consciousness dietrich von hildebrand

Superactual Knowing

6:00:00 AMGrace Davies

When you know something, you know it. 

And not only that - but sometimes, because you know something, your life is changed forever.  

Hildebrand was fascinated by this phenomenon, and so am I. It seems to me that this simple fact has drastic consequences for how we view ourselves as persons.

Contrast these two images of what it means to be a person, and maybe you’ll see what I mean: 1) The Robot, and  2) The Microcosm (“little cosmos,” or “small world”).  

1.  If we consider the world from a strictly materialistic point of view, the human person looks very much like a robot: a body with no spirit or immaterial principle. We seem to be totally explained by hormones, mechanistic forces of cause and effect, etc. Input in, output out. We execute one task, then move on to the next. Plain and simple.  

2. If, however, we broaden our scope to include immaterial possibilities, then the picture becomes more human, more honest, much truer to life. Hildebrand beautifully describes what it means to exist as a Microcosm:

“The world which, as it were, we carry with us, in which we live, the spiritual firmament under which we move and the sun of which illuminates our life, forms the implicit background against which the concrete content of our perceptions, thoughts, and activities appear.” (1) 

Our experience of what it means to live as human persons is rich and deep in ways that a materialist can’t really explain. Hildebrand points out one basic error behind the Robot view: 

“It would be a great error to believe that the only beings present to the mind are those actually encountered in that small section of reality upon which the mind happens to be focused at the present moment.” (2)

He then makes the point that knowledge can be superactual. This means that the knowledge exists somehow above our simple actuality: “Once we know something we continue to possess it superactually even if we are concerned with other things.” (3)

The tasks we are immediately concerned with are on the simply actual level - once we move on to other tasks, those first tasks no longer have any place in our actual consciousness. Out of sight, out of mind.

But superactual knowledge transcends this level: for example, if a loved one passes away, we superactually possess the knowledge of their passing. It hangs over us like a cloud, and is somehow ever-present in the background of our consciousness.

The content of this kind of knowledge is our spiritual possession, and it does not have to be consciously thought in order to exist; it subsists superactually: “By superactual subsistence we mean that we never lose some kind of implicit awareness of it. It lives as a basis in our mind in such a way that every concrete actual moment of our life would be radically changed if we did not know it.” (4) 

But wait a minute - what about 2+2=4? Once we know that, we know it. True enough. But there’s something more here, and 2+2 isn’t going to count.  

Superactual knowledge must be something especially meaningful to the person. Hildebrand emphasizes the special character of superactual knowledge: “...any object is an object of superactual knowing if the knowledge of it radically affects life.” (5) Mathematical truths like 2+2=4 do not have this deep significance in the life of a person. 

So, that’s cool, but what does it mean? What does this so-called superactual knowledge look like in human experience? Hildebrand gives three examples of truths meaningful enough to be superactually known:

1.  Religious knowledge forms a foundation and background for the believer’s entire life:  

“Thus the Christian, no matter what he may actually be doing here and now, knows in a superactual way that Christ was born, that He died on the cross, that He is risen, that He is divine, and that He redeemed the world.” (6)

2.   We also superactually know those in (what I like to call) our “special human” category: 

“Just as our love subsists superactually, coloring and forming every situation, so does our ‘knowing’ of the beloved subsist… Knowledge of the existence and personalities of beloved persons certainly forms a continual existential basis of our life, even when we are concentrating on completely different objects.” (7)

3.   The flip side of loving a delicate person in a dangerous world, “the great evils connected with man’s situation on earth,” are also superactually known: 

 “We know superactually that we must die. We know that we are exposed to all kinds of dangers at every moment… We also are always aware that every beloved person is surrounded by dangers which threaten his health, life, and earthly happiness. In short, the fact that this earth is a valley of tears is superactually known by man. The same applies to single great evils, which change the shape of our entire life, such as the death of the person most beloved.” (8)

Now, our Robot theorist may come back and say “Look, this whole thing isn’t as momentous as you claim. It’s just simple memory. Just storage of impressions in the brain. I see nothing here  that my materialist principles cannot explain.”

In response, we will explain that we aren’t talking about simple memory. That would be a reduction. Hildebrand’s concept of “superactual knowledge” has a surplus of meaning that isn’t fully covered by the definition of mere “memory.”

Memory certainly has a role in any kind of knowledge. For example, when did Columbus sail the ocean blue? 1492. How do I know that? Well, I remember it from third grade. But I wouldn’t say that I know it superactually.

Memory can’t account for the full phenomenon of superactual knowledge. Recall Hildebrand’s stipulation that the object of superactual knowledge “radically affects life.” (9) That means it forms the background and basis of all my other experiences, whether mundane or profound, and colors them accordingly.

One example in particular makes this phenomenon clear: “I do not simply know the death of a dear friend and then push this knowledge aside. It lingers in my superactual consciousness, coloring my thoughts and activities for weeks, perhaps months.” (10)

This is much more than mere memory. It is a kind of knowledge that only a spiritual Microcosm could have. We are not bodily robots who perceive nothing but the environment, one sense impression at a time. We are living, breathing, embodied spirits. And we carry within us an inner life - a world all our own:

“The world which, as it were, we carry with us, in which we live, the spiritual firmament under which we move and the sun of which illuminates our life, forms the implicit background against which the concrete content of our perceptions, thoughts, and activities appear.” (11)


Grace Davies 

Reality fascinates me.  To me, everything real is precious and worth finding out about.  That's why I am a student of the phenomenological philosophy to which Hildebrand contributed.  Hildebrand practiced what he preached when he said: "Confronted with being, the reverent man remains silent in order to give it an opportunity to speak."  (The Art of Living)  I hope to achieve Hildebrand's depth of integrity, both as a philosopher and as a person.  


(1) Dietrich von Hildebrand, What is Philosophy, 31.
(2) Hildebrand, Philosophy, 31.
(3) Hildebrand, Philosophy28.
(4) Hildebrand, Philosophy29.
(5) Hildebrand, Philosophy, 30.
(6) Hildebrand, Philosophy29.
(7) Hildebrand, Philosophy30.
(8) Hildebrand, Philosophy30-31.
(9) Hildebrand, Philosophy30.
(10) Hildebrand, Philosophy31.
(11) Hildebrand, Philosophy31.

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