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

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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.


Reflections on
“What is Integral?”

Frank Visser

The Integral Naked website features a summary paper called “Introduction to Integral Theory and Practice: IOS Basic and the AQAL Map”, which is popularly known as the “What is Integral?” paper, after the name of the hyperlink that leads to it.[1] It discusses the basic tenets of what has come to be known as Wilber-4: quadrants, levels, lines, states and types. The integral model offers the most comprehensive map of human experience and development, culled from the collective wisdom and knowledge of East and West. Using a metaphor from computer science, the Integral Map or Integral Operating System (IOS) can be used to ensure that our activities in politics, management, health and spirituality take into account the many dimensions of human existence, and will consequently be more effective and successful.

The term “integral” has really caught on, since Wilber starting using it around 1997: The Eye of Spirit was subtitled “An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad” and it's preface by Jack Crittenden was called “What is Integral?”. The term is synonymous with “integrative, inclusive, comprehensive, balanced”, explicitly meant to include the worlds of science and spirituality, leading to what Wilber phrased as a “spiritualism liberalism” or “spiritual humanism”. In practice, it has been used to provide integrative models both within and between the different fields of science.

In this paper I would like to offer a running commentary on this seminal Wilber-4 document from a perennialist perspective, and mostly related to Wilber's view on states of consciousness. It is the part of his system that links him to the perennial philosophy, as reconstructed by Wilber's “post-metaphysical” approach. In an unpublished paper (Sidebar I), he even states that

“when we at IC [Integral Center] refer to the “perennial philosophy” and its “universal” belief in body, mind, soul and spirit, we do not mean pregiven levels but simply the three (or four) natural states of waking, dreaming, sleeping and nondual — which are indeed universal, and which give every human being native access to gross, subtle, causal and nondual realms: not above but within, and not as fixed levels and stages, but as spaces of possible experience already disclosed in states such as waking, dreaming, sleeping.”[2]

The idea is basically that in our waking consciousness we see the body-world, in dreams we experience the mind-world, in dreamless sleep we touch on the soul-“world” and in the nondual state Spirit is disclosed in everything. “World” is here meant by Wilber in a phenomenological, metaforical way, not in any ontological, literal sense.

As I have pointed out before, the change of metaphor Wilber is suggesting us to make when trying to understand the inner dimension — “not above but within” — gives a psychological and modern flavor to the otherwise metaphysical notions of mind, soul and spirit, which makes them more acceptable to the tastes of modernity and postmodernity, but obscures the fact that the mystery of interiority or conscious experience is not solved.[3] The “inner” world is certainly not something that can be found “inside” our skull, as any brain surgeon can testify, and points to a transcendent dimension, at right angles to the world of flatland science. Our inner world IS the higher world, according to perennialism, or at least our nearest entrance to it. Even a psychologized perennialism has to come to terms with this mystery in a philosophical or metaphysical way. What is this inner dimension? Does it point to something the ancients felt as a higher or deeper reality? Even if psychology can do its work without these metaphysical questions, philosophy can't, especially not when it calls itself integral or “Kosmic”.

In Sidebar I Wilber continued:

“Since human beings everywhere wake, dream and sleep, we sometimes say that human beings everywhere have access to the perennial philosophy and its belief in gross body, subtle mind, causal soul and nondual spirit — but only in that extremely restricted sense of access to the natural states of waking, dreaming, sleeping and the nondual (a severe restriction which is actually not part of any perennial philosophy anywhere).”[4]

Indeed, this “light” version of the Perennial Philosophy can be called an immanent, psychologized view of perennialism, which sees everything spoken about in the perennial traditions through a psychological lens. It restricts itself to what can be experienced here and now, in this world, by living human beings, hence its immanence — it does not enter into transcendent realities such as the mind world or soul world — which are very much part of perennialism. It even ridicules the idea of higher beings living in higher worlds[5].

After discussing levels, lines and types, which are less problematic for modern people, Wilber again returns to the subject of states, bringing up the idea that “every mind has its body”:

“For every state of consciousness, there is a felt energetic component, an embodied feeling, a concrete vehicle which provides the actual support for any state of awareness.”[6]

To make the idea of subtle bodies acceptable to modern tastes, he adds:

“For the wisdom traditions, a “body” simply means a mode of experience or energetic feeling. So there is coarse or gross experience, subtle or refined experience, and very subtle or causal experience. These are what philosophers would call “phenomenological realities,” or realities as they present themselves to our immediate awareness.”[7]

Again, this is quite a psychologistic interpretation of perennialist thought. Subtle bodies are actually seen by tradition as “vehicles of consciousness” that enable us to express our consciousness in the higher worlds, as our physical bodies do in the physical world. What is more, clairvoyant or psychic research has disclosed the objective nature of these bodies, as they can be described as having properties such as form and color.[8] Typically, a clairvoyant can not see his or her own subtle bodies — they only see the subtle bodies of other people as their aura. These experiences are therefore not “phenomenological”, as our thoughts or dreams are. Dreaming that we have a subtle body is not the same as actually having one.

A felt body is not an observed body; they belong to two different quandrant althogether.

Turning to the subject of the quadrants themselves, Wilber introduces this theme by pointing out the universality of first person (I, me, mine, we, us, ours), second person (you and yours) and third person (he, him, she, her, they, them, it and its) experiences. In shorthand he often summarizes these as: I, we and it. By dividing the it-dimension into singular and plural the four quadrants arise.

I have found an earlier version of this idea of four quadrants in Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed, (a book recommended by Wilber on many occasions as “ the best short introduction” to the Great Nest of Being[9]), where he talks of “The Four Fields of Knowledge” (about half of this little book is devoted to this topic, Schumacher devotes a complete chapter to each one of them). He reasons as follows:

  1. What do I feel like?
  2. What do you feel like?
  3. What do I look like?
  4. What do you look like?

This comes very close to the four quadrants as proposed by Wilber:

  1. Upper Left
  2. Lower Left
  3. Upper Right
  4. Lower Right

Note that there's a subtle difference as to #3: For Schumacher it means your own outer individual aspect; for Wilber it is somebody or something else's (he, she, it) outer aspect.

Schumacher observes very homely:

“The first point to make about these Four Fields of Knowledge is that we have direct access to only two of them -- Field 1 and Field 4. That is to say, I can directly feel what I feel like, and I can directly see what you look like, but what it feels like to be you, I cannot directly know; and what I look like in your eyes, I don't know either.”[10]

I personally found Schumacher's derivation of the four quadrants from every experience more graphic then Wilber's. He certainly deserves credit for pointing out these four dimensions of existence (Schumacher's book came out in 1977, the same year as Wilber's Spectrum of Consciousness, but way before Sex, Ecology, Spirituality was published in 1995).

Wilber tries to make the perennialist idea of subtle bodies acceptable to moderns by pointing out that these are to be understood as “phenomenological realities”, as mentioned before. Linking this idea to the four quadrants, he locates these felt bodies/energies strangely enough in the Upper Right quadrant:

“In the Upper Right, bodily energy phenomenologically expands from gross to subtle to causal.”[11]

But surely, phenomenological realities belong to the Upper Left quadrant, for they are felt realities, “subtle… and very subtle experiences”. To the Upper Right quadrant belong the subtle bodies as observed by others from without.

Focusing more on this Upper Right quadrant, it seems that this is in need of further clarification. Normally Wilber locates brain and neurology in this quadrant — the it-dimension — although he sometimes widens this to include behavior. On rare occasions, he adds subtle energy to this quadrant[12], and in the current paper we have “felt energies”. Surely this is quite a lot to ask of a single quadrant!

It all depends on how we define this Upper Right quadrant, though. If it is occupied by what we can see of other people with our physical senses, it should be filled with matter alone (c.q. brain processes). But if we define it by what we can observe of what other people are doing, it should include behavior — which is certainly not a one-dimensional flatland affair, as Mark Edwards has argued several times[13]. Going further, if we widen our scope to what psychics can see of other people (c.q. their subtle bodies or aura), then it appropriately includes these subtle bodies. But it does not seem to be well suited to support “phenomenological realities”.

Huston Smith described the essential difference between tradition and modernity as ontological[14] The traditional hierarchy of existence included levels of self and world, knowing and being, which preserved a symmetry from the lowest to the highest level. I.e. not only did we human beings possess a mind, but this mind belonged (and actually existed in) a mind-world. Wilber has taken the idea of levels of self (but reinterpreted them as levels of complexity), and rejected the idea of levels of reality, ontologically understood, in his current “post-metaphysical” phase (Wilber-5). While psychology itself has been post-metaphysical every since it left philosophy behind, integral philosophy, which claims to be a philosophy of the Kosmos, cannot afford to avoid these basic ontological issues. As such, these don't feature in the 5 elements listed in the Wilber-4 catalogue: states, levels, lines, types and quadrants.


[1] (members only)

[2] Sidebar I: Kosmic Karma: The Inheritence of the Past, p. 40 of manuscript.

[3] Frank Visser, Reflections on “Subtle Energy”, under “A Mere Change of Metaphor”.

[4] Sidebar I: Kosmic Karma: The Inheritence of the Past, p. 40 of manuscript.

[5] Wilber tends to use expressions such as “vapor worlds” when referring to the more transcendent aspects of perennialism, but in my opinion, a truly Kosmic view of reality cannot avoid to contemplate these higher realities.

[6] What is Integral?, p. 20.

[7] What is Integral?, p. 20.

[8] C.W. Leadbeater, Man: Visible and Invisible, 1902.

[9] Integral Psychology, p. 5.

[10] E.F. Schumacher, A Guide to the Perplexed, p. 63

[11] What is Integral?, p. 29.

[12] Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies, Excerpt G.

[13] Mark Edwards, The Depth of the Exteriors, part I, II, III.

[14] Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, p. 3.

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