Cosmos Café: Gebser's "Grammatical Mirror" [2018.03.13]



Mentioned in last week’s Cosmos Café session with Lisa Maroski on Creating Transparent Language, the Swiss cultural philosopher Jean Gebser wrote an essay in 1941, then revised for publication in 1963, entitled “The Grammatical Mirror” which describes changes in linguistic usage that are indicative of the shift to integral consciousness upon whose threshold Gebser believed we are standing. One of the questions leading to last week’s Café session was, "What would it be like to speak from the integral [structure of consciousness], not just about it? This essay provides a number of examples from various European languages that are indicative of that shift in speaking as well.


Jean Gebser (1963) “The Grammatical Mirror”

Seed Questions

  • The Sapir/Whorf hypothesis says that our language determines our thinking, but Gebser appears to be showing that it is our thinking that finds its way into our language. What do you think of Gebser’s general approach to the topic? Do you think he’s onto something?

  • What do you think is the strongest (weakest) point in his argument? How well do you think he made his case?

  • Which examples, from your own writing / reading, would you add to the ones Gebser has identified?

  • Do you think we are on the way to learning to “speak from the integral”? And, if we are, what can additionally be done to enhance and strengthen the process?

Context and Backstory


"There are a great many sentences which begin with an “and” violating the hitherto valid grammar, "

All Clean Language questions begin with an " and". And we can tease apart nouns from adjectives, for example-

And when sad boy what was the boy before he was sad boy?

And when sad boy what does the sad boy want to have happen?

David Grove, who originated Clean Language, said the use of “and” at the beginning of each question kept the question in the flow state of the client’s language. Applying the syntax of Clean Language to the client’s language is creates the conditions for the self reflexive turn of the client.

And when the client who generated, " I was a sad boy" is asked, " And when sad boy whereabouts was sad boy?", the interview becomes less about the relationship between the client and the interviewer ( a subject and an object ) and rather about the delicate relationship between the client and the client’s self generated metaphors…the interviewer becomes a part of the weave of the system rather than an outside observer of it…

The sad boy was at a window, in an empty house, looking out at the green suburban lawn, and he felt overwhelmed by his fate…

And when we use clean language to tease apart the noun " boy" from the adjective " sad" what happens next?

And what did that sad boy want to have happen?

He wanted to feel connected, to other people, and to God…

And can that happen?

Yes it can!

And that becomes another element within a pattern…and meta patterns start to emerge…we are following the wisdom of the system…a third order system of observing observers…rather than encouraging the conventional first order subject object split. The tendency to use language to maintain subject object is the norm in our culture. Clean Language is a tool for re-training attention, making language more transparent, and re-connecting both persons to the wisdom of the system, which transcends and re-embodies both persons in a relationship to a field of vast possibilities. And this can happen through how we use our language.

In my work with Clean Language here among my collegues here the intention is always to by-pass the habitual tendency to ignore these subtle shifts in consciousness but to pay attention to them.

In a dream, when I was reading EPO, Jean Gebser came to me. I was in a shop where they sold light fixtures, it was on the bottom floor. I overheard two young women discussing the film Inception ( a film about lucid dreaming) and the work of Carl Jung. I found this an odd conversation, filled with strange meanings. As I walked up the stairs, I bumped into Jean Gebser and he pointed to his ear and said to me," You need to learn to listen with your Third Ear." I woke up.

And third ear…and when third ear…what kind of ear is an ear when it is a third ear?

And what does that Third Ear want to have happen?

And You who have a Third Ear let them hear with that Third Ear!

And my words echo thus in your mind…


Gebser’s text includes an extensive analysis of rhyme within, well, pre-modern poetry. Modern poetry often abandons rhyme altogether, although it keeps rhythm in important ways and may include half rhymes in the middle of a line of poetry, for example. Punctuation is also largely dispensed with. As I said at some point, it is largely poets that invent new language - Gebser certainly thinks so.

There is a lot of controversy around the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis. I’m not sure it is useful to dig all this up again, I’m not sure we can add significantly to a debate that has been going on for years - does language mold thought or does thought mold language? Isn’t this a chicken and egg question? Why must it be either to the exclusion of the other? The chicken gives birth to the egg and the egg gives birth to the chicken. I think it is more fruitful to investigate where one can intervene within the iterative process of language->thought->language->thought-> etc. to bring about effective change. Gebser says “A thought that didn’t turn to a smile has only been guessed, but not really thought”. We know more about this now - smiling, to be felt, requires that the facial muscles adopt the expression, or that one mentally visualizes the muscles doing this. It is this process that turns the smile from a guess into a thought. That is to say, that the relationship between language and thought cannot be dealt with properly without considering the role that the body plays in both of these. Rhythm is important in language because our bodies know rhythm. Even rhyme is a product of our sound-producing bodily functions, not just the abstract manipulation of words. And without body movement, or visualisation of movement, there is no thought - we are trapped in an inability to advance, like a person who has Parkinson’s can be trapped in a doorway. The role of embodiment breaks the otherwise fairly sterile symmetry between thought and language in important ways…


Sapir/Whorf is controversial, but it does address the issue concisely. I personally don’t agree with their outcomes either, but it is a known reference point and need to be seen as anything more than that. Out of controversy (which certainly need not be an either/or trap) we can get ourselves thinking about things. Of course, if it’s particularly bothersome, we can always take that sentence out.


This is in response to the Nora Bateson video clip “What is Mind?” you shared in the Sloterdijk Conversation 4 thread, but as I finished writing I realized it probably belongs here…

10:26! “And one of the reasons I feel that it’s such a crime to be taking art out of the schools is because it is the place where we learn to use the muscle that is about perceiving relationships.”

A key muscle indeed, as Gebser reminds us: “[E]ach emergent consciousness is laden with responsibility. Each responsibility is a way inward, since ever more response is demanded.” (p. 30)

Just before this, Gebser sings in polyphonic splendor alongside Bateson’s “knowing in multiple ways”, Aurobindo’s understanding of the subjective precursors of a spiritual age, and Ingold’s “meshworks”:
“When I speak of pure relationship I don’t mean any abstract fact… [T]hose of which I speak… are of another kind: it is not directed, but influences all; it is the spiritual light that dominates between things. And this spiritual light that not only dominates between the things themselves but also things and humans now thrive consciously for the first time in that element which until now was… regulated by [perspectival] understanding. In earlier times, a foreshadowing of that light was only able to be found in the myths, hymns, of the look of the mystics which was both plastic and allegorical. The language didn’t suffice to clearly express this relationship. Consciousness was not yet capable of recognizing that which touched the inner knowledge in human beings…”

~11:42 “Art offers us a kind of paradoxical communication form that we cannot resolve.”

I love how she ties paradox and inconsistency directly with creativity and positive engagement with Otherness. (Seeing, of course, how it remains politically chic in some circles to lack such patience…)

We need a word that wares the principle of inseparability regarding chickens and eggs… :wink:


Searching for the patterns that connect keeps me motivated. When confused, as I often am, I seek for the pattern as Nora does and then I stop feeling so lost in the woods. I just saw David Cronenberg’s film on Freud and Jung conflict. During my teens I had a friend, a troubled young person, who went to therapy at the Jung Center. She invited me to a group session. It was one of the most shocking experiences I had ever had. A group of adults of various ages were in a circle. They each went around the room and shared a dream and then came up with a symbol for the Self. Each person came up with a different symbol. When it was my turn, everyone turned to me with a gentle expectation, and I could say nothing at all. I sat in silence, simply overwhelmed by the idea that there was a symbolic world that adults took seriously. Afterwards the Jungian analyst who led the group, a dignified older lady, who worked with Jung, gave me some guided imagery exercises. And so began my career as a total nut job.

I went to the library and read everything I could about Jung. At the same time, in my drama class, we were studying Jung while reading Euripides’ Electra, a really sick play. Watergate was happening, the country falling apart. And all of this was happening in Houston, that booming big oil cow town.

And so fast forward to where we are now having these fascinating conversations, reading big books, trying to figure out the clash of civilizations, the slipping and sliding of words and meanings and after seeing the movie on Jung and Freud I am re-imagining their troubled relationships within a culture gone mad. They were both caught up in the tragedy of two world wars and cataclysmic events but their ideas about people were fucking crazy!

And so I am all too aware of the chicken and egg questions we continue to grapple with, and I am still not sure what a symbol is, and I have spent my entire adult life grappling with dreams and reflections and then I get a sense for the connections that some of us and each of us on occasion stumbles upon. A YouTube video, an article, an anecdote, or the snip of a dream and it all starts to add up.

This essay by Jean Gebser is so refreshingly clear after the murkiness of Sloterdiik! And it is in that comparison that I can appreciate such clarity. It seems that our capacity for making comparisons between and within the traditions that most attract us will have a liberating effect and with all of that I look forward to our meet up tomorrow.


And oddly enough, or not, Gebser reads better in German than in English (and this detracts not a bit from the excellent job Aaron Cheak did on this piece): Gebser has a wonderful way with words (he would be called a Dichter in German, even if he didn’t write poetry). They may not have a sense of humor, but they do have a sensitivity for language, I’ll give them that.


I’m going to do some more work on the kumu thingy to see if I can’t “map out” the meme-field we are working in. There are so many points of contact that it is worth giving this a voice. I also want to do this in a way that is inclusive of the personal stories that we each have that express why these writers are/were important to us. Thanks for sharing this, Johnny - I have been a fan of Jung since I read Robertson Davies’ novel The Manticore, and when I went looking for a therapist for myself I picked a Jungian analyst as a consequence - I’ve never regretted it, seventeen years later. I’m not saying Jung is all good, like all these thinkers, they have their up and down sides, but he is certainly a major reference point.


I read something a little different in this line from the essay, which surprised me, and sure enough, made me smile.

The question is, not so much about the facial muscles, as it is why does one smile? Where does the smile come from? Here I sense something like the Buddha’s countenance of transparent recognition. But certainly this is a bodily recognition, so I agree with your point, but I think what Gebser is saying is that consciously we recognize ourselves in the poetic mirror, thus our body relaxes, and we smile. :slightly_smiling_face:


Here is the link to the video on image schemas that I did with my collaborators - it was work called Ariadne Emerging.

Also, we wrote a paper that is related : Geoffrey Edwards & Marie Louise Bourbeau (2008) Image schemata — a guiding principle for multi-modal expression in performance design, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, 1:3, 189-206, DOI: 10.1386/padm.1.3.189/1

I don’t actually have the original, so it may not be easy to access. I will try to see if I can find a downloadable version.


Here’s a pdf of the article:

Edwards Bourbeau_2005_ImageSchemata.pdf (1005.4 KB)


I loved the performance but couldn’t find the article. I would love to read it. Here is an article on the topic of Image Schemas from a Clean Language perspective by my mentors. It is from this paper that I brought forward my remarks in the Cafe today. There might be more food for thought around these ideas, especially when we think about alternate ways of knowing and the fourth dimension. I hope we can develop these ideas in a future cafe. I would like to do something experiential around this research. Lakoff and Johnson say lots about this in Philosophy in the Flesh which might be worth studying in one of our emerging learning circles. Cognitive Linguistic has been hugely influential.


Ed’s link for the article worked for me. I’m not sure what the problem is, Johnny…

I’ll read yours with interest as well. I read a chunk of Philosophy in the Flesh - I don’t think I read the whole thing, though. It was a while back. I read Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, though, also way back (in my 30s!). I use the idea of conceptual metaphors in my own writing - for example, each of the trilogies of my five main protagonists is characterized by a different extended metaphor - all the adjectives used work within that metaphor. I’m not sure if the result is perceptible, but it is part of what makes writing fun for me to build in these kinds of approaches.


I got the link to work and look forward to this reading. An interesting strategy, Geoffrey, using extended metaphors in your fiction. I read a lot Cognitive Linguistics a decade ago but I find I am very suspicious of the strong reductive materialist bias in much of L & J. I am all for embodied cognition but am open to the notion that we have a subtle body ( as Sri Aurobindo makes clear) and a vital body and there is a lot going on besides what we have cognitive access to. I would like to update my understanding as there has been a lot of interesting developments since the first book.


I watched the video, read the analysis, then went back to the video and the aesthetic pleasure was enhanced. I was then drawn to listen to other performances of that aria, one that I dont know well, and so have had a very operatic morning! Thanks for sharing this excellent application of theory. I think there is considerable overlap in the way we use Image Schemata ( embodied schemata) in CL and I believe also that there are ways of studying metaphor that go beyond what L&J were up to. I will have to think more about that. I have a hunch that non-ordinary experiences of a mystic kind have a lot to do with breaking apart the container (in/out) construct and this is where language fails us. But we can use language in novel ways, rather than remain caught in the universal grid of human perceptual bias. We may still remain human and become more than human ( Supramental?) but with an enhanced capacity for registering other kinds of embodied Schematics. We can re-embody with a an awareness of other kinds of arrangements and set ups. We are no longer trapped in the top down dynamics of the hydraulics metaphor of Freud ( based on the steam engine).This is a bold claim I am making and I expect that tomatoes will be thrown at me but this is what Freud and Jung were arguing about as they were still in many ways stuck inside the Neo-Kantian container world view which denied us access to the thing itself. Sloterjdiik is still working through this impasse. We may find the Embodied Schema are habits rather than rigid archetypes forever beyond our reach or influence. If we are connected to the Field and hold our intentions and attention lightly we can go beyond the static and noise of our current Internet set up and expand our bandwidth as Lisa says. We are that which we are seeking. A self reflexive turn pops the bubble of our skin encapsulated ego. This usually is a startling experience to put it mildly, deeply suppressed by the mechanistic ( deficient mental) trend in lots of AI. And I am hopeful we can come up with something different.


Thanks, Johnny, for your thoughtful comments about the work that we did and its applicability. I have been thinking about the discussion we had in the Cafe yesterday about the War conceptual metaphor. One of the areas it is used is for dealing with disease (I was going to write “combatting disease” - it’s so insidious), but this is also not a great metaphor for that context. Also for soliciting funds in support of, for example, children’s disability programs, there is an unease with the language and approach used - it often focuses on sympathy for children “overcoming their limitations”, but the way to approach disability in children is to recognize their potential for autonomy not to focus on their disability. A change in conceptual metaphor would seem to be needed. One can identify several areas where such changes could be proposed and promoted, without going quite so far as Lisa’s “sex metaphor” !


I feel smile on my face when you point this out and I must say the smile is connected to a vast range of playful feelings of the absurd. And we can ( we dont have to) explore the absurd before we find a new tempo-rhythm that animates us. I once told a friend who was a student of Integral theory that unless you can sing and dance the theory it is irrelevant. It dont mean a thing if it aint go that swing! And that is what art does to us and what we do with art. Science can come along too. Most scientists do love art and music and need it as much as anyone else. Goethe of course was both! I sense it is the container metaphor that has made our encapsulated ego experience co confining. That is why I am so drawn to other topological figures.


I recall when I worked as an AIDS activist how the Medical Model dominated our organization, promoting the victim/patient metaphor and crushing ruthlessly any alternative views of non-war methodology. And I mean crushed. The need to monopolize is deeply entrenched ( us vs them) and we inherit a split personality. Empowering people when the consensus claims you are doomed is very, very challenging. But then some salmon do swim upstream! We must learn to choose our metaphors wisely for they have real world consequences.


What an appropriate word: “insidious”, for that’s what it is. There is hardly a domain that is not dominated by a military-war metaphorics. Add business, especially marketing, to the list, and, of course, sports … it goes without saying.

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I don’ t know if the chat shows up in the recording, but at any rate I thought it would be a good idea to provide the link that Lisa gave us to the article on Quantum Poetics in The New Atlantis.

For me, this piece was particularly interesting in light of what we talked about in our discussions of the Meru-work CCafé sessions. But, it is a very rich article and will provide a lot of food for thought for any one of us.