A Critical Look at Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrant Model
Thomas J. McFarlane / http://www.integralscience.org/wilber.html
Ken Wilber is regarded by some as one of the most influential contemporary thinkers in transpersonal psychology and spirituality. His ambitious program to develop a systematic integration of all knowledge is described in various books such as his A Brief History of Everything (1996), A Theory of Everything (2000), and The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1998). The centerpiece of Wilber’s grand synthesis is his Four Quadrant model, which he presents as an integration of the perennial philosophy’s great chain of being with the modern differentiation of the cultural value spheres. In this paper I would like to point out a critical problem with Wilber’s model, and propose a remedy.
A central teaching of the perennial philosophy is that reality is a great chain of being, extending from the most real, true, and perfect transcendental Being at the top, down through the subtler levels of being, to the least real, most transitory and imperfect gross levels of being at the bottom. (For an excellent modern presentation of the great chain of being, see Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth.) Following the hermetic maxim “as above, so below,” this hierarchy of objective being in the outer macrocosm is reflected in the inner microcosm as a hierarchy of subjective knowing within each individual. Thus, corresponding to the transcendent, subtle, and gross levels of being (ontology) are the transcendent, subtle, and gross modes of knowing (epistemology). For example, we know transcendent being with the soul, we know subtle being with the mind, and we know the gross levels of being with the body. (In Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s terminology, these epistemological levels correspond to introception, conception, and perception. See his Transformations in Consciousness, pp. 133-140.) The great chain of being can thus be roughly represented by the following diagram:
THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING
The Four Quadrant model is Wilber’s proposed framework to integrate the great chain of being with the four modern value spheres. Following Weber and Habermas, Wilber observes that a fundamental distinguishing feature of our modern period is the differentiation of the cultural value spheres: the realms of the individual (“I”), culture (“WE”), nature (“IT”) and society (“THEY”). Or, equivalently, the domains of psychology/art, religion/morality, natural science, and social science. Wilber represents these modern differentiations in terms of four quadrants, as follows:
THE FOUR MODERN VALUE SPHERES
The essence of Wilber’s grand synthesis is, in his own words, “to integrate the Great Chain with the differentiations of modernity. ...This means that each of the levels in the traditional Great Chain needs to be carefully differentiated in the light of modernity” (The Marriage of Sense and Soul, p. 14). A consistent and faithful implementation of this idea should preserve all levels in the great chain within all the four quadrants. For simplicity, let us first just consider what this integration should look like in the upper two (“I” and “IT”) quadrants. One would naturally expect these two quadrants to look much like the knowing and being columns of the traditional great chain of being, with each quadrant having a hierarchy of transcendent, subtle, and gross levels of the great chain:
FAITHFUL INTEGRATION OF THE GREAT CHAIN INTO THE TWO UPPER QUADRANTS
Surprisingly, however, this is not what Wilber’s upper two quadrants look like. Although the hierarchy in the “I” quadrant of his model includes all the levels of knowing in the great chain, the hierarchy in the “IT” quadrant of Wilber’s model is not the traditional hierarchy of being at all. Instead, Wilber’s hierarchy of being is a strictly material hierarchy (from elementary particles to molecules, to cells, and up through to biological organisms, the human brain, and its physical functions):
WILBER’S INTEGRATION OF THE GREAT CHAIN INTO THE TWO UPPER QUADRANTS
Thus, the transcendent and subtle levels of objective being are not included in Wilber’s individual exterior (“IT”) quadrant. An analogous omission is made in Wilber’s hierarchy for the exterior collective (“THEY”) quadrant. All the levels in this quadrant are also just material levels of collective complexity (from primitive collections of atoms in the form of galaxies, to collections of atoms and molecules in the form of planets, up through collections of organisms into ecosystems, and collections of human organisms into societies). Thus, in both Right Hand quadrants, the hierarchy is completely physical, and omits the subtle and transcendent levels of objective being.
In contrast to Wilber’s scheme, all the wisdom traditions recognize all the ontological levels of being that correspond to all the levels of knowing. As Plotinus writes in his Enneads, “Knowing demands the organ fitted to the object.” For example, the subtle realities of angels, archetypes, celestial hierarchies, archetypal deities, and so on, are all the objects of subtle mental knowing, just as the gross realities of the physical plane are objects of gross perceptual knowing. Thus, the levels of being in the true great chain of being include not just the gross, physical levels of matter and their increasingly complex degrees of organization, but also the subtle and transcendental levels of being. For example, the true ontological correlate of Atman (the highest level of knowing) is Brahman (the highest level of being) and not the functioning of a complex configuration of matter within the lowest level, as Wilber’s model has it.
The fact that Wilber’s model has no place for the deeper subtle or transcendent levels of ontological reality is a very serious defect: Two quadrants of his Four Quadrant model omit the most significant levels of the great chain of being, and the model is not therefore a faithful integration of the great chain with the four modern value spheres, as he claims. Moreover, because deep realities are excluded, his model purges external nature and the cosmos of intrinsic depth and meaning. As Wilber himself writes, “Although consciousness and value and meaning are intrinsic to the depth of the Kosmos, they cannot be found in the cosmos. That is, they inhere in the Left Hand dimensions of the Kosmos, not in the Right Hand surfaces” (A Brief History of Everything, p. 245). This assertion is correct, however, only if we prohibit the mind and soul from taking exteriors as their objects, and limit ourselves to knowing exteriors with our bodily sensations alone. The result of restricting our knowledge of exteriors to perception is that we will only see the perceptual surfaces of objects. We are then blind to seeing any depth in the exterior cosmos and reduce the meaning of "exterior" to the physical alone as Wilber has done. Moreover, Wilber’s assumption that we know exteriors only through perception is inconsistent with the fact that, with subtle conceptual thought (i.e., mathematics), we can see beyond the perceptual surfaces of exterior objects and know their deeper subtle nature (i.e., physical laws). Similarly, through the operation of mystical insight, we can see beyond the perceptual surfaces and beyond the subtle depths of exterior objects and know their deepest true nature. Also, because Wilber’s model gives no ontological depth to the exterior world, it provides no way to comprehend how modern physics could converge with mystical views of the world. This convergence, however, is completely comprehensible if Wilber’s model is corrected to properly include deep exteriors, for then the mystical ascent up the interior levels toward the Atman approaches the same reality (from the opposite side of the interior/exterior distinction) as the physicist’s ascent up the exterior levels toward Brahman. This convergence is consistent with Wolff’s statement that “once it is realized that [the physicist] is unfolding the laws governing the obverse of the Real, his knowledge can be employed at a Way to Recognition of that Reality. I can now see how our present physical science is unfolding a peculiarly beautiful Path to Yoga” (Experience and Philosophy, p. 137).
It is worthwhile in conclusion to briefly note that any model will necessarily have its limitations. But what is most disturbing about the Four Quadrant model is that Wilber presents it as “A Theory of Everything” and a model for the “whole Kosmos” when it, in fact, blinds us to very significant dimensions of reality. The effect is that a partial vision is presented as being a complete vision of the whole. Fortunately, it is not difficult to correct Wilber’s model. One need only restore the subtle and transcendent exterior levels of being to their rightful place in the Right quadrants.
In addition to correcting Wilber’s model, one can go further and substantially extend it. Recently I have developed an alternate spherical model that transcends and includes Wilber’s planar 2-D model. Although a detailed description of this spherical model is beyond the scope of this paper, a few words can be said about it here. In this new model, a corrected version of Wilber’s Four Quadrant model naturally emerges as a projection of the sphere onto the 2-D plane. This symbolic “shift in the base of reference” (cf. Transformations in Consciousness, pp. 280-282) from the plane to the sphere symbolically reveals, through the symmetry of the sphere, the identity of subject and object, of emptiness and form, and of all levels of being in the great chain. In addition, the sphere provides a perspective from which transformations between the quadrants and levels can be coherently understood. An especially intriguing consequence of this spherical model is a metaphysical interpretation of the mathematical identity eiπ=–1 as representing the activation of the introceptive faculty, i.e., “the turning of the Light of consciousness upon itself and moving toward its source” (Transformations in Consciousness, p. 144).
Wilber's Excerpt C: The Ways Ware Are in This Together presents some new developments in his ideas that may resolve some of the issues discussed in this paper.
In most of his work, Wilber does not distinguish interior/exterior from inner/outer, and often describes the interior as inner and exterior as outer. For example, in Excerpt C he writes that his four quadrants
represent the inside and outside of the singular and the plural: hence, the four quadrants (subjective or "I," objective or "it," intersubjective or "we," and interobjective or "its").Thus Wilber uses 'inside' here as a synonym with 'interior' and 'outside' as a synonym with 'exterior'. In recent work, however, he distinguishes the two. Even in this writing, however, he is not consistent with his terminology and this leads to considerable confusion. Only just a few paragraphs after the above passage, for example, Wilber distinguishes inner from interior and outer from exterior when he begins to talk about
what an "I" looks like from the inside and from the outside; what a "we" looks like from the inside and from the outside; and so on with an "it" and an "its.Thus, Wilber now treats inside/outside as a distinction orthogonal to interior/exterior, producing what he calls "8 primal or indigenous perspectives that all holons have available to them." If this provides Wilber's model with a way to include the realities left out of his original AQAL map, many of the above objections could be resolved.