Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Edward Berge has been studying all things integral since 1998. He graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society. By profession he has been a massage therapist and is a retired professional liability insurance underwriter. By avocation he is dancer, researcher, writer, and art and literary lover and critic. He is an active participant in the Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum and blogs at Progressive Participatory Enaction.

Hier(an)archical synplexity

Edward Berge

Are there other lenses with equal validity that need to be taken into account in an syntegrative metatheory?

We touched upon this topic my recent discussion with the Growing Down Podcast crew entitled "Do our models get in the way?" So how can model building help us to authentically empathize and communicate with our fellow humans? We discussed how there has been criticism of the integral model, or at least of some of those who promote it, on how it pigeon-holes people at a level of development, typically assuming a lower level on a hierarchical scale than the integral adherent. It seems this is used more as a means to elevate the adherent above criticism, as well as devalue the criticism.

Is that a consequence of models built with a main focus on a hierarchical, developmental lens as the dominating overview? Are there other lenses with equal validity that need to be taken into account in an syntegrative metatheory? Below are some examples of alternative theories that take such an approach using methodological pluralism, approaches that have quite a different way of how we view and interact with each other. To distinguish these approaches from those focused on the hierarchical lens I've come to describe them as hier(an)archical synplexity.

From Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh:

For the sake of imposing sharp distinctions, we develop what might be called essence prototypes, which conceptualize categories as if they were sharply defined and minimally distinguished from one another. When we conceptualize categories in this way, we often envision them using a spatial metaphor, as if they were containers, with an interior, an exterior, and a boundary. When we conceptualize categories as containers, we also impose complex hierarchical systems on them, with some category-containers inside other category-containers. Conceptualizing categories as containers hides a great deal of category structure. It hides conceptual prototypes, the graded structures of categories, and the fuzziness of category boundaries.

This is the crux of the developmental holarchy lens/metaphor, itself only one of a multitude of lenses/metaphors. The inference structure of this image schema or lens indeed hides a great deal of other categorical structures. While this lens is useful and consistent within its own limited inferential structure, it is inconsistent with other equally valuable metaphorical inference structures.[1] Lakoff & Johnson make clear there is no one structure that is the foundation for the others. Hence the problem is that we take the holarchy lens to be the defining context within which all others must be contextualized, often based on some metaphysical premise that it's the way reality itself is organized (Berge, 2019a).

Rosch's seminal work on prototype theory is still fundamental in cognitive science, in that categories have fuzzy boundaries that do share some space with other categories; they are not strictly delineated by necessary and sufficient conditions. Rather basic categories are grounded in our afforded experiences with external objects and provide a base from which to extrapolate more abstract categories. The lines between categories remain graded, with some sharing of qualities. Maturana and Varela's autopoetic systems are similar in that one's boundary both sustains its closed autonomy yet also allows some open communication and exchange with its environment.

We can also conceptualize container schema differently, i.e., where a so-called smaller holon is not subsumed in a larger one but in which they share a 'space-between' as Mark Edwards (2010) calls it. It offers an entirely different approach to hierarchy because the interacting holons retain their autonomy. They structurally couple and create another holon altogether instead of one being subsumed or nested in the other. This is especially significant when you take into account basic categories, which are in the middle of typical taxonomic hierarchies. That is, a hierarchy does not start with the most particular type which is subsumed into the most general type. Those two abstract ends of the spectrum are literally tied together by the basic category in the middle, the most concrete and thus the most closely interactive with the world. Hence this hierarchy is in effect from the middle up and down so that the very nature of hierarchy is entirely different than the typical one. Hence hier(an)archical synplexity.

To translate all this theory down into political action, having better theories give us a better understanding of relational dynamics. When we see each other not as lower holons subsumed in a hierarchically complex model, but rather as how we interrelate in a syntegral, multiplicitous web sans an "underlying unity-oriented ideal(ism)" (Küpers et al. 2015, Berge, 2019a), it changes the way we approach each other. Instead of seeing each other as being stuck in a lower level of development and condescending to them, which attitude workers certainly respond against, we can appreciate how they fit into this web, how they contribute to its healthy functioning, so we can compassionately meet them where they are in specific contexts to enact a policy that helps them. Also, the more meshy models help us to understand that an individual, let along a culture, cannot be at a developmental level (Berge 2019b), thereby avoiding the "my level is better than yours" BS.


[1] Examples of other image schema described by Lakoff & Johnson include source-path-goal, link, part-whole, center-periphery. Other lenses described by Edwards (2010) include interior-exterior, agency-communion, relational exchange.


Berge, E. 2019a, "The Root of the Power Law Religion",, August 2019.

Berge, E. 2019b ,"Can you be at a level of development?",, August 2019.

Edwards, M. Organizational Transformation for Sustainability: An Integral Metatheory, Routledge Studies in Business Ethics (Book 2).

Küpers, W. Deeg, J & M. Edwards, "'Inter-Bridging': Bridges and Bridging as Metaphors for 'syn-integrality' in Organization Studies and Practice", Integral Review, vol. 11, no. 3, September 2015.

Lakoff, G. & M. Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, 1999.

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