Outerness and Innerness: The Two Sides of Life

Professor Ralph Rowbottom

This paper develops and extends the twin concepts of outerness and innerness that form an important part of the comprehensive presentation in the paper ‘A Philosophy For Living’. It is shown how use of these twin concepts clarify such things as: the relation of science and religion; the crucial differences between the natural sciences on the one hand, and the human and social sciences on the other; and many current confusions in the area of illness and its treatment.

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(This paper follows on from the section ‘Outer and Inner’ in the paper ‘A Philosophy for Living’)

‘What is matter? Never mind’
‘What is mind? No matter’
-old student joke

Western thinking of the last four centuries or so has been dominated and bedevilled by the notion of a fundamental split between mind (or spirit), and body (or matter). This view of things – rightly caricatured as that of ‘the ghost in the machine’ – has given rise to all sorts of problems. Natural science seems to suggest that it is matter (together with energy) that is the basic reality, thus relegating mind or consciousness to some secondary or unsure status – an ‘epiphenomenon’ perhaps, which arises only at a late stage of evolution in certain living bodies. Or if mind really does exist independently of matter, as common sense seems to suggest, the question arises of how on earth it manages to alter a material world completely ordered by the laws of physics. And so on. Moreover, a world outlook based on the one hand, on such an intellectual-sounding thing as mind, and on the other, on such a dull-sounding thing as matter, seems to have precious little room left for feelings; for serious consideration, that is, of such things as joy, sorrow, love, hate, exultation, despair, and all the other things that constitute the true richness of life.

We are all by now so strongly conditioned to believe in the obvious reality and fundamental character of these terms mind and body, that it is really quite difficult to think that there might be another and better way of viewing things. For a start we need to realise how abstract and far-removed from immediate experience are both these conceptions. Although physicists frequently (and quite properly) use the idea of mass, or matter, in their work, neither they nor anyone else can tell you what the term actually refers to. And the idea of mind or spirit is equally mysterious. What does it consist of?  How can you determine its presence?

It is now well understood that all abstract terms derive from ancient roots in concrete experience. It seems very likely that the abstract and contrasted ideas of matter and spirit derive initially from the common human perception of the difference between the hard knock and heavy weight of things like wood and rock, and the subtle touch on the skin of such things as the open-air breezes, or gases rising from the fire. And the idea of spirit (which, although closely related to that of mind, surely predates it) and its distinction from body, was probably reinforced from earliest times by the awesome experience of others’ deaths, and the observation of how, as the breath departed, it left behind lifeless and immobile corpses.

From such concrete and contrasted experiences however, has grown over the millennia an abstract dichotomy which threatens to split in two the very being of humanity and its universe; a dichotomy not only distorted in vision, but grossly pathological in effect. Thus on the one hand we are offered a realm of the material or bodily, variously characterised as mechanical, determined, finite, dark, driven, bestial, a ‘vale of tears’, the place of ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’, and so on. On the other hand, we are offered a realm of the mental or spiritual variously described as rational, free, angelic, light, and eternal. Stretched across the two is man, pictured as half-beast, half-god, whose most urgent, but impossible task, is to struggle incessantly to disburden himself of his lower nature and embrace only his higher. All this surely needs to be relegated to history.

If we abandon then, the notion of mind and matter, what can we put in its place? It is clear that a split of some sort exists in our common experience, and one that cannot be ignored. Quite early in life, we all have to learn the importance of separating reality from imaginings, fantasies, and dreams. The answer, I suggest, is to replace the misleading distinction of mind and body (or spirit and matter) with the much simpler, more serviceable, and profound, idea of outerness and innerness.

(To repeat the descriptions offered in A Philosophy for Living) Outerness is what can be objectively observed, inspected, weighed, measured, cut-into. As regards ourselves, it includes our skin, bones, hearts, brains, and so forth. Innerness is our subjectivity, whatever we feel, think, imagine: our experience, our consciousness, our inner landscape. Every human being has these two sides. So, presumably, do animals. Perhaps even plants or stones have some sort of innerness, though infinitesimal in development compared to our own. (The idea that all beings have an innerness of some kind as well as an outerness is a very simple and attractive one.)

The best image of the relationship between outerness and innerness is gained as follows. Hold up your hand and flex it. One side represents the outerness of things, the other their innerness. As with your hand, every change on the outside is accompanied by an absolutely-corresponding change on the inside, and vice versa. As everybody understands perfectly well in practice (and quite takes for granted without getting lost in philosophical niceties) you can initiate changes equally from your inner side or our your outer side. Whenever you pause to think what to do next before moving your arms or legs, you are demonstrating the first. If you lose consciousness following a blow to the head, or start to feel elated after a strong drink, you are exhibiting the second. Nothing whatsoever that occurs in our thoughts or feelings fails to be manifested simultaneously in some physical change, however minute, in our nervous and glandular systems. Nothing whatsoever that directly effects changes in these same or other bodily systems is not simultaneously manifested as change in our subjective experience at some or other level of consciousness (1).

The subjective experiences which constitute our own human innerness – our perceptions, thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and so on – all seem to be taking place somewhere within the walls of our skins (perhaps mainly in our heads). But we should not be misled for a moment therefore, into thinking that everything outside our own skins is to be considered as simply outerness, in the sense here being used. And this in spite of the habit of philosophers of inviting us to picture our surrounding world as consisting solely of ‘physical objects’; or the common tendency of scientists to refer to ‘the  world of nature’, something susceptible only to objective examination. It is extremely obvious that the world which surrounds each of us is, in normal circumstances, richly endowed with beings not at all to be thought of as simply ‘physical objects’, namely, other people (let alone animals and plants). Some of these other beings – our mothers, fathers, partners, children, – are of immense importance to us, and are certainly not to be comprehensively described in such a way. On the contrary, although each has an obvious outerness -an appearance which can be directly observed and touched, a body which can be weighed and measured if necessary – each has also a very real innerness, of which we are vividly aware whenever we have authentic interactions with them (Those who cannot properly respond to the innerness of their fellow humans are appropriately characterised in terms such as autistic, sociopathic, schizophrenic, and so on). And again, there is a strong case for recognising the innerness of animal life, and perhaps even in some much lesser degree, that of plant-life too.

The idea of outerness and innerness illuminates many substantial problems. We are enabled, for instance to see much more clearly the proper relation of science and religion. Science – natural science – is concerned with the outerness of things. It observes, dissects, weighs, and measures. It abjures feelings, wishes, and aims for complete objectivity. It is always inappropriate for scientists (as such) to step out beyond the realm of fact and theory into the making of value-judgements (other, that is, than about the ethics of their own research) or pronouncements on matters of religious, social or political belief. Religion, seen properly, is concerned with innerness, with the highest reaches of inner experience. Its rituals are essentially designed to stimulate such experience. Its beliefs are not to be confused with scientific fact or theory, but viewed as metaphors providing a deep poetic vision. (Older religions offered of course, a rich amalgam of religious belief, supposed historical fact, tribal rules, and primitive science such as it was. Nowadays, the various threads need disentangling.) (See the paper ‘Science and Religion: Chalk and Cheese’.)

In fact, the idea of outerness and innerness provides the key to the fundamental distinction between the sciences and the humanities in general. Sciences like physics, chemistry, physiology and anatomy, study the outerness of things, without any concern for what might be the inner experiences of the different entities on which they focus. Disciplines like sociology, politics, law, and (for the most part) psychology, concern themselves with various aspects of innerness: the inner characteristics of individual people, the nature of their personal interactions (transient or institutionalised) and the nature of their shared beliefs about morality, justice, rights, responsibilities, and so on. Not surprisingly, it turns out that quite different methods of study are called for in the sciences and in the humanities [2].  The first deal with that which is measurable and capable of objective public verification, the second with that which cannot be measured or objectively-verified, but only empathically-shared.

The concept of outer and inner helps clarify also, certain fundamental problems in the field of illness and therapy. It makes clear, for example, that all illness and disease, is in one sense of the word ‘psychosomatic’. No ailment is to be assigned separately to the ‘mind’ or the ‘body’. Every dysfunction of the human individual will manifest simultaneously in an inner and an outer form. The proper question to ask is, from which side was the illness initiated? Was it from innerness (‘psychogenic’), in response to say, a warring family culture, or a bereavement? Or was it from outerness (‘somatogenic’), in the form say, of invasive germ, physical trauma, or dietary deficiency? In the same way, a clearer view of various treatments or therapies can be gained. Thus things like surgery, drug therapy, or physiotherapy are obviously approaching things from the outside (and therefore, the methods of the physical sciences are appropriate in any systematic development or testing). So too, it would appear, are things like osteopathy, acupuncture, and homeopathy, even though they may take more account of inner factors as well before deciding treatment. On the other hand things like counselling, psychotherapy, or faith healing are clearly approaching people from the inside (and so the methods of the physical sciences are decidedly not appropriate in any systematic development and testing).

To conclude: It is time that we stopped seeing ourselves as curious combinations of solid body-stuff and invisible mind-stuff. It is time that we stopped thinking of ourselves as living half in one world of base matter, half in another of fine spirit. We should celebrate our status as integral beings, characterised by an outer objectivity and an inner subjectivity. We should recognise that there is only one world in which to live, a world shared with a rich and wide variety of other beings who also manifest in some degree or other, innerness as well as outerness.



Another way of visualising human outerness and innerness is as follows. Imagine that there is some magic instrument which can scan three-dimensional human beings in their entirety, and then display each on a screen unrolled in the form of a long two-dimensional strip. One side, the outerness, is red say. The other, the innerness, is blue say. The strip has a highly-intricate pattern running through it; one which is changing and re-forming all the time. However, the pattern on the one side remains at all times the exact mirror-image of that on the other. The outer side (the red one) can be studied only by direct observation, dissection, and measurement. ln whatever detail you study it, at whatever point, you only ever see redness, never even a speck of blue. The inner side (the blue one) can only be known by some form of communication, verbal or non-verbal, from the human subject concerned. In whatever detail you study it, and at whatever point, you can only ever see blueness, never even a speck of red.


1) But what about processes of digestion, growth, decay and so on? One can only speculate here on some ultimate definition of innerness as simply perhaps, a potentiality for subjective consciousness.

2) See my book ‘Social Analysis‘, Chapter 8 and passim.

All readers are welcome to use this material for what ever purposes they may have. When doing so, please attribute authorship to Professor Ralph Rowbottom.

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One Response to Outerness and Innerness: The Two Sides of Life

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