The Missing Imaginal Faculty: A Few Notes on the Pre-Trans Fallacy

One of the more notable contributions to the field of transpersonal theory has been Ken Wilber’s proposal of the “Pre-Trans Fallacy.” If I understand this critique correctly, it is a middle path between Romanticists on one hand, and Reductionists on the other. While the “Pre” side of this fallacy imagines a spiritual past that was better than the present, the “Trans” denigrates all spiritual, mystical states to infantile regressions. Freud reduced religious experience to the “oceanic” consciousness in prenatal memory. Romantics, it is argued, elevate previous ages – like the Yugas – to a level of spiritual superiority, while pre-adulthood as a kind of mystical unity consciousness we should all aspire to return to.

According to Wilber, both the Romanticists and the Reductionists are wrong. It’s true there was never a literal, better past. It’s true that, if you take an evolutionary perspective, then previous historical periods were not superior. It’s also true that they didn’t experience the level of alienation from Nature, or even a sense of the Sacred, that we do in our secular world. Now, Wilber suggests, it is because they were blissfully unaware of their alienation; they had yet to awaken to the daylight world of Camus. Safely encapsulated in their mythos – which had genuine insight in a more analogical mode of thinking – they had not yet poked out of the cocooning membrane of pre-consciousness.

I follow Wilber to this point. This is also where we diverge.

My problem is, admittedly, subtle. But subtle is significant, as the mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young often remarks. So what’s wrong with this picture of evolution that Wilber is painting for us? The issue is that Wilber’s Pre-Trans Fallacy is implicitly biased for the Reductionists. That is, it’s a modernist perspective. A dated one, at that.

Historical societies – our ancestors – and living, indigenous cultures today are not “blissfully unaware” of the existential angst. Perhaps, relative to a secular consciousness, they are – but just as so are we woefully amiss to understand them. Certainly it would be foolish to shrug off the previous historical periods as developmentally inferior. Humans don’t work like that. Cultures don’t work that way. History isn’t developmentally linear.

Modern anthropological scholarship tells us that earlier societies – and societies outside of the West – are complex and highly sophisticated in their own right. A modern social scientist would be remiss to claim, for instance, that indigenous cultures were developmentally inferior to a cosmopolitan, secular Western society. Evolutionary biologists, too, would be remiss to claim anything about humans being the most advanced species on Earth. We have a particular line of specialization – big brains, bipedalism, etc. – that are uniquely afforded to us. While I am interested in the theological interpretations of evolutionary theory – via Teilhard de Chardin and others – it’s important to keep some of the more grandiose claims in check.

Outside mainstream scholarship we find we have an alternative to Wilber’s modernist bias, the Romantics and the Reductionists alike.

While we should be careful about how we lump all pre-modern societies (and even question that term), we can at least recognize that secular consciousness has had what many scholars call the problem of disenchantment. Sociologists, anthropologists, religious scholars and theologians have commented on this heavily. Henry Corbin is useful here in this respect. The philosophical turn towards a secular conception of the world, alienated from both nature and the religious imagination, was for Corbin a loss of a certain imaginative faculty of the human being. Imagination, for Corbin, was a mode of thinking in some ways distinct from rational thought. It was a medial sense. This imaginative faculty, like rationalism or logic, allowed us to experience the world and encounter it. We can’t do without it. In fact, he believed it lead us into a kind of ontological reality of the Imagination that he elsewhere called the Mundus Imaginalis, or the Imaginal World.

Corbin heavily critiqued the denigration of the imagination to “mere fantasy,”* instead appreciating it as a unique power of the human to think about the world in a sophisticated – sometimes religious and mystical – state of consciousness.

Now back to Wilber.

Our ancestors, it is fair to assume, had certain levels of sophistication that were different than ours. If we take Corbin’s claim on the imaginative faculty seriously, we might now understand that the use of the Imagination in order to – borrowing a word from J.F. Martel – comprehend the “Real”, enabled them to disclose characteristics of the world we cannot. They are not, as C.S. Lewis claimed they were in conversation with Tolkien, “lies breathed through silver.”

There was no Golden Age, and the previous centuries were far from perfect. But we must imagine the evolution of consciousness not to be a stifling linearity. Rather, it is a meandering gain and loss, transformation and death. Integrality, it could be argued, as a philosophy, is a recognition that the Real can be disclosed through various modalities, and these faculties of the human being have opened and closed across the penumbral tumults of history.

We shouldn’t forget though, that we are not merely secular, either. We are a plurality of consciousness. The sidereal and nighttime modalities of consciousness – that imaginal and that magical – these things were lost as we moved along, but they are not entirely gone. They emerge and crop up in the modern world in surprising ways, if we would only look carefully at how mythological our technology can be, and how religious our secular ideologies are. We are haunted by the specters of an enchanted world and our machines rattle with the living ghost.

It might be fair to say, here, at the end, that the Pre-Trans fallacy is incomplete without recognizing the imaginative faculty, and incorrect if we are assessing our previous historical ages from the centrism of modernist thinking. The past is alive and erupts in us, presently, if we could recognize it.

Recommended Readings:

Martel, J.F. "Ramble on the Real"

Corbin, Henry. Alone with the Alone

Cheetham, Tom. The World Turned Inside Out

Wilber, Ken. Eye of Spirit

Wilber, Ken. Collected Works, Volume 2

*Also see Coleridge on his distinction between Primary and Secondary Imagination.