An overview of the work of Ken Wilber

by Richard A. Slaughter 

Those of us who live in the late 20th century cannot but be aware of the great schisms in our midst: islands of affluence in seas of poverty and despair; technical virtuosity amid global pollution and species extinctions; profound insight into the structure of the universe contrasted with a nihilistic, often angry pop culture endlessly lost in its own hostility and fear. This is a time of polarities and contradictions. Who can make sense of a such an upheaval? Many offer to do so, but few deliver the goods. We are left searching for an anchor point, a grounding, ways of understanding and action that move us forward beyond the conflict and confusion. They are not easy to find.

Western-style progress has all-but overwhelmed the globe. To many it seems unquestioned, unstoppable, hegemonic; quite simply: 'the way things are'. But the path to the future which began with the European Enlightenment and drove the Industrial Revolution, which, in a word, created the modern world, was never fully convincing. From the earliest days there have been protests, counter-currents, critiques and traditions that held out other possibilities, the seeds of quite different futures.

Western industrial civilisation grew powerful because it discovered instrumental rationality and used it to interrogate nature in quite new ways. In so doing it uncovered the secrets of raw technical power. Its method was science, its language was mathematics and its goal was to re-make the earth. Those who were involved in this process could clearly see the benefits of the emerging new technologies, along with the culture, society and economics that supported them. But the costs of the whole process only emerged over time. It was evident to the frame-breakers of the early 19th century. It was clear to Karl Marx when he sat down in the reading room of the British Library and penned his great critique of alienated labour. It was clear to the great American environmentalists of the late 19th century: John James Audubon, John Muir and the rest. It was clear to the suffragette movement which demanded votes for women. It was also clear to the critics and victims of colonialist expansionism.

Western technological civilisation has, by virtue of its very success and dynamism created a world that teeters unsteadily on the edge of a terrible abyss. But the awareness of how the human project is under threat from its own 'success' can be truly overpowering, unbearable. Hence the recourse by whole populations to all the strategies of avoidance, denial etc provided by ever-growing industries of distraction.

The good news: recovery is already under way

The good news is that paralleling the processes of breakdown outlined above are processes of recovery. Critique, protest, perception of dysfunction are all starting points for recovery. Women did win the vote. Environmental awareness did spread and become a mainstream concern. A truly vast range of social innovations - from trades unions to alternative technology and permaculture - have sprung up around the world. Futures studies originated in war games and remote think tanks, but today it is a globally-distributed presence with the potential to support a wide range of socially, culturally and economically progressive initiatives.

The realm of instrumental rationality clearly over-reached itself. While the proponents of 3D-TV, universal digital communication and nanotechnology continue on their self-appointed quest, many, many people are waking up to the fact that Western industrial culture was one-sided, that it left out something vital to people and to civilisation generally; that the apparent victory of science over religion was mist-cast and misunderstood; that, at base, there are other ways of knowing, other realities, other potentials to activate; that this is not the end of the road. Though it has been widely overlooked, Dystopia was ever and always only the end of industrialism, not that of the human race.

In very many places around the world a new synthesis has been taking place. It is one that looks freshly not just at Western culture, but at all cultures, and sees very clearly that there are many options, choices, strategies and so on, from which to re-fashion a viable view of the world. This 'worldview problem' has preoccupied perceptive people for some time. A number of questions have arisen. For example: 'we know we need to reconstruct a truly post-post-modern culture, but how do we do it? How do we discern and assemble the pieces? How can they be induced to cohere?' Such questions have awaited a new 'meta-map', a new structural account of 'where things fit' - and Ken Wilber has gone a long way toward providing exactly that.

Aspects of Wilber's framework

The central theme of Wilber's account is the evolution of consciousness and depth in the universe, both of which are manifestations of spirit. Each stage of evolution is held to involve a creative emergence in which one stage transcends and includes earlier ones. Wilber takes up Arthur Koestler's notion of the holon which is both a whole and a part. It leads to the notion of holarchy, the nested hierarchy of life, consciousness and meaning. Through a brilliant analysis of a variety of individuals and traditions of enquiry, Wilber argues that Western culture mistakenly assumed that rationality was the culmination and the end of evolution - whereas in this view it is simply a stage which may be transcended (and included) in a more integral view. The world of modernity, of industrialism, was constructed on a pattern that extinguished vertical distinctions and reduced them to the rationalistic interlocking elements of what he calls 'flatland'.

The consequences were devastating. Individuals and cultures were stripped of inner meaning and the external world (including the global ecology) was rendered into a set of things, mere resources. Consequently the world of modernity was built on an illusion: the illusion that only half of reality mattered: the external, objective, measurable part. In human terms, the achievement and the disaster of the modern world is the disengaged ego. The cry 'no more myths' led to the abandonment of any possibility of further development and to the 'disenchantment' of self and the world. In other words, what Wilber calls 'the big three', that is the world of 'I', that of 'we' and that of 'it', became dissociated each from the other. In this view, the great task of post-modernity is to re-integrate them.

A meta-map for a renewed worldview

Wilber's gift of grand synthesis has produced a framework that clearly points beyond these dilemmas. Matters are made much clearer by his use of four quadrants: a simple division between 'inner' and 'outer' on the horizontal axis; and between 'individual' and 'social' on the vertical one. Each quadrant is used to trace the process of evolution in that particular domain. So what we get are four complementary process. They are: interior-individual development; exterior-individual development; interior-social development and exterior- social development. In Wilber's words, 'the upper half of the diagram represents individual holons; the lower half, social or communal holons. The right half represents the exterior forms of holons - what they look like from the outside; and the left hand represents the interiors - what they look like from within.'[1]

The stages of development in the four realms are drawn from the work of many different observers. 'The upper right quadrant runs from the centre - which represents the Big Bang - to subatomic particles to atoms to molecules to cells to neural organisms to triune-brained organisms. With reference to human behaviour, this quadrant is the one emphasised by behaviourism.'[2] The upper left quadrant 'runs from the centre to prehension, sensation, impulse, image, symbol, concept and so on... With reference to human beings, this quadrant contains all the 'interior' individual sciences (among other things), from psychoanalysis to phenomenology to mathematics.'[3] The lower right quadrant runs through the stages of galactic and planetary evolution. With reference to humans it 'then runs from kinship tribes to villages to nation states to (the) global world system'.[4] It also incorporates the physical realms of architecture, technology etc. Finally, the lower left quadrant outlines the interiors of social systems; that is their culture, values and worldviews. These range from what Wilber calls the 'physical-pleromatic' stage to the 'mythic, rational and centauric' stages.[5]

The grounds of cultural recovery

The above is but a partial summary of an integral account of individual and collective development over a long period of time. Readers are therefore urged to consult the original sources. Yet even this sketch provides a basis for some very clear insights about the possible grounds of cultural recovery. I will here briefly mention five.

First, Wilber's account re-establishes a vertical, or inner, dimension that was nearly lost during the modern period. Second, he clarifies the sources and resolutions of modern pathologies which are associated with different types of arrested development, corresponding to each of the levels of evolution. (For example, a key pathology of the industrial period is the 'disengaged ego'.) Third, he carries forward the work of the great technological sceptics of our age, writers such as Lewis Mumford and Jaques Ellul. Fourth, he re-establishes the absolute centrality of human agency and human aspiration as a key springboard for social evolution. Finally, he gives new clarity to some of the most promising ways ahead. Put briefly, this means understanding and refusing the modernistic 'flatland' in all its many guises, then clarifying and pursuing further stages of personal and social development.

The most interesting futures ...

Wilber's analysis provides inspiration for those who have known for a long time that the route to a livable future was not just via the door marked 'instrumental reason, technology and progress'. What he offers is a broader, higher and deeper frame. It challenges us to lift our eyes, and our aspirations, from the measures of success, wealth and well-being that have become 'normal' in these late industrial, highly abnormal, times. The perspective offers a decisive rejoinder to all those who think that the keys to the future will be found via genetic engineering, the internet or nanotechnology. It links the central project of futures studies with all those widespread and progressive forces that are attempting to recover from three centuries of industrial overkill and expansionism; forces that are seeking to re-spiritualise the world.

Equally, Wilber's account gives heart to all those who believe that individuals do matter, that what they do (or fail to do) has real consequences. The path to social innovation is clear. It runs from the clear understanding of particular individuals, their commitment to whatever form of practice that will elevate their consciousness from the mental-egoic to that of vision-logic and beyond. From here the products of higher-order engagement are expressed in social innovations of many kinds, inner and outer. It follows that the most interesting futures are not those which spring from one or two of the developmental quadrants, but from all of them.

It is easy to imagine futures in which vision-logic, the transpersonal realm and those beyond it were never achieved; easy because the Dystopian consequences have been so clearly displayed in books, films, tv, computer games and so on. In this context, the continuing emergence of powerful new technologies could only lead to what I have termed 'a continuing disaster' because the 'It' world contains no principle of self-limitation. If left to itself 'It' will engulf human cultures and the world as well.

But if we shift the scene, change the parameters, a different world picture emerges. In a world where the 'average level' consciousness was close to the vision-logic stage or above, the powers of new technologies would be seen anew. Raw technical power would be reigned in because it would be clearly understood that such power, taken alone, was entirely defeating of the wider human project. In other words, the most interesting futures are those in which human and social evolution matches that of scientific and technological development. One term for this is 'transformational futures'. The latter should not be seen merely as 'flaky' notions to be dismissed by hard-headed realists. The latter only need to look with clear-eyed awareness at the 'high-tech wonderland' (the 'It' world which is constantly paraded before us) to see within it structural limitations and the seeds of its own demise. However, beyond all the pathways of despair and breakdown lie futures that are qualitatively different and which hold out quite new human and cultural options. As I have noted elsewhere: 'when a right relationship is re-established between people, culture and technology a whole new world of options emerges. This is the key which unlocks the future, takes us beyond the collapse of industrialism, moves us decisively beyond the abyss, proves that there can indeed be 'light at the end of the tunnel''[6]

This paper is Copyright (C) Richard A. Slaughter, 1997. All rights reserved.


  1. Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: the Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, Boston, 1995, page 121.

  2. Ibid. page 121.

  3. Ibid. page 122.

  4. Ibid. page 123.

  5. Ibid. page 123.

  6. Richard Slaughter, The Foresight Principle: Cultural Recovery in the 21st Century, London, Adamantine, 1995, page 173.

Richard A. Slaughter is the author or editor of about a dozen futures books. He is the director of the Futures Study Centre in Melbourne, and may be contacted by email on: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Vol. 7, No. 3