Common Ground Between Aurobindo, Gebser and Wilber

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Contextual Quote

"Whereas Wilber’s comprehensive mapping spearheads a popular movement towards a more integral approach to everything, his glossing over details in some of his texts needs to be balanced by the reader’s own deep dives into the territory he maps. Whereas Steiner’s deep, insightful dives into spiritual wisdom can be found across dozens of books and literally thousands of lectures, it can be a lifetime’s work to interpret and cohere his major contribution toa topic such as we are discussing here. Gebser, however, provides sufficient structure for the reader to become conceptually oriented, while also diving deeply into each of the major territories that he has chosen to elucidate."

- Jennifer Gidley [1]


Jennifer Gidley, in an interview by Marcus Molz. Source: Molz & Gidley: A Transversal Dialogue. INTEGRAL REVIEW, June 2008, Vol. 4, No. 150

Jennifer Gidley:

MM: You are mentioning that you were amazed about the similarities you discovered between Wilber's and Steiner's approaches, and you dropped a lot of ink since then tomake this evident, including Gebser in the comparison as well. Could you try to summarize where exactly the common ground between these three eminent figures of integral thought can be found according to your research?

JG: The first thing I need to say as clarification is that the research I have undertaken on the relationship between Steiner's and Wilber's writings is primarily in relation to the evolution of consciousness, with an emphasis on the present and future emergence of a new type of consciousness. Although I started my research as an even broader comparison between them, because of the vastness of their works—especially Steiner's— I decided it was better to focus on this key issue, which I believe is of great relevance for our times and for education in particular. Although I see a lot of other similarities between their works, I have focused my intensive hermeneutic analysis on their evolutionary works. I have then drawn from this analysis to look at the educational imperatives of the evolution of consciousness. But let's put the educational issue aside for a moment until after I have explained my other findings. My focus on the evolution of consciousness, and particularly the current emergence of a new movement of consciousness led me to a deeper focus on Gebser's work. For Steiner and Wilber, evolution of consciousness was one of several major themes they each wrote about. Gebser on the other hand was a cultural historian whose best known work The Ever Present Origin, was primarily an elucidation of the unfolding throughout history of five structures of consciousness (archaic, mythic, magic, mental and integral). I felt that it would add to the objectivity and rigour of my research to use Gebser's five structures of consciousness as a third lens from which to view Steiner's and Wilber's narratives, since Gebser had spent almost two decades researching and substantiating his insights. Even though Wilber has compared Gebser's structures of consciousness with his own stages drawn from other literature, he has also misrepresented Gebser's work in some of his later writing, by adding another stage (pluralism) between mental and integral, which Gebser did not use. Because of this and other anomalies in Wilber's work, I decided to go to Gebser's own text so that my "third lens" would be objectively drawn from Gebser's actual writing, not Wilber's interpretation of it. I developed a long interwoven hermeneutic narrative from the writings of these three "eminent figures of integral thought" as you call them. I have worked very closely with their actual texts to try to arrive at their authentic messages. For those who are interested in more detail this has been published in the previous issue of Integral Review (Gidley,2007b). I will try to briefly summarise here some of the key areas of common ground between the three. Perhaps the most obvious similarity between their ideas on evolution of consciousness is that they have all put forward a more spiritually oriented view of evolution than the mainstream classical Darwinian view. In this regard all three use the term involution as well as evolution, which connects their ideas with those of Sri Aurobindo. There are some deep and complex philosophical issues underlying these different evolutionary positions, but the idea of involution—or emanation—goes back at least to Plotinus in the third century CE. From Sri Aurobindo's (1914/2000) perspective the notion of involution—thatSpirit or consciousness is primary to matter—is as old as the ancient Vedas.

A second similarity between all three is that they all identify previous stages in the development of human consciousness up to the intellectual-mental-rational consciousness that is often regarded today as the highest form of thinking that humans are capable of. This can be equated with Piaget's "formal operations." There are strong convergences in the earlier stages they identify, although Gebser rejects words like "stages" and "levels" because of how they were abused in various hegemonic European grand narratives in his time. Significantly, all three refer to the emergence of a new movement of consciousness, which Steiner called "consciousness soul, or spiritual soul," Gebser called "integral-aperspectival," and Wilber calls by various names such as "integral" "vision-logic" and "centaur." Both Steiner and Gebser claimed that the new consciousness began to emerge in Europe in the 15th century and would continue to gather strength in the 20th century and beyond. This is in agreement with Edgar Morin's idea of the emergence of "planetary consciousness" in the 15th century. Wilber's focus is perhaps more strongly on the postformal and transpersonal psychological models of stage development and his cultural-historical detail is less consistent.

MM: Jenny, can I stop you there for a moment to clarify what you mean that Wilber’s “cultural historical detail is less consistent“?

JG: Yes, sure, Markus. Wilber’s cultural historical detail is rather inconsistent if one compares his earlier writing with his later writing. Wilber's focus in his earlier writings (particularly “Wilber II”: e.g., Atman Project (Wilber, 1996a) and Up from Eden (Wilber,1996b), and some “Wilber IV”, e.g., Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Wilber, 2000c)) represents a balance between ontogenetic (individual developmental or Upper Left) and phylogenetic (cultural historical or Lower Left) perspectives. However, from Integral Psychology (Wilber, 2000b) (late “Wilber IV”), he begins to focus more strongly on the postformal and transpersonal psychological models of stage development, drawing on numerous psychological theories which he then compares with the cultural-historical and sociological theories of Gebser, Habermas and others. Because most of the socio-cultural evolution theorists he chooses to discuss do not theorise stages beyond formal/modernist or postformal/postmodernist (except for Duane Elgin) Wilber begins to draw more strongly on theories from transpersonal psychology and spiritual development to support his claims for higher cultural stages. Unfortunately because he did not research Steiner’s theories more fully he seems unaware that Steiner was also a socio-cultural macrohistorian who theorised higher/future cultural stages (see Galtung & Inayatullah,1997). I intend to undertake further research on this area. In Integral Psychology, drawing more strongly on the postformal psychology literature, he begins to conflate the developmental psychology stages and Gebser’s cultural historical research. Wilber appears to associate both “pluralisim (early vision-logic)” and “universal integralism(middle to late vision-logic)” with Gebser’s integral-aperspectival structure (Wilber 2000b, pp. 26-27, 167-168). However, in Integral Spirituality (Wilber, 2006) (his main “Wilber V” publication), he begins to apply the psychological stages to Gebser’s cultural worldviews, incorrectly attributing to Gebser an additional stage “pluralistic” between “rational” and “integral” (pp. 68-69). This is not correct and thus leads me to conclude that his cultural historical detail is less consistent than his psycho-developmental research. If you are interested, I have discussed these issues in more depth in my article The Evolution of Consciousness as a Planetary Imperative (Gidley, 2007b, pp. 100-101,119-120). There is so much that emerged from my research that it is difficult to summarise without glossing, which I do not want to do.

Some of the common themes in their ideas about the emergent consciousness are that:

1) it integrates previous structures of consciousness;

2) it transcends the dualisms of spirit and matter (e.g. Steiner's spiritual-science),masculine and feminine (e.g., Gebser's integrum), logic and imagination (e.g., Wilber's vision-logic);

3) it has a component of awakening spiritual awareness;

4) it is self-reflective and conscious of its own language, though this is emphasised more strongly by Steiner and Gebser than Wilber.

But this is just a beginning, Markus. One of my interests in this research, as someone who has been working with Steiner's seminal ideas for decades, is why Steiner's major contributions to so many fields has been so ignored—not only in the mainstream academy, but also in much of integral theory. Some of the fascinating things that I have discovered about Steiner's contribution to this discourse are that he began to speak and write about the evolution of consciousness as early as 1904 (ten years before Sri Aurobindo, decades before Gebser and Teilhard de Chardin, and almost a century before Wilber). Steiner was also using the term integral in a similar way to Sri Aurobindo and Gebser long before the others. For example, he was writing about "integral evolution" compared with "Darwinian evolution" as early as 1906. Ironically, none of this outstanding contribution appears in the integral canon developed by Wilber. By contrast, Steiner’s significant contribution has been acknowledged in the theorising of integral philosophers from the California Institute of Integral Studies (McDermott, 1996, 2001;Tarnas, 1991). I have discussed these findings in more detail in my doctoral dissertation(Gidley, 2008b).Finally, as I have no interest in taking a syncretic approach, which only synthesises the similarities between them in some kind of new universalising meta-narrative, I have also focused on their differences — the particularities in their views and approaches (Gidley,2007b)."