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.
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
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.