What is Integral: Jean Gebser and five structures of consciousness

by editor

This is the third post in a series of posts titled, “What is Integral”, explaining the Integral theory and what prominent Integral theorists mean by the word, “Integral”. Our previous posts in this series, dealt with “The transition and acausal leap that is happening now” and “Ken Wilber’s pivotal contribution to Integralism”. This post is about another exceptional Integral theorist – Jean Gebser and his five structures of consciousness. Jean Gebser has been one of the least understood yet most popular of Integral theorists. His works, his theories and concepts have always been a puzzle to many. The reason behind this is, he was much ahead of his time and it took time for people to duly recognize him and his ideas.

Jean Gebser – Life and Works: Jean Gebser is what one would call a “Kulturphilosoph” (a cultural philosopher) in German. Born in Prussia for aristocratic parents, Gebser’s birth was at a significant time in history. He was born on August 20, 1905 – the same year in which Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity; when Phenomenology was at its nascent stages with Max Planck and Edmund Husserl; and when it was just five years since Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams had become popular. All these people and works are important as Gebser analyzed them (in later life) and based his theories on them.  Gebser grew up as a lonely child interested in philosophy and literature. He studied deeply and traveled far and wide, across France, Germany, Spain only to finally settle in Switzerland, where he produced his magnum opus – The Ever-Present Origin. During his travel, he met and acquainted with many, including Pablo Picasso, Carl Jung, Andre Malraux, Paul Eduard and others. Though a European, Gebser had an exceptional and mature mind to analyze the unfolding of world consciousness, without much European influence. His primary work – The Ever-Present Origin – involves explanation on the development of human consciousness in five stages or four evolutionary surges of growth.

Gebser’s Five Structures of Consciousness: The Ever-Present Origin outlines five states or structures of consciousness development. Gebser states that the human mind/consciousness has seen four evolutionary surges. Sean A. Saiter in his essay “A General Introduction to Integral Theory and Comprehensive Mapmaking” says “What makes Gebser’s work so impressive is the execution of his proposal and central thesis that humankind undergoes radical shifts or mutations in consciousness and that we are currently emerging into what he called the integral/aperspectival consciousness, an idea that remains quite novel for its time and place.” Though the development of consciousness can be attributed to every other field of study, Gebser particularly specifies the growth only as culture. He opines that human consciousness has gone through four states – “1. The Archaic, 2. The Magical, 3. The Mystical and 4. The Mental/Rational” and is going through or on the verge of “Integral/Aperspectival” state.

The Archaic Structure: The Archaic is what one may call the primeval structure of consciousness. There is no past, yet a potential future. There is no sense of dimensionality and it is just “being”, a state of “deep, dreamless sleep”. Zero-dimensional, non-perspectival and without any sense of separation, Gebser calls the Archaic “the source from which all springs, but it is that which springs forth itself.” He opines that it is “essence” which is behind and which underlies consciousness. In this state, things just happened and there was no sense of direction, purpose or perspective. But, as mentioned earlier, the future is “complete potentiality”. Ed Mahood Jr. in his article, “An Overview of the Work of Jean Gebser” says, “The Archaic structure of consciousness is perhaps the most difficult to understand, for it is the one most removed from our present-day way of thinking. Stated succinctly, it can be likened to zero dimensional mentation, a world devoid of any perspectivity at all. It is a stated in which the holder of consciousness is perhaps only minimally aware of himself or his relationship to the world around him.”

The Magical Structure: The Magical Structure is one wherein man entered into the first phase of growth. According to Mahood, the structure is characterized by five stages, “(1) its egolessness, (2) its spacelessness and timelessness, (3) its pointlike-unitary world, (4) its interweaving with nature, and (5) its magical reaction to the world.” Man started to develop a sense of self-image, a rudimentary image. Though he was growing up, he was still intimately related to nature. He never considered himself apart from it. Feuerstein opines that this structure should have persisted till 40,000 B.C. and till the advent of the Cro-Magnons. In this structure, language was the only thing that codified the activities of the day. The quest for survival was dominant and memory was “tribal, collective, with the ‘we’ being dominant” (Mahood). In a sense, there was an “one-dimensional, pre-perspectival” growth and man started developing a recognition that he was different from things around. The Magic man lives as if he is in a magical, dream-like state. The notion of space, time etc. are illusive to the Magic man as he, like Magic, does things without knowing, motivated only by the survival instinct. The Survival stage of Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics can be compared to this stage.

The Mythical Structure: The Mythical Structure shows further growth. But this time, the growth is religious and rather, shamanistic. As Feuerstein points out in his Structures of Consciousness, the “Cro-Magnons had developed a universe that presumed the existence of a fairly complex mythology. This structure is considered two-dimensional as it is characterized by fundamental polarities. Word was the reflector of inner silence, myth was a reflector of the soul”. Mythologies were developed to grotesque extent and language gains utmost prominence owing to its use in literature, chanting, praying etc. As Mahood opines, “The mouth now becomes the spiritual organ”. In a way, the mythical structure paved way for separation of man from nature – the Fall of Man, the myth of Prometheus etc. are some of the examples. The understanding of the world is two-dimensional. “While the Magical structure is highly emotional, the Mythical one is imaginative” (Mahood). This is why the plethora of gods and goddesses cause confusion to the “rational mind in the Mental Structure”. As Mahood points out, though the “I” of the man is not fully developed, we are “on way to selfhood.”

The Mental Structure: The next leap in consciousness, the current one (the rational/mental mind), took place around 10,000 B.C.. According to Gebser, it was the time when man stepped out of “two-dimensional space into three-dimensional one”. Man broke from the Mythical past and developed a highly individual, rational mind that refuses to adopt to anything without questioning or analysis. Mahood opines that the mental structure was “inaugurated” by the “discovery of causality” and man uses his mind to “master over the world around him”. Philosopheme, according to Gebser, is the primary form of expression and “abstraction” becomes a key term used in philosophy. During the Renaissance, man discovered something called “perspective” (which Gebser terms as a “deficient” form of the Mental Structure) and starts conceiving things in terms of perspectives.

Commenting about this structure, Mahood says: “Perspective is the life blood of reasoning and the Rational structure of consciousness, which Gebser considers to be only a deficient form of the Mental structure. What we have is the full development of the ego and its related centeredness. We conceive things, events and phenomena in terms of our own perspectives, often at the expense of others. The eye, it will be seen (and the last of the openings in the head), becomes the spiritual organ representative of this structure. Our language, our entire imagery and dominant metaphor takes on visual, spatial character. Space is finally overcome, in the true sense of the word. With the supercession of space, man finally accomplishes his egoistic, individual separation from nature. In this concretization of the “I,” we become very aware of our existence, of our beingness, of our individuality. And so it should be. But in a deficient mode, the outcomes, of course, are loneliness, isolation, and alienation, which are so characteristic of our own American culture. In fact, our current materialistic approach to understanding reality is perhaps the final stage of this structure…”

Another significant  thing about this structure is the magical structure is expanding widely – initially it was man and his spirit which occupied man’s consciousness. Next, it was the element of “soul” (in the Mythical structure). Now, it is “space” which is beginning to occupy man’s mental realm. According to Gebser and other theorists, it is this Mental/Rational stage is drawing toward an end, and we are moving toward the next significant leap in consciousness – the Integral structure.

The Integral Structure: The Integral Structure, as opined by almost all theorists, is the best of all structures. It is above the three-dimensional mind, and encompasses all that has come before and will come after. However, it is only in its emergent stage. In Feurestein’s words, “It is the irruption of qualitative time into our consciousness”. There will be a “supercession of time” in this structure and man will achieve “aperspectival” awareness. As Gebser points out, “Arationality, aperspectivity and diaphaneity” will be the hallmarks of this new age of consciousness. By arationality, he means thinking that is not rational as in the current structure; aperspectivity is without perspective, that is, “spatially determined mentation of the current structure” and diaphaneity is recognition of everything as a whole, not in parts. Since everything will operate as a whole, there will be peaceful settlement of issues and integral worldview will dominate the world. Theorists have already chartered territories in this structure – like Integral Art, Integral Politics, Integral Business etc. – yet, the general population is yet to achieve an Integral world view. Once Integral thought seeps into the minds of half the world population, it would be the start of the Integral era.

Reference Links:

1. Ed Mahood Jr.’s “An Overview of the Work of Jean Gebser”

2. Sean A. Saiter’s “A General Introduction to Integral Theory and Comprehensive Mapmaking”

3. All about Jean Gebser from the Jean Gebser Society

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