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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of 100+ essays on this website.


Some Notes on

Frank Visser

In his recent online and offline writings, Wilber has shifted his attention from the four quadrants to the three personal pronouns common to most languages: I, You and He/She. He has often stated that the pronouns can be derived from the quadrants (or actually the three segments I, We and It that summarize the four quandrants). For example, in a Beliefnet column he wrote:

Here's a simple example. Notice that all the world's mature languages contain first-, second-, and third-person pronouns. First person means the person who is speaking (I, me, we); second person means the person spoken to (you, thou); and third person means the person or thing being spoken about (him, her, it). So if you are talking to me about your new car, you are the first person, I am the second person, and the car is the third person.

These pronouns actually represent three perspectives that human beings can take when they talk about the world or attempt to know the world. For example, I have my first-person impressions of my new car ("I like it!"). I can ask you, a second person, what you think about it ("I like it, too!"). You and I are now a "we" (a first-person plural) and we both agree, the car ("it") is great!

Although there are obviously countless combinations here, it's sometimes useful to summarize these three major perspectives as I/me, you/we, and he/her/it-or simply "I," "we," and "it." So what? Well, the fact that every major language contains these three types of pronouns means that we have a set of "meta-universals" here, or something that we find in all major cultures.

However, many critics have pointed out that the sequence I, We, It(s) doesn't quite match the sequence I, You, He/She at all:

  • First, the You dimension doesn't really fit the We category. We, as first person plural, is not the same as the second person (singular or plural), however much Wilber argues that you need the We of mutual understanding to have interpersonal contact between I and You going in the first place.
  • And second, the third category It(s) problematically reduces the third person category He/She to objects, a fact which has been pointed out by critics as well (cf. Mark Edwards' series on the Depth of the Exteriors on this website).

This essay freely explores some assumptions behind the four quadrant model and the three personal pronouns common to language, that might shape our perception and condition our actions.

Here, Near and Far

The two models have one thing in common: they both stress the difference between the singular and the plural, there is not much disagreement here. In the four quadrant model, the upper quadrants represent the singular (I and It), and the lower quadrants represent the plural (We and Its). In the personal pronoun scheme: the upper row (I, You, He/She) represents the singular, and the lower row (We, You, They) represent the plural.



I, It

I, You, He/She


We, Its

We, You, They

The major differences exist, as noted above, in the other dimension, which complements the singular/plural dimension. In the four quadrant model, the left and right hand sections are defined as the inner versus the outer dimensions of a certain "occasion" (let's take the human organism as example for the sake of simplicity). Therefore, the Upper Left quadrant is filled with thoughts, feelings, stages and states, whereas the Upper Right quadrant is the field of brain processes and observable behavior.






In contrast, in the personal pronouns scheme, a different metaphor is used, that of psychological distance. To use three keywords, we can define them as: Here, Near and Far (my terms). The I is the person we are ourselves, Here. The You is a person close to us, we can speak to him/her (or more to the point: he/she can hear us). The He/She is a person that lives at a distance. We don't speak to him/her (c.q. he/she can't hear us anymore). So the criterion that distinguishes the second from the third person is wether the person is within the reach of the spoken word:



You He/She


You They

An interesting difference between the four quandrant model and the personal pronouns model is that the former seems to stress the group mentality (it is Us—I and We—against the rest of the world of Its). The latter acknowledges the personhood of all of the parties involved. And all three have an outer and inner dimension. Even if I speak to You but not to Him or Her, we are all persons.

So "I" stands for my own being, both internal (my mind) and external (my body), "You" for persons I can communicate with (who have an internal mind and an external bodies as well), and "He/She" stands for persons I don't communicate with, but who definitely have their own internal mind and external bodies as well.[1]

Personalistic Philosophy

Henri van Praag

I encountered similar thoughts in the Dutch book Denken als Spel ("Thought as Play") written in the seventies by the Dutch homo universalis Henri van Praag (1916-1988), a prolific writer on subjects of psychology, education and philosophy, both East and West, and among other things co-founder of the Anne Frank Foundation.

Van Praag was especially well versed in the early, German, psychological literature. He wrote a ten-volume series on parapsychology, and a four volume series on futurism, of which this book is part III. He was both a mystic and a personalist.

Personalism was founded by the Jewish philosopher and psychologist William Stern (1871-1938). Stern was a the inventor of the IQ concept (later used by Binet). Being a Jew, he fled to the US in 1933 and taught at Duke University until his death.

Van Praag could quote with the greatest ease from De Saussure, the Upanishads and Chomsky in a single paragraph, though his writings were sketchy and written in a hurried and repetitive style—resembling Wilber in many respects, he even created his own university! (in Luxembourg, an International, one would say now, Integral, Academy), and had his own version of integral “mathematics” (i.e. Wilber's theory of perspectives) when he comments on the following joke:

Once a missionary held a sermon in the indigenous language of a group of Indians and confessed: "We all have sinned". After the sermon his listeners said: "That was really honest of you, to confess in public that you and your friends have sinned, but what does that got to do with us?"

The missionary had used the wrong indigenous word for "we"—me and my friends—instead of the intended meaning: I, my friends and you listeners.

Upon which Van Praag comments: A computer translation program would have to decode the "we" as: first person singular + (second person plural + third person plural). Van Praag elaborates much on the complexities of the concept of We. In his opinion, it is a container concept which covers many different meanings, such as "I and You", "I and You All", "I and We", "I and We and You", "I and him", etc. However, We can never replace or contain the second person You, as Wilber suggests.[2]

He was especially interested in these intricacies of language to understand how we can program automated translation software. He did not see this as a feasible project as long as we did not instruct the computer first about these grammatical subtleties.

Language Universals

In Thought as Play Van Praag explores the universal dimensions of symbolism, logic, mathematics, thought and language, througout culture and history. He starts by noting that, to have a good debate, we need to agree on a lot of things first: the terms we use, the logic we use and the facts we acknowledge to exist.

He tells us that language philosophers distinguish between the different worlds we live in in different ways. According to Plato, we live in the real world and the world of Ideas. According to Kant, we live in the world of facts, norms and expectations. According to William Stern, language has developed as articulation of Urraum (Primordial Space), Nahraum (Near Space) and Fernraum (Far Space). Another German psychologist, Karl Bühler mentioned three fundamental functions of language: expression, address and discussion, or respectively the speaker, the one spoken to, and that which is spoken of.

Language reflects these different spaces, as the Spanish language clearly shows in the words este (this), ese (that) and aquel (that over there). Or in the French: cette chaise-ci and cette chaise-là (this chair over here and this chair over there).

According to Van Praag, the same threefold classification can even be used to group the different clauses used in the various languages:






To conclude, some language distinguish between male and female words. Van Praag argues that male words belong to the Here category ("the one who speaks"), female words to the Near category ("the one spoken to"), and neutral words to the Far category ("what is spoken of"). When a (male or female) person is dead, he is considered to have become Neutral—an It.



Female Neutral

So "distance"—physical or psychological—is the important variable here, from zero (I) to within reach (you) to out of reach (he/she).


As the final thought of this year, looking back on the tumultous year of 2006, one wonders how much of Wilber's behaviour towards his critics has been shaped by the four quadrant model (as summarized by I, We and It)—so everything not included in the I and the We can be looked at with contempt[3]—where a more personalistic approach would have taught us that, first and foremost, we're all persons, entitled to respect, even if we refuse to speak to eachother—with widely different opinions, for sure, but in the end connected in our search for truth.


[1] See also: Mark Edwards, "Another Way of Putting It: My particular take on the four quadrants, holons and suchlike",

[2] In Integral Spirituality Wilber states:

“We” is technically first-person plural, but if you and I are communicating, then your second person and my first person are part of this extraordinary “we.” Thus second person is sometimes indicated as “you/we,” or “thou/we,” or sometimes just “we.” (p. 19)

Remember that a “we” in general is formed when a first person singular (“I”) is converted to a first person plural (“we”) by the inclusion of a second person (“you”). That is, I + you = we. (This is why AQAL often lists second person as “you/we.”) (p. 156)

The above personalistic analysis shows the superficiality of Wilber's treatment of the You dimension. Incidentally, one also wonders what else are these musings on personal pronouns other then "technical"?

[3] Rumour has it that the first acronym chosen for the AQAL model was FQAL ("Four Quadrants, All Levels"), which could be pronounced as: Fuck You All... It was never used, but it conveys the spirit of Wilber's attitude towards his critics quite well, unfortunately.

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