Kenneth Earl Wilber II (born January 31, 1949) is an American author who has written about adult development, developmental psychology, philosophy, worldcentrism, ecology, and stages of faith. His work formulates what he calls Integral Theory. In 1998, he founded the Integral Institute, for teaching and applications of Integral theory.
Ken Wilber was born on January 31, 1949 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 1967, he enrolled as a pre-med student at Duke University, and was almost immediately disillusioned with what science had to offer. He became inspired, like many of his generation, by Eastern literature, particularly the Tao Te Ching. He left Duke, enrolled in the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and completed a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology.
In 1973, Wilber completed his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, in which he sought to integrate knowledge from disparate fields. After rejections by more than twenty publishers it was finally accepted in 1977 by Quest Books, and he spent a year giving lectures and workshops before going back to writing. He also helped to launch the journal ReVision in 1978.
In 1982, New Science Library published his anthology The Holographic Paradigm and other Paradoxes a collection of essays and interviews, including one by David Bohm. The essays, including one of his own, looked at how the model of Holography and the Holographic paradigm relate to the fields of consciousness, mysticism and science.
In 1983, Wilber married Terry (Treya) Killam who was shortly thereafter diagnosed with breast cancer. From the fall of 1984 until 1987, Wilber gave up most of his writing to care for her. Treya died in January 1989; their joint experience was recorded in the 1991 book Grace and Grit.
Subsequently, Wilber wrote Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES), (1995), the first volume of his Kosmos Trilogy. A Brief History of Everything (1996) was the popularised summary of SES in interview format. The Eye of Spirit (1997) was a compilation of articles he had written for the journal ReVision on the relationship between science and religion. Throughout 1997, he had kept journals of his personal experiences, which were published in 1999 as One Taste, a term for unitary consciousness. Over the next two years his publisher, Shambhala Publications, released eight re-edited volumes of his Collected Works. In 1999, he finished Integral Psychology and wrote A Theory of Everything (2000). In A Theory of Everything Wilber attempts to bridge business, politics, science and spirituality and show how they integrate with theories of developmental psychology, such as Spiral Dynamics. His book, Boomeritis (2002), is a novel which attempts to expose what he perceives as the egotism of a generation born between 1945 and 1964, collectively known as the "Baby Boom Generation", "Baby Boomers" or "Boomers" for the booming number of births that took place during those years.
From 1987, Wilber lived in Boulder, Colorado, where he
worked on his Kosmos trilogy and oversaw the work of the Integral Institute.
Wilber now lives in Denver, Colorado.
A key idea of Wilber's is the holon, which came from the writings of Arthur Koestler. He observed that it seems every entity and concept shares a dual nature: as a whole unto itself, and as a part of some other whole. For example, a cell in an organism is a whole and at the same time a part of another whole, the organism.
Another example is that a letter is a self-existing entity and simultaneously an integral part of a word, which then is part of a sentence, which is part of a paragraph, which is part of a page; and so on. Everything from quarks to matter to energy to ideas can be looked at in this way.
In his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of
Evolution, Wilber outlines approximately twenty tenets that characterize
all holons. These tenets form the basis of Wilber's model of manifest
AQAL (pronounced aqual or ah-qwul) represents the core of Wilber's work. AQAL stands for "all quadrants all levels", but equally connotes 'all lines', 'all states' and 'all types'. These are the five irreducible categories of Wilber's model of manifest existence. In order for an account of the Kosmos to be complete, Wilber believes that it must include each of these five categories. For Wilber, only such an account can be accurately called "integral." In the essay, "Excerpt C: The Ways We Are in This Together", Wilber describes AQAL as "one suggested architecture of the Kosmos".
All of Wilber's AQAL categoriesquadrants, lines, levels, states, and typesrelate to relative truth in the two truths doctrine of Buddhism, to which he subscribes. According to Wilber, none of them are true in an absolute sense: only formless awareness, "the simple feeling of being," exists absolutely.
An account or theory is said to be AQAL, and thus integral
(inclusive or comprehensive), if it accounts for or makes reference to
all four quadrants and four major levels in Wilber's ontological scheme,
described below. The AQAL system has been critiqued for
not taking into account the lack of change in the biological structure
of the brain at the human level (complex neocortex), this role being taken
instead by human-made artifacts.[
Each holon, or unit of reality that is both a whole and a part of a larger whole, has an interior and an exterior. It also exists as an individual and (assuming more than one of these entities exists) as a collective. Observing the holon from the outside constitutes an exterior perspective on that holon. Observing it from the inside is the interior perspective, and so forth. If you map these four perspectives into quadrants, you have four quadrants, or dimensions (these are unrelated to the three spatial dimensions).
To give an example of how this works, consider four schools of social science. Freudian psychoanalysis, which interprets people's interior experiences, is an account of the interior individual (or, in the diagram, the upper-left) quadrant. B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, which limits itself to the observation of the behavior of organisms, is an exterior individual (upper-right) account. Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics interprets the collective consciousness of a society, and is thus an interior plural (lower-left) perspective. Marxist economic theory, according to Wilber, examines the external behavior of a society (lower-right).
All four pursuits psychoanalysis, behaviorism, philosophical hermeneutics and Marxism offer complementary, rather than contradictory, perspectives. It is possible for all to be correct and necessary for a complete account of human existence. Also, each by itself offers only a partial view of reality. On his view, Wilber has integrated these four areas of knowledge through an acknowledgement of the four fundamental dimensions of existence. Further, according to Wilber, these four perspectives are equally valid at all levels of existence.
The right sides of the quadrants are concerned with empirical observationwhat does it do? The left sides of the quadrants focus on interpretationwhat does it mean? Wilber contends that modernity evidences a pathological separation from healthy evolution due to a near-complete focus on the right sides, with the denial of the left sides as having no meaning being a fundamental cause of society's malaise. This pathology is what Wilber calls "flatland".
According to Wilber, all holons have multiple lines of
development, or intelligencesin fact, over two dozen have been observed.
They include cognitive, ethical, aesthetic, spiritual, kinesthetic, affective,
musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, karmic, etc. One can be highly
developed cognitively (cerebrally smart) without being highly morally
developed (as in the case of Nazi doctors). However, Wilber acknowledges,
you cannot be highly morally developed without the pre-requisite cognitive
development. So not all of the developmental lines are ontologically equivalent.
Levels or stages
The concept of levels follows closely on the concept of lines of development. The more highly developed you are in a particular line, the higher level you are at in that line. Wilber's conception of the level is clearly based on several theories of developmental psychology, including: Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Kohlberg's stages of moral development, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, and Jane Loevinger's stages of ego development.
One such scheme describes the ethical developmental line, for example:
Egocentric (similar to Carol
Gilligan's 'Selfish' stage)
Within each broad stage, there are sub-levels. Spiral Dynamics is one theory that elaborates on these sub-levels.
Another broad organization of the levels contains three categories:
pre-personal (subconscious motivations)
This organization reveals more of Wilber's synthesizing activity. Freudian drives, Jungian archetypes, and myth are pre-personal structures. Empirical and rational processes are at the personal level. Transpersonal entities include, for example, Aurobindo's Overmind, Emerson's Oversoul, Plato's Forms, Plotinus' nous, and the Hindu Atman, or world-soul.
The exceptional feature of Wilber's approach is that, under this methodology, all of these mental structuressubconscious, rational, mysticalare considered complementary and legitimate, rather than competing in a zero-sum conceptual space. And that is perhaps Wilber's greatest accomplishmentthe opening up of a space wherein more ideas, theories, beliefs, and stories can be considered true, responsible, and acceptable.
Many criticize the strict hierarchical nature of Wilber's
conception of the level in psychological and cultural development, which
he compares to the hierarchical nature of matter itself. Sub-atomic particles
are composed of quarks. Atoms are made of sub-atomic particles. Molecules
are made of atoms. Cell organelles are made of molecules, etc. One must
attain the lower levels before the higher levels because the higher levels
are constituted by the lower level components. Thus, when represented
graphically, the levels should appear as concentric circles, with higher
levels transcending but also including lower ones. Wilber also attacks
the equating of hierarchy with patriarchy using a similar line of argument.
States refer to those aspects of consciousness that are temporal, passing, experiential, and phenomenal. Wilber's later works develop close relations between states and levels/lines (or structures) but the relations between these two major aspects of consciousness are often misconstrued. The misunderstanding is based on the idea that a person can "peak experience" a higher structure which, as Wilber has said, would be like a first year piano student playing for a moment like a seasoned virtuoso. Even though the vocabulary (subtle, causal, nondual) of states and of higher structures is similar, higher states do not equate with higher structures. Wilber's mantra to quell this misunderstanding is: "States are free but structures are earned." One has to build or earn structure, it can't be peak experienced for free. What can be peak experienced however are higher states of freedom from the structure one already inhabits so at any level one can experience these deeper/higher states.
In his book Integral Spirituality (Shambhala 2006) Wilber identifies a few varieties of states: the most important, with regard to the consciousness of most higher animals, are the three diurnal cycling natural states: waking, dreaming, and sleeping. Within waking and dreaming states there are phenomenal states which arise from interior sources such as bodily sensations, emotions, mental ideas, memories, or inspirations, or from exterior sources such as our sensorimotor inputs, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. A third category of states, altered states, is divided into two groups,
1) Exogenous or induced states: states which are intentionally generated from outside or exterior influences such as psychedelic and other drug-induced states; hypnosis and hypnotherapy; psycho-therapeutic techniques; gestalt therapy; psychodrama; voice dialogue techniques; biofeedback states; forms of guided imagery; and
2) Endogenous or trained states: states which are intentionally generated from inside or from interior influences such as various performance enhancement techniques in sports therapy; meditative training which work on calming, relaxation, equanimity states; and mental imaging and visualization such as tonglen meditation.
Some techniques such as Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) work with both endogenous and exogenous types.
A fourth category of states is spontaneous or peak states which refer to unintentional or unexpected shifts of awareness from gross to subtle or causal states of consciousness.
Wilber has done extensive research on connecting modern
states research with the understanding of states in the philosophy of
Advaita Vedanta. Aligning with Vedanta theory, Wilber equates waking with
gross consciousness, dreaming with subtle consciousness, and sleeping
with causal or formless consciousness. In keeping with the Vedanta system
he adds fourth and fifth "natural" states of Turiya and Turiyatita,
respectively Witnessing consciousness and Nondual consciousness which
technically are not states in that they are understood as being the state
of all states.
These are valid distinctions that are not covered under
Wilbers other categorizations. Masculine/feminine, the nine Enneagram
categories, and Jung's archetypes and typologies, among innumerable others,
are all valid types in Wilber's schema. Wilber makes types part of his
model in order to point out that these distinctions are different from,
and in addition to the already mentioned distinctions: quadrants, lines,
levels and states.
Theory of truth
Wilber argues that manifest reality is composed of four
domains, and that each domain, or "quadrant" has its own truth-standard,
or test for validity, as follows:
Interior individual/1st person - "If we look at the actual interior of an individual [entity], then we have an entirely different type of validity claim. The question here is not, is it raining outside? The question here is, When I tell you it is raining outside, am I telling you the truth or am I lying? You see, here it is not so much a question of whether the map matches the objective territory, but whether the mapmaker can be trusted.... you can always check and see if it's raining... Interior events are located in states of consciousness, not in objective states of affairs, and so you can't empirically nail them down with simple consensus location. I might lie to you. I might lie to myself. I might misrepresent and not know it."
Interior collective/2nd person - "The subjective world is situated in an intersubjective space, a cultural space... without this cultural background... I wouldn't have the tools to interpret my own thoughts to myself. So here the validity claim is not so much objective propositional truth, or subjective truthfulness, but intersubjective fit. This cultural background provides the common context against which my own interior thoughts and beliefs will have some sort of meaning, and so the validity criteria here involves the "cultural fit" [of a statement] within this background... What is so remarkable about common understanding is not that I can take a simple word like "dog" and point to a real dog and say "I mean that." What is so remarkable is that you know what I mean by that. [So it is] a matter of how we arrange collectively, our ethics, morals, laws, culture, group or collective identities, background contexts..."
Exterior individual/3rd person - "We check to see if the proposition corresponds with or fits the facts, if the map accurately reflects the real [exterior] territory... if we cannot disprove it we may assume it is accurate enough. But the essential idea is that... my statement somehow refers to an objective state of affairs, and it fairly accurately somehow corresponds with those objects or processes or affairs. [...] All of which is fair enough and important enough, and I in no way deny the general importance of empirical representation. It's just not the whole story..."
Exterior collective/3rd person - "The main validity claim is functional fit, how entities fit together in a system... So in systems theory you will find nothing about ethical standards, values, morals, mutual understanding, truthfulness, sincerity, depth, integrity, aesthetics... It describes the system in purely objective exterior terms, from without. It doesn't want to know how collective values are intersubjectively shared in mutual understanding. Rather, it looks at how their objective correlates functionally fit in the overall system."
"All four of these are valid forms of knowledge,
because they are grounded in the realities of the nature of every holon.
And therefore all four of these truth claims can be confirmed or rejected
by a community of the adequate [those competent in that knowledge]. They
each have a different validity claim which carefully guides us, through
checks and balances, on our knowledge quest. They are all falsifiable
within their own domains, which means false claims can be dislodged by
further evidence ...."
The pre/trans fallacy
Wilber purports that many claims about non-rational states
make a mistake he calls the pre/trans fallacy. According to Wilber, the
non-rational stages of consciousness (what Wilber calls "pre-rational"
and "trans-rational" stages) can be easily confused with one
another. On Wilber's view, One can reduce trans-rational spiritual realization
to pre-rational regression, or one can elevate pre-rational states to
the trans-rational domain. For example, Wilber claims that Freud and Jung
commit this fallacy. Freud considered
mystical realization to be a regression to infantile oceanic states. Wilber
alleges that Freud thus commits a fallacy of reduction. Wilber thinks
that Jung commits the converse form of the same mistake by considering
pre-rational myths to reflect divine realizations. Likewise, pre-rational
states may be misidentified as post-rational states. Wilber characterizes
himself as having fallen victim to the pre/trans fallacy in his early
Mysticism and the great chain of being
One of Wilber's main interests is in mapping what he calls the "neo-perennial philosophy", an integration of some of the views of mysticism typified by Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy with an account of cosmic evolution akin to that of the Indian mystic Sri Aurobindo. He rejects most of the tenets of Perennialism and the associated anti-evolutionary view of history as a regression from past ages or yugas. Instead, he embraces a more traditionally Western notion of the great chain of being. As in the work of Jean Gebser, this great chain (or "nest") is ever-present while "relatively" unfolding throughout this material manifestation, although to Wilber "... the 'Great Nest' is actually just a vast morphogenetic field of potentials ..." In agreement with Mahayana Buddhism, and Advaita Vedanta, he believes that reality is ultimately a nondual union of emptiness and form, with form being innately subject to development over time.
Wilber argues for the value of mystical realization and in opposition to metaphysical naturalism:
Are the mystics and sages insane? Because they all tell variations on the same story, don't they? The story of awakening one morning and discovering you are one with the All, in a timeless and eternal and infinite fashion. Yes, maybe they are crazy, these divine fools. Maybe they are mumbling idiots in the face of the Abyss. Maybe they need a nice, understanding therapist. Yes, I'm sure that would help. But then, I wonder. Maybe the evolutionary sequence really is from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, each transcending and including, each with a greater depth and greater consciousness and wider embrace. And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual's consciousness does indeed touch infinitya total embrace of the entire Kosmosa Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. It's at least plausible. And tell me: is that story, sung by mystics and sages the world over, any crazier than the scientific materialism story, which is that the entire sequence is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing? Listen very carefully: just which of those two stories actually sounds totally insane?
Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, 423
Wilber on science
Wilber describes the current state of the "hard" sciences as limited to "narrow science", which only allows evidence from the lowest realm of consciousness, the sensorimotor (the five senses and their extensions). What he calls "broad science" would include evidence from logic, mathematics, and from the symbolic, hermeneutical, and other realms of consciousness. Ultimately and ideally, broad science would include the testimony of meditators and spiritual practitioners. Wilber's own conception of science includes both narrow science and broad science, e.g., using electroencephalogram machines and other technologies to test the experiences of meditators and other spiritual practitioners, creating what Wilber calls "integral science".
According to Wilber's theory, narrow science trumps narrow
religion, but broad science trumps narrow science. That is, the natural
sciences provide a more inclusive, accurate account of reality than any
of the particular exoteric religious traditions. But an integral approach
that evaluates both religious claims and scientific claims based on intersubjectivity
is preferable to narrow science.
In 2005, at the launch of the Integral Spiritual Center, a branch of the Integral Institute, Wilber presented a 118-page rough draft summary of his two forthcoming books. The essay is entitled "What is Integral Spirituality?", and contains several new ideas, including Integral post-metaphysics and the Wilber-Combs lattice.
"Integral post-metaphysics" is the term Wilber has given to his attempts to reconstruct the world's spiritual-religious traditions in a way that accounts for the modern and post-modern criticisms of those traditions.
The Wilber-Combs Lattice is a conceptual model of consciousness
developed by Wilber and Allan Combs. It
is a grid with sequential states of consciousness on the x axis (from
left to right) and with developmental structures, or levels, of consciousness
on the y axis (from bottom to top). This lattice illustrates how each
structure of consciousness interprets experiences of different states
of consciousness, including mystical states, in different ways.
Influences on Wilber
Wilber's philosophy has been influenced by Madhyamaka Buddhism, particularly as articulated in the philosophy of Nagarjuna. Wilber has practiced various forms of Buddhist meditation, studying with a number of teachers, including Dainin Katagiri, Taizan Maezumi, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche, Penor Rinpoche and Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. Advaita Vedanta, Trika (Kashmir) Shaivism, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Ramana Maharshi, and Andrew Cohen can be mentioned as further influences. Wilber has on several occasions singled out Adi Da's work for the highest praise (while expressing reservations about Adi Da as a teacher). In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Wilber refers extensively to Plotinus' philosophy, which he sees as nondual. While Wilber has practised Buddhist meditation methods, he does not identify himself as a Buddhist.
Wilber's conception of spiritual evolution and psychological
development and "the great nest of being" draws on Adi
Da, Sri Aurobindo, James Mark Baldwin,
Erik Erikson, Howard
Gardner, Jean Gebser, German idealism,
Clare W. Graves (Spiral Dynamics), Jürgen
Habermas, Erich Jantsch, Robert
Kegan, Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham
Maslow, Jean Piaget, and Plotinus.
Wilber has been categorized as New Age due to his emphasis on a transpersonal view, and more recently, as a philosopher.
Wilber is credited with popularizing, if not inventing, the field of Integral Thought, broadening the appeal of a "perennial philosophy" to a much wider audience. Cultural figures as varied as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Deepak Chopra, and musician Billy Corgan have mentioned his influence. But Wilber's approach has been criticized as excessively categorizing and objectifying, masculinist, commercializing spirituality, and denigrating of emotion. Numerous critics cite problems with Wilber's interpretations and inaccurate citations of his wide ranging sources, as well as stylistic issues with gratuitous repetition, excessive book length, and hyperbole.
Steve McIntosh praises Wilber's work but also argues that Wilber fails to distinguish 'philosophy' from his own Vedantic and Buddhist religion. Christopher Bache is complimentary of some aspects of Wilber's work, but calls Wilber's writing style glib and superior and suggests that Wilber tends to overlook the more complicated aspects of spiritual purification and past-life interpretation.
Jennifer Gidley, Research Fellow at RMIT University Melbourne, points to the need in the 21st century to create conceptual bridges between integral philosophy and pedagogy and other related philosophical and pedagogical approaches. She undertook a comparative study of key evolution of consciousness thinkers, focusing particularly on the integral theoretic narratives of Rudolf Steiner, Jean Gebser, and Ken Wilber (but also with due reference to the seminal writings of Sri Aurobindo and those of contemporary European integral theorists such as Ervin Laszlo and Edgar Morin. She noted the conceptual breadth of Wilber's integral evolutionary narrative in transcending both scientism and epistemological isolationism. She also drew attention to some limitations of Wilbers integral project, notably his undervaluing of Gebser's actual text, and the substantial omission of the pioneering contribution of Steiner, who, as early as 1904 wrote extensively about the evolution of consciousness, including the imminent emergence of a new stage. As a contribution to the knowledge base of integral education, Gidley has also undertaken a hermeneutic comparative analysis of Rudolf Steiner's educational approach and Wilber's Integral Operating System.
Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof
has praised Wilber's knowledge and work in the highest terms; however,
Grof has criticized the omission of the pre-natal and peri-natal domains
from Wilber's spectrum of consciousness, and Wilber's neglect of the psychological
importance of biological birth and death. Grof has described Wilber's
writings as having an "often aggressive polemical style that includes
strongly worded ad personam attacks and is not conducive to personal dialogue."
The Spectrum of
Consciousness, 1977, anniv. ed. 1993: ISBN 0-8356-0695-3