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.