The Integral Way of Jean Gebser

“Our concern is with a new reality—a reality functioning and effectual integrally, in which intensity and action, the effective and the effect co-exist; one where origin, by virtue of “presentiation,” blossoms forth anew; and one in which the present is all-encompassing and entire. Integral reality is the world’s transparency, a perceiving of the world as truth: a mutual perceiving and imparting of truth of the world and of the human and of all that transluces both.”

Jean Gebser (1905-1973) was a Swiss poet, integral philosopher and phenomenologist of consciousness. His magisterial work, The Ever-Present Origin (1949) has made significant contributions to both Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory and the field of Integral Studies at large. Gebser describes — in vivid detail — the unfoldment of human consciousness across the span of history: from our origins in the archaic to the magic, mythic, and mental, and still further onto our collective integral futures. The great breadth and depth of his knowledge of art and culture, shared through the unique prose of a man who was both a poet and a contemplative, allows for a truly radiant vision of human consciousness that shines through and past concepts of linearity and hierarchy.

In this liminal epoch, marked by the throes of social fragmentation and a warming planet, our species finds itself under the immense pressure of a world, and worldview, in painful transition, the outcome of which is uncertain and potentially terminal—not just to us, but to all life. This makes it not just an opportune, but a crucial moment to revisit this seminal architect of integral philosophy. His work opens us to seeing, as he did, that we are already being shaped by tomorrow. As Gebser shows so transparently, it is only through a deep, senseful communing with a living present we can understand and integrate the past. Within this understanding of time, our voice can truly become an echo of our future.

In this two-part introductory series, participants will explore a brief — if experiential — journey through the structures of consciousness, discovering how they continue to live in and through us and our world.

In part two, we turn to Gebser’s unique transmission of integral consciousness, drawing from contemporary examples of art, culture, and philosophy to help illustrate the emergence of “integral time.” It is through living this integral mode of time that we can begin to cohere the complexity of our Anthropocene present and wayfind towards habitable tomorrows.


Currently reading The Ever-Present Origin. Here is a quote that just now grabbed me.

“We must not, in other words, lose sight of the capacity of man to be the agent of the mutational event. As we have seen, the capacity is creativity - the remarkable endowment of man with which he can manifest the consciousness-integrating and consciousness-constituting processes. We must, to use a metaphorical expression, become acquainted with the well-springs from which we draw our sustenance.”

Lately I’ve been using the systems term “agency” to link UL quadrant developmentalism to action in the world. Gebser is peering deeply into the sources of such agency. It’s no accident, by the way, that most presentations in the Gebser Society are mostly about art.

As Robb Smith laid out in introducing the Integral Applied Metatheory (IAM) endeavor, the Integral vision is (hopefully) entering its phase of ‘integration,’ after having gone through the earlier phases/stages of ‘identity’ and then ‘differentiation.’ Following years of the fragmentation of the Integral vision into different and somewhat separative streams complete with disagreements, both expected and necessary, it’s nice to see IL spear-heading, through the IAM project and here and elsewhere the attempt at a coming-together/integration of the different voices.

A few words about the magical structure-stage:
Sometimes some integralists refer to the magical stage in Wilber’s nested holarchy of stages as “magical thinking.” This is short-hand, of course, an abbreviated pointing-to. ‘Magical thinking’ is a term from the field of psychology and elsewhere, and there is nothing wrong with it as long as in our minds we are not reducing the magical to nothing more than mere childish fallacious thinking.

This is where I think Gebser’s description of the magical as a structure of consciousness is particularly useful and expansive, as it fleshes out components of the magical structure-stage to include, among other things, the early emergence of creative will (through e.g. “totem, ritual, and spell-crafting”). Gebser allows for the “making” or “producing” of actual effects.

Many Integralists often comment on the lack of “enchantment” in the world and associate enchantment with the magical-mythic structure-stages. Having a broader, deeper understanding of elements of the magical–such as, for example, the porosity between humans and between humans and other life forms–can help with the re-enchantment of the world and individual lives. (While there is a downside to this porosity, this near half-fusion with others, there is also a definite upside.)

I personally wonder if people who lived during the heyday of the magical stage (and people who experience that stage within themselves now) weren’t/aren’t experiencing some version of what came to be called (by Plato the ‘world soul’ or ‘anima mundi.’ Perhaps in the holarchical timeline, this was prelude to the naming of the individual soul to which people were awakening during the mythic structure-stage.

Yes, absolutely. Gebser is with you on that. Soul emerges in the mythic. In the magical, the boundaries between self and world are quite fluid. Likewise, in the magical, there are spirits everywhere. In the mythic, the spirits coalesce to Spirit. Everything else in your post is also spot on with my reading of Gebser.

In general, I find that Gebser adds depth and context to each of the altitudes. Gebserian structures are not so much about beliefs or cultural code. They about how one sees the world or perhaps how one’s perceptions constitute the world.

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I’m going to be a little nit-picky about language here (and probably say what you already know and meant, but anyway…) How I see it is that the awareness and the naming of the individual soul emerges in the mythic. Using Wilber’s timeline of the stages of development, the mythic emerged somewhere roughly around 5000 years ago, and I’m pretty sure soul is older than that :slightly_smiling_face:.

Also, I like your phrase “the spirits coalesce to Spirit.” I would add to that that in the mythic, the predominant spirits that were coalesced with Spirit were, with some exceptions, human spirits. Animal spirits, nature spirits and devas, elemental spirits (including the air spirits of faeries and sylphs and such, and the named spirits of fire, wind, storm etc. in the Vedas) were relegated to second-class if not entirely dismissed. But we’re still a world that honors spirits: the deity devotion, worship, and mysticism present in most religions/traditions is proof of that.

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Let’s pick nits! Comparing Wilber to Gebser to Hanzi Freinacht and others, the under-serviced part of the analysis is what exactly happened during Karl Jasper’s Axial Age? This is no small matter. We’re talking Confucius, Lao-Tse, Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu, the Upanishads, the Buddha, Mahavira, Zarathustra, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Homer, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Thucydides and Archimedes (among others).

Some systems put all that in the “mythic” (or equivalent) along with Gilgamesh and Arthurian legends. Others see it as a huge break. Freinacht divides periods on the Axial: Faustian and Post-Faustian. SD, not so much. Integral?

Gebser is complex on this point. But that’s another story for another day.

Update: this article is an accessible introduction to the Axial Age. Also, Lene Rachel Anderson offers yet another stage theory!

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I have never been drawn to the Hanzi works, although I have watched one interview with Daniel Gortz. So you will have to explain to me more about his Faustian/post-Faustian division of the Axial Age, an age about which I have a little bit of knowledge.

An incredible period for sure, that Age about 2500 years ago, full of “startling realizations,” to quote Wilber; a time when “you find individuals not only advocating worldcentric or universal morality for the first time, but also sages who begin to speak of an infinite causal Abyss or nirvana entirely Free of the woes of this samsaric world, or you find a claim that the individual soul and God are one in Godhead…” (in the book Integral Spirituality)

But all of these sages and such were people who were ahead of their time, so to speak (worldcentrism would not come more fully into bloom for another 2000 years), just as the shamans were ahead of their time in the magical stage, and just as Aurobindo was ahead of his time in the rational stage, etc. The average person during the mythic stage was not a Lao-Tse, for example, so the mythic stage accounts for the average, while not slighting the extraordinary and illustrating that the structure-stages are embedded or enfolded in us, and are tapped into or emerge in some individuals much sooner than they do in the general population.

Gebser identifies the mythic structure as having, among other things, an emphasis on ‘polarity.’ And that polarity is evident in the inner/outer, good/evil, right/wrong, heaven/hell, samsara/nirvana, etc. spoken to in some if not all of these spiritual and philosophical systems that you mentioned that arose during the Axial Age. Wilber describes the mythic structure-stage as ethnocentric, having an emphasis on “us and them.” Same polarity dynamic.

I read the Psychology Today article. My understanding of metamodernism is that there have been two streams of it. Some argue that initially the term applied simply to art, that metamodern art combined the irony of postmodernism with a ‘sweetness’ and honesty beyond pomo (and thus the term “ironesty”). So I was surprised that there was no mention of art in Andersen and Michalsky’s article. But admittedly, in recent years the term has been used more encompassingly. Andersen refers to it both as her newly emergent Stage 5, but also says it is an “alternative to modernity and postmodernism.” That is a little confusing. I also note that there is no mention in her stages of self-identity or the ego, which supposedly came online about 10,000 years ago, and was certainly known by and spoken about by some of those sages of the Axial Age, and imo, is a big part of human consciousness and cultural sensibilities. I get what she’s doing and it’s interesting to see how some people are incorporating the new histories (around the Agrarian period for instance), and yet, her theory seems to have a focus largely on the exterior part of the interior-exterior polarity.

This could get big … so much there will be much compression in this response.

The term “metamodern” is blowing up. It will be all over the place soon. At the moment, the “Dutch school” is the original artsy version, known for “sincere irony”. The “Nordic school” is Hanzi, Lene and others, although they don’t match each other 100% and don’t try to. The Nordics are more social and political.

Faustian is roughly pre-Axial mythic. Post-Faustian is post-Axial mythic. Some common themes in the Axial were the first articulations of ethics and answering questions like “what is the good life?” Pre-Axial, those weren’t questions - the sense of “individual” was not really there yet, or at least not all the way there.

Gebser, I was surprised, puts the birth of the “mental” in the Iliad and the Odyssey! The mental flourished during the Athenian Golden Age, lay low for a long time, then came into dominance during the Renaissance. Gebser also hints at some mental elements in ancient Chinese philosophy and Indian art, but does not really spell it out in either case.

Anyway, to grossly over-generalize in a limited space, “philosophy” sprung up independently in multiple Old World locations within the span of a few centuries. All of these “philosophies” were folded in medieval times into what we now know as “religions”. In the West uniquely, “religion” cracked open and led to modern science. My fascination is the story of the “mental” in all the non-Western places.

According to Hanzi? to Gebser? to whom? You know, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know :slightly_smiling_face:, but according to Wilber, the individual ego emerged 10,000 years ago. So that’s 7500 years of development of identity as sense of individuality before the Axial Age.

Not that this is very important :slightly_smiling_face:.

It’s not like Siddhartha Gautama and company started from square one where the sense of individual identity is concerned! The Axial Age teachers became paradigmatic for culture, but in many ways they represent the culmination of a long development, not the very beginnings of it. In the case of Siddhartha, you can’t understand his work except against the background of the rishis and the sannyasin. So none of these teachers came out of nowhere.

One prerequisite for the Axial Age as such was writing and literacy. Again, though, it’s not like one fine day some lone genius got the idea to invent the alphabet. That, along with the rest of culture, was a very long process. Any numerical dates we care to assign to this are approximations at best.

Yes of course the dates and timelines are approximations, and subject to change. That was one of Gautama Siddhartha’s main teachings, impermanence and non-substantiality in this relative reality.

And for some examples of change, I found this article if you haven’t read it a good summary of the current bio-historical story of human evolution.

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Thanks. That’s very good!

So here’s my take on levels of nuance and detail. Once a person is hooked on evolutionary theory, articles like that one are really, really interesting. However, until someone is kind of flowing with the idea of long-term change and diving into the mystery of it on some level, that sort of article won’t really land.

The paragraph below is from a piece I wrote for the “climate justice” project. The approach is very story-telling - mythologizing if you will. The details would likely not hold up that well under research scrutiny. But sometimes, the music means more than the lyrics. To get people interested in evolutionary theory, the right bait is needed on the hook …

“Early in the evolutionary transformation from apes to hominids, humans developed facilities of language and culture. Tools may well have come before even those. The origins of culture may be lost to the mists of time, but paleolithic artifacts suggest a world in which our ape-like forebears hunted down the largest of game. Somehow, we got the idea of thinking big. Like the wolves, we hunted in packs. Better than the wolves, we learned to bind our packs with signs and symbols. With sharpened, hardened sticks in fingers built for grasping branches, we mastered other mammals, including some of the wolves themselves, who became our willing partners in the hunt. And so began the cavalcade of cultural evolution.”

A colorful story you wrote, but why wouldn’t you want it to hold up to research scrutiny?

Well … it might. Or not. The creative process is just to let it flow and worry about consequences later. Most of it cleans up good. :blush: