Gebser’s Research Methodology

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Jennifer Gidley:


"Unlike Steiner and Wilber, whose writings encompass vast territories, Gebser’s interest was primarily consciousness evolution—particularly the emergence of integral consciousness— through what he saw as cultural mutations or sudden leaps. In an article, first published in German in 1956, but not translated into English until 1996, Gebser discusses the contribution of cultural philosophy towards facilitating the emergence of integral-aperspectival consciousness. He described this methodology of cultural philosophy as proceeding through phenomenological, comparative, coordinating and finally reductive work.

I will summarize these four stages as follows including extracts of his words:

• Firstly, “comprehending the results of the various natural sciences and humanistic disciplines”—as a type of cultural phenomenology;

• The second step is “to compare the individual phenomena;”

• Thirdly, the task is to “coordinate these phenomena to bring out their common denominator;”

• Finally, there is an attempt to “reduce the most diverse by thematically related phenomena to the elements of their fundamental structure” (Gebser, 1996a, p. 80).

Intriguingly, this process appears very similar to Wilber’s methodology of orienting generalizations discussed below (see: Wilber's Research Methodology), though I am not aware of any source where Wilber makes this connection or whether he is even aware of this particular article or of Gebser’s stated methodology. This could provide further important theoretical grounding for Wilber’s methodology. Gebser also considered his work to have been indirectly influenced by Sri Aurobindo. In another context, Gebser stated that he first became aware of his concept of the formation of anew consciousness “by a flash-like intuition in the winter of 1932-33. . . . I see an explanation for this phenomenon in the fact that I was in some way brought into the extremely powerful spiritual field of force radiating through Sri Aurobindo” (Mohrhoff, 1992, p. 1). Gebser acknowledges that such an insight only has personal validity, but that he spent the next 17 years in deep, scholarly research and that the “quotations and references to such sources are intended to lend a generally valid evidential character to the personal validity of the original conception” (Gebser,1949/1985, p. xxviii). Elsewhere, Gebser (1949/1985) summarized the intent of his methodology as follows: “Our ‘method’ is not just a ‘measured’ assessment, but above this an attempt at ‘diaphony’ or rendering transparent” (p. 7). Gebser’s truth claims are integrated with his entire approach. The way that he has endeavored to characterize the various structures of consciousness by enactment and illustration as well as explanation, is integral to his methodology of what he calls “imparting of truth.” His notion of truth however is not merely a concept, but an attempt to enter into the depth of things and to render them transparent.

Integral reality is the world’s transparency, a perceiving of the world as truth: a mutual perceiving and imparting of truth of the world and of man and of all that transluces both.(Gebser, 1949/1985, p. 19)Clearly, his notion of truth is not static. Gebser’s context was different from Steiner’s in that he had experienced first-hand the catastrophic results when Social Darwinism was hybridized with Nazism. In this seminal work on consciousness, he (Gebser, 1949/1985) problematizes terms such as evolution, development and progress referring to their serious limitations in the following words. “The rationalistic thought-cliché of “progress” (more often than not a progression away from origin) the biologizing notion of evolution, and the botanizing idea of development are all inapplicable to the phenomenon of consciousness” (p. 38-39). He throws further light on this view in his last book—which is not yet officially available in English—but first published in German in 1970,three years before his death. A recent informal translation (Gebser, 1970/2005) indicates the distinction he makes between his alternative view and the evolutionary theories of his day. Evolution is in this view neither progress nor development, but crystallization of the invisible in the visible, that should be achieved by adequate work . . . The presently valid evolutionary theories including that of development and progress are hardly older than 100years. They deal merely with one part of reality . . . i.e. only the visible and conclusive. The total reality as far as it is accessible to us comprises however also the other half that is invisible to us. Later, in that document, he endorsed the involution theories of Sri Aurobindo, which clearly underpinned his evolution of consciousness approach."


"Gebser’s writing also developed across two major phases: the first phase being primarily artistic, the second cultural-philosophical. This unique development has led to the seamless infusion of artistry into the text of his philosophical work. His major contribution to this narrative has a mediating flavor to it. His obvious temporal mediation between Steiner and Wilber is an elegant metaphor for a deeper, less tangible, mediation between them. Steiner’s focus is the territory beyond Kant’s knowledge barrier, with little cartographic assistance on the long and arduous journey to the perceptions he describes. By contrast Wilber’s focus is to map the multiplicity of components — rarely entering the deeper territory—in some ways upholding the Kantian split between his different writing styles. What Gebser offers is something in between these two rather extreme emphases. He unquestionably dives deeply into the concrete particularities of phenomena, providing thick descriptions of the structures of consciousness he identifies. However, his cultural philosophy of consciousness, although complex and challenging to read, is also structured in a way that does provide guidance to the reader. He takes a systematically layered approach to unfolding the development of each structure and also provides much additional information from many different perspectives in order to gradually deepen the understanding. His Ever-Present Origin is a uniquely structured book as it can be read in many different ways. It seems to express the spherical nature of integral-aperspectival consciousness itself. It is my observation that Gebser succeeded, not only in formalizing and exemplifying a new consciousness through his numerous examples across most fields of knowledge, but also, in providing a new model of how to write integrally. He managed to balance the rigorous scholarship required to stand firmly in the 20th century academic context with poetic artistry to reveal the potential vitality, imagination, conceptual direction and spiritual awareness that awaits us in the coming times as we awaken into integral consciousness. Since our insight into the energies pressing toward development aids their unfolding, the seedlings and inceptive beginnings must be made visible and comprehensible." (Gebser,1949/1985, p. 4)


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