Ken Wilber Revisited: From Wilber I to Wilber V – Wilber Phase IV

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This is the fourth part of a series of posts on the five phases of Ken Wilber’s theory of human consciousness. In our previous posts, we analyzed the first, second and third phases of Wilber and his explanation on how consciousness developed from the Pleromatic to the Ultimate Reality. “Ken Wilber Revisited” posts also throw insight into the criticism on Wilber and his theories of consciousness, starting from his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness.  The current post discusses on Wilber-IV, the fourth phase of Wilber in which he creates his most famous AQAL model of consciousness. Inspired from M. Alan Kazlev’s essays on and a series of other critiques on Wilber, this series freezes upon the essential Wilber, the Wilber that we need to know about to understand Integralism.

Wilber – From Phase I to Phase III: Wilber’s theory of Integral Thinking started with Phase I in 1977 with his book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. The book approached development of consciousness in a Jungian way, placing every other growth from an assumed Ground of Being. He explained that from the “collective unconscious” state, the human consciousness split into dualities as time progressed and growth set in. Attainment of the state of Absolute Reality would mean unification of these dualities (Ground of Being-Self; Organism-Environment; Ego-Body and Persona-Shadow) and a regression into the collective unconsciousness state. Wilber I is basically inspired from the Jungian model and draws sustenance from the Esoteric Traditionalists and the Theosophists. This would mean that Wilber assumes the first state of consciousness (the Pleroma of the Gnostics) to be the same as the final stage, the Absolute Reality of Advaitins or the Mahayanists. But Wilber himself rejected his Phase I during his Phase II. Calling it his “Romantic-Jungian” phase, he said that it was the result of a “Pre-Trans Fallacy”, that is, a misunderstanding of the Pre-consciousness and Trans-consciousness states to be the one and the same.

Wilber II is a more mature approach to consciousness development. It proposed a developmental-evolutionary model based primarily on Sri Aurobindo and the Mahayana Buddhist traditions. Wilber II proposed about 13 stages of consciousness development starting from the Pleromatic to the Ultimate of Absolute Reality state. It discussed the cognitive style, mode of self and psychological state of the individual or human species in each stages and explained how the next stage “transcends” yet “includes” the previous stage at each and every level of growth. Phase II was also nailed on two concepts of Aurobindo – involution and evolution. This Phase started in 1980 with the publication of the The Atman Project, followed by other seminal works like  Up From Eden, Sociable God and Eye to Eye. The criticism against this Phase was based on Wilber’s misunderstanding of Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine, due to which he confused the states of Supermind/Overmind and proposed a completely linear theory of human consciousness development. However, Wilber II is a significant phase in the thinker’s life as all his future theories are rooted in this evolutionary model of consciousness.

Wilber III is more of a transitional phase which occurs between 1983 to 1987. During this Phase, inspired by Piaget and Howard Gardner, Wilber says that there is no one or linear development of states, but there are several developmental lines or different aspects of development of human personality. About two dozen aspects or lines of development have been identified, starting from the cognitive to the spatial to the karmic, with no assurance of all developmental lines being ontologically equal to each other. Wilber was also inspired by the Arthur Koestler’s philosophy of holons and holography. He said that the universe is not formed of atoms or molecules, but of holons. A holon is a system which is both a whole and a part of a whole. A holography is a holon hierarchy which comprises of large holons, which in turn comprise of several smaller holons and they in turn, split into further smaller holons and so on. Since evolution is a holarchy, one can perceive multiple development along lines – cognitive, emotional, spatial, moral, interpersonal, social, spiritual etc.

Wilber IV is a major leap in the development of human consciousness theory. For the first time, Wilber creates an advanced four-quadrant model which includes and unifies various fields of knowledge. As Alan Kazlev puts it, “The first form Ken Wilber’s unified theory took was of a bifurcating Spectrum of Consciousness supported by a an underlying Ground of Being. This then gave way to a very different diagram – the involution-evolution pre-trans cycle. The final stage or metamorphosis of his cosmology, and the most sophisticated, is the holon-quadrant.”

Wilber IV – An Overview: Wilber’s Phase IV kickstarted with the publication of his most important work, Sex, Ecology and Spirituality in 1995. In the book, Wilber proposed a theory to unite what he called the “Big Three” – Art, Morals and Science. This Big Three can mean anything from the Beautiful, the Good and the True or the I, We, It or the First, Second and Third person. As Wilber himself quotes in an article titled, “An Integral Theory of Consciousness” in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, “Sir Karl Popper’s ‘three worlds’ (subjective, cultural, and objective); Plato’s the Good (as the ground of morals, the ‘we’ of the Lower Left), the True (objective truth or it-propositions, the Right Hand), and the Beautiful (the aesthetic beauty in the I of each beholder, the Upper Left); Habermas’ three validity claims (subjective truthfulness of I, cultural justness of we, and objective truth of its). Historically of great importance, these are also the three major domains of Kant’s three critiques: science or its (Critique of Pure Reason), morals or we (Critique of Practical Reason), and art and self-expression of the I (Critique of Judgment)”. The Big Three can mean any of these. But uniting this Big Three is important as it represents fragmentation of knowledge into diverse, disconnected fields. So, what Wilber does to re-unite these domains is create his four quadrant model.

The Four Quadrant Model: Wilber formulates a four-quadrant model that would approach the development of consciousness in a different way. His model consists of the following four characteristics – Intentional or Individual Subjective or I or Interior; Neurological or Individual Objective or It or Exterior; Cultural or Collective Intersubjective or We or Interior; Social or Socio-economic or Collective Interobjective or It or Exterior. This Big Three of the quadrants – the I, We, It – can mean any of the archetypal triads of esoteric traditionalism or theological trinities (of Hinduism, Christianity) or Vedantic triad (of Being, Consciousness and Bliss) or triads of Samkhyans, Neoplatonists, Gnostics, Taoists etc. Every field of knowledge can be fit into the four quadrants without any effort. For instance, Art will fit into the Upper Left quadrant, Science into Upper/Lower Right, Truth into Upper/Lower Right, the Good into Lower Left, the Beautiful into Upper Left etc. We have already discussed about the AQAL model in this previous post.

AQAL Model or the Integral Theory of Consciousness: After the basic four quadrant model, Wilber goes on to formulate a detailed consciousness map in his later books, The Eye of Spirit (1997), Integral Psychology (2000) and A Theory of Everything (2000). In the new, refined model, dubbed as the All Quadrants, All Levels (AQAL) model, Wilber includes all possible dimensions of human consciousness, called the physical, neurological, social, cultural, philosophical and spiritual. This complex worldview is but an interplay of the four quadrants or what can be called the “distinct but complementary and interrelated, interweaving realities” each with its own Great Nest of Being. Wilber rejects the Great Chain of Being concept here and says that everything is part of a “Great Nest of Being”: “The Great Chain is perhaps a misnomer. It is not a linear chain but a series of enfolded spheres: it is said that spirit transcends but includes soul, which transcends but includes mind, which transcends but includes body, which transcends but includes matter. Accordingly, this is more accurately called the Great Nest of Being”, says Wilber in his Waves, Streams, States and Self.

This “nested hierarchy of Spirit” includes but transcends the other levels of existence. Through the AQAL model, Wilber proves that holography has replaced the four quadrant model and the Great Chain of Being concept. Each holon cannot be explained but through the four quadrants. Wilber says that holons have drives to maintain their “wholeness” and “partness” and hence are “units of consciousness”.

In the Eye of Spirit, he describes how consciousness is diffused through the four quadrants: “Consciousness actually exists distributed across all four quadrants with all of their various levels and dimensions. There is no one quadrant (and certainly no one level) to which we can point and say, There is consciousness. Consciousness is in no way localized in that fashion. It is true that the Upper Left quadrant is the locus of consciousness as it appears in an individual, but that’s the point: as it appears in an individual. Yet consciousness on the whole is anchored in, and distributed across, all of the quadrants intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social. If you “erase” any quadrant, they all disappear, because each is intrinsically necessary for the existence of the others.” By this, it is understood that a holon cannot be reduced to any particular quadrant without the exclusion of the other quadrants. If such a thing happens, Wilber terms it as a “flatland” view. For instance, a view which excludes the consideration of the Left Quadrants and includes only the Right Quadrants is called a “flatland” perspective. The cosmological diagram given provides the worldview of Wilber:

How is Wilber IV different? Wilber IV is an advancement of Wilber II and III. The worldview becomes more definite and complex, but at the same time has the potential to fit every other field of knowledge into its AQAL model. Alan Kazlev opines that when Wilber uses the word “Integral”, he uses it in the sense of “meaning to integrate, to bring together, to join, to link and to embrace”. He is more bent upon unifying things and bringing all schools of thought under one roof, than about evolutionary transformation. Wilber’s concern at Phase IV is about shared commonalities between different streams of knowledge and he does fuse the Big Three together with his rather “procustean” model (Kazlev).

Each quadrant has its own validity terms and its own “relative, partial and authentic truths”. The validation procedure for one quadrant differs from the other too. For instance, according to Wilber, the propositions in the Upper Right quadrant are true if they match a “specific fact or objective state of affairs”. The same in the Upper Left quadrant are true if they “represent a subjective reality”. In the Lower Right quadrants, one can testify the validity of holons based on “how individual holons fit together into interlocking systems”. With regard to the Lower Left quadrant, Wilber opines, “In the Lower Left quadrant, on the other hand, we are concerned not simply with how objects fit together in physical space, but how subjects fit together in cultural space. The validity claim here concerns the way that my subjective consciousness fits with your subjective consciousness, and how we together decide upon those cultural practices that allow us to inhabit the same cultural space…in other words, concerns the appropriateness or justness of our statements and actions (ethics in the broadest sense).”

Wilber IV Limitations: Wilber IV has its own limitations. Though Wilber IV is the beginning of Wilber’s postmodernism and his techniques bring together the “disconnected worldview of science, religion and ethics” into a more unified and integrated one, he never attempts to fuse all the quadrants together. Another question that is raised is, why are there only four types of validity? Is there no scope for other kinds of validity? Christopher Hill posits seven types of validity in his ‘Phoenix Evolution’ concept, while Stan Gooch does much the same in his Total Man. Wilber also fails to infuse the fields of “esotericism, metaphysics and occultism” into AQAL.

Kris Roose in his critique of AQAL, points out the errors in Wilber’s mapping of consciousness. He explains how only the Lower Right quadrant exhibits “reverse holism” (from larger holons to smaller holons) till the 7th or 8th point and then, becomes normal. That is, that quadrant alone starts with “galaxies” at No.1, instead of starting with smaller holons. Similarly, while Wilber includes Mysticism in his model, there is no sign of the Occult anywhere. This, say the critics, is part of Wilber’s rationalistic bias. In another perspective, there seems to be no end to this “holarchy” of Wilber. There is this “infinite regress” with every holon comprising smaller holons, which in turn are part of larger holons.

Some critics find an arbitrariness in the mapping or the taxonomy of the model. This is because Wilber places thinkers like Sri Aurobindo, the Buddha, and Plotinus on equal terms with Freud, Jung and Piaget. While the former set of individuals are those who cracked the whole mystery of consciousness, the latter belong to a field of psychology, which itself is only part of the fragmented whole. Instead of placing Sri Aurobindo, the Buddha and Plotinus on a separate plane (say, a circle in the middle that converges all quadrants), Wilber himself becomes a victim of “postmodernist relativist” criticism with such taxonomic grouping.

Another accusation against Wilber is the linearity of the whole thing. Wilber’s models, whether in Wilber II or Wilber IV point out only a “one track linear sequence” of growth. Every one, irrespective of which field of knowledge they hail from, have to pass through all the stages – from the Pleromatic to the High Causal to reach the Absolute. There is no second way or another way. It is always the same, one-way track. Arvan Harvat in his criticism of Wilber calls this, a “preposterous condescending attitude of an captive mind” (of Wilber).

Whatever be the criticism, Wilber’s AQAL model is till date is a significant mapping of the human consciousness. But Wilber surpassed himself and entered into the next phase too. His next phase, the current one, called Wilber V, is actually a leap from the AQAL. We will see more on Wilber V in the next post.

“Ken Wilber Revisited” is a series of posts on Ken Wilber and the development of his Integral theory. You can know more about Wilber and the criticism of his phases in our posts Wilber I, Wilber II, Wilber III, Wilber IV and Wilber V.

Reference Links:

1. Wilber Revisited: From Wilber I to Wilber V – Posts on Wilber I, Wilber II and Wilber III

2. Alan Kazlev’s “Ken Wilber” on his website

3. Alan Kazlev’s Wilber’s Phase IV

4. Critique of Wilber’s AQAL model

5. Ken Wilber: An Integral Theory of Consciousness (in the Journal of Consciousness Studies)

6. Alan Kazlev on Ken Wilber’s Rationalistic Bias

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