Integral Thinkers: Exploring the Unfolding & Emergent Structures of Consciousness & Culture

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Sprial Dynamics

spiral dynamics integral

In his book, The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser sets forth his integral theory of five historically unfolding structures of consciousness and culture. These are the Archaic, Magical, Mythical, Mental and Integral (or A-Perspectival) frameworks or paradigms. (Wikipedia has a brief summary of these five lenses of perception).

In his book, Coming into Being, William Irwin Thompson compared Gebser’s structures of consciousness to Marshall McLuhan’s conception of the development of communication technology from oral culture to script culture to alphabet culture to print culture and then to electronic culture. In his books Transforming History and Self and Society Thompson went on to compare Gebser’s structures to the periods of the development of mathematics: arithmetic, geometric, algebraic, dynamical, and chaotic.

James Fowler has developed a five-stage model of faith development: 1. Intuitive-Projective, 2. Mythical-Literal, 3. Individual-Reflective, 4. Conjunctive-Paradoxical, and 5. Universal-Compassionate. (More about Fowler’s model can also be found on the internet).

In his book, A Brief Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber sets for his All integral vision of All Quadrants and All Levels. The four quadrants  the upper left Intentional internal individual “I”: the upper right Behaviorial external individual “It”; the lower left Cultural internal collective “We”; the lower right Social Systems “Its”. At the simplest level the levels align with the idea of the Great Chain of Being in ancient philosophy: Expressed as emanating downward causality they are Spirit, Soul, Mind, Body, and Matter. Expressed as evolutionary upward causality they are the reverse: Matter, Body, Mind, Soul, and Spirit. Later Ken Wilber adopts the eight-fold emergent structure of Spiral Dynamics.

In their book Spiral Dynamics, Chris Cowen and Don Beck, building upon the work of Clare Graves, developed an integral theory that encompasses eight evolutionary and emergent stages of human consciousness and culture.

Of course historians have long been attempting of find over-arching meaning, patterns and trends within the unfolding of human history. In their book Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe set forth a sort of integral theory of American history that is essentially cyclical in nature –consisting of Idealists, Reactives, Civics and Adaptives.

Some historians interpret the story of history in a rather pessimistic matter while others view it in a progressive matter. At the extremes are the apocalyptics and the utopians, and at the center are the idealist-realists, principled pragmatists, and those who think that “muddling through” is what humans have always done and will continue to do.

Some historicans give us such a fine-grained and variegated account of any historical period that it is difficult to say what, if anything, a particular period of time in a given culture is really, about since it is about so many seemingly contradictory and incommensurable things. Perhaps all we can say of any period, as Dickens does in A Tale of Two Cities, is that “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Perhaps all accounts of history are deeply paradoxical. Every new positive innovation and development seems to have its negative and unintended consequences. Every revolution eventually becomes reactionary, triggering a revolt by the new revolutionaries. It begins to look a bit like the idea of “historical dialectic,” whether interpreted by an idealist like Hegel or a materialist like Marx.

Nevertheless, without putting too fine a point on it, I think it is still useful to make the customary distinction between the Primal, Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Trans-Modern and Post-Modern periods, recognizing them as different zeitgeists and casts of mind, each with its own dialectical tensions and internal strifes.

What appeals to me about “integral thinking” is that it provides multiple yet integrative explanatory dimensions and levels for understanding natural, human and spiritual phenomena, rather than absolutizing any one quadrant or level of consciousness and culture while ignoring, degrading or demonizing the other “ways of knowing” (epistemologies) and “levels of reality” (metaphysics). Also, it draws upon the integral and encompassing wisdom of the right-brain hemisphere, and nests the critical, analytical, calulative knowledge of the more data and detail-oriented left-brian hemisphere within the larger contextually and holistically orientated right-brain hemisphere.  It fuses these two hemispheric ways of being and knowing together.

What are some different ways that people respond to integral theories, and why? Have you noticed that some people in their use of language are predominantly oriented toward the concrete, factual, detailed, empirical, specific, elemental, signal, literal and indicative, while others are predominantly oriented toward the abstract, fictional, schematic, theoretical, general, categorical, symbolic, figurative and analytical? And have you noticed that still others seem to combine these two approaches, the Rational-INTUITIVE and the Rational-SENSORY in equal measure? Studies in the characteristics of highly creative people indicate that they are able to combine opposite tendencies, to use both the strengths of the holistic integral right-brain and the critical analytical  left-brain.

Those who enjoy developing and exploring “integral theories” have been described as “rational-mystics.” What counts for some people is the skill with which particular “integral theorists” can provide credible peer-reviewed “empirical evidences” to support their grand integral theories. However, if one simply does not like or distrusts a particular integral theory, perhaps because it conflicts with a different “theory of everything” to which one is already consciously or unconsciously committed, there are probably not enough “arguments and evidences” in all the world to change a skeptic’s mind.

The same is ironically true if one is already committed to the post-modern proposition and “anti-theory” that “all theories of everything are not to be trusted.” If one prefers post-modern eclecticism, irony, absurdity and polyphrenia, then any attempt to develop an integral pluralist theory of everything will me met with grave suspicion and doubt.

However, if one has become equally disillusioned or dissatisfied with pre-modern religious dogmatism, modern objectivist physicalism and post-modern subjectivist relativism, then the trans-modern integral pluralist approach to reality that envisions the unfolding and emergence of multiple dimensions and levels of consciousness and culture may have a compelling appeal.


On Becoming a Student of Life-Long Learning & the Liberal Arts

lifelong learning

The first thing that must be said is that not everyone is called to become a student of life-long learning and the liberal arts. There are an infinite variety of ways to live one’s life, and this is but one of them. In the Simpsons Lisa Simpson is a precocious student while Bart Simpson is happy to be a “slacker dude.” Surely part of what makes us a student of life-long learning and the liberal arts is genetic and temperamental. Some people with very limited formal education become voracious readers and inquisitive thinkers, and this passion for learning extends throughout their entire lives. Other people who have been given all the advantages of formal education, even in the best institutions, never develop a passion for learning, a sense of wonder, or the inquisitive impulse to explore the great questions of life.

Today we live in a technological society with virtually unprecedented and access to knowledge and information from all directions. And yet the paradox is that in the midst of this revolution in information technology many either do not know how to access it to expand their minds or they prefer to amuse themselves with merely superficial news and entertaining diversions. While TV, radio and the daily newspaper can all provide us with the gossip of the hour, and on the public stations more critical analysis, there remains no substitute for personal reflection and the reading of encyclopedia articles, scholarly essays and serious books. To become a student of life-long learning and the liberal arts is to choose a thoughtful and concentrative way of life rather than a superfluous and dissipative one. Any attentive and disciplined reading of “the great books” (or even good ones) is a “difficult pleasure,” as Harold Bloom reminds us. It is easier to come home, crash on the couch, turn on the radio or TV, and skim the newspapers rather than to collect ourselves to read a serious articles and books that invite us to profoundly explore the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience.

Becoming a student of life-long learning and the liberal arts is a paradoxical pursuit. On the one hand we need to follow our instincts, trust our hunches, and follow the scent wherever the trail leads us. On the other hand we need to develop our study as a methodical discipline. We may read widely as we follow our instincts into the open and uncharted wilderness, but we also learn to read deeply as we seek to master a particular body of knowledge. The well-cultivated mind combines spontaneous play and disciplined work.

I am not optimistic that any time soon in our technological society where many settle for “amusing themselves to death” that we will see a dramatic influx in the number of serious students of life-long learning and the liberal arts. It’s simply too easy to be distracted by “the ten-thousand things” that pull at our attention from all directions. It’s too easy to let anxiety and boredom, white noise and headline news rob us of the clarity and concentration that are needed for thoughtful reflection and creative expression. But for those who are willing to wear the kindly yoke of intellectual freedom and educative discipline, the rewards are immeasurable.

Towards an Integral & Holistic World View & Way of Life


The perennial quest for an integral and holistic world view and way of life will encompass the seven dimensions of the Whole Mind, Whole Brain, Whole Person, Whole Culture, Whole World, Whole Cosmos and Whole Kosmos.

The chart below is a “mental map” that charts an integral and holistic perspective on human knowledge and life experience across these seven domains. Of course we are historically and culturally situated as finite human beings, and so our perspective on “reality” must necessarily be limited and partial. Nevertheless, there resides deep within our human nature a persistent desire to comprehend the greater whole of which we know ourselves to be the most small and fractional part. We seek to comprehend the nature of reality, our fleeting existence, and our fragile place within the Ecology of Being.




Particular – Relational – Universal

Differentiated – Connective – Undifferentiated

Reductive – Synthetic – Organic

Mechanistic – Complexity – Holistic

Particles – Process – Forms




Left Brain – WHOLE BRAIN – Right Brain

Rational, Empirical – EXPLICIT & IMPLICIT – Instinctive, Intuitive

Virtual Re-Presentation – REVERBERATION – Viseral Presentation

(See The Alphabet Vs. the Goddess; The Master & his Emissary)




Psychological Functions

Introversion & Extraversion, Intuiting & Sensing,

Feeling & Thinking, Perceiving & Judging

Linguistic Functions

Abstract Intuitive Use of Language

General, Categorical, Symbolic, Figurative, Analogic, Fictional, Schematic, Theoretical

Concrete Sensory Use of Language

Specific, Elemental, Signal, Literal, Indicative, Factual, Detailed, Empirical

Somatic Functions

Sight (Images & Movies) and Sounds (Speech & Music)

Smell, Taste, Touch

Stillness & Movement




Primordial, Ancient, Medieval,

Modern, Post-Modern, Trans-Modern




Central, North, South, East, West

Oceanic, African, Indian, Asian, Slavic, European,

North American, Meso-American, Latin American




Earth, Sun, Stars, Milky Way, Galaxies, Nebulas, Black Holes,

Dark Matter, Dark Energy, Quantum Vacuum, Multi-verse?




What, if any, spiritual heights and sacred depths dwell primally within, intimately near and infinitely beyond the horizons of the manifest world as known by our senses, emotions and reason?

Are there “more things in heaven and earth” than are contained in our human myths, religions, philosophies, poetry, arts and sciences?

How do we live with a sense of wonder in the presence of the Ineffable Mystery in which we live and move and have our being?