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Ken Wilber

by Christopher Chantrill
October 1, 2006

Ken Wilber is an army brat who dropped out of graduate school in the 1970s to study the spiritual tradition of the East. Besotted by Hinduism and Buddhism like many of his generation, he wanted to reconcile them with western modernism by grafting them onto western psychology. His first effort was The Spectrum of Consciousness, published in 1978. Since then he has refined and developed the grafted sapling of 1978 into a mature tree that joins eastern and western concepts in a single hierarchy of human consciousness. His latest product is Integral Spirituality which attempts to answer the qestion

[H]ow can we validate the existence of spiritual realities—specifically, the higher levels of mystical experience claimed by the world\'s wisdom traditions—in the face of modern and postmodern attacks that deny those realities as unscientific or reduce them to social constructions?

Today Ken Wilber is a celebrated thinker and writer with an Integral Institute and disciples in every major city. But the journey has not been easy. In 1983, with six books under his belt, he married Treya Killam, who was immediately diagnosed with breast cancer. After her death in 1988, it was several years before he could complete his next big book, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality in 1995.

In the course of his heroic quest to make the world anew, of course, Wilber discovered that he reinvented the Great Chain of Being that thinkers of both east and west have used for centuries to symbolize the cosmic range of human consciousness. He acknowledges influences from the mystic Plotinus, the modern Hindu Aurobindo, and the little-known European psychologist Jean Gebser.

Wilber wanted to reconcile modern rationalist/materialist knowledge with the possibility of a spiritual life. That led him in due course into a collision with a modernist and postmodernist left that denies the possibility of transcendence. Their ideas have confined us all, Wilber decided, in a materialist “flatland” that collapses the universe to the material. Yet we cannot explain the world and our place in it without using the concept of “consciousness” or “mind,” the dualism of body and mind. But Wilber does not stop at a Cartesian mind-body explanation; he has developed a Four Quadrant view of reality explained in detail here. The Cartesian mind-body opposition differentiates into four different Kantian appearances of the thing-in-itself: the “It” view of the material world and material systems, and “I” view of mind, and the “We” view of shared consciousness in human culture.

But the reality we experience is not just a plenum of mind, material, collective mind, and material system; it is also hierarchical. Modern science has taught us to believe that the material is hierarchical, from quarks to hadrons to atoms to molecules to cells to organisms to animals to mammals to humans. So also does modern psychology teach us to experience the mind. And to explain the hierarchy of consciousness Wilber took up the hierarchical system developed by Graves and published by Beck and Cowan in Spiral Dynamics that proposed at least eight levels (or spirals) in the hierarchy of consciousness.

Links and Resources

Ken Wilber has developed a synthesis of eastern and western pyschology into an integrated worldview that extends from psychology to culture, politics, and epistemology. A good place to start is with A Brief History of Everything. Click here and here for a discussion of the core concepts of his thought. Supplied with money from the Nineties tech boom, Wilber now has his own think tank, the Integral Institute. It sponsors conferences and scholarship and now Integral University. You can find a lot of information at his publisher, Shambhala, including excerpts from his next book. Wilber´s thought has gone through several phases and modifications since his first book, Spectrum of Consciousness. You can find explanations of his development here. Also useful is this piece on integral consciousness. Wilber´s “integral psychology” has been drawn from a number of developmental psychologists. But the most important is the work of Clare Graves that has been popularized by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan in Spiral Dynamics. Here are some Spiral Dynamics links: Beck´s own site here, Cowan´s own site here, an explanation of Spiral Dynamics here and here, and a site devoted to Clare Graves here.

Ken Wilber and the Road to the Middle Class

A truly integral psychology would embrace the enduring insights of premodern, modern, and postmodern sources. 

Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology

Ken Wilber is an RMC Chappie because he has built a system that explains why the welfare state failed and why the Road to the Middle Class is still full of Christian pilgrims. His system answers the great problems nagging at the modern project:

  • Why are there people who still believe in a personal God and Jesus Christ when philosophers and German philologists showed two hundred years ago that Christianity was a myth like every other myth?
  • Why has socialism been such a disaster, spawning Stalins, Maos and Castros every time it is tried?
  • Why is there a culture war between people who believe in creative experimentation and people who believe in absolute morality?
Sensible answers to these questions drop out of Wilber’s system with ease and elegance.

First Steps:  But Wilber did not construct his system to pull chestnuts out of the fire for conservatives. He started out as a dropout from graduate school studying Buddhism and trying to butt-weld Buddhist consciousness onto western developmental psychology. The result was his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, published in 1978 by the Theosophists. He was 27. He married in 1983, but his wife was immediately diagnosed with breast cancer. Five harrowing years later, she was dead. Wilber did not publish for ten years.

Magnum Opus:  Every quest requires an “inner journey” into the underworld of the unconscious, and Wilber’s harrowing years of Grace and Grit nursing his wife certainly qualified as that. His soujourn in the underworld spawned in 1995 a major deepening and broadening of his worldview in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. The simple linear spectrum of consciousness now became Four Quadrants, dividing the world into four hierarchical realms based on Koestler’s holons, wholes that are also parts, just as electrons are parts of atoms, and atoms parts of molecules.

Four Quadrants:  Wilber needed a view of reality that could acknowledge the success of the desacralized world of western science while insisting on the reality of the higher consciousness experienced by the mystics of east and west. Here is an explanation of the Four Quadrants with a diagram.

The Four Quadrants divides the world into interior and exterior along the division between “mind” and “brain”, and again between individual and system. Thus in the interior realm there is individual consciousness and also the group consciousness we call culture. In the exterior realm is matter and also living things organized into systems. Within each quadrant the world is organized hierarchically with “holons” each of which “transcends and includes” the holon immediately below. Thus, in the material quadrant, nucleons are composed of quarks, atoms oare composed of nucleons and electrons, molecules are composed of atoms, and living cells composed of molecules.

Integral Consciousness:  Wilber experiences his work as integral, comprehending the four quadrants of experience and also integrating the several models of human consciousness. Here he is in a 1997 paper entitled An Integral Theory of Consciousness claiming that: “an ‘all-quadrant, all-level’ approach is the minimum degree of sophistication that we need into order to secure anything resembling a genuinely integral theory of consciousness.”

Spiral Dynamics:  After publishing Sex, Ecology, Spirituality Wilber came into contact with Don Beck, click here, a student and colleague of Clare Graves, a developmental psychologist who had developed in the 1950s and 1960s a combined “bio- psycho- socio- ” hierarchy of consciousness that improved upon the hierarchical model of consciousness that Wilber had developed for his own system. A good summary of “Spiral Dynamics” can be found here and here.

Popular Titles:  To publicize his work Wilber wrote several several books targeted at a general audience, starting with A Brief History of Everything through A Theory of Everything. You can find all these books on Amazon.

Think Tank:  Wilber’s work has not gone unsupported. In the late 1990s he was offered money by a wealthy entrepreneur and was able to found his own think tank, Integral Institute, to bring scholars together to do research and to extend and publicize his work.

Wilber has not been ashamed to modify and improve his thought as he has studied and learned. He has categorized his journey as “Wilber-1,” “Wilber-2,” “Wilber-3,” “Wilber-4,” and “Wilber-5.” A good summary can be found here.

Road to the Middle Class Angle:  The power of Wilber’s system for the Road to the Middle Class project is its ability to solve many of the paradoxes of modernity, by viewing social reality through the lens of Spiral Dynamics. If peasants arriving in the city and working in sweatshops are mainly impulsive reds, then it is not surprising that many of them find the road to the middle class through an enthusiastic Christianity that teaches them the purpose and discipline needed to thrive in the city and forgives them for ruthlessly giving up their old peasant ways. It becomes entirely predictable that Christianity would be thriving in urbanizing South America and China. It also makes sense that the lefty dream of a world without oppression and violence is a chimera, because if we “transcend and include” old ways, rather than replace them, as we evolve, then we never completely outgrow the aggressiveness of the hunter or the martial ardor of the medieval baron defending his land from the invader.

Rips into the Left:  It is entirely predictable also that caring communitarian greens should believe that the world should “move on” beyond war and violence. But here is the kicker. What would happen when you try, as the socialist do, to remove the blue bourgeois ethos of discipline and rules and replace it with a liberated world where workers peacefully meet after work in “genuine democracy” to plan production for use not for profit? Wilber’s system is unequivocal. When you cut out a stage in the hierarchy, you revert to the level immediately below the level you cut out. Socialism regresses to the impulsive red consciousness of pure power.


Buy the ebook: Road to the Middle Class: only $0.99.

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Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.

Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050

Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust

What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican

Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State

Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self

US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

Society and State

For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
David Cameron, Conference Speech 2008

Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006

Never Trust Experts

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Lord Salisbury, “Letter to Lord Lytton”


©2007 Christopher Chantrill