Ken Wilber inspired musings

Dan Danforth’s comments have got me thinking about Ken Wilber’s “all level, all quadrant” view of human consciousness and behaviour. And although I don’t agree with Ken Wilbur on everything, and would assert that his “four quadrants” doesn’t mesh with Plato’s “the good, the beautiful and the true” nearly as cleanly as he suggests, nevertheless I find Wilber’s thoughts on this stimulating.

So, while some of this is in my head I thought I’d write it down, even though some of this may come across as gobbledegook if you’ve never encountered Wilbur’s “all level, all quadrant” view before. To help you orientate, though, here’s two diagrams of the four quadrants: the individual-subjective, individual-objective, collective-subjective, and collective-objective.

Different Theorists and the Four Quadrants


Characteristics of the Four Quadrants


Wilbur claims the top left correlates to beauty (aesthetics), the bottom left to goodness (ethics), the top right to truth (epistemology), the bottom right to … well, I’m not quite sure. I see problems with this, particularly with beauty, because beauty is not always in the eye of the (individual-subjective) beholder. Instead, I would say the good, the beautiful and the true cut across the four quadrants in some very interesting ways.

For example, recognizing beauty can be a matter of:

Personal taste
… that is, self determined (individual-subjective)

Cultural conditioning
… that is, socially determined (collective-subjective)

Genetic programming
… that is, physically determined (individual-objective)

… that is, systemically determined (collective-objective)

Thus, contra Wilber, beauty cannot be boxed into the individual-subjective quadrant so easily. Nevertheless, Wilbur is surely right in suggesting all four ways of viewing the world their own validity. Integrating his own thinking and mine, I would say, beauty cannot be fully understood without taking all four quadrants seriously.

I would say the same for goodness and truth as well. If I said, “It’s cold today” your perception of the “truth” of this would very much depend on your cultural conditioning in contrast to my own. If any of you are Canadians, you should doubt the truth of my statement very much, at least by your standards. If however I said, “It’s 20C today”, well, you could check the truth of that just by Googling the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia. There are different kinds of truth.

Where am I going with this. Well, just that it becomes very interesting when you come to conversations about the “goodness” of Christianity or the “truth” of the resurrection or the “beauty” of a Protestant church.

10 thoughts on “Ken Wilber inspired musings

  1. Dan, you may have had similar thoughts yourself, but I may as well lay out some of the other areas where I am critical of Ken Wilber.
    Firstly, his understanding of evolution is clearly more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Not that disagreeing with Darwin is an unforgivable sin, but it’s just that, in typical New Age fashion he seems to be seeking scientific respectability by vague association of his theories with a scientific sounding word. But in truth, Ken Wilber’s use of the word “evolution” is no more scientific than saying, “the day evolved into night” or” the child evolved into a man.” It has got nothing to do with the theory of natural selection. It’s just a flowery way of talking about “change.” It’s evolution in the small-e sense. Given the context, commentaries on science and spirituality, I find this quite disingenuous.
    Also, following on from my comments on truth and beauty, I also contest Ken Wilber’s locating of ethics in the lower left quadrant. By doing so he privileges relativistic ethics from the outset, assuming rather than demonstrating that ethics social construction, thus violating his own four quadrant view of truth. The idea that ethics may have a cross-cultural / trans-cultural foundation is not something I’ve seen Ken Wilber adequately consider or refute. His Hindu worldview burns brightly here.
    Furthermore, in regards to psychology, Ken Wilber clearly has a preference for differentiation theory over attachment theory, invoking the former frequently whilst ignoring the latter. However, clinical evidence supports the latter better than the former. This has the potential to scuttle all sorts of comments Ken Wilber has made on social development and consciousness evolution.
    Finally, and sort of following on from that, is his uncritical acceptance of Folwer’s stages of growth and it’s potential correlation to spiritual growth. Wilber has little time for the possibility that children may sometimes be more spiritually developed than adults, even when psychologically immature. Nor does he have much patience for the possibility of spiritual regression. I find this approach overly hierachial (as others have noted) and insufficiently self critical with respect to his own religious background.


  2. You’ve brought up some things I am aware of, and others that I am not. Thanks for your openness. I had to smile at the Lamarckian reference, I’ve seen Ken take criticism from Integral participants, accusing him of maintaining an intelligent design perspective. In a sense I think he does, not in the fundamentalist sense by any means, but he does propose that there is a telos evident in the cosmos. While it might be debatable about the “progress” of any particular line of development (I think Darwin would say that progress is defined by what remains and continues) there does seem to be a direction to the unfolding universe. As to whether this is disingenuous within a scientific context, I guess it would depend on what scientific authorities you favor. I can see atheistic scientists cringing at this notion.
    I’m right with you on the truth, beauty and ethics critique.
    I’m curious on the psychology issues between the differentiation and attachment theoretical perspectives. Can you suggest any references for further research? I’d like to look at this more closely.
    And I’m with you on your final critique as well.


  3. I should also mention more of where I find myself in agreement with Wilbur. I think he’s on the mark with the pre/trans falacy and the suggestion that peak experiences can happen at all stages of spiritual development. This mirrors Paul in 1 Corinthians with his suggesting that amazing experiences of spiritual gifts are not the be all and end all.


  4. I’d just add a point on your mention of “different kinds of truth” in your meteorological example, Matt. I see it this way… there are facts and then there is truth. Sometimes the two converge and sometimes the two conflict, depending on the kinds of variables Wilbur’s suppositions suggest and your and Dan’s explorations of the topic expose


  5. Oh, I’m actually inclined to agree with Wilber here, that there are different kinds of truth and different kinds of fact. For instance, privileging physical systems (top-right) over psychological systems (top-left) can play in the whole mind/body debate on the side of materialism, which I’m not inclined to do. Things don’t need to be physical to be real.


  6. I agree that things don’t have to be physical to be real… so I propose that there are non-physical facts and non-physical truth, if you will.
    But far from dualistic, I also see an interaction (maybe even an interdependence) between the physical and the non-physical and part of the life-journey is discerning the interrelationship between facts and truth in both the realms of the physical and the non-physical. Kind of like a knot to unravel while somebody/something else keeps retying it. However, I do take some comfort from the Book of Daniel, where he is reputed to be a person with a “spirit of excellence” (solving mysteries, enigmas, and unravelling knotty riddles)! 🙂


  7. Very clever and detailed reflections, to which I add a further note…
    “Wilbur claims the top left correlates to beauty (aesthetics), the bottom left to goodness (ethics), the top right to truth (epistemology), the bottom right to…”
    I would note that a similar 4 Quadrants view was made by Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce in his various 1902-1909 writings, crossing “particular (subjective)/universal (objective)” view with “individual/social(collective)” field:
    1) NICE (Aestetics): individual-particular
    2) TRUE (Logic): individual-universal
    3) USEFUL (Economics): social-particular
    4) GOOD (Ethics): social-universal.
    While the two top quadrants show a substantial
    coincidence between Croce and Wilber,for the remaining two bottom quadrants the situation is different.
    For Croce, Ethics is not a subjective moral choice but a socio-universal concept with political and institutional roots (as Justice in Rawls or Republic in Plato), while in social-subjective/particular quadrant we have Economics, as utility is the individual interest of a person in social field put against the collective “common good”.
    After all, in the 4th quadrant you can see Marx (but you could also find also Rawls, Amartya Sen, in his “Ethical Economics”) What do you think about it?
    Best regards
    Frank FB- Milan (Italy)


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