Mumford’s The Transformations of Man

I’m only about half-way through Lewis Mumford’s The Transformations of Man (1956) but I came across an extremely interesting pattern there that is worth commenting on as it pertains to Jean Gebser’s structures of consciousness, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral logic (and cross of reality), and the indigenous Sacred Hoop — perhaps even relevant to Blake’s “fourfold vision”. I will cite it at length and then tease out that pattern in relation to Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, the Hoop, and Blake.

Mumford’s remarks here occur in the context of his discussion of the rise of the prophets, the axial religions, and the Axial Age in which he also wants to describe the processes of “the natural history of ideas and institutions”. These four stages described by Mumford are the stages in the process of realisation or manifestation.

“In reckoning the historic weaknesses exhibited by the axial religions, we are not dealing with a perversion peculiar to supernatural religion, but with the natural history of ideas and institutions. About this history the early prophets knew too little to avert a miscarriage of their intentions; and those who have cynically criticized the frequent falling off of the axial way of life from its original purity show, by their very cynicism, that they are equally ignorant.

Elsewhere (in The Condition of Man) I have sought to draw a generalized picture of the fashion in which an idea of sufficient magnitude to transform the person and the community actually comes into existence and operates. This process can be divided roughly into four stages, usually successive, though aspects of the later stages may be present at the beginning.

Formulation is the first stage. Then a new idea takes shape, in various minds, as a fresh mutation: an image of new possibilities, intuitively apprehended, sometimes rationally formalized, but by its very nature frail and perishable, since it as yet has no organs. The next stage towards realisation is the Incarnation: the translation of the idea into the living form of a human being and the acts and deeds and proposals of his life. If only a few understand the potentialities of the pure idea, many are able to take hold of the living example; and in the very act of incarnation, the nature of the idea is explored and carried further.

Once the incarnation has taken place, the next step is that of Incorporation within the community; the detailed working out of precept and belief in the habits of daily life, costume, hygiene, and medicine; ceremonial, manners, and laws. Finally, comes the Embodiment: the structural organization of the original idea into works of art and technics, a process that may take place as swiftly, once the groundwork is laid, as the development of the stone architecture of the Pyramids” (pp. 77-78)

So, we have here the four stages in the process of realisation or manifestatio: Formulation, Incarnation, Incorporation, and Embodiment. I find this passage, and these four terms, highly relevant not only for interpreting Gebser’s “pre-existing pattern in evolution” but also for understanding Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral logic, grammatical method, and his “cross of reality”. It’s a map of the flow of the creative energies or forces and far superior in that sense to Ken Wilber’s AQAL model.

Rosenstock-Huessy’s new grammatical paradigm

The four fronts of the cross of reality are the two times (past and future) and the two spaces (inner and outer). The formal terms for the two fronts of space, inner and outer, are subjective and objective. The formal terms for the two fronts of time, past and future, are trajective and prejective. To “articulate”, to speak grammatically, is the proper arrange of the subjective, the objective, the prejective, and the trajective — inwards, outwards, forwards, backwards. Grammar is, in effect, the legislation and regulation of times and spaces.

Four types of speech are brought to bear on the four fronts of the cross of reality:

a) imperative speech (prejective, or forwards)
b) optative speech (subjective, or inwards)
c) narrative speech (trajective, or backwards)
d) indicative speech (objective, or outwards)

Optional terms for imperative, optative, narrative, and indicative modes are dramatics, lyrics, epics, and analytics. The person system of grammar (You, I, We, He –as illustrated) corresponds to these four, and form a quadrilateral.

This same quadrilateral is represented in Mumford’s “four stages” of realisation: Formulation corresponds to imperatival (or dramatics) and is prejective; Incarnation corresponds to optative (or lyrical) and is subjective; Incorporation corresponds to the narrative (or epical) and is trajective; Embodiment corresponds to the indicatival (or factual)

Mumford’s Four Stages of Realisation

The stages in the creative process of realisation (or idea construction) must follow in that order, but it doesn’t specify the duration. It may take many generations to get from Formulation to Embodiment, from original inspiration to the dynamic’s final resting or expiration as “embodied” (or fulfilled, in other words).

This pattern DOES repeat itself, over and over again, in different places, including in the indigenous Sacred Hoop as a Carl Jung’s pattern of the four psychological functions,

Sacred Hoop /Medicine Wheel


And, in fact, Jung’s vision of the integral “Self” took this very form, identical with the Sacred Hoop

Jung’s mandala of the Integral Self

And very similar to William Blake’s “four Zoas” of the inwardly disintegrate soul and humanity reintegrated as “Albion”

Blake: the fourfold human

Can Gebser’s “four structures of consciousness” be reconciled with Mumford’s four stages of realisation or manifestation as well? It seems Mumford wants to attempt that in his Transformations of Man — trace a coherent narrative from “archaic man” through magic and myth and “axial man” (possibly equated with Gebser’s “mental”) as equally a process of unfolding from Formation, through Incarnation, Incorporation, and Embodiment that is not yet concluded. And, in any case, we can map Gebser’s structures of consciousness — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental — to Rosenstock’s cross of reality also

The “archaic”, being the ancient, equivalent with Origin, evidently belongs to the past or trajective front of the cross of reality; the magical, since it invokes the will, is oriented towards the outer; the mythical, with its dream-like quality, is oriented towards the inner, subjective front, while the mental is oriented towards the future and is therefore “prejectively” oriented. The archaic-sensual (when “the soul slept in beams of light” as Blake put it), the magical-willful, the mythical-emotive, and the mental-logical seem complete in terms of the cross of reality, and as Gebser’s “integral consciousness” which is, we might say, Mumford’s “Embodiment” stage.

This isn’t a smooth process by any means. Each stage of transformation (or transpiration) involves a risk (or distortion or “perversion” as Mumford calls it), as well as resistances.

Contemporary rationality proceeds in the opposite direction. It begins with the objective (the analytical) and then proceeds to derive the other stages from the primacy of the objective. Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, Mumford, and others insist this is an inversion of the truth. Objectivation is the last stage of realisation, not the first, and relies on all the other prior stages.

Rosenstock-Huessy gives a simple example that might serve to illustrate this, and it corresponds very closely to Mumford’s four stages.

The first stage is the imperatival (Mumford’s “formulation”): Love!
The second stage is the lyrical or subjective response (Mumford’s “Incarnation”): “May I love!”
The third stage is the epical or narrative stage (Mumford’s “incorporation”): “We have loved! We’ve done it!”
The fourth stage is the indicatival or analytical (Mumford’s “embodiment”): “Love is…” such and such. Only after I have gone through these other stages of the imperative, the response, the act can I finally say what “Love is..” as a fact of experience. Otherwise, it remains only an abstraction without reality. It is not embodied as such.

You may note that there is some resonance between all this (and Mumford’s four stages of realisation) and Holling’s Adaptive Cycle, which also maps the flow of energy into form and release from form

Holling’s Adaptive Cycle

Reorganisation corresponds to Mumford’s “Formulation” and Rosenstock’s “imperative” (or dramatic) phases.
Exploitation corresponds to Mumford’s “Incarnation” and Rosenstock’s “lyrical” phase.
Conservation corresponds to Mumford’s “incorporation” and Rosenstock’s “epical” phase
Release corresponds to Mumford’s “Embodiment” and Rosenstock’s “analytical” phase.

Then the pattern repeats itself, although never in exactly the same way.



7 responses to “Mumford’s The Transformations of Man

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Reading further into Mumford’s book, I’ve encountered a peculiar discrepancy with his pattern. He seems unaware that two of his stages are processes in time, and two of his stages are processes in space, ie incarnation and embodiment, while formulation and incorporation are processes in time. Mumford addresses all four stages in terms of inner and outer, which doesn’t work. Formulation and incarnation he associates with the individual person, but incorporation and embodiment with the community — the “external”.

    Odd that Mumford didn’t see that: that formulation is origin and founding, while incorporation is historical process. Formulation and incorporation are the poles of time, while incarnation and embodiment are the poles of space.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    OK. I think I see why Mumford does this. It’s because he lacks a sense of origin as “ever-present” (in Gebser), or “Now is Eternity” (in Rosenstock-Huessy) or “Heaven in a Wild Flower and Eternity in the Hour” (Blake) ,or Almaas’s “Unfolding Now” — all representations of origin as being ever-present. Rosenstock is insistent that his “cross of reality” be understood in terms of what Almaas would call “Unfolding Now”, which is why it radiates backwards, forwards, inwards, outwards from that centre, which is Gebser’s “vital centre”.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    It occurred to me this morning that Mumford’s four stages of realisation have a counterpart in Oswald Spengler’s four seasons of a civilisation — spring, summer, fall, winter corresponding to Formulation, Incarnation, Incorporation, and Winter. The same applies to Holling’s Adaptive Cycle.

  4. mikemackd says :

    Scott, I don’t know if the transformation of man Mumford refers to in that book is the same as the following quote from as speech he gave when he was Visiting Research Professor of Government Affairs at USC Berkeley,

    Then, he was referring to the nuclear menace, so it’s timely again:



    To accept such an abomination of terror and desolation as even a remote possibility, much less an honorable and tolerable sacrifice, is sheer madness; and the fixed policy that will eventually
    lead to such an end is, by any rational criterion, a mad policy, empty of human values and unworthy of human respect: the policy of underdimensioned men with “ten year old minds,” operating within a one-generation frame of reference, with no respect for the values of human history and no concern for the future of the human race. Let us face these consequences before our leaders commit us further to this unpardonable sin, to use Hawthorne’s words, this ultimate crime against mankind itself. And let us speak plainly to our leaders to this effect: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that there is no national purpose, however ideal, no practical urgency, how ever pressing, that would justify the risk of bringing about the irretrievable mutilation of the human race and the nullification of human history.

    Only one course is now open to us: to retrace our steps and seek a human way out. What, then, does it mean to be human? To be human is to recognize, as even the most primitive tribes recognize, that we are all part of a cosmic process that encompasses and outlasts our little lives. As living organisms, we are members of a complex, cooperative society that includes species at every level of development, from the viruses and bacteria to the most fully developed human personalities, a Confucius or an Emerson, an Aristotle or an Einstein. As families or nations, we live not alone or on our own exclusive terms, but with the constant help of countless species. Wantonly to break apart this complex web of organic life and human culture at any point is to assault the foundations of our own existence. Our security and our welfare rest upon mutual aid and mutual tolerance. And when we are fully human, the entire human past and future are constantly present in our consciousness, to deliver us from insolent fantasies based on the prejudices of our tribe and the discoveries of a single generation.

    To be human, by the same token, is to recognize with humility our own inherent imperfections and limitations. At every moment, as Christian doctrine has always stressed, men are prone to sin and error, to hallucinations, self-deception and headstrong pride. All men individually, and all nations collectively, are finite and fallible beings; and they are never more open to flagrant error than when they feel smugly self-righteous and immune to any possible criticism. Traditional wisdom warns us against these flattering illusions. Though we may make our daily decisions alone, knowing that our mistakes will hurt only ourselves, now that our leaders persist in committing us to policies that might eventually bring disaster to all mankind, we must recall them to their human conditions: they need


    the historic wisdom of the race, and the criticism and correction of all other peoples, and above all they need to restore their own balance by bringing back into the picture the human factors they have blindly ignored. Only if we operate once more from a humble base will the problems that now seem insuperable become open, step by step, to a human solution.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, these same sentiments are expressed in The Transformations of Man, which is an excellent book that I highly recommend, especially for students of Gebser.

      The sentiments expressed in your citation occur mainly in Mumford’s chapter on “post-historic man” (a la Seidenberg, whom he acknowledges) — basically what I’ve referred to as “post-conscious man” or, at least, where consciousness has contracted to a pin-point (which is Gebser’s fear also for the “point-of-view” perspectivism). Interestingly, Rosenstock-Huessy also stated that his “cross of reality” could be subject to “contraction” which has much the same meaning. That is, of course, also the meaning of Blake’s quote which graces the masthead of The Chrysalis.

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