The Birth of Integral Theory

In this blog I have attempted to create a snapshot of the American philosophy of Pragmatism. In doing this I have emphasized how ideas are developed as part of, and in response to, larger cultural currents. Pragmatism emerged and developed during the height of what is known as the modern era which began with the European Enlightenment and grew to become the uncontested champion worldview in western thought until the midpoint of the twentieth century. The economic, political and moral failures of two world wars, a great depression and then the lingering cold war, were seen as the failures of the overly progressive modernist spirit.

The disillusionment from these events accelerated the already growing introspective mood of 20th Century America. In the Beatniks of the 1950’s became the Hippies of the 1960’s and a popular infusion of Eastern Spiritual teachings and practices swept through the counter culture. Simultaneously interest in psychology, particularly the psychoanalytic methods pioneered by Sigmund Freud, was growing rapidly. This interest in psychological processing led to the growth of a plethora of therapeutic modalities and theories of human development that multiplied through the course of the 1960’s and 1970’s in America.

Any seeker after truth and development during this time found at their disposal a dizzying array of approaches, methods, systems, practices, philosophies and communities – east and west – to choose from. Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christian Mysticism, Judaism, Psychoanalysis, Psychosynthesis, The Human Potential Movement, Meditation, Martial Arts and so on. With so many different paths to human development popularly available it was probably inevitably that someone would come along and try to sort them all out.

One young American was confused by all of the diversity represented in these human development systems and wanted to learn how to effectively compare such seemingly different systems based on such a wide array of different philosophical and intellectual principles. His name was, Ken Wilber, and his answer to the puzzle of how these different methods of development were related was his first book, “The Spectrum of Consciousness.”

The fundamental thesis of that book is simple and elegant and arguably not entirely original, but it was described with an elegance and breadth of scope that made it enormously compelling. Wilber was describing a theory that recognized that consciousness had different aspects, different functions, and that these aspects or functions could be seen as existing as part of a continuum that he was calling “the spectrum of consciousness.”

The different psychological methods and spiritual practices that had become so popular in the two decades since the midpoint of the century were all aimed at the development of consciousness, but they were not all aimed at the same aspect or function of consciousness. In Wilber’s book he describes in detail how the different aspects of consciousness lie within a spectrum that has an inherently hierarchal structure. Some aspects of consciousness are higher than others. He then proceeded to match different psychological approaches, spiritual practices and systems of human development with the aspects of consciousness that they address.

This book captured the attention of many people and sparked what became called the “Transpersonal Revolution” and what Wilber would eventually develop into his conception of Integral Theory. As his theory grew he would eventually describe the universe as a single evolving continuum. Aspects of his theory closely resemble and were in part inspired by, the thinking of the American Pragmatists.

The firstness, secondness, and thirdness of Charles Sanders Peirce in particular bear a striking resemblance to Wilber’s conception that reality can be mapped into four quadrants. Like Peirce, Wilber starts with the three perspectives represented by the first, second and third person points of view. In Wilber’s construction, however, reality is divided in half twice. For those who might not be familiar with these quadrants I will attempt the simplest possible explanation. The first time reality is vertically split into the inner dimension of existence and the outer dimension of existence – what I see inside myself and what I see outside myself. These halves are again split into individual and collective aspects. So the inner dimension is split into what I see in me, and what we share together in the form of inner ideas and values. The outer dimension is split into an external view of me or another and an external view of the world that we exist within.

And so Wilber in an attempt to understand the diverse forms developmental approaches that emerged after the fall of Pragmatism gave birth to Integral Theory.