Bracketing – a Way of Thinking (R10)

Early to rise…

It’s 4 July 2003…  Woke up this morning (4.15am) thinking, “Brackets!”  Explosion of ideas got me up and at my desk in the hour before dawn which the Sufi says is an hour out of paradise..

Where did I get the notion of bracketing from?  It’s long been part of my being. It’s a way of thinking; a way of sorting ideas & experiences—keeping them separate & up for scrutiny.

Husserl & Phenomenology

Bracketing: ‘the analysis of what is available to introspection in its generality, without making use of any extraneous knowledge of causes, or of natural laws which apply to the outside world… The phenomenologist, according to Husserl, sets aside the normal standpoint or performs an epoché: puts into brackets everything she may happen to know or assume about what causes experience… stands apart from [experience]… concentrates on pure experience, as she has it, without presuppositions or concepts derived from elsewhere than the experience itself…’    (Mary Warnock: The Philosophy of Sartre)

Phenomenology is the isolation for study of pure phenomena as they present themselves to us. The exciting thing for me is that the process of bracketing which I’ve used in all kinds of ways not necessarily linked to this starting point for many years—my signature on the front cover of Mary Warnock’s book is dated 1958!—has come to be part of who I am.

It’s easy, for instance, to attach the concept of bracketing to the analysis of the Multiplicity of ‘I’s: it’s exactly what we’re doing when we go from one ‘I’ to another; the process does not deny the ‘I’s that we might have thought we’d left behind—it simply puts them, including the one you’re in now, into brackets. “Yesterday I was in Being-happy-I; today I’m in Being-miserable-I…” Only-kidding-I at work… but if this were true it would mean that this thing with the label CB had leapt from one closed bracket to another overnight.

As in maths, from my dim recollection, brackets can be multiplied together in all sorts of complicated ways! ‘I’s multiply themselves.

One can use Bracketing deliberately in order to keep objects of thought, including ‘I’s, separate from one another for contemplation—which is not at all to deny that, outside the brackets, ‘each thing implies the universe, whose obvious trait is complexity’ (Borges in the Intro to Doctor Brodie’s Report) So, in the case of human thinking one might say that there are three states: Non-reflection = being asleep, in Gurdjieff’s terms;  Reflection = being present to oneself;  Pre-reflective cogito = self-remembering or being in a meta-state.  This is a way of bracketing off models of human thinking. In ‘reality’ they get all scrambled up which is called life as it is lived but which can also be very debilitating and can lead to a lack of clarity. Clarity I presuppose to be an ideal kind of state.  Aristotle, or somebody in that neck of history, proclaimed, quite rightly in my view, that the unreflective life is not worth living; reflection seeks clarity.

The NLP slogan SEPARATION PRECEDES INTEGRATION offers a really exciting practical way to work on reflection.  Bracket first then multiply the brackets (x + y)(z – 9) = xz-9y+yz-9x. If x = a box of flowers,  y = a nanny-goat and z = the Eiffel Tower what’s the answer?

How Does Bracketing Work?

On p108 of The Age of Analysis (Morton White) we find Husserl, the originator of the idea of bracketing, giving a ‘concrete’ picture of the process. This is a good example of how one can move from standpoint to standpoint, moving through different perspectives, bracket to bracket. Notice how he presupposes that ‘I’ represents the same unexamined entity throughout; to get to the notion of the Multiplicity of ‘I’s, which might have been very useful to his analysis, requires additional bracketing, a further meta-position.  How many ‘I’s in this passage?

I am present to myself continually as someone who perceives, represents, thinks, feels, desires, and so forth; and for the most part herein I find myself related in present experience to the fact-world which is constantly about me. But I am not always so related, not every cogito in which I live has for its cogitatum things, men, objects or contents of one kind or another. Perhaps I am busied with pure numbers and the laws they symbolize: nothing of this sort is present in the world about me, this world of ‘real fact’. And yet the world of numbers also is there for me, as the field of objects with which I am arithmetically busied; while I am thus occupied some numbers or constructions of a numerical kind will be at the focus of vision, girt by an arithmetical horizon partly defined, partly not; but obviously this being-there-for-me, like the being there at all, is something very different from this. The arithmetical world is there for me only when and so long as I occupy the arithmetical standpoint.

But the natural world, the world in the ordinary sense of the word, is constantly there for me, so long as I live naturally and look in its direction. I am then at the ‘natural standpoint’, which is just another way of stating the same thing. And there is no need to modify these conclusions when I proceed to appropriate to myself the arithmetical world, and other similar ‘worlds’, by adopting the corresponding standpoint. The natural world still remains ‘present’, I am at the natural stand-point after as well as before, and in this respect undisturbed by the adoption of new standpoints. If my cogito is active only in the worlds proper to the new standpoints, the natural world remains unconsidered; it is now the background for my consciousness as act, but it is not the encircling sphere within which an arithmetical world finds its true and proper place. The two worlds are present together but disconnected, apart, that is, from their relation to the Ego, in virtue of which I can freely direct my glance or my acts to the one or to the other.

Application of Bracketing to Literature, Film & Life

A dismissive critical gesture towards the brilliant novels of Virginia Woolf is that ‘nobody seems to work’—it is said that the characters are a bunch of middle-upper class layabouts who have fallen on soft times.  Similarly with the novels of Iris Murdoch… When you put this in brackets, you can just get on with appreciating the curious situations in which the characters find themselves, the odd relationships, the fictional philosophy, the exciting convolutions and surprises—all of these in their separate brackets.

So bracketing is a way of appreciating authors ‘in-spite-of…’ critical objections.

Take anything that seems to jar or fit badly and put it in brackets to notice what you might be missing by allowing contamination to work its sullen way.

Another example of using bracketing would be in the appreciation of wayward films. For example, I have often tried to make complete sense of the brilliant Humphrey Bogart film The Big Sleep. The plot seems to fall apart but the whole thing is such a great experience when you bracket (incomprehensible plot) against (marvellous set-piece sequences) and just leave them to jostle one another in the mind.

The (extreme violence) of the film Blade-runner is to be set easily against its (sensitivity and humanity)…

(My liking for violent films)   v   (my Pacifism) betokens an acceptance of the Beast in me.

When I had what they call a ‘career’ I operated the brackets (work) &  (home) as a successful survival mechanism

(Life of the Intellect)   v   (Domesticity)             Fact of life

(Tick-tock time)    v      (No-time)                     Serial time

And so on…

Bracketing and the Pendulum


If the bottom of the Pendulum represents the characteristics of Mastering-I then initial separation becomes part of the Mastering-I process.   Pure impressions from general identification.

Buffers and Bracketing

Buffers is a Fourth Way concept denoting the process people resort to when they operate conflicting, unacknowledged, unthought-out contradictions—for example: when a so-called ‘Christian’ leader of the Western world whose Master supposedly preached ‘resist not evil’ is willing, rationalising that it’s on account of ‘democracy’, to bomb innocent civilians for the sake of acquiring sources of oil. Buffering might perhaps be an example of what you could call ‘dishonest’ or ‘self-delusional’ bracketing; the kind of bracketing that helps to maintain  living with comfortably with oneself whilst not practising what one preaches, not sticking to principles.  The brackets of Buffering are kept completely separate; buffers put out of action any scruples a person might have according to some other part of their thinking-being; buffers consign scruples to the waste-bin, the never-to-be-admitted part of the psyche.

True bracketing, by contrast, puts things into temporary disconnection: here one is always aware of what’s in the other brackets; the separation gives you the opportunity to consider your actions reflectively and healthily without denying the possibility of contradiction.  Consider the case of a friend who has nurtured a strawberry plant, brought home from her mother’s garden, through the summer and is now contemplating the five ripe strawberries that are the result of her efforts; the rest of the family happens to be ‘in a Mood’ so she decides to eat the five strawberries herself.  She is surprised that she doesn’t feel guilty but the action of eating the strawberries was not in order to ‘get her own back’ on the family (=making accounts) but simply to savour (in brackets) the fruits of her own caring for the plant; the fact (in brackets) that the family was ‘in a mood’ is a factor but it is in brackets.  She serves the family bought strawberries (in brackets) so they will participate to some extent in her treat.   Keeping all the bits of the total events separate from one another enables everybody to be taken care of in their own unique way.  This friend is a uniquely caring person.

A corollary of all this is that real ‘Consciousness’ is a vacancy or an emptiness…  essentially… a gap between thought and the object of thought…’   Sartre has the concept of the ‘pre-reflective cogito’ which we might call meta-cogitation in which ‘consciousness knowingly places itself at a distance from its objects…’  Understanding and enthusiastically embracing the gap of consciousness relies on non-identification with the outside world or with one’s own thoughts-etc in Mr G’s terms; the result is to be able to receive ‘pure impressions’—the highest form of food.  Subsequently, this gives one the power to affirm or deny.  ‘Conscious beings are essentially free, not only to act as they choose, but to see the world under the headings and categories that they choose.’ (Quotations in this paragraph are from Mary Warnock: The Philosophy of Sartre)

Maurice Nicoll says somewhere that we have a right to choose not to be negative, not to put ourselves through unnecessary suffering.

Consciousness as a Gap, Vacancy or Emptiness

Husserl talks of bringing all thinking back to ‘immediate data’, shorn of all possible conceptualisation, ‘free from all theory’.  All Reality that comes about mediated through any kind of presupposition ‘has now no validity for us; it must be set in brackets, untested indeed but also uncontested.  Similarly all theories and sciences, positivistic or otherwise, which relate to this world, however good they may be, succumb to the same fate.’  The bracketing process can be applied to anything that forms the subject of human thought.

Charles Fort, whose memory has been debased into the Fortean Times which you can buy on station bookstalls, wrote a great book called Lo! (1931) which I bought in the Cinema in Hay-on-Wye (or it might have been the fire station!) Hay-on-Wye is the secondhand book capital of England. Lo! is a compendium of the inexplicable things that come within the undeniable province of human experience; its underlying assumption is that everything that humans seem to have experienced from the phenomenon of  ‘Spontaneous Human Combustion’, that Dickens reported on in some novel that I can’t remember the name of (Martin Chuzzlewit, it might have been), to visions of cities and battles in the sky, is worthy of serious attention in the expectation that sooner or later after diligent collection and comparison ‘the underlying oneness in all confusions’ would begin to manifest itself; further, that the human desire to understand results in too early closure; whatever doesn’t fit is just discarded…  Charles Fort was a very ironical fellow, person after my own heart!  A master of the art of putting things in brackets to preserve their notional integrity, though he’d never have described it thus.

… mystery versus the fishmonger… Upon May 28th, 1881, near the city of Worcester, England, a fishmonger, with a procession of carts, loaded with several kinds of crabs and periwinkles, and with a dozen energetic assistants, appeared at a time when nobody on a busy road was looking. The fishmonger and his assistants grabbed sacks of periwinkles, and ran in a frenzy, slinging the things into fields on both sides of the road. They raced to gardens, and some assistants, standing on the shoulders of other assistants, had sacks lifted to them, and dumped sacks over the high walls. Meanwhile other assistants, in a dozen carts, were furiously shovelling out periwinkles, about a mile along the road. Also, meanwhile, several boys were busily mixing in crabs. They were not advertising anything. Above all there was secrecy. The cost must have been hundreds of dollars. They appeared without having been seen on the way, and they melted away equally mysteriously. There were houses all around, but nobody saw them.

Would I be so kind as to tell what, in the name of some slight approximation to sanity, I mean by telling such a story ?

But it is not my story. The details are mine, but I have put them in, strictly in accordance with the circumstances. There was, upon May 28th, 1881, an occurrence near Worcester, and the conventional explanation was that a fishmonger did it. Inasmuch as he did it unobserved, if he did it, and inasmuch as he did it with tons upon acres, if he did it, he did it as I have described, if he did it.

In Land and Water, June 4, 1881, a correspondent writes that, in a violent thunderstorm, near Worcester, tons of periwinkles had come down from the sky, covering fields and a road, for about a mile. In the issue of June 11th, the Editor of Land and Water writes that specimens had been sent to him. He notes the mysterious circumstance… that appears in virtually all the accounts. He comments upon an enormous fall of sea creatures, unaccompanied by sand, pebbles, other shells, or seaweed.

In the Worcester Daily Times, May 3, it is said that, upon the 28th, news had reached Worcester of a wonderful fall from the sky, of periwinkles on Cromer Gardens Road, and spread far around in fields and gardens. Mostly, people of Worcester were incredulous, but some had gone to the place. Those who had faith returned with periwinkles.

Two correspondents then wrote that they had seen the periwinkles upon the road before the storm, where probably a fishmonger had got rid of them. So the occurrence conventionalised, and out of these surmises arose the story of the fishmonger, though it has never been told before, as I have told it.

Mr. J. Lloyd Bozward, a writer whose notes on meteorological subjects are familiar to readers of scientific periodicals of this time, was investigating, and his findings were published in the Worcester Evening Post, June 9th. As to the story of  the fishmonger, note his statement that the value of periwinkles was 16 shillings a bushel. He says that a wide area on both sides of the road was strewn with periwinkles, hermit crabs, and small crabs of an unascertained species. Worcester is about 30 miles from the mouth of the River Severn, or say about 50 miles from the sea. Probably no fishmonger in the world ever had, at one time, so many periwinkles, but as to anybody having got rid of a stock, because of a glutted market, for instance, Mr. Bozward says: “Neither upon Saturday, the 28th, nor Friday, the 27th, was there such a thing procurable in Worcester as a live periwinkle…” Gardens as well as fields were strewn. There were high walls around these gardens. Mr. Bozward tells of about 10 sacks of periwinkles, of a value of about £20, in the markets of Worcester, that, to his knowledge, had been picked up. Crowds had filled pots and pans and bags and trunks before he got to the place. “In Mr. Maund’s garden, two sacks were filled with them.” It is his conclusion that the things fell from the sky during the thunderstorm.

There are extraordinary occurrences, and conventionalisation cloaks them, and the more commonplace the cloakery, the more satisfactory. Periwinkles appear upon a tract of land, through which there is a road. A fishmonger did it.

But the crabs and the fishmonger—and if the fishmonger did the periwinkles, did he do the crabs, if he did it?

Or the crabs and the whirlwind—and, if the periwinkles were segregated from pebbles and seaweed, why not from the crabs, if segregation did it ?

The strongest point for the segregationists is in their own mental processes, which illustrate that segregations, whether by wind action, or not, do occur. If they have periwinkles and crabs to explain, and, say, that with a story of a fishmonger, or of a whirlwind, they can explain the periwinkles, though so they cannot explain the crabs, a separation of data occurs in their mentalities. They forget the crabs and tell of the periwinkles.

What happens between the brackets?

Trance and Bracketing

Trance = ‘I’ = bracketed bits of oneself.
Memory-I’s = I-tags = brackets, one ‘I’ set against another.

Rediscovering old memories takes place in brackets, creates brackets; this particular memory was written down and fits the thinking on brackets since it is about the process of bracketing.

The following is a bit of in parenthesis thinking about brackets from 25 years ago (end-1978)

Bracketing: a Technique for Stripping Contradictory Realities of Their Power to Confound

The mind is worked into a turmoil by the confluence of irreconcilable ideas from many random sources; then it contrives to make connections between them which begin to fly off in all directions—a heady feeling emerges, an inability to hold on to the present moment, to see things as they are.  Then you must be ready to note them all down in their separateness before they begin to escape the precise atmosphere of the mind on which they have their starting point.  ‘Separateness’, separating things out is the process of Bracketing; brackets, putting things in parenthesis, can be so useful in thinking things out.  For instance, you can cope with the most impossible situations, people, ideas by putting them, or bits of them, in brackets for the time being—what’s bracketed does not have to remain so forever.  Brackets within brackets.  Brackets make whole, make separate, one idea-etc from another but they also give you great opportunities to multiply things together: so, for instance, you identify a person’s deficiencies (as you see them…) but, at the same time, you see opportunities to make the observation and your perception of them work positively for you.  All this by bracketing off. What’s in the brackets you don’t have to respond to in any way; lack of brackets builds antipathy, cuts off possibilities, releases Negative Emotion, decreases the space in which you can work. Brackets are temporary secure conceptual positions where anxiety, anger, antipathy (things which reduce wholeness) can cease to function, where the small emotions of everyday life don’t have to wallow away at the back of everything.  Everything can lead into a bracket; everything you read is in a bracket; put this piece of writing into a bracket and then multiply it with your own experience to understand the sense {or non-sense} of it.

To make a bracket concrete, handleable, express it as a deliberate fiction {it is not a fiction in the usual sense however—merely part of the idea that we tell ourselves stories}; the fiction is a way of depicting a bracket, a temporary expression of a thought-nexus that can be threaded into all your other thinkings.  For instance, the person you do not trust {express it fictionally—it’s part of your story} for various reasons {express them fictionally} becomes the central bracket around which another bracket can be placed which contains an interpretation of their behaviour {still part of your story} and another round that to make the interpretation relate to other concerns {whatever they may be}; at which point the reading {bracketed off from all these considerations} of a passage in a book {bracketed even within the book…} alerts you to other possibilities.

Jung, Memories, Dreams & Reflections p211

Every evening I wrote conscientiously, for I thought if I did not write, there would be no way for the anima to get at my fantasies.  Also, by writing them out I gave her no chance to twist them into intrigues.  There is a tremendous difference between intending to tell something and actually telling it.  In order to be as honest as possible with myself, I wrote everything down very carefully, following the old Greek maxim: ‘Give away all that thou hast, then shalt thou receive…’

Without brackets, things get ‘twisted into intrigues’.  In story-writing, adopting a third person mode, a kind of bracketing, differentiates self from effects, holds at arm’s length forces that might otherwise be difficult to manage; perhaps this is why some parents adopt the third person stance with little children: “Let mummy do that for you…”

One who has power over him gives him to read a short story by Ray Bradbury—Powerhouse—which is supposed to show him how she conceives of God, which it does… but it also contains a phrase which sums up something which he had haltingly tried to explain to her on and off for a couple of days: ‘He was a capped jug; the contents there for sure’.  What he had been tryting to explain was his need for experience—and now he had the right metaphor—to be a capped jug; the contents there for sure.  It might be a succession of capped jugs or encapsulations.  His need for experience to be like that and his belief that under certain conditions it could be like that.   Bracketed off areas of experience, held tight for inspection were sometimes the only way to survive in a world that insists on togetherness and talking constantly to one another in which everything is constantly twisted into intrigues.

Provided you don’t succumb to the simple-minded happiness drive, life can be a succession of ecstasies that are not lived through without pain or low spots.

This is an I-tag that recalls for me how I was thinking all those years ago: 25 years go into brackets.  Bracketing-I has existed for many years.

All this now in another Glob-bracket ten years on…

4 thoughts on “Bracketing – a Way of Thinking (R10)

  1. Colin, this post was a real boost! I’d forgotten the sections in your books about “Bracketing.” I’ve been using bracketing the past few days and it works like a charm. It adds a nice texture to Meta I. It has lifted my spirits and espoused a new dimension to my going about, even my wife has noticed:-) Thanks old chum, Patrick


  2. Colin,
    This post is such a testament to the consistency of your learning. It’s amazing to me how seamless the excerpts from years ago fit in with your current commentary. And thank you – I’m using the bracketing concept – completely new to me, by the way – to deal with an extremely contentious issue I’ve been having with one of my siblings. And needless to say, it’s proving to be a very useful structure for containing the highly charged and totally ambivalent emotional responses I’m experiencing.
    PS – I wish I had been able to read this post years ago, before I gave up on Iris Murdoch in complete exasperation, and donated my collection of her novels to my local library!!


    1. Hi Tom

      Could be that I’m just stuck in a bracket or even a rut! 🙂

      Nice to know that the Bracketing process is of practical use. Seems to me that there’s no point in learning unless it issues into practice – this was how the ancients viewed the notion of ‘philosophy’ wasn’t it?

      I’ll have to do a Glob on Iris Murdoch. Since she died I so miss relating years to ‘another Iris Murdoch novel’. I can’t bear watching the film ‘Iris’.



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