Overview of Ken Wilber’s Theory

Overview of Ken Wilber’s Theory
of Integral Psychology
By Don Salmon, PhD

I believe that Wilber’s untiring efforts in presenting the idea of the evolution of consciousness, as well as his often incisive criticism of various New Age theories and “New Paradigm” philosophies are to be commended, and have in many ways helped pave the way for the work we are attempting to do of bringing recognition of the contributions of the Indic traditions. In the course of exploring what we may consider to be the limitations of Wilber’s work, I think it’s important at the same time to remain mindful of the enormous contribution he has made.


Ken Wilber’s first book, “The Spectrum of Consciousness”, was written in 1973 and published in 1977. The essential idea was quite simple and straightforward: there is a single, common thread running through not only all the spiritual traditions of the world, but the many apparently conflicting schools of psychotherapy – the evolution of consciousness. What appears to be conflicts between different traditions and schools, in this light, can be seen as addressing different levels and/or stages of consciousness, and ends up being complementary rather than contradictory. The idea was not by any means new – it had been proposed by many Theosophists and Vedantists throughout the 20th century, and Wilber did not make claims for the originality of this thesis in this book. I believe that the reason the book caught the eye of many in the field of transpersonal psychology is that nobody before had applied this idea directly to the various schools of therapy that were current in the 1960s and 1970s.


By the time Wilber’s second book, “The Atman Project”, was published, he had begun to have some misgivings about the way he was presenting the experience of “enlightenment”. He saw that many modern writers on religion, often following Jung, seemed to present the infant as born somehow in a state of full spiritual awareness, which is lost shortly after birth. Thus, seen in this light, the whole spiritual path becomes an effort to in some way return to the state of spiritual purity in which we all find ourselves at birth. Wilber saw this as a confusion between what he called “prepersonal states” (states of consciousness which exist prior to the formation of the individual ego) and “transpersonal states” (states in which the individual ego is transcended). The name he gave to this was the “pre/trans” fallacy. This, I think, is an example of a great service that Wilber performed for the presentation of Indic spiritual traditions. Since the 19th century, this idea that Nirvana or Mukti represented in some way a return to a more “primitive” state of consciousness (rather than a primordial Unity) has percolated through the writings of many Western interpreters (and often sympathizers!) of Eastern spirituality. Jung, as I think Wilber rightly points out, is full of this kind of romantic primitivism, and even many of the so-called “post-Jungians” (e.g. Michael Washburn and James Hillman) exhibit this same confusion.


I’ve read a number of Wilber’s descriptions of the third phase of the development of his theory. I can’t see that it involves much more than a slight modification of his earlier developmental theory. Whereas in Wilber-I and II he presents development as proceeding more or less in fairly predictable stages involving the whole personality, by the mid-1980s, he came to see that there were too many aspects of the personality that didn’t fit into this model. He borrowed (and has always acknowledged) the theory of educational psychologist Howard Gardner that different aspects of the personality mature along separate “lines” of development. Thus, the emotional development may have reached a certain stage, while the mental development lags behind, and the development of aesthetic sensibility may actually have moved ahead of both the emotional and mental development. (It seems that it is in this phase of the development of his theory that Wilber begins to claim he is going beyond the understanding of previous thinkers on the evolution of consciousness, including Sri Aurobindo, who didn’t, Wilber claims, have the benefit of modern psychological research. Wilber generally considers Sri Aurobindo’s “theory” to be in line with Wilber-II).

Wilber-IV: “All level, all quadrant”

Wilber has noted, correctly I think, that many writers seem to focus on one aspect of their field but proclaim their theories to be integral, comprehensive summaries of the state of knowledge of psychology, economics, politics, etc. The post-modernists tend to say that everything is a matter of social construction, leaving little room for objective social reality or subjective individual reality. The neuroscientists, on the other hand, reduce all inner subjective experience to objective brain states. To remedy these defects, Wilber presents a model of reality which is a circle divided into four quadrants. Having developed the ideas of levels and stages of consciousness, Wilber now says that a truly integral theory must take into account not only the development of the inner, individual consciousness (his upper left quadrant) but also the development of the physiological, or outer individual body expressing that consciousness (upper right quadrant), the inner socio- cultural or collective consciousness (lower left quadrant) and the outer social forms which express that consciousness (lower right quadrant). Put very simply, the left half of the circle represents the subjective, inner domain; the right half the objective, outer domain. The upper half represents the individual; the lower half, the collective.

Wilber claims that no pre-modern philosophy, East or West, was ever as comprehensive as his (he doesn’t quite say it so blatantly, but others have said it for him, and their quotes appear on his books!) because ancient and medieval philosophers did not sufficiently differentiate between inner and outer, individual and collective. More specifically, he refers to the great achievement of modernity being the differentiation of the “I”, the “we” and the “it”.

Another idea that Wilber began to focus on when he developed his four-quadrant idea is Arthur Koestler’s notion of the holon, along with the associated idea of holoarchy. According to Koestler, everything in the universe is a “holon” – that is, it is, in relation to the parts of which it consists, a greater whole, while it in turn, is a part of some still greater whole. This applies to levels and stages of consciousness, so evolution, rather than being a linear hierarchical process, consists of a process of ascent or transcendence with a subsequent integration of all that preceded it. Wilber likes to say that the “Great Chain of Being” may be more appropriately thought of as a “Great Nest of Being”, each level both including all previous levels and itself included in all higher levels.

I haven’t worked this out fully yet, but it seems to me that much of the development of Wilber’s theory seems to be an attempt to come to terms with an initial flaw in his original presentation of the evolution of consciousness, which seems to me to have been a highly linear and mechanical presentation. I think that despite all of his subsequent modifications – the pre/trans fallacy, the “lines of development”, the four quadrants, the notion of holoarchy, and his idea (which I haven’t mentioned yet here) that the “self-system” may be at any moment focused at any stage of development – his basic presentation remains linear and mechanistic.

For example, he seems to take what I call an “additive” rather than truly integrative approach in many domains. His solution for psychotherapy is to take each school of therapy – as it is – and apply it to individuals at their present stage of development. This is no way accounts for the fact that the understanding of a Rishi or sage regarding lower stages of development is going to be far superior than that of Freud or Jung. Wilber says that Freud understood far more about the lower stages of development than any yogi ever did. Yet, it seems to me that a true integration of Freudian thinking with yogic knowledge would result in such a complete transformation of psychoanalysis that just about nothing of the original would remain!

Similarly, Wilber wants to integrate first, second and third person scientific methodologies (he writes of this in “The Marriage of Sense and Soul”) by simply inviting scientists to make use of one, then the other approach, as the situation dictates. At best, he calls for scientists and therapists to note parallels and correlations of the different quadrants. But just to take the example of brain science – the samkhya did not come to an understanding of the subtle tattwas underlying matter by theorizing based on outer sensory experimentation but through a profound process of inner vision. If we are ever come to understand how the workings of the brain relate to the tattwas, I think it is going to result in a complete revision of virtually everything we now believe about how the brain functions. This revolution in neuroscience would, I think, constitute an example of true integration of the knowledge of the ancient sages with modern science.