Ken Wilber's Integral Map:
A Survey and Analysis
By Seth Miller
Today’s seeker of wisdom is confronted with a dizzying array of options. A peek into any bookstore will show that between the “New Age”, “Religion”, “Psychology/Self-Help”, and “Science” sections, a good portion of the world’s exoteric wisdom is only a page-turn away. Yet a cursory survey of the breadth of this territory shows that although many similarities may be found between various approaches to the human dilemma, very few works are able to coherently situate themselves in the context of all the others. Clearly, no single approach to human development can be successfully applied to all humans, yet with potentially every possible path available, it is helpful to have a map that can point out to each individual where they are at in relation to the whole, which then also provides suggestions on how to proceed in an efficient manner. Ken Wilber’s integral philosophy is essentially an attempt at making such a map. Once the map’s basic features and assumptions are understood, it will be possible to test its usefulness through application to a specific issue.
Basic Terms and Definitions
A good map takes the most important general features of the territory and simplifies them into a representation which is not too simple to be ineffective, yet not too complex to be overwhelming. What distinguishes one type of map from another lies in the choice of which general features will be represented. When the territory under discussion is the nature of the entire universe and its relationship to the human being, the initial selection of general features is the most important step, as it determines the overall scale and dimension of the resulting map.
In the case of Ken Wilber’s integral philosophy, the attempt is to make a map of all of the other maps: this is his territory. He wishes to show how every view of the universe is like a map which selects as a starting point different general features, while at the same time providing the meta-context for all of them in order to bring to light their lawful and logical interrelationships. This approach defines the scale of his work as well as its potential content.
A good mapmaker will proceed phenomenologically, using the best instruments available to examine the territory in order to construct an accurate representation, knowing that much, if not most, of the actual detail of the territory must be discarded in order for the final map to be useful. Ken Wilber claims to have done just this (Wilber, 2000, p.66). By taking a survey of as many different maps as possible, from a wide variety of traditions and disciplines, Wilber has come across some basic features which seem to stand out as important categories for explanation.
In particular, he has noticed that the maps generally fall into four basic groups, each of which recognizes an indispensable aspect of the universe. These four groups are the permutations of two sets of polarities: inner/outer (subjective/objective), and singular/plural (Fig. 1). For Wilber, it is the simultaneous development of all four of these ‘quadrants’ that constitutes the ontology of the universe, which he calls the Kosmos after the Pythagorean usage (Wilber, 2000, p.16).
The second basic feature, shared by most of the maps, is that of development itself. Often this takes sense of progression from simplicity to complexity, either with or without teleology, but in some cases may be more akin to the musical connotation of elaboration of a theme with rhythmic and harmonic variations. Everything else in Wilber’s model is essentially an elaboration of these basic features: the ontology of the four quadrants, and its vicissitudes.
Just as elevation on a topographical map must rely on a basic but abstract unit, such as a meter, in order to meaningfully represent how the elevation changes, so too a basic unit is identified by which changes occur in the Kosmos: the holon. A holon is defined as that which is simultaneously whole while being a part of some other holon. Every holon necessarily has aspects which participate in each of the four quadrants. This allows us to say that the Kosmos is simply the vicissitudes of holons. Although this is easily stated, it would be helpful to elaborate through an example.
Let us take a pencil. A pencil, naively conceived, is not a holon. (Wilber, 2004) Its overt structure, objective and physical in nature, consists of only the upper right quadrant of a holon, and is simply the most obvious part of the holon. What, then, are the other aspects of the holon whose upper right aspect is a physical pencil? The pencil’s physical aspect was created somewhere, perhaps in a factory, where machines cut wood and graphite, mount erasers, etc. The pencil could not exist without some physical arrangement of objects designed specifically to create pencils – needless to say, these objects (such as the machines) are not themselves pencils, but are necessary for the pencil to come into being. This is the lower right quadrant, which Wilber calls ‘Society’; in this case the objective, external situation of the pencil factory. The holon in question has a physical manifestation not only as the pencil, but as the factory and other external, objective requirements necessary for the creation of the individual pencil.
But this accounts for only the right hand side of the four quadrants. The machines that create the pencil are not arbitrary, but designed. The entire factory, whose job it is to create pencils, only exists because a human culture exists that supports the creation of pencil factories as a worthwhile endeavor. Without this cultural support, which is inner and subjective, no pencil factories would exist, and therefore no pencils. This is the lower left quadrant, which Wilber identifies as ‘Culture’. Lastly, no culture would value the creation of pencil factories unless individuals in that culture thought that pencils were a good idea. Additionally, the inner subjective experience of individuals is required for people to get motivated to work at the pencil factory, to gather the appropriate materials, etc.
The lesson is that a holon is not something like a pencil, a human, Chinese mythology, or an elementary school. Rather, a holon is the simultaneous incidence of coherent development in all four quadrants. If you take out any one of the quadrants, the whole structure breaks down – no more pencils! Every quadrant depends explicitly and implicitly on every other quadrant. In this sense, the distinction into quadrants is secondary to the importance of the underlying concept of the development of holons.
Because holons are wholes in and of themselves, it is possible to speak of individual holons. At the same time, no holon can exist except by virtue of other holons. Whereas in Whitehead, this analysis led to a fundamental ‘atom’ of being as composed of relationships in process, for Wilber it is “holons all the way down” (Wilber, 2000, p.18). This leads Wilber to the idea of a ‘holarchy’ (Wilber, 2000, p. 24-26), in which holons are related and linked to other holons in a developmental scheme. Holons evolve – wholes evolve – into new holons that generally have the property of being more complex in organization, with a corresponding greater capacity for inner depth (increased capacity for consciousness). Thus there is directionality to evolution – it is a vector not a scalar. Arthur Young’s work has given detailed examples of this process occurring in various realms. For example, in the molecular kingdom, the transition through the sequence: metallic bonding --> ionic bonding --> nonfunctional compounds (covalent bonding) --> functional compounds --> nonfunctional polymers --> functional polymers (proteins) --> finally to DNA and viruses (Young, 1976, chapter VII). The concept of the holarchy is a natural consequence of the evolution of holons. One can determine the relative placement of two holons in the holarchy through a simple rule: if a holon is destroyed, all of the holons above it will also be destroyed, while none of the holons below it will be destroyed.
Transcend and Include
With these basic categories of explanation laid out, Wilber then points out how the process of holarchical evolution actually occurs (Fig. 2). As holons evolve, they pass through various levels, working towards greater depth, organization, and complexity.1 A holon at each level goes through a process of identification, separation, and transcendence. Speaking now only of the upper-left quadrant aspect of a holon, its inner subjective experience, the holon is first identified with the way the world, itself included, looks at that level – the holon has a very particular ‘view’ from its present level. Thus, the entire universe is interpreted through the capacities of the holon (its present depth) as they exist at that level. For example, an electron has just enough depth to ‘feel’ the fundamental aspects of charge and gravity. It interprets, and thus responds, to the entire universe only inasmuch as the entire universe has these properties. Electrons do not respond to the weather, to upcoming birthdays, or to social justice. The electron is identified with the world only as charge and gravity. If the electron evolves to a higher level, new levels of depth are opened to it – its inner experience is deepened to include more possible types of experience.
This process requires a dis-identification with its present stage. A holon cannot evolve without becoming something more than it once was – which remains impossible so long as the holon is fully identified with itself at a particular level. Once this separation has occurred, the potential exists for the holon to identify itself with a higher/deeper level on the holarchy. Wilber speaks here of a process of transcendence that includes all previous aspects of evolution. Rather than leave behind previous levels of existence, they are included into the next whole and are never lost – in fact they are necessary for the existence of the new whole, which relies upon the previous capacities for its fundamental modes of operation.2 This completes a basic overview of the major aspects of Wilber’s Integral Theory.
Two Contemporary Problems Addressed
Wilber’s four quadrant evolutionary model provides a schematic tool which can help make sense of some of the conceptual tangles and omissions that non-integral maps consistently encounter. In particular, two fundamental errors generally occur: ignorance (or overt non-inclusion) of either the developmental quality of the universe, or of its integral (holonic) nature. The first of these errors Wilber calls the pre-trans fallacy, and for the second he co-opts the term ‘flatland’.
The pre-trans fallacy is simply the tendency for a map to not recognize that holons evolve, and that as they do so, something truly different arises that was not there before, despite some similarities. As holons evolve, there is a middle section on the holarchy which is dominated by the capacity for reason. Before this point are the pre-rational realms, and after it are the trans-rational realms. The problem is that, from a rational perspective, it is often difficult to distinguish the pre-rational from the trans-rational, because they are both non-rational.
This confusion leads to two possibilities (Wilber, 1995): either one becomes a reductionist by reducing all trans-rational states (such as a true experience of the Self as divine) to pre-rational states (such as a narcissistic and infantile identification of oneself with the universe), or one becomes an elevationist by elevating pre-rational states (such as narcissistic identification with the universe) to trans-rational status (thus mistaking narcissism with godliness).
Secondarily, by not recognizing that holons exist in all four quadrants simultaneously, the error can be made of reducing or not including one or more of the quadrants. This is problematic not only because it seems that without all four quadrants, something undeniable about the universe is lost, but because when it is lost, it doesn’t appear that the other four quadrants can hold up by themselves. Wilber in particular focuses on the very common tactic employed by mapmakers who recognize only the external, or right-hand quadrants, to reduce the left-hand quadrants to properties of the right-hand quadrants (at best), or to discount them entirely (at worst). He calls the maps thus created ‘flatland’, because they lack all inner depth and become simply external, objective surfaces.
It is possible to extend this concept to apply more generally. A ‘flatland’ map is any map created which does not include all four aspects of holonic development. Reducing the external, objective world to ‘inner’ experiences (ala solipsism) would be equally ‘flat’. Additionally, it is possible to be so identified with one particular level on the holarchy that all other levels are reduced to the universe as it exists at that level. The most extreme example of flatland can be seen when these two possibilities are combined and the universe in its entirety is reduced to one level in one quadrant – such an example is the case of naïve atomism.
Assumptions, Critique, Response
Every mapmaker must make assumptions which ultimately define the scope and scale of the map. Although necessary, a conscientious mapmaker will point out these assumptions so that the final map may be contextualized so that its usage is appropriate to its stated goals. In Wilber’s case, a difficulty arises by virtue of the fact that his map is explicitly meant to be a meta-map. If such a map aspires to be more than just another map by including the widest and deepest possible territory, it must be very careful so as not to be too vague on the one hand or overly rigid on the other. As Ken Wilber clearly understands the importance of the mapmaker in the construction of a map (Wilber, 2000, p.54), while calling himself a maker of maps, this is something the reader would assume he explicitly addresses.
Is Wilber’s model not just another map that falls prey to the same limitations encountered by any attempt to schematize reality, in which most aspects must be discarded in order to bring a few into higher relief? Many critiques of Wilber’s model have felt him to be inconsistent in this area. Wilber’s own method of formulation, along with the actual content of his formulation, has a particular character, expression and tonality which points to what seem to be some underlying trends which serve to shape his view in such a way as to contradict some of his expressed intent. His content and style generally falls within the rational, formal mind, concerned with schematization, logical connection and argumentation, distinction, formalization, and objectification. In other words, his map seems to be made from the perspective of the rational realm, as opposed to the other two realms Wilber explicitly identifies: the pre-rational and post-rational.
At this level, it is an assumption (which Wilber seems to share), that reality can be effectively schematized through a rational approach. Certainly Wilber, who is deeply familiar with the Zen tradition, is aware that this endeavor is problematic when faced with the reality of the trans-rational aspects of the universe. Nevertheless, it may be very appropriate and useful to make such a map, knowing that it is bound to fail from the outset – as long as this caveat is not only made explicit by the mapmaker, but is, as well as can be, actually included in the content of the map itself.
My major critique of Wilber results from what appears to be a failure of Wilber’s map to accomplish this in a meaningful way.3 In particular I find that Wilber’s concept of the Spirit is indicative of a common tendency to relegate Spirit to the ultimate, the infinite, the primal background, or, as Wilber puts it, “both the highest ‘level’ in the holarchy, [and] also the paper on which the entire holarchy is written” (Wilber, 2000, p.34). Spirit, for Wilber, doesn’t seem to be examined in detail like many of the other components of his model, but seems to be simply added in almost as an afterthought, as an element known to be essential, and therefore necessary to include, but whose actual connectedness and inner nature is mysterious enough to preclude any clear formulation – thus ending up as the highest level as well as the background paper.
If Spirit is to have a non-ordinary status as that which is doing the evolving, it seems to warrant a much more thorough treatment. Instead, Wilber seems to take a safer route by speaking just enough of the Spirit to allow himself to be called spiritual while being elliptical enough to allow the gritty details of the relationship between Spirit and everyday experience to be left up to the readers own imagination or fantasy.4 Wilber focuses on the much more accessible qualities of the four quadrants, and generally all talk of the Spirit appears at the end of each chapter in a page or so of waxing dialogue dissociated from the main text.
If Spirit truly is the paper upon which the holarchy is written, and if evolution of Spirit is the true subject of evolution, it seems to be an obfuscation to simply identify Spirit with the manifest contents of the four quadrants, as if that constitutes and explanation. Rather, such a move is meaningless because it says precisely nothing by trying to say everything. This type of thinking is commiserate with the boundaries of the rational mind, and is a good picture of what Spirit looks like from within a rational perspective that recognizes in the best way it can the reality of something beyond itself. That is, a mistake is made in which, because of the thinking that from the rational perspective, Spirit, which is trans-rational (or even trans-trans-rational), is unable to be rationally spoken of, it is assumed that all speech about Spirit must be elliptical, poetic, or expressive rather than factual and scientific. In other words, like any good enlightenment scientist, we let ourselves off the hook with respect to Spirit because it is claimed that Spirit is “not in my purview”.
Because of this, Wilber falls into another mistake – that of preferentially accepting the upper-right quadrant’s evolutionary model as the basis for the progression in all the other quadrants. He makes the assumption that the universe started at the big bang, evolved from atoms to stars and galaxies to planets, life, McDonalds, and so on. This becomes the basis for Wilber’s entire timeline, which is explicitly meant to represent something beyond any individual quadrant, by summarizing the underlying reality of all of the quadrants. Yet this timeline is taken from the one quadrant which has demonstrated the highest variability as well as the most consistent radical revisioning of all the quadrants! Not only is there significant debate about the big bang picture among scientists, but also a plethora of alternate and/or modified conceptions of the structure of the universe that overtly preclude the idea of a single, privileged, step-by-step movement of time through a single universe.
This leads to another aspect of Wilber’s work that has drawn some serious attention – his claim that he is using the ‘orienting generalizations’ of many diverse fields in order to find the features that are generally agreed upon as a foundation for his own map. Meyerhoff (2005), in particular, has summarized the extent to which Wilber’s claim is to some extent more a matter of preferential selectivity than objective reporting, which allows him to gloss over or ignore what are often seen as fundamental debates by experts within a given field in order to highlight his own take on the issue as it relates to his specific goal. This has led many to feel that Wilber misrepresents both specific facts of fields (like evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology) as well as the extent to which a given field has achieved ‘consensus’ about specific orienting generalizations upon which Wilber builds his own theory. Additionally, Wilber makes the assumption that, apart from whether such orienting generalizations are even possible, that they are individually reliable enough to form a solid foundation upon which to build a further level of generalization (his map) which itself claims to be more ontologically applicable than any of the individual generalizations by themselves. This is somewhat like building a castle in the clouds: you may be able to get the overall shapes to look like a castle, but when you try to move in the furniture there won’t be enough substance to hold it up unless its content is similarly weightless.
Wilber assumes that the idea of emergence is the proper mode of progression from lower to higher stages of development, and that the lower sets the possibility of the higher while the higher sets the probability of the lower. Again, this seems to be the kind of thinking that arises from a perspective in which the upper-right quadrant is given primacy, reducing the operations of what could be perceived with spiritual perception into a primarily rationalistic worldview. In other words, if Spirit is actually ontologically primary, then perhaps it is actually spiritual beings who are involved in the setting of what Wilber identifies as both the possibilities and probabilities. By speaking abstractly of the Spirit, while never finding what is concretely perceivable and thinkable about it beyond the fact of its existence, Wilber loses the ability to meaningfully place the foundation stone of his model in the solid ground of what he claims to be ontologically fundamental, thus finding himself (unconsciously?) relying on another area – in this case the upper-right quadrant.
It is not enough to speak of the Spirit from the perspective of untransformed rationality. If we are to recognize through experience the reality of the Spirit as the ground of being, we must follow the vicissitudes of the Spirit all the way through from the inside. This process necessitates a transformation of rationality so that is pulled from the tendency towards naïve scientism or reductionism into what could be called transcendent rationality – which is only seems self-contradictory from the perspective of the standard rationality. In other words, the transformation of thinking results in models which have the characteristic of leading untransformed aspects of thinking towards their own transformation. In my estimation, Wilber’s model, although it speaks about transformation, trans-rational states and structures, and the Spirit, essentially includes them via description, not embodiment. What does Wilber have to say on this subject?
When we draw a four-quadrant diagram, we are giving a third-person view OF a sentient holon that POSSESSES first-, second-, and third-person views. That is, the AQAL map is our objective map or it-view OF a holon that HAS its own I, we, and it views, and the map itself captures none of those, nor is it supposed to, but rather simply reminds us of the perspectives that the particular sentient holon possesses and that we must take into account in any integral approach; the actual perspectives themselves cannot be engaged by our map knowledge, but only by the methodologies that bring forth the actual perspective-dimensions themselves—perhaps phenomenology, or hermeneutics, or positivism, or systems theory. The map itself is just a positivistic third-person abstraction—which is exactly what it is supposed to be, no more, no less: except this map DEMANDS that all the other methodologies represented or listed on the map—phenomenology, hermeneutics, etc.—actually be used when approaching the real territory. (Wilber, 2004)
To summarize, Wilber is content with description, and leaves the rest of the work to others. Wilber is caught in the paradox of recognizing that his map is just a map, while implicitly claiming that it essentially and accurately refers to ontological reality. The problem is that stating recognition of his map as a positivistic third-person abstraction does not free him from the problem that such recognition entails. In other words, his model states that any respectable approach must include the methodologies from every quadrant when “approaching the real territory”, while simultaneously recognizing that his own formulation is essentially an upper-right quadrant affair. This is the kind of tendency that leads to what others have identified as a lack of feeling and integration of the non-rational realms in the formulation of his model, emphasized particularly by Christian de Quincey.
Certainly there is much to gain from Wilber’s model. The test of this can be found in its usefulness, applicability, and its predictive capacity. Unfortunately, Wilber’s model doesn’t seem to have any clearly predictive capacity, which is perhaps a consequence of his over-reliance upon not-quite-agreed-upon orienting generalizations. This is not in any way indicative of the usefulness of his model, however, which seems to have found enough adherents in various fields to show that it can be of service. Wilber’s soon-to-launch Integral University touts over twenty different disciplines, from art to sustainability (and notably not much in the way of sciences such as physics, chemistry, or even biology). Yet it remains to be seen whether it is something essentially unique about the integral model itself in which its applicability lies, or whether it is a case of wearing your pants on your head to keep the rain off – which works to some extent, but it isn’t the most elegant or efficient solution. This may or may not be the case with the integral model, yet is an area concerning which the cautious reader must be conscious so as not to fall into the potential fallacy of thinking that the integral theory is effective for the reasons explicitly stated by the theory itself. This simply has yet to be borne out, although there are many thinkers inspired to modify and expand Wilber’s work. In other words, its level of effectiveness in actual application may or may not be due to the theory itself, and may be due to other factors that are not explicit within the theory itself.
Wilber seems to focus primarily on human development – attempting to synthesize the main trends of available knowledge into an accurate picture that would serve as a “map of our own higher stages of growth and a map of our own greater opportunities”. (Wilber, 2000, p.xvi) My question for Wilber has to do with the extent to which his model fosters, enables, or otherwise coherently directs the changing flow of human experience toward more ‘integrated’ levels. The problem seems to be that Wilber’s model is excellent at identifying, understanding, or cognizing various abstract structures, but this is a far cry from actually being an active and effective force for change.
In terms of the map analogy, maps require not only an actual territory, but also must include a mapmaker (who makes an imprint on the map). Yet for the map to be anything other than epiphenomenal requires also a map reader. Wilber seems to address his map-readers essentially inasmuch as they have the capacity to think along the lines of the integral model, as if acquiring understanding of its insights through cognition is either sufficient or required to make the map actually useful. I would argue that in fact his map finds such criticism for its mentalistic tendencies precisely because he leaves out other essential aspects of the map-reader: the will and feeling life. It takes more than understanding to create change – in fact, as most psychologists recognize – sometimes it can be advantageous to not conceptualize a problem, but to use techniques that address the will and/or the feelings for various situations. Granted, Wilber recognizes that his map is an ‘objective’ third-person summary. But when his claims are so grandiose with respect to the integral nature of his model, it seems lax to restrict his formulation in this way, as he is demanding that all other maps adhere to a principle to which his own map is exempt.
It seems to me that a truly integral theory would include more than just summarization and collation, but some kind of level-sensitive prescription that addresses the whole, integral human being, and not primarily the realm of thinking. Beyond simply recognizing that I have reached the formal operation stage, and will eventually move towards the vision-logic stage, is there something Wilber can provide me that will actually help me get there? His integral map won’t read itself to me and explain the steps I might take to get from one level to the next, although it may help me identify it once I arrive. Yet this service has been provided adequately by any number of other wisdom traditions – is there something that makes Wilber’s formulation more helpful? If his claim to have a truly integral theory is true, I would expect such a theory to answer this question in the affirmative.
de Quincey, Christian. Critics Do. Critics Don’t: A Response to Ken Wilber. Accessed 03/02/06 at http://deepspirit.com/sys-tmpl/replytowilber/
Kazlev, M. Alan. (2004). A Critique of Ken Wilber's Integral Method. Accessed 03/02/06 at http://www.kheper.net/topics/Wilber/Wilbers_method-critique.html
Meyerhoff, Jeff. (2005). Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything. Accessed 03/01/06 at http://www.integralworld.net/index.html?meyerhoff-ba-toc.html
Tarnas, Richard. (2001). A New Birth in Freedom: A (P)review of Jorge Ferrer’s Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. Accessed 02/28/06 at http://www.eurotas.org/news/freedom_102903.htm
Wilber, Ken. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Accessed 02/28/06 at http://www.praetrans.com/en/ptf.html
Wilber, Ken. (2000). A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Wilber, Ken. (2004). A Suggestion for Reading the Criticisms of My Work. Accessed 03/02/06 at http://www.integralworld.net/wilber_wokw.html
Young, Arthur M. (1976). The Reflexive Universe. Delacourte Press/Seymour Lawrence.
1 (back) This process results in fewer highly evolved holons – a greater depth exists, but they span less of the total aggregate of holons in the universe.
2 (back) This leads to a speculation concerning the tendency of capacities at previous levels to become increasingly unconscious. In other words, the percentage of inner experience of a holon devoted to all of the transcended and included previous levels decreases as the relative distance between the transcended level compared to the present level of the holon increases. This can be seen in the division of the human brain into the ‘reptilian-brain’, ‘old mammalian-brain’, and the ‘cortex’, and the corresponding levels of awareness associated with these structures. A great deal of our unconsciousness is associated with the lowest structure, less with the mid-brain, and least of all with the cortex. On a more integral note, who is conscious of the chemical processes in their bodies, or the underlying ‘consciousness’ of their atomic structure? And yet we depend upon these fundamental levels for our very lives!
3 (back) I believe this to be essentially the same type of ‘sticking-point’ felt by many of Wilber’s critics who speak up for the pre and trans-rational modes in a more integrative way than Wilber himself does.
4 (back) This critique is based, for the most part, on his book A Brief History of Everything. I do not know the extent to which he addresses this particular concern in detail in his other works.