the possibility of thinking differently




Meta cognition is roughly speaking observing thought processes: awareness of how we are thinking. One aspect of meditation is just this. It is very difficult because personal grammar is so deeply embedded. Buddhists sometimes use the Koan to evoke what we now call meta consciousness. Nasruddin stories in the Sufi tradition do the same thing. Borges essay resembles a koan.


Foucault writes of “the impossibility of thinking that” about a passage in Borges describing a Chinese encyclopaedia in which  animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a very long way off look like flies.


“The impossibility of thinking that”, arises because the categories are absurd. They make no sense; at least not according ordinary rules of organizational grammar.  I use the phrase organizational grammar to distinguish it from grammar in a more limited sense.


In Kafka’s story organizational grammar is embodied in the Law

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this door-keeper there comes a man .... praying for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man........ asks if he will be allowed in later. "It is possible,....but not at the moment." Since the gate stands open,.... the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man... Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are tempted to try to go in without my permission, take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him." These are difficulties the man ......has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but, ......... he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. ....There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper with his questions. The doorkeeper frequently questions......are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man,........ sacrifices all he bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always remarks: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything." During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck,................., as he grows old, he only grumbles... becomes childish, and ..........his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him yet he is ....aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law...... Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather to one point, a question he has not yet asked.......... The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him..... . "What do you want to know now?"  "You are insatiable." "Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and ....... roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."


Organizational grammar has morphology, syntax and rhetoric. Morphology includes formal treaties, contracts; and informal cultures, norms and codes. It includes modes of behaving, understanding, making sense and attaching meaning, at the social or personal level (corresponding to the nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions and so on). Syntax governs the way the elements of the morphology permitted to be linked in order to communicate. Rhetoric generally governs convention and influence; conventional understanding and discourse; implicit assumptions about the way things are and should be. In particular, rhetoric influences how things are understood.  


Organizational grammar is  a kind of programming or conditioning. It brings stability but is also an obstacle to thinking differently; necessary conditioning, otherwise life would be unthinkable; but also a barrier, sometimes a destructive habit. Being conscious, in a special sense, means occasionally being aware that organizational grammar exists. And that requires seeing one grammar from the point of view of another.


There are alternative grammars; perhaps an infinity. On just one interpretation of the Kafka’s doorkeeper, there are layers upon layers of organizational grammar, signified by successive door keepers. Kafka later in the text offers many interpretations.


Myths and fairy stories have their own organizational grammar; only the fool, the poor, the child or a wise animal, is sufficiently free from conventional organizational grammar (free enough from the impossibility of thinking that) to rescue a city from the dragon, find the treasure, wake the sleeper, solve the problem by thinking differently. What myths and fairy stories do not make clear is (a) the act of seeing one organizational grammar for the conditioning that it is, which can only be done from the perspective of another grammar; and (b) seeing that organizational grammar can only be understood only from the perspective of another grammar; and so on.  


Meta cognition could be described as a mystical way of seeing; that is, if mysticism is viewed outside the frame of conventional grammar. 



Borges, J.L 1999,  The total library; non fiction, 1922-1986, translated by Ester Allen, Suzanne Levine & Eliot Weinburger, Penguin Books, London.

Foucault, M 1970, The order of things, translated A. Sheridon, Random House, London.

Kafka, F 1925, The trial, translated by Willa & Edwin Muir, Schloken Books, New York.

Wittgenstein, L 1963, Philosophical investigations translated by G.E.M Anscombe, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

On organizational grammar see elsewhere on this site or

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