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

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Mark EdwardsMark Edwards has an M.Psych in Developmental Psychology and a PhD in organisation theory from the University of Western Australia. He now works at Jönköping University in Sweden where he teaches and researches in the area of sustainability and ethics. Before becoming an academic he worked with people with disabilities for twenty years. He is the author of Organizational Transformation for Sustainability: An Integral Metatheory (Routledge, 2009) .

On Being Critical

Mark Edwards

In not valuing critics and criticism we run the risk of regarding "the critic" as something exterior to the community and as something superfluous to our core purpose.
Criticism plays a fundamental role in the validation of knowledge produced in all fields of life. Consequently, healthy communities of all kinds encourage and provide forums for criticism and for the process of producing critical analysis. When we do not support the development of critical voices or when we discourage or ignore criticism we deny ourselves an opportunity for greater insight into what we are, what we stand for and what we can hold as true, just, good and beautiful in the world. It is especially important for those engaged in integral approaches to understand how rational and scientific criticism can contribute to the emergence of integral disciplines and their theories, methods and practices.[1]


Ken Wilber has made clear his views on how to read the critics of his work in several places (see, for example, the Shambhala website, the Frank Visser website and the many responses he has made to critics over the years). I agree with Wilber on many of his views towards criticism (e.g. that many critics simply do not understand his work) but I also differ on many others (e.g. that a critic needs to be in direct contact with Ken to really understand his work – see also Frank Visser's site for my response to Ken's concerns). In the following I want to consider a slightly different aspect of this issue of the “the Wilber critic” and broaden the discussion into looking at the role of the critic in general. The questions I ask are these – What role can criticism play in the development of the integral vision? How should integral communities of various kinds respond to “the critic”?

Let me start this with a quote from Sir Bertrand Russell. Russell said that,

In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second. Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. (Russell, 1961, p. 58)

Now I must admit that, as a keen student of Wilber's opinions and theories for well over 20 years, I have much more than a “hypothetical sympathy” for his work. It might be truer to say that I have a passionate empathy for his writings and philosophy. But, at the same time, I also hold a very strong “critical attitude” towards Wilber's work. The above quote from Bertrand Russell points out that for the authentic student of ideas sympathetic understanding and critical analysis stand side-by-side. I am sure Wilber would agree with Russell on this point. He would also agree with Russell (and, in fact, as he has said in many different ways) that no person (or community) will develop a (and here I quote Russell) “complete and final truth on any subject whatever”. Wilber has pointed out many times that his ideas are a “work in progress” – the progression of “Wilber phases” is enough evidence of that. However, I also believe that Wilber's integral philosophy is by far the best framework we have for developing a more sophisticated understanding (and experience) of our contemporary world and the serious problems it faces. As an enthusiastic student of Wilber's ideas I agree with Russell that real scholarship includes both understanding (standing under) as well as criticism (standing apart). Sympathetic understanding without criticism tends towards reverential, unqualified acceptance. Critical analysis without sympathetic understanding often turns into intellectual contempt and arrogance. Wilber's ideas are certainly worthy of neither of these reactions. And neither of these views has much to do with a scientific approach to scholarship. Discerning criticism and engaged empathy are two essential requirements for the individual student and the community of “scholars” in both theory and practice, in both the world of pure science and the world of applied action, in both the rarefied space of philosophical debate and in the real space of everyday activity. So I affirm the importance of “the critic” for the integral community of scholars, practitioners, organisers, doers, writers, etc.

Definitions (naturally)

The word “critic” comes, (via the Latin “criticus”) from the Greek words “kritikos” which means to discern, from “krits” which means to judge, and from “krinein”, which means to separate. We see elements of these words in the English words “crisis”, “critic”, “criterion” and “endocrine”. From these roots the English word “critic” has developed several meanings. Let's take, for example the following set of meanings from the American Heritage Dictionary:

A critic is:

  1. One who forms and expresses judgments of the merits, faults, value, or truth of a matter.
  2. One who specializes in the evaluation, review and appreciation of literary or artistic works: a film critic; a dance critic.
  3. One who tends to make harsh or carping judgments; a faultfinder.

The first definition is related to the process of establishing the veracity of something through logic and observable evidence. It includes, among other things, the rational and scientific validation of an idea, a theory, a factual claim, or a statement of explanation. It deals with the exterior quadrants and so often involves scientific method. The second definition has much more to do with interpretation, intent and emotional response and attempts to establish the beauty, meaning, quality or subjective worth of something. The focus here is on the interior quadrants and on the validation of the cultural value of something. These are the two very broadest roles that criticism plays – as a process for establishing what is “true” and as a means for proclaiming what is “beautiful” (see Figure 1). Both these processes, validating exterior truth and interior quality are extremely difficult to do well and often fall far short of their best intentions. Scientific criticism and artistic criticism can both become matters of narrow judgementalism and prejudicial faultfinding. Hence, the third definition of “criticism” as a rather narrow-minded preoccupation with whatever is regarded to be deficient in some way.

It's this third definition – the inveterate faultfinder - that seems to be somewhat of a concern within some integral communities at this present time. Of the faultfinding critic we might sometimes be drawn to agree with Dale Carnegie's view that, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain - and most fools do." Sometimes we attribute to the “Wilber critic” the unconscious motivation that they are “Wilber wannabies”. In this sense we see criticism, as Emmet Fox puts it, as “an indirect form of boasting”. Sometimes we see criticism of integral ideas as a judgmental faultfinding masquerading behind a cloak of plausible arguments.

Whatever we might assume about the motives of the faultfinding critic it is crucial that they not be lumped together with the genuine critic of ideas. Of course some critics don't make the task of separating the faultfinding from the substantive argument an easy on. Nevertheless reasoned argument and critical insight needs to be recognised and responded to with generosity. It is very important for the development of any authentic body of knowledge that avenues for critical comment are encouraged and that criticism be valued and not simply condemned as a question of sour grapes. This is true for criticism that comes from the inside (writers/thinkers who come from an integral perspective) as well as from the outside (writers/thinkers who come from a different philosophical or academic paradigm). Because integral theory covers so much territory it is likely that any serious critic will have some expertise in some part of the framework, be that developmental psychology, sociology, physics, philosophy, comparative religion, etc. And that critic will, consequently, have something of value to say. Paraphrasing Wilber, one might say that even critics cannot be wrong one hundred percent of the time. But to return to my point, faultfinding and reasoned criticism come from very different places. Confusing the two often says more about our own maturity and motivations than its does about the critic.

The “critic of integral theory” and the “Wilber critic”

I use the term “integral theory” or “integral model” in the same way that Wilber does. For me integral theory refers to the body of propositions and principles represented in the writings of Ken Wilber. He variously calls this body of propositions “integral theory”, “the integral model”, and “AQAL”. As he says,

The integral model that I am proposing--namely, "all-level, all-quadrant"--attempts to provide a framework in which all of those "facts," if you will, can be accommodated. (Collected Works, “Introduction to Volume 8”)

Wilber offers us a “critical integral theory” and it is this body of work that I have critically evaluated from time to time (for example, see Edwards, 2002). While there are many forms of “integral” and many different “integral approaches” to many different topics (see Cacioppe & Edwards, 2005), when we think of something called “integral theory” or “integral philosophy” or “the integral framework” or an “integral approach” we generally mean some formulation of the ideas expressed in Wilber's books. While there are many different authors who propose some element(s) of an integral approach, none of them have the same scope or detail as Wilber's AQAL or IOS frameworks. To this extent “integral theory”, as we now know it, is virtually synonymous with “the writings of Ken Wilber”. To propose an integral approach to some topic without reference to Ken Wilber's ideas is neither possible nor desirable. At present, to understand and explain what an “integral approach” means is to attempt to understand and explain Wilber's writings on what constitutes an “integral approach”. Consequently, we tend to assume that to be a critic of “integral theory” means precisely the same thing as to be a “Wilber critic”. In the following I would like to untangle this rather unhelpful association.

As a student and practitioner of the social sciences part of my role within the broader integral community is, as I see it, to be an active “critic of integral theory” but this does not mean that I am a “Wilber critic”. Equating these two very different activities confuses the important task of critical evaluation with the rather mean-spirited task of faultfinding. It also confuses scientific criticism of Wilber's writings with an ad hominem and judgemental form of criticism that is directed against the person of Ken Wilber. I want to support critical appraisal of integral theory and separate this from criticism of the person or intentions, or motivations and so on. Some critics (see Frank Visser's Reading Room for examples) have made the unfortunate mistake of mixing up these two forms of criticism. Where the rational criticism of ideas furthers the goals of science, ad hominem critiques have nothing whatsoever to do with science. We need to distinguish between, and not equate, these two types of criticism – the crucial role of “the integral theory critic” on the one hand and the irrelevant role of the “Wilber critic” on the other. The two roles are independent. Unhooking these two forms of criticism helps us to stop labelling the critic of integral theory as “a Wilber critic”. It seems strange to say something so entirely obvious, but nevertheless I point out that a critic can be completely supportive of Wilber and his work and yet, at the same time, very critical of some theoretical aspect of his writings.

From all sides

Another general point also needs to be brought forward here. Wilber says that, “I have offered an 'integral theory' that I claim honors more types of truths than the alternatives” (Wilber, 2003, p. 58). This means that Integral theory recognises not only the valid truth claims of other theories and paradigms but also their limitations. Consequently, integral theory is likely to be criticised from all sides because of its integrative potential. And that is exactly how it should be. Integrating many theories is an inherently unpopular procedure because it places boundary conditions on theories and situates them relative to other theories. The criticism that follows such processes is to be expected and needs to be treated respectfully because it will almost certainly have some validity. How those criticisms are considered and responded to by integral scholars will be an important aspect of the healthy development of integral approaches in general.

Wilber says that he is offering a type of "critical integral theory." The act of engaging with integral frameworks and methods is, by its very nature, an exercise in criticism. Any integrative endeavour involves a critical assessment of those views which it attempts to integrate. This is not only a theoretical issue. Integral theorists and practitioners work within their particular domains by recognising the valid truths and limitations of diverse views and by bringing them together into a wider embrace. Integral theory and practice is, by definition, a critical discipline. For example, the integral model of a “spectrum of consciousness” resulted from the critical assessment of the partiality of many theories of consciousness and their integration into a broader conceptual framework. The development of an Integral Transformative Practice came out of the critical recognition of the limitations of some spiritual disciplines and the benefits of bringing many different developmental and health practices together into a coherent approach. From this perspective, an integral engagement with any topic necessarily entails a type of critical mind and heart that is essential to any transformative theory or practice.

It's my view that this type of critical inquiry lies at the very heart of every honest quest for what we might regard as true, good, beautiful and just. We all understand, I'm sure, the central place that critical inquiry, peer review and peer validation (confirmation, falsification, replication) hold for the scientific process. It is less acknowledged, however, that critical inquiry also forms the basis of many other forms of knowledge acquisition. It even applies to the development of spiritual knowledge in the contemplative disciplines. In the Zen practice of koan study it is crucial that an inquiring, discriminating and critical edge be brought to the encounter with the koan. The figure of Manjushri embodies this type of critical cutting off that discriminates practice from non-practice (this of course has nothing to do with judging the value of one's practice), that distinguishes between authenticity and pretension (“Miss this by a hair, And you are off by a thousand miles”). Criticism is part of the process of inquiry that occurs at every level of knowledge development – from riding a bike to engaging in contemplative service.

I might also add here that it is important to also maintain an appreciate attitude towards criticism and the critic. For example, criticism and the critic also play central roles in our search for beauty. Speaking personally, my appreciation for the beauty and aesthetic depth of much of contemporary art is largely due to the critical writings of the renowned Australian art critic Robert Hughes. Criticism also drives our search for justice in the world. The critical theory of the Frankfurt School philosophers, including, of course, the seminal figure of Jurgen Habermas, is called “critical” because of its inherent capacity to critically analyse mainstream social and political systems of thought and practice. So, in all spheres of life and stages of development, the many faces of criticism lie at the core of the transformative process. Criticism and the critic are essential companions to any path that hopes to gain new insights into the booming, buzzing confusion that surrounds us. And this is particularly so for any discipline that might be called integral.

The dark side of (rejecting) criticism

The dark side of criticism is that it can also degenerate into a mean-spirited faultfinding – Bertrand Russell's “intellectual contempt”. It can become a narrow affair that is more about tearing something down than building something up. When identifying the weakness and partiality in someone's work dominates the critic's ability to see what is valid and useful then criticism becomes something much less than what it might be. Here, the constructive element in criticism is overshadowed by the destructive element. Obviously it is true that critics can often be too concerned with the negatives and with what is wrong in “the system”. However, communities that do not value criticism also portray constructive critics in this light. They are regarded (branded) as “nay-sayers”, oppositional, or fault-finders that don't really understand what they are talking about. They don't need to be heard, their criticism is invalid. In some societies, of course, this reaches the pathological point of criminalisation of opposition. It might even be said that, along with our treatment of the marginalised, the health of a community can be estimated from the way they treat their critics. Do we place the critic outside of our sense of collective identity? Do we stereotype the critic and label them instead of understanding their perspective and engaging with it. In not valuing critics and criticism we run the risk of regarding “the critic” as something exterior to the community and as something superfluous to our core purpose. In seeing the critic as “other” we are, in fact, denying our community a vital source of energy for healthy transformation.

Critics may not simply be oppositional and deconstructive, they can also, of course, be simply wrong. Their criticism can be based on ignorance, misunderstanding and error. But the validity of criticism can only be ascertained if it has a place to be heard and is itself criticised in return. Healthy communities are ones where active debate, multiple avenues for engagement and open knowledgable discussion are present. Integral communities need to encourage forums for criticism to allow the rational process of debate to flourish rather than see criticism as a threat to the integral endeavour. And this applies not only to academic argument but to all levels of social involvement.

Criticism offers a crucial role at all stages of development

Some conservative minded members of the integral community would perhaps like to just receive with reverence the various elements of integral theory as they fall from Wilber's pen and not have them questioned. The dissociated rationalists among us would like to cross every “t” and dot every “i” in finding supporting evidence for every aspect of the AQAL model. The sensitive pluralists among us want every voice to be heard without 'hurtful' criticism. Whatever our shadow-side predilections may be, the crucial thing is that at every level there needs to be multiple forums for validating, confirming, questioning, criticising, developing, expanding and contributing to the emergence of the integral vision. We can each contribute in our own way, and the analytical critic can contribute no less than the pragmatic doer.

There are forms of criticism that play important roles at all stages of development, be they pre-conventional, conventional or transconventional. These forms of criticism function mostly within the validative strand in Wilber's epistemological model. At every level of development criticism performs the vital role of testing, confirming and legitimating the knowledge that is disclosed by the methods, experiences and interpretations that are related to a particular developmental stage. Based on the epistemological models of Wilber, Habermas and Harre, I consider an integral approach to the development of knowledge as including the processes of injunction (UR), apprehension (UL), interpretation (LL) and validation (LR). This process describes what I call the Integral Cycle of Knowledge (see Figure 2). When any complex entity (holon) acquires knowledge all four quadrants are engaged in the learning process. Hence all learning, at every stage, involves the process of critical validation. One of the core aspects of the development of knowledge for any community (social holon) is the validation of our interpretations through peer group review and critical analysis. Those involved in this criticism must be trained in the discipline, or have experience of the knowledge that is being tested, or have some expertise in the data that is being disclosed though the relevant methodologies.

In scientific domains these validational process also include systems to ensure that knowledge is critically evaluated. These critical systems of evaluation exist in traditional sciences, in modern sciences and in postmodern sciences. Consequently, supporting the critical voice in a community has nothing to do with levels, nothing to do with the GREEN MEME, nothing to do with pluralism, relativism, etc. It has every thing to do with being a mature community of seekers and with the development of authentic knowledge. Table 1 gives an idea of the focus of criticism that operates within each developmental structure of consciousness.

Table 1: Consciousness structures and their critical focus

Consciousness Structure The critical focus of each identity structure
Third Tier Violet How does this help me/us to be present?
Second Tier Turquoise How does this help me/us to flow?
  Teal How does this help me/us to develop?
First Tier Green How does this help me/us to relate?
  Orange How does this help me/us to understand?
  Amber How does this help me/us to conform?
  Red How does this help me/us to prosper?
  Magenta How does this help me/us to belong?
  Infrared How does this help me/us to survive?

Criticism can validly flow out of any of these motivations. They all have their place and we can do well to listen to the critical questions that derive from all the significant life concerns that we must deal with as individuals and as social collectives.

Criticism and the Rational

It seems that criticism and reasoned judgement have fallen on hard times recently. We see it in the fundamentalist attack on formal science, in the pluralist condemnation of the methods of conventional science, in the neo-conservatives desire to weaken parliamentary mechanisms for critical review, and we see it in the traditionalists assault on the independence of judicial process. While forms of criticism are inherent to the acquisition of knowledge at all stages of development, rational criticism and the scientific process of validating theories obviously reaches its initial culmination with the appearance of formal operative cognition. Consequently, in terms of human development, intellectual criticism is formally associated with the development of rationality, the world of scientific knowledge, with evidence-based reasoning and academic peer review. Our formal powers of critical rationality reach their peak in the rational individualism of midlife, in the collective realm of scientific modernity and in the rational world of egoic self-expression. These are certainly the hallmarks of formal cognitive structures for individuals and for social collectives. On either side of the critical rational-self we have the absolutism of the conformist membership-self and the pluralism of the relativist sensitive-self. In terms of chakra colours (using Wilber's new colour system) we have the AMBER and the GREEN on either side of the ORANGE self-systems (see figure 3).

Conformist AMBER structures often regard rational, evidence-based criticism as a challenge to authority, as a desecration of the absolute truth of “our values” and as heresy against “the tradition”. The critical individualism of the rational self nails the 44 theses to the door of the AMBER institution and gets condemned for doing so. The immature pluralist self often takes rational, analytical criticism as a threat to the truth of relativism. The critical individualism of the rational self gets blamed for the destruction of the relativist paradise because it wants to analyse, criticise, judge and reduce whole to parts. Either way the traditional conservatives and romantic pluralists often condemn the world of rational and critical judgement. It is also true that the ORANGE rationalist critic is often unfairly critical of what is beautiful, good and true about the traditional and pluralistic realities (amongst other things). Nevertheless, the world of rational criticism acts, in many ways, as a curative medicine to the pathologies of pre-conventional development (archaic, magic, mythic, traditional) and as a gate keeper and as a basic criteria for assessing higher forms (pluralist, integrative, Kosmo-centric) of what is good, true and beautiful. In any event, the critical gifts of ORANGE (and there are many of them) are not being well received these days.

The gate-keeping role that ORANGE criticism plays for higher development is particularly important. In this regard I suggest that without the support of rational criticism post-conventional communities and disciplines run the risk of various pre/trans forms of collective pathologies and fixations. Because the higher stages of development are, by definition, post-formal they can, without the doubting Thomas of rational criticism, often become confused with and fall prey to the pressures of pre-conventional qualities. That is, they can often suppress conventional rational and egoic qualities in favour of forms of preconventional absolutism, and non-critical acceptance. For example, in some spiritual communities we see either the guru figure, the religious tradition or the spiritual community itself requiring that followers, students and practitioners leave behind the rational world of critical judgement, to deny their use of critical faculties and to take up “the Way” without critical judgement. The problem is that such demands can come out of the invalid and regressive domain of pre-conventional absolutism just as much as they can come from the developmentally valid demands of the transformative process itself. This is a large and complex issue and one not to be addressed here in any detail (see Anthony, Ecker & Wilber, 1987 for a great discussion on this topic). I only mention this here to point out the important role that the critic and “doubting Thomas” can play for the growth of any post-conventional community.

Too often rational criticism is not regarded as a healthy feature in post-conventional communities when, in fact, it plays one of the central roles in developing a “community of inquiry” that can move beyond the goals of conventionalism. For example, as Wilber has pointed out several times, it is a characteristic of some very developed traditions of spirituality for the rational mind to be engaged on a daily basis in intellectual study, critical debate and discursive reasoning as part of the contemplative life. Anselm said in his famous dictum “fides quaerens intellectum” - “Faith seeks understanding” - which can be taken to mean that the spiritual experience naturally engages our rationality; they are both essential involvements in the process of transformation. Similarly, integral communities need to include the rational, critical process to be truly transformative.

What level does the critic need to be at?

Criticism can, of course, be of some service irrespective of its accuracy, or the level of expertise of the critic, or the developmental profile of the critic. At the very least we can make use of inaccurate criticism through using it as an opportunity for practicing self-reflection, taking the perspective of the other, honing our defensive arguments, clarifying our own position. Communities can also gain from allowing for the give and take of criticism no matter what its ultimate validity may be. I am thinking here of things like the protection of freedom of speech, the encouragement of a critical culture, the public exchange of views through open debate and through rational argument (noting that there are important qualifications to these freedoms). All this is rather obvious and probably needs no further comment. However, there is another issue at stake here that relates to the value of criticism and its relationship to the developmental level of those individuals, groups, ideas and arguments involved in the critical discussion. This issue relates to the developmental adequacy of the critic and the criticism they offer. In other words, if, for example, the basic ideas and worldviews disclosed in integral theory are expressed in terms of the TEAL or TURQUOISE levels, (that is, in terms of a Kosmocentric, integrated-holistic, and cross-paradigmatic philosophy) can any criticism coming from below that level, e.g. AMBER, ORANGE, or GREEN be of real value or have substantive cogency? Let me put this question as simply as possible.

Should the level of development (developmental profile) of the critic be taken into account when judging their criticism? To this question I answer a resounding NO. Here are my reasons. (All of these reasons are based on consistent interpretations of well known integral theory principles).

  1. Development is complex, people are complex, and assessing the developmental profile of any individual is an extremely difficult and, even in settings were it might be possible, it is often inappropriate to do so. It is certainly not possible to do such a thing outside of a clinical, standardised setting by someone who is not professionally trained to administer the suitable tests and interviews. Thinking that we can assess the developmental nature of an individual on the basis of their critical comments or theoretical writings is not only naïve it is also almost certainly bound to be significantly deficient. Consequently we need to move our focus from the critic to the nature of their criticism. What's truly important here is the validity and the accuracy of the criticism itself and how we make use of it, not the developmental nature of the critic.
  2. Integral theory is an integrated model that addresses and includes all levels of development. Therefore, any criticism from any level or relating to any level has the possibility of being valid for the relevant level(s). For example, integral theory deals with many postmodern issues such as pluralism, relativism, and contextualism. Consequently, postmodern critics of integral theory who are experts in these areas can make valid criticisms of the way integral theory deals with this “level”. This means the GREEN theorists can offer very pertinent criticisms that may need to be incorporated into the integral framework. The same is true for experts in the areas of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, spirituality, etc.
  3. There is much about integral theory that has nothing to do with levels. For example, quadrants, types, perspectives, lines, and dynamics have nothing essentially to do with levels. That's why the integral theory framework is called AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels, All Lines, All types, All …) and not simply AL (All Levels. Full stop). Consequently, someone who is expert in, say, developmental dynamics might be able to offer very cogent criticisms of how integral theory deals with transitional issues irrespective of what level they are at.
  4. No one is “at” a level. While people may have a general centre of gravity, that centre can change dramatically in any direction in particular circumstances. Mini transformations, peak experiences, sudden insights and flow experiences can overtake us at certain times. Individuals therefore might have some new insight into an integral way of looking at things that is valid and cogent and which might add to the storehouse of integral theory propositions irrespective of their standard modus operandi or developmental centre of gravity.
  5. The inclusion of the ideas of developmental lines in integral theory means that development is idiosyncratic and ideographic. Individuals can be at several levels of development within different domains of life at the same time. They therefore may well be able to connect with a wider range of developmental worldviews than is commonly acknowledged (see APPENDIX for a further discussion on this). This argument simply warns us against making judgements related to the linking of criticism with the developmental profile of the critic. These are complex realms that have no real place in the judgement of criticism and its theoretical cogency.

For these and other reasons I maintain that attempting to assess the level of development of the critic (or their criticism for that matter) has no place in the judgement of whether that criticism has any cogency or validity for integral theory. Thankfully, that can all be left up to the standard practices of public debate and critical peer validation. Sometimes what issues forth from the Beginner's Mind is not only relevant but the most important thing that can be said. The moral of the tale of the Emporer's New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson is one that we all might bring to mind on occasion.

I agree completely with the idea that a lower level does not “see” the world of the higher level and that the data disclosed by more complex levels of development are “over the heads” of the lower levels. But this theoretical principle has little to do with the complexity of human life when it is isolated from the many other relevant aspects of integral theory that pertain to this issue. When there is a heavy reliance on only developmental levels as a criterion for judging valid criticism, we run the risk of setting off down a very simplistic, if not reductionist, pathway that will not lead to a truly integrative community. We need to include inclusive as well as transcendent criteria in our judgement of criticism. The idea of transcendent levels and of ever-expanding vistas of unknown lands of action and experience is a core aspect to the integral vision. However, the transcendent principle cannot and should not be used as the sole guiding principle in deciding how to deal with criticism or how to assess the value of what people say about integral theory.


The foregoing has been a call for integral communities to provide forums for critical debate and evaluation of “integral theory” in all its forms. This is not a task that Ken Wilber can perform alone nor is not a task that we should expect him to perform alone. It is a role that every community which gathers around the integral vision can contribute to in a healthy and transformative way. Most of us will not be particularly interested in developing critical ideas about the AQAL framework or holons or whatever, and that is exactly how it should be. There are many other roles to be performed in every community of vision. However, all of us might consider that supporting “the critic” is a definitive part of what it means to be integral. Researchers, practitioners, students, armchair critics, professors, essay writers, editorial groups, organising bodies, consultants, teachers, interested readers and others (from both within and outside the integral and academic, professional and practitioner communities) who do offer criticism of integral theory (in all its forms) need to be seen as crucial contributors to the development of this important social movement. Criticism and active inquiry are two sides of the same process of learning and growth. It's my opinion that integral communities can only be developmental communities of inquiry when they support forums for criticism and indeed find and express their own critical voice.

© Mark Edwards, 2005/2006


Mutuality and relational exchange – How holon's commune(icate)

One of the means Wilber uses to describe how holons exchange relations, how they share their cultural innards, how they co-create a “we”, is via the Spiral Dynamics language of values memes. Wilber gives an example in Excerpt C where he, a blue vMeme person at the conventional, normative level of blue culture, meets a yellow vMeme person at the post-normative, post-conventional level of yellow culture. On the basis of some rather selective Integral principles Wilber draws several conclusions about the relationship between the two individuals. I quote from the text.

if you are yellow and I am blue, and we exchange blue symbols, words, or tokens (blue signifiers), then we can usually reach some sort of mutual understanding at that level of depth ...You and I can therefore enter a blue worldspace ... and thus we can participate in cultural solidarity at that particular locale in the AQAL matrix (we can resonate both vertically and horizontally). (Excerpt C, ¶ 466)

Wilber is saying here that communication and relational exchange can always take place between two holons because, no matter how great the developmental difference, both holons will always be able to resonate with each other at some basic level. Hence, there will always be the possibility of both vertical and horizontal solidarity of some type. As Wilber says “we can resonate both vertically and horizontally”. So, for communication to occur and therefore some (even if minimal) level of understanding to transpire, depth is irrelevant. Two different holons will always be able to find some communicative level of exchange because some shared level of development will always be present to both holons. Wilber even talks about the, “intersubjectivity or cultural solidarity that allows knowing and understanding to occur” between a cell and the scientist studying that cell.

While the blue and the yellow share a basic platform of development and can communicate about that common sphere of experience and action, Wilber says that “there is no way” for them to intersect about the yellow or unshared sphere that only the yellow is a “member” of. He says that,

both you and I can be a member of a blue culture; but only you can be a member of a yellow culture. Because I am not accessing a yellow phenomenological space in my own I-awareness, there is no way for our intersections to intersect in a yellow domain: we cannot actually run into each other in that world. (Excerpt C, ¶ 471)

This means that the basic shared level of exchange will be associated with the less developed holon's perspective, in this case the blue holon's worldview. Direct communication between the two is possible only when communicating about this shared level. Unfortunately for blue, Wilber argues, the higher levels will be inaccessible and invisible to him because he does not participate in that level of development. Figure 6 shows the communicative relationship between yellow and blue that Wilber describes. The figure shows the field that is available for direct communicative exchange (mutuality) and that which is inaccessible.

Notice that for Wilber the potential field for communication between the blue and yellow holons is determined by the depth of the lower holon. For Wilber, there will always be a field that is inaccessible for any mutual understanding to take place between two holons of different developmental levels. (I also hold to this as a basic starting point in the representation of holonic relations but there are many aspects of Integral theory that heavily qualify Wilber's strong form of the position.) But, whatever the relative levels of development, Wilber clearly maintains in the above passages that some shared mutuality can exist between any two holons.

All this seems relatively straightforward. Unfortunately however, having just established that similar depth is not an essential aspect for communicative understanding and mutuality Wilber goes on to apparently contradict these basic propositions.

  • depth only understands similar depth (Excerpt C, ¶ 474)
  • in order for mutual understanding to occur, holons must be surfing similar developmental waves. (Excerpt C, ¶ 478)
  • Vertical solidarity, then, means that two holons share a similar depth or level of consciousness, and accordingly this level of consciousness can form part of the fabric of cultural or horizontal solidarity that is prerequisite for mutual understanding. (Excerpt C, ¶ 475)
  • Particularly when it comes to holons that are "over its head," there is no mutual understanding because there are no shared signifieds there is no mutual understanding because there are no shared signifieds. (Excerpt C, ¶ 474)

Here we have Wilber talking of the “prerequisite” need for sharing a “similar” depth and “surfing similar developmental waves” and that there will be “no shared signifieds” and “no mutual understanding” when holons are out of their depth, or when two holons of different depth are in relational exchange. This appears contrary to his stated position that holons don't have to be of similar depth for some form of mutual understanding to take place.

There is always an opportunity for shared signifieds and mutuality because holons will always share some level of basic development. To get back to Ken's chess example and the membership issue. You don't have to be of similar developmental depth to enjoy a game of chess together or to have a similar level of knowledge of experience in playing the game to regard each other as members of the socio-cultural group of chess players. Sporting clubs must be the ultimate example of this. People of the greatest developmental variety can all be members of a football club because they all share the interest in the basic physical activity of the sport. More to the point, such clubs are often the very heart of a community in country and regional areas. Wilber's criteria of similar depth and interior intersections seem to be woefully inadequate to explain membership in these cultural environments.

To be honest here I think that Ken is just being sloppy. Lots of shared mutual socio-cultural interaction, understanding and communication can occur between holons of very different levels of depth. The example of a mature adult playing with a young baby or a pet is the classic example. There just needs to be a shared circumstantial need to communicate and two holons will always find a way to form some level of mutual understanding. But I would like to go a little further in this than just noticing that Ken sometimes gets a bit slack with his definitions. I want to look at how our two different holons, the blue holon and the yellow holon, can actually meaningfully communicate about the higher. Wilber's view on this is extremely clear. For him there can “never” be any mutual understanding about ideas, desires or needs related to the unshared levels of development of the higher holon.

I am blue and you are yellow. Under those circumstances, we will never reach a mutual understanding about your yellow ideas, desires, and needs, because I literally cannot see yellow phenomenological realities--they are all "over my head"--they are all Greek to me. (Excerpt C, ¶ 465)
we need to share not only perspectives but the same height or depth of those perspectives, or again, there is no phenomenological space in which we can collide. (Excerpt C, ¶ 479)

Wilber says that, even when expressed in shared communicative media such as a common language, the higher ideas and needs can “never” be communicated from yellow to blue.

Even if we share the same language with the same syntax, some of the semantic realities that can be carried by that language, such as yellow thoughts and ideas, will still be like a foreign language to me. I will hear the words (i.e., the written or spoken signifiers in the system of syntax), but never grasp their actual meaning (i.e., I get the signifiers in their syntax, but not the signifieds in their semantic (Excerpt C, ¶ 465)

I agree with Wilber that the lower does not experience the reality of the higher. However, I believe that it is far to strong, when speaking of the human sphere, to say that the higher can “never” be “understood” or that “there is no phenomenological space” in which the higher can be shared with the lower in some way. It is simply too exclusivist (and reductionist for that matter) an presentation/interpretation of integral theory to say that that some level of mutual recognition of the higher can “never” be communicated to the lower, or that without holons being at the “same height or depth” there can “never” be some communication of “actual meaning”. I would like to identify five aspects of Integral theory that considerably weaken Wilber's strong position on the impossibility of some shared understanding of the higher being communicated to the lower. i

) A basis for communication about the higher to the lower already exists. We have seen that the higher and the lower do share developmental space. Higher holons can and do communicate all the time with lower holons. This includes parents with children, children with pets, teachers with students, moral leaders with the general public and the authors of sacred writings with their readers. But there is an additional method of communicating the higher that comes into play when the lower holon has verbal-rational capacities. Here the possibilities of real dialogue about the higher reaches a decisive turning point. This is because the verbal-rational realms are the realms of abstract concepts and so anything, even higher experiences and events, can be expressed in terms of verbal-rational conceptual language. The whole cultural heritage of sacred literature and scriptural commentary is testament to the fact that the higher can be communicated in terms of the lower world of rational conceptual language. The works of Ken Wilber are also evidence of the possibilities that can be opened up once the rational conceptual level of mind has been reached by the lower holon.

The rational mind is the first stage that can act as a universal medium for communicating experiences, ideas, and realities from one level to the other. This does not mean that the recipient will experience or completely understand those communicated events but they will be able to encounter their reality via symbols, stories, parables and analogies. Figure 7 shows that this abstracted process of communicating the higher knowledge/experience to the lower builds upon the already significant shared reality that two holons will always possess (as discussed above).

Once the verbal conceptual level of development has been reached in the lower holon there is no field that is completely inaccessible to some form of mutual understanding. (This is one reason why development in its personal and collective forms becomes so dramatically accelerated once an individual or a society reaches the level of conceptual knowledge. This is also why such increased development can end, [in both cases] in very dissociated developmental pathologies). So now we have the qualification that the lower can share in the higher in an abstracted way. That vicarious understanding and learning can take place and build upon the already substantial base of shared mutuality that will always be present.

ii) My second qualification to the proposition that the lower can “never reach a mutual understanding” of the higher lies with the fundamental integral principle that holons are never uni-dimensional. They have multiple lines of development that pass through the levels in each quadrant. Wilber has identified about a dozen lines just for the consciousness quadrant and this number is probably repeated, more or less, in the other quadrants. This creates considerable complexity even in very fundamental holons. In human holons these lines of development will often be at different developmental levels. This is why it is so very simplistic to represent a human holon, personal or collective, as being at one particular level e.g. blue or yellow. It will be even more problematic to propose that mutual understanding and communication about one particular line cannot take place when one person is higher on one line, lower on another and the two are at a similar developmental level on other lines. Wilber rarely mentions this fundamental aspect of an Integral theory of holons. This is understandable in some ways because the lines of development add a considerable level of complexity to the model. It's unfortunate in other ways because lines are essential for any sort of genuine application of the model to everyday life. Life is complex. Human holons are complex. Figure 8 attempts to show communicative exchange as it might be seen to occur between complex holons in a psychographic form.

So now again, we have a further qualification that the lower can share in the higher in an expanded way through some possible shared lines of development. The developmental gap between two human holons is very likely to be less than any unidimensional view of their respective levels can acknowledge. This is because there will generally be some line in the lower holon that is substantially more developed than it's “centre of developmental gravity”. For example, in figure 8 above I have indicated that the blue holon may have a line of development that is actually at green. So there will be an expanded field for direct shared mutuality with the yellow holon because they both share a direct experience of some green aspects of development. Now, while it may be unusual for a blue holon to have some green characteristics, the point still holds that the developmental differential between holons will always be substantially less than their centre of gravity when the variation in their lines of development is taken into account. Consequently, there will be an increased potential for direct mutual intersection at these higher levels. (It may also not be unusual that in certain circumstances, such as personal crisis, this idea of intra-developmental variation may increase with the subsequent increase in the capacity for the “blue” holon to experience higher levels.)

Just as an aside, I believe that this more detailed approach to the developmental makeup of holons provides a more realistic platform for understanding the actual process of teaching and mentoring than the uni-dimensional approach. Good teachers are able to engage and support students at their highest levels of potential which is better characterised by the top level of certain lines of development rather than the student's “centre of gravity”. Vygotskian views on scaffolding and the zone of proximal development may also be highly relevant here. This multidimensional approach to the higher engaging with the lower could also hold for collective holons and may open up a new approach to considering ways of supporting democratic and communal reform in underdeveloped countries.

So returning now to the issue of mutual communication, we have an expanded communicative field that combines: a) the pre-existing shared foundation of direct communication, b) and the possibility of vicarious understanding and learning made possible by the abstracting capacities of the rational-conceptual mind, and c) an expanded field of direct communication resulting from the consideration of the variation in developmental lines as opposed to a simplistic and unidimensional centre-of-gravity model.

iii) The third qualifier I want to mention here is one that Wilber himself has made much of lately. This is the proposition that all people of whatever developmental level (including babies) have access to, and temporary experiences of, the higher realms. I think that it is highly likely that temporary states can give a powerful platform for the lower to understand the higher. The sheer power of the memory of a peak experience can be enough to change a life and make it more open to intimations of higher truths. These intimations will always, of course, be interpreted according to the worldviews of the lower but these experiences will still remain in some form in the psyche of the lower. This phenomenon of peak and plateaux experiences again qualifies Wilber's proposition that the higher and the lower can “never reach a mutual understanding about [the higher] ideas, desires, and needs”.

iv) It's a great mystery that the lower ever seeks to understand and experience the higher. In doing so the lower must actually die to its current levels of identity. Wilber has written more intelligently than any one else on this topic. I would just like to comment here that although the higher cannot be fully experienced by the lower communication, some type of mutual understanding of the higher “ideas, desires” and needs” can occur even if in a reduced form. What, after all, is the great attraction for us in the words and stories of the great sages. Their stories, parables and pointing out exercises all convey a type of intimation of the higher to the lower. We glimpse something in the parable in the metaphor that we don't quite understand but which excites our soul to aspire to a deeper experience of who we really are. Parable and metaphor are the prime examples of what I am referring to here.

As I suggested above, when we reach the level of verbal-rational conceptual identity we can intimate and even understand in some way the higher through concepts that convey those levels to us in more familiar terms. For example, “Enlightenment is body and mind falling away”, “All beings by nature are Buddha as ice by nature is water”, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.” There is something in this conveyance of the higher through the terms of the lower that we do understand and which does communicate, however, vicariously some aspect of the higher. The use of parable, analogy, symbol, art, poetry, story telling fairytale and paradox does convey that mystery. Why, because people are complex and because people are never simply at one vMeme level and because we have all experienced changing consciousness and transformation and crisis in some form. Parable is the means by which the higher communicates definitive elements of its experience to the lower in terms that the lower can understand and experience. This is why parable makes so much use of analogy. We are to the spirit as the child is to the parent. The kingdom of heaven is to our world as the sky is to the earth. Of course, this often ends in paradox and contradiction and mystery but even that communicates something to the conceptual mind.

v) The final aspect of integral theory which weakens Wilber's proposition that mutual understanding of the higher can “never' take place is that of the imbedded unconscious. I am not speaking here of the Mahayana principle that Wilber beautifully refers to as “Always, Already”. That is a matter for the world of ultimate truths. All of my considerations come from the relative world of conjecture. I am speaking here of the desire for truth, for the higher, that arises mysteriously in the human heart through the intimation of its potential. Integral theory holds that the general pattern of potential transformation that a holon can experience is already mapped out in a type of probability wave. That potentiality is present in the future deep structures of the holon in what Wilber refers to as its “embedded unconscious”. It is the intimation of that higher potential that is awakened when we engage with the higher at any level. In just being physically present something can be communicated. There is an intimation of yellow in blue that draws out blue's desire for transformation and which creates this capacity to understand the parables of the higher. I don't want to overstate this issue. But there has to be some element of the higher already in the lower for transformation to occur in the first place. I am merely proposing that that presence allows some level of metaphorical understanding to take place so that, even while we now “see but through a glass dimly”, there may come a time when we might see “face to face”.

To recapitulate, it is a clear principle of Integral theory that the higher is not directly experienced by the lower. However, in human holons at least, there are several very relevant qualifications of this basic proposition that can open up the possibility of a mutual understanding arising about the higher's “ideas, desires and needs”. I have very briefly mentioned these qualifying factors in the foregoing and they include:

  • the pre-existing shared foundation of direct communication;
  • and the possibility of vicarious understanding and learning made possible by the abstracting capacities of the rational-conceptual mind;
  • an expanded field of direct communication resulting from the consideration of the variation in developmental lines as opposed to a simplistic and unidimensional centre-of-gravity model;
  • the impact of peak and plateaux experiences on the communicative process;
  • the capacity of the higher to be communicated through narrative, parable and analogy (this is associated with b);
  • the mysterious intimation of the higher through the presence of the imbedded unconscious.

All these well-known aspects of Integral theory argue for the possibility of sharing the higher with the lower, of communicating in some way the higher to the lower, and of there being some mutuality between the higher and the lower even at the level of the higher. When all of these factors are added together it begins to look as if the field for potential shared mutuality and “cultural intersection” might be quite large irrespective of the developmental differential involved. So the size of the “phenomenological space” needed for mutual understanding to occur might actually be much less dependent on the similarity in developmental depth between human holons and more on their willingness to exchange in the first place.

Communication, like all holonic processes, is a quadratic business. It is not always defined by the lowest common denominator of shared experience. It is not simply the exchange of internal symbols and concepts. The exterior forms - the behavioural levels of development and the stages of social roles that we fulfil through life – these possess and transmit meaning as much any thought or feeling. In fact, the exterior can cut across the abstract nature of internalisations and be more direct in communicating higher truths than any shared interior. There is no finer example of this than the Soto School of Zen where teachings about one's true nature are transmitted and communicated through the ultimate simplicity of the human body and our attention to physical posture as much as anything else. As (the Rinzai teacher) Hakuin Ekaku puts it, “this very body, the Buddha”.


A version of this essay was published in January 2006 in the newsletter “Integrale Perspectiven” published by “AK Ken Wilber in der DTG e.V.” That paper is also available (in English and German) on the Integrales Forum website at - with thanks to mf and wu). The views expressed in the paper are, of course, not necessarily the views of the publishers.


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Beck, D. & Cowan, C., 1996, 'Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change', Blackwell., Oxford.

Cacioppe, R. & Edwards, M. G., 2005, 'Adjusting blurred visions: A typology of integral approaches to organisations', Journal of Organizational Change Management, 18, 3, 230-246.

Edwards, M. G., 2002, 'The Way Up is the Way Down: Integral Sociocultural studies and cultural evolution', ReVision, 24, 3, 21-31.

Russell, B., 1961, 'History of Western Philosophy', 2nd, Routledge, London.

Wilber, K., 2003, 'On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality: Response to Habermas and Weis'. Available from: www. [Accessed: April, 2005].

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