Ken Wilber’s Integrative Vision: Why We Need It

Ken Wilber’s genius is in identifying aspects of positions that are worth preserving while jettisoning the rest while integrating them into an overarching vision. In this way he is a critic of all and a proponent of many. He has many of my own preoccupations – such as the way that a partial truth can become a big lie. The formula he uses to try to minimize totalizing partial positions, while integrating their insights, he refers to as ‘all-quadrant, all level.”

Four quadrants, all levels

The quadrants can be variously described as I, We, It and Its. Or Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective and Interobjective. Or Mind, Culture, Brain, Social.

wilber_mondrianMany phenomena can be analyzed from each of these perspectives. Each of us tends to have our favorite quadrant and to look at things from that perspective alone. In that way, we tend to become rather nasty reductionists. The all-quadrant model attempts to save us from ourselves AND to reconcile historically opposing positions that are not really incompatible at all.

A quick example. Why do I wear black jeans? 1. Subjective – they happen to coincide with my personal preferences and taste.  I like them. 2. Objective – they are sturdy and durable and affordable. 3. Intersubjective – they are fashionable. They indicate a middling informality without making one look like a homeless person. Culturally, they have a certain meaning and significance. They have a commonly accepted interpretation. 4. Interobjectively – they are mass produced in factories and are therefore widely available and fairly cheap. I couldn’t wear jeans if I couldn’t afford them and if they weren’t available.

Example number two. What does it mean to be a man? 1. Subjective – My own interpretation. What it means to me. 2. Objective – the biological aspects of maleness, e.g., hormones, genitalia, etc. 3. Intersubjective/Cultural – all the meanings and interpretations present within my culture concerning masculinity. 4. Interobjective/Social – this quadrant includes all the objective and measurable aspects of a phenomenon at the level of systems. Identifiable economic factors are relevant here, such as what jobs are available to men and women. Is this a hunter-gatherer society, or post-industrial?

Each quadrant influences the other. Changes in one quadrant can affect changes in the others. Modes of production (Interobjective) affect cultural ideas, affect my personal interpretations which take place within a cultural context, which can affect me biologically e.g., muscle tone. Moving from agrarian to industrial in the social interobjective quadrant, will have flow on effects for all the other quadrants.

Here we are already introducing the ‘all-level’ aspect of the theory. A major contribution of modernity is the notion of evolution – development in time. The Great Chain of Being already had a hierarchy of body, mind, soul and spirit, or physical, psyche, nous and the One, in both the East and the West. Modernity put this hierarchy as something unfolding in time. As my brain (objective) evolves to include a neocortex, so my mind evolves (subjective) and so culture evolves (intersubjective) and so the societal arrangements/means of production evolve (interobjective). Growth and development in any one quadrant can contribute to corresponding changes in the other quadrants.

integ_chartWhat it means to be a man partly depends on what cognitive level I’m at personally, my brain development, what the average level of development is culturally, how developed my society is – hunter-gatherer, horticultural, agricultural, industrial, post-industrial, corresponding culturally to archaic, magic, mythic, rational, vision logic.

Now, social constructionism is a partial truth that becomes a big lie. Sociologists, for instance, notice that gender is the product of culture. Well, that’s true. But it is also the product of the jobs available to men and women. It is also partly one’s own personal interpretation AND biology. The biological component is common to all cultures and thus is largely responsible for cross-cultural similarities.

Cross-cultural similarities are also to be found as the result of similar social/economic levels of development. Horticultural societies have relative equality between the sexes because men and women contribute equally to food production and he or she who puts food on the table tends to have a major say in decision making. Agrarian societies have a gender based division of labor for pragmatic reasons. Ploughing takes physical strength and men are stronger than women on average. Also, walking to fields some distance from home is not very compatible with child-raising, whereas making a hole and dropping  a seed in, as found in horticulture IS compatible. Ploughing is no great joy. Men are not ursurping women’s rights. This division of labor is ubiquitous cross-culturally for pragmatic reasons.

With industrialization, the relative physical strength of men and women became fairly irrelevant and even more so in the post-industrial world. It is no coincidence that women’s suffrage (cultural) arose just when there was a major change in the working environment (social).

Climber, ladder, view

A related concept in Wilber is the notion of climber, ladder and view. Many mystics, past and present have had a vision of ultimate reality as Spirit. The modern contribution is to see this Spirit unfolding in time. The universe has evolved from the Big Bang, to stars, to planets, to solar systems, to life, single-cell organism, multi-cellular organisms etc. Like the universe, we too evolve physically, culturally, socially and internally develop, in the moral sphere, from egocentric, to ethnocentric, to worldcentric. The self-system is a kind of conglomeration of various abilities at various levels of development e.g., kinesthetic, musical, logico-mathematical, verbal, moral, etc. This self-system is the climber. The ladder is the various developmental levels identified by people like Maslow and Kohlberg. The view is what the world looks like from the perspective of someone at that level of development. The whole thing is actually Spirit. Spirit is the climber, the ladder and the view.

The post-modern insight is to see that the map-maker must be included as well as the map. A different world space opens up – a different view – depending upon where one is developmentally. The world is not simply given, but interpreted. This insight can quite quickly degenerate into the notion that truth doesn’t exist at all – only perspective. That’s basically the novice’s mistake in thinking that because great works of art, for instance, are susceptible to more than one legitimate interpretation, that anything goes. One imagines that one can meaningfully and legitimately say whatever one likes, and that’s not true.


Evolution is the unfolding of the potentialities of Spirit in time. Spirit gets expressed as body, mind, soul and spirit. Evolution means the creative emergence of complexity and novelty. Historically, there has been a direction, from the least complex to the more complex.

Evolution exists, but it has a telos, a direction. Darwin’s only real innovation in this regard was to introduce a mechanism for these changes that he called natural selection. However, this mechanism couldn’t account for macroevolution.

With the creative emergence of human consciousness, the universe becomes aware of itself and studies itself, and for certain rare human beings, Spirit comes to know itself as Spirit.

Along with external development has come internal development or depth.

The bad news is that the more complicated an organism or a cultural becomes, the more problems and pathologies can arise. Dogs get cancer; atoms don’t


Holons are a concept that Wilber gets from Arthur Koestler.  The concept manages to integrate concepts that thinkers often bifurcate. It’s a third alternative to atomism and holism.

For many years I made the mistake of championing holism. But even then I recognized that in focusing on context and the whole, I was blinded to the unique and the individual. I also noticed that I was an alienated holist. A holist in theory only. Wilber would say that if I wanted to go beyond my alienation, I would have to develop internally, which I attempted by taking up Tai Chi Chuan and later Zen meditation.

Holism camps out in the interobjective, in systems theory. We are all part of some larger reality; the great web of life. The trouble is this web has no depth. There are no levels of consciousness, or growth or development. It can’t differentiate between a carrot and an ape; between an egocentric psychopath and the Buddha, an ethnocentric barbarian and a worldcentric moral agent.

Holism potentially condones authoritarian regimes where the individual has no value and anyone and everyone is capable of being sacrificed for the public good.

Holons exist in a holarchy; a hierarchy. Holons are part/wholes. They are part of a wider community and they are wholes unto themselves. They have intrinsic value as wholes and extrinsic value as parts. Atoms have more extrinsic value than an ape. The ape, because it enfolds more aspects of the Kosmos within itself – it has more depth, has more intrinsic value. From an Absolute (non) perspective, both atoms and apes are equally spirit. Pragmatically, from a relative perspective, the ape is rarer and more significant. The atom is more fundamental, but less significant.

Democracy, as a political system, attempts to balance the whole/part nature of us as holons. We have intrinsic worth as individuals, but we are also parts of a wider community in which we exist. We have duties to this community, just as we have rights as individuals. Libertarians over-emphasize our wholeness. Communists and other authoritarians, our partness.

How do we determine where something stands in the holarchy?

Each holon transcends, but includes other holons. One holararchy would be physiosphere,  biosphere, noosphere and theosphere. The test for whether something is higher or lower in the holarchy is to ask what would happen if a level was removed? Everything above it disappears, nothing below it is affected. The biosphere is higher than the physiophere. If we removed inanimate matter, all life would cease; partly because we are actually made of inanimate matter like atoms and molecules. But if we removed the biosphere, the physiosphere (the lifeless planet for instance) could continue to exist. If we removed everything with a significant mind – the noosphere – the biosphere could continue on just fine without us.

Take the holarchy of atoms, molecules, cells, multi-cellular organisms, etc.. Remove molecules, everything above it ceases to exist, atoms continue. Remove cells, molecules continue to exist.

A cell transcends, but includes atoms and molecules. It can’t be reduced to atoms and molecules. Cells have properties atoms and molecules don’t have, such as life.


A student once asked me how we could have a coherent idea about God because everyone has different ideas about Him. I responded that that is true of many things and that how one thinks about God depends on one’s level of development and the four quadrants.

A quick summary would be that horticultural societies tend to see God as the Great Mother and to believe in magic. Agrarian cultures don’t believe that they can do magic anymore, but believe that other people can do magic i.e., the Greek gods. God becomes the Great Father in the sky. Industrial cultures are starting to see the emergence of significant numbers of rational/formal operational people. Here, one has the choice between abandoning the mythic God and adopting atheism, or in jettisoning the mythic elements of God and adopting rational theology. No culture has yet developed where what Wilber calls the post-rational is common, but rare individuals in many cultures have their own direct experience of the divine Wilber divides into gross, subtle, causal and nondual.

Ascenders and Descenders

Plato’s cave was intended as a picture of reality and Wilber accepts it as such. It’s especially significant that the philosopher not only leaves the cave – eros, the search for wisdom, happiness, salvation, the One, but also returns to help his fellow prisoners – agape, compassion, God’s love for us, God’s embrace of the many. In Buddhistic terms, form is emptiness. Forms are ultimately illusory. But emptiness is form – all form is a manifestation of divinity and is itself divine.

Historically, humanity has tended to divide between the ascenders and the descenders; both pointing in opposite directions for the location of the divine. Too much eros and you end up with the Gnostics, the Puritans and the like. Too much agape and you end up regressing to some Earth mother stage of development and ignore human sacrifice and slavery and lack of differentiation between fact and metaphor and animistic projection.

Wilber makes a persuasive case that eros and agape; two different kinds of love, are both equally necessary. The fight between ascenders and descenders is misguided. They are both right. The One is divine. Nature and physical reality is also divine and good. But they are both wrong in trying to locate the divine exclusively in one or the other.

As stated at the beginning, these fights become very bitter because both side knows they are right. They ARE right, but because their truth is a horribly partial and fragmented truth, they are both horribly wrong too and that’s why we need Wilber’s integral vision.

Right now the descenders have won.  Science can see things with simple location, but can’t see the two left-hand quadrants. By imagining that science possesses all the truth that’s fit to know – something that science would never be able to prove, thus this notion is not derived from science and thus is false according to their own criteria – the world is imaginatively reduced to surfaces; the physical world. The descenders identify God and religion with the mythic God which is in fact at a lower level of development from the typical descender. The mythic God level bifurcates between believers and non-believers and is thus ethnocentric. If you’re not one of us, you’re going to hell.

Positivists and post-modernists tend to be atheists. They don’t believe in the mythic God. But what they don’t recognize is that their theistic colleagues don’t believe in a mythic God either. They believe in a God consistent with rationality, a notion that arouses derisory laughter and incredulity in the descenders.

Out of scientism, believing that only science reveals the world as it really is, and not, say, literature, and out of misguided egalitarianism, current descenders are unable to see levels of internal development necessary for worldcentric moral stances. They tend to imagine that if only we all adopted a web of life view, or if only Christian fundamentalists abandoned their religious beliefs, then all would be right with the world. But, as Wilber points out, the internet connects us all, but does nothing to increase depth (degree of moral and conscious development) and in fact does things like enabling neo-Nazis to find each other.


The systems theorist web of life has no depth, or degrees of development. Many web of lifers are themselves worldcentric in their moral perspective, but they obfuscate and misunderstand the developmental steps to attaining a worldcentric stance. We are all born egocentric. We cannot take another’s perspective cognitively until about the age of seven and so we cannot act in a properly moral self-determining fashion until then. The next stage is ethnocentric, before, in some cases moving on to worldcentrism. Because the flatland positivists don’t recognize depth and thus degrees of development, they imagine that it’s all just a matter of having the correct beliefs. Such people tend to despise the ethnocentric and one gets the feeling, seek to eliminate them. But ethnocentrism is a necessary step on the path to worldcentrism. It does no good just to keep attacking ethnocentrism. It’s like attacking sentences because they are inferior in scope and meaning to paragraphs. Ethnocentrism is itself an improvement on egocentrism and is not to be despised.

The Four Quadrants and American warfare

Neoconservatives imagine that any country in the world is in principle ripe for liberal democracy and have started wars, or at least envisaged finishing them, on that basis. Liberal democracies are associated with industrial societies (Interobjective) with things like widespread public education for boys and girls helping to raise the average developmental level. When one introduces democracy in a tribal context, tribes end up voting for members of their own tribe instead of whom they think the best candidate for everyone might be, undermining the whole enterprise.

Many of the Arab Spring countries seem set to elect into power political groups aligned with a mythic level religious agenda. Agrarian cultures tend to have monarchies, not democracies. Some of those countries could end up with theocracies and Sharia law, to the horror of the West. The mythic level religious agenda then oppresses and marginalizes the atheists, the non-Muslims and the rational Muslims. A narrow ethnocentrism pits one group against another, instead of a broader ethnocentric vision that would include at least everyone in that country, instead of Muslims against Christians or Buddhists.


If you, like me, are sick of being told to choose sides. If you are interested in pursuing truth and not in evincing party affiliation. If you are sick of being told that such and such is ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ and thus beyond the pale even though it seems to be true. If you are sick of some partial truth, true in some limited contexts and not others being represented as the whole truth. If you are neither a positivist nor a post-modern relativist. If you are a fan of science and at least some versions of religion. AND if you are not content with a hodge podge of incompatible bits and pieces gleaned from incommensurate world views, then Wilber might be the philosopher for you.

Richard-Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.