The Heart of Franklin Merrell-Wolff's Philosophy

Thomas J. McFarlane
December 2003

Published in Sangha: The Newsletter of the Franklin Merrell-Wolff Fellowship, Fall 2003 (part I) and Winter 2004 (part II). This article is based on a keynote address delivered at the Franklin Merrell-Wolff Reunion and Gathering in Lone Pine, California on 31 May 2003.

The web address of this article is
Copyright 2003 Thomas J McFarlane.


The heart of Franklin Merrell-Wolff's philosophy is that which gives his philosophy its life. Without this heart at its core, Wolff's philosophy would be dead—a mere collection of speculative concepts. This heart is, of course, Fundamental Realization. It grounds the philosophy in Reality and ensouls it with a deeper Meaning.

The Fundamental Realization which is at the heart of Wolff's philosophy transcends conceptual understanding. Conception is a mode of cognition that involves objectification. When we know conceptually, we are creating an object of knowledge. Fundamental Realization, in contrast, involves the turning of the Light of Consciousness back upon Itself toward Its Source, a mode of cognition in which outward objectification is surrendered and Consciousness prior to objectification spontaneously Recognizes Itself. This Recognition is a Knowledge Through Identity wherein the knower, known, and act of knowing are identical. In this identity of subject, object, and knowing, Consciousness is the knower, Consciousness is the known, and Consciousness is the knowing. In other words, Consciousness is the knowingness that, in Fundamental Realization, Knows Itself through Identity with Itself, prior to any division of subject and object. This knowingness is inherent in the essential nature of Consciousness. It is, was, and always will be, right here and now, in the pure and simple immediacy of this very awareness.

Because this Root Consciousness is prior to any act of objectification, Wolff calls it Consciousness Without An Object. It is the fundamental Source of all objects, and is the ultimate Substance of which all things are constituted. Indeed, the first fundamental of Wolff's philosophy states that Consciousness is original, self-existent, and constitutive of all things. So, in Reality, everything is ultimately identical to Consciousness Itself, everything is essentially the pure quality of knowingness that is the inherent nature of Consciousness. Although we may imagine ourselves and other things to exist apart from Consciousness, in reality there is nothing but this Consciousness with its power to project, or imagine, that objects exist outside of, or apart from Itself. Wolff sums this up beautifully as follows:

In conclusion, we may say that the final knowledge of the mystic takes the following form:
  1. Negatively, it is a denial of all substantial reality to all worlds, physical or metaphysical, and an equal denial of all selfhood in the same sense.
  2. Positively, it affirms the indubitable reality of consciousness, and of all its immediately realizable states.
In the 'as if' sense, there may be all kinds of worlds, objective and metaphysical, with their corresponding kinds of beings and selves. This supplies everything that is necessary for all kinds of possibilities. (Transformations, p. 291)

We must, however, add a caveat: All the above descriptions of Realization or Transcendental Knowledge are distortions that fall short of actually defining this Knowledge in any definitive way. Any time we think or conceive of Realization in language or words, we objectify it, we form a conceptual image of a something to be known by a mind that will know it. By conceiving non-dual Consciousness in these dualistic, relative, subject-object terms, we necessarily misrepresent it. As Wolff puts it,

The kind of consciousness that falls outside the subject-object field is more than difficult to express in relative terms. It is absolutely impossible to do so. It is not simply a question of our not yet having developed sufficient skill. The impossibility inheres in the fact that the subject-object form, essential to language as such, can only distort the Transcendent. (Experience, p. 141)

The Consciousness at heart of Wolff's philosophy is therefore indescribable. It transcends, in principle, all language and conception. It is beyond all definition and description. There is no way to capture it or comprehend it with thought. Fundamental Realization is, in a word, ineffable. And even this is saying too much.

This ineffability of Transcendental Consciousness gives rise to an apparent problem. Insofar as teachings such as Wolff's philosophy are limited to definitions, concepts, thought, and conceptualization, they are cut off from this Consciousness. Whatever is known conceptually is known dualistically, and thus falls short of Realization, which is by nature non-dual. So, it seems that philosophy can never take us to That which is beyond philosophical understanding. In other words, it appears that the dualistic nature of thought and conception severs Wolff's philosophy from Fundamental Realization and that we can never arrive at the heart of the philosophy through the philosophy. Wolff, however, denies that this is the case. In fact, he unequivocally affirms the value of philosophy as a means to Realization:

The office of great philosophy is to be a Way of Realization, and not solely a monitor of doing. …For the eternal function of the Divine Sophia is to supply the knowing that serves being first of all and doing only in so far as action is instrumental to that being. (Experience, p. 241)

We are thus faced with the problem of reconciling the ineffability of Realization with the efficacy of philosophy as a means of Realization. How can philosophy be a Way of Realization if concepts only obscure Consciousness with their distinctions? How can a philosophical system of dualistic concepts serve as a vehicle for awakening us to a non-dual Reality beyond words and concepts? How, in short, is Wolff's philosophy connected to its heart? These are the questions we will explore in the subsequent sections of this article.

The Nature of Concepts

In the Introduction we arrived at an apparent incompatibility between the ineffability of Realization, on the one hand, and the conceptual nature of philosophy, on the other. Put simply, because Realization is non-dual and conception is dual, it is not obvious how the two can be connected, how philosophy can be a Way of Realization. To dissolve this paradox, we will begin by examining the nature of concepts and conception.

In essence, a concept is an indication of some definite object or type of object. For example, the concept rock indicates a kind of object with certain properties. A rock is a hard, dense physical object that often has an irregular shape. It is larger than a grain of sand or pebble and smaller than a boulder or mountain. We learn the meaning of rock by learning these properties, or distinctions. We distinguish hard and soft, big and small, heavy and light. The concept rock is just a particular collection of such distinctions that we have learned to make in our experience. We then use these distinctions to identify whether or not a particular object is a rock. Implicit in the concept rock are all these distinctions. In addition to physical objects like rocks, concepts can also refer to mental objects. For example, a circle is a particular type of geometrical object that is distinguished from other objects by a set of properties, or distinctions. The word circle evokes these distinctions. Normally, we make the distinctions so quickly and automatically that the process is unconscious to us. Nevertheless, whether we are aware of it or not, at the root of every concept is at least one distinction that is used to define the concept through contrast with what it is not. Thus, every concept is inherently dualistic, and this is exactly what gives the concept a definite meaning.

If we examine our own experience of the act of conception, we find that it not only involves making distinctions, but also involves directing attention to the contents of those distinctions. To give a concrete example, consider this particular circle: O. For an instant, your attention was just focused in a small part of your visual field of awareness where the circle appears. In perceiving this circle, a distinction was drawn between that circle and everything else in your visual field of awareness. Attention was limited to that region of visual awareness within the distinction, and you momentarily ignored everything else. That act of ignoring a region of consciousness is what actually gives rise to the object and makes it stand out in consciousness. So, conception acts to create a distinction in consciousness and to limit attention to the contents of the distinction, ignoring the rest of awareness.

It is important to recognize that this ignorance of the rest of awareness does not destroy it or even alter it. When you look at that mark, it does not alter the rest of the visual field of awareness or make part of it literally disappear. The direction of attention to that mark is merely an ignoring of the rest of visual awareness, so that the mark is brought into contrast and made to stand out, or exist. The mark then appears as an object with a seeming existence distinct from Consciousness Itself. The world of objects, in other words, arises through a process of negation or ignorance, and its existence is a relative absence of Consciousness. As Wolff puts it:

Thus the active, concrete, and perceptual consciousness is to be viewed as an arousal of specific awareness through a partial blanking out of the full and perfectly balanced consciousness of the Primordial State. As a result, the world of things, apparently given through the senses, is actually a domain of relative emptiness. (Experience, p. 261)

Thus, insofar as you are conscious of a world of objects, the conceptual process of ignoring part of consciousness is active. Even if you are not thinking, your very experience of the world is inherently conceptual since it is the conceptual process of making a distinction and ignoring the awareness outside the distinction that makes objects of experience appear.

Now, there is nothing inherently problematic about this partial blanking. It is a natural activity of Consciousness. As the Hindus say, it is the play of Lila, the dance of Shiva. However, if we are unconscious of this process, if we do not recognize our own activity of ignoring, then we will experience the objects as if they had their own objective reality, independent of consciousness. This is similar to psychological projection, where we experience our own unconscious psychological contents as objectively existing in other people. This is much more radical, though, since we are projecting onto the world the delusion that it is objectively real. Not only do objects arise as appearances in consciousness, but they also seem to be self-existent things, having their own inherent existence. This delusion is a kind of secondary overlay upon the primary universe. The primary universe is created through the process of conception, while the secondary overlay results from an unconsciousness of that creative process, making it appear as if the created objects were real. Because we are unconscious of our own process of conception, which by nature blanks out part of Reality, we think that the limited world defined and created by these concepts is the whole of Reality. We ignore the fact that conception is only an ignoring of part of Reality, and the result of this double ignorance is a kind of conceptual reductionism that makes us believe that the objective world is real and is all there is. We dream up a world, forget that we have dreamt it up, then are bound to live in it as if it were real. Naturally, we then suffer.

There are also theoretical problems that arise when we fall into the delusion that what is real is what can be conceptually defined, and no more. When we fall into this conceptual reductionism, we inevitably encounter paradoxes and contradictions. Naturally, these problems arise when we attempt to use concepts, which are limited, to describe all of Reality, which is not. For example, if we say Reality is ineffable, then we have used the word ineffable to describe it. But if it is truly ineffable, we can not describe it with any word, including ineffable. Similarly, if we say Reality is non-dual, then we have used the word non-dual to distinguish Reality from that which is dual. But if Reality is truly non-dual, then it is not distinct from anything, including the dual. Similar paradoxes arise with concepts like infinite, unconditioned, and Consciousness Without An Object.

These paradoxes and contradictions all arise when we strictly limit concepts to their explicit definitions, then forget this limitation and try to apply them to all of reality. This kind of conception, which is strictly limited to definition in terms of other concepts, creates a closed system. So there is no way for concepts to take us beyond conceptual understanding. This does not mean that there is nothing beyond conceptual understanding. It only means that concepts can not capture all of Reality. As Wolff puts it,

The direct value of that Recognition is inexpressible and inconceivable in the sense of concepts meaning just what they are defined to mean and no more. (Experience, p. 315)

Thus, because concepts are strictly limited to their definitions, they can not be applied to the indefinable, unlimited Reality without contradiction. The misguided attempt to apply concepts to Reality is a result of conceptual reductionism, a confusion of reality with what is conceivable. Similarly, our delusion of an objective world is a result of confusing reality with objects appearing through the process of conception.

The problem, however, is not with concepts themselves, or the fact that they are limited to strict definitions. The beauty of mathematics, for example, is due in part to the discipline of clearly and explicitly defining concepts, and rigorously adhering to those limited definitions. The source of the problem is with our attempt to apply these limited concepts to Reality, as if Reality were reducible to strictly defined concepts.

The above examination has been an attempt to clarify the nature of concepts and conception. Having seen exactly how the problems with concepts arise, we are now prepared to investigate how it is possible to transcend the limitations of concepts, and see how philosophy can be a door to Recognition.

Notions and Symbols

In the first part of this article, we began with an apparent paradox: although the Heart of Wolff's philosophy is a Transcendental Realization beyond the reach of any concept or thought, nevertheless Wolff maintains that philosophy can be a Way of Realization. To dissolve this paradox we began by examining the nature of conception. In its ordinary sense, conception draws distinctions between classes or types of objects. In its most primordial sense, however, conception is a power to imagine objects in consciousness. It creates an object by restricting our attention to just one part of awareness and ignoring the rest. Thus, the primary universe of objects exists through the power of conception.

Now, if we ignore the fact that objects are carved out of consciousness by conception and are ultimately identical with consciousness, then we are in effect positing or projecting upon objects a reality that they do not actually have. This ignorance thus gives rise to a secondary universe of apparently real things to which our experience and understanding become bound. Perplexity and suffering result. As Wolff puts it,

It is not the field of subject-object consciousness, as such, that is an Illusion or Maya in the invidious sense, but the secondary universe. (Experience and Philosophy, p. 179)

To dispel the illusion of the secondary universe of real things, it is necessary to recognize how conception gives rise to the primary universe of seeming objects. When we recognize the process by which the world of objects is literally conceived into existence, appearances are no longer misperceived as a collection of independently existing things. Instead, with the arising of every object there is a simultaneous recognition of its objectless complement in consciousness. With the creation of the Universe there is the concomitant recognition of Nirvana. In other words, there is a realization of Wolff's Aphorism 8:

When consciousness of objects is born, then, likewise, consciousness of absence of objects arises. (Experience, p. 310.)

When this Nirvanic consciousness is awakened and complements the consciousness of the Universe, the nature of conception is likewise transformed. Conception bound to the universe of objects now opens up to include a complementary, inverse mode of cognition. Before, concepts were limited to their explicit definitions and referred only to objects. Now, a trans-conceptual mode of cognition gives concepts another dimension, transforming them into more than mere concepts, so they have the capacity to carry Transcendental Meaning. As Wolff describes it,

One finds this inherent meaning, not by the appropriate kind of action, but by the correct kind of meditation, that is, by a process of introception…a movement of consciousness such that a successful outcome implies a transcendence of both thinking and perception, so that consciousness enters something like another dimension. (Transformations in Consciousness, p. 169)

This new dimension of cognition fills concepts with a Meaning that escapes the limits of their definitions. We then call them Thoughts, symbols, or notions to distinguish them from ordinary concepts restricted to objective content alone. Notions or Thoughts, like concepts, have a conceptual definition, but they are much more than that. A notion is to its conceptual definition what a three-dimensional object is to its projection into two-dimensional space. The concept is thus a mere shadow of the notion, leaving out an entire dimension. Consequently, if we reduce Transcendental Thought to objectively formulated concepts then its deeper Meaning will be lost. So how do we open ourselves up to this deeper Meaning carried by the mystical Thought? How can we hear more than the surface concepts as they are defined? This is a crucial question, for it is only by opening up to this Meaning beyond the concepts that philosophy can begin to serve us as a genuine Way to Realization.

Opening to Nirvanic Thought

When the activity of conception creates the primary universe of thinkable objects, the ineffable Nirvanic complement is implicitly present. It is this non-objective complement to the objective concept that carries the Transcendental Meaning. Wolff provides us with several pointers to help us open up to this Meaning behind mystical Thought. When reading mystic writers, for example, Wolff tells us:

The reading should be done without strained effort in the intellectual sense. The reader should let a sort of current flow into and through him, and not feel troubled as to whether he has understood anything or not, at the time. He may feel, or deeply cognize, something though he may be unable to say what it is. …He will return to the same Fount again and again, and presently, from out of Inner Meaning, understanding will begin to blossom in him. …He will enter into Communion on the level of a new kind of Language. (Experience, p. 50)

Thus, opening up to the noetic Meaning beyond concepts is analogous to opening up to the aesthetic Beauty beyond poetry, music, or art. Just as the Beauty of music or poetry can evoke a directly experienced meaning that escapes any kind of definitive analysis, Transcendental Thought can evoke a noetic response that goes beyond the mere conceptual definitions of words. And, just as a strained effort to analyze a poem will veil its Beauty, so also a strained effort to intellectually grasp mystical writings will hide the Inner Meaning. Instead, we should read the words of the mystics as we listen to a symphony, behold a sunset, or read poetry. Relax, let go of the effort to know the meaning, and instead simply allow the implicit Meaning to be intuitively felt. Although at first we may have only the faintest whiff, if we return again and again, the understanding will blossom.

Wolff also offers the following advice on the proper attitude to cultivate to help us access these deeper dimensions:

The step from the symbol to that which is symbolized, though this does afford a peculiarly exacting demand upon acuity of thought, yet requires much more. Here, feeling, in the best sense, must fuse with the thought. Thus the thinker must learn also to feel his thought, so that, in the highest degree, he thinks devotedly. …The thinker arrives by surrendering himself to Truth. …Then Truth possesses him, not he, Truth. (Experience, p. 354)

Thus, opening up to the Nirvanic Thought is facilitated by a self-giving attitude that surrenders possessiveness. The devoted thinker is a lover who surrenders all possessiveness of the beloved and gives up any attempt to reduce the mystery of the beloved to a limited image or conceptual understanding. At the same time, however, conceptual understanding is not entirely dismissed. For just as the experience of a symphony's beauty is enhanced by cultivating and refining our aesthetic sensibilities, so also our capacity for receiving noetic Meaning is increased by training the intellect. As with any art, the master is one who submits to discipline and training in order to make themselves a more perfect channel for inspiration to flow through.

So, if we open ourselves up to the Nirvanic dimensions of ensouled concepts, then their Meaning will grow up from within us and provide a bridge to their Transcendent Source. It is thus in our own capacity to think devotedly without attachment or possessiveness to knowledge that philosophy can serve as a Way of Realization.

Illustrations and Exercises

To illustrate in more detail how we might awaken cognition of the Nirvanic dimension beyond concepts, consider a simple circle: O. This circle acts as an instruction to imagine a distinction in the space of consciousness between the circle and the rest of awareness. Furthermore, it also acts as an instruction to direct attention to the circle and ignore everything else, thereby making the circle stand out as an object. Now notice that, as a mark in the space of this page, the circle is itself a distinction between the space inside the circle and the space outside the circle. Thus, the circle is a symbol for the distinction in consciousness between any object and its non-objective complement, where the space inside the circle represents the object and the space outside the circle represents its Nirvanic complement.

Now direct your attention to the inside of the circle and recognize that the outside space does not literally disappear from awareness, even though it is ignored when you focus on the inside space. Thus, the outside of the circle can still be recognized as present even though it is being ignored and is not cognized as an object. Thus, from the point of view of objective consciousness, the inside space exists and the outside space does not exist. Yet, the outside space is still recognized as being there. This illustrates how an objective consciousness can coexist with a recognition of its non-objective complement. As Wolff writes,

I realized that pure subjective consciousness without an object must appear to the relative consciousness to have objects. Hence Recognition did not, of itself, imply a new experiential content of consciousness. (Experience, p. 263)

Thus, Recognition of the non-objective space outside the circle is not a shift in attention or a new content in consciousness. It is simply recognizing the space that is already present as the complement of the circle. Just as the inside of the circle cannot exist without the outside, every object that appears in consciousness implies its own non-objective complement in consciousness. And just as the circle not only divides the inside space from the outside space but also joins them together, the power of conception not only draws a distinction in consciousness between an object and the rest of awareness, but also unites them. When conception operates with a recognition of both these aspects, it involves both the objective meaning and the non-objective Meaning. Thus, depending on how we regard them, concepts can carry the thickness of Substance or a thinness of an empty abstraction. As Wolff explains,

When a concept enrobes an inner Significance, it possesses thickness or depth. In other relations, the same formal concept may point, directly or indirectly, to a perceptual experience. In this case, it has the value of thinness. Thus the thinness of a concept, when viewed from the extroverted perspective, may be transformed into thickness when the same concept is take in an introceptive relation. (Transformations, p. 170)

For example, consider the concept rock. This concept directs our attention to a limited part of awareness where a rock appears. Insofar as this is a very concrete, ponderable, objective experience, it is thin and lacking in Substantiality. Now, to transform this thinness into a thickness, we need only take this same concept from an introceptive rather than extroverted perspective. In other words, we need only to retain the recognition of the space of awareness complementing the rock.

You can try this right now with any object at hand. First, shift the focus of attention to the object. Now, without shifting attention away from the object, simply notice that the rest of awareness is still present even though it is being ignored and is not an object in awareness. Now relax and rest in this awareness without trying to find it or know it. Open yourself to it, and allow it to just be. Do not grasp at an inner Meaning, but open up to it as you would to the beloved and allow it to flow through you. Now simply behold the object as a mere appearance in consciousness. Then continue to rest in this recognition of the objectless complement of whatever object arises.

This exercise may provide a taste of what it might mean to open up to the introceptive dimensions concepts. For substantial nourishment, however, it is often best to contemplate not just any object, but concepts ensouled with Meaning. Wolff explicitly points out several such symbols in his philosophy, e.g., Space, Infinity, the Continuum, and the Aphorisms. If we struggle to conceptually grasp the meaning of these symbols, we will end up in paradox and confusion. But if we relax and contemplate them, opening up to their non-objective, trans-conceptual dimensions, then their Meaning will begin to fill us.


Although philosophy normally begins with objective concepts which can never capture the ineffable Meaning at the Heart of Mystical Philosophy, the practice of philosophy can become a Way of Realization for us if we open ourselves to experiencing the introceptive dimension of conception. At first, we may experience just hints of these deeper dimensions, but with the proper attitude and persistent practice, the insight will deepen.

It is important to emphasize again that it is not necessary to get rid of concepts or the primary universe of objective appearances. The illusion is not the primary universe but the secondary universe in which these objects in consciousness are mistaken for apparently real things that exist independent of consciousness. As Wolff explains,

That in some sense the Object exists cannot be denied, for it is unquestionably a datum for immediate experience. But to affirm further that the Thing exists is to add an overbelief that is not necessary for either experience or reason. …The “Thing” is that which is supposed to exist, quite independently of any relationship to or within consciousness. (Experience, p. 332)

In addition, Wolff writes,

While realization of the Nirvanic State is dependent upon detachment from the Object, it is not dependent upon noncognition of the Object. …Thus realization of Nirvana is, in principle, compatible with continued cognition of the World, provided there is nonattachment to it. (Experience, p. 404)

Similarly, introceptive cognition is compatible with continued conception, provided there is not attachment to the objective phase of the conception. Thus, it is not objective conception per se that is incompatible with the ineffable Transcendental Heart of Wolff's philosophy, but rather our attachment to the exclusively objective phase of conception. Provided we have some degree of detachment from the objective phase of conception, it remains united with its non-objective phase, and provides us with a lifeline to the Transcendent Meaning. Philosophy, then, can be a Way of Realization for us.

Ultimately, however, we must keep in mind that philosophy as a Way of Realization does not involve a development of concepts culminating in a conclusion, but is a transformation in consciousness wherein we Recognize a dimension of consciousness that was present already from the beginning. Conception, therefore, can not awaken us to introception because introception is actually already implicitly present in conception. Similarly, we can not attain a Consciousness that we have never been separated from in the first place. Thus, Wolff's philosophy is not a Way to Realization, but a Way of Realization. The Heart of the Philosophy is here, now, fully present in this very consciousness, even conceptual consciousness. May we all Awaken to the Heart of every thought and concept that arises.


Merrell-Wolff, Franklin (1994). Franklin Merrell-Wolff's Experience and Philosophy: a personal record of transformation and a discussion of transcendental consciousness, containing his Philosophy of Consciousness Without An Object and his Pathways Through To Space (Albany : SUNY Press ).

Merrell-Wolff, Franklin (1995). Transformations in Consciousness: The Metaphysics and Epistemology, containing Franklin Merrell-Wolff's Introceptualism, and a forward by the editor, Ron Leonard (Albany : SUNY Press ).