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Towards an Integral Philosophy of the Present

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The following is excerpted from Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness, published by Revelore.

Time is being and being

time, it is all one thing,

the shining, the seeing,

the dark abounding.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Jean Gebser (1905–1973) was a German-Swiss cultural philosopher, intellectual mystic, poet, and scholar of the evolution of consciousness. Many know him in the English-speaking world for his magisterial text The Ever-Present Origin (1949–1952), a massive tome spanning art, language, and human history with great detail. Though perhaps lesser known than C. G. Jung, Erich Von Neumann (Origins and History of Consciousness), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Human Phenomenon), or Sri Aurobindo Ghose (The Life Divine), Gebser nevertheless offers immense insights for scholars and students of the evolution of consciousness alike. Spanning through the mid-twentieth century, Gebser saw his time, which is arguably also ours, as one of tremendous potentiation catalyzed by crisis. A solution within dissolution, and a latent spiritual mutation in humanity working towards realization. This incipient integral age—the “integral aperspectival” as a term I will attempt to introduce and convey to the reader in this volume—is nothing short of a leap from civilization as we know it (to what, we know not yet). It is an age unfathomable to us, however necessary, one in which Gebser suggests to us that, “the divided human being is replaced by the whole human being.” Key to understanding this leap is not mere intellectual comprehension alone but a form of spiritual clarity, a recognition of wholeness, a waring of past, present, and future. At the outset, the integral is an intensification of originary presence in the human person.

In the rolling thunder of the immanent present, all that we are, all that we have been, and all that we could be is radically with us.

Time is whole and therefore you are whole.

Although coming to him in a “lightning-like” flash of inspiration in the early 1930s, Gebser’s integral insight would need to be carefully articulated through many years of maturation and personal growth. What began as a description of the current mutation, following the breakdown of Europe with the eruption of fascism and two World Wars and the simultaneous promise of a new form of consciousness expressed in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke or the post-Newtonian science of quantum physics, it expanded to include a study of other epochal shifts in human history. For instance: the leap from the mythical to the mental structure through the example of Socrates in Ancient Greece (Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist famous for “the medium is the message,” has been compared with Gebser, and would draw similar conclusions about a leap in “sense ratios” through the advent of the Greek alphabetic script and systems of writing). Gebser would come to describe these qualitatively different world spaces that are no less real than our own, with phenomenologically unique relationships to time and space, as the structures of consciousness. These, briefly, are the archaic, magic, mythic, mental, and integral—each one a fundamental reworking of what it means to be in the world, and what the world is for us ontologically (meaning, in philosophy, a study of the nature of being). The structures, for the sensitive reader, are not merely categorical (i.e., the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the social sciences), they are living realities immediately apprehensible within oneself. Indeed, one of the prerequisites for Gebser’s integral consciousness is the lived experience of concretization, that is, an awareness that the previous structures are very much alive, though latent, in the present. As William Faulkner remarked in Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

Gebser’s structures offer us a broad picture of humanity: from the event horizon of hominization in the archaic, to the vitalist dreaming and interweaving of Paleolithic cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux in the magic, to Chartres Cathedral and the celestial, ensouled cosmology of the mythic, still more to the emerging spatial and measurable waking world of the mental. Notice, however, how the dreaming mind and the waking mind are neither inferior nor superior to each other; rather, they are co-constituents of a larger reality. The integral, for Gebser, is likened to clarity. Diaphaneity. It belongs neither to the daylight nor twilight mind but instead achieves a lucid seeing through of these worlds as they reflect inexhaustible aspects of the Real, the spiritual Origin.

What is origin for Gebser? The German word Ursprung, as the late scholar of yoga and Gebserian biographer Georg Feuerstein notes, literally means “primal leap.” Gebser is at times elusive here, attempting to avoid both symbolically mythical or precise, rational language (it is neither the mythic-tied image of a “primordial spark,” nor the mental, Hegelian “being”). Origin is not time-bound, nor space-bound, but is the originator or source of all that is time and space bound. “We might say it is sheer presence,” Feuerstein writes. Gebser has also described origin as “the itself,” or “that which pervades or ‘shines through’ everything.” Feuerstein finds its correspondence in the “super-consciousness” of Hinduism. “For the enlightened beings of Hinduism, the atman, which can correctly be rendered as ‘itself,’ is flawless consciousness or the ‘witness’… according to their testimony this witness is utterly unqualified, transpersonal, absolute.” The integral, then, is an actualization of the this originary presence in human consciousness—a coming to awareness, an awaring—and the integration of all previous structures. We might also note that consciousness, for Gebser, is the capacity in human beings to integrate these structures, which ultimately falls not upon the synthesizing capacities of the mental to do so, but the originary spiritual presence—hence the need for an intensification of presence as precursor to their integration and realization.

The Integral Milieu

Readers of Ever-Present Origin will immediately sense great care given for the aesthetic particulars in specific works of art: a Paleolithic mask without a mouth and what we can glean from it about the auditory surround of the magical structure, for instance, or how a Minoan fresco speaks volumes about the emergence of the soul, or even how the dimension of time becomes realized in a Picasso painting. This attention to detail is at least partly credited to Gebser’s own biographical context. The latter of which was not merely incidental: he was, in fact, friends with Pablo Picasso, and many other luminaries of the time. These included Federico Garcia Lorca, and Werner Heisenberg as well as religious scholars and psychologists such as C. G. Jung, Lama Anagarika Govinda and Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (the latter whom would confirm Gebser’s satori experience at Sarnath, India, which we will mention at greater length later on in this volume) and frequented the famous Eranos lectures in Switzerland. It is through this correspondence and these scholarly acquaintances that Gebser first proposed the “three European worlds” of the unperspectival, perspectival, and aperspectival in his writing prior to Ever-Present Origin, in The Grammatical Mirror. These three worlds offer a broader overview of the coming to awareness of space and time, and to which the structures can offer us more concrete detail. Think, for instance, about the transformation from unperspectival medieval iconography to perspectival realism in Renaissance painting (to be detailed further in the following chapters). Additionally, Gebser would later come to discover and describe the “pre-eminent” works of Teilhard and Aurobindo, noting their independent corroboration of the new consciousness. Both Aurobindo’s work and his own would use the term “integral,” though Aurobindo would describe this new consciousness particularly as the supramental. So, we have what might be described as an emergent integral milieu coming out of the mid-twentieth century.

In 1985 and twelve years after Gebser’s death, Ever-Present Origin received an English translation through communications professors Algis Mickunas and Noel Barstad and reached the extended consciousness culture of the United States. Ken Wilber, a Colorado-based philosopher has helped to re-energize—and tremendously popularize—the philosophy of integral and has even adopted Gebser’s terminology (magic, mythic, mental, etc.) for his own Integral Theory in texts such as Up from Eden, The Atman Project, and Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality. Yet, what is arguably unique to Gebser in all of this is his singularly phenomenological approach to integral consciousness and the structures—it is not developmental. Nor is it a work of sophisticated meta-theoretical abstraction. In fact, throughout most of Ever-Present Origin, Gebser will repeatedly attempt to get out from under the natural machinations of the categorical mind. Much of contemporary integral studies has, like the larger human potential movement and fields such as transpersonal psychology, relied predominantly on the stage-centered maps of meta-theoretical and psycho-social development to make their case for a new consciousness (with meta-thinking placed at the higher levels of these same models). While I respect these contemporary approaches and intuit they are vastly helpful in personal, therapeutic, and sometimes organizational settings, I sense they are still other modes of expressing the complexities of cultural evolution without becoming laden with what Gebser would describe as the problems of the late phase of the mental structure (the mental-rational): a spatially fixated consciousness, quantifying its flows, ultimately pinning down living reality into singular, totalizing maps. Something more like a phenomenological approach is needed, an approach likened to what William Irwin Thompson and mathematician Ralph Abraham describe as a “complex-dynamical mentality,” or Gebser’s own aperspectival. That is, a form of thinking that is process-oriented, descriptive, inhabiting unbroken flows of becomings rather than segmented and linear (or even multi-linear) striations. Gebser’s methodology lies somewhere adjacent to—or between—rather than against meta-theoretical approaches such as Integral Theory, moving us from critique and response to alterity, seeking new expressions, new statements in the field of contemporary integral scholarship. As Octavia Butler said, “there are new suns.”

The time has come to retrieve Gebser’s integral aperspectivity for the challenges we face in the twenty first century. It bears repeating that Gebser’s time is our time. He recognized a crisis in civilization, and in the decades that have followed him, this crisis has only further compounded itself. “Such a reaction, the reaction of a mentality headed for a fall,” Gebser writes at the outset of Ever-Present Origin, “is only too typical of man in transition.” This echoes our own anxieties at the end of the age of fossil fuels and at the beginning of a centuries-long epoch facing the planetary consequences of climate change. We must bear witness to the possibility of both our undoing and our becoming if we are to truly apprehend our era. If the integral milieu—which promises a new tomorrow—is to bear any weight, to speak to this age of transition, it must do this with us.

As I hope to make clear, an integral aperspectival approach is one in which we have more room to dialogue with the developments of postmodern philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari; to concretize the durationalism (the philosophy of time) of Henri Bergson; to see through the late mental structures’s machinations in runaway late-capitalism; to perceive the Janus-Faced, chaos-dynamical systems of Teilhard’s planetization; or even to understand the transformations in the humanities through the transparency of objects in object-oriented ontologies (OOO), or dark ecologies, with contemporary philosophers Graham Harman and Timothy Morton.

Gebser’s time, I believe, has come yet again: to help us in this age of existential and ecological crisis to think towards a planetary future.

Or, we might better say: to help us recognize how the future is already thinking us.


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