Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at [email protected].



What is Integral
Critical Theory?

Joe Corbett

Don't expect Ken and the inner integral circle to address what is most needed in today's world of global crisis...

There are several different lineages of critical theory, but the central or main lineage derives from the influence of Karl Marx and Max Weber on the Frankfurt School, and its culmination in the work of Jurgen Habermas. Critical Theory itself is concerned with human emancipation from oppression through the critique and transformation of cultural and social forces. And perhaps most significantly from an integrally informed point of view, it posits material and collective liberation as the conditional context and pre-requisite for individual psychological and spiritual development. In other words, we cannot truly be emancipated until we are all emancipated in our daily practices and ways of thinking, for truly and holistically considered, as the saying goes, no (wo)man is an island. True human emancipation is achieved collectively, or not at all.

The approach I take towards critical theory is informed by the AQAL matrix, using some of the key categories found in Marx and Habermas and fitting them into the four quadrants of truth, beauty, goodness, and justice. Thus, my approach is a critical theory that is integrally informed, an integral critical theory. But it is not integral theory that is critical of things not integral, i.e. a critical integral theory. I prefer to use what I think is productive about integral theory and apply it to the theories of the greatest critical theorists of the 19th and 20th centuries, Marx and Habermas, rather than show how integral theory is inadequate to the task of critical theory.

Having said this, there is plenty in the AQAL model as Ken Wilber has articulated it to criticize as not being integral, not least of which is his systematic exclusion of the category of justice as being on equal footing with 'the big three' of truth, beauty, and goodness. And this, along with the pride Wilber has taken in influencing the decision to dismantle the social justice programs of the 1960s under the Clinton administration's 'Third Way' politics and his forging of a 'Washington consensus', which is itself a euphemism for institutionalizing the backlash against the progressive reforms of the 60s, leads me to believe that a critical integral theory, rather than a critical theory that is integral, is less than adequate for addressing the urgent issues of neoliberal hegemony, social inequality, corporate media influence, etc., that we face in the world today.

In other words, don't expect Ken and the inner integral circle to address what is most needed in today's world of global crisis, as the aperspectival analysis of the integral map coming out of the corporate spiritually of Wilber Inc. these days is clearly more interested in working with power and money rather than challenging it in the name of justice and human emancipation.

So what is integral critical theory?

Karl Marx
Karl Marx

All critical theory today begins with Marx and his theory of historical materialism. How, then, do the key categories within this theory fit into the AQAL? The first thing to know about historical materialism is that it sees the development of the material forces of production as the engine of history. The material forces of production that Marx has in mind are land and resources, but also technology and labor. Thus, the upper-right quadrant represents for Marx the material earth and the body, but also science and technology (Table 1).

Over space and time, these forces eventually come into conflict at some point in their development with the prevailing relations of production and governance (LR) that were organized to mobilize, utilize, and sustain a previous level of development in the forces of production. In the conflict that ensues between the forces and relations of production, the power holders and wealth possessors are confronted with armed, forcible removal from their position, as no vested interest simply volunteers to step aside. A new organization of society is then more or less rapidly forged that better utilizes the potentials of the newly developed forces of production, namely, the increased population, the improved skills and education of labor, available land and resources, new technologies, or some other force that was being under-utilized, over-utilized, or simply didn't exist in the previous organization of society.

Table 1 - Karl Marx / Integral Critical Theory
Marx - Species-being
(creative tool-user, artist, poet)


Marx - Forces of Production
(labor, technology, land, resources)


Marx - Ideology
(ruling-class interests, values, ideas)


Marx - Relations of Production
(master-slave, owner-worker)


With each social revolution a new organization of power and wealth-sharing is instituted, with increasing social equity and decreasing oppression as history progresses from master/slave relations to its culmination in an egalitarian global humanity. Crucially, however, what makes social revolution so difficult even to imagine in the minds of most people, according to Marxism, is the ability of power and money to hold the reigns of culture through organizational and financial control of religious, educational, and media institutions. The cultural ideology (LL) of each age, according to Marx, is therefore the sum of the ideas of the ruling classes: the kings, the professional politicians and warriors; the clergy of professional intellectuals in religion, media, advertising, and public relations; the wealthy, the corporations and their major investors, as well as the managerial and executive professionals. The ruling ideology of American culture and society today is the social Darwinian neoliberal and neoconservative value-memes of red (authoritarian), blue (traditional mythic), and orange (modern rationalist) levels of development in collusive alliance.

A central current of this ideology is advertised consumerism, as well as egocentric sports and celebrity entertainment spectacles that serve as an idolatrous opiate of the people, a narcissistic distraction (illusion) for the heart in heartless times, the disillusioned sigh of an overworked, underpaid, and fossil-fuel addicted population. Of course, this core ideology is intensified, deepened, and entrenched by a nationalist patriotism with religious undertones, promoting ethnocentric divisions that fuel a military-industrial-prison complex that is virtually unchallengeable in terms of funding and justification for its continued existence beyond the level of actual security needs.

Finally, in the realm of the self, in his early humanistic writings Marx speaks of human nature as species-being: what distinguishes humans from animals is our ability to be a creative tool user, which includes our linguistic capacity and our ability to be artisans and poets (UL). Today this capacity is limited to narcissistic self-interest at best, psychopathic racism and aggression at worst, and a depressed and apathetic consumer-citizenry, as well as schizophrenic attention and desire, as normative. As corporate-media illusions, misinformation, fear and hatred are generated for profits, and to serve as distractions from the brutal, mean-spirited, and uncompromising class war being waged by the right-wing and global capitalist business-classes on workers, contemplative creativity, as the very basis of our critical capacity and our humanity, is snuffed-out.

In these times of the greatest transfer of wealth to the wealthy in history, the selves and minds of human beings are turned to individual survival strategies, to the products on offer in markets, to the marketing and buying skills necessary to sell and buy those products in order to earn enough money to buy more of them, all in endless chains of commodified meanings no deeper or substantive than a flat screen television, and no matter how much debt (and deficit of meaning) it results in. Meanwhile, we head ever closer to global ecological catastrophe with no serious will to do anything about it either from political elites or the public they supposedly serve. Indeed, the problem of cultural ideology (the collective mind) controlled by the corporate-media (the collective brain) is a central one, and its role in degrading the public sphere into egocentric consumerism and ethnocentric nationalist patriotism, a perfect formation for the emergence of fascism, cannot be ignored or underestimated by anyone concerned about the developmental level of civilization in America and around the world, not to mention the survival of the species.

During these times of the greatest social inequality since the early days of industrialism and the Gilded Age, tax breaks are given to the rich, bailouts are given to the fat-cat Wall Street perpetrators of financial ruin, jobs are outsourced, and homes are foreclosed on while at the very same time cutbacks in the social-safety-net are proposed for those most vulnerable in society, even as military budgets remain untouched, unchallenged, and are even expanded. This is the logic of the day, a day ruled by an oligarchy of corporate-military-politicians and their neoliberal free market policies of unfettered global investment capital backed by imperialist military strength. These are the relations of production that Marx would be talking about today, and that Eisenhower talked about in his farewell speech. They are also the special moneyed interests that FDR spoke of as his opponents when he proposed the progressive New Deal legislation. They have been and remain today the undeclared enemies of freedom and democracy within a context of social equality, i.e. the American Dream.

The relations of political and economic domination become the enemies of a progressive humanity when they are unable or unwilling to give back some of what they have initially taken (or stolen) from the collectivity, namely, the blood, sweat, and tears of labor through exploitation, and the trust of citizens through corruption. Once a progressive force themselves in the earlier days of a mode of production, the relations of production become the chains holding back the progress of further development in the forces of production and the progress of human history towards an ever widening inclusiveness and egalitarianism. As a blockage to that further social progress, entrenched social relations and vested interests are potentially explosive structures within the collective psyche and body politic.

The structural development of capitalism into a military-police machine of corporate democracy with longstanding amoral and immoral tendencies --- a 'me first' (red), 'we're the best' (blue), and 'just the facts ma'am' (orange) complex of moral development --- must become the target of critical inquiry, and lead to a countervailing moral imperative for action against and/or reform of the current social relations of production that are currently based on a red-blue-orange foundation of development. The other option is to remain silent and watch as the conditions of development for a higher level of civilization in the future are eroded by the corporate-media and the vested interests of power and money as they attempt to hold on to their privileges amid the encroaching development (and degradation) of the forces of production.

Nevertheless, this oppressive, exploitative, and degrading state of affairs is not always or even normally easy to see in everyday life. And this is not just because the corporate-media protect the hegemony of the status quo, but because domination is woven into the fabric of our everyday understandings, communications, and practices in the modern world, which is something the New Left and the linguistic turn in critical theory has addressed. Exactly how the inner and outer logic of this subtle and deep form of domination is achieved and perpetuated by the state and capital of modernity, and how it is played out in various contradictions and conflicts of the social order, is spelled out by the key terms in Habermas' theory of communicative action.


Turning to the Frankfurt School's use of Max Weber's theory of social rationalization rather than Marx's political-economy of historical materialism, Habermas locates social domination in four distinct kinds of rationality built into the fabric of who human beings are as linguistically communicative creatures (Table 2). Within these rationalities are the basis of all human communication and social organization, and therefore within their distortions and breakdowns we can locate the imbalances and suffering in human society at a deep, fundamental and intrinsic level.

Table 2 - Jurgen Habermas / Integral Critical Theory
Habermas - Aesthetic-expressive rationality
(individual lifeworld of authenticity)


Habermas - Instrumental rationality
(technical and scientific reasoning)


Habermas - Moral-communal rationality
( religion, media, schools, family, solidarity and consensus reasoning)


Habermas - Strategic rationality
(political/power and economic/money reasoning)


First, there is aesthetic-expressive rationality (UL), which all speakers use to express and create an authentic self, an 'I'. If we have doubts about whether an individual is being honest and truthful about their subjective expressions we may challenge the validity of the speaker's claims. In this way a discourse of the phenomenology of everyday life is created whereby communicators may come to believe and trust one another. When communicators are dishonest and lie or conceal their true intentions, as politicians and corporate actors often do, truthful communication is lost and the social fabric is distorted or even completely torn. As the lifeworld of individuals becomes colonized by dishonest political and corporate communications, trust in the system is eventually lost and a legitimacy crisis for the corporate-state emerges, as we seem to experiencing now in the early 21st century.

Next, there is moral-communal rationality (LL), which speakers use to reach an inter-subjective consensus with others, a 'We'. If we disagree with the rightness or correctness of the worldview (value, belief) held by another we may challenge the validity of the speaker's claims. In this way a discourse of hermeneutic meaning is created whereby communicators may at least come to understand if not agree with one another. When communicators disagree, as they often do especially across cultural and political divisions, they may chose to adjudicate ways to live with these differences in mutual respect, if not always in harmony. Otherwise they may go to war, as when one religion, ethnicity, or class believes its existence is threatened by another group, whose identity becomes demonized. Alternatively, one group may see an opportunity to improve its social position by taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of another group, without necessarily any moral judgement being involved. And here is where we come to the third and fourth kinds of rationality, which together Habermas calls strategic-instrumental rationality.

Jurgen Habermas
Jurgen Habermas

Instrumental rationality (UR) is also referred to as theoretical rationality, and is concerned with the objective truth claims of speakers. This is the discourse of scientific and technical reasoning. Its concern is with what works and how it works. It is the use of reasoning as a tool for doing labor, for increasing productivity and efficiency, and for developing technologies and compiling information whose usefulness and purposes can be determined at some later time by some other means of reasoning. It is this kind of reasoning that has given us the powerfully effective tools of industrialization and mathematical accounting to improve our lives and master our world. However, it has also given us Auschwitz, and it has now become an 'iron cage' of rationality. In what Horkheimer and Adorno called the 'dialectic of enlightenment', technical rationality initially set us free from ignorance, inefficiency, and the burdens of nature, but it has now become an all-pervasive one-dimensional organizing principle of society that enslaves us through its power to deliver the goods and administer our lives. Every aspect of our lives is quantified for rationalized measurement and control, from the production process at work to our political opinions, and from what we watch on television to what we buy at the store. But instrumental rationality would not do all this if it were not for its alliance with strategic rationality, which is a very distinct kind of rationality that finds its greatest expression in and through the institutions of modern capitalism and the state (LR).

Habermas combines instrumental and strategic rationality to underscore the social institutional nature of modernity as a state-capital formation made possible by the scientific revolution. Modernity is essentially an alliance between the theoretical empiricists and the bourgeois mercantile classes of the Renaissance and early industrial periods against the clergy, guilds, and aristocracy of feudalism. Strategic rationality itself is nothing historically new, and neither are any of the other rationalities. They are all permanent and everlasting features of the human condition, hardwired potentialities of human biology. Thus, for instance, instrumental rationality did not first emerge 400 or so years ago; rather it became, increasingly from that time on, the center of gravity for what was to become a scientifically rational civilization in the West because of its alliance with an emerging bourgeoisie who had a strategic material interest in defeating a landed aristocracy. And here we have an historical example of how human development is crucially assisted (or hampered) by the battles that take place within and between the inter-objective relations of society, and not only or even most importantly by the leading edge of consciousness represented by individual genius.

Nevertheless, separate from instrumental rationality, the primary concern of strategic rationality is securing resources for positional advantage within a system of actors pursuing a common and limited supply of resources. The goal is not objective truth, not how to get things to work, and not productivity or efficiency per se, but victory (or at least survival at the bear minimum) among a set of inter-objective agents. It is the rationality not of the scholar and scientist, but of the warrior, the politician, and the businessman. In alliance with instrumental rationality, strategic rationality has steered the development of modern civilization away from the autonomous development of the interiors of contemplative creativity and collective solidarity based on empathy and compassion, and in favor of the autonomous development of the exteriors of science, power, and money (objectivity, efficiency, and profitability).

Thus, the strategic-instrumental rationality of power and money steer the institutions of modernity away from developing the interiors of self and culture, creating a flatland of materialist exteriors by colonizing and appropriating the interiors, taking over culture primarily through the corporate-media, and seizing individual creativity and the contemplative self for its own profit-making purposes in militarism and consumerism.

The imbalances of social inequality and human suffering, not to mention the utter annihilation of the depth of the interiors of self and culture, are direct effects of the imbalances in the historical development and alliances between the different forms of rationality, with strategic-instrumental rationality dominant over and therefore controlling and largely determining of aesthetic-expressive and moral-communal rationalities. Restoring balance between these 'grammars of the forms of life', as Habermas calls them, is the real challenge of progressive social transformation.

Giving each rationality its proper role and place in the totality of communicative action is the best solution we can hope for in the quest for human emancipation. A balanced middle way for these rationalities to operate autonomously from one another, without a controlling or dominating influence for any one or set of them over the others, would be the precondition for the possibility of the fullest expression of what humans are and can become as a function of their linguistic, communicative nature, and therefore such a balanced middle way would represent true (practical, objective, non-ideological) human emancipation.

Ultimately, the proper use of integral critical theory is not to talk about it, but to do it, to engage in the practice of critique of the cultural and social forces of domination and oppression in both their overt (gross) and covert (subtle) forms for the purpose of liberating the bodies and minds of people who can then achieve spiritual communion by engaging in equitable and sustainable political and economic activity. Only then will we have the collective capacity to finally move beyond the corporate-state, to even greater frontiers of the human imagination, soul, and spirit.

Comment Form is loading comments...