What is Integral: Ken Wilber’s pivotal contribution to Integralism

by editor

This is the second in the series of posts titled “What is Integral”. The first post dealt with the meaning of the term and contemplations on how the human race, on the whole, is through a transitional stage in consciousness, on the verge of a paradigm shift. The current post will deal with Ken Wilber, one of the most important theorists of the Integral theory and his contribution to the Integral line of thought.

Ken Wilber and Integralism: Ken Wilber is indeed the pivotal writer of the Integral world, thanks to his contribution to establish the worldview by taking it to even the general population. It was he who popularized the very term “Integral” in the 1980s and 1990s America and Europe, taking it from the academic realm to the common man. His books are some of the best assets to the Integral line of thought so much so that Sean A. Saiter opines in his essay, “A General Introduction to Integral Theory and Comprehensive Mapmaking” that, “If one is searching for an ever-increasingly holistic picture of the phenomenon of consciousness in the grand universal context, he is without a doubt, an excellent place to start.” He has done this by synthesizing contradictory disciplines, unrelated ideologies and embarked on a “comprehensive mapmaking” of the Integral philosophy in the universal context. He has drawn upon diverse studies like evolutionism, spirituality, transpersonal psychology, systems theory, cultural studies and many other such fields to explain the Integral theory in detail. It all started with his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness wherein he integrates Consciousness Studies with Transpersonal Psychology, Spirituality and the aspects of Zen.

Wilber’s Influences: Wilber’s defined the word Integral in popular terms which evoked a lot of criticism among skeptics and critics. By the lexicon “Integral”, he says he meant that which is “comprehensive, inclusive, nonmarginalizing, embracing” in his Foreword to Frank Visser’s famous work Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion. Wilber has contributed to the Integral Theory through several books, starting with The Spectrum of Consciousness. His  books do not just stop with explication of the philosophy, but also propose figurative concepts to understand the emerging shift in consciousness. He draws support from American Buddhism, New Age interest in spirituality and the historical Integral thinkers like Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser and even others like Alfred North Whitehead, Piget, Hegel, Emerson, Schelling, Baldwin, and Habermas. Though he finds “Integral” thought in all these thinkers, his center of gravity has always been himself and this started influencing many thinkers and critics, setting off a whole community of Wilberians. His Integral Institute is the first of its kind, exclusive Institute for Integral Studies.

Wilber’s Orienting Generalizations: The methodology of Wilber is founded upon what he himself calls “Orienting Generalizations”. This means, drawing upon information from all quarters, (all levels, all quadrants) and then, synthesizing them to find a coherent system to connect the information gathered. In other words, this means considering all kinds of truths (from every other field of thought, be it science or religion or spirituality) as “partial truths” and incorporating them into the “meta-system” to achieve an Integral understanding of things. In The Eye of Spirit, it has been said, “He is not worried, nor should his reader be, about whether other fields would accept the conclusion of any given field; in short, don’t worry, for example, if empiricist conclusions do not match religious conclusions. Instead, simply assemble all the orienting conclusions as if each field had incredibly important truths to tell us. This is exactly Wilber’s first step in his integrative method–a type of phenomenology of all human knowledge conducted at the level of orienting generalizations. In other words, assemble all of the truths that each field believes it has to offer humanity. For the moment, simply assume they are indeed true . . . For the second step in Wilber’s method is to take all of the truths or orienting generalizations assembled in the first step and then pose this question: What coherent system would in fact incorporate the greatest number of these truths?” By this “orienting generalizations” we can, “connect the dots” and establish “meaningful communication between systems”. This methodology would bring the diverse together, and help us arrive at a meaning with the partial truths of all levels, all quadrants, all states, all lines. Wilber dubs this as AQAL in his works.

AQAL Theory and the Big Three: The “Big Three” view or what Wilber refers to as “I”, “WE” and “IT” are crucial to the Integral world philosophy. The cornerstone to his whole ideology is the four quadrants theory, explained by All Quadrants, All Levels (AQAL). Wilber opines that the development of human consciousness can be explicated using the AQAL visual representation. This involves explanation of the  of the Left and Right quadrants of the AQAL map created by Wilber inspired from the premodern, modern and postmodern worldviews.  A parallel visual representation to this AQAL is the Spiral Dynamics theory proposed by Don Beck and Charles Cowan.

The first of the AQAL quadrant is the Left section, which comprises of the “I” and “We” levels. The Upper Left (UL) quadrant is  termed as the level of the “Interior Individual” and represents everything in relation to the individual and his personal aspects. Fields such as psychology, psychiatry, spirituality, creative subjects (like mathematics), phenomenology and anything on the level of single holons comes under the UL quadrant. As mentioned before, this is the “I” aspect of the world. The second or next quadrant is the “WE” aspect and is related to the “collective interior.” On the level of multiple holons, this represents the values we share, the cultural spaces and interior collective mental spaces we share. Community is at the helm of this level. This quadrant is generally referred to as the Lower Left (LL). Next come the Right-Hand quadrants. These are generally empirical in spirit, involving practical, physical, monological and positivistic aspects. The Upper Right (UR) is related to the “individual exterior” who represents all the sciences and possible pursuit of single holons. Fields like Physics, neurobiology, empiricism, behaviorism fall under this quadrant. The last, Lower Right (LR) quadrant represents “collective exterior” and includes Systems theory, Marxism, collective social theories, sociology etc. Called together as “IT”, the Right-Hand quadrants represent the exterior aspect of nature from “it” to “its”. Wilber further develops this using pre/transrational states of awareness and on how to avoid fallacy by understanding such states. In his work Up From Eden, Wilber attempted to chart an evolution theory based on the various stages of development from a new born baby to Buddhahood or Enlightenment.

Though Wilber is the pivotal theorist of Integralism, there have been many before him and after him. Some of them include Jean Gebser, Don Beck, Frank Visser etc. Let’s look in detail about them in the next posts of this series, “What is Integral”.

Reference Links

1. Kevin R.D. Shepherd’s Ken Wilber and Integralism

2.  Sean A. Saiter’s A General Introduction to Integral Theory and Comprehensive Mapmaking

3. The Wilberian-inspired Integral Community or The Integral Movement

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