Gebser’s Empathetic Epistemics

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins” — translated from an indigenous proverb

Today, I’ld like to spend a little time speaking to cultural philosopher Jean Gebser’s approach to knowledge, which will facilitate understanding and appreciating his major work, The Ever-Present Origin and what he means by the “aperspectival” or “integral” consciousness which he himself practiced. Gebser’s hermeneutics, or “method”, has nothing essentially “mystical” about it. That’s a judgement from the confines, or perspectivism, of mere rationalism. Aperspectival or integral consciousness is an eminently pragmatic and practical matter, manifestly so in Gebser’s own case. I would prefer to describe Gebser’s approach as “empathetic epistemics” rather than “hermeneutics” for various reasons. I hope to demonstrate here why I believe Gebser is an archetype or prototype of the aperspectival or integral consciousness structure that he believed was already in the process of “irrupting” more generally.

Although Gebser’s cultural philosophy — his history of “unfolding” consciousness in and through “consciousness structures” — may seem very involved and perhaps mysterious, it is simply a more refined, scholarly or sophisticated elaboration on the popular saying (reputedly of indigenous North American origin) “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes”. It is said that Harper Lee, whose quite similar quote I cited above from her book To Kill A Mockingbird, borrowed that theme from the Cherokee.

It is, in effect, the principle of the polymorph or shape-shifter, and Gebser was definitely polymorphous and was completely conscious of that capacity and fluency of consciousness in himself. The same might be said of Rosenstock-Huessy, whose book The Multiformity of Man, also addresses that polymorphous character of the complete human being as represented in his “cross of reality”, or as represented also in the indigenous Sacred Hoop, or as William Blake’s “fourfold vision”. Lewis Mumford’s The Transformations of Man (also available online) also speaks to that polymorphous character of what we are pleased to call “human nature”. So, in effect, as Seth insists, there are indeed “species of consciousness”.

The “fourfold Self”, as also mentioned in Yogic philosophy, is the first layer of fact we must recognise about so-called “human nature”, that it is polymorphous and very fluent/fluid. We speak of this polymorphousness when we describe ourselves in terms of “mind, body, soul, and spirit” or speak of trying to “hold it all together” (to balance or integrate this fourfoldness). In Blake’s symbolism, these are represented as the four Zoas of the disintegrate human form, and they generally correspond also to Carl Jung’s “four psychological types” which also describe the polymorphous character of the human form.

Their integration — which we call “fulfillment” or “wholeness” or “integrity” — is reflected in Jung’s personal vision of that wholeness, which is so reminiscent of the indigenous Sacred Hoop as well

Jung’s mandala of the Integral Self


Sacred Hoop /Medicine Wheel

Nor is it difficult, I think, to see in Jung’s personal vision (taken from his private and posthumously published “Red Book”) Blake’s own “fourfold vision” of the integral human

William Blake — the Fourfold Vision

Gebser’s own “fourfold vision” was his discernment of the four historically realised consciousness structures — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational, or, as he put it optionally, the unperspectival, the pre-perspectival, the perspectival, and the incipient aperspectival or integral when assessed from the standpoint of integral consciousness or aperspectivity.

This is the first layer of truth we must recognise about “human nature” — that it is polymorphous and that we are not one thing, but multiform. Until we understand this, truly, we can’t approach the integral consciousness. We must first feel, existentially, our own “disintegrate” state as this multiformity but without thereby also “falling to pieces”, as they say. There is no integration without a prior disintegration. In that sense, disintegration (or existential crisis) can be a blessing in disguise, and the “return of the repressed” (or “irruption” in Gebser’s terms, or “chaotic transition”) is such a blessing in disguise.

The archaic, the magical, the mythical and the mental-rational civilisational types or “consciousness structures” are the legacy structures of the fourfold human, also corresponding to Blake’s “four Zoas” of the disintegrate human form. Gebser’s consciousness was so fluid, in fact, that he was able to enter into these structures or legacy structures and experience them directly, revive them consciously, and then again step out of those structures in order to describe them to us “objectively” or “perspectivally” from the psychological distance of the mental structure. This is the proper use of perspective consciousness. This facility is more than is described by the term “hermeneutics” or interpretation. It is what I prefer to call “empathetic epistemics” — a principle of Hermetic philosophy that states “to know the thing, you must become the thing you want to know”, and that is just a variation on the theme of “walking a mile in another man’s moccasins”.

“Aperspectivity” is, in those terms, the ability to suspend the perspectival “point-of-view” (or  “Single Vision” in Blake’s terms) and enter into a potentially infinity of other worlds of perception.  This is what distinguishes Gebser’s approach and the procedure of “empathetic epistemics” from the strictly “scientific” or objective or “perspectivist” method. Gebser suspends objectification, enters into those worlds of the archaic, the magical, the mythical, participates in those modes of consciousness and perception directly, immediately, and intimately, and then returns to describe them perspectivally or “objectively”, which is “distantiation”. The objective methods of science, on the other hand, seek maximum objectification or distantiation from its objects of study, and this is crippling for any form of empathy or empathetic epistemics. Although perspectivism has its practical uses for gaining psychological distance, and therefore for purposes of description and explanation, to be stuck in this ever-narrowing “point-of-view” mode is what Gebser calls “deficient consciousness”, and that is what is characteristic of “post-historic man”.

So, when the Buddha employs the gesture of holding up the Lotus Flower, he is simply showing you who and what you yourselves are. It’s your autobiography, and the Lotus symbol is only a variation on the structure of the cross of reality or the Sacred Hoop, too. You are a multiformity, organised and integrated through a ‘vital centre’ that is called “the unoriginated and unconditioned”, and which Gebser realised as “ever-present origin”. So, that, though every distinct mode of perception/structure of consciousness has its own ruling “logos” or informing principle, they nonetheless all originate in the same Logos, which we also describe as Tao or Eternal Now or Ever-Present Origin or Ultimate Truth.

“Reification” is the term for becoming fixated, or getting stuck or trapped in one mode of perception, or the singular “point-of-view”, and this is what we refer to as “narcissism”, which I’ve referred to as being “trapped in the mirror” or the phantom called “self-image”. Reification means that consciousness and perception lose their fluency and fluidity and becomes rigid like stone or fossil, which is the condition I’ve referred to as “the arrogance of ignorance”. That rigidity of perception and perspective is usually what we mean when speaking of “Selfhood” or of ego-nature and identity.

That is certainly one of the things I take from the meaning of “post-historic man”, who is no longer able to enter into these various legacy structures of consciousness without losing his marbles and why the “culture of narcissism” is synonymous with the “empathy deficit”.

This is, I think, the very first and essential truth we must recognise about ourselves — that we are not uniform, but multiform. We are “natural” polymorphs and shapeshifters. This insight alone should loosen the Gordian Knot or grip of the ego-nature or “Emissary” (in Iain McGilchrist’s terms) on our consciousness and perception — a first step towards “unfolding the wings of perception”, as Castaneda’s don Juan put it, and which is exactly what Gebser means by his term “time-freedom”.

We are always so much more than this dumbass, shrunken “point-of-view” ego-consciousness (or superego) keeps telling us that we are — it’s constant internal monologue with itself that I refer to as “the foreign installation” or “the mind-forg’d manacles” after Blake. Hopefully, this brief meditation on Gebser and the meaning of aperspectivity (and empathetic epistemics) might serve some way in liberating that mind from its occupation and loosening a bit the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. The short form is this: aperspectivity, or integral consciousness, is your already innate, but ecliposed, ability to move fluently between the many worlds of perception and consciousness, or between the finite and the infinite.



30 responses to “Gebser’s Empathetic Epistemics”

  1. donsalmon says :

    Scott, what do you mean by the word “infinite”?

    • Scott Preston says :

      In this context, I mean without limit. In this sense, something don Juan said to Castaneda is pertinent: “there is no end of worlds for our perception”.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    Another interesting journey in the landscape of the fourfold. In line with Don question and your reply which engenders other questions. Who is the limitless and what is the pertinent. Gebser points that integral consciousness is not a mere intellectual exercise but it is a spiritual experience. This leads us to the question of the spirit as a tool of divine knowledge delivery and our soul as our picking tool and our responsive and communicating tool in this information laden cosmos field of ours. Another unanswerable question What is consciousness? So I have no choice but to say god instead of keeping running from one word to another. As I said in my last comment regarding Ibn Arabi definition of integral consciousness as the divine consciousness that all existence is a manifestation of that wise dictating and pursuing consciousness and participants in it. I am happy with that definition in which I tap every second to see my way in this spiritually epistemological endless world in both its ill and healthy expositions, using the spiritual perceptual tool I have been provided by the one to understand the one, myself and any other manifestation of the one. I hope I make sense in this post everything. Never stops system of communication.

    • don salmon says :

      What is Consciousness (Chit Shakti, in Sanskrit)? God. What is God? “Consciousness is the fundamental thing in the universe. Everything in the universe is nothing but consciousness in movement” (Sri Aurobindo, paraphrased).

      Yes, Abdulmonem, all the greatest seers, East and West, in one Voice ( no matter how many infinite ways that Voice has been clothed) saw this as clearly as the trees and sky and water and birds in front of our eyes. Though the integral consciousness, at least as described in the Vedas and thousands of years later by Sri Aurobindo, goes far beyond simply seeing all as the manifestation of the Divine. And beyond all that Gebser, Blake, Tolle have yet said.

  3. InfiniteWarrior says :

    : )

  4. abdulmonem says :

    Yes Scott, they are very disturbing,but are they addressing the bovine,the vulpine the simian, using Mumford language,that are causing all this pollution extinction and destruction, I think Hansen is the only courageous scientist I come across, who sued the federal government for its negligence. We need teams of such people to indict the corporations behind the mess and any perpetrator in the field. Not only in such fields but in the field of war. They are the same guys. By the way, friends from the devastated Irak are saying they are cooking their food by the direct rays of the sun.

  5. abdulmonem says :

    Thank you Scott for the archive, I went back to read binding and loosening of sept, 2010 to refresh the memory with the spiritual journey of Rumi in this polymorous world and self .

  6. mikemackd says :

    Because of the serious nature of this discussion, I have demurred about putting this joke here. But I have for two reasons. Firstly, because it nicely displays the McGilchrist-described left hemisphere’s tendency to literalism, and its inability to understand metaphor; and secondly, because I think it is a good joke:

    “Before judging anyone, I walk a mile in his shoes. Therefore, if he gets angry at my judgement, he’s a mile away and barefoot”.

    Mind you, there are some shoes I could not bear to walk a mile in. For example, those whose objectivist creed considered animals mere machines, and bemusedly noted how much like pain their reactions seemed as they vivisected them: “But of course, it could not possibly be so, for how could a mere machine feel pain? The very idea is quite absurd, so let us continue”.

    Sure, we must redeem our demons, but that redemption requires discernment and direction that we do not always sufficiently possess. In such times, we can use help from one another, but the demonic can transmogrify such attempts to help into attempts to gain power and control over one another, and thereby we become demonic. Hence the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

    From the Christian mythical perspective, one could interpret the links Steve gave above as meaning the sins of the fathers are, indeed, to be visited upon their children, and to the last generation. Within that frame, if those links’ predictions come true it will mean that Satan, the Great Deceiver, has won, and the result for our children is to be hell right here on Earth.

    Here, by “our children”, I mean practically all life’s children, not just those of the literalist a mile away and judging barefooted others, and not just those whom my demons firmly advise me deserve it.

    • Scott Preston says :

      If I recall correctly, it’s the sins of the fathers shall be visited down to the third and fourth generations.

      I’ve posted about that in the past. It’s meaning is illuminated by reference to Rosenstock’s cross of reality and what he calls his “applied science of the soul” which, indeed, he did apply in his massive study of the European Revolutions called Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man. Rosenstock noticed a peculiar pattern to the European Revotutions — the Lutheran, the English Glorious Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution: each were separated by only four generations, and he looked at what those generations were doing from one revolution to the next, and what he discovered reflects the pattern he described as his “ecodynamic laws of society”.

      This is intriguing because of its possible connection with Gebser’s idea of evolution unfolding according to a “pre-existing pattern”, ergo lawful and not random. This might not be as mysterious as it sounds, since life must take time to take place, and as we have discussed in the Chrysalis, time is twofold as past and future as space is twofold as inner and outer.

      Rosenstock-Huessy surmised that this fourfold pattern of the generations was so because each generation subsequent to the revolutionary specialised in adjusting one of the space or time fronts of society to the new revolutionary principle.

      Why should we be interested in this? Well, because, as you might recall, Gebser describes his consciousness “structures” as particular configurations of space and time. This raises the possibility that the four main European Revolutions that Rosenstock-Huessy investigated follow the same pattern or iteration of the “unfoldings” of Gebser’s consciousness structures, ie, microcosm/macrocosm, as it were.

      I haven’t explored that possibility yet.

      Uncannily, from his study of the pattern of the European Revolutions, Rosenstock anticipated yet a fifth revolution to come, that would seal and close the Modern Era and launch an new Era. He anticipated that this fifth revolution would by based on the principle of “Health”. That’s kind of uncanny in relation to Gebser because “to heal” is the original meaning of integral. And completely uncanny when you relate that to Blake’s prophecies about the four Zoas and their reintegration in Albion.

      So, the “sins of the fathers”, which seems to be a statement about the karmic law, seems to have a double-meaning, as befits the description of the tongue of Christ in the Book of Revelation: “a two-edged sword” (in contrast to the “forked-tongue” of the serpent).

      • mikemackd says :

        Interesting post, Scott, and I’m glad you wrote it, but I assume you also understood that I meant – on the basis of those links you gave – that our species’ last generation may be less than three or four ahead. We are already causing the mass extinction of other species; I don’t know why we should consider our own to be immune from the processes we sorcerers apprentices have engendered.

        For example, many people seem to ignore the danger nuclear weapons, while some of those more sensitised to their dangers consider we are closer to a nuclear war than ever.* Like much else of what he wrote now long ago, Mumford’s warnings in that regard are arguably even more relevant now than when they were written.

        One possible reason for our delusion of invincibility in our egos seem to arise from their need for some “steady as she goes” mentality for their own effective functioning. But that need for a delusion has little to do with the rest of reality. The idea “we” could conquer “nature” was always idiotic (widening the original meaning of “idiotic” as inattentive to the relevant context).G.W, Bush’s declaration of victory in the coalition of the willing’s “shock and awe” illegal invasion of Iraq It seems to be emblematic of the type of idiocy I am referring to here.

        If Mumford were alive today, perhaps he would extend his “Gentlemen, You Are Mad” essay to “”Gentlemen, You Are Both Idiotic and Mad”. But he would be ignored again, for the continuance of interests vested in our egos is of far more import to them than the mere survival of “others” not so attached to them.


        *Despite the apparently true story that a nuclear war was only avoided during the Cuban missile crisis by Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet submariner at the time.

  7. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Perhaps, we in the West might also revisit the axiom, “As Above, So Below.”

    “Below” (in Elgin’s sense of a “deeper harmony, a moving point of equilibrium and balance, a patterned unfolding of reality as a symbolic whole”) would seem in far better shape, at the moment, than “Above.”

    Interesting word, “axiom.” Brings to mind the dance of the “whirling dervishes” of Sufi fame — one hand pointed “above;” one hand pointed “below.” An immobile “axis”.

  8. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Seven is our “number.” Not “four.” Not “five.” Seven.

    “Seventh generation,” “seven chakras.” Seven, seven, seven. Ad infinitum. World without end.

  9. InfiniteWarrior says :

    BTB, there are eight “noble truths.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      No, there are only four “noble truths”, there’s the eightfold path.

      But, your point is? All numbers, like anything else, have an esoteric aspect and an exoteric aspect. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten etc all have what some would call a “mystical” or “sacred” aspect.

      But number, per se, isn’t the point at all. It’s the addition of a new dimension that’s the point.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        there are only four “noble truths”

        Quite right.

        My “point” will have to wait, but has nothing to do with “mysticism,” “fourfold vision,” a “fifth revolution” or “time-thinking”, but with a point made in a previous post and reiterated 15 hours ago.

  10. Scott Preston says :

    It might be worthwhile to point out, in reference to this “post-historic man”, that Gebser’s three questions which run along the axis of time: “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?” have no relevance to the type, who lives only from the “point-of-view”. Gebser’s questions pertain to the meaning of time, and Gebser is, in that sense, a time-thinker, testing the relationship between eternity (the ever-present origin) and the things of time.

    Post-historic man, being both “born yesterday” and “living as if there’s no tomorrow” respectively, in that sense, literally “has no time”. Time has him, and this causes him anxiety (and “guilt” in Gebser’s terms). This is why Gebser believes he’s a type “headed for a fall” and an abrupt dead-end, for he can never reach a mature state of consciousness.

    In that sense the Tarot “Fool” is also an image of post-historic man. Understanding the meaning and psychology of post-historic man is very key to understanding Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, or even Blake.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Post-historic man… a type…can never reach a mature state of consciousness.

      I don’t recall Gebser writing of “types” who “can never ‘reach’ a mature state of consciousness,” but of various cultural “structures of (‘human’) consciousness.” Granted, it’s been quite some time since I read Gebser, but I didn’t get that impression from him at all. I do recall a letter he supposedly penned to a friend saying he’d “achieved” samhadi, which I thought strange. Samhadi isn’t something one “achieves.”

      Who are any of us to say that there are “types” (or typical) forms of consciousness incapable of transformation (or maturation)?

  11. abdulmonem says :

    It seems humans and the civilizations they create are a product of a set of vocabularies they have received, interpreted, add or subtract to it. In my context the three questions you alluded to , have no bearing, because I know from where I started and to where I am going and what my mission is. I think in the quotations you have cited in your binding and loosening post ample evidences. As you said it is not numbers or utterances, it is the way how we use these symbols as tools in understanding and perfecting our awareness of the one. The one who have used the disturbing many to transverse to him. It seems we have been thrown to the periphery with all its confusions and called upon to return to the center. It is a serious journey in the middle of all these antagonistic forces. One should ask why all this consciousness if it is a matter of living like animal, this is not to underestimate the animal which consist of nations as our as the koran says and sometime they express far more intelligence than many humans and show more empathy than humans as shown in the links sent by IW. It is a process of vocabulary selection to run our wagons

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      In my context the three questions you alluded to, have no bearing, because I know from where I started and to where I am going and what my mission is.

      You have a strong “axis,” my friend. : )

      The eternal “yin-yang” of existence is both a push from the past and a call to the future. It is in the “immobile axis” we find our sense of balance.

      (With apologies, abdulmonem, this dancer is not performing the solemn, traditional dance of the Whirling Dervishes, but the accompanying ‘story’ is likely more accessible to the Western audience.)

  12. abdulmonem says :

    I just want to add that words are forces of change in both direction the up and the down and have their own carriers irrespective of the labels we attach to them. It is this exchange that helps one to see clearer, Thank you all.

  13. abdulmonem says :

    I was listening to a lecture by David Bentley Hart on being, consciousness,bliss, beauty as knowledge of God and through it I came to the conclusion that there is no utility in the domain of god but everything is given out of his mere generosity including the elegant humans that have been given consciousness to understand consciousness and appreciate consciousness.

  14. Scott Preston says :

    Corruption in the Trump administration seems to run pretty deep. This article on the influence of Big Tobacco in backing Trump was news to me.

  15. Scott Preston says :

    The Divine Economy — this is the title of a charming book I discovered on the internet, which is a free e-book. Doesn’t seem to have much to do with economy, really, but it does. All it consists of are some 64 plates of Blake’s art along with a simple statement or line of Blake’s verse to accompany them. Yet, as i read through the statements, each one of them could easily be elaborated into a book, if one chose to do that

  16. abdulmonem says :

    Yes, through reading the headings over Blake paintings, the divine economy is charming. All is gift reiterate the generosity mentioned in my last comment.Yes we can not control the future nor we can recreate the past but He can. Yes we receive more than we deserve but we do not thank. It is disheartening to read about a team in Harvard studying how the human brain can effect the movement of rat tails while the people of the world,are being killed for no just cause and no one can defend them because the killers are the ones who are supposedly are their protectors. The situation remind me of Noah story when he turned to god saying I have been defeated, take over. It seems we are living in a similar situation where nobody protect good people but god, provided good people never stop aspiring for the true road. It is a game under his watch but alas we have forgotten the rules of the divine game.

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