Tag: William James

Recent talks, and a forgotten teacher

Here are some links to some talks I’ve given in recent months.

A Secret History of Consciousness, a three part series of lectures for the Theosophical Society, based on my book A Secret History of Conscious

In Part One: The Search for Cosmic Consciousness, I look at some contemporary scientific views about consciousness, and contrast these with the experiences of R.M. Bucke, William James, P.D. Ouspensky and others with what they called “cosmic consciousness.” How cosmic was it? Find out.

In Part Two: Esoteric Evolution, I trace a counter-tradition of evolutionary thought, beginning with Madame Blavatsky’s critique of Darwin, and leading to Rudolf Steiner’s strange union of theosophical cosmology and Goethean epistemology.

In Part Three The Presence of Origin, I give an overview of the life and work of the German-Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser, whose ideas about the “structures of consciousness” offer important insights into our contemporary post-everything world.

Here’s a video of a symposium on the Swedish mystic and artist Hilma Af Klint that I contributed to some years ago at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, 2013.

A cheery conversation about death.

A talk about Owen Barfield.

The “forgotten teacher” mentioned above is Maurice Nicoll, who taught the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky Work in England for many years in the first half of the last century. Nicoll started out as the leading British disciple of Jung, but after meeting Ouspensky in late 1921, he switched his allegiance to the Fourth Way. Nicoll spent a year at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France, and on his return to London continued his studies under Ouspensky. In 1931, he was deputised to teach the Work himself, which he did until his death in 1953. He is most known for his exhaustive Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and for his books The New Man, The Mark, – which deal with an “esoteric” reading of the Gospels – and Living Time, which marked him as, in J.B. Priestley’s words, a “time-haunted man.” He was also the author of the first book on Jung’s psychology written in English, Dream Psychology. Nicoll was also a deep reader of the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, and those familiar with Swedenborg’s, and Jung’s, ideas, will be aware of their presence in the later volumes of Nicoll’s Commentaries.

I have been asked to write a book about Nicoll, a sympathetic but critical study to complement the portraits of him left by some of his followers. A Go Fund Me page has been set up, asking support for this project. Readers of this blog know that I’ve written books about Jung, Ouspensky, and Swedenborg, and that Gurdjieff often turns up in my other books. I’ve written an article about Nicoll, published in Quest magazine a few years back, that should explain why he is important. The fact that he had Jung, Gurdjieff, and Ouspensky for teachers is enough to make him unique among modern seekers of wisdom. But that he introduced Jungian and Swedenborgian ideas into a Fourth Way teaching makes him an unusual instructor in that tradition. Nicoll was also keenly interested in the latest developments in science, in the work of Erwin Schrodinger, and the early findings in split-brain psychology, which was just beginning to get started toward the end of Nicoll’s life. Gurdjieff had entrusted Nicoll with the task of bringing the science of the west and the wisdom of the east into some creative union and in his last days he began to do just that.

Nicoll has been served well by his earlier biographers, Beryl Pogson and Sam Copley, but they were students and understandably biased toward their teacher. A recent discovery of a 1000+ page set of Nicoll’s diaries, covering crucial times in his life, also makes a new, non-partisan study of his life and work timely. Among other things, Nicoll’s diaries show a man struggling to find some way of life, some discipline, that could help him to unify and harmonise what for him were two mutually powerful but often antithetical drives, toward the spirit and toward the senses, toward the inner life of the soul, and the outer one of the body. A short video of an interview with me about Nicoll and why he deserves a new look can be found at the Go Fund Me page.

Secret Teachers at Reality Sandwich

My friends at the Reality Sandwich site have posted an excerpt from The Secret Teachers of the Western World. It’s the closing sections of the Introduction, where I present the main argument of the book, that the western esoteric tradition has been the victim of a “consciousness war” going on for the last four centuries, the protagonists of which are our two cerebral hemispheres.

This tradition – which we can also call the “western consciousness tradition”-  has never disappeared. It has only gone underground, and its work has been carried on by many individuals, the “secret teachers” of the book. These range from full-on esoteric figures like Madame Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, to more mainstream thinkers like William James, Henri Bergson, and Plato, the father of western philosophy. I chart the contributions these “secret teachers” and others have made to western consciousness, from the distant past of ancient Greece, to our contemporary “post-everything” world, and suggest that, although we are undoubtedly going through a time of crisis, there is no cause for despair. The very precipice we seem to be teetering on may trigger a profound and much needed shift in our consciousness and enable us, in the words of the poet W. B. Yeats, to “complete our partial mind.”

Consciousness Evolves at the CIIS

This fall I’ll be teaching an online course in the evolution of consciousness for the California Institute of Integral Studies, based on my book A Secret History of Consciousness. We will be looking at the work of William James, Henri Bergson, P.D. Ouspensky, Colin Wilson, Jean Gebser, Rudolf Steiner and other thinkers, in an attempt to trace the outline of what I call “participatory epistemology,” an overly abstract term for the fundamental insight that consciousness does not merely mirror the world, but actually participates in bringing it into being. I will be trying to link a phenomenological analysis of consciousness to some central esoteric themes. The class code is TDS 8225 and you can find it the CIIS course listings. The description of the course currently on view is different from what we’ll be looking at, and is from a previous class. Here’s an overview of what we’ll be doing:

TSD 8225 ‘Evolution of Consciousness’


For the last four centuries, science has tried to account for everything in terms of atoms and molecules and the physical laws they obey. In recent years, this effort has been extended to include the inner world of human beings, with debatable results. But throughout the period of science’s dominance, there has been another approach which sees consciousness not as a result of neurons and molecules, but as the creative force behind them. In this view of consciousness, ‘meaning’ is not something we passively absorb from the outer world, but is a product of consciousness’ interaction with reality. In this approach, consciousness is a living, evolving presence whose different stages can be charted through different historical periods.


This course will focus on how the idea of an evolution of consciousness is presented in the work of both esoteric thinkers such as Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, P.D. Ouspensky and others, but also in the ideas of mainstream philosophers such as William James and Henri Bergson. It will also look at the important but little known work of contemporary thinkers such as Jean Gebser, Colin Wilson, Jurij Moskvitin and others. The central text is my book A Secret History of Consciousness with forays into the work of the different thinkers discussed in an attempt to uncover the secrets of this important current in the history of the human mind.


I’m not sure if you need to be a full-time CIIS student in order to take the course, or if it’s available to people outside the Institute, but I will be posting more information and links as they become available. In any case, it’s an honour to be doing the course and I’m thrilled about having an opportunity to share and discuss these ideas with others.