by Gary Lachman
The German-born cultural philosopher Jean Gebser (1905–1973) was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. Yet because only some of his work has been translated into English, he is practically unknown outside of German-speaking countries. This is unfortunate. Gebser’s ideas about the “structures of consciousness” and his belief that we are experiencing the rise of a new form of consciousness, which he called the “integral,” offer some of the most fruitful insights into understanding the state of Western consciousness in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Although writers and thinkers such as Ken Wilber, William Irwin Thompson, Georg Feuerstein, Colin Wilson, Daniel Pinchbeck, and myself have discussed Gebser’s ideas in different ways (I write about him at length in A Secret History of Consciousness), Gebser’s name rings few bells among average readers. This isn’t surprising. Gebser comes out of the Central European intellectual tradition, the stream of Western thought that produced such important yet difficult philosophers as Georg Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jürgen Habermas—intensely stimulating thinkers all, but not noted for easy reading. Also, Gebser’s untimely death at the age of only sixty-eight meant that, for the most part, his influence was limited to his immediate circle. If a few readers of this article are inspired by it to tackle Gebser for themselves, I’ll consider its purpose fulfilled.
Those inspired readers will certainly face a demanding challenge. Gebser’s magnum opus, The Ever-Present Origin (first published in Germany in 1949 but not translated into English until 1984) is an immense, six-hundred-page exploration into an insight—a “lightning-like inspiration” as he called it—that first came to Gebser in Spain in 1931. This insight, that a new kind of consciousness was beginning to appear in the West, came to Gebser through his study of poetry, particularly that of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. As Gebser unraveled it, he soon saw that evidence for this new consciousness could be found in developments in science too. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more Gebser discovered signs of this new consciousness in practically all aspects of Western culture. For the next eighteen years, he gathered and organized his thoughts on what he called an impending “mutation” in consciousness, the most immediate manifestation of which was what he called the breakdown of the “mental-rational structure” of consciousness, the dominant “scientistic” rationalist reductive paradigm that has held sway over the West for the last few centuries. In 1949, when the first part of The Ever-Present Origin appeared—to be followed soon after by the second—Gebser had marshaled some of the most convincing arguments that a shift in Western consciousness was indeed taking place, and that its consequences would be felt by people of his and the following generations. In other words, us.
Gebser was born in Posen, in what was then Prussia, in a particularly pivotal year. In 1905, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity, and it was Einstein’s work, along with that of other thinkers and writers, that provided Gebser with powerful evidence for the peculiar shift in our “time sense” that characterizes the new “structure of consciousness” he saw unfolding. A few years earlier, in 1900, Sigmund Freud published his groundbreaking The Interpretation of Dreams. Other seminal developments occurred around the same time. The physicist Max Planck completed his theory of the quantum, which led to the overthrow of classical physics, and the philosopher Edmund Husserl established the foundations of phenomenology, the rigorous investigation of consciousness that would lead to existentialism. For a thinker whose work would focus on sudden shifts in the history of consciousness, Gebser certainly picked an auspicious year to be born.
By the time he was ten, all of Europe had erupted into the First World War, and Gebser’s childhood was filled with chaos and disruption. Early on, he had an experience that helped him deal with a world thrown into confusion. While at preparatory school, Gebser jumped from a high dive into a deep pool. He felt that the leap into the pool was also a leap into the unknown, and it was then that he lost his “fear in the face of uncertainty.” “A sense of confidence began to mature within me,” he wrote, “a confidence in the sources of our strength and being and in their immediate accessibility.” Gebser christened this confidence Urvertrauen, “primal trust,” a change from the Urangst, or “primal fear,” that characterizes much of our experience of life.
Gebser’s “primal trust” helped him negotiate many future leaps into the unknown. One occurred when he abandoned an apprenticeship at a bank for an uncertain career in literature. In his early twenties, Gebser started a literary journal and publishing company with a friend. Many of his first poems saw print then, and throughout his life Gebser continued to write poetry, finding in language a way into the mysteries of consciousness; it was also around this time that he discovered Rilke. The collapse of the Weimar Republic devastated Gebser’s family and provided yet another confrontation with uncertainty; they lost their savings and were brought to ruin, and Gebser himself felt the effect of the growing strength of Hitler’s National Socialism firsthand. It was Rilke’s vision of a state of being in which one could affirm everything—the “praise in spite of” embodied in the Angel of the Duino Elegies—that helped Gebser through this time and banished the thoughts of suicide that oppressed him. Yet by 1929, the campaign of political violence unleashed by Hitler’s Brown Shirts convinced Gebser it was time to make another leap.
For the next few years Gebser lived as a kind of European “internal exile,” moving about from Italy, back to Germany, then to Paris, then southern France, and finally settling in Spain in 1931. It was here, as noted, that his original insight into the “structures of consciousness” occurred, yet Spain too was only a temporary haven. These were the years when Generalísimo Franco’s fascists overthrew the legitimate socialist government, and in 1936, Gebser barely missed being killed when he left Spain for France just hours before his Madrid apartment was shelled. As it was, he was almost executed at the border. In Paris he moved among the artistic elite and became friends with many of them, including Pablo Picasso. But Paris was no home either. In August 1939, Gebser crossed from France into Switzerland two hours before the borders were closed; not long after, the Nazis marched through the Arc de Triomphe.
As it did for so many others, Switzerland proved a safe haven for Gebser, and it was here that he settled down to his life’s work. For the next thirty-three years, Gebser devoted his life to unpacking his ideas about the changes taking place in Western consciousness, lecturing, among other places, at the Institute of Applied Psychology in Zurich. Here he met and befriended the psychologist C.G. Jung, with whose work his own has much in common; this led to Gebser lecturing at the C.G. Jung Institute, and also to his becoming a familiar contributor to the annual Eranos Lectures held in Ascona, Switzerland, where his name became associated with those of other thinkers like Mircea Eliade, Gershom Scholem, Erich Neumann, Henry Corbin, and Jung himself, who presided over the gatherings.
After World War II, Gebser traveled, visiting India and the Near East, as well as North and South America. Although Gebser’s work is for the most part focused on the cultural and collective expressions of the current “mutation” in consciousness, in Sarnath, India, he had a mystical experience that moved him deeply. His “satori experience,” as he called it, was so profound that he was reluctant to speak of it; he kept it a secret until 1971, when he revealed it to his biographer and interpreter Georg Feuerstein. Gebser wrote to Feuerstein that it was a “transfiguration and irradiation of the indescribable, unearthly, transparent ‘Light.’” It was, he said, a “spiritual clarity, a quiet jubilation, a knowledge of invulnerability, a primal trust,” linking this new affirmation of life with his first, youthful leap into the unknown. After it, he felt “recast inwardly”: “Since Sarnath everything is in its proper place.” 
Like his early experience, the insight at Sarnath helped Gebser to deal with his growing ill health, a demanding workload, and the recognition that the West had moved again into a dangerous time of uncertainty. The Cold War was heating up, and Gebser was convinced that “the crisis we are experiencing today . . . is not just a European crisis.” It was “a crisis of the world and mankind such as has occurred previously only during pivotal junctures.” In 1966, Gebser’s health collapsed; asthma, which had troubled him throughout his life, worsened, and he was forced to curtail his travels and abandon new projects. He never fully recovered from an operation for a stomach complaint, but he continued to write and he was aware of the new interest in consciousness and spirituality that had arisen in the “mystic decade” of the sixties and early seventies. Speaking to a younger generation of readers eager to know more about different forms of consciousness and familiar with the work of Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin (two other thinkers concerned with the evolution of consciousness), in a preface to a new edition of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser wrote that “the principal subject of the book, proceeding from man’s altered relationship to time, is the new consciousness, and to this those of the younger generation are keenly attuned.” By the time Gebser wrote this, in 1973, ideas of a new consciousness had spread throughout the counterculture and the attempt to launch a new paradigm—known variously as the Aquarian Age, the New Age, the Aquarian Conspiracy, and other titles—had taken root. Gebser died the same year, convinced that a new kind of consciousness was being born. It would be a difficult labor, however, and there was no guarantee against miscarriage.
What is the new consciousness Gebser saw on the rise? Here it’s impossible to give more than a brief indication of what he spelled out in meticulous and fascinating detail in The Ever-Present Origin, and readers wanting a good introduction to his work should find a copy of Georg Feuerstein’s excellent Structures of Consciousness (Integral Publishing, 1987) or my own A Secret History of Consciousness. Gebser believed that consciousness has moved through four previous “structures,” each achieving a further separation and distinction from an atemporal, immaterial, spiritual source that he called “origin.” This is not a simple, temporal beginning, but an eternal “presence,” an “ever-present reality” that is by nature “divine and spiritual,” “before all time,” and “the entirety of the very beginning.” For readers who are already scratching their heads, I should point out that one of the difficulties in reading Gebser is that he unavoidably uses language based on our present consciousness structure to speak about types of consciousness that precede or transcend it. With this in mind, a comparison of Gebser’s “origin” with the “implicate order” of the physicist David Bohm may be helpful. Bohm’s “implicate order” is also an atemporal unity out of which our present universe of spacetime emerges, and the process of this emergence is rather like those Japanese paper pellets that, when dropped into water, unfold into various shapes. For Gebser, the “pellet”—“origin”— contains within itself, in a form of “latency,” the further consciousness structures that unfold over time. “Latency” is a central idea in Gebser, embodying the “demonstrable presence of the future.”
The first consciousness structure to unfold is the archaic. In essence, it isn’t appreciably different from origin. It is, Gebser says, “zero-dimensional,” being little more than the first slight ripple of difference between origin and its latent unfolding. Here consciousness is identical with the world; it’s a state of “complete non-differentiation between man and the universe.” Out of this, the magical structure unfolds. This doesn’t differ greatly from the archaic, but the separation from origin has increased. Where in the archaic structure there is identity between consciousness and the world, in the magical structure there is unity between them. At this stage, our ancestors lived in a kind of group or tribal consciousness, which was still strongly linked to nature. Gebser speaks of a “vegetative intertwining of all living things” during this stage, and he links Jung’s notion of “synchronicity”—“meaningful coincidence”—and the effects, aptly, of “magic” to this structure. Gebser makes clear that all of the previous consciousness structures are still present in consciousness today, and that the magical structure is at work in all experiences of “group consciousness.” Sadly, for Gebser, the most immediate expression of group consciousness were the Nazi rallies that drove him out of Germany, and today, many people who believe they are entering “higher” states of consciousness by receding into a “tribal” mode are actually simply sinking into an uncritical acceptance of the magical structure.
Out of the magical comes the mythic. Here consciousness achieves a further differentiation; it is characterized by polarity. Here for the first time appear yin and yang, earth and sky, male and female, space and time, and the other binary oppositions that constitute our experience. Here the “soul”—an interior, “inner space” in contrast to an external “outer” one—appears. Gebser associates this structure with the Greek myth of Narcissus, the youth who fell in love with his own reflection. The soul first sees itself “reflected” in the outer world in this structure, and the dominant mode of experience here is feeling, which is expressed through the ancient myths. Thought, as we understand it, had yet to appear.
This happens in the “mental-rational” structure, the next to arrive. Undoubtedly, by now readers are wondering exactly when these different “structures” appeared. Admittedly, Gebser is less than clear about dates. For the mental-rational structure’s earliest appearance, he suggests 1225 BCE; the previous structures, the archaic and the magical, reach far back, into our distant pre–Homo sapiens beginnings, and the mythic to around the time the earliest civilizations arose after the last ice age. While, as noted, all previous consciousness structures remain active, if obscured, in our present consciousness, the mental-rational structure is the one we are the most familiar with, given it is our own. In this structure, thinking as we understand it begins. Here the separation and differentiation from origin is complete. Consciousness—the ego—is on its own, and this is expressed in an increase in violence and a loss of community. Here the notion of “time” in a linear sense arrives. For the archaic and the magical, there is no time as we know it, only a kind of intermittent “now,” with long stretches of unconsciousness in between. For the mythic, there is the cyclical time we associate with the eternal round of the seasons, and the perpetual circling of the stars. With the mental-rational structure, “straight line” time appears, and with it a profound awareness of death. Needless to say, it’s out of the mental-rational structure and its ability to narrow its attention and focus on details in experience rather than participating in the whole—as the archaic, magical, and mythic structures do to different degrees—that science, with all its achievements and problems, arises.
Gebser argues that prior to the emergence of a new structure, the previous structure enters a “deficient” mode characterized by its breakdown; what had previously been a “credit” and an advantage now becomes a “deficit” and a handicap. Gebser believed that the mental-rational structure entered its “deficient” mode in 1336 AD with rise of perspective and the switch from the “two-dimensional” “embedded” vision of the world common in the Middle Ages (think of tapestry) to the acute awareness of distance and space embodied in the paintings of the early Renaissance (think of landscape paintings). Here, he believes, consciousness achieved its complete “liberation” from origin.
The “deficient” mode of the mental-rational structure reached its most radical extreme in the nineteenth century with the triumph of the rationalist-reductive paradigm mentioned earlier, and Gebser believed that throughout the twentieth century it was in the process of deconstructing itself. The clearest evidence for this, Gebser argued—aside from all the global problems we have inherited—was a profound change in our sense of time. As mentioned, he points to Einstein’s relativity as one example, but there are many more, taken from art, literature, philosophy, music, and other cultural forms. On a more mundane level, however, I can offer one example unknown to Gebser, in which time as we previously knew it has been abolished. Anyone who uses TiVo or listens to podcasts is no longer bound by the idea of a certain television program or radio broadcast being on at a certain time. The whole internet experience, in fact, has altered our way of thinking about both time and space. There is the constant “stream” of information, and nowadays, people “connect” over vast distances instantaneously; many of us have more “contact” with people on the other side of the planet than we do with our actual neighbors. On a less innocuous note, the many crises affecting us today—ecological, social, economic, political—can all be traced to the effects of the mental-rational structure of consciousness entering its deficient mode.
This breakdown, Gebser believed, was a kind of clearing away, a making space for the new consciousness structure, the “integral,” to arrive. As its name suggests, in this structure, the previous four structures are integrated. The integral structure is characterized by what Gebser calls an “aperspectival” awareness, a transcending of the “perspectival” in the same way as that was a transcending of the “pre-perspectival.” In the integral structure, origin becomes perceivable, the spiritual “concretized,” and the “uncreated light” manifest. Gebser’s Sarnath insight, in which he experienced satori, is an example of what he means by the integral structure of consciousness. As with all shifts from one structure to another, the transition is by no means guaranteed, and the experience, both individual and collective, is traumatic. Recent developments in the world economy, brought about by the short-sighted greed for immediate gain associated with the deficient mental-rational mode, would have only convinced Gebser that he was right.
This brief summary is light years away from doing Gebser’s ideas justice, and I can only hope that it motivates some readers to seek him out for themselves. He is difficult, but then so is anything of value. To my mind The Ever-Present Origin presents some of the most convincing evidence that at the present time, the West—the entire planet, in fact—is facing a perilous leap into the unknown. It also suggests ways in which we can make that leap, as Gebser did, with primal trust.
1 Quoted in Gary Lachman A Secret History of Consciousness (Lindisfarne: Great Barrington, MA, 2003) p. 223.
2 Ibid. p. 229–30.
3 Ibid. p. 230.
4 Ibid. p. 236.
5 Ibid. p. 239.