Gebser’s Archaic Consciousness and Wilber’s Critique

Gebser’s* Archaic Consciousness and Wilber’s Critique

Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. Director,

Yoga Research Center

*For those who need/want a brief summary of Gebser’s work:

Summary by Ed Mahood, Jr.

The focus here has been Gebser’s approach to understanding the unfoldment of human consciousness. The first part dealt exclusively with the model examining each of Gebser’s structures of consciousness in turn: the Archaic, Magical, Mythical, Mental, and Integral. We saw the Archaic structure could best be described as a zero-dimensional, non-perspectival world which could be likened to a state of deep sleep. It was characterized by non-differentiation and the total absence of any sense of separation from the environment. This was a world of identity between self and surroundings; not a world in which we could speak of consciousness in any terms that would be meaningful to our modern understanding of the term. By contrast, the Magical structure was characterized by a certain separateness, but not a total separation by any means. Dimensionally this could be described as one-dimensional; a pre-perspectival state of timelessness and spacelessness. It was likened to a state of sleep. Magic man was much a part of his environment, to be sure, and felt secure only within his group, his tribe or clan. It was the transition from the Archaic to Magic structure of consciousness that has probably been mythologically captured in the story of the “Fall of Man.” The clothing of knowledge in myth is what characterized the transition to the Mythical structure of consciousness, the two-dimensional, unperspectival state of consciousness that can best be likened to a dream. Imagination and attunement with natural rhythms became important factors in man’s life. The separation begun in the Magic structure reaches a tensional climax in the Mythical. This structure is superseded by the Mental structure, whose appearance coincides with the rise of Greek civilization. In this regard, it can be seen that modern thought disregards a good deal of mankind’s history, for it is to the Greeks that we most often trace our intellectual roots. By comparison, the Mental structure of consciousness is a three-dimensional, perspectival world that we described with the term wakefulness. The polar tensions of mythology are replaced by the analytical separation of duality and opposition. Thinking is primary, and in its latter phase rational thinking is primary. But this structure, too, is yielding to a final mutation which Gebser identifies as the Integral structure of consciousness. This is described as a four-dimensional, aperspectival world of transparency. This is a time-free, space-free, subject- and object-free world of verition.

Finally, we examined the methodological aspects of Gebser’s approach. Here, three fundamental notions were involved: systasis, synairesis, and eteology. The first term, systasis, best describes Gebser’s approach. It was seen that systasis goes beyond mere synthesis, which is a mental-rational concept, to achieve a total integration of all parts simultaneously. Synairesis was the means of achieving the end just described. It emphasized the how of such total grasping, namely by the mind or spirit. It is synairesis that enables us to achieve the transparency that is indicative of the Integral structure of consciousness. Finally, eteology replaces philosophy as the way of knowing and acquiring knowledge. Eteology becomes the statement of truth in lieu of the philosophical statement about truth. We saw that this approach goes beyond the limitations of space- and time-perception to a complete and liberating understanding of the whole. It should be noted that this transition is in process; it is not yet a completed act.



As part of his comprehensive phenomenology of consciousness, Jean Gebser undertook in The Ever–Present Origin the difficult and to some extent daring task of delineating the character of the archaic structure of consciousness. Among other things, he made the controversial statement that this particular cognitive modality is “closest to and presumably originally identical with origin” (1985). In my book Structures of Consciousness , I addressed the fundamental problem inherent in Gebser’s statement as follows:

The most primitive structure of consciousness (both in the sense of being the earliest and the least articulated (is what Gebser calls the archaic modality of consciousness. It is, as he somewhat enigmatically remarks, “closest to and presumably originally identical with Origin.” From the viewpoint of contemporary positivistic science, which purports to deal with “hard” facts, Gebser appears to indulge here in metaphysical wordplay. At best, science concerns itself with beginnings, but the question of Origin (Ursprung ) is hardly permissible outside theology. Even for the sympathetic reader, who is able to suspend any scientific (or, rather, scientistic) bias that he or she may have, Gebser’s statement is not immediately transparent (1987).

I then went on to discuss the nature of evidence and Gebser’s idiosyncratic and boldly innovative use of it. In this connection, I cited Ken Wilber’s book Up From Eden , which is a panoramic treatment of human evolution from the perspective of transpersonal spectrum theory (1981). In particular, I took Wilber to task for accusing Gebser of failing to differentiate between “pre–subject/object” and “trans–subject/object,” that is, of committing what in transpersonal theory is called a “pre/trans fallacy.” This stands for a confusion between prepersonal and transpersonal levels of experience. Then I went on to say:

It [the archaic consciousness] is closest to the ever–present Origin solely in terms of the simplicity of its internal configuration. Only from the perspective of the mental–rational consciousness (which operates with a linear time concept) does Origin appear to be also the beginning of the whole evolutionary progression so that the archaic consciousness would be closest to the Origin in a temporal sense as well.

But close does not mean identical. For, as Gebser insists, the Origin is not defined by any of the structures of consciousness. It is atemporal and aspatial. Therefore Gebser’s remark that the archaic consciousness may “originally” have been identical with Origin could be true of it only in its potential mode, prior to its appearance in space–time. And in that case Gebser’s statement necessarily holds true also of all the other structures of consciousness in potentia . What this brings home to us is the fact that Origin is not the temporal beginning of anything but the ever–present backdrop of all developmental happenings. As will be appreciated, Gebser’s observation has something of the quality of a Zen koan (Feuerstein, 58–59).

Both Gebser’s controversial statement and my somewhat lukewarm vindication of it have recently provoked Wilber’s friendly but nonetheless face–on countercriticism. In his mammoth work Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, which is the first volume of a projected trilogy, Wilber reiterates his earlier rejection of the Gebserian claim that the archaic structure is closest to the ever–present Origin, arguing correctly that “Origin is neither simple nor complex, but acategorical” (1995, 762) For Wilber, the archaic structure is closest not to Origin but to the great apes and hominids. He further humorously observes that by the criterion of simplicity, worms are even closer to Origin. And these, one might add, are structurally and historically preceded by rocks and the primordial soup from which our universe is said to have emerged.

Picking up on my own critique of the Gebserian position, Wilber rightly argues that “since each structure is in potentia identically close to Origin, the only other measure is Integrative Explorations Journal 35 actually (or self–actualizingly) close to Origin, and by that only acceptable measure, the archaic is, of course, the farthest from Origin” (762). Wilber sums up his criticism by saying that Gebser’s position is not paradoxical, as I proposed by way of an accommodating explanation, but “pretty clearly has something of the quality of a complete confusion, and a pre/trans confusion at that” (762). Wilber’s blunt criticism deserves to be considered in some depth.

There undoubtedly is a problem here, but what exactly is it? As I pointed out in my book, there are two ways of interpreting Gebser’s controversial statement. We can understand it either as an evolutionary/chronological allusion or as a phenomenological/structural reference. Turning to the first interpretation, we must immediately note that Gebser himself carefully distinguished between the universe’s temporal beginning (Anfang) and Origin. The first sentence of his preface to The Ever–Present Origin reads: “Origin is always present. It is not a beginning, because every beginning is time–bound” (xix).

There could be no clearer enunciation of the nature of Origin as atemporal. In what sense, then, could the archaic structure of consciousness be said to be closest to Origin? After all, it is a configuration that, from an objective perspective, occurs in space and time, even though its internal configuration is prespatial and pretemporal. Did Gebser confuse Origin with beginning? I think not. Gebser understood each structure as an emergent configuration (one structure emerging or evolving out of structurally simpler and chronologically earlier structures, with Origin as a constant and continuous backdrop of this developmental process. Ultimately, all structures arise out of Origin in which they coinhere. However, glancing into the past, Gebser discerned a distinct series of structural constellations that gave human consciousness its particular shape at any given time in history. Approaching this problem from the mental–rational consciousness, this process must have had a beginning, which Gebser identified as the archaic structure of consciousness. Since it did not emerge from any identifiable earlier structure, he concluded that we must regard it as being in close proximity to the atemporal Origin itself.

Here we must pause to briefly consider a point that has some bearing on the present discussion. In elaborating on his preference for the term “structure” over “level,” Gebser made a very curious observation. He noted that, unlike the word “level,” which entails a strong spatial reference, “structure” suggests something that is not merely spatial but spatiotemporal and that could even be aspatial and atemporal. Here Gebser looks at the term “structure” with an integral sensitivity as breaking the linear, dualistic mold of the mental–rational consciousness. But this particular statement says nothing about each phenomenological structure, which, as Gebser noted, may be aspatial/atemporal (integral), spatial/temporal (mental–rational), prespatial/pretemporal (mythic), unspatial/untemporal (magic), and devoid of spatiality and temporality altogether (archaic). In characterizing the archaic structure as “zero–dimensional,” “prior to space,” and “prior to time,” Gebser clearly distinguished it from the other structures of consciousness, notably the integral structure in which the mental–rational limitations relative to space/time are transcended but which is not merely pretemporal or prespatial. This in itself shows that Gebser did not in principle confuse the integral with the archaic, as Wilber claims. But did he contradict the fundamental orientation of his work when discussing the structural “proximity” of the archaic consciousness to Origin? How should we understand his claim? Clearly, when we look at the archaic consciousness from a historical (mental–rational) perspective, we can say, as outlined above, that in its emergence it preceded the other structures. Since, according to the Gebserian model, all emergent structures continue to coexist, however, we must not equate this with a strictly linear model of evolution. Gebser explicitly rejected such an interpretation. Archaic Consciousness and Wilber’s Critique. 36

The term “proximity” entails a spatial metaphor that needs to be translated into structural terms. Thus, as Gebser noted, by comparison with the other structures of consciousness, the archaic consciousness has the greatest degree of latency and the least amount of transparency. This latency resembles or reflects the potentiality of Origin itself. More specifically, the archaic consciousness mirrors what Gebser called Origin’s “structure of simultaneity” (Zugleich–Struktur). In Origin all possibilities coexist in flawless synchrony. More than any of the other structures, the archaic consciousness is informed or defined by this simultaneity of originary possibilities. This is evident, for instance, from a type of dream that Gebser called “nuclear dream” (Kerntraum), in which dream events do not follow a linear order but, upon reconstruction, appear to have occurred simultaneously. The problem with having the archaic structure (or indeed, any other structure) evolve out of Origin is the same problem that has kept countless generations of Indic metaphysicians occupied: How can the Absolute become finite? Or: How can the transcendental Consciousness become the separative insular ego–consciousness of the ordinary human being? All kinds of answers have been proposed, none of which, however, can be deemed entirely satisfactory to the rational mind. Hence, also Wilber’s difficulty with Gebser’s assertion that the archaic structure in some fashion is in close proximity to Origin.

I will next turn to the second way in which we can interpret Gebser’s statement. From a phenomenological viewpoint, few would probably deny that the archaic structure is structurally less complex than the other structures delineated by Gebser. In fact, this argument is fundamental to Gebser’s phenomenology, which evinces augmented dimensionality for each successive (though after emergence continuously copresent) structure of consciousness. Here we must ask: What does Gebser say about a possible phenomenology of Origin? As far as I can tell, nothing. He does, however, make statements about Origin that can be approached phenomenologically. The opening sentence of his preface represents such a statement: “Origin is always present” (xxvii).

He makes it further clear that by “present” he does not mean merely the present moment but the eternal present. He also speaks of the actualization of Origin, implying that we as conscious beings can assume a particular relationship to Origin by which Origin becomes visible in the manifest structures of consciousness. Put differently, Origin comes to our consciousness through the process of evolution that, by way of mutation, leads to ever greater integration. Another significant statement by Gebser is that the future is latent in the present and hence capable of coming to consciousness. All these statements directly or indirectly relate to the nature of Origin. They reveal Origin in its effectivity on an experiencing consciousness. Gebser’s various statements imply a phenomenology of what we might call Origin–as–perceived (from an epistemological perspective) or Origin–in–action (from an ontological perspective). Strictly speaking, however, they do not say anything about Origin–in–itself. Interestingly, Gebser also calls Origin the “Itself” (Sich), which is an exact equivalent of the Sanskrit notion of atman, though Gebser generally (but not dogmatically) shied away from making this correlation because of the idealizing metaphysics surrounding the atman concept. The notion of the Sich, though formulated in order to explain the relationship between Origin and the core of consciousness, suggests that Origin is without referent and hence not phenomenologically graspable.

Is, then, Wilber’s critique to the point? Does the assimilation of the archaic structure to Origin represent a pre/trans fallacy? It is so only if we assume, as does Wilber, that the subsequent structures, which show a greater intensity of conscious awareness, are in some way superior to the archaic consciousness. Wilber looks at the great apes or the lowly slugs assuming that because they have a lower degree of conscious awareness they are further removed from Origin than, for instance, the mental structure of consciousness. Thus, like Gebser, he too succumbs to a distance (spatial) scale, which is the kind of quantification to which the mental–rational consciousness is prone. In fact, Integrative Explorations Journal 37 he seemingly inverts Gebser’s interpretation of the archaic consciousness. Indeed, on the surface, Wilber’s argument makes sense, given Gebser’s notion of consciousness mutations in which Origin becomes increasingly transparent to the experiencing consciousness. Yet, Gebser does not only regard the evolution of consciousness as mysteriously triggered by Origin but also argues that the ever–present Origin is part of the very fabric of material existence as well. What this means is that Origin is present and presently effective whether we are aware of this fact or not (an explanation that Wilber appears to endorse).

We are thus free to look at a particular configuration or modality of consciousness not only in its conscious responsiveness to Origin but in its responsiveness to phenomena altogether. Here Gebser rightly, I think, characterized the archaic consciousness as a structure that is cognitively far simpler than, say, the mental consciousness. This comparative simplicity could now be interpreted in three ways. First, it could be said to represent a greater opacity (unconsciousness) relative to Origin (which is Wilber’s evolutionary point of view and which Gebser also expressed). Second, it could be said to represent a pattern of higher responsiveness to Origin (which is the Garden–of–Eden view of certain primitivists who want to turn the clock back). Third, which seems to be Gebser’s stance, the archaic consciousness can be looked at from a mental–rational perspective or linear viewpoint (which yields the kind of explanation proffered by Wilber) or from a systatic perception (which reveals the zero–dimensionality of the archaic consciousness).

According to Gebser, the archaic consciousness is an identity consciousness, and he described its character, nature, and possibility as ganzheitlich (holistic), because in its sleeplike quality the archaic consciousness is not yet disrupted by either pointlike magical union, mythical polarity, or mental–rational duality. The incumbent of the archaic consciousness is still very much a part of Nature, without interference from an experiential center such as the ego. In this regard, the incumbent’s life is lived out in paradise, albeit an unconscious paradise. It is from this systatic view that the archaic consciousness (uncomplicated by conscious individuation) can be said to approximate (or imitate) the wholeness of Origin. Gebser’s use of the term “integral” or “holistic” in connection with the archaic consciousness is most unfortunate because it is bound to lead to confusion over the nature of the integral consciousness. If both are integral (ganzheitlich), how must we envision their difference? Wilber’s position is that precisely because the archaic consciousness lacks self–transparency it is farthest removed from Origin. As he sees it, what he calls transrational modes of consciousness are closest to Origin insofar as they are self–actualizing in regard to Origin. In other words, they have greater transparency and therefore do not obscure Origin to the same degree that other, less self–actualizing structures of consciousness do. Of course this is exactly what Gebser claims as well.

The problem, then, appears to be partly one of semantics (springing from Gebser’s particular methodology) but largely one of linguistics. In regard to the former, we can observe that Gebser’s systasis (or multidimensional, multistructural approach) permits us to look at the archaic consciousness from the kind of broad–based phenomenology that seems implicit in his statement that the archaic consciousness is closest to Origin. On the surface, this seems to be a statement leaning heavily on the linear time concept of the mental–rational structure of consciousness. But when we dig deeper, it appears to relate more to Gebser’s model of dimensionalities than to history or evolution.

At any rate, Gebser was quite clear that we achieve nothing by returning to the archaic consciousness and that, rather, the task confronting us is to actualize the integral consciousness. For this reason, even if we were to accept Wilber’s dismissal of this particular Gebserian formulation as an instance of a pre/trans fallacy, this would not in any significant way change the Gebserian framework. However, in the absence of Archaic Consciousness and Wilber’s Critique 38 stringent reasons for rejecting it, I think that Gebser’s statement about the proximity of the archaic structure to Origin still holds a certain appeal, even though the statement may lead to confusion apart from the specific context of Gebserian systasis. Although I believe that Wilber’s criticisms do not apply to the substance of Gebser’s thought but at best to his linguistic expression, they have been helpful in bringing out further nuances of Gebser’s thinking and his systatic–phenomenological methodology. This methodology, which is unattainable for the archaic consciousness or even the mental– rational consciousness, is crucial to the integral consciousness. Where Gebser and Wilber seem to differ in fundamental and very important ways is in their respective appraisal of what the integral consciousness is capable of accomplishing. Gebser believes that the integral consciousness discloses the whole (das Ganze) whereas Wilber is content with saying that it merely discloses wholeness. This fundamental difference was articulated by Wilber himself. He rightly, in my view, points out that evolution may not be over with the emergence of the integral structure and that it in all probability is “merely a phase in an ever–greater unfolding” (1995, 761). Gebser of course would argue against Wilber’s evolutionary scheme of unending linear development, saying that it is a mental–rational projection. The merit of Gebser’s scheme lies in that he does not view the integral consciousness as an evolutionary inevitability but something that each individual must realize through personal effort, that is, the difficult work of self–transformation. On the other hand, Gebser’s scheme, which ends with the integral consciousness, leaves one with an uneasy sense of closure. By contrast, the open–endedness of Wilber’s evolutionary perspective holds a certain appeal, because it does not seek to outguess the mysterious unfolding of Origin. But this theme deserves separate consideration.

In conclusion, we must note that Gebser’s cultural philosophy is more sophisticated than Wilber assumes and at the same time perhaps not always as precise in its formulations as one might wish. Gebser was a man of letters, not a scientist or even academic philosopher. This, I suggest, was both his strength and his weakness as an innovative thinker and writer.


In response to the above article, Ken Wilber proffered a number of additional comments in a letter addressed to me and dated October 1, 1995. With his permission, I am excerpting from his observations as follows (my own commentary is set in italics):

[. . .] I think you will understand that, on balance, I am not persuaded on [your essay’s] one major point [. . .] You are fair to both parties, and it advances the dialogue considerably. You wonder if the essay is a useful consideration, and I say Yes, very much. I think everybody on both sides of this issue needs to hear exactly the points you raise [. . .] “Origin is always present.” Absolutely. You cannot be closer or further from Origin ontologically, you can only be “closer” or “further” epistemologically, in the sense of realizing ever–presence. The archaic did not epistemically realize Origin, so it was not closer; it did not developmentally self–actualize Origin, so it was not closer. By both those scales, it was further. Moreover, neither of those scales has to be interpreted linearly; even development is a circular unfolding/enfolding, and archaic is still further [. . .] Here Wilber accepts the metaphor of distance introduced by Gebser. However, as in his book, he reverses Gebser’s interpretation of the archaic consciousness and argues that it is at a great distance (epistemically and developmentally) from Origin, stating: To say that the archaic’s “sleeplike quality” is “not yet disrupted” by magic, mythic, mental is likewise the old retro–Romantic ploy; my dog’s awareness is not disrupted by magic or mythic or mental either. So my dog must therefore live in unconscious Integrative Explorations Journal 39 paradise, unconscious heaven. But actually, you see, both my dog and the archaic live in unconscious hell; that is, they are both fully immersed in samsara but don’t have the power to recognize that burning fact. The archaic is not a presence of integral actuality, but rather a double lack: it is a lower level of integration and a lower level of awareness [. . .] Gebser would of course agree with Wilber on this last point. As for the archaic consciousness being paradisiacal, Gebser used this description in his book On Trial (p. 15) emphasizing that it is merely an analogy. Moreover, Gebser would not describe it as “unconscious hell” either. If we want to exercise greater descriptive constraint, we would have to say that neither “paradise” nor “hell” are appropriate labels. If “paradise” is a mental–rational projection, so is “hell.” For this reason I cannot accept Wilber’s statement that “The archaic is the nightmare that history will overcome.” For Wilber, the archaic structure as a historical phase rather than as a psychological constituent is “self–preservationist (egocentric in fact),” and he sees this “lack of tolerance” and “lack of compassion” as a “nightmare.” Strictly speaking, according to Gebser’s phenomenology, there is no ego proper at the archaic level of development, but this may be quibbling over words. Incidentally, Gebser also ascribes instinct to the magical rather than the archaic consciousness, and this is worthy of a more detailed consideration than can be given here. At any rate, Wilber agrees that the archaic structure, as all other structures, is present even in the most evolved human being. Our challenge is to learn to integrate the archaic structure consciously with the other psychic structures. Wilber made the following further observation:

Part of Gebser’s real problem here is that because he believes that the archaic has no precedent, he catastrophically unplugs it from evolutionary unfolding; this forces him to plop it down “close to Origin,” whereas actually it is only close to his own misunderstanding.

From a truly systatic or multistructural perception, the archaic is simply the dimensional transition to hominid forms of structuration, a structure that is unfolded/enfolded in all ensuing mutations of consciousness. Gebser’s strange privileging of this transition is partly a logical game (he linearly pushes dimensionalities backwards, and soon arrives at zero dimensionality—there is nowhere else to go, so the archaic looms up in dimensionality as a foundation—square zero, so to speak—which being allegedly “simple” and “holistic” and “integral,” must lie, not next to apes, but next to Origin, simply because he has no place else to plunk it down [. . .]

I must agree with Wilber that there is no convincing reason (other than the kind of evolutionary logic employed by Gebser in his reconstruction of earlier structures of consciousness) for assuming that it all began with the archaic consciousness, as outlined by him. Wilber raises a very important point here, which parallels his argument about the supposed or implicit finality of the integral consciousness within Gebser’s framework. Clearly, in light of Wilber’s thoughtful critique, students of Gebser’s work must consider to what degree the Gebserian evolutionary model is an application of his systatic–phenomenological methodology or is merely representative of logical idealization. Gebser himself appears to have been somewhat uneasy about the apparent self–containedness of his delineated structures, because he allowed for the fact that, in evolutionary actuality, there may have been in–between structures bridging the gulf between the four principal consciousness modalities. But once we admit this possibility, then his dimensional framework is called into question. Furthermore, his assertion that each structure represents a sudden mutation or saltation could be weakened by admitting the existence of in–between structures. This might not be a loss, however, because it would oblige researchers to consider more vigorously the possible mechanism or mechanisms by which consciousness mutates. Even if we assume, as did Gebser, an originary impulse behind the evolution of consciousness, such an assumption does not constitute an actual explanation of how mutational processes unfold on the Archaic Consciousness and Wilber’s Critique 40 level of psyche and culture. This whole discussion brings home the point that in order to do justice to Gebser’s work, we must continually rethink it.

Copyright C 1995 by Georg Feuerstein

Copyright C 1995 by Ken Wilber


Feuerstein, G. (1987). Structures of Consciousness: The Genius of Jean Gebser (An Introduction and Critique. Lower Lake, CA: Integral Publishing.

Gebser, J. (1985). The Ever–Present Origin, transl. by N. Barstad with A. Mickunas (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Wilber, K. (1981). Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (Boston, MA & London: Shambhala Publications.

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