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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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Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990

Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State

Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures

German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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