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I WAS IN A MOTEL room recently and noticed a small, whitish spot on the rug, near the wall. The spot had a number of thin lines coming out from it. Immediately, I saw it as a bug of some sort, perhaps on its back with its legs protruding. What should I do about it? I started to wonder about this motel, part of a national chain.

When I went over and looked more closely at the "bug," I saw that it was not a bug at all. It was an area of the rug, where it had been scraped by something, causing the spot. The leg-like "protrusions" were small fibers, still embedded in the carpet fabric.

Something interesting happened as I approached the spot. What had looked like a bug faded away, to be replaced by a piece of carpet. I had superimposed a bug onto this area of carpet, but the superimposition disappeared upon closer inspection. I actually saw the "bug" disappear, to be replaced by the frayed fabric.

This minor incident stuck in my mind because I had been reading about the philosophical concept of "superimposition" in Indian philosophy. Here was an example on a small scale of a phenomenon which both Hindu and Buddhist philosophers found to be basic to our consciousness. And they analyzed superimposition in much the same way we in the West analyze metaphor.

There are many parallels between the Hindu concept of superimposition and Western concepts of metaphor (see Mahadevan, 1985). Shankara, a seminal Hindu philosopher, defined superimposition as erroneous cognition, illusory appearance, the cognition of "that" in what is "not that."

All these aspects have been attributed to metaphor (see Gozzi, 1999, Ch. 6). A metaphor has been called a "mistake," since you call one thing by the name of another. This leads to illusory conceptions, and the attributing of qualities incorrectly.

Shankara made the distinction between the locus (or location) of superimposition, and what content is superimposed. In my example above, the locus was a rug, and the content was a bug. In metaphorical analysis, we often use I. A. Richards' scheme of tenor (or underlying situation = locus) and vehicle (or actual word used = content). So there is a basic structural similarity between Western concepts of metaphor and Eastern concepts of superimposition.

Superimposition also involves a process called "projection" by Western psychologists. Shankara says in superimposition, perceptual appearance is sublated by another cognition. ("Sublation" means to negate, as one element in a dialectic, but to preserve as a partial element in a synthesis, according to Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary.)

This is similar to the Western psychological concept of projection, where we project our unconscious thoughts onto our conscious perceptions. It is most often our desires, hopes, or fears which are projected. We then interpret an ambiguous set of percepts according to these projected desires or fears. This habit can trap us into a repetitive way of living, as the outer world seems to always confirm our worst fears, or frustrate our desires. (See discussion of projection in Gozzi, 1999, ch. 39.)

Metaphor performs its superimposition process through language and conceptualization. Thus, when we call the computer intelligent, say that it has a memory, and that it has its own languages, we are superimposing human mental qualities onto an assemblage of plastic, metal, and glue. These metaphorical superimpositions can be quite convincing. I have long contended that we should carefully analyze our language to uncover the implications of our metaphors.

In Hindu philosophy, however, the concept of superimposition is taken much further. Our very consciousness is said to be formed by a process of reciprocal superimposition. First, we superimpose the not-Self on the Self. Secondly, we superimpose the Self on the not-Self.

The Self is described as pure consciousness, non-dual, eternal, the spark of the divine in each of us. It is the witness within, which illuminates phenomena, but which itself is not subject to change. When we think "I am angry" or "this is mine," we superimpose states of mind (not-Sell) on the Self. (The pure witness of the Self is the locus, the particular state of consciousness at the time is the content, of this superimposition.) In fact, Shankara says that any attribution of qualities to the Self is a superimposition, leading to confusion and error (Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 1947).

The reciprocal superimposition comes when we assume that our mind, or ego, is our ultimate Self. (Here, the shifting, temporary consciousness is the locus, and the eternal Self is the content of the superimposition.)

So we should not identify our true Self with our states of consciousness, our minds, or with our bodies, according to Hindu philosophy. The reciprocal superimpositions of the not-Self and the Self lead to erroneous cognitions which produce bondage and suffering.

Translating this position into Western concepts of metaphor, our consciousness can be conceived as fundamentally metaphorical in structure. Our awareness at any time contains both our temporary consciousness, and the illuminating witness of the spirit. When we conceive of one portion of our awareness in terms of another, ("I am upset," etc.), we are constructing a metaphor to explain our consciousness to ourselves. Yet these metaphors trap us into accepting our temporary consciousness as our spiritual essence. They also lead us to misunderstand our spiritual essence as having qualities similar to our temporary consciousness.

A kind of metaphorical analysis is recommended by the Hindu philosophers so these elements can be un-imposed and the implications of the metaphors understood. The desired result is liberation of the Self from the entanglements with the not-Self, leading to bliss, even in this life.

Interestingly enough, Buddhism also recommends that we escape the bonds of superimposition, but from a different philosophical base. Buddhism does not posit an eternal Self, in fact, claims that there is no permanent Self, that Selfhood is just a conceit and an illusion. Here it differs from Hinduism.

But when it comes to actual practice, we find similarities. The Buddha taught that everything we perceive, even consciousness itself, is impermanent, liable to suffering, and not-Self. The body, feelings, states of mind, and mental contents are not-Self, since we cannot make them be exactly as we would have them be (see Nanamoli Thera, 1981).

Yet, in our ignorance, we superimpose a non-existent Self on the body, feelings, states of mind, and mental contents. This leads to a mistaken identification of the body, etc., with an illusory Self. The Buddhist approach recommends cutting through the bonds established by this identification. Therefore the wise person finds "estrangement in consciousness," which leads to the fading of desire and passion, and ultimately to liberation. (See Nyanaponika Them, 1965.)

So the concept of superimposition takes us through metaphor, usually thought to be linguistic and conceptual, into a view of our entire existence in the world. According to this concept, we need to practice a kind of metaphorical analysis on our own perception and consciousness. We should not "own" our desires, our passions, our bodies, or our consciousness. Instead, we should regard them with detachment.

Many meditative exercises in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions aim toward this detachment -- separating out the superimposed elements of our metaphoric awareness. This can be quite difficult -- knowing that one should do something is not the same as being able to do it. However, both traditions assure us that this detachment is possible, and that it leads to contentment and bliss even here in this imperfect life.

(*.) Raymond Gozzi, Jr., is Associate Professor in the Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY. His most recent book, The Power of Metaphor in the Age of Electronic Media, Hampton Press, 1999, contains articles from Dr. Gozzi's columns in ETC, as well as new chapters on metaphor, and is available from ISGS.


Gozzi R. Jr. (1999) The Power of Metaphor in the Age of Electronic Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Mahadevan, T. M. P. (1985) Superimposition in Advaita Vedanta. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd.

Prabhavananda, S., & Isherwoad, C. (1947) Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination Hollywood: Vedanta Press.

Thera, Nanamoli. (1981) Three Cardinal Discourses of the Buddha. Kandi, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Thera, Nyanaponika. (1965) The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc.
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Title Annotation:philosophical concept of superimposition
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000

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