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

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Steven E. WallisSteve Wallis has a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University. He has ten years of experience as a collaborative organization development consultant in Northern California. His seminal work, "From reductive to robust, finding the core of complex adaptive systems theory" may be found in Chapter One of "Intelligent Complex Adaptive Systems" from IGI Global publishers. His current project is editing an academic book titled, "Cybernetics and Systems Theory in Management: Tools, Views and Advancements" also with IGI Global. Steve can be contacted at:

The Integral Puzzle

Determining the Integrality of Integral theory

Steven E. Wallis

Clearly, we need a new way to understand this process of assembling the puzzle we call “integral theory.”

Forget, for a moment, the classic story of three blind men trying to describe an elephant; we are a community of the blind, attempting to collaboratively assemble a jigsaw puzzle. We can find, feel, and describe the corner pieces fairly easily. We can also count the number of pieces by touch. This gives us some vague idea of the shape and size of our puzzle. Trying to fit the pieces together is much more difficult. Someone picks up a piece and tries to describe it to the others. Is it rounded? Pointed? How many sides does it have? Who has another piece that might fit here?

Simply put, our community of integral theory thinkers does not have the vocabulary to describe the pieces we hold. That lack of vocabulary can lead to misunderstandings – a classic cause of conflict. Clearly, we need a new way to understand this process of assembling the puzzle we call “integral theory.”

By way of a brief self-introduction, I have degrees in sociology, psychology, and human organizational systems. As you may imagine, I have been studying the social sciences for many years. And, during that time, I have been frustrated because I have not found any social theory that can be said to work more effectively than any other theory. That, in turn, suggests that none of the theories are really effective.

This frustration came to a head while I was developing my doctoral dissertation. There, while investigating complexity theory, I concluded that there was no clear path to identify which theory was “best.” Indeed, in the social sciences, there seems to be no clear idea about what “best” is. Today, my academic focus is on the “theory of theory.” That is to say, I investigate how theory is created, structured, tested, and used in practice.

Integral theory may be seen as an emerging area of thought in the social sciences; however, the underlying theory has not been well defined. Further, there seems to be a high level of conflict in the integral community about what integral theory “is” and how it might be advanced. In this essay, I will describe an objective path for advancing integral theory in a purposeful way. Following this path, I hope for a reduction in the amount of conflict between members of the community. I also hope to support the community in efforts to advance integral practice.

As seems to be the custom of this site, I will not burden the reader with excessive citations. For those who are interested in a more academic discussion, I am certainly willing to provide citations upon request. In general, the ideas presented here are derived from well-known philosophers such as Hegel and Nietzsche. I also draw from prominent thinkers in the area of social metatheory including Kuhn, Popper, Dubin, Stinchcombe, Lakatos, Kaplan, Weick, and Van de Ven. Finally, these insights are also derived from my study of cybernetics, systems theory, and complexity theory.

In this essay, I will discuss how understanding the structure of theory suggests an objective path towards improved validity and the efficacy of application. Using the “Twenty Tenets” (from the Integral World web site) as a data source, I will present a brief, preliminary, study of integral theory as a starting point for future studies and conversations. Finally, I will also make recommendations for the advancement of theory toward higher levels of robustness. This essay makes a valuable contribution to the field of integral theory by providing a benchmark against which future progress may be measured.

I hope that the terminology and insights provided in this essay will help to focus the conversation around the nature of integral theory. Rather than contentious argumentation, I hope the conversation will continue as a collaborative effort so that integral theory evolves for the benefit of all human beings.


Generally stated, a theory is a lens that helps us to see the world – to make sense of the observed world around us. A theory may help us to predict the future, make decisions, or highlight what is “unknown” in a situation. From this broad view, theories might also be called “models,” “mental models,” “metaphor,” or “schema.” Even a “narrative” or “story” may seen as similar to theory because each those may be used to shape how we see our reality. We might also say that a theory is what determines a point of view. If you change your theory, you change your point of view – your understanding of the world.

Therefore, the integral perspective might well be called an integral theory because using it shapes how we understand the world around us. And, through that understanding lead us to make different decisions of choices than we might have made if we had (for example) a more mechanistic point of view of the universe.

Theories may be developed from priori conceptualization, or posteriori observation of empirical phenomena. Generally, most academics see theory as advancing through a cyclical process of induction and deduction where theory is created and tested and changed.

Importantly, it should be noted, that there are no “facts” which are independent of theory. Every observation we make includes some assumptions; and, those assumptions are our underlying theory of how the world works.


A central aspect of this essay is ascertaining the legitimacy of a theory through its structure. Sutton & Staw characterize the conversation around theory saying, “Strong theory, in our view, delves into the underlying processes so as to understand the systemic reasons for a particular occurrence of nonoccurrence.” Their version of theory might summed up as possessing,

“a single, or a small set of well-developed, logically linked research ideas that lend themselves readily to empirical testing.”

To use a metaphorical understanding, “Good theory offers a context, a map, and a flashlight that help us find our way home in the dark.” However, in this essay, we are after bigger game than metaphor.

However, the study of theory is a contested realm with an increasing number of studies highlighting the limitations of theory in many branches of the social sciences. Indeed, Metcalf suggests that the word theory is not definable and so should not be used. However, the pervasiveness of the thing called “theory” suggests that it has a place in academia as well as application – and so is a worthwhile topic for study.

Van de Ven notes that one area for determining the validity of a theory is the “internal validity” of a theory, which, “refers to whether their covariation resulted from a causal interrelationship.” To find order in theory, Dubin describes the concept of efficiency where, “By efficiency of a law is meant the range of variables in the values of one unit where they are related by a law to the values of another unit.” Dubin describes four levels of efficiency in theory, with each level reflecting the structure of the theory. A low level of efficiency might be seen in a theory that is a simple list of ideas, concepts, or truth claims. A higher level is “Co-variation” (how several concepts might impel change in one another).

Propositional statements may be understood as essentially describing the laws of interaction between aspects of a theory. For example, if a propositions states that holarchies coevolve, an individual who can identify more holarchies should be able to identify that more evolution is occurring.

While the above metatheorists discuss the benefits of a well-developed structure of theory, my own contribution provides a methodological pathway to advance a theory to those higher levels of internal validity. In the next section, I will describe that process. And, later in this essay, I will apply that process examine (and advance) a sample of integral theory.


Part of the conversation around integral theory is the de-emphasis of the traditional, linear, stable, or atomistic worldview – in favor of a worldview that emphasizes complex, dynamic, and emergent phenomena. This view may be applied to the structure of theory in a way that is conceptually similar to its application to social structures.

Where an organization might be understood as consisting of individuals, a theory might be understood as consisting of concepts, truth claims, or propositions. More in keeping with an integral point of view, an organization might be understood as a phenomenon emerging from the relationships between those individuals. Theory, then, may be understood as emerging from the relationships between those component concepts.

The structure of a theory may then be understood as the relationship between the component propositions. Some propositions might be atomistic; for example, a list of one-word concepts that are included in a theory. Other propositions might be linear. For an abstract example, stating that changes in A result in changes to B. A more complex proposition might claim, in contrast, that changes in A and B result in changes to C. The more complex relationship is considered to be more robust because it is a more effective description of the phenomena – with the potential for greater accuracy and usability.

The differences in these two perspectives (atomistic and robust) seem to coincide with the levels of theory structure (noted above). Propositions that are simpler and more weakly related to one another might be understood as atomistic, while propositions that are more complex (where the proposition describes relationships between two or more other concepts) might be understood as more robust. These are what Van de Ven might call a conditional propositions (if-then statements showing causal relationships).

Concepts that are non-linear may also be understood as “concatenated” in the sense expressed by Van de Ven, where two aspects of a theory are shown to influence the third aspect. For example, we might say that more “creativity” among more “participants” leads to better “applications” of integral theory. This is in contrast to a linear relationship where we might say that more creativity leads to better applications. The more complex propositions seems to offer a effective description of the situation. That, in turn, seems to suggest the opportunity for greater understanding on the part of the reader.

Indeed, the linear relationship must be considered relatively impoverished because if one concept leads directly to another, the two might be considered essentially equivalent. For example, if we were to say that A causes B which causes C, the linear relationship of causality seems to render the B concept extraneous – we might as well say that A causes C. Indeed to say that A causes C is also impoverished because it ignores the vast range of alternative factors that must contribute to any change. With our understanding of the integral nature of the universe, it seems insufficient to suggest that any single effect may be the result of a single cause. And, such an explanation does not add to our deeper understanding of a situation.

While the explanation of a change seems to become more valid with the greater number of causal aspects, it is important to note that a vague description is not useful. For example to say that, “Everything causes something” might be thought of as an aphorism that sounds intriguing, but really tells us nothing.

A theory that is constructed of concatenated aspects is what I describe as “robust” – using the same sense of the word as might be found when describing theories of physics. The robustness of a theory may be objectively determined in a straightforward manner. First, the body of theory is investigated to find the propositions. Those propositions are then compared with one another to identify overlaps, and redundant terms are dropped. Next, the propositions are investigated for conceptual relatedness. Those aspects that are causal in nature are linked with aspects of the theory that are resultant. Each aspect may then be understood as a dimension representing a greater or lesser quantity of some phenomena.

To determine the robustness of a theory, the number of concatenated dimensions is divided by the total number of dimensions to provide a number between zero and one. A value of zero represents a theory with no robustness – as might be found in a bullet point list of concepts. A theory with a value of one suggests a fully robust theory, such as Newton's F=ma.

For an abstract example, lets say we have a theory consisting of the following propositions: A is true; B is true; A causes B; Changes in B cause changes in C; Changes in D and changes in C cause changes in E. There are five aspects (A, B, C, D, and E). Of those five, only E is concatenated (D and C cause E). This gives a ratio of well integrated aspects to poorly integrated aspects of 0.20 (the result of one divided by five).

In my studies, I've found that theories of the social sciences generally fall between 0.1 and 0.6 (with more toward the bottom end, than the top). In contrast, theories of physics (such as developed by Newton) tend to have a robustness of 1.0. While further study is needed, it may be suggested that theories of low robustness (as in the social sciences) have proved less useful than highly robust theories (as in physics).

If the robustness of the theory is an important indicator of the usefulness of the theory (which seems to be the case when we look at the difference in usefulness between theories of high and low robustness), it may be suggested that a highly robust theory of the social sciences will be usefully and reliably applied in practice. This, in turn, suggests the importance of investigating social theories such as integral theory to identify their current level of robustness, and suggest paths for advancing the robustness so that those theories may be more usefully applied to the betterment of our global social system.


In an effort to provide a more concrete example of the methodology described above, and to provide more relevance for the readership, I will conduct an analysis of integral theory. For this analysis I will draw on “The Twenty Tenets” found at: which seem to provide a useful set of propositions for this form of research.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive study of the entire range of integral theory – such an analysis is beyond the scope of this essay. This is only meant to be an example – a starting point for future studies and future conversations around advancing integral theory. As these tenets appear to be drawn from Wilber's “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality” this analysis may be considered an analysis of integral theory as it relates to sex, ecology, and spirituality. Similarly, as this book was published in 1995, this analysis may be considered a “snapshot” of integral theory from that time. Future studies might address the robustness of integral theory from different years, and/or as integral theory is applied to different topics (for example, human development compared with ecological development).

In this analysis, no alteration of meaning is intended. However, as we look at the relationship of each aspect to other aspects, some new insights may present themselves. These may be challenging, but that is part of what philosophy is about! Also, I will maintain the integrity of the propositions by respecting the author's choice of words and not attempting to infer any other meaning than may be found within the tenets, themselves. They are:

  • (1) Reality as a whole is not composed of things, or processes, but of holons.
  • Holons display four fundamental capacities:
    • (2a) self-preservation,
    • (2b) self-adaptation,
    • (2c) self-transcendence.
    • (2d) self-dissolution.
  • (3) Holons emerge.
  • (4) Holons emerge holarchically.
  • (5) Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessor.
  • (6) The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower.
  • (7) "The number of levels which a hierarchy comprises determines whether it is 'shallow' or 'deep'; and the number of holons on any given level we shall call its 'span'" (A. Koestler).
  • (8) Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span.
  • (9) Destroy any type of holon, and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it.
  • (10) Holarchies coevolve.
  • (11) The micro is in relational exchange with the macro at all levels of its depth.
  • Evolution has directionality:
    • (12a) Increasing complexity.
    • (12b) Increasing differentiation/integration.
    • (12c) Increasing organisation/structuration.
    • (12d) Increasing relative autonomy.
    • (12e) Increasing telos.

Focusing briefly on the component concepts, or aspects, the field of integral theory may be understood as consisting of: Reality as a whole, self-preservation, self-adaptation, self-transcendence, self-dissolution, holarchicallity, emergence, transcendence, predecessor, possibilities, higher, probabilities, lower, depth, span, holons, holarchies, coevolution, micro, relational exchange, macro, levels of depth, evolution, directionality, complexity, differentiation/integration, organisation/structuration, relative autonomy, and telos. This provides us with a useful starting point for the analysis. Here, we have a list of 29 conceptual aspects.

The first tenet suggests that more holons would create more reality. This is a linear proposition, and so does not reflect a useful statement for this form of analysis.

Indeed, many tenets are linear statements, suggesting a simple relationship between two aspects. For example, “Holons emerge” (3) seems to suggest a linear relationship between holons and emergence. As noted above, linear propositions are not very useful for making sense, structuring a theory, or validating a theory. In a sense, the linear relationship suggests that emergence is a renaming of holons.

In contrast, the second tenet may be seen as describing a concatenated proposition relating to the understanding of holons.

In this, each “fundamental capacity” seems to support the existence (or, perhaps more importantly, our understanding) of a holon. That is to say if something exhibits the tenets noted in 2a, b, c, and d, we may feel safe in describing that thing as a holon. Therefore, it may be said that more self-preservation, more self-adaptation, more self-transcendence, and more self-dissolution results in more holons (or, alternatively, suggest that the one holon is exhibiting more characteristics of a holon). So, four aspects join to describe or define a fifth; and, we may understand holon as a concatenated aspect of integral theory.

Other tenets describe aspects that may be said to be the result of the holon. For example, in tenet five we might expect more holons to result in more transcendence and inclusion of its predecessors. It seems in tenet twelve that more evolution will result in more complexity, more differentiation/integration, more organisation/structuration, more relative autonomy, and more telos. Instead of concatenation, however, this might be called “decatenation” and does not necessarily add to our understanding of evolution (although this could be argued) because changes in one poorly defined aspect results in changes to multiple other poorly defined aspects.

Combining linear propositions may suggest the creation of propositions that are concatenated. For example, more holons results in more span (7), while more evolution suggests less span (8). Therefore, increased span may be understood as a concatenated aspect emerging from more holons and less evolution.

The holon aspect is clearly concatenated, and the span aspect may also be understood as concatenated. If we adopt a generous stance, we may also accept the aspect of evolution as being somehow concatenated. Therefore we can suggest that this version of integral theory consists of 29 aspects, three of which are concatenated. We may conclude that this version of integral theory has a robustness of 0.10 (the result of three divided by 29).

While this analysis represents only my interpretation of a small data set, it is expected that an analyst with a modicum of training will achieve similar results. Therefore, this may be understood as an objective measure of the robustness of this form of integral theory.

The low level of robustness suggests two things. First, that this theory cannot be effectively applied (or tested, or validated, or falsified). Second, this version of integral theory might be easily changed. That is to say that the more concepts might be added to the theory. These additions may serve to deflect criticism, but they do not necessarily add to an objective improvement of the theory. Nor do they improve the usefulness of the theory in practice.


The potential value of a viable integral theory is so significant to our social well being that it seems useful to include a discussion on pathways to improve the theory.

To improve the robustness of integral theory, the number of aspects might be reduced. For example, shallowness and depth (tenet 7) might be dropped, thus reducing the total number of aspects in the theory and increasing the robustness. Another, similar, way to improve robustness is to combine existing aspects. For example, more holons seem to create more reality (1), yet more holons create more span (7). This may suggest that reality and span are the “same thing.” However, I would not venture to make such a claim because neither version reflects a concatenated proposition.

Another (perhaps the most useful) way to improve the robustness of the model is to identify how each existing aspect may be understood as causal to other aspects. For example, if evolution were to be understood as the result of holons emerging and holarchies destroying holons, then evolution would become concatenated and the robustness of the model would again be increased.

It may be argued that my analysis does not reflect a complete understanding of integral theory. With the perspective presented in this essay, however, that understanding may itself be understood as a chain of linear relationships and atomistic claims. Instead of following that false path of argumentation, this method restricts itself to analyzing the relationships between the concepts within the body of theory. Indeed, if additional argument and explanations are presented, those arguments are likely to reduce the integrality of the theory by adding more concepts that are not concatenated.

Some writers have expressed the potential benefits for integral theory to expand into the academic world, and into practical application. This essay suggests that developing a robust version of integral theory offers the best way for the expansion of the integral perspective.

For an example from physics, the theory known as Ohm's law is completely robust at the 1.0 level. There are three aspects and each one is concatenated (from the other two). The validity of the formula is not in dispute – it has been applied effectively around the world for two hundred years, resulting in revolutions of power distribution, communication, computation, and more. If one little robust theory of physics is capable of enabling such development, imagine the enabling power of a robust version of integral theory.

It should be noted that there are benefits to a robust theory that extend beyond this academic exercise. From a practitioner's perspective, a robust model may be used to suggest areas for exploration based on the preferences of the practitioner.

For example, imagine a therapist is working with a client who is proficient at self-preservation; yet find difficulty in the act of self-adaptation. According to the 20 tenets noted above, there is no clear path for supporting the client. With a robust theory, the path would be clear – to the client and therapist, both.


The challenge of defining and improving theory is not unique to the integral community. This is a thorny issue across the spectrum of the social sciences. There, it has been said that 90% of the theory rises rapidly, only to vanish again, just as quickly. If integral theory is to escape this fate, a new approach is required. We blind puzzle-assemblers need a new process and vocabulary to help one another in assembling the pieces to find the big picture. That way, we may understand the larger picture, instead of fighting with one another.

That conflict might be understood through insights from Lakatos - who suggested that a theory might be understood as having a solid core of unchanging concepts and an outer belt of more flexible concepts. During an academic debate, one individual may challenge the theory. In response, another individual may add a new concept to the outer belt – in order to protect the theory. Over time, the number of concepts in the outer belt becomes so large, that it becomes difficult to perceive the core of the theory. In short, we are adding more pieces to the puzzle, but we are not getting any better at putting them together.

In this essay, I have briefly and generally explained the nature of theory, specifically how the structure of theory may suggest a path toward improving theory in an objective way. Significantly, I have explained how a body of theory might be tested for its internal integrity, or robustness, and how a theory of greater robustness may be expected to be more effective in the lived world. In this preliminary study, the integrality of integral theory appears to be 0.10 on a scale of zero to one. There are, however, many opportunities for advancing the integrity of integral theory – thus opening the door for positive and constructive conversations among members of the integral community.

Today's world of interplanetary space flight, electric power, television, computers, cell phones, food production, health care (and more), would be inconceivable to a person living in 1808. Those advances were only possible with robust theories of physics. In the past 200 years, however, our advances in the social sciences have been minimal.

If 200 years of robust theories can shift our technology from using megaphones to using cell phones; from flying kites to flying rockets to Mars, imagine what 200 years of robust social theories might do for our ability to support the development of individuals and communities.

This essay suggests that the most effective path for advancing integral theory is in the development of a more robust version of the theory. One where the interrelationship between aspects such as holons, evolution, and emergence are well understood in terms of how well integrated they are with one another.

If you are interested in collaborating on a more comprehensive study of integral theory, please let me know. Some directions of study may include:

  • A good start would be to identify schools of thought within the general body of integral theory.
  • Next, we might analyze each school of thought for its level of integrality.
  • Of course, such studies would support conversations on increasing the integrality of the theory.
  • More insights might be gained from a study of the “dynamic robustness” of integral theory. Essentially asking how much has the integrality of integral theory changed over the years? And as integral theory has changed, has it been advancing toward greater robustness, or wandering in the wilderness?
  • Finally, we might ask how we might increase the effectiveness of integral theory in application. For example, by applying the test of integrality to other theories in the social sciences.

I believe that the process of creating robust theories will lead us to radical new understandings about ourselves. Rather than agreeing to argue against one another, I believe that we should collaborate against a common foe – our ignorance. In learning a new vocabulary for assembling the pieces of the puzzle we will, collectively, learn how to see.

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