Archaic Consciousness

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= concept used by Jean Gebser in Ever-Present Origin

This discussion centers on the views of integral theorists Rudolf Steiner, Ken Wilber and Jean Gebser on the topic, and on the transition to "Magical Consciousness".

Original source: Jennifer Gidley


Jennifer Gidley on the 'Key Features of Archaic Consciousness:

"Several features have been identified in the narratives—or associated literature—and will be briefly explored through the text:

• Embeddedness in nature and the cosmos.

• Biologically primitive or spiritually wise?

• Matriarchal culture.

• Sense of Eden/Paradise.

• Palaeoaesthetic sensibility and expression."


Embeddedness in Nature and the Cosmos

I will set the scene with Wilber’s characterization of Archaic-Uroboric.

Drawing on a range of anthropological sources, he summarizes it thus: The uroboros represents a primal, undifferentiated, dreamy autistic state in which man did not know himself as separate, and did not have self-conscious life. (Wilber, 1996c, p. 29)While Wilber emphasizes the embeddedness in nature at this stage, Gebser and Steiner also emphasize embeddedness in the cosmos. Although Gebser (1949/1985) does not go into detail in cosmogenic terms, he claims that the primary relationship for archaic human was with the“ ’universal or [cosmic]” (Synoptic table). Steiner’s cosmogony is extensive but beyond the scope of this paper to cover in any detail. A distinguishing feature of Steiner’s dialectical insights is that his notion of human is spiritual in origin—and thus not solely dependent on the Homo or even hominin biological form. He sees early life forms as part of the struggle of the originary soul-spiritual human being to take physical form on earth (Poppelbaum, 1970; Thompson,1998).

Gebser and Wilber make similar claims that the physical world unfolds from thespiritual, though neither discuss this area in as much detail as Steiner. There are several integral theorists who have proposed a dialectic between biological evolution and spiritual involution (Aurobindo, 2000; Combs, 2002; Davidson, 1992; Gebser, 1970/2005; Hocks (2006); Murphy,1992; Steiner, 1971c; Wilber, 2001b). Even though Steiner, Gebser and Wilber share the involutionary view of evolution, there are subtle divergences as the next sub-section demonstrates.

Biologically Primitive, or Spiritually Wise?

Georg Feuerstein, key interpreter, and translator of Gebser’s work in the USA, identifies a significant divergence between Wilber’s and Gebser’s views in one important area. Feuerstein(1997) notes Gebser’s position on archaic consciousness as being “closest to and presumably originally identical with Origin” while Wilber’s position is that “the archaic structure is closest not to Origin but to the great apes and [hominins]” (p. 34). While space does not allow a full participation in the ensuing discussion between Wilber and Feuerstein, my interpretation is that the problem arises from a polarized perspective between biological and spiritual evolution. In regard to the earliest humans, Gebser emphasized spiritual evolution whereas Wilber focused on the biological primitiveness. The archaic-uroboric period . . . presents in a very global fashion the great transition from mammals in general to man in particular, and stands further as the great subconscious ground out of which the figure of the ego would eventually emerge. . . . (Wilber, 1996c, p.33)Steiner dealt with this paradox dialectically by presenting information from both perspectives. In some of his writing he spoke in reference to the dominance of biology in terms of “passionate impulses” in a similar vein to Wilber’s reference to their embeddedness in, and domination by, the “lower levels themselves.” His biological knowledge was quite extensive. Some of his descriptions of the proto-humans prior to anatomically modern humans suggest biological knowledge similar to that expressed in recent reconstructions of H. Ergaster/Erectus, by evolutionary psychologists—“a shift of energy from the gut to the brain” (Sedikedes, Skowronski, & Dunbar, 2006, p. 59). The other pole of the dialectic is that—like Gebser — Steiner (1971a) drew attention to the original wisdom of these early humans. That original wisdom was an actually inspired wisdom, one that came to man from without, arising from divine worlds [italics added] (p. 114).Wilber (1996c) is apparently also aware of this paradox, using the term “ground unconscious” to distinguish this period from a fully unfolded future “super-consciousness” (p. 34-35). This paradox will continue to recur as our narrative proceeds and becomes increasingly illuminated— as Gebser might say—the more transparency we bring to the issues.

Matriarchal Culture

Another convergence between the three narratives is that all three consider the archaic, and subsequent period to be strongly influenced by female archetypes. As Wilber (1996c) states— citing Campbell—the Great Mother “has shown herself at the very dawn of the first days of our own species” (p. 129). This is consistent with other cultural mythological research on the significance of the female archetype as primordial Goddess—represented in Paleolithic art as the Venus figurines; and the Great Mother archetype in Neolithic and Egyptian mythology (Eisler,1987; Neumann, 1954/1995). Gebser (1949/1985) claims that the matriarchy did not really breakdown until around 500 BCE with the entrenchment of patriarchy in Greece. Steiner claimed that these early matriarchs assisted the development of early language, and even memory, through initiating rhythmical chanting, and interpreting the hidden language of nature—which they expressed in sound, tone and rhythm. This is supported by recent research into the origins of music and language (Dissanayake, 2005; Merker, 2001; Mithen, 2007; Skoyles, 2000; Wallin, Merker, & Brown, 2001). Human language is believed to have developed very slowly—with few sounds, mostly consonantal and gradually in combination with vowels — for about half a million years during the Paleolithic period, until the Upper Paleolithic around 35,000 years ago (Lock &Peters, 1999, p. 771-772).

Sense of Eden/Paradise

In spite of some differences in temporal orientation and detail, the narratives of Steiner, Gebser and Wilber converge in many respects on their overall sense of this archaic structure of consciousness. Gebser stresses the pre-temporal and pre-spatial nature of their consciousness. Steiner (1978b) claimed that this period was what in the bible was called “Paradise” (p. 90).Gebser’s (1949/1985) representation of this period is very similar: It is akin, if not identical, to the original state of biblical paradise: a time where the soul is yet dormant, a time of complete non-differentiation of [human] and universe. (p. 43) Wilber (1996c) citing Gowan’s (1975) Trance, Art and Creativity, concurs with both Steiner’s and Gebser’s notion of the relationship between the dawn human and the biblical paradise, or Eden: Genesis describes this state as “Eden” and tells us that when [humans] ate of the tree of knowledge, [they lost their] innocence, and [were] cast out (into space, time, and personality). (p. 29)The inclusion of these comments is not intended to suggest that these authors take the biblical metaphor of Eden/Paradise literally. Rather, my interpretation of their original intentions is that they are each taking a critical stand against the materialistic perspectives of most evolutionary biology and are endeavoring to present an alternative narrative for consideration. My privileging of their narratives arises from the same rationale. It is a rewriting of the evolution story at its origins.

Summary and Relevance for Today

In summary, although there is a remarkable coherence between the three narratives for this archaic beginning of human consciousness, there is also differentiation of emphasis. Gebser’s interest appears to focus on grounding this early consciousness in an originary spiritual experience, with limited attention to matters of biological development—he is primarily developing a spiritually-oriented, cultural phylogeny. He does however make reference to “the parallels between the developmental stages of mankind and those of the individual, in the context of the various structures of consciousness” but does not pursue this in detail (Gebser, 1949/1985, p. 58). Wilber’s interest appears to be in emphasizing the limitations of the early biological human form in enabling complex cognition, which he sees as a basis for spiritual development. He also subscribes to the notion that individual development (ontogeny) recapitulates cultural evolution (phylogeny). Steiner integrates these positions demonstrating an evolving complex dialectical relationship between the originary soul-spiritual consciousness of humans that he claimed accompanied and in formed biological evolution. He also described the gradual incorporation of the human spirit into material/biological form over vast time periods, as the proto-forms biologically evolved.

Anthropologist/ ethnographer Richard Grossinger uses the dialectical phrase spiritual embryogenesis for the significant work that Steiner has undertaken in this regard (Grossinger, 2000, p. 706).The relevance for today of Gebser’s notion of the originary spiritual aspects of archaic consciousness is intrinsically linked with his notion of integral consciousness, which, when awakened, enables conscious access to this original spirituality. For Gebser, the key though is intensification of consciousness, not regression to a previous state.


A major dissonance between the evolutionary biology narratives and these narratives, particularly Steiner’s and Gebser’s, is that the latter identify a type of spiritual wisdom in the consciousness of these early humans. An appreciation of the notion of involution as being in a dialectical relationship with evolution—which Wilber has as well—is a starting point to understand these perspectives. This is in stark contrast to the views of most biologists, including emergence theorists who claim that mind, morals—and even spirituality—emerge purely from physical/biological existence (Goodenough & Deacon, 2006).Yet Steiner, Gebser and Wilber all agree that these archaic humans did not yet experience their own independent selves, nor did they yet have a sense of difference between earth and sky. Based on this the transition between what Gebser calls archaic and magic consciousness appears to mark the emergence of the human’s earliest sense of his or her own individual self/soul. This is not inconsistent with recent evolutionary psychology research (Sedikedes, Skowronski, & Dunbar, 2006). This consideration leads the narrative into the next major period."


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