The roots of Liminal Thinking

Liminal Thinking is a discipline with deep and tangled roots that are not easily unraveled. Many people practice Liminal Thinking intuitively, or learn it from a mentor, but up until now this community has been a diffuse, distributed, disconnected population; a “community without a name.” One of the goals of this book is to provide a name, and a home, and a common language, for that community.

The word liminal means “a state, stage, or period of transition.” It derives from the Latin root limen, which means threshold. This root appears in the English words preliminary (an event preceding something important), subliminal (below the threshold of consciousness), and lintel (literally threshold).

The first use of the word “liminal” in English was by James Sully, a psychologist, in 1884:

“Among these problems [of consciousness] is that of the limit, threshold, or liminal intensity. A certain degree of stimulation is necessary to a sense-impression : this is known as the liminal intensity.”

The concept of liminality as a state of transition was developed by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, in the early 1900s, in his book, Le Rites de Passage (Rites of Passage). The concept was further developed by another anthropologist, Victor Turner, in the 1960s.

Victor Turner (left) and Arnold Van Gennep (right).

Liminality has been described as

“Betwixt and between… the period of margin… an interstructural situation.”
“Moments or periods of transition during which the normal limits to thought, self-understanding and behavior are relaxed, opening the way to novelty and imagination, construction and destruction.”
“Any ‘betwixt and between’ situation or object, any in-between place or moment, a state of suspense, a moment of freedom between two structured world-views or institutional arrangements. It relates to change in a single personality as well as social change and transition in large-scale settings… [it] opens the door to a world of contingency where events and meanings — indeed ‘reality itself’ — can be moulded and carried in different directions.”

Liminal Thinking owes a great debt to Jainism and Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, the practice of mindful meditation, reflection on experience and getting in touch with the reality of experience. Gautama Buddha was teaching students how to understand their own minds more than two thousand years ago. Jainism is also the source for the story of the blind men and the elephant, still the best parable for the nature of belief and reality that I know of.

Liminal Thinking also owes homage to Socrates and Plato, especially Plato’s metaphor of the cave.

One of the more important and more recent influences is that of the Pragmatists, a school of American philosophy founded by William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. James and Peirce were more than philosophers. James was also a psychologist and trained as a physician, while Peirce was also an innovator in statistics, mathematics and research methodologies. Some consider them the founders of modern experimental psychology.

One of the core tenets of Pragmatism is that theories should be considered as instruments, not solutions or truths. In their view, a theory, like any other tool, should be judged primarily by its ability to get a desired result, rather than validity in any absolute sense.

Willam James (left) and Charles Sanders Peirce (right).
Alfred Korzybski.

The Pragmatists in turn were a great influence on Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-American engineer who developed a “non-Aristotelian logic” that he called General Semantics in the 1920s. Korzybski hoped that the adoption of General Semantics would lead to an increase in sanity for the human race.

General Semantics was designed to be a theoretical and practical system for codifying and regulating mental habits, routines and behaviors.

General Semantics influenced early work in cybernetics and systems theory, which in turn influenced the development of a number of practical therapeutic approaches that go under the general category of Systemic Therapies, developed at the Mental Research Institute, founded in 1958 in Palo Alto, California. Systemic therapies are more specifically known under the names of Brief Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Solutions-Focused Therapy and Family Therapy.

Martin Luther King (left), Mohandas Ghandi (center) and Marshall Rosenberg (right).

Another branch in the Liminal Thinking root system is the concept of nonviolent resistance, as practiced by Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and Nonviolent Communication, a discipline inspired by nonviolent resistance and developed by Marshall Rosenberg.

Chris Argyris.

Liminal Thinking must also acknowledge a deep debt to Organization Development, a discipline pioneered by Chris Argyris and his peers, specifically concepts like the Ladder of Influence (which I have described here as the pyramid of belief), self-sealing logic, and double-loop learning.

The scientific research program of Neurophenomenology continues to supply a steady stream of new information that promises to provide insights for years to come.

Learn more about Liminal Thinking.