Before Philosophy

Let’s spend a little time today on what Jean Gebser means by “unperspectival” consciousness, which is also, in many respects, what Nietzsche means by “Dionysian” consciousness, rather than “Apollonian” consciousness. For Dionysian consciousness, a formula for being like cogito ergo sum (or “I think therefore I am”) is absurd. We could just as well say “I sing therefore I am” or “I dance therefore I am”.

The formula (which dates from at least the Greek philosopher Parmenides) that thinking and being are the same has pretty much defined the Modern Era, or what Gebser means by “the mental-rational structure of consciousness”. It has also become established as the “norm” for what constitutes a human being. Nietzsche, in shifting the emphasis onto the Dionysian consciousness, also then conceives that thinking should become more like music, song, or dance, and the image of Nietzsche dancing his Dionysian philosophy butt-naked in his apartment in Italy upon his final breakdown is an image that sticks with me. Even though his mind was gone, he was still attentive and responsive to that inner music.

We see this, of course, among indigenous peoples everywhere still. Song and dance are vital. The Australian aborigines have their fascinating “songlines” dating from the Dreamtime, as described in Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines. Even in Biblical literature, the world originates in exuberant song, “when the morning stars sang together”.

Song and dance, then, are closer to the “vital centre” or Origin than thinking, the “unperspectival” (and aural) closer to Origin and the vital centre than the “perspectival” consciousness. The ancient hieroglyphs and petroglyphs are not meant to be read so much as sung. Writing and the alphabet stripped away much of the numinous potency of the spoken or sung word, which probably explains why the Buddha, Jesus, and even Socrates never wrote down anything themselves. In Socrates case (at least as reported by Plato) we know why, and it was for that reason. Some of Plato’s contemporaries accused Plato of misrepresenting Socrates as this man of pure reason, whereas the real Socrates was reputedly much given to singing and dancing.

It’s difficult for us, today, with our mentally and visually oriented consciousness (where “seeing is believing”) to put ourselves in the consciousness of unperspectival man — the magical and mythical consciousness, which is largely an acoustic reality. Even when we translate, say, a Cree word like “musqua” (or “maskwa”) as “bear” we strip the original word of its numinous power, because it refers less to the physical form of the bear as organism than to the spiritual or numinous form of the bear. So there isn’t a direct one-to-one correspond between the words. Likewise, our eyes no longer perceive this numinous or spiritual quality in the petroglyphs or in megalithic or cave art, and they leave us bewildered or even grasping for absurd explanations like depictions of “aliens” in spacesuits.

The Hopi have a legend that the earliest humans emerged from underground. There is probably a substantial amount of truth, in that, since very elaborate underground cave networks that were once inhabited have been discovered in different parts of the Earth — Europe, Turkey, and China, for example. Once human beings left the underworld for the open sky, and night for day, they apparently still regularly returned to the caves for ceremonial and ritual purposes — rites of passage, since the cave is so symbolic of death and rebirth, resembling the birth canal. But so does the ear. It is also cavern-like in its structure. The megalithic passage tombs of nothern Europe also appear to be attempts to reconstruct the cave and, like the mysterious cave paintings, these passageways were often marked with, what is to us, mysterious and intricate symbols and glyphs as were the tombs of Egypt. Since we haven’t retained the sensibility of these ancient humans, all we see now are “decorations” whereas the artists who inscribed rock with such forms, including Maya or Aztec structures, were presumably under the direction of druids or priests and not simply doodling. To decipher the images, we would need to also know their sacred songs and stories.

Gebser likens the act of leaving the cave, and the underground, and stepping forth into the open sky as a mutation of consciousness, to be sure the emphasis begins to shift from the maternal cave to the paternal sky, from the feminine to the masculine principle, from the lunar to the solar. The maternal cave wasn’t just shelter but also an incubator. Many of the passage tombs of northern Europe are inscribed with images of the Great Mother or goddess, revealing the double-character of the tomb as also a womb. Jesus, likewise, is entombed in a cave, but is reborn in his spiritual form — the transfiguration.

To listen well and to speak well are of far more importance to oral-aural consciousness than to read well and to think well. It is said that the ear has a direct connection to the heart while the eye is directly connected to the brain, and that means that what we call “reality” has very different meanings depending on which sensory pathway has the emphasis. It remains, nonetheless, true that one can’t even learn to read well or think well unless one has first learned to listen well and to speak well. We try to rush children into reading and thinking before they have even learned to listen well, simply because of this absurd belief that thinking and being are the same. This premature “cogito ergo sum” has been the cause of much mischief.

To sing and dance is our first response to the awareness of being. Homer didn’t just tell his stories. He didn’t write anything down either. He opened his stories with the prayer “Sing, Muse…”. The stories were song, and the song came not from him but from the Muse, and so we gain some insight into what human awareness was like before philosophy, and before the “cogito“. Even the earliest texts were not intended to be read silently, but spoken out loud. Nothing was truly real unless it was also heard by the ear. Even in Augustine’s time he relates his own shock at finding his teacher reading silently and inwardly to himself.

We still retain an ancient memory within us of the cave, still represented in images like the labyrinth and the maze, as passageways into and out of the underworld. They are also very acoustic spaces, and so there is a close connection between the birth canal and the ear canal. For Gebser, in any case, the story of the evolution of consciousness is humankind gradually leaving the cave for the open sky, just like the short story by Ray Bradbury, made into a film called “The Quest” to which I linked earlier.

(Here it is again for those not familiar with it)


20 responses to “Before Philosophy”

  1. TheOakofNormal says :

    Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel prize for Literature (took him like two years to claim, what a badass) def echoes this post of where things seem to be headed. I’ve been pretty obsessed with the “music making Socrates” idea from Birth of Tragedy since the first time reading it. I thought that was really interesting in a past post when you connected Nietzsche’s Dionysian madness/”divine intoxication” with the Field, that’s a great musical thought connection.

  2. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Re-thinking identity: Children’s experiences of self

    “Unless you become like little children,” after all.

    • TheOakofNormal says :

      That was a great interview. Just twenty short years ago it was the Internet budding from aol, basic search engines, online encyclopedias like Encarta, Ebay and fairly basic computer games into now tons of people pretty much ‘living’ inside these things. Modern life needs more grounded thought like this guy is talking more than ever right now to discern what we should take and leave with all this novelty.

  3. Steve says :

    German Idealism imagines that there is a transcendent reality that is called Absolute Spirit or the World Spirit. It is believed that the Spirit is gradually advancing and revealing itself throughout history. But that’s not really the story that’s told in Out of Revolution is it? It’s more about the human spirit that moves through and in us and not above and beyond us. It’s about down to earth events.
    If God is present in this history, then he must be what Bonhoeffer imagined: A suffering God.

  4. dregs says :


    Plato’s allegory of the cave got the structure right, but made a fatally false inversion.

    Also, from the book: pneuma: “ESSENTIALLY MATERIAL”

  5. Scott Preston says :

    Interesting interview here with Martin Gurri by Matt Taibbi. Gurri is author of *The Revolt of the Public* (the title recalls also Ortega y Gassett’s *The Revolt of the Masses*). In summary, though, the argument is that traditional institutional pyramids and hierarchies of power are in conflict with (and being flattened by) the the horizontal pressures of the internet, an argument often made here in The Chrysalis as also a transition from perspective to aperspective consciousness.

    In any case, Gurri’s book sounds interesting

  6. Steve says :

    “If you went in search of it, you would not find the boundaries of the soul, though you traveled every road—so deep is its logos.

    “Thoughts are an independent power, continuing to act on their own, growing in such a way that they restrain their own mother (the soul).”

    “The account of the sixth day should be written, He gave them speech, and they became souls.”

  7. TheOakofNormal says :

    The Jena Romantics were a fascinating bunch. Schlegel’s Symphilosophie seems very related to Bohm’s Rheomode.

  8. Scott Preston says :

    Medical issues have kept me away from the blog lately (not covid related). Hopefully, will have this resolved shortly.

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  1. Before Philosophy – mostly philosophy - 30 March, 2021

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