The evolution of process in various domains appears to occur through a series of relatively discrete stages, which finds one of its most basic forms in the three-stage schema of premodern, modern, and an apparently emerging mode after the postmodern. G.W.F. Hegel, William James, C.G. Jung, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and many others have generally employed this three-stage schema, whether explicitly or implicitly, and I will often refer to these broad stages extrapolated from these various conceptual systems. However, some theorists have subdivided these overarching divisions in finer detail. For instance, Jean Gebser traces a five-stage schema—archaic, magic, mythical, mental, and integral—further subdividing each stage into “efficient” and “deficient” phases. I will generally employ Gebser’s five-stage schema when a finer-grained approach is wanted, as I have found his terminology and his description of these stages to be the clearest and most useful articulation of the more specific phases of ingression.
These five stages appear to manifest fractally in various progressions at different scales: from nonlife to prokaryotic life to animality to hominidity to human consciousness on the scale of evolution; from unfertilized egg to infant to child to adolescent to adult in individual human development; and from archaic to magic to mythical to mental and, perhaps, on to a novel mode in the collective development of human consciousness. These phases of process are rarely completely distinct from one another, as each stage generally contains the earlier stages within it as the very constitution of its emergence, and there are many compromise formations, regressions, and side roads that complicate the discernment of these stages of development. Furthermore, in contradistinction to premodern and modern hierarchical modes, the emergent view of developmental stages generally asserts that no stage is qualitatively superior to any other stage. So the adult is not superior to the child, who possesses profound imaginal capacities that are inevitably diluted by passage into the more complex later stages. Similarly, earlier cultures possess forms of knowledge and activity that developmentally subsequent stages have generally forgotten, or which have become diminished from neglect. However, while an earlier stage may be viewed as a “golden age” by some, the emerging mode does not usually deem these originary phases of process as qualitatively superior to later stages.
At our historical moment in the early twenty-first century, we live in a world in which cultures at all stages of development coexist, starting with a very few scattered instances of archaic humans, such as those rare children raised by animals, for example, abiding in an undifferentiated, dreamlike, preverbal consciousness nearly indistinguishable from the modes of relation experienced by the most conscious animals such as dogs, cats, and nonhuman primates. However, we have all experienced this mode of consciousness in ourselves and in others as infancy, a stage of development when there is essentially no awareness of self. It seems that this stage of consciousness in humans is only separable from a similar mode in nonhuman primates by the intuitively felt capacity to go beyond this phase facilitated through the enlarged neocortex of the human brain. At this archaic stage, one is essentially an animal, only transcending animality in the completely unarticulated bodily sense that one is destined for something more. But this is not a judgment of value, as the archaic stage is Adam and Eve in the Garden, a pure and undifferentiated innocence and embeddedness to be cherished, and to which we should all perhaps occasionally return. In fact, we do seem to return to something like the archaic stage of awareness every night in dreams.
A significantly larger group of people apparently abide in uncontacted or isolated tribes that primarily inhabit the magic stage of consciousness, though this group still appears to be a small percentage of the current overall world population. In this world view, a self emerges, but this self is pre-egoic and almost completely permeable with the world and with others, so that the inner dialogue, made possible by the emergence of language at this stage, does not differentiate between what is imagined and what the modern mind would generally conceive as external, material reality. One awakens to a body, but the experience of being in magical consciousness is constituted in what mentality would subsequently demarcate into world and mind thinking and feeling together as an undifferentiated unity. Instead of a subject perceiving an object, the magical mode perceives what is, or at least what appears to be at that stage, swimming in a fluid, dreamlike mélange of images, emotions, and significations.
The material production characteristic of magical culture is simple tools and weapons, talismans of various sorts, and cave paintings. However, in a magical culture, the shamans are those individuals who employ what Mircea Eliade calls “techniques of ecstasy,” from fasting and wilderness exposure to psychoactive plants, dance, and vocalization to perceive intimations of further stages of consciousness. It appears from testimonies of these individuals that these ecstatically induced intimations would generally be located in the mythical, but may occasionally go beyond that immediately subsequent mode to experience, however briefly, the mental or the currently emerging mode, or perhaps even later stages as yet unrealized, though these more distant stages would be almost impossible to communicate or sustain in a cultural milieu whose verbal structures and premises about the nature of reality are primarily magical. And we can all recognize this stage of process by remembering our early childhood, a phase that can be grown beyond by different individuals in various cultures at a range of ages, but from which most individuals in our era eventually emerge. However, shamanic “techniques of ecstasy” can certainly be practiced in the context of subsequent stages by individuals who have attained modern mentality, especially in the integrative mode, which specifically integrates the previous modes in an emergent synthesis, incorporating the unique capacities of each stage.
It seems that for a large proportion of people in the present, though perhaps no longer a majority, their gravitational center of consciousness is located in the mythical stage, which is the stage of ancient religions and systems of thought that accompanied the entrance into history and the first signs of what we would consider civilization: writing, agriculture, cities, commerce, laws, kings, and above all, gods. This is the mode of consciousness that permeated Pharaonic Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, and that produced the code of Hammurabi and Cuneiform tablets. This is the stage of cognizance that the ancient Hebrews first began to go beyond in their rejection of idols, and that Cortes and his crew encountered in Montezuma and the Aztecs in the 1519 meeting that would mark the incipient colonization of the Americas by Europe at the dawn of modernity. Whenever a culture or a group within a culture could conceivably be described as prerational or premodern (though these potentially problematic designations are structurally equivalent to calling a child a “pre-adult”), this usually means that we are encountering the mythical stage of consciousness. In fact, contemporary fundamentalist religious movements, particularly in both Christianity and Islam, appear generally to be composed of the mythically situated masses often cynically led by individuals who have achieved enough mentality to manipulate and control those whose consciousness has stabilized in the mythical mode. However, developmentally later modes can find great value in the capacities individuated by the mythical mode of thought, as well as the archaic and magic modes, forms of knowledge and perception which must be reintegrated if we are to move past the deficient mental phase characteristic of late modernity.
Although there were intimations of mentality in the disclosures of many ancient mythical systems, the first eruption of rational consciousness on a large scale seems to have taken place during the heart of what historian Karl Jaspers has called the “Axial Age” centered on the approximately fifty-year period in the sixth century B.C.E. when many of the world’s most transformative religious and philosophical figures lived, including the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mahavira, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Second Isaiah, Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Sappho, Thespis, Solon, and possibly Zoroaster—in other words the beginnings of Greek philosophy and science, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, and a transformed Judaic religion. This profoundly creative period built the foundations for the eventual emergence of rationality as the dominant cultural force in modernity, though it required around twenty centuries of thought, debate, war, upheaval, invention, and discovery for the mental mode of thought to begin to be articulated comprehensively, a process that appears to be nearing completion five centuries further on in late modernity. The Renaissance and Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the ages of Enlightenment and Revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the age of imperialism, romanticism, and idealism in the nineteenth century, and through all this the development of science and technology have mediated the emergence of the mental stage as the dominant cultural mode in the West and, only in the last few decades, perhaps in the world. In the central spheres of modern culture, the attainment of rationality by the individual is the mark of entrance into full adulthood, and there seems to us something childish, and perhaps deficient or even dangerous, in a grown person who still primarily inhabits the mythical mode of consciousness but is embedded in a predominantly rationalist society.
[This post is an excerpt from The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View]