This is an introduction to the pioneering work of Jean Gebser and his five structures of consciousness, which had a profound influence on later writers such as Ken Wilber.
Jean Gebser calls these structures “mutations” rather than levels or stages. In his enormous work The Ever-Present Origin, he traces their chronological emergence through cultural phenomena such as art, science and philosophy, rather than in individual human lifespans. My articles on Spiral Dynamics, ego development and the altitudes of development can help illuminate how these appear during the individual lifespan.
Before we look at the three major perspectives and the five structures of consciousness, let’s cover some of the key principles underlying Gebser’s formulation. It’s crucial to keep them in mind as we explore the structures themselves.
Background to Jean Gebser and the Structures of Consciousness
Jean Gebser: Life and Context
Gebser lived from 1905 to 1973 and published his magnum opus, The Ever-Present Origin, between 1949 to 1952, right in the aftermath of one of humanity’s great catastropies. He understandably viewed humanity as being in great crisis, and Jeremy Johnson’s contemporary writing on Gebser shares his sentiment.
Suffusing his philosophy are fatalistic undertones and a sensitivity to hierarchy and ranking. It’s crucial to keep this in mind as we summarise his work on the structures of consciousness.
Architectural and Artistic Influences
Jean Gebser studied the expression each of the three major perspectives and each structure of consicousness in culture through the ages. Indeed, many of his findings are based on the art he studied.
For example, the Unperspectival appears in art from the Paleolithic, Neolithic and even the Middle Ages. Scenes are flat and somewhat lifeless. The sky is always depicted as a “vaulted starry cavern”. Vaults and columns abound.
In Perspectival art, we find busts of emperors and rulers, corresponding to the rise of individuation. The self now looks out on the world. There is increased perspective, depth and realism.
Jean Gebser finds the Aperspectival aptly represented in the work of Picasso, which is multi-perspectival and includes time. We can see all sides at once and multiple dimensions of time are present.
As worn-out mutations wither and die, there is often catastrophe. With new flowerings of the next mutation, there are bursts of cultural expression in shared culture. We get to work elaborating and bringing forth the next mutation.
Yet these structures of consciousness are not merely historical phenomena, and they’re too diffuse to narrow down to specific events or turning points. While manifesting as events and trends, they transcend them.
Jean Gebser and His Structures of Consciousness: Non-Developmental
Jean Gebser calls these structures of consciousness “mutations” and is resistant to defining them as “stages” or “levels”, claiming that this is a perspectival, linear approach. Instead, Gebser sees all the structures to be latent in us, regardless of what our current dominant structure is.
He sees them as non-linear, as free from time, as mutations that primarily occur to us, not that we reach or attain. Founder of the Jean Gebser Society, Jeremy Johnson, also promotes this view, and argues against modern developmental formulations.
I suspect that the context in which Gebser wrote Ever-Present Origin significantly influenced his rejection of development and hierarchy, given how destructive their manifestations were in the early 20th century.
As is often the case in work that deals with tricky, paradoxical themes, there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy in Gebser’s work, and by extension, in Johnson’s. They deny hierarchy in the structures, while subliminally touting the integral structure and rejecting the rational structure, focusing on its unpleasant by-products. They deny progress, yet proclaim and yearn for a new age that overcomes the limitations and havoc wreaked by modernity.
The concept of hierarchy, of development, is present in the work of many leading authors on human consciousness and vertical development. In his groundbreaking work, Stages of Faith, James Fowler said the stages “exhibit an indisputably normative tendency”.
A way to balance the two viewpoints is to consider that all of these structures have positive and negative aspects in different contexts. That way, we can see them both linearly and non-linearly.
As a simple example, Susanne Cook-Greuter has remarked that adults centred at Gebser’s Magic (her Stage 2) depend on others to meet their basic day-to-day needs. Magic-dominated adults are clearly ill-suited to the modern, Perspectival world.
On the other hand, a Rational-centred modern might find it impossible to live in a Magical tribal context, in which case Rational is quite deficient.
No stage is necessarily better in all contexts. All of them have practical gifts and gremlins depending on the context where they appear, and some are better suited to certain contexts than others.
Jean Gebser and The Revival of Earlier Perspectives
Gebser’s approach is phenomenological, and he encourages us to see these structures as alive, living realities inside us, each of which brings forth its own perspective on self and world. Though his work, and Johnson’s summary of it, are highly intellectual and technical, they both work psychologically on the reader, inviting them into a new space.
This applies equally to the Aperspectival Integral, and the earlier, pre-personal perspectives of Archaic, Magic and Mythic. In this sense, Gebser’s is a truly integral approach that offers psychoactive transformation for the reader, not mere academic map-learning.
One of the prerequisites for Gebser’s integral consciousness is the lived experince of concretization, that is, an awareness that the previous structures are very much alive, though latent, in the present.Jeremy Johnson
The Spiritual Basis for The Structures of Consciousness
Gebser’s work on these structures of consciousness is underpinned by the concept of Origin – his name for source, spirit or God. He describes it as “that which pervades or ‘shines through’ everything”, and views the structures as a series of mutations of Origin within us, through us.
He includes awareness of Origin as a necessary condition for us to experience Integral consciousness. Without it, we can’t “see through” the world or truly integrate all the previous structures as lived realities that flow forth from Origin. That’s an intriguing proposition, and one that some modern developmentalists would disagree with.
Again, it’s crucial to hold Gebser’s philosophical underpinning in mind as we cover his structures of consciousness. Origin is the ground, the essential basis for all mutations in consciousness.
Jean Gebser and the Three Meta-Perspectives
A key tenet of Gebser’s work is that our phenomenological experience of time and space defines our world, and how we see ourselves as part of it. It’s not that there is one world and only that world, but that the world is simply what we perceive it to be, and that the worlds generated by each structure all have validity.
Man’s coming to awareness is inseparably bound to his consciousness of space and time.Jean Gebser
With that in mind, let’s look at Jean Gebser’s three meta-perspectives. These form the basis for his structures of consciousness, and each represents an entirely new worldspace.
Unperspectival: Archaic, Magic, Mythic
At this level of perspective, which is apparent in the first three structures of consciousness, we’re entirely identified with the world. We don’t yet stand apart and look at the world or its object as separate from us.
Owen Barfield called this “original participation”. This is not conscious, enlightened, non-dual awareness, but an enchanted world infused with a diffuse subjectivity. The world is alive, dreamlike, talking.
We see that all things interrelate and correspond. This is the world of self and world, self and animal, self and spirits, all melded together. We don’t realise that other people, animals and objects have their own reality and complex workings separate from us.
Man’s lack of spatial awareness is attended by a lack of ego-consciousness, since in order to objectify and qualify space, a self-conscious ‘I’ is required that is able to stand opposite or confront space.Jean Gebser
It’s hard for us modern adults to appreciate the Unperspectival. By late childhood we’ve reached the Perspectival and have a full sense of separate identity. But the Unperspectival is the original bed of earth in which our sense of selfhood and independence develop. And its reintegration is crucial if we want to enact the Aperspectival, Integral perspective.
The Perspectival view comes when we subjectively differentiate from the surrounding world.
Space opens up and becomes three-dimensional. Time becomes mechanical, linear and measurable. The world loses its enchantment and numinosity as we focus on the measurable and concrete.
Time now becomes an obstacle, and we’re aware of our smallness. We want self-determination, autonomy, expression, and we want to overcome the obstacle of time. We possess and study the world rather than being merged with it.
This perspectival thinking appeared on a grand scale in the scientific revolution. Think Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler.
The negative side is our narrowing of awareness. We repress the Unperspectival, and inflate our chosen part for the whole. Think “the whole world is made of atoms” or “Christianity is the only true religion”. Though we can study the world on its own terms, we’re blind:
man separates from the whole only that part which his view or thinking can encompass, and forgets those sectors that lie adjacent, beyond, or even behind.Jean Gebser
It’s my opinion that Gebser is highly scathing of this mode of consciousness. He laments its view of time, its individualism, its dividing and disenchantment of the world, and yearns for it to come crashing down. Again, this is understandable, but he persistently claims that there is no development, that no mode is best, while firmly condemning this stage.
While perspectivalism isn’t the epitome of human consciousness, it’s an absolutely necessary move, and without it we can’t go beyond the slumberous, quasispiritual Unperpsectival and reach the truly spiritual Aperspectival.
The “a” denotes freedom, so this mode brings freedom from perspective. Its markers are the re-integration and welcoming of early Unperspectival structures and its new persepctive of time as wholeness. We see that past, present and future coexist.
This is beyond modernity – postmodernity and metamodernity – and has appeared in art and psychology during the last 100 years or so.
Let’s move on to the five structures of consciousness, which are sub-categories of the three metaperspectives.
The Five Structures of Consciousness
According to Gebser, each structure gains in perspective and dimensionality, while further losing contact with origin. He describes them as “origin’s development towards self-realization in man”, which sounds very Wilberian.
Archaic – 1st of Unperspectival Structures of Consciousness
Archaic in Greek is arche, which means inception or origin. All future structures of consciousness exist in potentia. There is absolute non-differentiation of human and world, and we exist in a formless slumber.
This dominated in pre-artistic Homo Sapiens, roughly 200,000 to 30,000 years ago (according to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, Homo Sapiens first appeared 200,000 years ago in West Africa), and its cultural manifestations are non-existent. Very young, pre-verbal, pre-intentional infants inhabit Archaic.
We might integrate Archaic by being aware of our original, groundless, substanceless Origin, our Original Face, the Ground of All Being, which appears in 1 million guises in the world’s spiritual systems. This is the substrate of the Archaic, though conscious awareness of it lies dormant in that particular structure.
Archaic is represented by a zero-dimensional emptiness.
Magic – 2nd Unperspectival Structure
The Magic mutation marks our first tentative move towards having a world rather than being defined by it or infused with it.
Etymologically, magic means make. This mutation historically coincided with the appearance of tools, houses, boats, and art. Humans first discovered the power of intentionality.
Life continues to be egolessness, spaceless and timeless, and we feel merged with nature. We now see material objects and symbols of them, but we confuse the two. The human and the animal, natural and celestial are one.
Gebser says that, in the Magic structure, “each and every thing intertwines and is interchangeable.” All objects, all points in time, all events and actions magically interpenetrate, co-exist and influence one another. If X exists and Y exists, X is Y.
It seems we can bend reality to our imagination: the two are perceived as inseperable.
The most obvious manifestation of this structure of consciousness is the kind of magical thinking young children exhibit. They don’t have the ability to differentiate real human beings and events from Santa, cartoon characters, and fairy tales, and believe they can acquire superpowers by sliding into a Spiderman suit. I propose this example not to demean this stage, but to make clear what Magic is.
We might integrate Magic as modern adults by realising that nothing really is separate from us.
Sure, we can’t turn instantaneously turn any desire into reality as Magic would like to. But the internal world of emotions, thoughts, beliefs, intentions and desire is not really inside; the outer world of sight, sound, objects, people and places is not really outside. They form an interconnected, interactive, multi-colour, multi-dimensional mesh.
We might also realise that our intentions are very powerful. The current Manifest-Your-Reality movement, if exaggerated and exploited by the self-help gurus, is based on a fundamental human truth. That is the truth of the self-fulfilling prophecy, of thought becoming emotion becoming action, becoming reality.
Besides, “What goes around comes around” and “Thoughts are things” – we send out boomerangs of thoughts, and they come back loaded with karma.
Magic is a one-dimensional point, representing tentative self-sense and a world of infinitely exchangeable points.
Mythic – 3rd of Unperspectival Structures of Consciousness
A new sense of time comes online at Mythic: time is now cyclical and rhythmical. Think the time of the seasons, of the stars, sun and moon, of the natural world.
The world is now two-dimensional and two-sided, full of complementary polarities like yin and yang, night and day, good and bad.
This structure is rich in symbols and images, but not magically. The symbols are beginning to separate from nature, as is the human being.
Gebser claims that the essential character of Mythic is the emergence of soul or beginning self-awareness. This self is an amalgamation of the cycles it perceives in the world, not as yet a full individual separate from the world.
Mythical culture exhibits awareness of the larger cosmos and its workings – another sign that we’re separating from the world.
Rational – The Perspectival Structure
In this mutation, full individuality comes online, along with linear, historical time. This implies the full separation of self from environment, and a perception of empty space for the first time. We’re no longer intertwined with reality; we move through it, we look out on it, we analyse it.
There’s the rise of quantifying, measuring, discursive thought, the scholarly attitude, and the ability to know the world on its own terms. We analyse, we pull apart, we seek evidence of objective phenomena that are “out there”. The world seems to operate in a clocklike, rational order, from past to future and left to right.
Rene Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am.” Parminedes concluded “thinking and being is one and the same.” This is Rational, Perspectival philosophy.
Not only does full selfhood appear, but the ability to have a relationship to self. Perceiving linear time, we aim to acquire, to grow, to accumulate, to change, to analyse and improve.
There’s no doubt this mutation has altered humanity forever. No longer are humans solely at the whim of nature; we impose our whims on nature. By gathering data, analysing, rationalising and generalising, we can spot trends, patterns and systems. This type of thinking is behind all the wonders of modern science, medicine and technology.
Yet it also brings deep angst. It’s painful to maintain a fabricated self that is at the mercy of linear time. And from Gebser’s descriptions of empty, three-dimensional space and Rational disenchantment, you can deeply understand our sense of meaninglessness.
This is the dominant structure of consciousness in Western adults today, and it explains much of our success, failure, joy and angst.
Rational is represented by a triangle, which denotes point of view and distance.
Integral – The Aperspectival Structure
in truth we ware the whole and the whole wares us.Jean Gebser
The next Gebserian structure after the Rational is the Integral, where our strong sense of separation now loosens and dies into the whole.
In the Integral mutation, we develop a new form of time and space: time freedom, space freedom. Our identity expands beyond the personal and perspectival, into the Gebserian Origin.
We’re aware of the aliveness of past and the presence of future, and how past-present-future all co-exist and interact. This structure is neither psychic nor mental nor Magic: it’s loose and enables all of these previous structures to be. Seeing the previous structures alive in ourselves is a requirement for Integral.
We recontact the spiritual as a conscious, lived reality, not a preconscious slumber as in Archaic. We be the whole as it appears as us and as the many.
Johnson suggests that to embody this stage we become contemplatives, present in every moment to what is unfolding. Worldly monk is my term for it.
Integral is represented by a sphere: it’s multi-perspectival and sees all time forms along with the spiritual reality that permeates them.
We have been roused to wakefulness in the mental, but in the integral we are being initiated into the lucidity of origin.Jeremy Johnson
Where Are We Now? Jean Gebser and The Structures of Consciousness
Gebser lived through the Second World War, a time of great turbulence and destruction tat was brought, in his eyes, by the collapse of the Mental structure. He saw it as an irruption, a bursting of time into the three-dimensional Perspectival world. The more-true nature of time uprooted Mental fixity on linear, historic time and on progress.
In the collapse of modernity, technological advance accelerates beyond control and we produce dangerous and deathly machines capable of swiftly wiping out millions. Think gas chambers, atomic bombs, bomber planes and machine guns.
We’re still aboard the technological runaway train. AI, a phenomenon we don’t really understand or control, is multiplying and spreading irresistibly through business, commerce and trade.
The accumulation of human living produces climate change. We can look back and forward, cogniscent of how our actions have disrupted our ecosystems, and weary of continuing such damaging action.
The Mental’s perspectival fixation is reaching pathological levels as the internet allows us to surround ourselves with those who share our perspectives. This only reinforces those fragmented and partial points of view. Even liberal ideas and philosophies now betray a narrow one-mindedness that mirrors Mythic two-dimensionality.
We’re currently in the Mental–Integral transition, and part of our task as growing humans is to embody and enact the future. When will we fully live timelessness, spacelessness, egolessness and perspectivallessness?
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