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

quadrants copy

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.



3 thoughts on “Integral Thinkers: Exploring the Unfolding & Emergent Structures of Consciousness & Culture”

  1. Great summary. I’m wondering if you have read “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederic Laloux. (Ken Wilber wrote the foreword.) It helped me tremendously in thinking about the structure of an integral concept that I’ve been kicking around. I’d be interested in what you think of it. For information, go to .

      1. First of all, please note that you can download the book without paying anything. In 30 days, you are contacted and you pay whatever you feel like…

        If we are going to have much of a future we will need to create organizations that can rapidly create environments where residents live with a far smaller footprint than the current average. Something like this is possible. Think about handheld devices. We would not have envisioned 15-20 years ago that people in the future would be stumbling and driving down the street with their heads down and their thumbs flying over a tiny keyboard. Yet, millions do so today. What we now need is an Apple-like organization on steroids. This book, for the first time, allowed me to visualize how to scale up such an organization.

        I can see myself presenting the ideas in this book to a group that are fed up with their workplace. Alternatively, I cannot see myself presenting the integral concepts to more than a handful of people. This seems to be a good way to introduce more people to integral.

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