Apocalypse revolves

A cycle or wheel revolving round and round a fixed point never gets anywhere. Revolutions come and go; they are historical phenomena, whereas no apocalypse has happened or can happen in history, because it is the opening of time, while history is limited to that which is already determined. History is the closet, discovery the living room. A revolution seen from within is an apocalypse, while an apocalyptic event seen retrospectively will appear revolutionary.

The very word revolution indicates recycling – like the cycles of the natural world, ‘persisting indefinitely in time. Looked at from an imaginative point of view, their renewal is an image of resurrection into eternity’ (Frye 1947, 211). Frye is referring here to Blake’s sense of history, which is somewhat more evolutionary than his cosmology appears at first glance.

Thus history exhibits a series of crises in which a sudden flash of imaginative vision (as in the French Revolution) bursts out, is counteracted by a more ruthless defense of the status quo, and subsides again. The evolution comes in the fact that the opposition grows sharper each time, and will one day present a clear-cut alternative of eternal life or extermination.

— Frye (1947, 260)

But in the presence of time, the alternatives are already clear: the closed circle of birth-and-death, or the opening of the dharma eye.

Recycling the meaning

The hermeneutic circle is one realization of the meaning cycle. It entails returning to parts of a text which have introduced you to its whole idea, but which now take on new meaning in the light of its wholeness. Once a text has become a turning sign, the integrity of that text guides your continued interpretation of it. You read it as a single symbol which embodies a single intent, however complex it may be. Then your focus on any part takes the whole text as its primary context.

This way of reading is especially fruitful when the text lacks a narrative order, for then your quest for the whole intent invites you to try various combinations and groupings of the parts, which will reveal meanings that would remain submerged in a narrative flow. This might explain the endless fascination of texts which appear to be collections of isolated aphorisms, like the fragments of ancient Greek philosophers, the Tao te ching or the Gospel of Thomas.

The hermeneutic circle is called a ‘circle’ only because it repeatedly brings you round to revisit and reinterpret the same text. But where it takes you between visits to that single text would not look like a circular path if you could diagram it; it would look like a strange attractor, or perhaps like someone wandering about in a network. And of course it would take many more than two dimensions to properly portray this itinerancy.

The circle also has a tendency to become a hermeneutic spiral, especially in a scriptural work such as the Báb’s commentary on the Qur’anic Sura of Joseph:

The work itself is the result of a re-ordering of the basic elements of the scripture of Islam that have been internalized and transformed by the apparently opposite processes of imitation and inspiration to become finally an original “act” of literature of a genre we would like to call gnostic apocalypse.… Taken as a whole, this commentary by the 25-year-old merchant from Shiraz represents a text within a text within a text which strives to interpret itself. It may be thought to offer an example of an attempt to transform what became known much later as the hermeneutic circle into what might be called a hermeneutic spiral.

Lawson 2012, 141

Hermeneutic cycling

The hermeneutic circle is a semantic expansion of the ‘syntactic bootstrapping’ which is part of the language-learning process for every child (Tomasello 1999, 122).

And this sort of circle, according to which language, in the presence of those who are learning it, precedes itself, teaches itself, and suggests its own deciphering, is perhaps the marvel which defines language.… In a unified whole of this kind, the learned parts of a language have an immediate value as a whole, and progress is made less by addition and juxtaposition than by the internal articulation of a function which is in its own way already complete.

— Merleau-Ponty (1960, 39-40)

In the same way, science does not advance by addition of completely new knowledge (Kuhn 1969), but by the transformation of a knowledge which is already complete as a guidance system for continuing inquiry, yet incomplete with respect to the questions which are still open. Likewise the evolution of bodily form: each organism is complete and ‘perfect’ enough to live and reproduce, yet the lineage keeps on perfecting its form as it carries itself forward in an evolving world.

The hermeneutic circle is also embodied in perception, i.e. in reading the world:

Even if in the last resort I have no absolute knowledge of this stone, and even if my knowledge regarding it takes me step by step along an infinite road and cannot ever be complete, the fact remains that the perceived stone is there, that I recognize it, that I have named it and that we agree on a certain number of statements about it. Thus it seems that we are led to a contradiction: belief in the thing and the world must entail the presumption of a completed synthesis—and yet this completion is made impossible by the very nature of the perspectives which have to be inter-related, since each one of them, by virtue of its horizons, refers to other perspectives, and so on indefinitely. There is, indeed, a contradiction, as long as we operate within being, but the contradiction disappears, or rather is generalized, being linked up with the ultimate conditions of our experience and becoming one with the possibility of living and thinking, if we operate in time, and if we manage to understand time as the measure of being.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 385)

Merleau-Ponty’s ‘completed synthesis’ is Edelman‘s ‘closure’; ‘time as the measure of being’ recalls Dogen’s ‘being-time’ (‘Uji’). The physical side of all this is explicated in Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature.


The vital role played by fulfillment in some religious traditions is played by emptiness in others. In many Taoist and Buddhist texts, ‘emptiness’ (hsü and sunyata respectively) is the concept developed to dispel the illusions of permanent “substances” or definitive “essences.” There’s a similar movement in the philosophy of science; for instance Ernst Mayr (1982, 249) speaks of ‘essentialism’ as ‘the most insidious of all philosophies.’ This movement encourages a shift of attention from static entities to dynamic processes. In the Buddhist context, the concept of ‘emptiness’ has played a key role in this shift. In other contexts, such as biology, the key term is behavior:

Life is distinguished not by its chemical constituents but by the behavior of its chemicals. The question ‘What is life?’ is thus a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, re-creates, and outdoes itself.

— Margulis and Sagan (1995, 15)

A philosophical parallel to this can be found in Merleau-Ponty:

The something in transit which we have recognized as necessary to the constitution of a change is to be defined only in terms of the particular manner of its ‘passing.’ For example, the bird which flies across my garden is, during the time that it is moving, merely a greyish power of flight and, generally speaking, we shall see that things are defined primarily in terms of their ‘behaviour’ and not in terms of static ‘properties.’

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 320-1)

The illusory nature of the usual view consists of its positing of essences which have attributes, or fundamental components which are assembled in the construction of the object. This way of organizing experience is of course very useful in many situations – that’s why it is the usual view – but it breaks down under persistent analysis. Eliminate all attributes and you find no essence remaining, just as there is no meaning without context. “Fundamentals” turn out, on deeper examination, to be “founded” on something else. Since what appears essential or fundamental changes when you change your orientation toward the object (or subject), we can say that nothing is permanent, or that all things are empty.

And here’s a physicist’s version of the concept, from David Bohm (1975):

… the notion of something with an exhaustively specificable and unvarying mode of being can be only an approximation and an abstraction from the infinite complexity of the changes taking place in the real process of becoming.

— Bohm (2003, 32)

The Buddhist model of co-dependent origination (interbeing, sunyata, emptiness, ….. ) is sometimes presented in circular form (e.g. Thich Nhat Hanh 1998). One aspect of this is world/self interaction, here presented in a form virtually identical with our ‘meaning cycle’:

If we look at the relationship between the individual and its world, we see a kind of circularity of conditioning power, whereby the world conditions the individual, who acts, and this action in turn circulates back into the world to change it and motivate it. The motion, however, is simultaneous, and the world is an extremely active place of unimaginable change. Buddhists have always insisted, with Aristotle, that to exist is to exert conditioning power on others.

— Francis H. Cook (1989, 24)

Enlightening beings ‘turn the dharma wheel’ in order to liberate all beings from this conditioning by raising awareness of it.


Craving for psychological closure is an important element in religion, especially those religions who look forward to the fulfillment of an expectation or “prophecy.” The experience of fulfillment is the feeling of completion, often expressed in the New Testament and other early Christian writings by the word πλήρωμα (pleroma). The root meaning of πλήρωμα was the state of having a full belly. According to St. Paul, God sent his Son ‘in the fulness of time’ (‘τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου’ – Galatians 4:4). Now ‘the whole fulness (πλήρωμα) of deity dwells bodily’ in Christ (Colossians 2:9), and the community (ἐκκλησίᾳ) is the body of Christ, ‘the πλήρωμα of him who dwells all in all’ (Ephesians 1:23). Those who know the love of Christ are thereby ‘filled with all the πλήρωμα of God’ (Ephesians 3:19). Teilhard de Chardin (1957, 57) associated St. Paul’s usage of the word with ‘the consummation of the world,’ which is also ‘a communion of persons (the communion of saints).’

But the meaning of pleroma also branched in unexpected directions during the 20th century. C.G. Jung initiated this departure in a strange neo-gnostic piece that he wrote in 1916 and later described as ‘a sin of his youth’: ‘Seven Sermons to the Dead’ (printed as an appendix to Jung 1963). From this, Gregory Bateson picked up the term and used it as a complement/opposite to creatura, the realm of life and mind. ‘In Jung’s pleroma,’ says Bateson (1979, 106), ‘there are no differences, no distinctions,’ while creatura arises from the mental act of carving pleroma into entities. Pleroma is the mechanistic world of Newtonian physics – ‘that nonmental realm of description where difference between two parts need never be evoked to explain the response of a third’; it is ‘the world in which events are caused by forces and impacts and in which there are no “distinctions”’ (Bateson 1972, 456). Thus we have ‘two worlds of explanation’ which might also be called the physical and the mental. Tracing this usage from early Christian times through Jung to Bateson demonstrates how radically the meanings of terms can change, especially when they are used to distinguish between kinds of worlds.

Developed in this way, Bateson’s concept of the ‘mental’ (like Peirce’s conception of thought as Thirdness) encompasses far more than what goes on in the human cranium, without losing any of its rigor. Thus he gave a scientific grounding to what Shunryu Suzuki (1970) calls big mind. Sentient beings are subjects who respond to stimuli rather than being affected by forces; the energy for the response is supplied by the responding organism. In the creatura all effects are brought about by difference – which cannot be localized. When a difference actually makes a difference, a circuit is closed thereby; and as Bateson (1979) pointed out, a switch in a sense does not exist when its circuit is closed. Likewise, when the subject/object distinction vanishes, the ‘self’ is annihilated – an experience referred to by the Sufis as fana.


Every act you commit, including every act of meaning, closes out all sorts of alternatives, and simultaneously opens up myriads more.

Once the fateful decision has been made, the words have left our lips of the body’s deed is done, the act is released into the flow of life. Its reverberative effects will, to some degree, reconfigure both ourselves and the world in which we encounter the next moral dilemma. The acts we commit now thus form the conditions under which future choices will have to be made.

Although an act is germinated in the privacy of one’s thoughts, as soon as it enters the public domain it cannot be retracted or recalled. Nagarjuna declares that

Acts, like contracts,
Are as irrevocable as debts—
Their irrevocability
Ensures fruition.

— Batchelor (2000, 79-80)

By their fruits we know them; the inevitablility of their consequences is what makes them meaningful. Nagarjuna’s ‘contract’ is cognate with the ‘covenant’ of the Abrahamic religions: their binding nature is what makes our freedom meaningful.

Not quite

The closure or ‘fulfillment’ of scripture reflects the operational closure of autopoietic meaning space. A mythos or story, to feel complete, must have a beginning, middle and end, where the end resolves the tension which keeps the story in motion.

All was of ancientry. You gave me a boot (signs on it!) and I ate the wind. I quizzed you a quid (with for what?) and you went to the quod. But the world, mind, is, was and will be writing its own wrunes for ever, man, on all matters that fall under the ban of our infrarational senses fore the last milch camel, the heartvein throbbing between his eyebrowns, has still to moor before the tomb of his cousin charmian where his date is tethered by the palm that’s hers. But the hour, the smiting, the day of decision is not now. A bone, a pebble, a ramskin; chip them, chap them, cut them up allways; leave them to terracook in the slowth of the muttheringpot: and Gutenmorg with his cromagnom charter, tintingfast and great primer must once for omniboss step rubrickredd out of the wordpress else is there no virtue more in alcohoran. For that (the rapt one warns) is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints. Till Ye finally (though not yet endlike) meet with the acquaintance of Mister Typus, Mistress Tope and all the little typtopies. Fillstup. So you need hardly spell me how every word will be bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings throughout the book of Doublends Jined (may his forehead be darkened with mud who would sunder!) till Daleth, mahomahouma, who oped it closeth thereof the. Dor.

— FW2 (The Restored Finnegans Wake) 16

Mixed with all the references here to writing, printing and paper we find two books lurking: the Qur’án revealed by the Prophet Mohammed, and Finnegans Wake itself, ‘the book of Doublends Jined.’ The circularity of the Wake means that our story never ends: the closure is ongoing: tension must remain unresolved while we live (since equilibrium is death): revelation continues beyond the last prophet: the Mother Book must bear 70 readings, each closing the current gap between World and Mind while projecting the entelechy into the future.

A present without a future, or an eternal present, is precisely the definition of death; the living present is torn between a past which it takes up and a future which it projects. It is thus of the essence of the thing and of the world to present themselves as ‘open,’ to send us beyond their determinate manifestations, to promise us always ‘something else to see.’ This is what is sometimes expressed by saying that the thing and the world are mysterious. They are indeed, when we do not limit ourselves to their objective aspect, but put them back into the setting of subjectivity. They are even an absolute mystery, not amenable to elucidation, and this through no provisional gap in our knowledge, for in that case it would fall back to the status of a mere problem, but because it is not of the order of objective thought in which there are solutions.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 388)

The indefinitely unresolved tension is not so much subjective as semiotic, for as Floyd Merrell writes,

‘living’ Peircean signs ipso facto exercise, and will continue to exercise, some degree of autonomy; if not, they would not be ‘alive.’ But rather than mere islands unto themselves, they are also to a degree perpetually open to their environment …. There is constant give-and-take, disequilibrium, imbalance, tension. The process is ongoing. This tension of tensions there will always be: a tendency toward symmetry, equilibrium, balance (‘death’) versus an opposing tendency toward asymmetry, disequilibrium, imbalance (‘life’). If ‘death’ were to reign supreme, then there would be only crystallized stasis. On the other hand, if there were only ‘life’ and nothing but ‘life,’ then pure chaos would erupt—Nietzsche’s eternal return, nothing new under the sun—within which ‘life’ as we know it, and perhaps as it can only be known, could not continue to sustain itself. There must reign, in the final analysis, disordered order, ordered disorder: being always becoming, and becoming never quite becoming authentic being.

— Merrell (1996, 186)


As for that which we inspire in thee of the Scripture, it is the Truth confirming that which was (revealed) before it.

— Qur’án (Pickthall) 35:31

Once a text has become sacred in a community that reads prophetically, any new discoveries or revelations in that domain are most likely to appear as fulfillments of scripture. The established text confers authority on the new, while the new text confers new (fuller) meaning on the old. Consider for instance the story told in John 2, when Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple:

And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.
Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?
Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
But he spake of the temple of his body.
When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.

— 17-22, KJV

First the disciples remember Psalm 69 and connect it with the acts of Jesus; this both fulfills the already-sacred text and confirms the act of Jesus as sacred. (The synoptic gospels also have Jesus quoting Jeremiah and Isaiah at this point.) Thereupon the words of Jesus himself become sacred, which entails that even though they are not rightly understood at the time of utterance, they are ‘remembered’ so that their meaning can be clarified later. In this sense, the sacred text is believed before it is understood, and the ‘intended meaning’ of Jesus’ words is constructed (or reconstructed) from the later events which can be retrospectively mapped onto them.

The sacredness of the text and the meaning of it reinforce each other in positive feedback loops; for instance, the opening of John 2 (‘On the third day’) resonates with the overtones of the Resurrection because the three-day interval is associated with it. Note also that the interval between the death and resurrection of Jesus is given in the Gospels as roughly 36 hours (traditionally, from Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning), so that it takes some creative wording (i.e. counting Friday as ‘the first day’) to reconcile it with the ‘three days’ of which Jesus speaks here. All of this reflects the religious reader’s impulse to fit the historical event to the text and vice versa – a special case of the reader’s motivation to find that mutual fit between text and experience that we call meaning.

Brain loops

When we consider the closing of circuits (or completion of cycles) which embody the meaning cycle in an individual brain, we are obviously dealing with a microscopic time scale – but exactly how microscopic? And are we talking about a single loop or many going on simultaneously? Baars and Franklin give a fairly typical set of answers to these questions, analyzing the iterations of a cycle into nine steps.

Our picture is of cognition as a continuing stream of cognitive cycles, overlapping so as to act somewhat in parallel. Because any single cognitive cycle can only become conscious at any given instant, their parallelism is constrained in such as way as to maintain the seriality of consciousness. We conjecture that a full cognitive cycle might take a minimum of 200 ms. But because of overlapping and automaticity, which shortens the cycle … as many as twenty cycles could be running per second. Working-memory tasks occur on the order of seconds, indicating that several cognitive cycles may be needed for any given WM task, especially if it has conscious components such as mental rehearsal.

Although we describe an iterating cycle from step 1 to step 9, in many tasks the cycle might begin with step 8, starting from an action that will enable some particular perception. That is because human beings are active, curious, and exploratory creatures, in which much input is interpreted in the context of ongoing activities.

— Baars and Franklin (2003, 169)

The 9-step cycle proposed by Baars and Franklin is only one variation on the cyclic theme represented in our meaning cycle diagram and the Rosen diagram. Freeman (1999b, 150), Edelman (2004, 79, Figure 10) and many others include such diagrams which are topologically similar, varying mostly in the number, arrangement and labelling of subloops. Freeman’s diagram of the action-perception cycle features a brain-body loop within it, and within that, reafference, control and spacetime loops.

Edelman’s diagram of ‘causal chains in the world, body, and brain’ (2004, 79, Figure 10) is also cognate to the Rosen diagram. It shows brain and body acting into the world, causing ‘world signals’ which interact with ‘self signals’ in the ‘dynamic core,’ enabling ‘higher-order distinctions or discriminations’; this neural activity then modifies our action patterns. Since ‘the world is causally closed,’ consciousness itself does not cause anything to happen, but is entailed by the distinction-making neural activity, as ‘the entailed phenomenal transform with its qualia consists of those distinctions’ (2004, 78-9).

Both Freeman and Edelman quote the remark of William James (1879) that consciousness appears to be ‘an organ added for the sake of steering a nervous system grown too complex to regulate itself’ (Freeman 1999b, 155-6; Edelman 2004, 84). But as Freeman points out, ‘consciousness is not provided by another “organ” (an add-on part of the human brain) but by a new hierarchical level of organization of brain dynamics’ (156). In his model, the nervous system does regulate itself, by means of circular causality, which works both bottom-up and top-down. Consciousness does not initiate any impulses toward action, but as these arise from the microscopic neural activity, the higher-level ‘global operator’ takes advantage of the delay introduced by the complexity of cortical functioning to damp most of these impulses and amplify a selected few, and thus it constrains the very microscopic processes that constitute it.

Both Freeman and Edelman emphasize the variability of this process: unlike a computer, a human brain does not reliably produce the same ‘output’ when given the same ‘input.’ Edelman remarks that the ‘very richness of core states provides the grounds for new matches to the vicissitudes of the environment. Those matches are stabilized through the workings of the brain as a complex system’ (2004, 85). The richness (variability) of the ‘core states’ underlying consciousness provide the same service for the organism that ‘overhead’ provides for an ecosystem in the Ulanowicz model – or that ‘prophecy’ and creative imagination provide for a culture.

Scientific circles

There is a circularity in what Thomas Kuhn calls ‘normal science’:

Before he could construct his equipment and make measurements with it, Coulomb had to employ electrical theory to determine how his equipment should be built. The consequence of his measurements was a refinement in that theory.

— Kuhn 1969, 33-4

If the theory has to be replaced instead of refined, then we have a scientific “revolution”; but even a revolution is (in practice as well as etymology) just a turning again or re-turn when seen from a more long-term perspective. Kuhn’s paradigm is not just a theory but an ‘achievement’ which encapsulates the whole cycle of theory-application-experiment-measurement. All parts of the cycle are renewed, including the kind of evidence that is considered relevant to the theoretical question. ‘Normal science’ aims at greater articulation and precision in applying the ‘paradigm’ to ordinary problems; but ‘extraordinary problems … emerge only on special occasions prepared by the advance of normal research’ (Kuhn 1969, 34).

Maturana and Varela (1992, 28) also explain scientific explanation as a circular process. More specifically, Varela described his ‘neurophenomenology’ as ‘the circulation between a first person and an external account of human experience, which describes the phenomenological position in fertile dialogue with cognitive science’ (Varela 1996, 333). This ‘circulation’ can also be described as a movement ‘back and forth’ – as for instance Edelman does when dealing with the connection between ‘our neural model’ and ‘the experienced properties of a conscious subject’: ‘I believe that the issue is best clarified by stressing the neural mechanisms first, and then going back and forth between phenomenal issues and these mechanisms to show their consistency with each other’ (Edelman 2004, 60). This procedure differs from neurophenomenology mainly in that Edelman, unlike Varela, gives priority to the third-person view. But of course it doesn’t matter where you start in a circular process.

Varela and his collaborators have also spoken of a ‘necessary “circulation” between everyday experience and scientific experience’:

On the one hand, everyday experience provides the sensuous, material contents from which and with which science must work. On the other hand, the scientific analyses built from these contents contribute to the formation of our life-world and provide important leading clues for phenomenological analyses of how our experience of the world is genetically and generatively constituted.

— Thompson (2007, 34)