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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.


Wilber and Metaphysics

Frank Visser

"Reality exceeds what science registers."
Huston Smith
"We are all on all planes at all times."
A. Besant

In the very first sentence on the very first page of the very first book Ken Wilber wrote in 1973, he quotes perennialist philosopher Fritjof Schuon as saying: "There is no science of the soul without a metaphysical basis to it..."[1] In a recent interview Wilber argues emphatically for a post-metaphysical spirituality, stating among other things: "This is why it is also important to sharply differentiate a postmetaphysical spirituality from the perennial philosophy, which is why I have not identified myself with the perennial philosophy in over fifteen years."[2] In the interview Wilber confesses he has been an "unabashed subscriber to the notion of a perennial philosophy" but since 1983 moved on to a critical and postmetaphysical view, as did most of the contemplative traditions fifteen hundred years ago."

What has happened in the intervening years? Are these two usages of the term metaphysics comparable? In the interview Wilber clarifies further that he uses the term "metaphysical" in the technical sense, meaning "postulated in an a priori fashion to be a reality that is known only by speculation, not by direct experience". Obviously, this was not the meaning of "metaphysics" he had in mind when writing The Spectrum of Consciousness, as is further evidenced by the following quotation: "Because of our experimental willingness to investigate all states of consciousness, we are lead into the philosophia perennis, because it is not really a philosophy based upon speculation, but an experience based upon one of our levels of consciousness, namely, that of Mind."[3] In that sense then, there is a deep continuity and consistency throughout Wilber's work, from his first to his most recent books.

Moreover, a philosopher who has fought the influence of "flatland" thinking in the modern world and has argued for the legitimacy of the inner dimension, cannot be characterized other then as "metaphysical" in the true sense of the word. Not only because he strives for an outlook on reality that unifies all existing forms of scientific knowledge, and, more importantly, makes ample room for the dimension of consciousness, without reducing it to either the complexities of the human brain, or to the patterns of social and cultural reality, as is done by the majority of contemporary scientists. Stressing the non-metaphysical nature of his thought might make sense from a strategic point of view — given the hostility of modern man towards anything that transcends the physical level — but somehow obscures a vital aspect of his work. If "metaphysical" merely means "mythological" or "magical" and "speculative", then calling Wilber's integral philosophy "metaphysical" would be a misnomer. But if it is used for a philosophy of life that honors the soul as much as the senses, outer reality as much as inner reality, then the qualification "metaphysical" would be very apt indeed.[4]

Kant demonstrated the impossibility of any metaphysics, by arguing that the human mind is tied to the senses, so any thought about the super-sensible could only be speculative. This has set the stage for a flatland science that acknowledges as real only what the eye of the flesh can see. Again, Wilber has argued throughout his work for a wider view of science, according to which the human mind can be tied to experience in all of its modalities — not only the sensory ones, but equally to mental and spiritual experiences. Pointing out the broad analogies and formal similarities between the methods of the natural and the social sciences, he not only justifies the social sciences in their own right, but persuasively explores the possibility of a "spiritual science", that does not concern itself with things or ideas, but with consciousness as such. Since there is as yet no such thing as a physical explanation of consciousness and its content, these two "higher" sciences can be characterized as being "metaphysical" as well.

In this article I would like to explore freely some of the "metaphysical" aspects of Wilber's work, by pointing out affinities between Wilber and one of the perennialist schools of thought, modern Theosophy, in the hope that by comparing and contrasting these views, Wilber's contributions — and limitations — can become clear. I happen to know more than a little about this particular tradition, because I studied it extensively during the eighties, and wrote a book about its central tenets, Seven Spheres (1995).[5] This is still a largely unexplored field of Wilber studies, and one simply has to start somewhere. I will concentrate on the notion of "levels of existence", "planes of nature", "realms" etc, that feature so prominently in Huston Smith's Forgotten Truth (1975), cited by Wilber on many occasions as the best introduction to the perennial philosophy. Smith and his fellow perennialists belong to an academic tradition that has managed to gain some respectability in the modern world, which cannot be said of the Theosophical worldview at large. One interesting feature of Theosophical thought is that some of its doctrines seem to be the result of clairvoyant investigations, which — at least in theory — follow the "three strands" of any genuine science Wilber has described so often. Far from leaving us with speculations about airy realms populated with mythical beings, Theosophical research presents us with a highly realistic view of supersensible spheres close to the Earth, which are accessible for those who have trained their clairvoyant powers of perception. The rationality and inherent reasonableness of the worldview based on such investigations is striking. They leave one with the feeling "if there is a life after death, it would definitely have to be something like this..." This also touches on typically esoteric doctrines of the hereafter, reincarnation, involution and evolution, the levels of existences, etc., which show up in Wilber's writings every now and then.

Contrasting the "metaphysical" with the "postmetaphysical" view of spirituality, Wilber points to the work of Trungpa, as a successful example of the modern day, critical approach to metaphysical subjects:

"For example, we saw that the traditions often conceived the planes of reality as being the terrestrial, the intermediate, the celestial, and the infinite. These were usually believed to be actual territories existing "out there," populated with mythic beings walking around and talking and having experiences on a different type of actual, concrete territory. The Buddhist "six realms of existence," for example, are clearly of this nature. They are said to be actual places inhabited by hungry ghosts, titans, animals, demigods, angels, and so on. Now, when modern Buddhist teachers look at those realms, they almost always interpret them as actually referring to six major psychological states that humans can experience. Trungpa Rinpoche does this, for example, in his many books. He says that the hungry ghost realm actually means states of psychological jealously and envy. The titan realm actually means states of egoic inflation and narcissism. The god realm actually means states of meditative bliss, and so on. Well, that is exactly a switch from metaphysical to critical—a switch from postulating these realms as separate ontological realities that can be known only by speculation, to seeing these realms as actually being structures of the perceiving subject—that is, as being psychological states of being that can be directly known and experienced by a shift in consciousness—and therefore directly investigated by a phenomenological science (or deep science) of shared introspection and confirmed by a reconstructive science of those who have demonstrated competence in those consciousness shifts. Thus, some of the major tenets or ideas of the great wisdom traditions can still be generally valid, but only if they are reconstructed along modern and postmodern lines, just as Trungpa and so many other sophisticated present-day teachers (in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) are already doing. My work is simply giving a philosophical foundation and methodology for doing so—for moving from a metaphysical to a critical, postmetaphysical, and more integral spirituality."[6]

I was involved in publishing Trungpa's Tibetan Book of the Dead in Dutch in 1991, and while preparing that book for production, I was struck by the feeling that, though it may look appealing to reformulate the tenets of the Book of the Dead into modern day psychological language — turning it basically into a Book of the Living — this leaves out the metaphysical dimension inextricably interwoven with the issue of life after death. And even in the Book itself, where the deceased is advised to see all demons and gods as subjective creations of his own mind — how modern! - this posed to me the simple question: "where is this subject located, and how does it relate to its fellow inhabitants of the hereafter?" Shouldn't we at least try to formulate a methaphysical theory to allow for such a possibility? In a general sense, how far can we go in modernizing the premodern traditions?

In his recent book Integral Psychology Wilber motivates his emphasis on the epistemological (i.e. psychological) over the ontological (i.e. metaphysical) dimension by stating that (1) this avoids the metaphysical speculations that modernity finds so questionable and (2) talking about "planes" as completely independent ontological realities is extremely problematic".[7] But if modernity has trouble with ontological reality, shouldn't modernity be criticized for that? Should we reduce the perennial philosophy to mere psychology, to give it a more modern (and postmodern) credibility? Or could we also try to formulate a metaphysics that has ample room for these other dimensions and provides true Kosmic context for such a psychology?

Interestingly, in Integral Psychology Wilber denies emphatically that he neglects the ontological view: "This has led some critics to claim that I completely ignore planes of existence, but that is obviously incorrect"[8] He uses his concept of basic structures to cover both the levels of selfhood AND the levels of reality mentioned in the perennial philosophy. The reason for stressing the psychological over the ontological is merely pragmatic, it seems: "You can make essentially the same points using only the levels of consciousness." [9] For example, one can say: the human mind studies mental objects (which he refers to as intelligibilia) — the ontological way of speaking — or the human mind can study other human minds — the psychological way of speaking. But ontology not only entails the "reality" of the mental object, but equally of the mind itself, not to mention of the "mental world" or "plane" which is its natural home. Obviously, academic psychology is not the discipline to introduce higher planes with their inhabitants, and it is only wise and sensible for Wilber to leave this out of the picture for the moment, but for an integral philosophical view of reality this simply will not do.

In Forgotten Truth Huston Smith makes the intriguing statement that the isomorphism of man and the cosmos is a basic premise of the traditional outlook:[10]


The levels of selfhood correspond closely to the levels of reality. As the body "inhabits" the terrestrial world, the mind lives in the intermediate world, the soul — the locus of individuality — finds its home in the celestial world, and only Spirit — which is supra-individual — belongs to the Infinite.

As it turns out, the intermediate mind-world lends itself to careful observation by trained clairvoyants. This adds a more objective flavor to the more subjective idea of the dream world as it is often called. (For even if this level is akin to dreaming, where is the dreamer located when dreaming his dreams other then in a reality of its own? One of the truly classical studies of this plane of nature is The Astral Plane (1895) by the theosophical clairvoyant C.W. Leadbeater, who painstakingly observed and described the many inhabitants of this realm, such as[11]:

  1. human beings while alive (and dreaming),
  2. deceased human beings,
  3. non-human beings such as animals and angels,
  4. artificial "beings" such as thought-forms.

Beyond and above this "astral world" — which more specifically is the habitat of our emotional nature — he could also gain access to the "mental plane" or "heaven world", the home of our thoughts and aspirations. (In contrast to Smith's diagram of the spheres, Leadbeater would definitely subsume these two spheres at the level of the (personal) mind. He discovered we pass through these worlds, having experiences strongly reminiscent of the Christian Purgatory and the Heaven world.) As the human body is surrounded by an aura, comprised of the many subtle bodies that form the human makeup, these astral and mental planes were found to surround the surface of the Earth. Far from being equated to the cosmos above, the Heaven world thus turned out to be a locality intimately connected to our planet. Although the modern mind will find such concreteness objectionable and unbelievable, it is exactly what one would expect to find if the range of the senses were widened to see a little more of the reality around us. Not only would we see more of other human beings — i.e. not only their physical body but also their astral and mental bodies — but by the same token we would also see more of reality, in other words the astral and mental "worlds" around us.

Incidentally, this throws new light on the "astral-psychic" stage of development Wilber has written about, especially in his early works, subsuming it under the general heading of the "subtle" — often calling it the low-subtle.[12] In his recent work, Wilber has stressed that this low-subtle stage in itself has nothing to do with paranormal powers of perception, although paranormal events "sometimes increase in frequency at the psychic level, but that is not what defines this level".[13] It is perhaps more accurate to see this as a completely separate line of development: psychic perception is not so much an expansion of the self as an extension of the senses. It bears no relevance for transpersonal development as such, for even if one is able to see auras, one can still be the same unbalanced and narcissistic person as before. Seeing auras is more like having keen eyesight — it bears no relationship to one's psychological maturity. It may be true that these psychic powers — in their conscious forms — occur as transmental stages, but structurally they have nothing to do with the transmental, they are fundamentally transphysical. (The fact that they can or cannot occur rules them out as true stages of development, for no stage of development can be skipped).

Wilber characterizes the perennial viewpoint — The Great Nest of Being — often as "reality is composed of various levels of existence — levels of being and knowing — ranging from body to mind to soul to spirit. Each senior dimension transcends but includes its juniors, so that this is a conception of wholes within wholes."[14] This formulation strikes me as rather loose, since even though the higher planes surround and "include" the Earth as the subtle layers of the human aura surround and "include" the body, there is nothing specifically in the higher levels themselves that "includes" the lower ones. For example, the mind is forced to "include" the body during the course of human development because human cognition has to derive input from the senses in order to be able to function. Thus it is the compound human individual that "includes" all levels, rather than the levels themselves.

Buried in the endnotes of Integral Pyschology, we find the rather ontological statement that "in ontogeny, the structures develop but the planes do not (the self develops through the already-given planes or levels of reality)."[15] This very much concurs with the Theosophical view that the planes of nature are simply a given, as much as the physical world is a given. He goes on to say that "however, in both Kosmic involution and evolution/phylogeny, the planes/realms also develop, or unfold from Source and enfold to Source." [16] This is typically a statement few scientists would be able to relate to, but Theosophists would again add some precision here: involution and evolution do not create or dissolve the planes of Nature, these large-scale processes also use an already given Kosmic infrastructure of planes. During involution, Divine Life descends into the spheres, until it reaches the lowest, physical plane where it reverses its direction, so evolution can proceed to ascend to the same spheres again, on its way back to Spirit. These are collective rather then individual processes and should not be used to explain individual spiritual experiences. Defining involution as a "movement down the Great Chain of Being"[17] is far too loose, for this definition covers many different "descending" processes:

  1. The process of Creation/Emanation which gives rise to the Spheres of Existence.
  2. The descent of Divine Life into these Spheres or Planes (i.e. involution proper)
  3. The individualization of an animal group soul (called "individualization", leading to the formation of the human Ego)
  4. The incarnation of this human Ego into a new physical body.
  5. The influx of spiritual inspiration from the superconscious mind.

To which may be added, for completeness' sake:

  1. Regression from the higher to the lower stages of development
  2. Integration of the lower by the higher stages of development

To conclude this comparative overview, in his recent works Wilber has criticized the perennial philosophy for its view of the higher planes as far and above the physical plane, whereas according to modern insight, the physical is "parallel" to the higher planes. "The material domains are not so much the lowest rung on the great hierarchy as they are the exterior forms of each and every rung on the hierarchy" [18] This seems to overlook the fact that, first and foremost, the physical domain IS the lowest of the various planes of nature, but SECOND modernity has discovered many correlations between human consciousness and the material brain. According to Theosophy, the planes of Nature interpenetrate each other at each and every point, and this also holds for the constituents of the human makeup. The fact that the ancients did not have much detailed knowledge of the physical correlations does not alter this fundamental fact. To say that the higher spheres are "higher" is only a metaphorical — and meaningful - way of speaking, which should not be taken too literally. Besides, trading the higher/lower metaphor for the inner/outer metaphor does not bring us any closer to the truth, they both highlight some aspects of it. (Even our "inner" life is not "in" us, but "some place else"). The psychological model of the four quadrants does not work well as an ontological model of reality. The four quadrants have nothing to do with verticality. So why use the four quadrants against the idea of ontological levels?

Interestingly, a more "metaphysical Wilber" appears in the comments to my article "More Integral than Thou" posted on the Shambhala site: "The standard 4Q diagram that I usually give is true for this gross manifest realm. But even in the dream realm, there are four quadrants. Moreover, the great traditions of Vedanta and Vajrayana maintain two important points: mind or consciousness is never independent of some sort of body or energy component, but there are the gross bodymind, the subtle bodymind, and the causal bodymind, and those can be independent of each other in certain circumstances, e.g., in the bardo realm. I acknowledge this view clearly in several places, including most recently in "A Summary of My Psychological Model" posted on this site." (italics mine). This indicates that Wilber's presentation is not confined to the "gross realm" only, but includes subtle and super-subtle realities, that have a separate ontological status.

Exactly why and how Wilber differs from the traditional esoteric or Theosophical schools would be an interesting study in itself. On the other hand, the commonalities are only too obvious. Using the fourfold model of the human constitution as an example, the following table points them out:

SOUL Ego or Soul
MIND Personality

The same congeniality can be found when we compare the views as to their view of the world(s):

INFINITE Divine worlds
CELESTIAL Spiritual worlds
INTERMEDIARY Personal worlds
BODY Physical world

When addressing the question as to how these human principles came into being Wilber often suggests that the lower emerged from the higher by means of a process of involution.

As mentioned above, Theosopy uses the term "involution" to refer to another process, and would reply that the human Monad, the spark of the Divine, manifests first as a spiritual Ego (or Soul), which in turn gives rise to a psychological "personality", before incarnating into a physical body. This downward process guarantees that even on this physical plane, we are still connected to the Monad or Spirit. As Annie Besant wrote: "We are on all planes at all times."[19] This also sharply delineates the boundary between what it is in us that reincarnates, and what does not: it is the spiritual Soul or Ego that reincarnates - not the psychophysical personality. This coincides with Wilber's view of reincarnation as a spiritual process.[20] (Though he seems to leave the higher mind with its memories out of the Spiritual Self - modern Theosophy sees the abstract mind as a spiritual principle). Consequently, what typically happens after death is that the personal "vehicles" or bodies are left behind, one after the other. At physical death, the physical body is transcended, a process which is followed by a "second death" (in which the astral body is shed) and a "third death" (leaving behind the concrete mental body). Interestingly, this whole process (the "Hereafter") shows many similarities with the traditional Christian view of Purgatory and Heaven. Also, contrary to the view described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the post-mortem life is seen as a slow and gradual process, taking many years or even decades, before the level of the Ego or Soul is reached. It is from this level that a new incarnation is started, according to the Theosophical view (so we do not touch the level of Spirit between each life, let alone a few hours after death, as the Tibetan Book teaches). The point of these comparisons is to suggest alternative views that might stimulate a discussion that hasn't even started. A good beginning would be Hans ten Dam's Exploring Reincarnation [21], a very complete overview of views on reincarnation East and West, including those of Spiritism, Theosophy, and parapsychology. The universality of the Tibetan view on reincarnation is not as strong as Wilber seems to suggest.

Since Theosophy has more or less specialized itself in the topic of the spheres, it is also interesting to compare this aspect of the perennial philosophy with Wilber's work. As has often been said, the "Spectrum of Consciousness" has many colors, so any division of the spectrum into sub-levels can in the end only be arbitrary. However, this overlooks the fact that even in the color spectrum, we don't see the billions of colors that are possible. We only see the so-called "spectral colors" - from ultra-violet to infra-red, passing through blue, green, yellow, orange and red. For example, pink and brown cannot be found in the color spectrum. Wilber's stage model shows up to 18 subdivisions, which closely correlate to psychological and spiritual models of human development. However, some of these levels might be spectral, others might be "non-spectral". I have the feeling the existential stage of the centaur is such a non-spectral color, given the fact that it is defined by the integration of the mental and the physical aspect of the human organism. Since integration is the prerequisite of ANY stage of development, it cannot be used as definition. The other candidate for a non-spectral color in Wilber's "Spectrum of Consciousness" is the psychic stage, since, as we said above, it refers to a completely separate line of development, not usually present in normal personal and spiritual development. Again, this overview simply suggests the kinds of insights that a comparative study between Wilber and any of the perennialist schools of thought might yield.

But what metaphysical philosophy could possibly accommodate the aforementioned complex and multidimensional view of reality? Since realism more often than not tends to materialism, this philosophy of necessity should be a type of idealism, which honors the dimension of consciousness. But this idealism should not be taken as subjective idealism — meaning that "we" create the world around us — but as an "objective idealism", which holds that reality is created by a Divine Mind, while (paradoxically!) for US the physical world is real enough. Not only that, even "higher realities" could be acknowledged within this idealism, opening up for us a wider view of planes upon planes of consciousness. This "realism within idealism" was taught by the late Dutch theosophist-philosopher J.J. Poortman, whose work shows a remarkable affinity with the Wilber universe. Like Wilber, Poortman was very much opposed to facile equations of mysticism and quantum physics, and very much in favor of a rational approach to the phenomena of physical, paranormal and even meta-physical phenomena. Not surprisingly, he firmly believed in the possibility of a metaphysics, that holds everything under the Sun as knowable, except for one thing, the knowing Self, which can be "known" only in mystical realization.[22] Not suprisingly, Wilber would feel at home in such a universe.[23]


  1. Ken Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness, Quest Books, 1977, p. 11.
  2. "On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality", posted on (originally published as: Vom Wesen einder postmetaphysische Spiritualitat, Transpersonale Psychologie und Psychotherapie, 7 (2), 2001, p. 33-49.
  3. Ken Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness, Quest Books, 1977, p. 27.
  4. Cf. Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Random House, 1998.
  5. Frank Visser, Zeven Sferen: Theosofie als leidraad voor psychologie en levensbeschouwing, Theosophical Publishing House Amsterdam, 1995
  6. "On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality."
  7. Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology, 2000, Shambhala, p. 237.
  8. Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology, 2000, Shambhala, p. 237.
  9. Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology, 2000, Shambhala, p. 237.
  10. Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, 1976, Harper&Row, p. 60.
  11. C.W. Leadbeater, The Astral Plane, Life after Death, The Other Side of Death, and other works.
  12. Ken Wilber, The Atman Project, 1980, Quest Books, p. 66-67.
  13. Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, 1996, Shambhala, p. 202.
  14. Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology, 2000, Shambhala, p. 5
  15. Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology, 2000, Shambhala, p. 236.
  16. Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology, 2000, Shambhala, p. 236.
  17. Ken Wibler, The Atman Project, 1980, Quest Books, p. 160.
  18. Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Random House, 1998, p. 183.
  19. Annie Besant, A Study in Consciousness: A contribution to the Science of Psychology, TPH, 1980 (first edition 1904).
  20. Ken Wilber, "Death, Rebirth and Meditation", in: G. Doore (ed.), What Survives? Contemporary Explorations of Life After Death, Tarcher, 1990, p. 176-191.
  21. Hans ten Dam, Exploring Reincarnation, Arkana, 1990 (originally published in Dutch as Een Ring van Licht, Bres.)
  22. J.J. Poortman (1895-1970) was professor in Leyden in the "Metaphysics in the Spirit of Theosopy". His magnum opus Twofold Subjectivity (1929) only appeared in Dutch, but his 4-volume study "Vehicles of Consciousness" was published in 1978 in English (Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton).
  23. See "On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality", where he writes, confronted with Poortman's philosphy: "Yes, I would generally agree with that view, very much... "quasi-independent realms of reality" must be retained in a postmetaphysical philosophy and spirituality."

Frank Visser is author of "Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion" and webmaster of "The World of Ken Wilber"

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