Thinking in threes: “Third-plane thinking”

In our last post we discussed Carl Schmitt’s fondness for “threes” and how this was rooted in his deep conviction that the Holy Trinity permeates all things.  More practically, this way of thinking also springs from a realization that dualistic thinking—considering a question in terms of only two sides—is finally self-defeating. The full truth, Schmitt insisted, lies not in pitting one side against another, but in that he calls “trinal” or “third-plane” thinking.

Thus, Schmitt did not see life as a conflict between youth and old age, between innocence and experience.  Rather, the full development of a person was an integration of the innocence of youth with the wisdom of maturity: “Middle-age must both return to innocence and must go forward to it through wisdom.”


Gertrude, pastel on paper, c. 1918

How do these lofty ideas work out in practice?

Schmitt spelled this out in his own ironic way in an essay entitled “And/Or.”  As an example of “two-way” thinking Schmitt quotes from a phrase he had read recently “which started me thinking. . . . The phrase was ‘We need a religion of life instead of definitions.’”  Schmitt goes on to make an obvious point: “Now anyone would have thought that a normal man in possession of his faculties could accommodate both ‘life’ and ‘definitions’ in his religion. But no, it is our symptom today that we must have one extreme theory “instead” of another extreme theory. . . . in art we must  amorphous expressionists or admire Raphael . . . we must either ‘take vitamins’ or perish without them . . . sweetness and light or else bitterness and darkness.” He concludes wryly, “Nothing will satisfy us today but doing exclusively one or the other—or rather fighting over the theory.”

The dualisms we cling to in political and social life, and even in our personal decisions, are so natural to us that we may not even notice them.  But why does it have to be only one way or the other?  Why not “both / and”?  This simple but fundamental insight is Schmitt’s way of getting us to start “thinking in threes” beyond the dichotomies of the left / right, black / white, good / bad we find ourselves trapped in so often.

Schmitt called this trap “second-plane thinking.”  But for him the answer does not lie in a “third way” between extremes, a supposed synthesis of the best of each side.  Still less is the truth to be found in a compromise taken for sake of avoiding conflict.  Schmitt believed that since reality itself is a reflection of the Trinity, its very structure reveals that the full truth lies in “three planes”: origins, means, and ends; goodness, truth, and beauty.


Gertrude Knitting, oil on canvas, c. 1970

How are we to be led to this full perception of reality?  Schmitt offers a surprising answer which we will explore in our next post.

The complete text of the essay “And/Or” can be found at the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

One thought on “Thinking in threes: “Third-plane thinking”

  1. Pingback: Thinking in threes: Catastrophe | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

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