Cracking Open Consciousness; Studying Jean Gebser Today

by Jeremy Johnson

by Jeremy Johnson


One of the recent subjects of discussion both on this blog and in the magazine EnlightenNext (excellent article by Gary Lachman), is the under-appreciation of Jean Gebser’s work. Despite his vision for the future, and his important understanding of the “structures of consciousness,” he is not translated much outside of the German language (except Ever-Present Origin). This is unfortunate, and it’s my hope it will eventually change (even a small number of his books published in English would be great). One of the serious concerns that arise from authors such as William Irwin Thompson, Gary Lachman and Georg Feurstein (who wrote an introduction to Gebser’s work: The Structures of Consciousness) is whether or not disseminating Gebser’s work helps or hurts the cause. For those of us taking the academic path (myself included), Gebser is a must-read. However, the question remains as to how to successfully articulate his insights without diluting them in the process.

This is the first part in a short series of blogs which will explore Gebser’s work. Being only a graduate student myself, I can’t say to hold any authority on Gebser’s work. So I thought I would open up with an excerpt from Lachman’s book, A Secret History of Consciousness. I liked this quote because it argues we should strive to find a delicately balanced “middle way” that is neither elite nor diluted:

“…Along with informing Feuerstein’s own widely read books on Hindu philosophy, Gebser’s ideas are a central influence on another popular writer on the evolution of consciousness, Ken Wilber, considered by many to be one of the intellectual heavyweights of the New Age. Sites devoted to Gebser’s ideas can be found on the internet, and a school of “integral philosophy,” including the work of scholars and philosophers like Allan Combs and Noel Barstad, is disseminating them to a wider, English-speaking readership.

The value of this spread of Gebser’s philosophy has, however, been questioned. In one of his more recent books, Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness (1998), the cultural theorist William Irwin Thompson criticizes Wilber’s “appropriation” of Gebser and bemoans the fact that Wilber’s California students prefer his self-help version of Gebser’s difficult thought to its more demanding source. Feuerstein himself, remarking on the loss that many felt at Gebser’s passing, said that “Socratic spirits like Gebser typically live before there time . . . and are therefore never fashionable. If they were to become fashionale their cause would be lost, for undoubtedly their vision would be vulgarized.” In another context, Algis Mickunas, one of the English translators of The Ever-Present Origin, has commented critically on the attraction Gebser has for “seekers for a new age and a saving spirituality” and has distanced his own work on Gebser from what he sees as a warranted but limited appreciation.

Perhaps, as Gebser believed, origin is preferable to its later developments. Yet, although he struggled against the very vulgarization that troubled Georg Feuerstein, he was also wary of any kind of “spiritual elite” and warned of any misinterpretation of his work that would include it under the rubric of “Nietzsche and the Gnostics, whose superiority doctrines include claims of power and similarity to the divine.” With its Christian stamp — another aspect Gebser shares with Rudolf Steiner — his “integral consciousness” avoids any charge of hubris. Yet, it is also true that the demands placed on one willing to endure the emerging transformation of consciousness are heavy. Gebser warned that if we do not overcome the coming crisis, it will overcome us, “and only someone who has overcome himself is truly able to overcome,” and admonition not readily palatable to a generation bred on psychobabble and the spiritual quick fix. This is the Goldilocks syndrome in another form: vulgarization or elitism, popular movements that appeal to many but lack any spiritual punch, or inner circles of initiates who too easily succumb to notions of evolutionary superiority. Finding the “just right” middle ground between these two is, as can be imagined, not easy.

Gebser, I believe, hoped that his vision of a new consciousness could help transcend this binary trap, the “either-or” paradigmatic of the consciousness structure that, according to him, we are currently exhausting. As the crisis he warned of was inetiable and not limited to the concerns of any esoteric elite, it strikes me that to err on the side of vulgarization, however much more our subtle sensibilities may be offended, is the lesser evil. That more people know of his work today than did thirty years ago can only be a good thing. Hence the inevitably inadequate summary of his ideas that follows is presented in good faith.”

-Excerpt from pages 233-234

Stay tuned for updates as we explore Gebser’s ideas and the impact they have on us today.