"Gebser was a brilliantly intuitive intellectual mystic..." (via William Irwin Thompson)

I’ve been thinking about our first Winter of Origins Hangout, and with many of us coming from the integral, spiritual, and transpersonal psychology communities – especially Wilber – I felt it would be appropriate to be transparent myself about my own thoughts considering Integral Theory and KW. This quote, took from William Irwin Thompson’s Coming Into Being, distinguishes Wilber from Gebser as two entirely different worlds but also does a good job introducing Gebser for the new reader.

I realize I’m cauterizing some wounds here, via this quote, but it felt wrong to go into Week 2 without proper context. Coming from an Integral Theory background, as some of us might, we may be tempted to aggregate Gebser or look to his writings to affirm KW and later works, but as this quote decidedly expresses, and as I also feel, it is best to cut down to the root and let something new grow.

Gebser is not Wilber, and, arguably, returning to Gebser clears the space for new scholarship.

But what are your thoughts? Read on. Let me know.

From William Irwin Thompson’s Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness. pg. 12 – 14. Bold highlights are mine.

"There is another genius who wrote on the evolution of consciousness who can be of use here to help us understand our contemporary predicament as a choice between evolution and dissolution: the German turned Swiss cultural historian Jean Gebser. A refugee from Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany, Gebser was a brilliantly intuitive intellectual mystic with a profound understanding of poetry and art. Right in the middle of the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and the descent of Europe into the Second World War, he had an intellectual vision of the evolution of consciousness that anticipated and excelled the whole New Age and the new paradigm thinking of the 1970s. Gebser was a friend of Frederico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Picasso, and his understanding of culture is based upon a deep feeling for specific works of poetry and art. But his high cultural European approach to the evolution of consciousness makes it difficult for Americans to appreciate his work. We have so replaced culture with psychology, psychotherapy, and simplistic workshops on how to fix the depressive flats of our lives that we prefer the compulsive mappings and textbook categorizations of Ken Wilber to the poetic insights of Jean Gebser. Wilber seeks to control the universe through mapping, and the dominant masculinist purpose of his abstract system is to shift power from the described to the describer. As an autodidact from the Midwest, Wilber wants to promote himself as “the Einstein of the consciousness movement” and so he is announcing a trilogy of thousand page tomes that will explain everything once and for all. This form of scholarship is really a mode of psychic inflation and self-magnification; it is a grand pyramid of systems of abstract thought, piled on other systems of abstract thought, with Wilber’s kept for the top. Never does one come upon a feeling for the concrete, a new look at an individual poem, a painting, or a work of architecture. Gebser, in contrast to Wilber, is the genuine article, a grand European thinker with a grand vision, but one who comes upon his general insights through a loving attention for particulars: through an understanding of the role of adjectives in the poetry of Rilke, the resurgence of a prehistoric matriarchy in the surrealistic line drawings of Garcia Lorca, the meaning of an ancient Chinese mask that has no mouth, or the social significance of the lack of perspective in the paintings of Picasso…

…Gebser’s narrative is one of structural transformations of consciousness, a Bewustwerdung prozess

…Gebser’s five structural mutations of consciousness should not be read as static stages of levels in a linear progression; they are processual transformations. His Eurocentrism derives not from any imperial contempt for other cultures but from the fact that he was a political refugee with severely limited funds trying to flesh out his intuitive insights with the books that were at hand as he worked in the center of Europe, in Bern. Like McLuhan, Gebser holds out a visionary possibility for a transformation of consciousness in which the degenerative returns to the magical and the deficient efforts to recover the mythical are overcome in the quantum leap to the integral. In trying to understand this new level of global consciousness, Gebser became interested in the Zen philosophy articulated by D.T. Suzuki and the integral yoga of the Indian evolutionary philosopher Sri Aurobindo."


Some raw feelings about this, I remember reading that quotation in a bookstore long ago and decided not to buy the book because I was following Wilber and didn’t want to get more confused than I already was. I had read Thompson before and have read him more recently and enjoyed your interviews with him Jeremy. He is a very good writer. It is easy to take sides with Thompson against Wilber now that there has been a clear decline in Wilber and there is I sense a bit of professional envy in Thompson’s condescension towards those who liked Wilber as I did at that time. Wilber has had a decline and Thompson has had a rise. His Lindisfarne community was very interesting and aspired to be a lot of things that it didn’t quite pull off but was brilliant. And Wilber had a few sparks too. But I also admit I read a nasty homophobic remark in an earlier book by Thompson rubbed me the wrong way. It is very painful when you are looking for loopholes and a person you admire says something stupid and demeaning about a group of people, who were so seriously under siege. It is to his credit that Thompson changed a lot and would never say that now what he said then. And it is true that the pie charts and color codes are pretty but become a bore after awhile. I have heard it all so many times, and the WIlberian’s drag around there maps like security blankets.I have said that it seems to me a hyper modernist fantasy that targets the vulnerable. I know that I was one of the vulnerable. Many of us have done our shadow work and are ready to get on with it. I am looking forward to the new alliances that this current study might produce. and that we can bring some fresh perspectives to these shifting cultural landscapes.


Thanks Johny, and thanks for this piece. The part of Thompson’s writing that rang a bell for me was his observation about Ken’s work: “Never does one come upon a feeling for the concrete, a new look at an individual poem, a painting, or a work of architecture. Gebser, in contrast to Wilber, is the genuine article, a grand European thinker with a grand vision, but one who comes upon his general insights through a loving attention for particulars” I owe a debt of gratitude to Wilber’s maps and his genius. They helped to organize a lot of disparate ideas. Yet, it seems true that the system lacks the kind of granularity that Gebser uses in his analysis of art, poetry, and other cultural artifacts. I suspect there is room for both.


I agree that “there’s room for both” Wilber and Thompson. I’ve learned from both: Wilber’s synthesis and maps as well as Thompson’s poetic “mind jazz” approach. Is there any doubt that those in the study group from a Wilber background would have the critical discernment to clearly see the distinction between Gebser’s style and content and Ken’s once we actually read Gebser?


My own educational philosophy can be summed up thus: there are two primary learning experiences that we humans have: ah-ha and oh-shit, the latter being more prevalent, at least in my personal experience. Having said that, however, there is a corollary to this principle that should never-ever be overlooked: you can learn from everything and everybody.

Fortunately, I missed the “integral wars” in American academia, and I was most deeply formed by my taking a degree at a German university many, many winters ago. Everything I had done before that was prep work, everything since a footnote, and it was against this backdrop that I encountered Gebser, whom Thompson describes very well. It was also in reading RG Collingwood’s Autobiography that I realized there is more to be learned from one’s “opponents” than from one’s compatriots. There are far more opportunities for oh-shits, and we learn from them most quickly (whereby the ah-ha’s are more long-lasting).

Nevertheless, and I think Gebser would agree, each of us approaches our learning from our own personal history, and our personal histories are determined by our nature (our genetic inheritance), our nurture (our upbringing and socio-cultural environment), and our nativity (when and where we popped into this reality). Most of us (at least I wasn’t) brought up to hang out with folks we don’t particularly like, but there’s a lot to be said for it.

What Gebser offers, and I believe it may be one of the reasons that he may be much less known, is the opportunity to engage a different space-time, one that is not designed as therapy but is therapeutic, one that is not specifically intellectual but exceedingly stimulating, one that is linguistically rich, often poetic, but is not literature in an everyday understanding of the term. Most importantly, for me, at any rate, is Gebser’s offer to get beyond time, and to do so, you have to take the time to get there, meaning, at least in part, that he’s an exceedingly slow read. We need to slow down our reading, and our thinking about our reading, and this has been a particular issue for scholars (as well as everyone else) for quite some time (well, as long as I’ve been around, which is as long as the EPO).


It would be pretty sad if we didn’t have room for both Gebser and Wilber. I mean, what would it say if that’s where we drew our lines?

The problem is, we just don’t have much historical distance from Wilber to see clearly what his enduring contributions to philosophical thought really amount to—versus what has been merely provocative in our cultural phase of the last 10-15 years.

I suspect that in a generation or two scholars will still be reading Wilber and finding value in concepts such as the Four Quadrants and Integral Methodological Pluralism and other ideas, whereas other formulations—and certainly much of the drama generated by the ‘integral community’ that aggregated around him—will have faded from interest.

That said, Gebser’s “deep feeling for specific works of poetry and art” is certainly my preference compared to the totalizing tendencies of the AQAL Matrix. (William Irwin Thompson’s points hit the mark, IMO.) But perhaps it’s just that, a preference, a matter of taste. Others may prefer abstract matrices and 24-dimensional cubes. To each his own! But certainly a sensitive mind can appreciate both—the “left hand” and “right hand” paths; or what @Jeremy and I discussed in terms of poetics and pragmatics—and learn to fluidly move between them.

I do however feel a pull in the meta-jazz of my own consciousness, and in our wider cultural circles, to explore the left-hand, poetic, particular paths much more deeply and actually listen for what they want to tell us—before any a priori mapping or pinpointing on a grid—and Gebser seems to me, now, a more suitable guide to those deeper dimensions of feeling, thought, and potentiality.

What I’m not interested in is the snide underbelly of the Wilber critique I’ve sometimes witnessed on Facebook and in other forums, which often strikes me as mean-spirited, too personal, and not actually thoughtful, original, or creative. I think we can discuss the limitations of Integral Theory—and even criticize Wilber on political and social grounds, if warranted—while still appreciating other aspects of his work, without which, it bears remembering, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation!


I was composing my reply as you were yours, ED.

Just want to highlight this point of yours…

I highlight this because I had an “oh-shit” realization last night while reading, that there’s no way we’re going to be able to truly read this book in a couple months. :worried:

On the other hand, there’s nothing to say we can’t continue the reading and discussion as long as it takes to fully absorb the riches of the text, which might take quite some time indeed…an “infinite conversation,” as it were. :sunglasses:


yes. not possible to read (and absorb) 70 pages per week.
I noticed that in the intro hang-out, the most critical of points in the text were not even addressed. (I am not sure whether people simply missed them, or whether the “get to know you” aspect superseded the conversation about the text, but…) it seems hard to move on without establishing a basic foundation for understanding and discussing Gebser’s work.
(I am a big big Gebser fan. LOVE him)
For example. Gebser makes it very clear that the integral isn’t exactly about getting “beyond” time.
For Gebser, time is a “quality and an intensity” rather than “a system of measurable relationships,” so it isn’t getting away from the concept of time as much as it is shifting the conceptual relationship with time.
He states that “either time is fulfilled in us”(we self-destruct) or “we succeed in fulfilling time” (we learn to creatively mutate and create a new future). we have no other choice really. if we don’t outlive the crisis of humanity, the crisis will outlive us. and, who KNOWs what is meant to happen? not me. :wink:
In addition, it is important to remember that this shift is already happening. It was already happening when he wrote the book. It was already happening before he was born.
(We are just becoming aware of it, some of us faster than others.)
He states that the conception of his work here occurred in 1932 (80+ years ago!) and the mathematical shifts that he referred to were happening in the late 1880’s, maybe earlier.
so. the Integral state of consciousness is already present and manifesting.
Part of the problem for humanity is that because it is still taking shape (and WILL BE FOR OUR LIFETIME AND BEYOND) we must learn to live in the not-knowing and uncertainty.
THIS is the hardest part.
In addition, moving into an integral consciousness does not mean leaving all other (modes? as someone suggested) behind? It means using the gifts (efficient phase qualities) of those modes as we move further into the future. As technology increases, we need to increasingly rely on previous ways of knowing in their efficient aspects. This requires us to understand what the efficient/deficient aspects of each phase entail, and what are the signs of their manifestation so we can move out of “deficient modes” of functioning.
anyway. hope to meet up next week at the hang-out~ best~


The main difference between Gebser and Wilber, in terms of the “stages”/“structures” issue, is primarily due to a difference on the subject of mutation. Gebser sees each structure as a mutation from the previous one, whereas with Wilber, new stages can be attained through a personal, integrated spiritual life practice which “softens the soil” by introducing newer states of consciousness.

I don’t necessarily see these two views as conflicting. Here let me quote a bit from my upcoming book “The Secular Gods”:

“Jean Gebser in his masterpiece “The Ever-Present Origin” describes how the myth of Zeus devouring Metis is indicative of the creation of the mental structure of consciousness (one of five which Gebser identifies as being present in human history):
‘This event is recorded in the myth of the birth of Athena, and its imagery and allusions are unmistakable. Zeus has wedded Metis, the personification of reason and intelligence, who, being one of the daughters of Oceanus…had the power of transforming herself. Fearing the birth of a son more powerful than he, Zeus devours Metis, who is already pregnant with a daughter, thereby transporting her into his own body. When Hephaestus…splits Zeus’ head with an axe, this daughter, Athena, is born…the sea surges forth, and Olympus and earth—until that moment polarly related—tremble and shake; the carefully preserved balance is destroyed; even Helios interrupts its course. The circle is indeed interrupted, and, from the breach, the wound, a new possibility of the world emerges. (Gebser, 1985, pp. 75).’
In this regard, events which occur in myth are not merely the mercurial play of the psyche, but also have effects regarding the development of human consciousness. Of course, Gebser is hesitant to call the process of attaining new structures of consciousness one of “development,” fearing for the western biases of the term, and instead promotes the term “mutation.” It is here that his more contemporary reader and interpreter, Ken Wilber, departs from Gebser, and instead proposes a model of human development based upon these stages. With Wilber’s model however, sensitivity is perceived as a threat to this development of the integral millennial human being, given the threats posed by our impersonal postmodern world, and thus a stage is sandwiched in between Gebser’s mental (Wilber’s rational stage) and the integral stage, known as the “green meme” stage. Thus for Wilber, sensitivity and pluralism, the defining aspects of this “green meme” stage, are seen as hindrances rather than evidences for attaining the integral structure of consciousness.
But Gebser’s emphasis on mutation is important not to overlook. It is inescapable to link this notion with evolutionary theory, as mutation has an essential role in common with natural selection and adaptation. My position is one of synthesis between the opposing views of Gebser and Wilber. Mutations occur, but they must be developed and practiced in order for new, more efficient structures of consciousness to emerge. Consider the development of the musical instrument and one will have a ready example of a seemingly extraneous mutation leading to the development of human consciousness. But the techno-magical process of creating musical instruments is itself a practice and an art which requires refinement and mastery. Thus it is imperative that humans practice and hone all of our mutations, at both the individual and collective level, as it leads to the attainment of new structures of consciousness (which can also be viewed as successive stages of development).”

Please let me know what you think.


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I had seen this statement from Thompson before. It is very opinionated to write in such a non-appreciative way: “compulsive mappings and textbook categorizations of Ken Wilber,” “Wilber seeks to control the universe through mapping,” “Wilber wants to promote himself ‘the Eistein of the consciousness movement’,” “anouncing a trilogy of thousand page tomes that will explain everything once and for all,” “This form of scholarship is really a mode of psychic inflation and self-magnification,” “a grand pyramid of systems of abstract thought, piled on other systems of abstract thought, with Wilber’s kept for the top”—all of these words are definite misrepresentations of Wilber’s work, not to mention their being an unwarranted ad hominem and toxic attack. I can only assume that Thompson’s shadow was seriously triggered. It is important to recognize that he wrote this on his bad day.

To summarize, it is disrespectful and doesn’t reflect Wilber’s works at all. As it is generally the case, it rather reflects some parts of the author of the statement—it reflects more the describer than what he describes.

My experience has been (and I’m guessing it’s going to be similar in this online reading just as it was in my face-to-face reading group in the mid-90s) that we’re all going to go to the hangouts with the best of intentions, but we’ll never know where we’re going to end up. Gebser’s is too intense a presentation to hold it still. (I like to say you never really read Gebser, you always start reading him.) The get-to-know-one-another will be necessary as long as new faces pop up at the sittings, and I enjoyed hearing (I wasn’t there personally) what others’ intitial reactions to Gebser was, aside from the fact that some had dealt with EPO extensively and others hadn’t cracked the binding yet.

The atemporal or achronic to which you refer, and this is the reason for my response, are, as I think I understand them, describe our total, not just conceptual, realtionship to time. What I mean by that is that it is “more” than conceptual, it is also vitally experiential, undergone-experiential, conceptual, and veritional (and it’s quite obvious we don’t yet have all the words we need to describe it).

A language-based side note: in German, there are two notions for “experience”: there is erleben/Erlebnis and there is erfahren/Erfahrung. As we only have one English word, Barstad/Mikunas went with “vital experience” and “undergone experience” which well capture the flavor of what we find in the German. Erleben, is a derivitive of the verb leben, “to live”, hence the vital aspect. Erfahren is a derivitive of the verb fahren, “to drive, ride”, hence the difference is character to erleben.

In the hangout, Jeremy read a passage from Gebser that deals with what you are highlighting, I believe (on p. 285, second full paragraph), which describes quite vividly all the facets of time that we must deal with in an integral way. He says, just prior to this (first full paragraph, p. 284),

The concept of time is only an inceptual motif for the awakening consciousness of the aperspectival world. [...] What is prepared for is more than mere concept of "time"; it is the achronon, or time freedom, a freedom and liberation from every temporal form.
It would seem we have our work cut out for us, and, as you aptly point out, not-knowing and uncertainty play an important role, but it wouldn't be an adventure without them now, would it?

As I understand Wilber and what you describe of him – for I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not completely up-to-speed on what he’s been up to – strikes me that he believes that there are certain things you can do at certain times and in certain ways to get from one stage to the next. (And please correct me, if I have misunderstood). In other words, there is a spatial backdrop to Wilber’s model.

As you aptly and importantly point out, the notion of “mutation” plays a very important role in Gebser’s approach. He also expends a good amount of effort, right at the beginning of Chapter 2 (pp. 36ff.) detailing why he went with"mutation" rather than any of the other notions that were available to him. In the same vein, I would hasten to add that he also expends a lot of energy detailing why he went with the notion of “structure” rather than any of the other notions that were available to him (in the same section of Chapter 2, towards the end, p. 42f.). While many Gebser-interpreters have missed this point, I believe it is essential to keep it wakefully in mind.

In my own mind, all these structures are always present whether we are aware of them or ware them or not. Jeremy Strawn gives us a good inkling, I believe, of how this functions in his talk at the most recent Gebser conference. Perceiving the structures as stages, which is very easy to do, undoes a lot of what Gebser was getting at. We (post)moderns (or whoever we happen to think we are) have all of them in us, some most fully developed and some exceptionally nascent. The structures are never overcome, as Gebser never hesitates to remind us, nor are they discarded once they are fulfilled, but they may become unconscious; that is, they make sink beneath the surface of our waking consciousness. In such cases, we are called upon to penetrate into that unconscious in order to reawaken (resurrect?) them, and integrate them into our everyday being. In other words, mutations, even the so-called “previous” mutations, “must be developed and practices in order for new, more efficient structures of consciousness to emerge”, particularly, I would add, in regard to the mutation through which we are currently living.

Just my 2-cents’ worth. Good job, though.

mutations occur as radical shifts that are neither seamless not smooth. That is why they are not described by Gebser as evolutionary in the sense that there are recognizable steps that unfold. This “irruption” into consciousness appears as a wounding (Eliade speaks of this quite a bit).
The mythic piece of this also appears in the numerous abduction motifs in myth~ The journey to the underworld (dark sea journey/ the night sea Journey described by St John of the Cross) is a plunge into the unknown (the unconscious as it were), where the wayfarer must learn to traverse the darkness and bring back the gift.
Returning to Buddhist thought, the Buddha arriving now is the collective Buddha (Maitreya), the Sangha. The only way to this place psychologically is through the path of individuation, an individual integration and embracing of the and/both.
My intuitive understanding of Wilber is that he did not have enough background information (in the same way that Thompson did) to adequately understand the deeper mythic associations inherent in Gebser’s work.
Wilber’s work certainly has value, and certainly reflects the Western perspective; unfortunately, it also reveals exactly what is incomplete and sorely lacking in that one-sided view.

I am also thinking of neuroscience and the theories around neural pathways (cherodes). when trauma occurs, the trajectory or path is significantly jarred, causing the information to shift into new pathways. I see this as equivalent to the jolt (irruption) required to shift collective consciousness as well.
C. G. Jung states that there is no coming to consciousness without pain, without a necessary humbling of the ego which keeps us rigid in our mental structures and unable to mutate or expand into an even greater consciousness.
we are all trying to be with this process, in whatever way we are able to do that. I will have to read Wilber when we are finished, and because I haven’t read him, it is hard to know how he interprets or utilizes Gebser’s thought really.
I don’t see Thompson’s critique of him coming from a place of ego really, but more from a more comprehensive understanding of the (historical/psychological/cultural/mythic) factors that went into Gebser’s thought to begin with~
OF COURSE… I might be entirely wrong about this as well~ x

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like this very much, and understand through a similar lens~

Great points here, @AriAnnona.

I think Gebser refers to time’s truest – or more intensified / verition – aspect as the achronon, or time-freedom. This would allow us to be in multiple modes of experience. As I quoted in the first hangout, that beautiful passage via Gebser where he describes time as duration, motoricity, timelessness. etc. This strikes me as one of the most important take-aways from reading EPO in my mid-20s, and something I’m revisiting now as I consider contemporary works of artwork, especially digital art, as well as thematic presentations in contemporary cinema (Interstellar for instance, exploring the idea of the future, higher-dimensional self reaching ‘back’ from another sense of time). It would seem that this form of understanding and being-in-time constitutes all the other experiences of time; it doesn’t break away from them but is revealed to constitute them and then envelop them in a higher order of being.

See you on the next hangout, maybe!

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Beautiful response Johnny. I too was both intrigued and repulsed by Thompson’s writing. You do see an internal struggle of ego versus inspiration in Time Falling Bodies. I felt his impugning of what he decided was “feminism” was ill-informed. But on the same token his insights on the Divine Feminine were something to behold. Like any great thinker he can be a bit of a puzzle.


I like that Jeremy. I am not sure how I perceive the time issue nor how I understand Gebser perceiving it yet. I am doing a bit of writing about time, and how conceptual understanding of it HAS changed/ speeded up. I think his thought that time is a “quality” based rather than “a unit of measuring quantity” makes it more transparent to the necessity of recognize meaning in each moment we are given. will have to think on these things a bit~

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Thanks Ed, your point about having to slow down with Gebser is true to my experience as well. I find that when I do I am rewarded. I know that this is just my first time through the book. There will be others.