The Integral Philosopher- Jean Gebser and Time

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Only where the world is space-free and time-free, where "waring" gains validity, where the world and we ourselves--the whole--become transparent, and where the diaphanous  and what is rendered diaphanous become the verition of the world, does the world become concrete and integral." - Jean Gebser

"Time can present and Space allow a new kind of inquiry, revealing Knowledge in a light that illuminates the whole of being...When we shift our attention from what is given in experience to the way in which it is given, new facets of time, space and knowledge are revealed." - Tarthang Tulku

Time is a subject that dominates our modern lifestyle. We are always running "out of time," or getting there "just in time." Where does the time go? We never seem to have enough of it, and as the world speeds up and history appears to be occurring over night, we live in "exponential times" (as this video mentions, dated 2008. Notice that it's already dated in many ways). Jean Gebser, the European philosopher, noticed this phenomenon in his own time. He begins Ever-Present Origin with a cryptic remark that:

Either time is fulfilled in us--and that would mean the end and death for our present earth and (its) mankind---or we succeed in fulfilling time.

Will the rush of time consume humanity in a tidal wave of chaos beyond our control (time fulfilling us), or will we find a new way to perceive the nature of time---a new relationship to time that challenges us to transform ourselves (fulfill time)? What Gebser is speaking of is evolving our relationship to reality. It only appears that time is "escaping us" because our relationship with it is coming from a limited, or fragmentary nature. While I am a relatively new student to reading Gebser directly, I can already tell that a large portion of his book is aimed at understanding and critiquing the limitations of our modern, scientific/rational oriented society---and the need to break through some kind of metamorphosis in order to handle the complex changes that are occurring all over the world.

Gebser foresaw a Western crisis that we're experiencing now (and probably more so in the coming years). Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he was deeply optimistic about what could emerge from humanity. He foreshadowed the ecological-oriented worldview, as well as the complexity sciences of the 70's. Although such ideas are now over 40 years old, they aren't yet actualized. The world is still rushing forward in technological and industrial growth---a growth that's not going to be sustainable forever. In some sense, we are captured by our own ironic limitation of progress--unable to switch gears until the train is at the edge of the cliff. Gebser's book studies past civilizations and their worldviews, noting how each particular "structure" of consciousness (he called them "mutations") both helped and eventually limited a human society. Only through transforming our relationship to reality (time and space, inner and outer, etc) do we have a chance to rise above our own limitations. With all this in mind, it's a wonder why Gebser's work is not spoken about more today. In an age where human civilization seems to be bursting at the seams, Gebser's work is ever-more relevant.

So what about our contemporary Western civilization? Why not also the East? The Middle East? The West has a hold over the world in the same way that specific cultures and regions dominated others in ancient Empires (Rome dominated Europe, but there were plenty of cultures therein). By studying the West, we are studying the impact Western society has over the rest of the world (industrialization, scientific materialism, Hollywood, etc). For better or worse, the West is a major influence in the world, and studying its relationship to reality can help us understand the great strengths and critical weaknesses that may have lead us into a crisis like today's.


Modern Time, Birth of the West


Da Vinci's anatomy drawings


One of the central themes in Gebser's work is how a human society relates to time. Medieval Europe existed, like many pre-industrial cultures, in a cyclical sense of time. It was the eternal round. Cultures centered around the theme of time as a cycle (there are great examples in many mythologies: take for example the Yugas and the Mayan Calender). For modern consciousness, we experience time less like a dance and more abstractly. Modern civilization runs on clockwork time. When we stepped out of the eternal round and began measuring reality in terms of the Scientific Revolution (as well as the Renaissance) in "ratio," we began to break down the world, including time, into little bits or segments that can be weighed and precisely calculated. But time is more than the segments on a grandfather clock or the seconds ticking on the dial. Time has experiential qualities, just as the world does. Descartes "split" of mind and body embodies the split of the modern, rational mind.

Although Gebser considers our modern "rational" consciousness to be a deficient form of the "mental" structure, it's important to note that we can consider it to be a specific structure in its own right. Like previous "mutations" before (The Greeks and their shift from the mythic-round to the mental), the new worldview accompanied an explosive burst of culture and civilization. As Europe emerged from its dark ages, it helped set the stage for the state of affairs today. So we can see our cultural origins as birthed in this major shift--from mental to rational.

Our experience of time, like our experience of the world, is simultaneously enhanced and degraded. We no longer have a qualitative experience of reality---we live in a world of abstract mechanics and ratio. The power of "ratio" is its ability to break down reality into subsequent bits, controlled by a separated observer's will and intention. Spiritually speaking, many of the Traditions see the West as a vulgarization of culture: it has abandoned the sage and embraced the individual's ego as the ruler of society. Yet when our abstract and rational faculties are divorced from the other realities of life---our inventions can run away from us and we end up creating scenario's outside of our conscious control (Shelley's Frankenstein).

If our relationship to time running away from us--and overwhelming us--can change, then our civilization can make the transition into a healthier and more balanced state. At the level of complexity in the modern world, no single "structure" of consciousness will be adequate. A total revolution of the mind (to paraphrase Krishnamurti) will be necessary. Only a human being that has become aware of the Whole--within himself/herself---can respond to a world that demands that we respond with our Whole being.


Transformation of Time

So in the 20th century, we witnessed an explosion of war, invention, technology-run-wild. Much of it for good, but also much of it causing greater and greater crisis. Now it seems this exponential growth has lead us to the edge of Western civilization. The idea of progress and infinite economic and industrial growth has shifted from our strength to our deficiency. As long as we continue to perceive reality as a steady growth of progress---the faster reality will overwhelm us with our own projections. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, we witnessed an explosion of another kind of consciousness: an awareness that human beings are part of a larger ecological reality, the emergence of greater self awareness (Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions), and new scientific worldviews that were not based on breaking reality apart. To paraphrase James Lovelock on Gaia Theory: in addition to breaking down an organism to understand it, we should also develop a holistic science of studying living processes as they are whole.

Process-philosophy was initially thought of by Whitehead in the early 20th century, but it has since gone on to influence new scientific and cultural paradigms. Instead of perceiving the world in little "bits" of information, we can observe it as a series of interrelated activities. As Gilles Deleuze has said, there are no nouns, only verbs. That right there is a good indication of the general shift from seeing the world as a collection of objects in space, to a series of processes in time.

Another major indication of a new relationship to time is art. Gebser was keen to recognize that we can understand a society through its art, and often a transformation of culture occurs through a society's poets and artists.


Ghosts of Amsterdam


Gebser went into great detail in EPO (Ever Present Origin) about postmodern artists and their unique way of presenting time. I won't go into that for now, because I'd like to share more contemporary examples. Had Gebser lived to see the birth of the internet, and modern cultural memes like "Steam Punk" (A mashup of modern technology with the Victorian Age) or Twitter, I am fairly sure he would see this as an indication of a budding "integral consciousness." The world has a new relationship to time.

We can talk to anyone, anywhere instantaneously, world events are streamed as they occur, and while it is daytime here it is the middle of the night somewhere else. This dynamic and complex "all times and no times" is a unique experience, unlike anything previous generations have been raised in. Not only are we able existing in a kind of a-temporal world where time is no longer a straight line, but we are also able to "time travel" (see the blog: How to Be A Retronaut). Mashups of old videos from over 50 years ago are played alongside modern techno and psychedelic music. In the picture above, we can overlay places with photographs as they were in the past. The experience of time is becoming playful, dynamic, and interdependent.



We can go further back by acknowledging the impact that our scientific time (still based on ratio, but vastly more complex) dates the universe back over 14 billion years. Evolution itself is an "eruption" of time into modern consciousness, and its impact allows homo-sapiens to be aware of homo-neanderthalis or velociraptors. Michael Crichton's book and Speilberg's movie Jurassic Park is another example of these mashups of past and present.

So we find ourselves in a world that has, in some way, harvested all previous ages into our awareness, and further, our sense of time is becoming increasingly multidimensional if we look at quantum physics and string theory. Yet, the story is not over. As complex as our experience of time has become, we are still in a kind of "transitional" age---as the question of whether or not we have fulfilled time, or it has fulfilled us, is yet to be answered.


Science, Mysticism and Evolution


Medieval alchemical Auroboros.


We aren't at the other end of this cultural transformation, so at the moment we are still experiencing dissolution, eruption, expansion and contraction all at the same time (another testament to our new experience of time). Time is our tempest, and challenges us to come to know its true nature by encountering our deepest and most mystical self. As the complexity of the world and the eruption of time brings us to the very edge of our life, and subsequently our mortality (fear of death, existential angst of modern culture, and now fear of civilization's end as a whole)---we are encountering the unknown. When we come to the end of our whole life, we have an opportunity to encounter the Whole. Death brings us to the doorstep of the eternal, and what we are experiencing currently is the dissolution of our egoic-oriented, rational consciousness. A kind of initiatic experience in which one's life is engulfed by the immensity of Reality, and so we return as Reality.

These are all metaphoric descriptions for a transformation of consciousness that I believe Gebser was alluding to. Often when he speaks of integral consciousness, he is irritated with the inability of language to express something experiential. Integral is not abstraction. It is not a new system of ideas that everyone can agree on. It is a direct experience of "Presence." Not an eternal now, but a consciousness that supports all the multitudes of experience, all the different ways we can perceive time. This "ever-present" nature allows all passing experience to arise and fall within it. To me, this sounds surprisingly like the mystical experience of "satori," or how many Zen masters and Christian contemplatives describe the nature of reality---as being a movement from and within the Godhead. Gebser described this as the "ever present origin," the source of which all events and all worlds are born and die---and are redeemed in. That is why they are "integrated" (and that is why it's called integral consciousness), they allow for the various structures of consciousness to "do their thing" within a kind of supremely creative "alpha and omega." None of these words do it justice. It must be encountered.

I often wonder how Gebser perceived this consciousness would actualize itself. Did he believe that more people would awaken to this ever-presence in the world, generating a society of contemplatives? The idea sounds utopian. But perhaps we can say that rather than being some ideal future, we might be giving birth to a human society that at the very least, has moved past abstraction in favor of experience---and such a profound shift in its core might influence the arts, sciences and the way we live as a whole. In other words, we may be participating in a kind of shift from a society based solely on the observer and the observed, to a society that, at its core, acknowledges the spiritual present. For mysticism to find its way back to the center of society (as ancient civilizations did in their own way, they had a priestly elite), is an undertaking of great magnitude. I suspect it will be outside of any one movement's control. Rather it will (if it does) arise organically.

As science attempts to deconstruct reality to its utmost fragmentation, I believe that they will only be dissolving the separation between "self and other." As William Irwin Thompson aptly put:

science, in attempting to eradicate mysticism in a total extension of its power in all directions would dissolve into a universal mysticism.

Perhaps, then, we can see modern civilization as doing precisely this. As our industrial-technological society brings itself to the greatest heights, it might also experience a kind of transformative process in which we find ourselves inside out. This "shift" or enantiodrama is a more ancient understanding of time, the idea that cycles repeat and one thing leads into another---the serpent Auroboros bites his own tale. By consuming himself, he creates himself for the beginning of the next age.

Daniel Pinchbeck, a modern psychedelic writer and researcher, is also fond of Gebser. He too believes we need to incorporate different forms of knowledge, because scientific knowledge alone cannot help us in this transition. I believe Gebser would probably agree, but warn Pinchbeck that we need not adopt old forms of experiencing time in totality. That is regression. While ancient human societies lived in a kind of symbiosis with Nature and a greater, spiritual reality, we are not "returning" to that symbiotic state, but emerging into a new symbiosis that integrates all subsequent ages since the "archaic." We are not hunter-gatherer, agricultural, industrial or technological---yet all of these are converging upon the present and opening us up to Nature and the reality of Spirit in a new conscious return. What we are experiencing now, with all these times converging upon one another (look at all these movements: Traditionalists, Psychedelics, the return of Horticulture and advocating ancient lifestyles, the encountering of Amazonian tribes) reminds me of Teilhard's famous saying, "everything that rises must converge." So the different ages of the past are converging upon the present day.


The Mayan Calender


We have Terrence McKenna advocating the Archaic Revival and Pinchbeck promoting a return of the Mayan's sense of cyclical time. Perhaps we can understand this complex "revival" in a brain metaphor. Human intelligence is noted not for our large brains (whales have larger ones than us) but by our folds. When brain matter "folds upon itself" it allows for more complex interactions to take place---literally creating a platform for a new evolutionary plateau to be reached and subsequently continue to evolve from. Perhaps now, as all types of human societies are "folding upon each other" we are experiencing a kind of consciousness "fugue" in which a new human being---homo-"integer" is emerging.

When we play a symphony, we elevate the many parts into a greater and emergent whole (that is more than their sum). In the same way, the world is now playing a symphony in which we are about to allow a greater Whole to emerge. Think about the symbolic significance of this: we are not only converging all the various forms of human society that have previously existed, but through our awareness of biology, evolution, astronomy, etc----we are converging all aspects of the Earth itself (Perhaps this is why, intuitively, "Gaia" has caught on). Industrial civilization is both figuratively and literally consummating the past, as our off-shore rigs supply our cars and houses with the bodies of ancient life. Such a process is unsustainable, so we might consider that it is not only ancient life we burn up, but civilization, too, will eventually be consummated in a total convergence of time.

For some interpretations, this ties in directly with what Sri Aurobindo was talking about when he said that we are evolving from the merely rational and mental consciousness to the supra-mental, or gnostic consciousness. This mind is not tied to our local bodies and brains, but a Mind that is immanent to (and transcendent of) the cosmos.

By awakening to this Whole, Gebser describes our actions do not occur for the sake of our egoic selves, but "for the sake of the spiritual present." He writes:

"Thanks to the consciously realized irruption of simultaneity, today's way does not lead back into egolessness, but beyond egoity into ego-freedom. It is no longer a matter of being mystically overwhelmed or of absorption... but of the sober participation of sudden enlightenment (satori), the really invisible, which irradiates everything, becomes perceptible."

Gebser himself had a satori experience while doing a talk at Sarnath, the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon. This was later confirmed by D.T. Suzuki in private correspondence with him. Perhaps this explains some of the twinkling behind Gebser's style, the prose that are suddenly illuminated with a mystical vision, resounding more with the saints and sages than the intellectuals.

We do not know how this "integral consciousness" will emerge---nor if we will truly fulfill time through this new awakened "transparency" of consciousness. Civilization is still racing towards a crisis---but such a crisis might do us greater good than we can imagine. We can only speculate (for the moment) how ecological problems and an oil crisis might radically alter our sense of relationship with the world and ourselves. The internet, and this new global "culture" that appears to be emerging, is another factor that has yet to radically shift the direction. So it is safe to say the transition is only beginning to pick up, and the younger generations, raised in these new environments, will demonstrate new visions and encounter reality in ways we can't predict. Who knows what mysteries in both science and mysticism might unfold---eventually together perhaps. We do not need be naively optimistic, but certainly hopeful, as Gebser's vision for the world allows us to interpret the current crisis as the greatest opportunity for the human species. That such a global crisis is a spiritual one is not surprising. In fact, it is illuminating and allows us to engage in a form of practice, whatever it may be, in order to cultivate the spiritual Present in our lives, so that we live from that place of origin and not fragmentation, integrality and not abstraction. Perhaps this is how we may begin to live our lives "concretely."

To end with a poem that touches all of this in a way that none of these words could do, here is an excerpt from T.S. Eliot:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point,

the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance." - TS Eliot


This essay was originally published at Evolutionary Landscapes.

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  • Comment Link Giorgio Piacenza Friday, 27 January 2012 19:43 posted by Giorgio Piacenza

    Unified knowledge gain is atemporal. Fragmented knowledge gain is temporal. Unified knowledge gain has more depth and is capable of embracing span. Fragmented knowledge gain is shallow and can only embrace span with little 1st person-defined meaning. Through the former, we become aware and integrative of previous stages. Through the latter, we are possessed and (a la Kegan) don't know it.

    The internet has not helped a large percentage of German youths known what Aushwitz was. Neither do they care or are able to 'connect the dots' with the cultural ideals and expectations of their forefathers. A recent survey among youths in Perú showed that a great percentage weren't aware of the anti democratic cruelty and abuses committed by the 'Shining Path' terrorist-guerrillas...and these are events that only took place 15 years ago!

    While Integral Theory provides some of the answers to philosophy's 'dead end' stage and sheds light into the validity of behavior-defining (and otherwise competing and disjointed) ideologies and methods, those that recognize its value have been sufficiently capable of 'connecting the dots' that is, of connecting a progressive sequence of ideas and sentiments. They have been capable of becoming aware and of at least partially liberating themselves from FRAGMENTED KNOWLEDGE GAIN which, as suggested, is accompanied by Time having us.

    If we allow Time as a CONTEXTUAL EXPERIENTIAL OBJECT to possess our subjectivity due to the influence of high span and little depth promoted in the 'communication age' (rather than at the 'information age')we won't fulfill the evolutionary expectations of J. Gebser or of K. Wilber. Their message -true or not- won't matter enough. Our collective enactments will remain trapped in temporality instead of joining the universal corpus of atemporal knowledge called 'wisdom'.

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