The Shape of Consciousness: A Review

The addition of C.S. Holling’s “Adaptive Cycle” to the discussion, along with the revelations of Iain McGilchrist’s neurodynamics described in The Master and his Emissary, have added a new dimension to the exploration of “consciousness structures” and their evolution. It would seem that a review of the material covered in The Chrysalis so far is in order, not only to integrate this new material into the discussion of consciousness structures, but also to brief new subscribers to the blog who may be puzzled as to what The Chrysalis is about.

So, let’s refresh our memory of what it means to be “modern”, or what Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin described as the “mental-rational consciousness structure” or the “perspectivist” consciousness now in the process of disintegration. And after this, it will be seen also what it means to be “post-modern” or even “trans-modern”.

Briefly once again, the beginnings of perspective perception, or the first attempts at the intellectual mastery and representation of space conceived in three dimensions, lie with the 14th century Italian artist Giotto, (1266 – 1337) who is considered the first in the line of the great Renaissance artists. But it takes another century before Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) articulate the mathematical axioms for the construction of the proper ratio of spaces for the undistorted representation of three dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, followed by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) who fully perfects and fully applies the laws of perspective. What began as an intuition with Giotto is consummated in da Vinci (with important contributions from the German artist Albrecht Dürer, 1471 – 1528) and becomes fully articulated and explicit, for which reason da Vinci is remembered as the quintessential “Renaissance Man”.

The re-imagination of space by the Renaissance artists is antecedent to the Scientific Revolution (Copernican heliocentrism (1473 – 1543), Galilean “Ideal Space” (1564 – 1642)) suggesting that the Renaissance artists provided the intellectual framework, technique, and mode of perception for thinking about anything whatsoever — perspectivism and the point-of-view. and that this new structure of consciousness and method of perception is formalised by Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) as his “wondrous strange method”, and finally enshrined in his formula, cogito, ergo sum.

Da Vinci’s representation of the perspectivising eye as a pyramid,

da Vinci: The Pyramid of Vision

da Vinci: The Pyramid of Vision

becomes in Descartes the shape of consciousness and the pattern of reason itself, in Descartes’ own illustration of his metaphysical dualism,

The Cartesian "cogito" illustrated by Descartes

The Cartesian “cogito” illustrated by Descartes

This pattern subsequently becomes the emblem of the Illuminati — the Enlightenment philosophers — as the pyramid of vision and as being the normative shape of consciousness, and which is still found on the American dollar bill,

Perspectivism: The Dialectical Consciousness

Perspectivism: The Dialectical Consciousness

This triadic structure is not only established as the normative shape of consciousness and reason, but also provides the blueprint for the reorganisation of reality, philosophy, and of society. And this is the shape of consciousness that Blake denounces as “Single Vision & Newton’s sleep”. This same pattern or shape of consciousness is what Blake reveals in his portrait of his false god “Urizen” and Urizenic Man in the form of Isaac Newton,

Urizen -- Architect of the Ulro, "Ancient of Days"

Urizen — Architect of the Ulro, “Ancient of Days”


Blake's "Newton"

Blake’s “Newton”

This “shape” or form of consciousness, which Gebser calls “the mental-rational” or “perspectivising” and which is presumed to be the human form in terms of a hierarchy of functions, and it was against this self-understanding that the “Romantic revolt” more or less consciously objected. This shape is what I’ve referred to as “point-of-view-line-of-thought” consciousness. The “ratio” that informs rationality is presumed to be, by establishment, a ratio or proportion of spaces — length, width, depth or reality conceived in three dimensions only. This structure is the implicit form of modern thought, even in terms of dialectics – thesis and antithesis resolved in a higher synthesis.

So, along comes Mr. Einstein who says “Duh! Boys, you’ve forgotten to include time in your ratio. This isn’t a three dimensional universe. It’s a “four dimensional” universe”. Oops. That vast wasteland outside the parameters of the pyramid? That’s mostly time. It’s actually anything that does not lend itself to perspectivisation or rationalisation and which are, in McGichrist’s terms, the mode of attention of the left-hemisphere of the brain only.

A lot of people had (and still have) diffculty with Einstein’s four dimensional universe and time because the received logic, which is dyadic and triadic and is this perspectivising pyramid shape, is by default the “common sense”. While the logic seems to work in some circumstances, it doesn’t seem to work in all circumstances which, unfortunate for the ideal and presumption of “Universal Reason”, means that “reason” isn’t as universal as was assumed. And that is as much as to say that what perspectivism and the “cone of vision” amounted to was a self-limitation on the possibilities of fuller awareness. In consequence, the recieved logic or “modern mind” is quite incapable of coping with a multivariate and larger reality, and this results in anxiety and paranoia and even the sense of being on the brink and the edge.

Gebser has largely linked the “deficiency” of the mental-rational or perspectivist consciousness to lack of awareness of time and the meaning of time. Related to that is the reification of the “point-of-view” which is the ego-consciousness or the self-interest and which has become “culture of narcissism” by virtue of its reification. Universal Reason as egocentric consciousness deliberately excluded time from its “ratio” because it wanted to be timeless, deathless, omnipotent, unchangeable, immutable and, in short, immortal and permanent, and it wanted to construct a world in its image — the “end of history” and the Anthropocene are the result of that, images of its own narcissism which correlates with the “empathy deficit” precisely because of the reification of the point-of-view in the self-interest principle, which is isolation, dissociation, disconnection and, in those terms, disintegration.

In Gebser’s terms, then, the perplexification of the modern mind is largely the consequence of the irruption of time (even in terms of Seth’s “ancient force”) into this structure of consciousness that had suppressed and ignored it, throwing it into disarray, perplexity, confusion, bewilderment, but also ultra-conservative, reactionary denialism. Urizenic Man’s fear of time and change and the energetic flux was amply illustrated by conservative Winston Churchill’s vain boast that the sun would never set on the British Empire for a thousand years (even as it was falling apart) and Hitler’s equally vain boast of a Thousand-Year Reich. Both were gone in a few short years.

It is principally this irruption of time that has stimulated the quest for a new transformed or transfigured logic or new consciousness compatible with a four dimensional universe. The time element is the outstanding feature of all the successful new fourfold or quadrilateral logics. Time-sense is an interpretation of the energetic flux, or of processes and events rather than things, objects, and positions; dynamis rather than stasis. And what that means is that the 2500-year old spell that Parmenides, the Philosopher of Being, cast over the mind is being dispelled, and it is his philosophical foe, “Heraclitus the Dark”, the Philosopher of Becoming, or the paradox and of the energetic flux, that now has the last laugh. And that is revolutionary. In McGilchrist’s terms, Parmenides and Heraclitus would be representatives of the left and right-brain hemispheres, or the second and first attentions, or “emissary” and “master”.

The ascent of a new consciousness structure is never an easy matter. As someone once put it, times of major transition are as comfortable as “sitting on the edge of a razor”. I’ve already mentioned a few times Arthur Miller’s book Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl JungYou can learn a great deal about “chaotic transition” from reading the inner struggle of the quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli as he tries to make sense of his world and the transition from the cosmic number “3” to the cosmic number “4”.

Therein lies the significance of the new logics, such as Holling’s “adaptive cycle”, Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”, or indeed William Blake’s “fourfold vision”. Time and the energetic flux are the most prominent features of the new logics. New faculties, new senses and organs of perception are required to handle such a multivariate reality (or at least unused ones), so that describing reality in fourfold terms requires a reorganisation of consciousness itself, which Gebser calls a “mutation” of the consciousness structure into a new pattern. And that’s what both Holling’s adaptive cycle and Rosenstock’s “cross of reality” are — maps of a new consciousness structure — the “integral”,

Holling's Adaptive Cycle

Holling’s Adaptive Cycle


Rosenstock-Huessy's "cross of reality"

Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”

These, of course, are mandalas, and quite different from the pyramid in that respect, although the pyramid structure is still retained within the cross of reality, in any case, as one quadrant of the whole. The dyadic and triadic is not excluded from the quadratic, but are contained within it in a much larger context.

The difference between Holling’s model and Rosenstock-Huessy’s is that one is cyclic and the other radiant. These seem contradictory. But, as I suggested in a comment to the last post, the difference can be accounted for in terms of Iain McGilchrist’s “divided brain” and neurodynamics. Rosenstock’s “cross of reality” really does map the cognitive matrix of the second attention (the left-hemisphere of the brain) in terms of its interpretation of the flux of energy as the “sea of Time & Space”, while Holling’s model of the adaptive cycle conforms to McGilchrist’s interpretation of the reciprocity of the flow of energy/information between the brain hemispheres, or between the first attention and the second attention. Both have described their models in terms of “ecodynamics” — the lawful flow of energy.

As the time element is highly accentuated in Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method”, so it is also in Holling’s adaptive cycle where increases (and decreases) in potentiality and increases (or decreases) in “connectedness” are processes in time, considered as entropy and neg-entropy. In other words it maps what we call “creative destruction” and which is also the meaning of the Dance of Shiva (who, coincidentally, is also four-armed),

Shiva, Lord of the Dance

Shiva, Lord of the Dance

Shiva’s dance is the dance of energy, and since all energy is deemed to be conscious, it is also the dance of consciousness. Shiva’s arms are also Blake’s “four Zoas”.

The cyclic and the radiant would appear to be contradictory, but I would suggest that they are so only in the sense that McGilchrist describes the right and left brain hemispheres’ respective “modes of attention” as contradictory — as two distinct cognitive minds. It’s more in the manner of a complementarity or a paradox or polarity as befits the philosophy of Heraclitus. What the first attention perceives as a whole — the energetic flux — is passed onto the left-hemisphere where it is refracted into the spectrum of spaces and times by the pattern provided by grammar. In that sense, grammar is “generative”. In that sense, “In the beginning was the Word” or Logos has a completely intelligible and determinant meaning. Grammar provides the blueprint for the translation of the primary flux into the forms of perceptible reality, which would otherwise remain (as William Blake put it) “forms of Eternity too great for the eyes of Man”.

We have the additional testimony of her personal experience by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor that this is so (in her TED talk on her “stroke of insight” if you haven’t yet viewed it). What Blake calls “the Mundane Shell” is the world according to the second attention or “reason”, while the apocalyptic Dance of Shiva is the world according to the first attention, or what we call “revelation”.

“Connectedness”, and the increase or decrease of connectedness, is one of the parameters of Holling’s adaptive cycle, variable with increases or decreases of potentiality (neg-entropy or entropy). Connectedness corresponds to McGilchrist’s understanding that the first or primary attention of the right-brain is concerned with “betweenness”. That is to say, both “connectedness” and “betweenness” are synonyms for “meaning”. Meaning is in the flow, not in the “things”. The very word “meaning” has this implication of “betweenness”, and that is the significance of the word “intelligence” or “intellect”, too — discernment of meaning or connectedness (the “inter-” prefix). By the same token, “potentiality” is but a synonym for “vitality” — which is the other parameter of Holling’s model.

In other words, meaning and vitality are correlated, as they are also in Rosenstock-Huessy’s radiant model. This is explicit in Rosenstock’s social philosophy. The expansion or contraction of the cross of reality is correlated with the increase or decrease in vitality or potentiality. In this, the models are in agreement.

So, the next question is: what uses can we make of these besides an insightful hermeneutics and perhaps as a diagnostic tool?







15 responses to “The Shape of Consciousness: A Review”

  1. Mike McDermott says :

    >>> what uses can we make of these besides an insightful hermeneutics and perhaps as a diagnostic tool?

    I see that McGilchrist watched Bolte-Taylor’s Ted Talk (pp. 93 and 467, n. 18, and rules out the desirability of everyone having a left hemisphere stroke!

    I consider mindfulness meditation and developmental action inquiry to be greatly enriching for life in general – not only for “one”, but the ones around one.

    I did not mention that I am currently also reading the Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek’s 2015 book, which is beautifully produced, limpidly written, and called “A Beautiful Question”. He goes into all the above perspectivism, and has the same illustrations of Blake’s Urizen and Newton, but finds his great beauty in the Newtonian view as well as elsewhere. To quote from the reviewer Richard Muller, “In Wilczek’s mind, there is no clear separation among physics, art, poetry and music”. That seems true in the context of his finding beauty everywhere (his concluding paragraph is:
    “* The physical world embodies beauty
    * The physical world is home to squalor, suffering, and strife
    In neither aspect should we forget the other” (p. 328)).

    I am up to p. 108 where, coincidentally, he is writing of time as a dimension from the perspectival framing of Newton. I will catch up with McGilchrist, and then be reading them in tandem. I look forward to their mutual enriching.

    I wish I had encountered McGilchrist before I finished a thesis which went to the examiners last November. It presented as a diagnostic tool an approach I called “HVN↔HBA”. I see now the HVN was right-hemisphere centred, and the HBA left hemisphere centred. I am employing it as a means of engaging with wicked problems.

    As usual the poets have led the way. For example, Judith Wright, the leading Australian poet of her generation, wrote this:

    Gum-trees Stripping

    Say the need’s born within the tree
    and waits a trigger set for light
    say sap is tidal like the sea
    and rises with the solstice heat
    but wisdom shells the words away
    to watch this fountain slowed in air
    where sun joins earth – to watch the place
    at which these silent rituals are.

    Words are not meanings for a tree
    So it is truer not to say,
    “these rags look like humility,
    or this year’s wreck of last year’s love,
    or wounds ripped by the summer’s claw.”
    If it is possible to be wise
    here, wisdom lies outside the word
    in the earlier answer of the eyes.

    Wisdom can see the red, the rose,
    the stained and sculptured curve of grey,
    the charcoal stains of fire, and see
    around that living tower of tree
    and hermit tatters of old bark
    split down and split to end the season;
    and be quiet, and not look
    for reasons past the edge of reason.

    Judith Wright’s poem, Gum-Trees Stripping, from her Collected Poems, published by Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1994.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Go on! Somebody’s done this? Frank Wilzcek? A physicist! I got court-martialed and drummed out of post-grad studies for refusing to budge from the above proposition that the perspective artists provided the intellectual tools for Copernicus, Galileo and Descartes to re-envision space. I had a big fat red folder full of evidence and nobody would even look at it. It was just “impossible!”. Margaret Wertheim was the first I encountered (before I encountered Gebser) who touched on it in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. I remember listening to an interview with her on CBC radio — this was just a few days after I walked the plank at Uni — and she was talking about Giotto and Alberti and the intellectual reorganisation of space by the perspective artists. A chill went up and down my spine. AHA! Too late for me though.

      Of course, I had to get <The Pearly Gates after that. It was a good book but disappointingly brief on the subject of perspectivisation. Recommend it though.

      Will have to read Mr. Wilzcek for sure now. Thanks.

  2. dadaharm says :


    Another aspect of reality (as it is experienced) that has evolved over time is something that could be called ascent or separation. (This is something Morris Berman discusses in his book “The wandering god”.)

    The distance between the material and the spiritual has increased over time. For hunter-gatherers there was (or is) essential no difference between the spiritual and the material. Everything is alive. There are maybe spirits or nature gods, but you could in some sense personally contact them.

    With the mythic consciousness structure the gods were still immanent, but they had moved away to a separate place (like the Olympus) within the universe. The gods are now powerful beings representing the (nature) forces that humans cannot control. The distance between the gods and humans is much larger than for hunter-gatherers. Ordinary people are dependent on priests, temples etc. to make offerings to the gods.

    With monotheism and the mental-rational consciousness structure there is a single divinity. The divine becomes something that is more or less abstract. Moreover, the distance between the spiritual or divine and the material grew again. Christianity has probably gone furthest in this by placing god actually completely outside the universe.

    This notion of increasing distance between the divine and ordinary reality also plays a role in society itself. The distance between the top of the social hierarchy and the lower ranks increases with it, I think. Moreover, the notion of a single divinity gives rise to the notion of a single absolute truth.

    I think this aspect of experienced reality is just as important as the experience of space and time. I guess that Gebser did not spend much attention to this aspect of reality. But it is one that has reached an extreme. So my expectation is that it will correct and reverse.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Gebser spent a very great deal of time dealing with that. The “ever-present origin”, the latency of origin in the present, is the reversal of the Deistic or naturalistic conception of God as abstract being in a “beyond”. This was what Blake himself raged against when he denounced “Deism” and “Natural Religion” (and “natural reason”, therewith, too).

      Gebser’s “latency” is McGilchrist’s “implicitness”. Same issue. Blake and Gebser share that in common, in any case — what we might call “panentheism” (rather than pantheism). “Ever-Present Origin” is just another way of saying “omnipresence” of the divine.

  3. Mike McDermott says :

    No surprise, there, Scott. Sadly, some of the most bigoted fanatics around are devotees of Scientism. They particularly pollute neoclassical economics, with their Almighty Arithmomorphic Concept.

    I don’t know if you remember Mandrake the Magician, who used to gesture hypnotically and his victims would believe any ridiculous idea he planted into their heads. Neoclassical economists use maths the same way.

    John Cleese had it right when he said “I would like 2016 to be the year when people remembered that science is a method of investigation,and NOT a belief system,”

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, I’m sure Cleese’s remark is what Blake also referred to as “sweet Science” (rather than the bitter kind he identified with Urizenic mind).

      Anyway, I’ve downloaded Wilzcek’s book, and am presently reading. Not very far into it yet (only up to Pythagoras so far), but am looking forward to what he has to say.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    As time passes and consciousness expands we become more able to understand god in his confluence of the opposites. All visionary talks are both hermeneutics and diagnostic. The realization of the operative presence of the divine in the human is the purpose of existence. This is the aim of our existence as advocated by the Sufis The cosmos is the theophany of the divine., it is the creative process that kills and saves, imposes death and gives birth through the human and through the universe. Both harsh and soft are beautiful in their proper domains. Thank you for the illumination.

    • Mike McDermott says :

      Dear Abdul Monem,

      Reading your comment took me back to a book I read over 30 years ago, Cyclic Time and Ismaili Gnosis”, by Henri Corbin.

      Do you know of it? I bought it when I was a tour leader taking people to places in the Himalayas like Kashmir, Leh, Gilgit and Hunza.

      There is a good summary of it (at least, I think it’s good: haven’t read the book since) at

      There is also a quote from Corbin of Ibn Arabi at



      • abdulmonem says :

        Thank you Mike for the links. I am familiar with Corbin but not with the book you referred to ,however I read the article on the book. I felt uneasy with some ideas presented, such as the freedom of Iblis in the world of the mothers,or the unfitting of some humans to receive the divine message or the angelic nature of the human. The youtube remind me of Ibn Arabi concept of the unity of existence. My full comment you can find in Robert Darr lecture on waking to the divine embrace which is posted on the link you sent. Ideas and concepts are ageless and like god never grow old,that is why we always hear the call to return to the original source.

  5. dadaharm says :


    I would personally not equate Holling’s notion of connectedness with meaning.

    In the adaptive cycle the connectedness increases in the exploitation phase and the conservation phase. This is because of increasing specialisation of the individuals within the system (ecology, civilisation etc.). The specialisation makes the system more efficient, but it also makes the individuals more dependent on the system. The connectedness of the system is a direct consequence of individual specialisation and the resulting dependency on the system. The system as a whole becomes more powerful, while the individuals in it become more powerless.

    The type of connectedness that results is an explicit form of connectedness based on dependency. The system in some sense manifests or realises itself over time. What is implicit in the reorganisation phase becomes explicit in the conservation phase. Some of the potentialities it has in the reorganisation phase have become actual and realised in the conservation phase (but not all). Choices made over time mean that certain potentialities that were initially available to the system cannot be realised anymore at a later time. The system becomes mature and fixed. So the system becomes somewhat rigid.

    The rigidity of the system will eventually lead to collapse. The rigidity also means that there is little in-between-nes left in the system. What was implicit (right brain meaning) has become explicit (left brain meaning). So right brain meaning in the sense of in-between-nes has vanished from the system. It has been replaced by explicit (i.e. left brain) meaning. So I would say that the eventual collapse of the system is a result of the loss of right brain meaning.

    (My reasoning here is closely related to the previous discussion about connectedness and deficiency. So we will probably end up agreeing that we disagree.)

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, we’ll have to agree to disagree there.

      This is because of increasing specialisation of the individuals within the system (ecology, civilisation etc.). The specialisation makes the system more efficient, but it also makes the individuals more dependent on the system. The connectedness of the system is a direct consequence of individual specialisation and the resulting dependency on the system

      Well… one can’t even talk about these connections except as meanings, as you’ve just demonstrated. In reality, everything is connected to everything else (Indra’s Net), so what connections you choose to focus on you do so because they strike you as being especially meaningful.

      I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about “connectiveness” in the abstract, as if it was something isolated from the intelligence that perceives the connectedness. It’s actually, as mentioned, the very meaning of the word “intelligence” (inter-ligere to “connect between”, as when we speak of “connecting the dots”). We should really have learned by now that there’s no way to separate the observer from the observed.

      As I understand it, Holling came to his adaptive cycle from the study of forest ecology. Event to begin to speak of a “forest” is to begin with a meaning, and then to progressively expand that meaning by studying the interrelationships or interdependencies of the critters, etc, that make up that ecology. “Forest” means something different to an ecologist than it means to a lumberjack. It’s richer in meaning. Moreover, one can’t abstract the connectedness of the lumberjack or the forest ecologist from the overall meaning of “forest” either. The second I enter into a relationship with forest, in whatever manner, I’m part of that forest’s ecology.

      We speak of a forest for as long as it conserves its coherence as forest. But under what circumstances do we no longer speak of a “forest” — that it decoheres, as it were. As long as it is in the conservation phase, it is forest. But what of fire? “Fire” for a forest has many different meanings — for a lumberman, for a poet, for an ecologist. For Holling, fire is not “outside” the forest ecosystem, but is connected with it, part of the adaptive cycle itself. A forest fire (which is like a revolution in society) corresponds to the “release” stage of the adaptive cycle. For Holling, fire is “creative destruction”, since it also releases the grip of old growth (and overgrowth) on the possibilities of new growth.

      These are all meanings. We can’t even talk about connectedness except in terms of meanings, but often it is only the poet or artist who perceives the meanings most clearly.

      As Blake put it

      “: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity…. & Some Scarce See Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers…. To Me This World is all One Continued Vision of …Imagination.”

      • dadaharm says :

        I mostly agree with your comment. But I am pretty sure that in some future post our different ways of looking at certain aspects of the adaptive cycle will come up again.

  6. abdulmonem says :

    To me this world is all One Continued Vision of Imagination.
    So it is to me.

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