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May 28, 2023

Integral Wisdom Blog: Mile-high Manjushri

Ken Wilber, Integral Theory, and The End of The World as We Know It

by Dr. Zachary Stein

zakThese are some reflections on the work of Ken Wilber. I’ve been studying his writings for almost half my life. We’ve met a couple times (that is Ken, Rollie, and me pictured), talked at some length on the phone, and exchanged countless e-mails. Ken’s got vocal critics and Kool-aid drinking followers. I’m neither of those. I’m more of what is sometimes called an “integral kid,” meaning I’ve been reading Ken since before I could drink legally. There is a unique kind of indebtedness to those teachers who brought you out of adolescence. But it also means I’ve grown up with, in, and out of this way of thinking. So I have a special kind of distancing and even reactivity and withdrawal from it, again, like one also has with one’s best teachers. All things considered, I think you gotta love and be fascinated by all his books…

Anyway, this is mostly just me yawning at all the simplistic and pedantic Wilber haters….

Theorizing at the edge of history

If we are going to take a step in the transition from civilization to planetization, we will need a map. Each of us carries within, an image of space and time, and this cognitive map tells us who we are, where we come from, and where we are going…. [This map is] an imaging of personal values and cultural forms…. A culture provides an individual with a mapping of time and space, but as the culture goes through a period of change and stressful transformation, the [map] becomes distorted. In periods of intense cultural distortion, the [map] becomes so changed as to be almost obliterated. Then the individual becomes lost, profoundly lost in the ontological sense of not knowing who or what he is, where he comes from, and where he is going. For some this can be a moment of terror, for others, a time of release. In a moment of silence in which the old forms fall away, there comes a new receptivity, a new centering inward, and in an instant there flashes onto the screen of consciousness a new re-visioning of the [map]. There in the receptive silences of meditation the new possibilities of time and space announce themselves, possibilities that lie beyond the descriptions of the old institutions of the old culture. This is the prophetic moment, the annunciation of a new myth, and the beginning of a new culture.

—Thompson (1977 p.14)

Philosophers work in socio-cultural contexts, under historically specific conditions, with access to certain communication technologies, libraries, and media. Ken Wilber has been publishing books since 1971, producing a corpus that spans well over 10,000-thousand pages. He has worked with the changing times, from pen and paper to word processor, to the personal computer, and eventually to Internet facilitated multi-media educational initiatives. Moreover, Wilber has worked in response to a dynamically transforming American culture during a period of tremendous global change.

Popular philosophical movements are especially symptomatic of their times. In retrospect historical moments are often best understood in terms of the ideas that thrived during them. Athenian Democracy and the Sophists and Socrates, Medieval Europe and the Church, The American and French Revolutions and the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and Darwinism and Romanticism—no trick of critical historiography could disentangle these groupings of ideas and events, these civilizational eras. What ideas will be associated with the past 60 years, the era since the start of the so-called American Century? What have been the popular philosophies in the post-industrial social systems that emerged after World War II? This question is complicated by the dynamics of the era, which witnessed explosive advances in informational technologies that enabled an unprecedented diffusion of ideas before a growing global public. It is too soon to tell, but the culture of late capitalism—post-modern culture—may very well be defined in terms of its having lacked dominant comprehensive doctrines (Habermas, 1990; Jameson, 1992). This has affected all aspects of life, from the media-saturated textures of our action-orienting self-understandings to the economic policies that structure national geographies.

Today we are witnessing the end of the culture of late capitalism. And as post-industrial societies reconfigure into the shape of tomorrow’s planetary civilization there are competing visions as to what the accompanying World Philosophies will be. There are, of course, the classic religious traditions with worldcentric intentions; East and West, the great traditions have been universalistic, seeking to unite all humanity under a truth deemed true for all humanity. The traditions experienced invigoration and fragmentation during the post-modern decades and have, on the whole, been overwhelmed by their own histories of blood, land, and ideological conquest. Nevertheless, the notion of a trans-traditional World Spirituality that might transcend but include the great religions strikes me as a viable candidate World Philosophy with some traction in the public sphere and civil society.

Other “global noetic-polities” (Thompson, 2004) will likely emerge as a part of the complex planetary organizations being built to handle increasingly frequent large-scale humanitarian and ecological crises. It is an open question as to whether these new post-national configurations will embody new political worldviews and socio-cultural practices or if they will simply be bottling old ideological-wine in new casks. It seems clearly preferable that institutions of global reach be guided by worldcentric ideas and values. But as organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund demonstrate, the rhetoric of economic globalism is already upon us and threatens to deliver us to a world of robust international interconnectedness and competition but devoid of any universal values except the bottom line (Harvey, 2015).

This kind of neo-liberal “globalization” should not be confused with the evolutionary process of planetization; the later is a term coined by Teilhard de Chardin, the former is a term coined by financiers. The Marx-inspired image of an awakened humanity capable of retooling the channels built by global capitalism in the name of human dignity and justice is a powerful one. But it begs the question as to how human dignity and global justice should be conceived in the face of an indelible pluralism of cultural values and norms, let alone how such universalistic conceptions might be made available as a common point of reference in an emerging planetary public sphere.

This is how I frame the following considerations about Wilber’s Integral Theory. I see Wilber’s corpus as an example of a new species of planetary public philosophy. It is the kind of World Philosophy around which some of tomorrow’s planetary culture might congeal. I’m not suggesting that Integral Theory will become a hegemon. Rather, I think it is better to see Wilber’s writings as a certain type of emergent cultural phenomenon, one with clear historical antecedences, but which also has new characteristics, distinctly 21st Century characteristics that are beyond the post-modern mind (Smith, 1989). Moreover, it is a public philosophy with global reach, widely translated and with copious audio and video offerings on the world-wide-web.

Tomorrow’s public intellectuals

It helps to distinguish here between two types of public and publicity. In today’s media society, the public sphere serves those who have gained celebrity as a stage on which to present themselves. Visibility is the real purpose of public appearances. The price that stars pay for this kind of presence in the mass media is the conflation of their private and public lives. The intention behind participation in political, literary, or scholarly debates or any contribution to public discourse, by contrast, is quite different. Here reaching agreement on a particular topic or clarifying reasonable decent takes priority over the self-presentation of the author. This public is not a space of viewers and listeners but an arena in which speakers and interlocutors exchange questions and answers. Rather than everyone else’s gaze being focused on the celebrity, an exchange of opinions and reasons takes place.

—Habermas (2008, p12)

With the birth of the bourgeois public sphere in the 17th Century came the emergence of the public intellectual—e.g., the academic, philosopher, or scientists—who gives voice to issues of broad interest using a public forum or form of media. The inclusiveness and reach of open public discourse has been continually increasing for the past several centuries (Habermas, 1979; 1984). There has been and continues to be stratification, both in terms of access and participation. But even despite today’s so-called ‘digital divide,’ which marks a real difference of educational opportunity between economic classes, when put in historical context, our era is one that is hyper-communicative and media-saturated. This ever-expanding availability of “public space” and possible audiences has transformed the role of the public intellectual, who now must address a polycentric planetary culture.

A global book and newspaper consuming public followed in the wake of the World Wars, as massive international publishing houses partnered with the first modern large-scale research universities (Cremin, 1988). Radios and televisions found there way into every home and the first global public moments were shared, experienced with rapt attention by a privilege few in the newly post-industrial West. Along the way, as the Beatles’ became bigger than Jesus, celebrities went cosmopolitan, and thought leaders began to address a global public as communications technologies set pace. Los Angeles and New York began to transmit culture as the first global megalopolises. Hollywood films, mass-produced images, and the accoutrements of the post-war “cultural industry” became increasingly geared toward international dissemination. America emerged in the post-war decades as the dominant exporter of cultural and intellectual trends, addressing the world as from a city upon the hill. And the emergence of a truly global audience transfigured the shape of publicity and came to restructure the demands placed on the personalities populating the global stage, some of whom have been philosophers.

Kant echoed the Stoics in arguing that philosophers ought to engage a cosmopolitan audience. Today this involves utilizing the affordances of global post-industrial entertainment-oriented communications technologies to address a planetary public. Dewey, Sartre, Russell, Habermas, and dozens of other public intellectuals began a trend toward explicitly addressing a planetary public in “real time” through whatever media was available. The industrial era climaxed with the engineering of computers and biotechnology, and these first meta-industrial economies have flourished as transnational enterprises. The digital media and Internet have radically transfigured the communicative affordances of the public sphere, affecting a kind of semantic centrifugal force, with public meaning spreading outward into expanding networks of increasingly complex informational environments. These 21st Century trends can work against the interests of a critical public philosophy. Habermas (2009, p. 53):

The Internet has led to an expansion and fragmentation of communication networks. Thus, although the Internet has a subversive affect on public spheres under authoritative regimes, at the same time the horizontal and informal networking of communications diminishes the achievements of [industrial-democratic] public spheres. For the latter pools the attention of a dispersed public within a political community for selected messages, so that citizens can address the same critically filtered issues and contributions at the same time. The price of a welcome increase in egalitarianism due to the Internet is a decentering of the modes of access to [information]. In this medium the contributions of intellectuals can no longer constitute a focal point.

The effect Habermas is pointing out here goes beyond recognizing the detriments of the informational shallows (Carr, 2010), the mediated and post-modern (Zengotita, 2003), and the now frequent observation that we are a distracted society overwhelmed by a commoditized media (NYT, 2010). Habermas offers a deeper message about the structural transformations of the public sphere. The structures of our communication technologies and media providers themselves are shifting from concentric hierarchical national networks to polycentric heterarchical international lattices (Benkler, 2006).

The use of the term decentering in the quote above is a nod to Piaget (1971), who used it to refer to a process in epistemological development wherein the a child puts their own perspective in perspective as they are cognitively pushed out from the center of the universe. Decentering is a process that leads to decreasing narcissism and increasing objectivity and multi-persectivalism. Habermas sees how the lattices of communication technologies that now encircle the planet have already started shifting patterns of cultural hegemony and influence, leading in the direction of increased cultural complexity and multiplicity.

The planetary culture that is emerging through the digital media is without governance (and arguably ungovernable), it is without a regent nexus, and thus without a dominant historical narrative or vision of its own future. Social-media entertainment devices already figure prominently in childhood identity formation processes and computers are replacing televisions and radios in many homes. Recent accelerations in the development and dissemination of communication and information technologies have set the lifeworld adrift, as traditions of cultural transmission are altered irreversibly. When photographs were first widely introduced they radically affected collective memory and education. Now hundreds of millions of people traffic in photos (and videos) that are digital and can be instantly sent almost anywhere in the world. Obama does not give fireside chats for us to listen to by radio; he streams weakly addresses via YouTube in multiple languages, self-consciously broadcasting to a global public. An emerging planetary culture is just beginning to take up life within the informational infrastructures of global capitalism; this is the new frontier of education, democracy, and liberational agency. The public intellectual must now build a constituency through web-based communication networks. Affecting public opinion and will formation requires working with decentralized media outlets and leveraging the new digital-grassroots of the blogosphere. Organizing large-scale social change entails working to forge non-local noetic-polities by communicatively linking-up geographically diverse centers of local activity (Harris, Moffit, & Squires, 2010).

In this light, Wilber’s choreographed digital popularization appears as an undue cause for derision from critics and an illegitimate reason for receiving premature dismissals from academics. The complex affordances of the media available to Wilber enabled the transformation of a writer-lecturer (in the tradition of Emerson and Watts) into a copiously conversant and articulate public philosopher, strategic with the new media, linked into book publishing, web-seminars, digital-learning technologies, streaming video and audio content, and magazine appearances. This leaves Wilber looking from afar like a self-styled cyber-celebrity or New Age self-help profiteer, playing digital Guru for power and money. But these kinds of criticisms beg the question as to what a 21st Century planetary public philosophy can and should look like. Can we really anticipate what form intellectual currents will take as they begin circulating in the multimedia-rich planetary public sphere? Moreover, in today’s day and age, what is a public intellectual to do?

Wilber’s initiatives with Integral Institute and its subsidiaries should be considered together with other contemporary projects guided by similar values, and with comparable scope and vision: Aurobindo’s Auroville, Murphy’s Esalen; Thompson’s Lindisfarne; Mitchell’s Institute of Noetic Sciences; Cohen’s EnlighteNext, Gafni’s Center for Integral Wisdom. This is an incomplete list of organizations founded under philosophical auspices for the express purpose of catalyzing our transformation to a planetary culture. Members of these groups act as intellectuals and educationists outside the academy and serve the public interest by engaging in discussions of topics vital to our collective sense of identity. The groups display varying amounts of web-based media dissemination, but all explicitly address a planetary public, and actively work to facilitate open public philosophical debates and inquiries into current events that range beyond both the monoculture of the national mainstream media and the fragmented cacophony of views on the Internet.

too often the medium is the message. A digital-egalitarianism threatens to make all messages equal while trans-national media conglomerates have a reflective public suspicious. But these communications technologies with global reach and multi-media affordances also enable the emergence of near-full sensory immediacy and real-time participation—trans-textual (post- Humanity will have to realize that neither religions, nation-states, nor machines can serve any longer as the appropriate vehicles for human cultural evolution. Each of the mentalities of the past has had its appropriate educational institution to bring forth the new mentality, from the temple to the Pythagorean Academy to the House of Wisdom in Al Kwarizmi’s Baghdad to the modern scientific and technical university. Now a new institution will have to be created to embody and foster our new planetary civilization. My generation did what it could within the political limitations imposed by the commercial materialism, academic nihilism, and religious fanaticism of our time; but the countercultural institutions such as Esalen or my own Lindisfarne Association [ZS: I would add Integral Institute, etc. to this list] were more like crocuses signaling a change of season in early March than they were the hardy trees that could withstand a blizzard in April or a new climate.

—Thompson (2005 p. 49)

The kinds of “cultural ecosystems” that will facilitate the emergence of worldcentric cultural agents will not resemble commoditized media-entertainment or open-platform info-egalitarianism (Thompson, 2009). And the public philosophies of the 21st Century will not come from the academy, although they may transcend but include it. They will be predicated on the innovative use of planetary communication infrastructures, and thus they will be vulnerable to the limitations of these media. The telos of communicative rationality is comprehensive, universal, and cosmopolitan (Habermas, 1979; 1998)—implicit in the structure of every speech act is an appeal for universal consensuses. This sets cultural evolution groping toward planetization. During the course of the evolutionary drift there will likely be dozens of forms of new media aiming to instantiate the cosmopolitan community. Public intellectuals will need to work through emerging channels despite their transience and the large probability that the medium will distort the message.

A great deal of wisdom about the evolution of cultures is contained in Marshall McLuhan’s short and often repeated phrase, “the sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new and invisible environment” (McLuhan, 1964; Thompson, 1998; Zengotita, 2005). It points to a view of cultural evolution wherein a prior era is transcended when its taken-for-granted assumptions can be made explicit and displayed as an object. This is a process of shifting figure and ground and rendering visible what was once merely implicit. It is also a process of “chunking,” of summarizing the prior achievements of a culture so they can be viewed at a sweeping glance— a “miniaturization” of the prior cultural era (Thompson, 2005). Examples abound of this kind of evolutionary cultural redux. The great parks in our major Industrial era cities summarize the Agrarian era subduing of nature. Today’s global and multicultural pop-music industries make visible the Industrial Era taming of indigenous social practices. The results of Wilber’s theoretical imagination also provide an interesting case in point. His writings are relentlessly synthetic and synoptic, making them somewhat akin to miniaturizations of broad cultural domains. They also explicate some of the implicit structures of knowledge production processes currently in use across a wide range of academic and non-academic contexts. These kinds of brief histories of everything are needed during times of cultural transformation because they re-articulate the self-understanding the culture:

A historical curriculum is a miniaturization of one civilization and a transition to the next. The Irish monks of the Western European Dark Ages miniaturized the Greco-Roman civilization into a curriculum of the classics and thus established the foundation for what would become the high civilization of medieval Western Europe. Now it is necessary for us to miniaturize the industrial civilization we are leaving behind in preparation for the planetary civilization we are about to enter.

—Thompson, 2009 p. 11

So while the medium is the message, some messages—like those that “chunk” whole prior eras—are able to transcend their medium. Wilber at his best offers a World Philosophy ahead of its time, using today’s media to intimate tomorrow’s planetary culture. In the culture to come we will witness increasing cultural interanimation: FaceBook using Zen Priests allocating capital toward web-based Dharma focused enterprises; “meta-industrial villages” integrating education, local agriculture, and advanced green technology; globalized entertainment industries marketing trans-national trends (Thompson, 2005). Global capitalism will continue to increase the interconnectedness of mega-populated urban centers and the geopolitical landscape will fracture as it continues to stratify. This will be a world of terror and wonder (Kamin, 2010). It will also be a world seen in terms of many different worldviews.

You can see them as competing worldviews and characterize it as a clash of civilizations (Huntington, 1998). But they can also be seen as worldviews in need of some kind of reconciliation. Wilber’s meta-philosophical principle of non-exclusion, for example, would privilege discourse about finding harmony and isomorphism between cultures, and distilling their valuable complementarities. This is not to downgrade conflict and power (although some see it this way: Edwards, 2009), rather Wilber is articulating a more radically decentered view. Comparable remarks are warranted concerning the so-called New Atheists (Dennett, 2006; Dawkins, 2008), a group of mainstream academics who have deployed rhetorically heavy-handed criticisms of religious culture, which they have broadcast loudly into the public sphere. They also map the cultural terrain in terms of a conflict between scientific worldviews and religious worldviews.

In a planetary public sphere that is overwhelmingly religious, I think that this kind of polarizing and culture-war mongering is counter-productive. When I think about the demands placed on tomorrow’s public philosophy, coursing through the communicative infrastructures of a globalized humanity, it seems that only comprehensive cosmopolitan philosophies will be fit to thrive in that cultural ecology. Importantly, these World Philosophies will need to be more than merely tolerant when it comes to religious cultures. As Both Habermas (2008) and Wilber (1998) have clearly stated, interreligious dialogue and dialogues between science and religion must now both be played out in the global public sphere and as part of cooperative and reciprocal learning processes between cultures.

Integral Theory: The Details

These are orienting generalizations: they show us, with a great deal of agreement, where the important forests are located, even if we can’t agree on how many trees they contain…. If we take these types of largely-agreed-upon orienting generalizations from the various branches of knowledge (from physics to biology to psychology to theology), and if we string these orienting generalizations together, we will arrive at some astonishing and often profound conclusions, conclusions that, as extraordinary as they might be, nonetheless embody nothing more than our already agreed upon knowledge. The beads of knowledge are already accepted: it is only necessary to provide the thread to string them together into a neckless…. working with broad orienting generalizations…delivers up a broad orienting map of the place of men and women in the Universe, LIfe and Spirit, the details of which we can all fill in as we like….

—Ken Wilber (1995, p.5)

Wilber’s meta-theory evolved across several iterations as an elaborate integration of existing theories in the social, biological, and physical sciences. Beginning in psychology and transpersonal psychology, Wilber’s (1977) concept of a “spectrum of consciousness” served a discourse-regulative meta-theoretical function in facilitating the integration a wide variety of systems in developmental psychology, both East and West. Expanding the scope of the integrative meta-theory to include sociology and anthropology (Wilber, 1981; 1983), a meta-narrative began to emerge that would characterize humanity in terms of evolutionary processes, both individual human development as well as the dynamics of socio-cultural evolution. Pulling from Habermas and Piaget, as well as the dynamical and autopoietic factions of cognitive science and social theory, WIlber (1999) would eventually construct a comprehensive meta-theory of developmental psychology, housing a related set of sub theories of the self, socialization, spirituality, meditative states, personality types, and developmental lines. This system of psychology is nested in a larger “theory of everything” (Wilber, 1995; 2006)—the Integral Model—consisting of a family of sub-theories, including the aforementioned system of categories known as the four quadrants; a set of twenty basic principles governing the evolution of dynamical systems throughout the natural, biological, social, and psychological worlds; and a variety of other meta-theoretical normative provocations, chiding on humanity’s ability to understand itself as the normative edge of an evolving Kosmos.

The great American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars once wrote, “the aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”[1] This serves as a catch phrase for the meta-theories explored above. From Baldwin and Peirce through Habermas, one of the basic goals of meta-theory has been to bring a higher-order coherence to diverse and often fragmented forms of knowledge, to understand how everything “hangs together” as part of a single universe. Given recent “post-modernist” trends in the academy and broader culture, few contemporary thinkers have taken up this task and fewer still have meet with popular acceptance for their model.[2] Integral Meta-Theory is unique in this regard. Decades of scholarship, research, and debate have yielded a philosophical orientation and related meta-theoretical model, dubbed Integral because of its comprehensiveness. The approach is unrivaled in terms of its accessibility, relevance, and sophistication. The main features of Integral Meta-theory are presented below in terms amenable to the simplest exposition .

The most general contours of the Integral Model are very simple, and have been summed up in the acronym: AQAL. This stands for all quadrants, all levels (and implies all lines, all states, and all types). Without getting into too much detail, we will proceed to cover the most basic components here. In essence, the Integral Model is based on a philosophical commitment to comprehensiveness, just like all the meta-theories discussed above. The idea is that we ought to build a framework that can encompass the most truths and insights from the most disciplines and endeavors, that we are somehow obligated to get them all under one roof. This requires laying out certain highly abstract orienting generalizations. These generalizations are big ideas that subsume, categorize, and differentiate an enormous variety of forms of knowledge and approaches to inquiry. What follows is only a rough sense of the components that make up Integral Meta-theory.

The quadrants are basic. They represent the most general categories or divisions evident in human knowledge. To label the quadrants as categories is, technically speaking, to frame them in terms of a perennial philosophical ambition. From Aristotle, through Kant and Hegel, down to Peirce and Sellars, there has been a project aimed at searching out the most primordial distinctions in terms of which to classify objects and forms of knowledge. As discussed above, Peirce, following Kant, marked a turn in this tradition, by looking for these categories in the implicit structures of language and communication itself. Early on, he hit upon the idea that the categories should be aligned with the system of basic pronouns: e.g., I, We, and It. This insight, as followed up more recently by Habermas, points to the heart of our everyday language use and suggests a set of different “worlds,” each with unique and irreducible properties: the subjective world, the inter-subjective world, and the objective world. This three-fold distinction, refined in terms of linguistic analysis, ends up retrofitting a variety of perennial notions about certain great divisions in human knowledge, e.g., the Beautiful, the Good, the True; Art, Morals, Science; Self, Culture, Nature. This set of “worlds” can also be understood as a system of basic perspectives or stances that can be taken up, e.g. first-person, second-person, third-person.

Figure 1: The four quadrants (click picture to expand. [Source: Michael E. Zimmerman and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens , 2009])

The four-quadrant model brings these pieces together by graphically representing the interiors and exteriors of individuals and collectives (see Figure 1). Any and all events can be looked at in terms of all four quadrants, which provide the most basic insights necessary for taking an integral or comprehensive view of what is happening. For example, take the course of an illness, such as cancer. Most approaches focus predominantly on the Upper-Right quadrant, on the exterior of the individual. They focus on the physical body and its problems, where and what the cancer is and how to physically intervene to treat it. But of course, every individual is positioned in a network of exterior systems and processes that impact the disease, including food systems, built environments, as well as the legal codes and procedures of insurance companies and hospitals. These are all collections and systems of exteriors, all positioned in the Lower-Right quadrant, and they all play an important role in understanding both causes and treatments. So far so good, but there is more to illness than these exterior factors, there are also the interiors of collectives, the Lower-Left quadrant. Here we are concerned with how the illness is understood in the culture, the stigma or meaning attached to it, the supportive emotions and interactions of family and friends. And finally, there is the way the illness is felt and experienced by the individual, the interior of the individual, the Upper-Left quadrant. Here are the ideas they hold about their illness, their outlook, their sense of self, of spirituality, all factors known to have an impact on the course of treatment and recovery.

The point of the quadrants is to suggest that any view that leaves out any of these realties is partial, and lacking some essential insight. As we’ve discussed throughout, in our culture we tend to focus on exteriors and neglect interiors. The quadrants are a kind of quality control mechanism for thought, built to assure that we check off all the bases, and keep an eye on all the revenant realities. The point is certainly not to suggest, continuing with the example above, that we are wrongheaded in adopting approaches that locate cancer in the Upper-Right quadrant, as a physical disease, with a place in the body, amenable to surgery or radiation. Rather, the point is to suggest such approaches are true but partial. It is essential to understand and work with the exterior physical realities of cancer, but it is also essential to understand and work with the interior realities of cancer. An approach that focuses on all aspects will be more humane and ethical as well as more objectivity effective as a treatment.[3] The quadrats are the basic scaffolding of Integral Meta-theory, aiming so assure comprehensiveness right off the bat.[4]

Importantly, the realities in each of the quadrants are inextricably intertwined and inter-animated. They all evolve together, in a complexly orchestrated “tetra-evolutionary” process. That is, the quadrants do not frame static realities, isolated from each other, but rather co-evolving realties that are mutually conditioning and mutually fructifying. Thus the quadrants can be understood as part of a sophisticated view of evolution itself. Taking up again from Baldwin, Perice, and Habermas, Integral Meta-theory argues that evolution is an “all quadrant affair”—the evolution of interiors and exteriors are intrinsically related, one does not evolve without the other. In this sense, Integral Meta-theory offers a Great Story of cosmic evolution, which, like Peirce’s, integrates interiors and exteriors and positions humanity as a unique emergent phenomenon in a universe teaming with life and consciousness.[5]

So that is the view of the whole. Next we will explain the other components of the Integral Meta-theory as they bear on psychology and identity transformation, since that is the focus of this book. We will look at the Upper-Left quadrant to discuss types, states, lines, and levels—essentially outlining the most basic aspects of an Integral Psychology.[6] Each of these components refers to phenomena that occur in the other quadrants, e.g. types of social systems, levels in the development of cultures, etc. But our discussion will focus on the Upper-Left in order to frame a discussion of Unique Self Theory and the profound implications of the second shock on our sense of self and our collective cultural and political potentials.

It should be said, according to Integral Meta-theory, that both Left-Hand quadrants include the results of valid scientific knowledge about interiors. That is, the Right-Hand sciences of exteriors do not have a monopoly on valid forms of knowledge. This defense of the sciences of interiority is one of the great accomplishments of Integral Meta-theory. Of course, it echoes the projects of Habermas, Peirce and Baldwin, who each in there own way attempted to counteract the dominance of reductive and narrowly empirical sciences, which take as valid only the results of physical experiments involving objects with a “simple location” in time and space. Valid knowledge of interiors is based on broadly empirical science, no less rigorous and systemic, but based on inquires into phenomenon without a simple location in time and space, such as psychological structures, emotional states, and cultural norms. Addressing the full complexity of the philosophical issues this implies is beyond the scope of this discussion. The point here is simply to offer a reminder that while there is a fundamental different between interiors and exteriors, this does not imply that the later is scientific while the former is not. As the following discussion will show, there is a long history of sciences dedicated to the study of interiors (e.g., psychology; phenomenology; cultural studies; anthropology, etc.). Our point in this book is that these are just as important for humanity as physics, engineering, and biology, especially as we it navigate the coming decades of planetary transition.

Types, states, lines, and levels in the Upper-Left can most easily be grasped in terms of certain specific traditions in psychology, as well as the Wake-Up, Grow-Up, Show-Up rubric introduced in Chapter 2. Briefly, the longest standing findings regarding types are those regarding the introversion-extroversion typology, which have shown that individuals are consistent in their behaviors and preferences from an early age, some being motivated and energized by social interaction, whereas others are motivated and energized by withdrawing from social interaction into the self. Types are basically classifications of more or less stable dispositions: personality types (e.g. Meyers-Briggs; Enneagram), masculine-feminine types, learning styles, etc. Each person can be understood as residing at the interface of several different types, and these provide part of the unique qualities that characterize this person as they Grow-Up, Wake-Up, and Show-Up. Two people who have both done the same amount of Growing-up and Waking-Up will nevertheless Show-Up quite differently depending on if they are masculine or feminine, introverted or extroverted, and so on.

As for states, this is the domain of Waking-Up. Here we find a tradition in Western psychological research dating to the days of William James aimed at investigating states of consciousness, such as those that are induced via intoxication or meditation. States are transient alterations of feeling, mood, and capability. The discussion above under the heading of Wake-Up covers most of what needs to be said about states of consciousness for our purposes here. Although, it is worth noting that states interact in complex ways with the other components being discussed here. For example, introverts and extroverts are likely to experience some states more than others (e.g., introverts are more likely to meditate, while extroverts are more likely to get drunk). Similarly, the cultivation of certain states of consciousness can impact how individual move through stages, speeding up or slowing down stage growth. And the level of Growing-Up one current inhabits will impact how one understand the meaning of a state experience. Post-conventional interpretations of transcendental and mystical states typically take them as confirming the existence of a universal truth common to all religious traditions, while conventional interpretations of these same states typically find them to confirm that only their one tradition has access to truth.[7]

Next are the two components most closed tied into Growing-Up, lines and levels of development. Lines are relatively independent forms of psychological functioning—reflecting both different ways of thinking and the different things we think about. Many readers may be familiar with Howard Gardner’s notion of multiple intelligences, which is a well-known example of something like lines. In fact, a wide range of researchers has proposed upwards of a dozen distinct lines of development. Consider the differences between moral reasoning and reasoning about the physical world. It’s easy to imagine, and research has confirmed, that someone advanced in their thinking about physics would not necessarily be advanced regarding issues of morality. These are distinct domains, different lines along which thought, action, and behavior develop. Understanding lines gets us part of the way towards understanding all the different dimensions of our being that can Grow-Up. [8] Each individual has a unique profile of differently developed lines, a unique skill set, which is part of what constitutes their Unique Self, and that impacts how they Show-up in profound ways.

One cannot really understand lines without understanding levels. Levels are developmental milestones in the unfolding of particular lines. These developmental milestones have had various names: stages, levels, orders. But the common denominator is that lines develop in terms of a specifiable, and often invariant, sequence or hierarchical unfolding. The discussion above under the heading of Grow-Up covers most of what needs to be said for our purposes here. Combining the notion of levels and lines yields a window into the complex dynamics of Growing-Up, the Integral Psychograph (see Figure 2). This is a way of graphically depicting an individual’s developmental unfolding in a number of different lines. A psychograph is a representation of the differential distribution of capabilities within persons in terms of levels and lines. The person represented in Figure 2, for example, is more highly developed in cognitive capacity than emotional capacity. Each of us has a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses, which can be conceptualized in terms of such a psychograph. Again, this is part of what constitutes each Unique Self.

Figure 2: A simple psychograph (click on figure to expand)

This overview of some of the components of an Integral Psychology has revealed the centrality of the concept of the Unique Self (Gafni, 2012; Gafni & Stein, Forthcoming). It is the overarching idea that holds the various components of the mind together. And it is to Unique Self Theory that we turn in the next chapter. There we will see that a new understanding of humanity and our prospects is available. It entails an epochal transformation in our self-understanding, leading us from isolated and homogenized selves living in a non-integral context, to Unique Selves living in a fully integral context, capable of forming higher-order collaborative ensembles, Unique Self Symphonies, with the power to transform the face of the planet.

The emancipatory component of [an Integral] developmental structuralism is a fruitful area of inquiry…. If development in general moves from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional…then a profound motivation of doing adequate [developmental] structuralism is to help individuals and cultures move from egocentric and ethnocentric stances toward more worldcentric levels of compassion, care, and consciousness…. On the other hand, simply asserting that we should all learn a worldcentric ecology, or embrace global compassion, is a noble but pragmatically less-than-useful project, because worldcentric levels are the product of development, not exhortation…. The “new paradigm” approaches exhort a goal without elucidating the path to that goal—they are cheerleaders for a cause that has no means of actualization, which perhaps explains the deep frustrations among new-paradigm advocates who know they have a better ideal but are disappointed at how little the world responds to their calls.

—Wilber (2003 p.109)

Importantly, focused as it is on building a “map of human potential” and clarifying “the farther reaches of human nature,” Integral Theory has “lacked a sustained critique of the development of capitalism, the capital-labor nexus, finance-debtor relations, and contemporary master-slave-type-relations generally” (Despain, 2013). Which is to say that the meta-narrative offered by Wilber has not been welded in the service of sustained soico-political meta-critique. The materials for such a critique are in WIlber’s work, they just have not been used to this end. This is perhaps the most promising avenue for the future integrations with other meta-theories. For example, Bhaskar’s (1996) meta-critique provides materials and methods for considering the injustice and irrationality of existing social formations, especially capitalistic market cultures. This critique suggests that in many contemporary social worlds the “stratified self”—the integral person—is disfigured and de-agentified as a result of developing in a context of oppressive relationships. Whereas Bhaskar provides tools for identifying processes of ideology formation in the social totality, Wilber gives tools for diagnosing and treating the deformations of personality that result. The deterioration of subjectivity that results from growing up under contemporary global conditions cannot be understood without a complex psycho-social framework. Meta-theoretically guided transformative practice informed by an Integral Theory of human development and a Dialectal Critical Realist theory of social totalities compels us toward creating forms of social life that provide for the full development of non-alienated and autonomous individuals. This suggests the extension of deliberative democratic decision-making beyond representative government and into the entire economy—the radical democratization of workplaces, as well as the democratization of planning in production and investment. This is to be done in the interest of liberating the fullness of human potential.


The above is excerpts from (and a few other spots):

Stein, Z & Hiekkinen, K. (2008). On operationalizing aspects of altitude: an introduction to the Lectical Assessment System for Integral researchers. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 3(1), 105-139. [pdf]

Stein, Z. (in press). Between philosophy and prophecy. To appear in True but partial: Essential criticisms of Integral Theory. Esbjörn-Hargens (Ed.). Forthcoming SUNY press. [pdf]

Stein, Z. (in review). On realizing the possibilities of emancipatory metatheory: beyond the cognitive maturity fallacy, toward an education revolution. In Bhaskar, Esbjorn-Hargens, Hedlund-de Witt & Hartwig (Eds.) Metatheory for the Anthropocene: emancipatory praxis for planetary flourishing: critical realism and integral theory in dialogue, vol 2. New York: Routledge. [pdf]


[1] See, Sellars, W. “Philosophy and the scientific image of man.” Sellars could have been included in our brief history of meta-theory above, along with many others, such as Bhaskar, Piaget, and Bateson. The mighty dead are legion; we have offered only a suggestive sampling.

[2] Post-modernism is a widely debated trend, with much disagreement as to its meaning and significance. One common theme in all that is dubbed “post-modern” is a suspicion of universal truths and a preference for relative truths based on what is local, contextual, different, and “other.” Post-modernism has put play in place of purpose, chance in place of design, and anarchy in place of hierarchy. The French philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, who was one of the fathers (sic) of the movement, defined the post-modern simply as ”incredulity towards meta-narratives.” Needless to say, meta-theory has not been popular in academic contexts dominated (sic) by this kind of thinking. See, Harvey, D. The Condition of Post-Modernity; Jameson, F. Post-modernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. However, there are some signs that post-modernism has exhausted itself, and that a new generation of academics is hungry for meta-theoretical approaches. In part this is due to the incoherence of post-modernist political strategies, which have consistently failed to address global and systemic issues, focusing instead mainly on identity politics of the local (and even intra-personal) varity. Later we will discuss the possibility for a new politics of outrageous love, which embraces the post-modern focus on the different and local, while at the same time seeking to orchestrate local struggles into universal and global movements.

[3] Studies’ have shown for decades that the psychological state of the patient is one of the main factors impacting the course of treatment, as well as the presence or lack of a loving support network. That is, interiors have been shown to matter, even according to objective exterior outcomes.

[4] Importantly, there is a more complex way about the nature of the quadrants, a full explanation of which is beyond the scope of this work. Quickly, the basic perspectives represented by the quadrants can scaffold a principled classification of inquiry types, known as Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP). Through a more detailed analysis of the perspectives that yielded the four quadrants, we can derive a system of eight primordial perspectives, each with a related methodological approach and domain of phenomena. The result is a taxonomy of methodologies couched in terms of irreducible perspectival differentiations. We now have a map of the insides and outsides of the interiors and exteriors of individuals and collectives. Needless to say, this is a mouthful. The fundamental insight here is that there are a limited number of families of methodologies, and these can be arranged and differentiated in a principled fashion; that is, in terms of an analytically deduced system of basic perspectives. Each unique and irreducible perspective discloses a horizon of phenomena, known as a zone. Each zone is, in effect, the condition for the possibility of a certain family of methodologies. Briefly, the eight zones and their related methodological approaches:

  • Zone #1: In the upper-left quadrant: the inside of the interior of individuals: Phenomenology.
  • Zone #2: In the upper-left quadrant: the outside of the inside of individuals: Structuralism.
  • Zone #3: Lower-left quadrant: the inside of the interior of collectives: Hermeneutics.
  • Zone # 4: Lower-left quadrant: the outside of the inside of collectives: Ethnomethodology.
  • Zone #5: Upper-right quadrant: the inside of the outside of individuals: Autopoiesis, e.g. cognitive science.
  • Zone #6: Upper-right quadrant: the outside of the exterior of individuals: empiricism, e.g. neurophysiology.
  • Zone #7: Lower-right quadrant: the inside of the exterior of collectives: Social Autopoiesis.
  • Zone #8: Lower-right quadrant: the outside of the exterior of individuals: systems theory.

[5] See, Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality for more on evolution as an “all quadrant affair.” This way of understanding evolution is an important foil to the typical ways it is understood, which focus almost entirely on the Right-Hand quadrants.

[6] Applying the principles of Integral Meta-theory to any field results in an Integral version of that field, as in Integral Psychology, Integral Medicine, Integral Business, etc. What is most essential is the commitment to comprehensiveness, which is at the core of what it means to take an integral approach. Thus an integral psychology, as discussed here, is committed to finding a way to organize the full extent of psychological knowledge according to a set of orienting generalizations. The account here is thus partial, as we do not discuss the neuroscientific, sociological, and cultural aspect of psychological functioning. This is a first pass. For a fuller account, see Wilber, K. Integral Psychology.

[7] For a more detailed discussion of the relation between states and levels, see: Wilber, K. Integral Spirituality. It should be noted that all these components (levels, lines, states, types) interact during the course of psychological development. Exploring the fascinating combinations and outcomes would take us too far a field, but see: Wilber, K, Integral Psychology.

[8] A challenge in the study of lines lies in specifying exactly what they are, how to define them, and how many there are. It is reasonable to assume that to some extent different lines may reflect the evolved capacities of our brain and mind, which is how Gardner accounts for the existence of multiple intelligences. But it is also reasonable to assume that lines reflect more the culture, tools, and domains humans have developed during the course of history—our music, poetry, morality, science, organizations, and so on. Deciding on this does not impact the fact that there are different lines, even if a definitive taxonomy of line-types and an explanation of their emergence may not be readily forthcoming.


This post was first published here and is shared here with the permission of the author.

zakDr. Zachary Stein is the Academic Director of the Activist Think Tank at the Center for Integral Wisdom, and Core Faculty at Meridian University.

His work focuses on social justice and education through the lenses of developmental psychology and integral metatheories. He holds degrees in philosophy and religion from Hampshire College, and educational neuroscience, human development, and the philosophy of education from Harvard University.

He was a co-founder of Lectica, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to the research-based justice-oriented reform of large-scale standardized testing in K-12, higher-education, and business. He has published in a wide range of outlets including American Psychologist, New Ideas in Psychology, Mind, Brain, and Education, Integral Review, and the Journal of Philosophy of Education.

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