What Is a Preposition? Let’s Go Inside and See

Prepositions—e.g. “over,” “under,” “before,” “after,” “in,” “on,” “of,” and dozens more in English—are words that denote relationship between things; things including people and places;—you know, nouns. When handling prepositions it’s especially important to remember that actual people, places, and things (including ideas and other non-material yet no less real things) are what we mean when we refer to “nouns.” When thinking about prepositions if we bring to mind the real things, places, and people that are in relationship, we can accomplish two things: (1) understand the meaning of the preposition we’re using, and (2) rediscover the living pulse of language.

But before we get into the woo woo stuff, let’s solidify what prepositions are and how they work. (For your reference, here is a handy list of prepositions.) It was first explained to me that prepositions are “Anything you can do with a mountain”1: you can go over a mountain, tunnel under a mountain, hammer your way through a mountain (if you’re John Henry), and so on. Over at the website Grammar Revolution, you can see a similar graphical representation of prepositions using an apple and a worm. So far these mountain and apple examples are showing relationships of space: if you’re under a mountain you’re either a skilled spelunker or you’re screwed (like Jonah, when he found himself buried under a mountain), but in either case the mountain is spatially above you and you are spatially below the mountain. But it’s also possible to use prepositions to show relationships of time, as in the question, “I wonder what was here before this mountain rose up from the earth?”

Indeed, the apple and the mountain might be prepositionally related in various ways. The apple could be of the mountain (or of a tree that is of the mountain). The mountain existed long before the apple (and yet, should a meteor suddenly flatten the mountain, it’s possible that the apple might continue to persist after the mountain is gone). The apple might be rolling down the mountain. The apple might be thrown at the mountain. The apple might be formerly of the mountain, have rolled down the mountain, been picked up by a girl who lives in a cave of the mountain, been rejected because it is wormy, and at this very moment be poised to be thrown at the mountain in disgust.

Most of the prepositions in the previous paragraph show relationships of space, and a couple show relationships of time. The preposition “of” (and some others, depending on context) shows a different kind of relationship: a familial or genetic one. Think of the prepositional phrase that concludes the first paragraph of this post: “the living pulse of language.” There is a necessary connotation of oneness: the pulse and the language that the pulse is of participate the same existence; the pulse being spoken of is orphaned without the language that it is of.2 In the phrase “the Queen of England,” the Queen does not belong to England as a possession so much as she is inseparably related to the land of that country; she can only be the Queen of England and of no other land, just as she can only be the daughter of her mother and the mother of her children. What’s important here is the nature of the relationship per se, not whether the relationship between the Queen and England is more like the relationship between a daughter and a mother or more like that between a mother and a child. The essence of the preposition is in the relationship that exists between the two related things.

In this respect, the preposition “between” might be the queen of prepositions. For the relational meaning of any preposition is neither the one thing being brought into relationship nor the other; that is, the meaning of “of” belongs neither to the Queen nor to England, but is something else in itself. But what? How can we best grasp the meanings of prepositions? This might sound like a daft question not worth asking, but many English teachers have surely begun to notice a marked deterioration in the use of prepositions by their students in recent years, including my favorite pet peeve, the oxymoronic “based off of.”3

One of the most effective ways to choose the right preposition is to gesture with your hands. Try it. Use your hands to place one thing in another. No, really, don’t just imagine it in your mind; physically use your hands to do it. Prepositions are physical. When you walk alongside a fence, for instance, you are walking a long sidealong the side ofalong beside that fence. Gesture “alongside” with your hands. Gesture “this is for you” with your hands.

Physicalizing prepositions can help us understand them deeply. You can use your hands to gesture “between.” You can also stand in a doorway for a full minute—neither on one side nor on the other side—but right between. Try it with the outside door of your house or apartment building or dorm. Stand in the doorway between inside and outside. What is that experience of between-ness like? The doorway is analogous to the preposition: it establishes a certain relationship between the space on one side and the space on the other. There could be a quite different relationship between those two spaces; there could be a wall between them; there could be a partial wall that ends, and where the wall ends the two spaces that were separated then come together and become the same space.

Using our hands doesn’t work as well for prepositions of time. The only gesture we can make to show “before” is a spatial one, as in the lyric from the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

That’s a spatial “before.” But to experience the sense of time in “before” as well as in “after,” we must employ memory. Without resorting to photographic records, compare the way a place appears before and after. Before and after what? you may ask. Try thinking about “before” as before after, and “after” as after before, in pure relationship to each other. You might recall a room that was painted, or a field that recently was snow-covered but now is beginning to bud with early spring. Contemplate the experience of the place changing from before to after; the relationship between the before and after appearance of the place. Try to hover temporally in between the two different appearances of the place, which, like photographs, are static. The in-between time relationships of the prepositions “before” and “after” themselves are not static: “before” moves from later to earlier, while “after” moves from earlier to later.

If you sit meditatively with prepositions, they begin to pulse with living meanings, meanings that inspire the kind of understanding that comes from lived experience.

Here are some mind-bending prepositional gedankenexperiments to take with you. For most interesting results, contemplate one for two uninterrupted minutes per day for several days, before moving on to try another. Focus matters here.

  • Pick a preposition, any preposition, and contemplate its meaning in and of itself.
  • I’m not sure why, but a whole class of mine once got freaked out by this preposition in particular; so consider yourself warned. Contemplate the meaning of the preposition “in.” (Is it scary? Really?)
  • There’s a spatial sense of being with a friend (as opposed to being apart), but when you reassure your friend that you are with him or her, what more than bare proximity do you mean?
  • Contemplate the relational meaning of the preposition “because.”
  • When you say you are thinking of a number from one to ten, what does it mean to think of something?

  1. Dr. Scott McPartland 

  2. In preemptive retort to grammar tyrants who will brook no prepositions at the ends of sentences, I quote Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” 

  3. Think about it: based and off of are contradictories. 


What Makes a Pen Real and a Falling Tree Make a Sound?

Pick up any ordinary pen and consider what you see.  Supposedly your eyes will do their job, which is to represent the physical structure of the pen as a particular configuration of rods and cones. But your mind will not acknowledge the object in your hand as a bunch of rods and cones, nor as a structured mass of molecules (which is what a pen and everything else is made of). Your mind instead understands the object simply as a pen.

There are two stages involved in knowing that what you picked up is a pen. First, your eyes and your fingers communicate sense impressions, or percepts; to your brain. These percepts are in the form of electrochemical stimuli traveling through your nervous system, and they no more resemble a pen than a weather map resembles an actual rain storm. Second, your mind then organizes this raw data into concepts. It is the concept of a pen that the mind grasps, and to prove this, simply put yourself in a room that contains no pens and then reread this paragraph. You still understand what a pen is, even though you’re not perceiving one at the moment.

The first of these two stages is really nothing more than passive observation. What is a pen, materially? It’s a mass of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles. Has any human being ever actually seen—as in laid eyes on—those subatomic particles? No. Even the most powerful microscopes can only bump over some thing that physicists have mathematically postulated to be an electron, but no one has ever perceived an electron with his own senses. A pen in its raw state, like every other object in the world, is just a mass of particles.

The second stage, the concepts stage, is where we get our sense of reality; for if we did not organize the constituent particles of matter with our minds, we would forever be confronted with a universe of undifferentiated particle soup. A pen is made of particles; air is made of particles; and the particles in both are fundamentally the same (i.e. protons, neutrons, electrons).1 It is consciousness that differentiates between the two by forming two distinct ideas. The idea of a pen is a coherent representation of the sensory data we receive in the form of percepts. The raw data—the particles themselves, as well as the sensory impulses traveling through our nervous systems—remain unrepresented until our minds make comprehensible forms out of them.

This extra-sensory, reality-forming activity of the mind is what philosopher Owen Barfield calls figuration: After passively perceiving undifferentiated particle structures with the senses, the mind figurates those structures and forms an image of the real world. Barfield calls the process of perception and figuration, taken as a whole, participation.2

Thus, the world, without consciousness to participate3 it, is an abundance of unrepresented phenomena. Such unrepresented phenomena would certainly exist in their own right, but they would not be real in any sense that is useful, because they would have no conscious meaning. In terms of an existential state, unrepresented phenomena do not depend on consciousness for existence (in other words, the particles, the quanta of energy, are there whether consciousness figurates them or not); but in terms of conscious reality, what is unrepresented lingers in the realm of the potentially manifest. Thus the answer to the long-debated question, “If a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is, No, it doesn’t. But it does make something, something as yet unrepresented. Particles of what a participating person would recognize as air would move precipitously. And if a participating person were in the forest, that unrepresented movement of particles would indeed be recognized as sound.

Perhaps the hardest part of participation to swallow is that without consciousness there is no reality. Raw percepts, what I called “particle soup,” aren’t anything without concepts. But neither have concepts any reality without percepts. As philosopher Georg Kuhlewind noted in The Logos-Structure of the World, the percepts bring the weight of evidence to our perceptions; in other words, the percepts of our sense impressions tell us that something exists, that something is actually there. Concepts structure the something-there into an intelligible, experiential reality. It might be useful to distinguish between what exists and what is real in this way: something which exists potentially may occupy consciousness and join with concepts, whereas something real has already so appeared in the mind and been conceptualized by it. Even for the tree to fall in the forest, a participating consciousness is prerequisite. Otherwise the best anyone can say is that, because he’s been in a forest, or experienced artistic renderings of forests (in paintings, for example), he can imagine that in some forest a tree might fall, and if it did fall, he can imagine that it would make a sound. In the absence of a participating consciousness, there is no tree even, and no forest. Something exists, and something is happening in the world of unrepresented energy-particles.

Though it is difficult, using conventional wisdom, to think of a phenomenon as part of existence and yet simultaneously unreal, it is a viable distinction; otherwise, the word real in the philosophical sense could just as well be stricken from the dictionary as redundant, and the distinction between represented and unrepresented phenomena would be impossible to make.

There are many practical implications of the above philosophical excursion, not the least of which is that our collective reality is correlative to our collective concepts. It follows that what we make of the world in fact makes the world. What we do with our minds matters. This is one of the major foundational principles of The Conscious Learner.

  1. You might argue that the configurations of the subatomic particles make all the difference, but if that’s so it must be by a magical process: the mathematical differences between one atom and another do not in any way resemble the qualitative differences between a pen and air. Nor do molecular structures determine that a pen is a pen and not a hippopotamus. A molecular structure is a set of relationships, bonds, between atoms. These bonds are said to determine the substance’s physical properties, its conductivity, hardness, soluability, and melting point. But all of the terms being used to describe molecular structure are conceptual. A bond is a particular kind of relationship involving attraction. Conductivity, hardness, soluability, and melting point are all concepts. Thus a molecule’s physical properties are the product of consciousness’s figuration of percepts. 

  2. See the first four chapters of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, which, especially as far as the argument here is concerned, may be read as his magnum opus. 

  3. This usage of the verb participate can be found, says Barfield, on nearly every page of Aquinas’s writings. E.g. “Suppose we say that air participates the light of the sun, because it does not receive it in that clarity in which it is in the sun.” (De Hebdomadibus, chap. 2—quoted in Saving the Appearances, p. 90.) 


Implex and Complex

Brain teaser: what’s the opposite of “complex”?

“Simple,” right? Perhaps. But one could argue that “simple” represents a lack of complexity, not its polar opposite. I propose a different answer: the opposite of complex is implex (or maybe it’s the inverse—so sue me).

For example, a building is a complex, built brick by brick. But a human is an implex: an individual being that has many inner dimensions. Whereas complexes tend to be artificially constructed, an implex is a whole which has the unique capacity to unfold like a flower, like a brilliant plan, like an exquisite idea. Whereas a complex is an organized aggregation of separate components, an implex is a single whole entity that contains within itself many things that can be identified as parts but which are not separable from the whole. A complex consists of parts and synthesizes a whole. An implex consists wholly in itself and can (if plumbed) be analyzed into parts.

Nowadays we typically have trouble imagining an implex, and here’s why. First, we don’t normally think of anything as either an implex or a complex, unless those words are used in the name of a thing, as in an “office complex”; and there are no such current phrases that I know of that include the word “implex.” So, to ask the question whether something—say, a poem—is an implex or a complex, we have to stop and think about the thing (the poem) in question. If we are cognitively able to make the distinction between an implex and a complex, then when we start thinking about it, we are apt to think about it analytically, which is the predominant mode of scientific and philosophical thinking. Well, the word “analysis” means a disassembling of something to examine its component parts (Greek ana + lysis). Thus, the default mode of analytical thinking is to regard anything—a poem, a human body, a song—as constituted of separable parts, and therefore as a complex. Analytical thinking reveals to us that everything is made of parts, right?—even the atom is composed of subatomic particles.

But this is an error in our thinking. We know that we will be able to discover parts within virtually any whole. And so, as Henri Bortoft often notes (in his book The Wholeness of Nature), we start at the end of our thinking process (with our finished thought) rather than the beginning, and assume that all wholes are built up from parts. While this is certainly true of a Chevy Corvette, it is not true of a human baby. The only way to get at a human baby’s parts is to open it up—and since babies are not subject to psychoanalysis, this would require vivisection. But, one might argue, a single baby is a complex of multiple biological processes. While this is, quantitatively speaking, true, this view artificially carves a baby’s physiology into discrete processes. But the blood, the heart, the brain, the finger muscles and the vocal chords of a baby are all inseparably implexed in a whole. The whole human being is not constructed from parts in the manner of the “replicants” imagined by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into the film Blade Runner). Rather, the whole organism evolves, just as Darwin observed. A baby is a single entity, not a team entity. It is not legion, it is whole. The notion that human beings are constructed of numerous organs, bones, and so on is literally science fiction. Only a pervasive intellectual habit—this insistence that anything we can carve up must be piecemeal by nature, and therefore everything is the sum of its parts rather than being an existential whole (which implies that mysterious thing identity)—only this stubborn habit stands in the way of our perceiving the obvious.

A daisy plant

Thus the word “part” itself may express these two distinct and contrapuntal senses: on the one hand of being inseparably part of a whole, as in being part of a family, or part of a plant (say, one flower); and on the other hand of being an isolable piece of a construction,

A daisy chain

as in being part (i.e. a member) of a chain gang, or one component part of a daisy chain.

An implex can unfold into a complex. How? How can a human baby unfold? Contemplate this: a fertilized egg can become a fully formed human being, and that human life can become a biography. What stories from your life stand out and say something about who you are? When you have lived a long life, what is the relationship of any one of your many experiences—a bar mitzvah, the moment of falling in love with a lifelong partner, the birth of a child, the death of a parent—to the whole of your life? If you write your autobiography, in which sense is each chapter a part of the whole book?


  1. Your unconscious mind is clearly an implex, because to your conscious awareness your unconscious is and remains monolithic until it is dredged with the aid of a highly paid professional. In other words, your unconscious is a whole which can be plumbed and analyzed. But what about your conscious mind? Are your conscious thoughts one whole interweaving implex, or a complex of separate ideas? Can thoughts be separated from each other? If so, how?

  2. Try to discern the moment when an experience, which is an inseparable part of your whole life, can become an isolable part of your constructed biography.


Believing & Doubting (and “Negative Capability”)

Believing & Doubting is when you write on two opposing sides of an idea, an assertion, an interpretation—something an author says that can be agreed or disagreed with.

The most basic way to do this exercise is to freewrite a “pro” paragraph followed by a “con” paragraph.

The more difficult (but more rewarding and far more useful) way to do this exercise is really to discover and be able to understand (as in stand under and support) two opposing points of view with equal conviction—allowing yourself to become “of two minds” (after all, two minds are better than one). The idea is to articulate your point of view first, and then to do your best to imagine the opposite point of view as fully as possible. It helps to pretend you are someone who really believes this opposite point of view, and write as if you are that person (use first person!).

This is a very powerful exercise of the imagination, leading to all kinds of surprising insights. One potential outcome is a higher synthesis of the two opposites (which are, respectively, thesis and antithesis): a perspective that rises above and encompasses the contradictions. Another sublime outcome is what the Romantic poet John Keats called “Negative Capability,” which, in a letter to his brothers, he described this way:

… at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half‑knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.


Principles of the Socratic Method

  1. I start with a clean slate, an empty cup, tabula rasa: my only preconception is that I don’t know. My goal is to find out what the other person knows, because only what they know that I don’t is worth finding out. The moment I have an idea of my own, I file it away—away from my present conversation.
  2. The only premise I allow myself is: The laws of logic are self-consistent. In the course of the conversation, the only question I ask myself or answer is: “Is this logical?” Thus, I bring nothing of my own idiosyncrasies to the dialogue.
  3. Ideas, particularly complexes of ideas that comprise a logical argument, are intrinsically harmonious (which follows, in a Pythagorean sense, from self-consistency). Therefore, my only job is to illuminate inconsistencies, seek wholeness of meaning—or rather, guide my interlocutor toward wholeness of meaning.


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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