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.
Jeff, The first Wilber book I read was A Brief History of Everything, which lead me into Sex, Ecology and Spirituality (SES..a bench mark book) subsequently I ended up reading most of his other works. I commend you for your effort at a concise view of quadrant view….not an easy task! I am wondering if you have ever run across the Construcal Theory of Social Dynamics byAdrian Bejan? The Constructal Law by Bejan (1996) states: “For a finite size flow system to persist in time (to survive) its configuration must evolve in such a way that it provides easier and… Read more »
Thanks for the post. I am not familiar with Adrian Bejan, but I will make sure I get acquainted. And I agree with you we are all standing on the shoulders of giants – and the more I read of the giants the more I realize that I have plenty to learn from them still. The first book I read by Wilber was No Boundary which was a “readers digest” version of The Spectrum of Consciousness. If you are curious to hear an interview I did with John White about how Ken Wilber got his start you can find it… Read more »
I do not know if people have time to listen to the interview, but it is very clarifying about verticality. Some lines of what it adds to the above: Wilber devised a way to place different approaches to the study of consciousness (both eastern and western, spiritual and psychological) into a linear sequential spectrum. Just like on an electromagnetic spectrum there are different frequencies: Infra-red, X-rays, gamma-rays, ultra violet or visible light that cannot all just be called ‘light’; so has consciousness different frequencies that cannot be all just called ‘consciousness’. Wilber showed that the different objectives of therapies (i.e.… Read more »
Only thing that I think is important to point out is that Ken has used other people’s ideas to build a synthesis of them, including Adi Da’s original Seven Stages of Life, which became the foundation of much of Wilber’s early work, and more recently, Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics. He is a great consumer and synthesizer of others’ ideas. But these are not exactly his ideas in every case, and we should give credit where credit is due.
That is certainly true. Ken is a great synthesizer he has even borrowed from American philosophy. He has used the term “The myth of the given” for instance which comes from the philosopher Wilfred Sellers – I will have to do a post on Sellers sometime. But sure Ken has synthesized a great deal of information and come up with some important original contributions as well. Adi Da is some one else I would like to write more about when I next get onto more spiritual topics.
Synthesizers make an important contribition – like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry who, among others, synthesized country and blues to create rock n roll.
Ken Wilber’s integral quadrants help sort all those great ideas.
Hello to all, I am late again and the post I am back on is about Ken Wilber. Guys I don’t know what to tell you of positive about Ken Wilber. For me a synthesizer of ideas is just not a giant. There is a strict hierarchy there. A giant is someone who breaks THROUGH and gets something new for humanity, not only synthesizes what others have discovered. I am not sure I would even call Ken a philosopher. Ken is juts not a Wittgenstein; not at all in the same category in terms of genius. In my opinion it… Read more »
I would agree with you that one of Ken’s strengths is as a synthesizer of knowledge, but that has also been true of many giants of thinking. I am not sure if Ken is of the intellectual stature of a Wittgenstein and I suspect not, but honestly I don’t know that much about Wittgenstein. I do think that it is only through time that the real genius floats to the top. Whatever is Ken’s genius – or if there is any real genius in his thinking – will be revealed by how much his thinking shapes the future. In that… Read more »
There is another example of extreme simplicity: ‘ I think therefore I am’
I also began Wilber’s oeuvre with “Sex, Spirituality and Ecology” and was duly impressed. I’ve tried to disseminate the inside cover diagram of the Four Quadrants of Holistic Consciousness that gave me a true understanding of what consciousness entails. I also take away and have repeated here in my blogs Wilber’s pointing out that evolution continues and is ongoing and that the omega point of humanity’s evolution, indeed our destiny (!) is Enligtenment. I subscribe to this assertion that gives sense to much of what I have learned in my spiritual development. What has also added to my understanding of… Read more »
Jeff, re: “And I agree with you we are all standing on the shoulders of giants” In the trajectory of evolution, there are those who present information of revelatory importance, what was not realized till their revelations. Sometimes this seems disclosures of new truths but more often it’s a case of sythesizing work and knowledge of others, not to be minimized. Thus we say we progress on the shoulders of others. To point out the truths of others serves the purpose of reinforcing truths when that wisdom has maybe been put aside and neglected or unrecognized. Catherine: it’s disappointing to… Read more »