The Universal Polymath: All Quadrants, Levels, Epochs & Domains

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The ideal of the Global Mind or Universal Polymath is at the opposite end of the intellectual and creative spectrum from the parochial specialist who knows a great deal about one narrow field of inquiry and as viewed from a single ideological perspective. Sadly, our educational system today is designed to develop narrowly educated technological and managerial specialists, not multi-disciplinary learners much less Universal Polymaths, Integrative Thinkers, Global Minds or Great Souls. We live in a superficial age of  that grubs on junk food for the facile mind rather than feast at the banquet of knowledge that offers the finest cuisine of every kind.

In his numerous books including The Spectrum of Consciousness, Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, and A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber develops an integral and emergent approach to the exploration of human knowledge and experience under the general rubric of All Quadrants, All Levels (AQAL).

1. ALL QUADRANTS: The four quadrants refer to the internal personal, external personal, internal collective, and external collective realms of Intention, Behavior, Culture and Society. Since Wilber’s books are readily available and there are numerous expositions and charts on that worldwide web that clarify his integrative approach that encompasses consciousness and cosmos, mind and matter, subjectivity and objectivity, first-person experiences and third person observations

2. ALL LEVELS: For Ken Wilber the levels of being encompass the material, embodied, mental, soulful and spiritual dimensions as a series of nested structures, reflecting the idea of the Great Chain of Being. He later develop his model of levels of being in terms of Spiral Dynamics which I’ll comment on in a moment.

I am proposing two additional rubrics of encompassing knowledge. they are “All Epochs, All Domains” (AEAD).

3. ALL EPOCHS: By “All Epochs” I mean the historical ages that include the Primordial, Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Post-Modern and Trans-Modern world pictures and frames of mind. Of course there are a variety of divergent traditions within each of these six epochs but they seem to share a “family resemblance” and to distinguish themselves from the ages and epochs that precede and follow them. For this reason it is enlightening to study the flow of historical process from one age to the next, seeing them dialectically as a series of both critical and constructive (push-pull) reactions and responses to each previous age.

Some historical theorists have preferred a linear progressive approach in interpreting the meaning of the past. Auguste Comte famously interpreted history as an evolutionary progress from superstitious reliance upon religion to speculative reliance upon philosophy and finally to empirical reliance upon science to deliver the truth about ourselves and the world. His worldview was materialism and his epistemology scientism. Scientific materialists still embrace Comte’s views today. Critics of Comte’s “positivism” such as Iain McGilchrist view his materialistic and reductionistic paradigm as the tyranny of the left-brain and the vanquishing of the right brain. I’m inclined to agree.

Other historical thinkers like Gibbon in The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire see the meaning of history in terms of the rise and fall of Great Empires where each imperial power has within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Jared Diamond takes this idea of “rise and fall” further in his books Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse. Diamond believes all the great empires have fallen because they have destroyed their own natural habitats and depleted their food and energy sources. He thinks we are doing that again today on a global scale and the results will be nothing less than cataclysmic for our entire planetary future unless we can reverse humanity’s heedless and rampant destruction of the natural world.

Still other historical thinkers like Leonard Shlain in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess and Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary both see the course of history and the epochs of time as profoundly influenced by dialectical alternations between the dominance of the right-brain hemisphere and the dominance of the left brain hemisphere. They see this as a tension between the primacy of images and words, symbols and signs. The right-brain is holistic and organic. The left-brain is reductive and mechanistic. We need both sides of the brain to fully function as human beings. Shlain and McGilchrist associate an excessive dependency upon the quantifying and literalizing left-brain and the shutting down of the qualitative and symbolically oriented right-brain as manifesting traits of spectrum autism, asperger’s syndrome and the schizoid personality, and in extreme cases of schizophrenia.

In their book Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe see the course of American history as having largely been shaped by a repeating four-stroke cycle of psychological and social orientations that they label as idealist, reactive, civic and adaptive.

Still other historical thinkers envision history as a dialectical and integral “spiral dynamic” that is both linear and cyclical. Based on the earlier work of Clare Graves, Don Beck and Chris Cowen outline such an approach in their book Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. They envision the shape of the past in terms of eight historical and cultural value meme that have evolved dialectically between the poles of collectivism and individualism, altruism and egoism. The names they give to these eight cultural values memes that have emerged within the progressive ages of history are Instinctive, Clannish, Egoistic, Purposeful, Strategic, Relativistic, Systematic, and Holistic. They also label them as SurvivalSense, KinSpirit, PowerGods, TruthForce, StriveDrive, HumanBond, FlexFlow, and GlobalView. Ken Wilber employs their spiral model as a refinement of the ancient idea of the Great Chain of Being that include Matter, Body, Mind, Soul, and Spirit.

In exploring all of these and other maps, models and paradigms we do well to remember that the map is not the territory. They may serve as useful tools but invarably such maps of consciousness and culture exclude whatever does not fit well within its particular paradigm and whatever the map-maker wants us to notice.

A commitment to seeking the wisdom of “All Epochs” means that we attempt to stand at least partly outside the parochial and limiting influence of the particular historical moment and cultural context in which we happen to live so that we might see the wider arc of history from multiple and diverse perspectives beyond our own. “Chronological snobbery” may prevent us from understanding and appreciating the wisdom and insights of earlier cultures and civilizations which we assume to have superseded in every way.

4. ALL DOMAINS: By “All Domains” I mean the general domains of human knowledge and life experience, that is, of critical intelligence and practical wisdom. The general domains of critical intelligence include religion and philosophy, literature and history, art and science, psychology and sociology, among others. Some domains  appear to privilege the assumptions, methods, values and perceptions of the right-brain hemisphere, while other seem to privilege the assumptions, methods, values and perceptions of the left brain hemisphere. Of course the ideal will be an integration of the wisdom and knowledge of both brain hemispheres without either side trumping or annexing the other. That is sometimes easier said than done. Our natural preferences are difficult of restrain and reign in, even when we know that we tend to over-rely on one side more than the other.

The general domains of life experience include our relationship with our self and our significant others (partner, family, friends, community), with work and leisure, time and money, culture and society, nature and spirit, matter and mind, or if you like, the visible and invisible, the sensuality experienced and intuitively perceived.

In brief, what it means to cultivate the ideal of The Global Mind and Universal Polymath is to make our dwelling place in All Quadrants, All Levels, All Epochs and All Domains. This, of course, is the work of a lifetime, and we will probably have to acquire this knowledge the old-fashioned way as self-motivated and self-educated learners. We will read widely across the whole spectrum of the liberal arts. We will seek to notice everything  that is hiding in plain sight. We will strive to learn from every life experience, explore the wide-wide world beyond the cozy shire.There are no short-cuts. General knowledge and profound wisdom both require time, space, silence and solitude for “gestation” to occur. They require reflection and dialogue, a continual meeting of minds in the wild play of ideas. If we are able to find a few friends and comrades, exemplars and mentors who share our passion for the expansive and integrative life of the mind, we will count ourselves lucky and blessed.

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