now needs to be explained, and questions answered, so as an aid a Glossary is provided for succinct definitions, and the third section summarizes Franklin’s advice for how to understand spiritual language. First, here are some suggestions to help guide the reader:

Franklin asks, “How do you communicate the truth… when the only tools you have to work with are… ‘lies’?6 Ordinary words having standard meanings cannot convey awareness and thought that lies completely beyond the range of ordinary human experience. Ordinary experience is dualistic—objects are separate from each other, the background against which they appear, and the subject to whom they appear. Ordinary language requires contrast between that to which a term does/does not apply. Franklin’s philosophy is based on Realizations that are ineffable, that is, beyond all words and concepts, because they are nondual. No distinctions whatsoever apply. To express anything of it requires extending language beyond ordinary usage. This accords with the testimony of mystics from all cultures and times: Mystical Realization, whether deeply introvertive or in the midst of the world, is essentially formless, beyond time, space, and causality.

  • Whenever a term (e.g., Consciousness) is capitalized (except at the beginning of a sentence, or proper names), its meaning extends radically beyond what it ordinarily would be. This makes it possible to avoid inventing a new term, although introducing a new term is sometimes preferable (e.g. Introception and Imperience).
  • When a word stands for a concept (concepts can be defined, e.g., cat), understand its defined meaning; when it stands for a notion (Notions cannot be defined, e.g. Nirvana), use them as symbols to lead your understanding to a deeper meaning. Symbols are dynamic; allow them to lead consciousness to that which is symbolized.
  • Do not take anything for granted—whether it be common sense, what you have been taught, what you have experienced or have come to believe about the world, etc.
  • Do not try to contain the presentation and explanation of Franklin’s philosophy within your present understanding or worldview; extend your mind toward a larger view.

Let us first focus on what Franklin held to be most important—his three central statements, or Fundamentals. These are based on his five realizations (the first three, mental and premonitory; the final two, Fundamental or Mystical)—but especially his final and most ultimate Realization, which he calls The High Indifference. Consider the First Fundamental:

1. Consciousness is original, self-existent, and constitutive of all things.

  • Consciousness is not definable—particularly, it cannot be defined in terms of objects of consciousness. Even so, we know what consciousness is because we are conscious.
  • Ordinary consciousness is directed toward objects—physical or otherwise. The subject-to-consciousness (which is not, nor ever can be an object) is the point of view consciousness has in relation to objects.
  • Wolff’s central notion is Consciousness-without-an-object and without-a-subject (for which we may use the acronym CWOWS). This is the meaning for Consciousness in his First Fundamental.
  • CWOWS is Primordial Consciousness, that is to say, it is original—nothing is prior to it, either in time or in being.
  • CWOWS is self-existent. To exist means to be present in and for consciousness, so both objects and subjects require consciousness in order to exist. CWOWS requires nothing other than Itself.
  • CWOWS is constitutive of all things. This is to say that the reality (as opposed to the appearance) of everything that is either an object or a subject is derived from Ultimate Reality, which is symbolized by CWOWS.

Just as Franklin’s second Fundamental Realization (The High Indifference) is the ground for his First Fundamental, his First Fundamental Realization (of the Self, or Atman) grounds his Second Fundamental. Simply stated, it is:

2. The subject-to-consciousness transcends the object of consciousness.

  • To simplify, for relative (subject-object) consciousness, an object implies a subject to which it appears; a subject implies an object of which it is aware.
  • When all objects vanish, the relative structure may remain, with consciousness polarized as a locus of awareness, but the object pole empty. Thus the subject is relatively transcendent over the object, that is to say, not dependent on it.
  • This is only relative transcendence insofar as the entire relative structure may dissolve into Consciousness Itself, without subject or object.

3. Introception is a third faculty or function of cognition (way of knowing) besides sense perception and conceptual cognition.

  • Whereas conception establishes the logical relations between concepts, and perception applies concepts to sensations, Introception is Knowledge-through-Identity.
  • In Knowledge-through-Identity, the knower is identical to the known because it is grounded in mystical consciousness, which is nondual; a non-sensuous content is immediately present prior to any formulation in words or concepts.
  • For this to be knowledge, there has to be a noetic apprehension of it—a sense of knowing, rather than feeling or willing.
  • As it takes form within relative consciousness, concepts mediate what is directly given. Unlike the conceptual mediation in perception, in Introception concepts point to or symbolize this indescribable content—so there are innumerable ways to formulate it. Alternative expressions are thus complementary, rather than contradictory.

The Three Fundamentals comprise the aspects of Introceptualism related to epistemology and metaphysics (knowledge and reality). There are implications, however, for other domains of philosophy: logic, language, religion, science, ethics, etc.

  • Franklin found that the process whereby Mystical Realization precipitates content within relative consciousness, taking symbolic form, has its own inherent logic that is not reducible to our ordinary two-valued logic: not(A and not-A), given that A is any predicate whatsoever. We may approach it more rigorously by Nagarjuna’s fourfold negation: It is not-A and not(not-A) and not(both A and not-A) and not(neither A nor not-A).
  • Language extends meaningfully beyond its propositional function (fact-stating discourse). Franklin uses the term pointer concept for concepts (especially mathematical concepts) that are extended beyond their defined meaning to treat Mystical Consciousness and its derived contents. Spiritual language is to be grasped noetically, with our whole being in a mode of self-giving, rather than intellectually and analytically through our logical mind; it functions to transform—rather than to inform—consciousness.
  • Although Franklin insists that “Introceptualism is not, nor must it ever become, a religion, and that it lies in the intersection between philosophy, psychology and religion, the distinction is rather subtle. He emphasizes “the critical and inquiring intelligence, rather than ritual and dogma. The meaning of religion (Lat.: re ligare) is to reconnect one’s individual being with a Transcendent Source. Wolff found that the Source is universal, but there is no single path to it—hence, no need to devise a new one, and certainly not to advocate following the specific path he did. The religious path that an individual finds effective is more a function of personal psychology, and the realizations that result from one’s own inner guidance.
  • Because Primordial Consciousness is nonphenomenal, and empirical science (for which he has a deep interest and appreciation) deals exclusively with phenomena, Introceptualism (and religion, properly understood) does not conflict with it. It is only when science assumes a metaphysical stance, or religion uses unscientific means to make factual pronouncements, that there is apparent conflict.
  • Wolff does not theorize about ethics, but distinguishes between self/others, as well as distinguishing consequences relating to the good, as distinct from principles of right/wrong. Concerning oneself, ethics reduces to attaining the greatest possible value; in Mystical Realization, Wolff found supernal value, “absolutely worth anything that it may cost, and immeasurably more.” In relation to others, he provided a set of general ethical principles (doing what is right) for his students to follow, but although he and Sherifa originally were also committed to them, Realization resulted in a spontaneous upsurge of benevolence such that his actions were motivated simply by the will that good be done—without concern for who/what would receive it. He advocated, and personally accepted the Bodhisattva Vow (the Vow of Quan Yin):

Never will I seek nor receive private individual salvation
Never will I enter into final Peace alone
But forever and everywhere will I strive for the salvation
of every creature throughout the world.

III) Understanding Spiritual Language

Concerning the understanding of spiritual literature, including, in particular, Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s Aphorisms, how are we to understand their meaning? He provides a quintessential teaching on this. First, one must acquire acuity of thought, where acuity means a sharpness, a readiness, a clarity—the state of mind that one has when waiting for something to be given. Along with this, one must ‘feel’ one’s thought, so it cannot be merely at the level of conceptuality, because the Aphorisms were not produced simply from that level. It involved a blending of the Introceptual and the conceptual. So, one has at the same time to draw upon one’s own capacity for grasping the Introcept—that which lies beyond the pure meaning of the concept. In fact, Franklin says that we have to be careful. The real or deeper meaning may be lost by a more rigorous, contained sense of the terms. So, if we are only looking at the terms themselves, the words that are used, and looking for clearly defined meanings and their logical relations, then we will fall short of the subtle, Transcendent meaning that is infusing it.

When he says that we have to feel our thought, there is a certain sense in which the active aspect has to be subordinated to a sense of self-giving. There is a devotional attitude that is required there, which is a self-surrender. In other words, there is something of mystery that infuses the Aphorisms—something from the Transcendent that cannot possibly be completely and totally grasped by our conceptual process. The self-giving is the only way in which, by opening, it can inform our consciousness. We can then have a sense of this—but perhaps in order to do it, we have to give up the pride of the knower. Then one is possessed by it, and then becomes one with That, and the knowledge that we then have is knowledge of the Divine.

Franklin advises that “the reader should strive not so much to understand the formal meaning contained in these writings, but to make a certain turn in his own consciousness toward a Matrix that surrounds the expression. He should concentrate upon faint stirrings in his consciousness which he cannot really express, even to himself.7

In ordinary thought, the meaning is contained within the expression; in the Aphorisms, the meaning extends beyond the expression—the meaning contains the expression. It takes a subtle shift in consciousness to try to attain to That, and to attend to these faint, inexpressible stirrings in consciousness—that which has not been captured by the form, but is horizonally implied by the form. It is while one is in this mode that one has to apprehend it, but he says that we have to tread lightly—tread lightly in thought, in feeling, and in action. “One should reach out almost as though not reaching at all.8 Eventually, if successful, the aspirant becomes transformed, becoming the all-containing Matrix.