Seeking Jean Gebser

“We partake every moment of our lives in the originary powers of an ultimately spiritual nature.”

Jean Gebser

Jean Gebser, philosopher, linguist, poet, who described the structures of human consciousness. Born Hans Gebser in Poznan, then Germany, 1905. Left in 1929 for Italy/Spain/France, changing name to Jean. Escaped to Switzerland at the outbreak of WW2. Died 1973.

Having seen many references to the work of Jean Gebser, I wanted to find out more about the man himself and his ideas. His main book The Ever Present Origin seemed difficult to get hold of, and is reputed to be ‘difficult ‘, so I tried the summary of the man and his ideas in Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness, by Jeremy Johnson (2019).

Basically, Gebser’s work is about human consciousness and how it has evolved and is evolving. He categorises five stages of its evolution, which I roughly describe in the following gross over-simplification.

  • Archaic – original consciousness of the whole, without differentiation.
  • Magical – perfect identification of man with the universe, without separation, all appears magical, a part of ‘the dreaming’.
  • Mythical – becoming conscious of the universe and others through stories and myths.
  • Rational – mental, logical. Man is separated from the world and reasons about it.
  • Integral – becoming aware of, transcending and yet benefiting from the perspectives of all the previous levels.

As stressed by Johnson, this is not intended to be a developmental schema, although it clearly describes the stages of development of humanity to date. But then, neither Johnson’s book nor Gebser’s work are easily read or understood – Gebser has his own specific terminology that I will not attempt to go into here. Johnson has made a heroic attempt to lead us into the thinking of Gebser, and his book is well worth reading, if you are so inclined. Each effort to understand helps us to get in touch with the inspirational quality of this work. He quotes Gebser, giving an indication of the true poetic scope of this work.

“The simple is in us. It is participation—participation in that which is unknown yet evident to us: a tiny seed in us, which contains all transparency—the diaphanous world, the most irradiated and most sober beatitude. It is so completely comprehensive and whole that neither our intelligent, super-clever, caged-in thought nor our pitiable-pitiful and needy-strong longing—how much poverty it renders visible!—can even divine it. And yet, it is within us.”

Jean Gebser April 26 1973

Of course, there are parallels between Gebser’s analysis and the work of Iain McGilchrist, referred to in other posts. The current left-brain-dominant mode of being is the equivalent of the rational stage, and the co-operating left and right brains that McGilchrist envisages are the equivalent of the integral stage. See Scott Preston’s post Gebser and McGilchrist for more insight.

Jean Gebser is also referred to extensively in Ken Wilber‘s work, such as in the lengthy masterwork Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. All these guys are on to something fundamental about what it means to be human, and the direction of any New Renaissance of the human spirit.

Megalomaniac and lost soul?

One could argue that my posts about Iain McGilchrist’s books (see eg The Matter With Things) and the problem of today’s left brain dominance are of mere academic interest, or to do with the long term environmental threat. Yet suddenly it is upon us, threatening the world we know, live and love, in the form of Vladimir Putin. Putin is one of many leaders who exhibit a pathologically extreme form of left brain domination, where left brain rationality and abstract ideas override any consideration of the people and environment involved, whether in Russia, in Ukraine, or in the rest of the world. There is a lack of connection with reality – the death, destruction and psychological trauma being inflicted on millions of people. Only a person who has lost touch with the real lived world and their own moral sense could do such a thing. Putin has literally decided that the map is more important than the territory.

I’m not sure if this recognition helps us much in dealing with the inhuman threat represented by Putin, but it is useful to see where this person is coming from. There is only abstract rationality without compassion or recognition of common humanity, let alone community with nature. It is evident from clips in the media that he rules by fear, also evident from his threats to the rest of the world.

Can we have compassion for a lost soul, when he threatens us all?

The Matter With Things

I have spent many happy hours reading Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Matter With Things. This is probably the largest and most expensive book (in two volumes) that I have ever read or bought, at 1578 pages, including appendices and an extensive bibliography, and a cost in the region £75-£90 (hardback), although there is apparently a cheaper Kindle edition. Why did I do this? Because I was inspired by his previous book The Master and His Emissary, which seemed to capture something very important about the predicament we find ourselves in today. See my review of that book here.

Also, I was inspired by hearing the man himself speaking in some of the videos produced by the Scientific & Medical Network. You can see some of these yourself on the website Channel McGilchrist. This man inspires by the depth of his erudition and the lengths to which he has gone to make his case. The Matter With Things took ten years of his life and provides a comprehensive justification and amplification of the theory in that earlier book. It speaks with equal erudition on neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, physics…

This is not really a book for the general reader; it does require interested effort and perseverance to complete, but I found the effort well repaid. When Iain presented his first draft to his publisher, the reaction was that it needed major editing and perhaps removal of references. He refused and chose to publish it himself. All the research and references were of importance.

I have no intention of trying any sort of summary. Perhaps the important point remains that first presented in The Master and his Emissary. We have these two modes of knowing about things: essentially rational and intuitive, which correspond strongly with left brain and right brain respectively. The proper mode of working of the human being involves both modes: initiation with intuition, working it through with rationality, and validating again with intuition.

Today’s problem is that the rational left brain has in many people significantly lost touch with the intuitive right, which is what grounds us in reality. The left tries to go its own way and ignore the right (the Emissary usurps the Master). We see the results all around in massive narcissism, and lost participation in the natural world, to the degree that we are apparently rather rapidly degrading it. The abstraction of the map has become more important than the reality of the territory.

In marshalling the evidence the book ranges widely over many fields. The first part considers the means to truth – attention, perception, judgement, intelligence (emotional social and cognitive) and creativity. The second part considers the paths to truth related to the brain hemispheres – science, reason and intuition. The third and final part considers the nature of reality, including the significance of opposites, the one and the many – parts and wholes, time, space, matter and consciousness, value, purpose of life and the nature of the cosmos, and the sense of the sacred. Wow.

Having seen various videos of the man in conversation, I found the experience of reading these volumes to be like having an ongoing conversation with an erudite and wise man – an enjoyable and educational experience.

McGilchrist sees this culmination of his life’s work to be the presentation and ‘proving’ of his theories, in an academic sense – there are just so many references, all beautifully laid out near the relevant text. Who can say that this is not a vital endeavour for humanity? These ideas are important!

Fundamentalism

My post Modes of knowing highlighted that we have two modes of knowing: rationality, corresponding to left brain function; and intuition, corresponding to right brain function. The human being operates at best when these two modes of knowing operate in tandem, and there is great danger when the rational/left brain function takes over and ignores or denies the right brain/intuition. This is the root cause of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism appears in many guises in the modern world.

  • Religious fundamentalism. We all know about that. The word in the holy books is taken as a statement of fact, rather than as metaphor. We see these fundamentalists all over the world – Islamic Christian, Hindhu, Buddhist… The effect is to deny the basic truths that were initially espoused by the founding spiritual teachers – Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha…
  • Political fundamentalism. The dedication to a particular ideology, which is often the cover for a privileged class, even an individual, to stay in control of society.
  • Economic fundamentalism. The dedication to particular ideas about how an economy is run, such as that private is always good, public spending is always bad, of many modern right wingers – or indeed the very opposite from many modern left wingers.
  • Scientific materialist fundamentalism. The belief that objective science and the materialist paradigm can explain everything, and that subjective life – religion/spirituality, morality, values etc – are somehow unimportant as without foundation.

I’m sure you could add further examples. Yes, fundamentalism abounds wherever there is human thought and endeavour – particularly, I would suggest, in these days of significant left-brain domination. The task of human development is, as ever, to tread the path between the extremes that lead to fundamentalism, to respond to life with the full subjectivity of those very subjective values that fundamentalism is inherently unable to take into consideration. To be human beings, not the machines that various fundamentalisms would seek to turn us into.

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things.
Featured image by Stiller Beobachter from Ansbach, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons

Modes of knowing

In his magnum opus, The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist identifies Henri Bergson as a major contibutor to the understanding of the way we human beings know about the world.

Essentially, there are two modes of knowing, which I will characterise in a word as intuition and rationality. Intuition is to do with direct perception of the world and understanding what is needed; rationality is to do with language and analysis, rationalising about the world. Intuition ‘presences’ in the world; rationality ‘re-presents’ the world in its own terms.

These two modes were well understood by many thinkers of the past. In the early 1900s these included Bergson, William James, Einstein (see featured quote) and other quantum pioneers. In earlier times, for example, the Romantic movement of such as Wordsworth and Coleridge strove to emphasise the continued importance of direct perception in an encroaching world of rationality. The two modes are also well understood in the world of astrology, where the planet Jupiter represents the faculty of direct perception/ intuition, whereas Mercury represents rational/ analytical intelligence.

What neurologist/psychologist/philosopher Iain McGilchrist adds to this picture is the correlation of the intuitive intelligence with the right brain, and of rationality with the left brain – emerging from modern studies in neurology.

Humans evolved with these two different capabilities because they were necessary for survival. For instance, a hunt might have involved analytical planning to get in the right place to hunt, but intuitive perceptions of the dangers posed by other wild animals in the area. We rely on the combination of these two intelligences.

However, contrary to what you might think, there is no symmetry between the two in terms of their function. Intuition grounds us in the real world; rationality theorises about it. Our intelligence is powerful because the two co-operate – intuition suggests an approach; rationality evaluates and proposes the way to go; then intuition confirms – intuition is the Master.

The disturbing thing about left brain rationality, spotted by Bergson and others, is that it does not necessarily see the need for grounded intuition at all. In this extreme case it usurps the role of the right hemisphere, the intuition and the connection with the real world. The map becomes the territory. A world of abstraction is confused for reality itself. This was the theme of McGilchrist’s previous book The Master and His Emissary – the left brain messenger taking over and ignoring the right brain connection with reality.

Looking at today’s world, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is essentially what has happened to humanity in the large. Our connection with reality, with planet earth, is being slowly destroyed by the left-brain machinations of politics, capitalism, business, technology, consumerism. It will all end in tears for many people and many species of life; indeed it already has.

Yet we still each have those intuitive right brains and there will always be those who know the way to go, who love nature, the earth, their fellow beings, who fight the good fight against left brain extremism. This is the dance of life, and the peculiar destiny of human beings…

The first traffic jam on Broadway

I’ve owned the book Time and Free Will by French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) since university days – but regretfully never quite got around to fully reading it. It still resides on my bookshelf, awaiting the day… I was also interested in American polymath William James, and did at that time read some of his work, including The Varieties of Religious Experience, which proved quite influential. These philosophers were reverently referred to by other thinkers I was also reading at university, notably Colin Wilson’s then-popular The Outsider. So I was quite interested to come across this story about Bergson in Iain McGilchrist’s seemingly infinitely giving book The Matter with Things.

In 1907 Bergson published the book Creative Evolution, which built on Darwin’s idea of evolution, but rejected ‘natural selection’ as the main means of progress, proposing instead the idea of the life force, or elan vital, which was notably the source of human creativity. It seems that these ideas generated great interest in the US at the time, related as they were to the work of William James, who had died two years previously. Bergson was invited to Manhattan to give six public lectures on ‘Spirituality and Freedom’.

It is said that the lectures were well over-subscribed, and the number of vehicles trying to gain access caused the very first traffic jam on Broadway. This was actually two years before John D.Herz started the first Yellow Cab Company in 1915.

According to an essay by historian Larry McGrath both Sigmund Freud’s 1909 and Bertrand Russell’s 1914 visits to the US met with popular excitement similar to Bergson’s. How different from today, when such major thinkers largely do not meet with such popular acclaim. It appears that it was perhaps the scientists, such as Einstein, who took over the public imagination.

It’s not really my purpose to explore why this might be the case, in this brief post, but I will be coming back to Bergson in a future post, as his ideas are strikingly relevant today.

Featured image of Henri Bergson by unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Metaphor, Map and Model

Metaphor

1. a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance…
2. something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.

dictionary.com

Metaphor is the basis of language and related creativity. While this has always been apparent in the arts and literature, it is perhaps not so readily associated with other fields.

Just consider the two domains of thought that have dominated Western cultures for thousands of years: religion and science.

Religious texts are full of metaphor pointing towards the great religious and spiritual truths that can never be precisely expressed in language. Religions become problematic for human society when these texts are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically. Then fundamentalism becomes a big problem, as it was for centuries in Europe and still is in many parts of the world. In the terms of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, the Left Brain Emissary has usurped the function of the Right Brain Master.

But surely science is different, you exclaim – it’s objective. Piffle! In essence, science makes mathematical models of the real world. And what are these models but metaphors that reach towards the underlying reality. Scientific fundamentalism becomes a problem when the scientist believes that the model accurately describes the real world, rather than being a metaphor, leading to losing touch with reality itself. The map is not the territory (another metaphor).

Of course, science’s handmaidens technology and modern capitalism have this problem in spades. It is not a huge leap to suggest that this Left Brain dominance has significantly contributed to today’s ecological and climate problems, and to the mealy mouthed response to these problems so far.

It’s all metaphor really!

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Matter with Things.
Featured image includes a quote from Genesis I, King James version.

The thing thing

The thing is, we tend to think in terms of things – for everything (!)

Reality is something else. Everything is connected. There is no unique thing. Thingness is a model, approximating to reality. We could call it thing theory; some might call it materialism.

Psychologically we have an unfortunate tendency to confuse the map with the territory, so we think that things are more real than reality itself. Yet Quantum theory debunked thing theory many years ago.

Reality is more akin to interconnected processes – for example the human process interconnected with the earth process, interconnected with the solar system process, and the galactic process…

Does it matter? Yes, because we appear to think we can manipulate things without considering their interconnections, with our reductionist, materialistic mentality. The effect is only too obvious in what we are doing to the natural world. For example, the UK HS2 rail project replaces a complete ecosystem with a few trees planted in a load of freshly laid soil, and thinks that’s fine.

Of course, in daily life, thing theory works quite well on a practical basis, as does flat earth theory. I sit on a thing chair on a flat earth and eat a thing meal on a thing plate with a thing knife and a thing fork. We just need to know the limits of our theories and models, and when they cannot and should not be applied.

From the perspective of neuroscience, the left brain is very good at things and theories, but not very good at flow and interconnected processes. That’s when we need the right brain. If lefty has taken over completely (the Emissary usurping the Master) then ultimately we destroy every ‘thing’.

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s books The Master and His Emissary and The Matter with Things.
Featured image of billiard break by No-w-ay in collaboration with H. Caps, via Wikimedia Commons

Restoring the natural order

Once, we human beings were immersed in the dreaming of the world, just as the plants and animals. Our brains had two hemispheres, which were equally immersed, equally perceptive of and involved in our interconnected world.

Then, we created language and the ability to reflect. Gradually, the left side of our brain began to specialise, to separate out and lose contact with our livingness, an ability which was retained in the right brain. The right brain was grounded in the body and sensing the world; the left brain increasingly concentrated on abstraction and manipulation of the world. Being interconnected, they formed a wonderful partnership, but it was the right brain that was grounded in living, was the Master, served by the left brain.

But the left brain became ever more powerful in its schemes and manipulations. It invented science and technology and the duality of subject and object. The subjective was ‘in here’, and the objective was ‘out there’, and the latter could be measured and manipulated by science.

The problem was, the left brain began to think it was more important – than the connectedness, the beautiful, the moral, the intuition grounded in right brain experience. What was important was the re-presentation of the world, not the actual experience. Even that, subjectivity itself, would eventually be explained away by materialist models. Art was just about concepts, not beauty. Justice was about laws and punishment, not what was right. Might was right in the politics of ‘interests’, which even purported to justify obscene warfare. Money was the supreme value. Science could be directed without making space for inspiration. Education was to prepare for making money. Intelligence was an abstraction that could be mechanised.

Yet still the right brain was there, belittled, but grounding and connecting. The denied connection with nature as it was slowly and systematically debased, exploited, polluted. The failed left brain dominance was showing its true colours as climate breakdown and pollution got a grip, species began to disappear, a stream of plagues burst forth on the earth. It was time for the right brain to take charge again, a new interconnectedness, a new caring for nature and others. The science and the money became once again harnessed to the good of all, no longer driven by the fearful band of rich and powerful left brains who almost destroyed it all. Education aimed once again to uncover the destiny of this particular soul on earth.

What made this happen? Well it was the natural order of things. The over-specialised left brain could not in the end cover up the effect of its own defects. The mass tragedies stirred the human soul, and the balance changed.

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s books The Master and His Emissary and The Matter with Things.

Diaphaneity: Unfolding the Wings of Perception

Another great post by Scott Preston which draws together many different but related threads in the study of our two modes of consciousness.

The ideas of Jean Gebser, William Blake, Carlos Castaneda, Iain McGilchrist, Buddhism, Christian mysticism are woven together and related. All are clearly describing the same reality with different terminologies. And what a wonderful title word: diaphaneity.

The Chrysalis

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” — William Blake

“Purify your eyes, and see the pure world. Your life will fill with radiant forms.” — Rumi

“The mystery, or the secret, of the sorcerers’ explanation is that it deals with unfolding the wings of perception. The nagual by itself is of no use, it has to be tempered by the tonal. The sorcerers’ secret in using the nagual is in our perception.” — don Juan to Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power.

In his book The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser describes the new (integral) consciousness as being chiefly characterised by “diaphaneity” or “the transparency of the world”. The citations above are other attestations to the fundamental reality of the “diaphainon

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Beyond the Res Cogitans

I love this post from Scott Preston with a great title. It draws together ancient philosophical/ spiritual/ religious ideas and more modern thinking to suggest the direction that human consciousness is moving in, letting go of Monkey Mind and coming into presence.

And there’s a great poem by Rumi.

The Chrysalis

Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.”
Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.”
Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.”
“There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified it for you.”

It is often very difficult for Westerners, especially, to understand the meaning of this parable. Generations of conditioning has inculcated the belief that the res cogitans is fundamental to who and what we are — that is “the thinking thing”. “I think, therefore I am”, pronounced Descartes, and divided being into incommensurate domains of the res cogitans and the res extensa — the subject which thinks and the objective realm that it thinks about, the realm of extension, of space and motion. Cogito ergo sum — I am because I think.

This formula (called “metaphysical dualism”) has generated all sorts of problems for the modern mind, which are not…

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Creativity and Humour

One of my themes in this blog has been the over-dominance of left brain as against right brain in current Western societies. This was the subject of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, reviewed here in 2016. So I was delighted to come across this video of McGilchrist in conversation with John Cleese (of Fawlty Towers fame) on the subject of Creativity, Humour and The Meaning of Life, and their essential relationship with the right brain.

To pick just two points that it inspired for me:

  • Comedy is essentially ‘right brain’, and is not ‘politically correct’ or ‘woke’. Comedy depends on irreverence, and being able to laugh at things that are potentially forbidden subjects. Just think of those TV images of masses of men leading the Soviet Politburo or the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Not much comedy in those solemn faces.
  • Meaning, imagination and inspiration are very much related to right brain. Have you noticed just how boring politicians are on the media when they are in the process of spouting some ‘party line’ that the left brain is following? The only interesting speakers on programmes such as the BBC’s Question Time are those with the freedom to speak out from their own life experience.

You will have your own takeaways from listening to this fascinating conversation between an outstanding academic/psychiatrist and a top class comedian. The video is in 3 parts of around 20 minutes each. The first part follows, and will naturally lead you on to the others..

Maps and reality

“The map is not the territory”

Alfred Korzybski, 1931

In his excellent book Taking Appearance Seriously, Henri Bortoft expresses succinctly the effect of the brain’s left hemisphere in overriding the lived experience registered by the right hemisphere (in line with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary):

“Where the right hemisphere mediates the lived experience of wholeness, the left hemisphere mediates its representation – it replaces experience with a model of experience, which then gets confused with and mistaken for experience itself.”

Not only does this result in scientists confusing their maps of reality with reality itself (see earlier post), it leads to much of our lives being led at second hand, as we focus on our conceptual maps of what is going on, rather than on the real lived experience. This is perhaps a contribution to the disconnection from body mentioned in my post reviewing In Touch.

This is not intended as a criticism of the left hemisphere, indeed this is where social media such as blogs largely reside. It is just that we do need to be aware of what is going on and ‘remember’ our real selves.

Featured image by Allan Ajifo – https://www.flickr.com/photos/125992663@N02/14414603887/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35380022

 

Presence or represent

In his book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought, Henri Bortoft gives an interesting insight into the two modes of being present in the world, which he relates to the left and right hemispheres of the brain as outlined by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary, which he quotes:

“the right hemisphere delivers what is new as it ‘presences‘ – before the left hemisphere gets to represent it.”

Bortoft goes on to say:

“Where the right hemisphere mediates the lived experience of wholeness, the left hemisphere mediates its representation – it replaces experience with a model of experience, which then gets confused with and mistaken for the experience itself.”

This is surely a crucial confusion that lies at the heart of the modern project. Rather than living within the world and nature as an integral part of it (right hemisphere), we live in the world at second hand in the abstracted meaning (left hemisphere) that occurs to us following the experience. Having lost that direct connection with nature as it presences, we treat it as an external object to be exploited and dominated. Look around you – the evidence is before your eyes.

It happened in Europe from about the time following the Renaissance. And it was arguably a necessary development of humanity. Now however, it is becoming imperative to readjust the relationship, so that direct experience of nature has equal status with our abstractions, such as science, technology, economics, capitalism, materialism… Dominance by abstractions is leading us into a nightmare world.

The New Renaissance must involve reconnection with our essential nature, a balance between left and right hemispheres.

My post on Presence gives another perspective on that word.
Featured image by Allan Ajifo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cause of The Renaissance?

We’ve travelled around Europe a fair amount over the years and it is clear from the evidence of art and architecture that something special happened around the 12th/13th centuries and again the 15th/16th centuries. The Romanesque and Gothic architectures, the paintings and sculptures of Tuscany, the establishment of universities, printing, the beginnings of great literature,…

What was it that led to this original Renaissance? What special combination of circumstances caused that great explosion of the human spirit? Philosopher Jean Gebser had an answer in his book The Ever Present Origin (1949), and it goes back to the basic nature of our own consciousness.

Humanity has gone through four basic ‘structures of consciousness’: the ‘archaic’, the ‘magical’, the ‘mythic’ and the ‘mental-rational’. He dates the period when the transition began from ‘mythic’ to ‘mental-rational’ at around 1225. This was the period when left brain consciousness began to assert itself against the submersion into a right-brain dominated world. For a period the two were in some sort of state of balance which led to the creative explosion of those periods of Renaissance.

Then as time progressed the dominance of left brain was gradually asserted (see The Master and His Emissary), interconnectedness was reduced and the emphasis moved to individuality and competition. Of course, this has been creative in its own way, see the explosion of science and technology, but it has been at a cost of the basic connection with life itself. Hence increasing problems of pollution, environmental degradation, global warming, species extinction, mega-wars, terrorism,…

Gebser postulated that we are on the threshold of a fifth structure of consciousness – the ‘integral’ – which would begin to redress the balance that has gone too far one way. Such a new consciousness would re-establish that creative balance between the two halves of the brain, but at a higher level – leading to a New Renaissance.

Many thinkers have since then built on Gebser’s ideas, including Ken Wilber and Iain McGilchrist.

I am indebted to Gary Lachman’s book The Secret Teachers of the Western World for inspiring this post.

Featured image of Botticelli Venus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons