Levels of Human Psychological Development in Integral Spiral Dynamics

Levels of Human Psychological Development in Integral Spiral Dynamics


From Consciousness models in action: comparisons


Many models of Human Development

  • Graves’s Spiral Dynamics (SD) model
  • May’s model of development of consciousness
  • Gebser’s Structures of human consciousness
  • Piaget’s model of cognitive development
  • Myss’s model of spiritual development
  • Kohlberg’s model of moral development
  • Perry’s model of intellectual and ethical development
  • Loevinger’s model of ego-state development
  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  • Kegan’s model of psychological development
  • Wilber’s AQAL model
  • Tolle’s model of spiritual development
  • Atmananda’s model of spiritual development
  • Hurtak’s model of spiritual development
  • McTaggart’s scientific model
  • Pribam’s scientific model
  • Hawkins’s scientific model

From Consciousness models in action: comparisons

In this paper, the construct of ”levels of consciousness”as used in psychology and consciousness theory, is closely linked to those of worldviews, perceptual frameworks, organising systems, value orientations, “intelligences” or “memes”, in terms of which people understand and respond to their worlds. It reflects levels of awareness, or the inclusiveness,extensiveness, the depth and breadth by which incoming information is interpreted. These levels of consciousness largely determine intellectual, emotional and behavioural aspects of human functioning.

The various theoretical models on the evolution of consciousness reflect common themes, principles and structures. These models have emerged from different study fields including philosophy, physics, sociology, psychology, economics and theology, and address consciousness, cognitive, moral, educational, physiological and spiritual development.

All the models that are mentioned in this paper are not discussed in detail, and the focus is primarily on the contributions of Graves, Wilber, May and Myss. Gebser’s and Piaget’s work is merely addressed in support of Wilber’s AQAL model. The views of educationalists Perry and Kohlberg are briefly discussed under the heading of intellectual, moral and ethical development (section 2.4). Psychological perspectives such as Loevinger’s model of ego-states; Maslow’s need hierarchy; and Kegan’s equilibrium stages are mentioned but not discussed in any detail. These models are, however, included in the final integrated framework as proposed in this paper (section 3). Additional views from the spiritual and physical domains are referred to in support of the general themes that characterise speculations on consciousness. The role of consciousness theory in complementing current leadership models and practices is explored in terms of an integral perspective of leadership.

From Consciousness models in action: comparisons

Graves’s Spiral Dynamics (SD) Model

The Spiral Dynamics model of Graves, also referred to as the Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory (ECLET),provides a profound and elegant system in terms of which human development can be understood (Wilber, 2001). Wilber also points out that subsequent research has validated and refined the ECLET or SD model.

According to Graves,humans respond to life conditions by developing certain adaptive views and capacities which he refers to as “levels of human existence”. These adaptive responses can be grouped into value systems which permeate the culture of groups, organisations and individuals. Each stage allows for the possible further development of “higher” stages or levels. The levels are not to be seen as fixed, but represent flowing waves, continuously overlapping with, and interweaving, each other.

A detailed explanation of the SD model can be found in Beck and Cowan’s “Spiral Dynamics Theory” (1996) and Cowan &Todorovic’s (2008) work.

The SD model, as adopted and applied by other authors, has undergone a number of conceptual changes. Beck and Cowan (1996), for example, extended the “value systems” language of Graves with the notion of “value memes”. The term meme was originally introduced by Dawkins to refer to a unit of cultural information. According to Wilber (2001), a “meme” can be seen as a stage of development that is expressed in behaviour. For purposes of clarity,Wilber recommended the use of the word “value system” as proposed by Graves.

The level of consciousness associated with each of these value systems, provides a perceptual framework, type of “intelligence” and worldview by which experiences are interpreted and responded to. A sense of flow results from the match between the person’s orientation and the contextual requirements.

The SD model is hierarchically organised and consecutive levels both incorporate and transcend preceding orientations. It is a soft hierarchy and growth may involve a person or group temporarily moving down on the hierarchy in response to a particular trauma or challenge, before transcending previously inadequate worldviews. Upward movement only takes place according to the hierarchical structure of the spiral and levels are therefore not skipped. This view on growth ties in with Wilber’s idea of “holons”. Holons depict the manner in which systems are organised and where evolution involves the emergence of more complex systems, each of which includes and transcends previous levels.

The initially proposed and rather cumbersome labelling technique of the Spiral Dynamics model, postulated the organisation of a double spiral in terms (a) the problem of existence: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and (b) coping mechanisms: N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U to provide an: AN, BO, CP, DQ, ER, FS, GT, HU categorisation. It has since been replaced by using simple colour codes. Eight such colours are currently identified (with possible additions in future): Beige, Purple, Red, Blue, Orange, Green, Yellow and Turquoise. These colours represent ways of thinking that have far-reaching effects on an individual’s life and group adaptation.

The various value orientations, as represented by different colours, each has a particular credo referring to either an expressive, internally controlled “I” (the “warm” colours), or a self-sacrificing, externally anchored “we” side (the “cooler” colours). The eight “holons” as specified by the SD model represent a spiral structure.

The eight valuing systems can be divided into first and second tier consciousness. The first tier consciousness encompasses the first six colours (Beige, Purple, Red, Blue, Orange and Green). The first tier valuing systemstend to be emotionally driven. Perspectives based on the lower level value systems in this first tier also do not necessarily accommodate for the existence of other valuing systems – although Green less so that the colours preceding it.

Second tier consciousness is reflected by the Yellow and Turquoise valuing systems and encompasses the first tier. Unlike first tier thinking, second tier awareness appreciates the necessity of the various other valuing systems. As Gardner (Wilber, 2001) observed, the whole course of human development can be viewed as a continuing decline in egocentrism.

The various value orientations of the SD model can briefly be described, as follows:

– The theme is that of “survival”
– The focus is on basic-instinctive reactions;subsistence needs; physical survival; physiological needs; capitalisation on instincts and habits
– It involves a reactive response to the environment
– There is little self-awareness
– Responses tend to be impulsive
– It is survivalist
– This value system can be found amongst the very young and old; as well as amongst ill, starving or traumatised people

– The theme here is “safety”
– This value system is associated withgroup dependence; tradition; an avoidance of change; an “us-and-them” orientation; a tendency to maintain family / in-group bonds; at times dogmatic beliefs / ideologies; the need for safety and protection; and a general fearfulness
– This orientation values group belonging and group boundaries; authority; respect; protection; obedience; familiarity, certainty and routine; what is sacred as well as observes rituals and customs
– Those who embrace a purple orientation often are ethnocentric, traditionalist and their relationships are largely role-based
– This worldview is associated with an external locus of control
– Learning is largely passive and there is a tendency to seeks guidance
– People espousing this value system tend to be self-sacrificial toward their in-group and antagonistic toward out-groups
– This value system can be found amongst paternalistic culture; where elders are valued; the superstitious; those who are highly patriotic; within dogmatic religions; in enmeshed families; where there is a belief in luck, blood oaths, ancient grudges, trance dancing, family rituals, gangs, corporate “tribes”; and it is inherent to old “school ties”, soapies and fanatical sports team support cultures.

– The theme here is “power”
– This orientation can be described as: highly energetic, impulsive, dominant, active, achievement driven; critical; demanding; competitive; egocentric; defensive; dominant and power driven
– There are tendencies to be expressive; not to be inhibited by guilt; to strive for respect and recognition; to seek excitement and sensual pleasure; and to fear shame; loss of face; and loss of autonomy
– Those who have adopted this orientation may come across as proud, assertive, energetic and/or imaginative
– There may be a tendencies to blame and take revenge; there is a scarcity mentality and expectation of threat
– The value system is associated with an emphasis on performance and results; a tough image and a “carrot-and-stick” leadership approach
– Those espousing this value orientation are results focused, energetic and normally obtain their goals
– Emotionally, it is associated with seeking impulse gratification; fear of failure; and avoidance of insult and pain
– Inherent to this worldview are beliefs such as “survival of the fittest”; “others are not to be trusted”; and “results can be achieved through hard work”
– It is important to impress, influence and conquer others, even though the means may be somewhat aggressive, exhausting, fanatical, exploitative or dogmatic
– Learning primarily takes place via reinforcement and conditioning
– It can be found in bravado; rebellious youths; frontier mentalities; fanatical groups; macho cultures; entrepreneurs and activities which require effort and control

– The theme here is “truth”
– It can be described in terms of: purposefulness; structure; seeking the truth; showing depth; reliability; being pedantic; a loyalist orientation; the tendency to conform and to avoid change; appreciation of quality and a sound work ethic
– Those adhering to this value system believe in order and are obedient to authority; they practice self-discipline and tend to differentiate between what they regard as right and wrong
– They seek security and are cautious
– They value integrity and ethical behaviour; observe laws and regulations and believe that hardship and self-discipline build character and moral fibre
– In addition there is a focus on controlling impulsivity; seeking stability and adhering to a code of conduct; being honourable; and being punctual and reliable
– It may also find expression in bureaucratic or hierarchical structures; totalitarian or dogmatic organisations; inflexible ideologies; and moralistic inclinations
– It involves learning from authority and decisions are based on ethics, facts and authority opinions
– It also follows tradition, convention and policy; values certainty, structure and order; is motivated by duty; is loyal; is responsible; is careful; and promotes fairness and traditions
– According to this value system, sacrifices need to be made for the greater good of all
– Stress is caused by ambiguity and uncertainty; chaos is feared; and change is avoided
– This value orientation finds expression via patriotism; codes of chivalry and honour; boy andgirl scouts; traditional schools, certain family practices and churches

– The theme here is “value creation”
– This orientation can be described as strategic; somewhat materialistic; opportunistic; individualistic; achievement oriented; flexible; resilient and politically astute
– It is associated with an abundance mindset; the exercise of freedom of choice; and self-interest
– Individuals who have adopted this value system enjoy playing the game; having autonomy; manipulating outcomes; are optimistic, practical, take risks andare self-reliant and resilient
– They tend to look for opportunity;strategise; take initiative; are competitive; are normally interested in technology; and feel deserving of success, prosperity and abundance
– It supports entrepreneurial activities; goal setting and achievement; tough negotiations; and business strategy formulation
– At times it may deteriorate into narcissistic, inconsiderate and materialistic tendencies and become exploitative and short sighted
– Learning takes place via experimentation, mentors, guides or experts
– Motivation is rooted in the achievement of material rewards and the possibility of opportunity
– It values competition, ambition, affluence, image and continuous improvement
– Stress is caused by setbacks; goals not being realised; and obstacles
– This orientation provides the flexibility and skill to reframe setbacks, though
– It encompasses a logical, efficient, flexible and competitive style
– This orientation finds expression in colonialism; the fashion industry; prosperity ministries; the emerging middle classes; the advertising industry; mining cartels; go-getter cultures; venture capitalists activities; a large proportion of generation Y and the corporate culture in general

– The theme here is “communitarian” and “relating”
– It can be described as sensitive; humanistic; theoretical; emotional; compassionate; relativistic; and is often characterised by inner peace whilst exploring the caring dimensions of community
– There is a strong interest in other points of view / theories
– This value system promotes equal opportunities to all; kind interpersonal relations; and a charitable orientation towards the oppressed
– Decision-making takes place via reconciliation and consensus
– There is a genuine concern for others and personal goals involve spiritual awareness; interpersonal harmony and human development
– Learning is based on exploring feelings; sharing experiences and ideas; as well as interaction with others
– Decisions are based on being just and reasonable toward everyone involved, but decision making is complicated by many conflicting considerations which may require compromise and collaboration
– Stress is created by rage, discord, extinctions, contamination, group separation and lack of consideration
– The associated leadership style involves a democratic approach; it is consultative
– Management strategies include being humanistic; demonstrating emotions; care for the group; an emphasis on consensus and a listening orientation
– This value system finds expression in “Doctors without Borders”; sensitivity training; animal rights groups; Rogerian counselling; philanthropic and humanistic intentions; and theoretical and academic endeavours

– The theme here is “systemic”
– It can be described as an integrative approach; seeking of learning experiences; living responsibly, and the emphasis is on flexibility, functionality, simplicity and spontaneity
– Here knowledge, understanding, competence and intuition supersedes rank, position status symbols and power
– There is an appreciation of dynamic factors and natural flows; variety; context; holistic perspectives; and the value of simplicity and functionality
– The associated psychological disposition is that of individualistic; independent-mindedness; self-actualisation; and freedom of choice
– Learning is sought in varied experience, observation, knowledge, and involves an intuitive process
– Factors such as structure and order are to some extent irrelevant
– Stress is caused by stagnant, rigid, dull, rule-based contexts that are not stimulating or challenging
– Emotionally this orientation is associated with a significant degree of integration which may at times be interpreted as distanciation
– This value system finds expression in principles of systems thinking; learning organisations; chaos theory; and eco-industrial parks

– The themes here are “holistic” and “transcendent”
– This orientation can be described as existential-philosophical; living in the “now”; depth of awareness; a spiritually inclination; and it is focused on the meaningfulness of human endeavours
– It is associated with a concern about the proliferation of life; experiencing the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit; accessing the collective mindset; connection and transcendence
– The world is regarded as a single, dynamic organism with its own collective mindwhere everything is connected
– There is an emphasis on holistic, intuitive thinking and cooperative actions
– It finds expression in ideas such as Gandhi’s pluralistic harmony, Tolle’s work on consciousness; and the theories of David Bohm

The hierarchical ordering of the various value systems is “soft”, or dynamic, and should not be interpreted strictly in terms as “higher is better”. The suitability and desirability of each of the value systems depend on contextual factors. The ranking and ordering of these value systems should therefore not be taken too literally or seen as a fixed, linear, step-by-step progressions. This is emphasised by Wilber (2001) who indicated that development is not a linear ladder but a fluid and flowing affair, with spirals, swirls, streams, and waves – and what appears to be an almost infinite number of modalities.

Particular value systems or worldviews, representing levels of consciousness, are generally associated with the manifestations of certain clusters of cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural tendencies (referred to by Wilber as “lines” of development). The expanded awareness of each consecutive level of consciousness, allows for greater connection to self, others and the world. Progressively inclusive worldviews accommodate increasingly complex cognitive processing, for example.


Please see my related posts:

The Great Chain of Being

Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought

Multilevel Approach to Research in Organizations

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber


Key Sources of Research:

Never Ending Upward Quest:  An Interview with Don Beck on Spiral Dynamics

WIE 2002



Summary of the Spiral Dynamics Model by Ken Wilber






Sidebar C: Orange and Green: Levels or Cousins?






Consciousness models in action: comparisons

(As published in the Integral Leadership Review (ILR) June 2012)





Spiral Dynamics Integral and the Theory of Living Human Systems: Part 1

– Michael Robbins





– Michael Robbins






Models, Metrics, and Measurement in Developmental Psychology

Zachary Stein and Katie Heikkinen






A General Introduction to Integral Theory and Comprehensive Mapmaking


By Sean M. Saiter




Clare W. Graves and the Turn of Our Times

Nicholas Reitter






Spiral Dynamics Integral

Christopher Cooke and Ben Levi







Introduction to Spiral Dynamics


Ian McDonald



A Brief History of Spiral Dynamics


albion m. butters





What Is Spiral Dynamics Integral?

By Don Beck






Integral Dynamics, A new integration of Wilber’s Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics


Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought

Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought


Three Meta Integral Theories:

  • Integral Theory (Ken Wilber)
  • Critical Realism (Roy Bhaskar)
  • Complex Thought (Edgar Morin)


Please see review papers for each of the theory in the references below.

These are the best meta theories in my opinion.

Ken Wiber, Roy Bhaskar, and Edgar Morin have created ideas worth reading about.


Keynote Address by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens



Keynote Address by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens



Keynote Address by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens




Keynote Address by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens




I also suggest Cyber Semiotics a book by Soren Brier.


Please see my related posts:

Semiotics, Bio-Semiotics and Cyber Semiotics

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Systems View of Life: A Synthesis by Fritjof Capra




Key Sources of Research:



Overview of Integral Theory




Critical Realism




Ken Wilber on Critical Realism


Complex Thought



Metatheory for the Twenty-First Century: Critical Realism and Integral Theory in Dialog

edited by Roy Bhaskar, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, Nicholas Hedlund, Mervyn Hartwig

2017 published by Routledge




Keynote Address by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens

ITC 2013


Ontological and Epistemic Considerations for Integral Philosophy

Nicholas H. Hedlund-de Witt






A Complex Integral Realist Perspective: Towards A New Axial Vision

By Paul Marshall

© 2017 – Routledge



Situating Critical Realism Philosophically

Ruth Groff

Department of Political Science St. Louis University





Sean Esbjorn-Hargens discusses integrative thinking and the new leadership

June 2017 Podcast





The Future of Leadership for Conscious Capitalism

By: Barrett C. Brown





Edgar Morin




Integral Theory (Ken Wilber)





From the Concept of System to the Paradigm of Complexity

Edgar Morin
Translated by Sean Kelly





Integral Meta-Theory – The What and Why

Zak Stein




Sophia Speaks: An Integral Grammar of Philosophy

By Bruce Alderman





The Variety of Integral Ecologies: Kosmopolitan Complexity and the New Realisms

Sean Kelly

Adam Robbert

Sam Mickey



Metatheory for the Anthropocene: Emancipatory Praxis For Planetary Flourishing (Routledge Studies in Critical Realism (Routledge Critical Realism))

Nicholas Hedlund (Editor), Sean Esbjörn-Hargens (Editor)




Meta Integral Foundation





Toward an Integrative Theory of Higher Education: Connecting Lines of Inquiry from Morin’s Complex Thought, Bhaskar’s Critical Realism, and Wilber’s Integral Theory

Gary P. Hampson and Matthew Rich-Tolsma




INTRODUCTION: On the Deep Need for Integrative Metatheory in the 21st-Century

Nicholas Hedlund
Sean Esbjörn-Hargens
Mervyn Hartwig
Roy Bhaskar




Situating the Mapmaker: An Imminent Critique of Wilber’s Cartography of the
Transphysical Worlds

Prepared by Nicholas Hedlund-de Witt, M.A.

Professor Eric Weiss

California Institute of Integral Studies

Spring 2011

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber



I, we, It/Its



Self, Culture, and Nature




The Eight Zones




Levels in each Quadrant




“The word integral means comprehensive, inclusive, non-marginalizing, embracing. Integral approaches to any field attempt to be exactly that: to include as many perspectives, styles, and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of the topic. In a certain sense, integral approaches are “meta-paradigms,” or ways to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching.” – Ken Wilber


The world has never been so complex as it is right now—it is mind boggling and at times emotionally overwhelming. Not to mention, the world only seems to get more complex and cacophonous as we confront the major problems of our day: extreme religious fundamentalism, environmental degradation, failing education systems, existential alienation, and volatile financial markets. Never have there been so many disciplines and worldviews to consider and consult in addressing these issues: a cornucopia of perspectives. But without a way of linking, leveraging, correlating, and aligning these perspectives, their contribution to the problems we face are largely lost or compromised. We are now part of a global community and we need a framework—global in vision yet also anchored in the minutiae of our daily lives—that can hold the variety of valid perspectives that have something to offer our individual efforts and collective solution building.

In 1977 American philosopher Ken Wilber published his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. This groundbreaking book integrated the major schools of psychology along a continuum of increasing complexity, with different schools focused on various levels within that spectrum. Over the next 30 years he continued with this integrative impulse, writing books in areas such as cultural anthropology, philosophy, sociology of religion, physics, healthcare, environmental studies, science and religion, and postmodernism. To date, Wilber has published over two dozen books and in the process has created integral theory.2 Wilber’s books have been translated into more than 24 languages, which gives you an idea as to the global reach and utility of integral theory.3 Since its inception by Wilber, integral theory has become one of the foremost approaches within the larger fields of integral studies and meta-theory.4 This prominent role is in large part the result of the wide range of applications that integral theory has proven itself efficacious in as well as the work of many scholar-practitioners who have and are contributing to the further development of integral theory.

Integral theory weaves together the significant insights from all the major human disciplines of knowledge, including the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities. As a result of its comprehensive nature, integral theory is being used in over 35 distinct academic and professional fields such as art, healthcare, organizational management, ecology, congregational ministry, economics, psychotherapy, law, and feminism.5 In addition, integral theory has been used to develop an approach to personal transformation and integration called Integral Life Practice (ILP). The ILP framework allows individuals to systematically explore and develop multiple aspects of themselves such as their physical body, emotional intelligence, cognitive awareness, interpersonal relationships, and spiritual wisdom. Because integral theory systematically includes more of reality and interrelates it more thoroughly than any other current approach to assessment and solution building, it has the potential to be more successful in dealing with the complex problems we face in the 21st century.

Integral theory provides individuals and organizations with a powerful framework that is suitable to virtually any context and can be used at any scale. Why? Because it organizes all existing approaches to and disciplines of analysis and action, and it allows a practitioner to select the most relevant and important tools, techniques, and insights. Consequently, integral theory is being used successfully in a wide range of contexts such as the intimate setting of one-on-one psychotherapy as well as in the United Nations “Leadership for Results” program, which is a global response to HIV/AIDS used in over 30 countries. Towards the end of this article I provide additional examples of integral theory in action to illustrate the variety of contexts in which people are finding the integral framework useful.

Wilber first began to use the word “integral” to refer to his approach after the publication of his seminal book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality in 1995. It was in this book that he introduced the quadrant model, which has since become iconic of his work in general and integral theory in particular. Wilber’s quadrant model is often referred to as the AQAL model, with AQAL (pronounced ah-qwal) standing for all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states, and all types. These five elements signify some of the most basic repeating patterns of reality. Thus, by including all of these patterns you “cover the bases” well, ensuring that no major part of any solution is left out or neglected. Each of these five elements can be used to “look at” reality and at the same time they represent the basic aspects of your own awareness in this and every moment. In this overview I will walk you through the essential features of each of these elements and provide examples of how they are used in various contexts, why they are useful for an integral practitioner, and how to identify these elements in your own awareness right now. By the end of this tour, you will have a solid grasp of one of the most versatile and dynamic approaches to integrating insights from multiple disciplines. So let us begin with the foundation of the AQAL model: the quadrants.



According to integral theory, there are at least four irreducible perspectives (subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective) that must be consulted when attempting to fully understand any issue or aspect of reality. Thus, the quadrants express the simple recognition that everything can be viewed from two fundamental distinctions: 1) an inside and an outside perspective and 2) from a singular and plural perspective. A quick example can help illustrate this: imagine trying to understand the components of a successful meeting at work. You would want draw on psychological insights and cultural beliefs (the insides of individuals and groups) as well as behavioral observations and organizational dynamics (the outsides of individuals and groups) to fully appreciate what is involved in conducting worthwhile meetings.

These four quadrants also represent dimensions of reality. These dimensions are actual aspects of the world that are always present in each moment. For instance, all individuals (including animals) have some form of subjective experience and intentionality, or interiors, as well as various observable behaviors and physiological components, or exteriors. In addition, individuals are never just alone but are members of groups or collectives. The interiors of collectives are known generally as intersubjective cultural realities whereas their exteriors are known as ecological and social systems, which are characterized by interobjective dynamics. These four dimensions are represented by four basic pronouns: “I”, “we”, “it”, and “its.” Each pronoun represents one of the domains in the quadrant model: “I” represents the Upper Left (UL), “We” represents the Lower Left (LL), “It” represents the Upper Right (UR), and “Its” represents the Lower Right (LR).


As both of the Right-Hand quadrants (UR and LR) are characterized by objectivity, the four quadrants are also referred to as the three value spheres of subjectivity (UL), intersubjectivity (LL), and objectivity (UR and LR). These three domains of reality are discernable in all major languages through pronouns that represent first-, second-, and third-person perspectives and are referred to by Wilber as “the Big Three:” I, We, and It/s. These three spheres can also be characterized as aesthetics, morals, and science or consciousness, culture, and nature.


Integral theory insists that you cannot understand one of these realities (any of the quadrants or the Big Three) through the lens of any of the others. For example, viewing subjective psychological realities primarily through an objective empirical lens distorts much of what is valuable about those psychological dynamics. In fact, the irreducibility of these three spheres has been recognized throughout the history of Western philosophy, from Plato’s True, Good, and Beautiful to Immanuel Kant’s famous three critiques of pure reason, judgment, and practical reason to Jürgen Habermas’ validity claims of truth, rightness, and truthfulness (Fig. 2). Wilber is a staunch advocate of avoiding reducing one of these spheres into the others. In particular, he cautions against what he calls flatland: the attempt to reduce interiors to their exterior correlates (i.e., collapsing subjective and intersubjective realities into their objective aspects). This is often seen in systems approaches to the natural world, which represent consciousness through diagrams of feedback loops and in the process leave out the texture and felt-sense of first- and second-person experience.


One of the reasons integral theory is so illuminating and useful is it embraces the complexity of reality in ways few other frameworks or models do. In contrast to approaches that explicitly or inadvertently reduce one quadrant to another, integral theory understands each quadrant as simultaneously arising. In order to illustrate the simultaneity of all quadrants I will provide a simple example with Figure 1 in mind. Let us say I decide I need to buy some flowers for the garden and I have the thought, “I want to go to the nursery.” The integral framework demonstrates that this thought and its associated action (e.g., driving to the garden store and purchasing roses) has at least four dimensions, none of which can be separated because they co-arise (or tetra-mesh) and inform each other. First, there is the individual thought and how I experience it (e.g., mentally calculating travel time, the experience of joy in shopping, or the financial anxiety over how I will pay for my purchase). These experiences are informed by psychological structures and somatic feelings associated with the UL quadrant. At the same time, there is the unique combination of neuronal activity, brain chemistry, and bodily states that accompany this thought, as well as any behavior that occurs (e.g., putting on a coat, getting in the car). These behaviors are associated with various activities of our brain and physiological activity of the body, which are associated with the UR quadrant. Likewise, there are ecological, economic, political, and social systems that supply the nursery with items to sell, determine the price of flowers, and so on. These systems are interconnected through global markets, national laws, and the ecologies associated with the LR quadrant. There is also a cultural context that determines whether I associate “nursery” with an open-air market, a big shopping mall, or a small stall in an alley, as well as determining the various meanings and culturally appropriate interactions that occur between people at the nursery. These cultural aspects are associated with worldviews in the LL quadrant.


Thus to have a full understanding of and appreciation for the occurrence of the thought, “I’m going to the nursery,” one cannot explain it fully through just the terms of either psychology (UL), or neurobiology and physiology (UR), or social and economic dynamics (LR), or cultural meaning (LL). For the most complete view, as we will see, one should take into consideration all of these domains (and their respective levels of complexity). Why is this practical? Well if we tried to summarize this simple situation by leaving out one or more perspectives, a fundamental aspect of the integral whole would be lost and our ability to understand it and address it would be compromised. Thus, integral practitioners often use the quadrants as their first move to scan a situation or issue and bring multiple perspectives to bear on the inquiry or exploration at hand.



Key Sources of Research:


Introduction to the Integral Approach (and the AQAL Map)

Ken Wilber





Ken Wilber

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (1), February 1997, pp. 71­92 Copyright, 1997, Imprint Academic


Integral Theories of Everything: Ervin Laszlo and Ken Wilber





Sean Esbjörn-Hargens




Integral Spirituality

The Role of Spirituality in the Modern and Postmodern World

Ken Wilber
Summer 2005






A Comprehensive Approach to Today’s Complex Planetary Issues

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens Michael E. Zimmerman






An All-Inclusive Framework for the 21st Century

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens






Integral Theory in Action

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens





In defense of Integral Theory

In response to Critical Realism

Ken Wilber





Social Work as an Integral Profession

Heather Larkin





The Evolution of Integral Futures

A Status Update

By Terry Collins and Andy Hines





Ken Wilber – Excerpt G:

Toward A Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies





Integral Resources






A Synoptic Overview and Resource Guide for Integral Scholars

Nicholas H. Hedlund-de Witt





The Full-Spectrum Project

Christian Arnsperger




Opportunities and Challenges

Christian Arnsperger



Full-Spectrum Economics: Toward an Inclusive and Emancipatory Social Science

By Christian Arnsperger


Published by Routledge




Sean Esbjörn-Hargens





Metatheory for the 21st Century: Critical Realism and Integral Theory in Dialogue
Roy Bhaskar, Sean Esbjö-Hargens, Mervyn Hartwig, Nicholas Hedlund-de Witt

Routledge, Jul 22, 2015 – Social Science – 358 pages