Jean Gebser (1905-1973) was a German philosopher, linguist, poet, and autodidact who wrote The Ever-Present Origin, an interdisciplinary survey of human and cultural consciousness that was decades ahead of its time. His integral perspective did not deal with the stages of a human life per se (e.g. birth to death), but rather focused on the ”structures” of consciousness in the development of cultures. However, his five-structure model lends itself to an integral theory of lifespan development. The five structures in his theory (with my interpretations for individual human development) are as follows:
- The Archaic Structure. In this structure there is a lack of differentiation and a state of oneness with the whole. In terms of human development, this ”stage” can be compared with the infant’s unitive and symbiotic relationship with the mother. At this stage, there is no consciousness or separate self, but rather a complete immersion in the world of The Great Mother (an archetype described by Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann).
- The Magic Structure. The human has been released from his harmony or identity with the whole, and consciousness begins to emerge in a dream-like way. The child is largely driven by his emotional states. In terms of human development, the young child lives in what French anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl referred to as a participation mystique with the world in which he finds himself. The child struggles for power over this uncertain world through magical means, including such features as animism (e.g. rocks are alive), participation (e.g. ”the moon follows me wherever I go”), realism (e.g. the word ”hit” has the power to injure), and magical bedtime rituals.
- The Mythical Structure. The child’s emergent consciousness expresses itself as the ”hero” (or emerging ego) of mythic domains. As part of this development, the child increasingly lives in a world of language and imagery, which creates greater distance between himself and the natural world. The child is not so controlled by his emotional states but lives more in his imagination, and can represent his inner emotional states and outer reactions to the world through symbolic means including speaking, drawing, and other representational means.
- The Mental Structure. In this stage the older child and/or adolescent experiences directed or discursive thinking as he now emerges as a fully functional ego or self. This structure correlates to Piaget’s stages of concrete operational and formal operational thinking, where the mind is able to create rules and logic to undertake a rational understanding of objects, events, and persons. Consciousness in this structure is fully ”awake.”
- The Integral Structure. In this stage (presumably existing in only some adults), there is an ability to perceive time and space as an integrated whole. Instead of being locked into a fixed past, present, and/or future, a three-dimensional universe, or a self divided into categories, the person can experience time, space, and mind in terms of their overall effect on his life and destiny. This is a stage of insight, integration, transparency, and a concretion (e.g. manifestation) of previous structures of consciousness.
Gebser’s interdisciplinary perspective was influential in the development of Ken Wilber’s integral psychology (Wilber incorporates several of Gebser’s structures into his own later model of the stages of human consciousness – for Wilber’s earlier views on the spectrum of consciousness see my post on this topic). Gebser also influenced such holistic thinkers as William Irwin Thompson and Georg Feuerstein.
For more information on the stages of human development referred to in this post, see my book The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life.
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