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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 25 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is [email protected].



Individual Consciousness

Bald Ambition, Chapter 2

Jeff Meyerhoff


Of all the areas of knowledge that Wilber explores he is most knowledgeable about individual consciousness. An evolution in his thinking has made his theory of consciousness the most usefully descriptive part of his entire integral synthesis. This is due to his extensive research in this area, his use of the current scholarship, and his responding to the criticism his theory of consciousness has received. This improvement in his theory comes with a cost, however, because the evolution in his thinking has been motivated by an unacknowledged contradiction. This contradiction is one manifestation of a larger contradiction in Wilber's thinking that he is trying to reconcile. Here it appears as a tension between a unified, goal-directed, developmental model and a diverse, semi-independent model that “has no overall linear sequence whatsoever.”[1] The chapter consists of an overview of his model, an examination of the scholarship used to validate it, and an evaluation of its validity.

The Model

Wilber's theory of consciousness is a developmental theory. This means that individual consciousness, when unfolding normally, grows in progressive, qualitative shifts. The three main parts of consciousness in Wilber's model are: the basic waves or levels of development; the developmental lines or streams; and the self-system. The basic waves or levels are structures of consciousness which unfold in an age-related, irreversible order and gradually form the necessary conditions for all conscious experience. As development unfolds each prior level of consciousness is superseded and incorporated into a new whole organized by the higher level. A brief summary of the basic levels will convey a sense of them. As infants we start out on the sensorimotor level. Our consciousness is unformed and we are very much a physical as opposed to a mental being. Our main task is “differentiating the physical self from the physical environment.”[2] The infant is most noticeably a tactile being. The emotional-sexual level builds on and incorporates the sensorimotor level as the infant now tries to “differentiate its feelings from the feelings of others.”[3] Next, representational mind incorporates the earlier stages including the inchoate mental images of the young child. “The rep or preop mind can form symbols and concepts, and thus represent not only things but classes, but it cannot yet operate on or coordinate those representations.”[4] Operating upon mental representations requires the incorporation of rules and roles so that the mind can perform operations on the representations. This rule/role mind operates on the world, but still lacks the capacity to reflect on itself or “think about thinking.”[5] With the arrival of formal-reflexive mind the individual can imagine possibilities and think about thinking. These levels represent the first half of Wilber's developmental spectrum. The higher levels of consciousness will be discussed in later chapters.

These basic levels of consciousness manifest in different ways. The mind has many different lines of development such as cognition, morality, affect, will, aesthetics, and interpersonal skills, to name a few. The basics levels provide necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the development of the various lines. For example, one could be at the level of rule/role mind, but, because of detrimental environmental influences, be behaving with a primitive type of morality. While the necessary level of consciousness is present, the sufficient conditions for advanced morality are not present. Each line then follows a semi-independent developmental path. For example, one can be well developed spiritually, moderately developed interpersonally and poorly developed morally depending on natural talents and environmental influences. T. S. Eliot was well advanced on an artistic line of development and yet maintained a morally retarded anti-Semitism. A spiritual teacher could be supremely advanced on a spiritual line and act immorally in his sexual relations. Each of our many lines of development could be mapped as to their level of development, with no two people having identical psychic maps.

The basic levels of development are permanent structures in contrast to the transitional structures which constitute the lines of development. The basic levels develop in a cumulative way according to the universal developmental sequence of transcending and including previous levels. The capacities we developed at earlier levels are integrated within the newly arisen higher level of development. In contrast, lines of development are formed from transitional structures which are transcended when a new higher structure is in place. Wilber offers the comparison between Piaget's and Kohlberg's developmental sequences. For example, Piaget's level of sensori-motor development doesn't disappear at higher levels, otherwise we wouldn't have the basic capacities to deal with matter, sensation and perception which we develop through that level. Conversely, when we reach Kohlberg's conventional level of development on our moral line, we don't simultaneously act from the preconventional moral level we have already superseded.

The third part of consciousness is the self-system. There are many parts of the self-system. The two main parts are the proximate self and the distal self. The proximate self is our subjective self-sense, our sense of “I.” The distal self is our self as an object. When we view our bodies as an object to ourselves, our proximate self is regarding our distal self. What parts of us are proximate and distal keeps changing. When, through meditation we begin to view our own thoughts as not I, where previously we just thought we were our thoughts, we have changed what is proximate and what is distal within our overall self. Our overall self is the combination of the proximate, distal and larger, ever-present Witnessing Self which coexists in each of us. As with overall development, “the overall self does not show a sequential or stage-like development.”[6] Curiously though, Wilber says that the proximate self does show a stage-like development as it navigates through the basic levels of development. “Each time the self (the proximate self) encounters a new level . . . it first identifies with it and consolidates it; then disidentifies with it (transcends it, de-embeds from it); and then includes and integrates it from the next higher level. In other words, the self goes through a fulcrum (or a milestone) of its own development.”[7] If a part of the proximate self does not de-embed from the particular line of development to which it is identified it can become stuck there and form what Wilber calls a subpersonality. “Each of these sub personalities can be at a different level of development in any of its lines. . . . a person can therefore have facets of his or her consciousness at many different levels of morals, worldviews, defenses, pathologies, needs, and so forth.”[8]

This summary of Wilber's theory of consciousness focuses on issues relevant to my discussion of his model later in the chapter. The model is centrally indebted to the developmental model of Jean Piaget although Wilber uses a variety of scholarly sources including Lawrence Kohlberg and the work of cross-cultural psychologists. Since Wilber makes much of the scholarly consensus backing his model, I will now examine the strength of that backing in the psychological literature.

The Scholarship

Wilber presents his model as if the consensus of scientific opinion supports it, but this is not the case. By tracking down his sources, revealing in them what Wilber does not mention, and exploring more fully the disciplines he uses, I will show that Wilber's version of individual development is not a valid generalization of scientific findings.

To validate his model Wilber exaggerates the level of agreement in the scientific community regarding the claims he makes. He speaks of using “orienting generalizations” or the “already-agreed-upon” knowledge in the sciences. He makes statements like “the evidence is virtually unanimous”[9] and “summarizing the existing research”[10] and gives the reader the impression that he has culled the “simple but sturdy” knowledge of psychology. But in going back to his sources and investigating others, I have found a great deal of ongoing disagreement about Wilber's “already-agreed-upon” knowledge.

Robert Siegler, a well-known developmental psychologist, has formulated his own approach to cognitive development, in part, because the “neo-Piagetian, theory-based, and information-processing approaches” current today “have proved to be inconsistent with a great deal of data.”[11] He notes that

there is no dominant theory of cognitive development. The limitations of the major theories in the area - Piagetian, neo-Piagetian, Vygotskian, information processing, social learning, ethological, and neo-nativistic - are sufficiently large and apparent that none of them can claim the adherence of anything like a majority of investigators. In all likelihood, the greatest number of developmentalists see themselves as eclectic, borrowing concepts from many theories, but not being entirely comfortable with any one of them.[12]

Siegler constructs a model that does away with levels or waves and focuses instead on individuals' strategy choices.

In 1991, Michael Chandler and Michael Chapman published Criteria for Competence. They introduce their collection of papers in developmental psychology with an overview of the field. They write:

“each wave of incoming research delivers a new flotsam of increasingly divergent claims about almost any developmental milestone one might care to mention. For example, recent evidence can be found to indicate that children are able to reflect or deduce or behave intentionally somewhere between the ages of 5 months and 15 years of age, depending on which authority one happens to read.”
“Clearly something is seriously amiss. How could research into questions as fundamental as when persons first acquire a sense of self or learn to reason transitively yield up answers that are seemingly so far apart? How can it be that experts who hold to such radically different views appear to be so unruffled by this same divergence of opinion? Where is the collective embarrassment one might reasonably expect in the face of such wholesale disagreement?”
“...the problem appears to be getting progressively worse rather than better.”[13]

Alison Gopnik and Andrew Meltzoff write, in Words, Thoughts and Theories from 1997, that

In the wake of the collapse of Piagetian theory, cognitive development has been a bit of a mess, with almost theories, half theories, pseudo-theories, and theory fragments floating about in the sociological ether.[14]
Recent empirical work in infancy and early childhood has led . . . to the rejection of the central tenets of Piaget's theory: cognitive development does not depend on action, there are complex representations at birth, there are no far-reaching domain-general stage changes, young children are not always egocentric, and so on.[15]

Regarding moral development, Wilber says that “Kohlberg was able to suggest a six-stage scheme of moral development, a scheme that research so far has found to be largely invariant and universal.”[16] Yet the four scholars, sympathetic to Kohlberg, who collaborated on a “Neo-Kohlbergian Approach” do so to counter the “numerous suggestions in the academic literature that Kohlberg's approach to morality was so fundamentally wrong-headed and flawed that researchers in morality are better off starting anew.”[17] While they disagree with this assessment they note that “some critics regard his work as outmoded, beyond repair, and too faulty for anybody to take seriously.”[18] After acknowledging the problems with Kohlberg's stage-staircase model and his interview techniques, they state, directly countering Wilber's contention above, that

Kohlberg eliminated Stage 6 from his scoring system for lack of finding empirical cases of Stage 6 thinking. Furthermore, there is little evidence for Stage 5 scoring in Kohlbergian studies from around the world (Snarey, 1985). Gibbs (1979) - a co-developer of the scoring system - even proposed that true Piagetian stages of moral judgment stop with Stage 4. The lack of empirical data for Stages 5 and 6 - post conventional thinking - is a serious problem for Kohlberg's enterprise, because he defined the stages from the perspective of the higher stages. The seriousness of this problem is underscored by the fact that virtually every critic in the book Lawrence Kohlberg: Consensus and Controversy (Modgil & Modgil, 1986) find the absence of Stages 5 and 6 to be a fatal flaw.[19]

Wilber does cite legitimate sources to validate his belief in Kohlberg's model, but he neglects to inform his readers of other sources that validate the opposite view, leaving the reader with the impression that his view is the consensus in the field.

It is not only alternate sources that can be cited to contradict Wilber's assertion of scholarly consensus, his own sources when examined closely yield a different picture than the one he presents.

Wilber now calls the basic levels of development waves and the lines of development streams, following the usage of Howard Gardner et al in their 1990 article. He cites and quotes this article several times as evidence for his claims about the universality of the basic levels. And the parts of the article Wilber cites do support his contentions, but the quotes are carefully selected and a return to Gardner et al's article reveals evidence that runs counter to Wilber's model.

I will examine the Gardner article because it is where Wilber got his new wave and stream terminology and because he uses it more than other sources in the latest version of his developmental theory in The Eye of Spirit and Integral Psychology. It is indicative of Wilber's use of sources in general; sources upon which, at his level of abstraction, he is wholly dependent.

Gardner et al first describe four waves of development which span the years 2 through 7. Relative to Wilber's macroscopic model this is a microscopic description of the waves of development and Wilber inserts it within his more general model. Gardner et al then speculate on the character of development beyond the age of 7 and name the three developmental stages preconventional (2-7 yrs.), conventional (7-12 yrs.) and post conventional (12 yrs. and beyond). Wilber, seeing the Kohlbergian terminology he likes, adds enthusiastically, “Add post-postconventional, and we are in full accord!”[20] But the character of the development described by Gardner et al is different from Wilber's description. According to Gardner et al the passage from 7 to 12 yrs. is caused not by some inborn developmental unfolding, but because “the agenda of the culture comes much more to the fore.”[21] Gardner et al quote Alison Lurie to illustrate the shift from the preconventional to the conventional stage. She writes that “encouragement of imaginative creation is often quietly replaced by encouragement of what have begun to seem more important traits: good manners, good marks, good looks; athletic and social success; and a willingness to earn money mowing lawns and babysitting - traits that are believed to predict adult success.”[22] Additionally, the beginning of the conventional stage coincides with the start of schooling and one of the main tasks of the school system is to rein in childrens' creative imagination and train them to be able to sit still and be quiet for long periods of time while they are taught what society thinks they should know.

The advent of adolescence sees the youth rebelling. This inaugurates the postconventional stage in which the adolescent tries to free him or herself from the conventions imposed during the conventional stage. Oddly, though, this developmental sequence which Wilber uses as a confirmation of his model, Gardner et al say, is “an idealization, and most particularly so in its final strokes.” They say this because “most adolescents, at least in our society, never achieve sufficient mastery of skills, knowledge of a domain, or awareness of self to be able to make innovative products.”[23] So we have a developmental theory which does not describe “most adolescents.”

That a developmental theory is referred to as an “idealization” may seem odd for a descriptive science like developmental psychology, but it is not. In the book Developmental Psychology, three well-known scholars acknowledge the distinction between “the facts of psychological growth” and the idealization called “development.” Jerome Kagan, referring to Bernard Kaplan, describes “a reasonable and useful distinction” between “the facts of psychological growth which Kaplan chooses to call ontogenesis, and the sequence that describes how children approach the metaphysical ideal each theorist believes children should grow toward, which he calls development.”[24] Sheldon White concurs, stating that “one should sharply distinguish development as an ideal process from ontogenesis as an actual one.”[25] And Kaplan, the most radical of the three, writes that “Development does not lurk directly in the population(s) studied but resides fundamentally in the perspective used.”[26] This is why Gardner et al say that “the symbolic waves are a psychologist's convention (and invention).” The impression Wilber gives when he uses developmental psychology research is that this is the truth of individual growth as confirmed by psychological science.

Gardner et al's developmental model differs in other ways from Wilber's. In Wilber's model the basic levels are the only aspect of consciousness that develops holarchically. This means that, unlike the transitional structures of consciousness, the basic levels all remain active and integrated within the currently dominant level of consciousness. Gardner et al's model is described as “non-hierarchical” by the editors of the collection in which it appeared. To attain the post conventional stage and to make innovative adult creations a return or “shift back” to the preconventional stage is required. Gardner et al state that “the trajectory of creative development, unlike most other developmental trajectories, is nonlinear.”[27] This sounds more like Michael Washburn's model which describes a necessary return to earlier developmental stages in order for growth to occur. In Gardner et al model of individual creative development if there is no reappropriation of the child's creative imagination, there will be no creative innovation in adulthood. This is why the editors of Higher Stages of Human Development say that “the authors [Gardner et al] recognize significant differences between creative development and the spheres of cognitive development studied by Piaget and Kohlberg.” [28]

Gardner et al's waves also have an unusual elasticity which stretches the notion of developmental levels to new proportions. They contend that “our studies of symbolic development suggest that each of the waves has its own developmental history.”[29] That means that a wave such as the first one called event structuring, in which the child learns how to place events in a logical sequence such as “Mommy, go store,” can have its own developmental history which, the authors say, can be “as lengthy as an individual's life.”[30] Thomas Pynchon is an example of someone whose development of event structuring grew throughout his life and resulted in original contributions to narrative. It is an interesting idea and does describe innovations like Pynchon's, but don't waves now have the property of streams? Event structuring, which is a particular developmental level that is superseded by the next wave called topological or analog mapping, can also continue on its own developmental course. In an effort to make developmental theory match the facts of psychological growth the theories become more convoluted. Wilber could say that these are the details that have to be worked out in all the areas of knowledge his model encompasses, but at some point the “facts of psychological growth” start to break the bounds of the developmental models designed to organize them.

Other sources which Wilber uses to validate his contentions become problematic when examined. In a recent restatement of his psychological model[31] he defends the idea that there are universal levels of consciousness by quoting John Berry et al who authored the book Cross-cultural Psychology. Wilber introduces the quote with the phrase “summarizing the existing research” and then quotes Berry et al agreeing with his view that cultural differences in development are under-girded by universal or basic structures of consciousness. It appears to be a strong confirmation of Wilber's view. But, when we go back to the book from which it was taken, we learn that Berry et al are using one particular framework which “derives from earlier models proposed by Berry, where it was called an 'ecocultural model.'”[32] They distinguish this approach, which they label universalist, from two others current in cross-cultural studies called the relativist and the absolutist. The relativist denies cross-cultural universals and the absolutist denies much of a role to culture. “The universalist position adopts the working assumption that basic psychological processes are likely to be common features of human life everywhere, but that their manifestations are likely to be influenced by culture.”[33] What Wilber cites as a summary of the existing research is actually one perspective within an ongoing debate.

Wilber gives the impression that there is broad agreement on the reality of cross-cultural levels of development, but we learn in his source for this contention, Cross-cultural Psychology, that “the status of the concept of development is a much debated theoretical issue.”[34]

In another standard text edited by John Berry and others, The Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology, non-developmental approaches to comparing cultures are discussed. In the sub-discipline known as cultural psychology we find “the rejection by many of the universalistic notion of a 'psychic unity of mankind.'”[35] Michael Cole, one of the leading cultural psychologists, in his book Cultural Psychology, reviews work in cross-cultural psychology on perception, intelligence and memory and concludes that “Assuming that my assessment of these three examples more or less characterizes accomplishments in other psychological domains, the marginality of cross-cultural research to mainstream psychology is not difficult to understand. Its substantive offerings appear modest, and the evidence on which they are based is suspect.”[36]

Richard Shweder is a leading advocate of cultural psychology. From his perspective “the main discovery of cross-cultural psychology . . . is that many descriptions of mental functioning emerging from laboratory research with Western-educated populations do not travel very well to subject populations in other cultures.”[37] He then gives a number of reasons why “in general psychology, cross-cultural psychology has diminutive status, and why its research literature tends to be ignored. Not surprisingly, developmental psychology - the study of age-graded differences in performance on psychological tests and tasks - has suffered a similar fate, and for similar reasons.”[38]

These views from within and outside of developmental psychology contrast sharply with Wilber's confident assertion that “After almost three decades of intense cross-cultural research, the evidence is virtually unanimous: Piaget's stages up to formal operational are universal and cross-cultural.”[39] These scholars who work outside the developmental model are quite skeptical of the universalist cross-cultural assumption, but because their perspectives do not support Wilber's model they are ignored.

Wilber needs to be able to include all the true parts of these scholar's works because of his metaphysical assumption that the world is one and all accurate descriptions of it, because they are about the same one world should, in principle, fit together into one great description. But some recent thinking in philosophy has adopted a different understanding of what we can know. This alternative thinking suggests that because one's perspective partially affects the appearance of the world, we can speak of many worlds that are not all reducible to one world. A milder version of this argument is that there may be one world, but we can never know it because we cannot escape our temporal, spatial, historical and linguistic embeddedness. The developmental psychologist Bernard Kaplan has described the strong version of this perspectivism:

It is preposterous to expect any perspective, except that of G - D, to account for, or explain, these different species of facts, generated by different theories, as if these “facts” were theory neutral. To constitute a life-span developmental psychology in terms of a catalogue, or telephone book, of facts garnered from every perspective, utilizing every method, and examining the functional relations between every variable and every other variable in not only a vain endeavor; it is an inane one.[40]

Confronted by a welter of diverse and conflicting facts and theories Wilber assumes that they can all be integrated into one big synthesis. But if “what are taken as facts by those adopting one perspective may well be invisible to those who are wearing other spectacles” so that “different theories will yield 'different facts'” then one big theory of everything can never be accomplished. Furthermore the believers of a purported synthesis will have to work overtime and employ a great deal of cognitive dissonance not to see the facts and theories that don't fit into their integral embrace.

How are we to decide which metaphysical assumption to make? Is it one big world or many worlds? In the end it will probably be one's temperament that determines what assumption one adopts, but it is still possible to test individual attempts at a big synthesis and see if they hold up. In contrast to Wilber's depiction of the basic agreement in the world of developmental psychology, I adduce several contrary sources which present a much different picture of the state of developmental psychology.

Sheldon White, the Harvard psychologist, studied developmental psychologists and his research suggested an interesting dichotomy in the field. He found that developmental psychologists divide into two groups over the question of “what they are all doing together?”[41] He names the two views they hold the “Bewildered” and the “Paranoid.” I will quote his description of the two views at length because they are quite startling and informative. The Bewildered see the field in this way:

  1. Developmental psychology is not seriously unified. It is a political convention, not a field. Many people do research with children under the tent of developmental psychology, studying everything from evoked potentials to single-parent families from a great range of basic and applied viewpoints. In the journals and conventions shared by developmental psychologists, people give one another miscellaneous political and intellectual support, but it is a mistake to think of all this heterogeneous activity as in any serious way constituting a common intellectual discipline.
  2. Developmental psychologists work with the trappings of scientific analysis, but in truth they are working with feeble or empty stuff. You can't really do science unless you explore the effects of some independent variables. The independent variable of the developmental psychologist, age, is empty. Developmental psychologists endlessly document age effects through their longitudinal designs and cross-sectional designs, but any high school senior can tell you that age doesn't cause anything. Age is a dimension in which things happen - biological variables, environmental variables. Those are the causes. When you say that such-and -such happened with age, you say almost nothing.
  3. Developmental psychologists find with monotonous regularity that children get better at everything with age. Sometimes they seem to find cases in which children's performance worsens with age, but then they explore those cases and - aha! - what the older children do really is better after all. Developmental findings are largely nonnutritious and boring.[42]

The Paranoid view is an almost point by point description of Wilber's view of developmental psychology and science in general. Even the meaning White intends by the designation “Paranoid” applies to Wilber for, as White says, he uses “Paranoid not in the sense of everyone-is-out-to-get-me but rather in the sense of I-am-the-King-of-the-world.”[43] White describes the Paranoid position thusly:

  1. Developmental psychology is only superficially the study of children. Really, you are studying many things that go beyond childhood but whose nature is clarified by the patterning of age changes in children's behavior.
  2. The proper and only way to approach behavior is through the study of development.
  3. Time series phenomena in evolution, organizational change, history, geology, cultural practices, the history of science, etc. show interesting and useful communalities. At the same time, psychopathology, neuropathology, social dissolution, and other forms of human disorder may be usefully interpreted as reversions in universal human organicist patterns of growth.
  4. The study of developmental psychology yields values. It takes you from is to ought.[44]

The glibness in White's summaries may be mistaken for a lack of seriousness and validity, but he cites the five studies he did which provided the evidence for his formulations. White also notes that the Paranoid view, which describes Wilber's, is the “minority” view in the field.[45]

An Evaluation

It is an essential part of the natural process of growth that most acorns do not grow and develop into oak trees.

Having investigated the evidence behind Wilber's synthesis, I will now examine the model itself. Unlike my opinions of Wilber's overall model which are decidedly critical, my view of his latest theory of consciousness is mixed. On the one hand, Wilber retains the universal levels of development which unfold in a progressive, cumulative developmental sequence. On the other hand, he has opened his model up, loosened its rigid linearity and allowed it to be more usefully descriptive. This latter effort has led to a less goal-directed model. The tension comes because this move to a less goal-directed model conflicts with his desire to show that there is a direction to development, and a way of ranking levels of advancement. In Wilber's terminology, the hierarchical elements in which “rule or governance is established by a set of priorities that establish those things that are more important and those that are less” is in tension with the heterarchical elements in which “rule or governance is established by a pluralistic and egalitarian interplay of all parties”[46] By balancing these two elements he has both improved his model and accentuated the implicit tensions within it.

Tensions appear in Wilber's attempt to describe the hierarchical and heterarchical elements of his theory of consciousness. The tone with which he tries to elucidate the differing parts of consciousness demonstrates the degree to which he is trying to shake the criticism that his model is a rigid, linear, stepladder of development: “it is not that these levels are set in stone,” “This does not mean that all, or even most, of the important aspects of development are hierarchical.”[47] On the heterarchical side, he asserts that, “overall development follows no linear sequence whatsoever.”[48] And within levels, heterarchy, or the pluralistic play of egalitarian aspects of consciousness, is in the majority with hierarchical elements in the minority. Hierarchy, on the other hand, is seen in the relationship between levels. For example, if you analyze a person's aesthetic stream of development, you would see a hierarchical unfolding from level to level. So, as mentioned earlier, each person would have their distinctive psychograph which described their level of development on each stream. This is the opposite of the rigid, ladder-like structure which Wilber disclaims.

Yet how can Wilber judge overall development if “a person's overall development follows no linear sequential sequence whatsoever?”[49] He needs to judge overall development because his larger theory of everything is directional and goal-directed. This attachment to hierarchical rankings is shown in the many judgments about individuals' and societies' levels of development that he makes. He needs to be able to rate who is more advanced than whom, but how can he if there is no overall linear sequence whatsoever? He could reply that he finds peoples' “center of gravity”, as he does when assessing a society's level of development. But how would it work? Which semi-independent streams are rated as more important than others? Imagine an unscientific psychograph of a “primitive” person. He or she may be highly advanced artistically, low on cognition, highly attuned sensorily, have well-developed interpersonal skills to be able to live in a closely knit community that would drive a Westerner crazy, have a mid-level moral development towards outsiders, and have a high spiritual attainment. How does one average all of those together to determine the level of advancement relative to a modern person?

To rate individuals as more or less advanced requires a value scheme. Wilber contends that his value scheme arises from the developmental patterns we see in the physical, biological, human and spiritual sciences. This is a fallacy since developmental psychology is essentially value-laden. Development is not something simply read off from life that either matches the way things are or not. Wilber writes as if it is. (“I will be telling the story [of the Kosmos] as if it were simply the case.”)[50] He further suggests that it is the scientific backing behind his map that allows him to derive semi-objective values: “we are now in a position to realign facts and values in a gentler embrace, with science working with us, not against us”[51] Science provides the “simple, but sturdy” knowledge we need in order to know how the Kosmos operates. Yet two important scholarly sources, who Wilber relies upon, acknowledge the constructed and value-laden character of developmental models. The editors of Higher Stages of Human Development say on the first page of the book that “One's conception of the endpoint of development is fundamental, for it contains one's assumptions about the direction, possibilities, and dynamics of human growth. Moreover, all prior developmental stages will be viewed as progressive approximations of this goal.”[52] This is why the contributors to Lawrence Kohlberg: Consensus and Controversy (Modgil & Modgil) say that the lack of empirical confirmation of Kohlberg's higher stages of moral development is a “fatal flaw”[53] It is a fatal flaw because without the reality of the endpoint of development established, how can you judge whether subjects at lower levels are advanced or regressed?

The other source that Wilber relies upon is Howard Gardner et al. Gardner et al refer to their developmental scheme as “an idealization, and most particularly so in its final strokes.” The “final strokes” refer to the later stages.

There are some in developmental psychology who define the field in terms of its value-ladenness. Bernard Kaplan's definition of developmental psychology is “Developmental psychology is a practico-theoretical discipline, a policy discipline, concerned with the perfection (including liberation or freedom) of the individual.”[54] Jerome Kagan acknowledges “the metaphysical ideal each theorist believes children should grow toward, “but differs from Kaplan in preferring to emphasize compassion, nurture, and love” and says “such a trio of final purposes places obligations on children and adults that restrict seriously the freedom Kaplan cherishes.”[55] While Sheldon White says, “Developmental psychology can be defined in terms of what self-proclaimed or officially canonized developmental psychologists do.”[56] This is why Gardner et al say that “the symbolic waves are a psychologist's convention (and invention).” These perspectives, from well-known developmental psychologists, undermine the impression Wilber creates that the developmental unfolding that psychology describes is a universal truth about humans.

Depending on the endpoint of development chosen, the behaviors that lead towards that endpoint will be deemed natural, healthy or normal and those that don't will be deemed unnatural, retarded or pathological. This is why the idea of development is an “idealization.” Progressiveness and regressiveness are such, not because they abide by nature's own pattern, but because they do or do not live up to the standard contained in the endpoint. We see this in one of Wilber's examples of growth: the development of an acorn into an oak. It is certainly a natural process of growth. But do most acorns become full-sized oaks? No. Is it somehow unnatural for them not to? No. In fact, it is an essential part of the natural process of growth that most acorns do not grow and develop into oak trees; otherwise, the forest would be too crowded to support any oaks. If the acorns that don't become oaks, the seedlings that never make it to full-sized trees and the deterioration and death that are the fate of all trees, are just as natural as the developmental process of acorn to oak, why does Wilber focus so much attention on the growth from acorn to oak? It is not because the growth from acorn to oak is an exemplar of nature's process which tells us what process to value in general; it is because, for humans, the fully formed oak tree is what is of value. It gives us shade, beauty, and wood, so we tend to be interested in it. But it is no more natural for a tree to grow than for a tree not to grow; or for a forest to be wiped out by lightning. Wilber's interest in a particular kind of optimal development causes him to pick from nature one way of understanding its patterns and then elevate it to Nature's Way. Just compare the exceedingly natural pattern of birth, growth, decline and death which rarely, if ever, makes an appearance in Wilber's work. He is constantly extracting from nature a picture of life that is ever upward and onward, and tries to validate it as somehow being nature's own tendency. But all of nature's patterns are nature's tendencies, whether you label them growth, progression, regression, sickness or health. These labels are reflective not of nature, but of our all too human interests. Wilber does not show us how we do live and grow; he instead depicts one way we can choose to see life and growth.

Convincingly rendered alternative models provide an alternative vision of life and enable us to see Wilber's developmental model as one among many, having both positive and negative qualities. Michael Washburn's circular model of transpersonal development, in which we return to a lost source and see it for the first time, has more of the character of the birth, growth, death and rebirth vision.[57]

Wilber's model is strongly developmental because he has a strong idea of where humanity should go. This is why Bernard Kaplan writes that “Development does not lurk directly in the population(s) studied but resides fundamentally in the perspective used.”[58] He presents his model of development as if it is what has been discovered by science and so is a reflection of what is, but all developmental models are value-laden and so they tell us different ways people develop depending on the psychologist's belief about how people should develop.


[1] This surprising statement can be found in the introduction to the 2nd edition of SES on page xvii and in Integral Psychology, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), p. 17.

[2] SES, p. 211.

[3] SES, p. 215.

[4] Wilber, Eye to Eye, (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1983), p. 272.

[5] Wilber, Eye to Eye, p. 273.

[6] Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 34.

[7] Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 35.

[8] Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 100.

[9] SES, 2nd edition, revised introduction, p. xv.

[10] Wilber, “Waves, Streams, States, and Self,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 7, No. 11-12, November-December 2000, sec.1, p.4.

[11] Siegler, Robert S., Emerging Minds, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 10 and 11.

[12] Siegler, Emerging Minds, p. 20.

[13] Chandler, Michael and Chapman, Michael, eds., Criteria for Competence, (Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1991), p. viii.

[14] Gopnik, Alison and Meltzoff, Andrew, Words, Thoughts and Theories, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), p.49.

[15] Gopnik and Meltzoff, Words, Thoughts and Theories, p. 2.

[16] Wilber, Integral Psychology, p.81. Wilber adds in a footnote (p.234 n.12) that “Kohlberg's stage six is an ideal limit, and not an actual stage.”

[17] Rest, James, et al, Postconventional Moral Thinking, (Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1999), p. 1.

[18] Rest, Postconventional Moral Thinking, p. vii.

[19] Rest, Postconventional Moral Thinking, p. 22.

[20] Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 218.

[21] Alexander, Charles N. and Langer, Ellen J., eds., Higher Stages of Human Development, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 89.

[22] Alexander and Langer, Higher Stages of Human Development, p. 89.

[23] Alexander and Langer, Higher Stages of Human Development, p. 92.

[24] Lerner, Richard M., ed., Developmental Psychology, (Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1983), p.232.

[25] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, p. 237.

[26] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, p. 196.

[27] Alexander and Langer, Higher Stages of Human Development, p. 91.

[28] Alexander and Langer, Higher Stages of Human Development, p. 13.

[29] Alexander and Langer, Higher Stages of Human Development, p. 95.

[30] Alexander and Langer, Higher Stages of Human Development, p. 95.

[31] Wilber, “Waves, Streams, States, and Self.”

[32] Berry, John W., et al, Cross-Cultural Psychology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.11.

[33] Berry, Cross-Cultural Psychology, p. 258.

[34] Berry, Cross-Cultural Psychology, p. 236.

[35] Berry, John W., et al, Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997), pp. 353-354.

[36] Cole, Michael, Cultural Psychology, (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), p.68.

[37] Shweder, Richard A., Thinking Through Cultures, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 84.

[38] Shweder, Thinking Through Cultures, p. 86.

[39] Wilber, SES, 2nd revised edition, p. xv.

[40] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, p. 197.

[41] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, p. 235.

[42] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, pp. 235-236.

[43] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, p. 236.

[44] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, pp. 236-237.

[45] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, p. 235.

[46] Wilber, SES, p. 16.

[47] Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 30, 31.

[48] Wilber, Integral Psychology, p. 30.

[49] Wilber, SES, 2nd revised edition, p. xvii.

[50] Wilber, SES, p. ix-x.

[51] Wilber, SES, p. 31.

[52] Alexander, Charles N. and Langer, Ellen J., Higher Stages of Human Development, p. 3.

[53] Rest, James, et al, Postconventional Moral Thinking, p. 22.

[54] Lerner, Richard M., ed., Developmental Psychology, p. 188.

[55] Lerner, Richard M., ed., Developmental Psychology, p. 232.

[56] Lerner, Richard M., ed., Developmental Psychology, p. 233.

[57] Washburn, Michael, The Ego and Dynamic Ground, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988).

[58] Lerner, Richard M., ed., Developmental Psychology, p. 196.

© Jeff Meyerhoff, 2003

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