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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Integral Spirituality

An Overview and Some Critical Observations

Hyatt Carter

Ken Wilber's new book, Integral Spirituality, has some new insights to offer, including an upgrade of his four-quadrant model. Taking into account that a holon in any of the four quadrants can be seen from the outside, or experienced as, or as if, from within, this gives a total of eight perspectives or zones.

The Four Quadrants with eight primordial perspectives, or hori-zones of arising, and their respective methodologies:

Fig. 1 Eight Major Methodologies (from Integral Spirituality, p. 37)

Although there is some overlap in these zones, a point to notice is what all this reveals. Eight zones, each with its own methodology, yield eight supplementary perspectives which, when integrated, give a more comprehensive revelation about the complexity of human nature and the nature of all holons. A parallel could be drawn with quantum physics as it delves within the atom to discover the beauty and the complexities of the particulate subatomic realm.

Another novelty that Ken offers is his idea that, to talk meaningfully about any actuality in the universe, you must first specify what he calls its Kosmic Address, and this you do by identifying the actuality's “altitude” and “perspective.” Indeed, the definition is given by this formula:

Kosmic Address = altitude + perspective

where altitude means level of development and perspective where it is situated in the four quadrants. The address can be made even more specific by also identifying lines, states, and types. Thus: quadrants, levels, lines, states, and types are the basic five elements of any comprehensive or integral map. Using the notation of Integral Math, Ken (on p. 265) gives an example of how to formulate a Kosmic Address:

“For a particular knowing subject (i.e., a holon with quadrants), this might be: researcher John Doe is coming from a 3rd-person perspective (i.e., using Q/3-perspective or it-perspective), altitude Level 5 or orange (L5 or L/o), line/cognitive (l/c), State/gross (S/g), type/masculine (t/m), all of which is (Q/3, L/5, l/c, S/g, t/m). John Doe might be researching (via quadrivia) an object in the LR that possesses a solid state (S/s), clade line homo erectus (symbol: he; thus: l/he), female type (t/f), as it is a member of the global ecosystem, colloquially known as Gaia (whose full contours don't emerge until altitude 8). This might be indicated with the sentence: John Doe (Q/3, L/5, l/c, S/g, t/m) is focusing his attention on female homo erectus in its interaction with Gaia (Q/4, L/8, 1/he, S/s, t/f) Generically, the Kosmic address of this interaction is: Subject(Q/3, L/5, l/c, S/g, t/m) × Object(Q/4, L/8, 1/he, S/s, t/f) . . .”

Some other areas discussed in the book:


A central point for Wilber is the postmodern revolution which brought to light the pivotal role that intersubjectivity plays in the workings of consciousness. Phenomena do not just pop into consciousness fully formed, but are the products of vast intersubjective networks such as linguistic systems, cultural backgrounds, and structures of consciousness. This is the realm of the Lower Left quadrant, zones #3 and #4. These intersubjective factors simply cannot be seen by direct introspection or meditation. What is needed is an outside approach to interior phenomena that allows one to step back far enough for them to begin to come into focus. One such approach is structuralism (or genealogy) and with this zone-#4 perspective new developmental structures come into view. This is why Buddhism, through centuries and even millennia of meditation, completely missed this aspect of consciousness. Although the Buddhists have a highly sophisticated understanding of the phenomenology of zone #1, they are—like anyone else who has missed the postmodern revolution—essentially blind to the many constitutive factors arising from the Lower Left quadrant.

A problem here is that pathologies can infect this process so that, rather than truth, lies and distortions are delivered to consciousness. Another consequence, as Wilber put it:

“Once you learn any developmental scheme, such as SD, a peculiar fact starts to become apparent. You can be listening to somebody who is coming from, say, the multiplistic level (orange altitude), and it is obvious that this person is not thinking of these ideas himself; almost everything he says is completely predictable. He never studied Clare Graves or any other developmentalist, and yet there it is, predictable value after predictable value. He has no idea that he is the mouthpiece of this structure, a structure he doesn't even know is there. It almost seems as if it is not he who is speaking, but the orange structure itself that is speaking through him—this vast intersubjective network is speaking through him.

“Worse, he can introspect all he wants, and yet he still won't realize this. He is simply a mouthpiece for a structure that is speaking through him. He thinks he is original; he thinks he controls the contents of his thoughts; he thinks he can introspect and understand himself; he thinks he has free will—and yet he's just a mouthpiece. He is not speaking, he is being spoken.” (p. 277)

Ken Gets Personal with God

This came as a surprise, but a welcome one. In Wilber's words: “Spirit in 2nd-person is the great You, the great Thou, the radiant, living, all-giving God before whom I must surrender in love and devotion and sacrifice and release. In the face of Spirit in 2nd-person, in the face of the God who is All Love, I can have only one response: to find God in this moment, I must love until it hurts, love to infinity, love until there is no me left anywhere, only this radiant living Thou who bestows all glory, all goods, all knowledge, all grace . . .”

Over his long life philosopher Charles Hartshorne consistently presented a case for God not as impersonal or the unmoved mover but as the Personality most rich in relations. He liked to quote Rabbi Heschel that “God is the most moved mover.” Even as early as his Harvard dissertation, he was saying, “Person as a legal concept is a highly abstract term, but personality in the end is the richest and most concrete of all ideas.” And then in his autobiography, The Darkness and the Light, 67 years later: “I held that the idea of a personal God was not simply an illusion, that personality is our best sample of reality and value and could not be simply set aside in trying to conceive the cosmic, universal, and supreme form of existence.”

The Wilber-Combs Lattice

Fig. 2 The Wilber-Combs Lattice (from Integral Spirituality, p. 90)

The lattice correlates emerging but then enduring vertical stages of development with momentary horizontal states. The point to notice here, as Wilber says,

“is that a person at any stage can have a peak experience of a gross, subtle, causal, or nondual state. But a person will interpret that state according to the stage they are at.”

The Sliding Scale of Enlightenment

Wilber poses a question that I've wondered about: what does Enlightenment, total Enlightenment with a capital “E”—what does this mean in an evolving universe where creative advances accumulate in an ever-increasing totality? Wilber's answer:

“Enlightenment is the realization of oneness with all states and all structures [or stages] that are in existence at any given time.” (p. 241)

If you will refer back to the Wilber-Combs Lattice, you will see that this entails both vertical and horizontal Enlightenment. This means that the Buddha's Enlightenment, over two millennia ago, was a complete Enlightenment at that time, but that it is only partial in comparison with what is possible now, for there are structures of consciousness now that were just not available then. The world moves on, continuously.

Enlightenment also has a twofold aspect in terms of the Buddhist distinction of Form and Emptiness, “where Emptiness is timeless, unborn, unmanifest, and not evolving, and Form is manifest, temporal, and evolving.” The gift of Emptiness is freedom while that of Form is fullness.

Wilber takes evolution seriously. The structures of consciousness that unfold are not “pre-existing ontological structures in some eternally fixed Great Chain; they evolved and were laid down by factors in all four quadrants as they developed (or tetra-evolved) over time and became Kosmic habits of humanity, habits available to all future humans . . . That's why evolution shows so many fits and starts; it's a creative artwork, not an intelligent engineering product (because if so, that Engineer is an idiot).”

Some Critical Observations

Wilber's primary pejorative, or put-down word, is monological, a term which basically means “not dialogical—or not intersubjective, not contextual, not constructivist, not understanding the constitutive nature of cultural backgrounds—basically, not recognizing zones #2 and #4.” By my count he uses this word no fewer than 61 times in the text of Integral Spirituality. Wilber claims, in this and also in previous books, that Whitehead's metaphysics is monological, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It is Whitehead's view that the whole universe conspires in the momentary creation, or concrescence, of all actualities, which means that each actuality is constituted by its prehensions, or feelings, or relations, with other actualities.

I discuss this in some detail in an essay of mine called “The Adventurous Frontier of Process Spirituality” in a section called The Holographic Universe. There is a link to this essay on the homepage of my website, A Prismatic Spirituality of Process.

Here are three paragraphs from the article:

“Actual entities are internally related, which means that the relations are essential and constitutive of what each actual entity becomes. To the question, what are actual entities made of—the reply is that they are made of other actual entities, plus what they achieve by self-completion. And so, another aspect of what is meant by the word “process” is to say that reality is a social process.

“And so each momentary throb of actuality constellates within itself a replication, in marvelous miniature, of the entire universe, showing how all things are interdependent, interwoven together in a wonderful pattern of connectedness, a pattern linking all things together in dynamic relatedness.

“Not only does an actual entity contain the whole of the past universe, it pervades the whole of the future by passing on what it achieves, an achievement that will be taken account of, or prehended, by all subsequent entities. As a holographic entity, each fleeting pulse of experience is Alpha and Omega, with prehensive roots stretching all the way back to the primordial flaring forth of the universe fifteen billion years ago, and branches of influence reaching forward into the future . . .”

In light of this, my question to Ken Wilber would be, how much more intersubjective can you get?

For the most part, I don't follow the wily Ken where he departs from Whitehead, especially when he embraces those aspects of Kant's thought that Whitehead found reason to reject. Wilber is following Jürgen Habermas here when, or so it seems to me, Whitehead is a much better guide.

Also following Habermas, Ken sounds the death knell for metaphysics, claiming that we have moved into a post-metaphysical era. If I may personify metaphysics, especially the revolutionary metaphysics refined by Whitehead and Hartshorne, this metaphysics would stand up and announce, with Mark Twain, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” Time and time again process philosopher David Griffin points out how easy it sometimes is to refute or even ridicule the weak version of a theory, but a sound refutation can be claimed only when the strongest version of the theory is confronted.

Metaphysics, in its weak version, pertains to ideas that are beyond our experience, and reduces all experience to sensory perception. Such a metaphysics is rightly rejected by Kant, Habermas, Wilber, and . . . Whitehead! The question is, is sensory perception our only mode of perception? Most of the contemporary intellectual world, including science, would answer with a resounding “Yes!” But Whitehead's metaphysics is grounded in a nonsensory form of perception that not only supplements sensory perception but is also more primary, more universal, not unique to us humans, but shared by all creatures and all actualities, all the way down.

With this mode of perception, called causal efficacy, metaphysical knowledge becomes possible and while we cannot, so far as I know, see God with our physical eyes, we can experience God through this nonsensory mode. So can quarks! How else could evolution have ever gotten under way if the actualities at the beginning of our cosmic epoch could not have somehow felt the persuasive urge of divine influence toward new possibilities?

To paraphrase Browning, A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a meta for?

Another problem I have is the primacy that Wilber gives to perspectives. For example, on page 42 he writes:

“This Integral Post-Metaphysics replaces perceptions with perspectives, and thus re-defines the manifest realm as the realm of perspectives, not things nor events nor structures nor processes nor systems nor vasanas nor archetypes nor dharmas, because all of those are perspectives before they are anything else, and cannot be adopted or even stated without first assuming a perspective.”

I would make a case for process as more primary that perspectives as follows:

Underlying evolution is a process of surpassing beauty and elegance: the prehensive unification of experience whereby all “actual entities,” Whitehead's term for the ultimate units of reality, achieve momentary flashes of actuality. Such experience is, by its very nature, creative, and it was flashing forth in all actualities right there at the beginning, in the initial seconds and minutes after the Big Bang.

Whitehead's fundamental insight—his novel intuition about the nature of reality—he expressed in a simple but aphoristic phrase: “The many become one, and are increased by one.” These nine simple words describe what Whitehead was perhaps the first to glimpse: that actual entities are where the real action is. Actual entities are the creative heartbeats of the universe, and underlying all reality is the twofold rhythmic work done by these robust “units of process.”

“The many become one” describes how an actual entity integrates the many influences flowing in from the past to self-actualize as a new quantum individual. How it passes on to future actualities what it has thus achieved is described by “and are increased by one.” These two kinds of universal process Whitehead calls concrescence and transition, and it is chiefly in reference to them that Whitehead's system is called process philosophy.

Every throb of actuality is not only a present achievement to be enjoyed in and for itself, but also a thrust beyond: into the future. The whole point of the process is to achieve actuality over and over and over again—and, each time, to introduce the possibility for novelty, for adventure.

On the creative path of evolution, from the initial chaos to the first micro-individuals such as electrons and protons, from electrons and protons to atoms, and then on to molecules, living cells, multicellular animals, animals with a central nervous system, and finally to the human body and soul—note how each creative advance is not only a good in itself, but lays the foundation for, and makes possible, a greater good in the future. Atoms, for example, make it possible for molecules to later emerge, and so on. And thus we have the emergence of ever higher levels of actuality, and these evolving actualities are capable of ever higher intensities of experience.

As creation continues, as it has now for over 13 billion years . . . as creation continues, from one end of the universe to the other . . . as creation continues within the countless myriads of actual entities in effervescent pulsations of spontaneity—shining through all the variety, the diversity, all the multiplicity of the vast universe is the unity of this incessant twofold process.

“The many become one, and are increased by one”—this single sentence, though simplicity itself, is a “skeleton key” that unlocks the universe and the metaphysical treasure chest of Whitehead's idea of universal process.

This prehensive unification of experience, simple yet elegant in its essential contours, but is it not astonishing how much work has been accomplished by this process? From the Big Bang to the present moment to as long as forever is, behold its good work, true and beautiful, in the manifesting universe.[1]

[In the above discussion I quote from my essay “An Introduction to Process Thought in Five Easy Pieces” available on my website.]

One further thought:

If God—in his concrete actuality—is a prehensive unification of experience, then this process can be thought of as the imago dei that finds expression in all the actualities of the universe, and energizes the upward spiral of evolution.

One thing you can always count on in a Ken Wilber book is that it will provide plenty of synaptic sizzle.

* * *


[1] In an essay on Charles Hartshorne, David Griffin shows how powerful a generalization is the idea of the prehensive unification of experience:

“The fact that memory and perception have all been explained in terms of a common principle brings us to Hartshorne's strongest basis for advocating panexperientialism to the scientific and philosophic communities. The drive of both science and philosophy, he holds, is toward conceptual integration. The goal is to explain as many phenomena as possible in terms of the fewest basic categories. Through Whitehead's category of prehension—the nonsensory sympathetic perception of antecedent experiences—we are able to reduce several apparently very different types of relations to one fundamental type of relation. The category of prehension explains not only memory and perception, which seem different enough at first glance, but also temporality, space, causality, enduring individuality (or substance), the mind-body relation, the subject-object relation in general, and the God-world relation.

“I have already discussed the temporal relation, the mind-body relation, and enduring individuality (or self-identity) through time. The spatial relation is a complication of time; whereas time results from a single line of inheritance, space results from multiple lines of inheritance. Given the notion that the actual world is made up exclusively of events that prehend and then are prehended, it is evident that causality in general is to be understood in the same way as the causal relations between body and mind, and between past and present events of the same mind. The subject-object relation in general is analogous to the relation between present and past in memory: a present event, which is a subject, sympathetically prehends an antecedent event, which is a subject-that-has-become-an-object. (In those subject-object relations that seem to be devoid of sympathy, or virtually so, as in the visual perception of the sun, the “object” is known only in a blurred and very indirect way. In all direct prehension by a subject of an object, the sympathetic feeling of feeling is evident.) Finally, the God-world relation, which is to be discussed later, can be understood in terms of Gods s prehension of the world and the prehension of God by the events comprising the world.

“No fewer than nine relations, all apparently quite different from each other, have been reduced to one! Hartshorne calls this result “the most powerful metaphysical generalization ever accomplished,” and “a feat comparable to Einstein's.” While Hartshorne is speaking primarily of Whitehead here, calling him the “greatest single creator” of this generalization (while recognizing other contributors, such as Buddhists and Bergson), it is Hartshorne who has called attention to this achievement. One could well read through Whitehead's writings several times without realizing that such a powerful generalization had been accomplished. It is also Hartshorne who has called attention to the similarity between this accomplishment and the type of unity that scientific thinking in general seeks. For these reasons, the achievement is one in which Hartshorne shares. Fully recognizing and naming an insight of genius can be as important as the insight itself.”

Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Pierce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne, by David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb, Jr., Marcus P. Ford, Pete A. Y. Gunter, Peter Ochs, p. 209-10

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