Ken Wilber was born on January 31, 1949 in Oklahoma City, OK. In 1967 he enrolled as a pre-med student at Duke University, and almost immediately experienced a disillusionment with what science had to offer. He became inspired, like many thousands of others of that generation, by Eastern literature, particularly the Tao Te Ching, which catalyzed his interest in Buddhism. He left Duke, enrolled in the University of Nebraska, and completed a bachelor's degree with a double major in chemistry and biology.
In 1973, Wilber completed his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, in which he sought to integrate knowledge from disparate fields. After rejections by more than twenty publishers it was finally accepted in 1977 by Quest Books, and he spent a year giving lectures and workshops before going back to writing. He also helped to launch the journal ReVision in 1978.
In 1983, Wilber was married for a second time, this time to Terry (Treya) Killam who was shortly thereafter diagnosed with breast cancer. From the fall of 1984 until 1987, Wilber gave up most of his writing to focus on caring for her. Treya died in January, 1989, and their joint experience was recorded in the book Grace and Grit (1991).
Subsequently, Wilber wrote Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES), (1995), the massive first volume of a proposed Kosmos Trilogy. A Brief History of Everything (1996) was the non-footnoted, popularised summary of SES in the form of an imagined, extended interview. The Eye of Spirit (1997) was a compilation of articles he had written for the journal ReVision on the relationship between science and religion. Throughout 1997 he had kept journals of his personal experiences, which were published in 1999 as One Taste, a term for cosmic or unitary consciousness. Over the next two years his publisher, Shambhala Publications, took the unusual step of releasing eight re-edited volumes of his Collected Works. In 1999, he finished Integral Psychology and wrote A Theory of Everything (2000). In A Theory of Everything Wilber attempts to bridge business, politics, science and spirituality and show how they integrate with theories of developmental psychology, such as Spiral Dynamics. His book, Boomeritis (2002), is a novel which attempts to expose what he perceives as the egotism of a generation born between 1945-1964, collectively known as "Baby Boomers" or "Boomers" for the booming number of births that took place during those years. Since 1987, Wilber has lived in Denver, Colorado, where he is working on his Kosmos trilogy and overseeing the work of the Integral Institute.
One of Wilber's main interests is in mapping what he calls the "neo-perennial philosophy", an integration of some of the views of mysticism typified by Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy with an account of cosmic evolution akin to that of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo. He rejects most of the tenets of "Perennialism" and the associated anti-evolutionary view of history as a regression from past ages or yugas.. Instead, he embraces a more traditionally Western notion of the great chain of being. As in the work of Jean Gebser, this great chain (or "nest") is ever-present while "relatively" unfolding throughout this material manifestation, although to Wilber "...the "Great Nest" is actually just a vast morphogenetic field of potentials"...". In agreement with Mahayana Buddhism, he believes that reality is ultimately a nondual union of emptiness and form, with form being innately subject to development over time.
Wilber argues for the value of mystical realization and in opposition to metaphysical naturalism:
Another example is that a letter is a self-existing entity and simultaneously an integral part of a word, which then is part of a sentence, which is part of a paragraph, which is part of a page; and so on. Everything from quarks to matter to energy to ideas can be looked at in this way.
In his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Wilber outlines approximately twenty tenets that characterize all holons. These tenets form the basis of Wilber's model of manifest reality.
AQAL (pronounced aqual or ah-qwul) represents the core of Wilber's work. AQAL stands for "all quadrants all levels", but equally connotes 'all lines', 'all states' and 'all types'. These are the five irreducible categories of Wilber's model of manifest existence. In order for an account of the Kosmos to be complete, Wilber believes that it must include each of these five categories. For Wilber, only such an account can be accurately called "integral." In the essay, "Excerpt C: The Ways We Are in This Together", Wilber describes AQAL as "one suggested architecture of the Kosmos".
All of Wilber's AQAL categories — quadrants, lines, levels, states, and types—relate to relative truth in the two truths doctrine of Buddhism, to which he subscribes. According to Wilber, none of them are true in an absolute sense: only formless awareness, "the simple feeling of being," exists absolutely.
An account or theory is said to be AQAL, and thus integral (inclusive or comprehensive), if it accounts for or makes reference to all four quadrants and four major levels in Wilber's ontological scheme, described below.
Each holon, or unit of reality that is both a whole and a part of a larger whole, has an interior and an exterior. It also exists as an individual and (assuming more than one of these entities exists) as a collective. Observing the holon from the outside constitutes an exterior perspective on that holon. Observing it from the inside is the interior perspective, and so forth. If you map these four perspectives into quadrants, you have four quadrants, or dimensions (these are unrelated to the three spatial dimensions).
To give an example of how this works, consider four schools of social science. Freudian psychoanalysis, which interprets people's interior experiences, is an account of the interior individual (or, in the diagram, the upper-left) quadrant. B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, which limits itself to the observation of the behavior of organisms, is an exterior individual (upper-right) account. Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics interprets the collective consciousness of a society, and is thus an interior plural (lower-left) perspective. Capitalism economic theory examines the external behavior of a society (lower-right).
The right sides of the quadrants are concerned with empiric observation — what does it do? The left sides of the quadrants focus on interpretation — what does it mean? Wilber contends that modern times evidence a pathological separation from healthy evolution due to a near-complete focus on the right sides, with the denial of the left sides as having no meaning being a fundamental cause of society's malaise.
All four pursuits – psychoanalysis, behaviorism, philosophical hermeneutics and Marxism – offer complementary, rather than contradictory, perspectives. It is possible for all to be correct and necessary for a complete account of human existence. Wilber has integrated these four areas of knowledge through an acknowledgement of the four fundamental dimensions of existence. Further, these four perspectives are equally valid at all levels of existence.
One such scheme describes the ethical developmental line, for example:
Within each broad stage, there are sub-levels. Spiral Dynamics is one theory that elaborates on these sub-levels.
Another broad organization of the levels contains three categories:
This organization reveals more of Wilber's synthesizing activity. Freudian drives, Jungian archetypes, and myth are pre-personal structures. Empirical and rational processes are at the personal level. Transpersonal entities include, for example, Aurobindo's Overmind, Emerson's Oversoul, Plato's Forms, Plotinus' nous, and the Hindu Atman, or world-soul.
The exceptional feature of Wilber's approach is that, under this methodology, all of these mental structures — subconscious, rational, mystical—are considered complementary and legitimate, rather than competing in a zero-sum conceptual space. And that is perhaps Wilber's greatest accomplishment — the opening up of a space wherein more ideas, theories, beliefs, and stories can be considered true, responsible, and acceptable.
Many criticize the strict hierarchical nature of Wilber's conception of the level. But consider, for example, the hierarchical nature of matter itself. Sub-atomic particles are composed of quarks. Atoms are made of sub-atomic particles. Molecules are made of atoms. Cell organelles are made of molecules, etc. This is similar to how Wilber conceives of levels. One must attain the lower levels before the higher levels because the higher levels are constituted by the lower level components. Thus, when represented graphically, the levels should appear as concentric circles, with higher levels transcending but also including lower ones. Wilber also attacks the equating of hierarchy with patriarchy using a similar line of argument.
As Wilber remarks in the CD interview Speaking of Everything: "This can all be done deductively". In other words: 'I could be wrong about the precise characteristics of some or all of the stages or levels. But nonetheless, it's clear that psychological and cultural development follows a pattern, and that pattern is always from more partial to more whole.''
States of consciousness include: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep, and nondual. (In the mystical traditions of which Wilber is a part, these four states correspond to four realms:
Therefore, it is theoretically possible for someone at a low cognitive level to experience an advanced mystical state.
|Individual|| Standard: Truthfulness, (1st person)|
(sincerity, integrity, trustworthiness)
| Standard: Truth, (3rd person)|
(correspondence, representation, propositional)
|Collective|| Standard: Justness, (2nd person)|
(cultural fit, rightness, mutual understanding)
| Standard: Functional fit, (3rd person)|
(systems theory web, structural-functionalism, social systems mesh)
"All four of these are valid forms of knowledge, because they are grounded in the realities of the nature of every holon. And therefore all four of these truth claims can be confirmed or rejected by a community of the adequate [those competent in that knowledge]. They each have a different validity claim which carefully guides us, through checks and balances, on our knowledge quest. They are all falsifiable within their own domains, which means false claims can be dislodged by further evidence....
Wilber describes the current state of the "hard" sciences as limited to "narrow science", which only allows evidence from the lowest realm of consciousness, the sensorimotor (the five senses and their extensions). What he calls "broad science" would include evidence from logic, mathematics, and from the symbolic, hermeneutical, and other realms of consciousness. Ultimately and ideally, broad science would include the testimony of meditators and spiritual practitioners. Wilber's own conception of science includes both narrow science and broad science, e.g, using electroencephalogram machines and other technologies to test the experiences of meditators and other spiritual practitioners, creating what Wilber calls "integral science".
According to Wilber's theory, narrow science trumps narrow religion, but broad science trumps narrow science. That is, the natural sciences provide a more inclusive, accurate account of reality than any of the particular exoteric religious traditions. But an integral approach that evaluates both religious claims and scientific claims based on intersubjectivity is preferable to narrow science.
"Integral post-metaphysics" is the term Wilber has given to his attempts to reconstruct the world's spiritual-religious traditions in a way that accounts for the modern and post-modern criticisms of those traditions.
The Wilber-Combs Lattice is a conceptual model of consciousness developed by Wilber and Allan Combs. It is a grid with sequential states of consciousness on the x axis (from left to right) and with developmental structures, or levels, of consciousness on the y axis (from bottom to top). This lattice illustrates how each structure of consciousness interprets experiences of different states of consciousness, including mystical states, in different ways.
Wilber's conception of the perennial philosophy has been primarily influenced by Madhyamaka Buddhism, particularly as articulated in the philosophy of Nagarjuna. Wilber has been a dedicated practitioner of Buddhist meditation since his college years, and has studied under some widely recognized meditators, such as Dainin Katagiri, Maezumi Roshi, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Kalu Rinpoche, Penor Rinpoche and Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. The nondual mysticism of Advaita Vedanta, Trika (Kashmir) Shaivism, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Plotinus, Ramana Maharshi, and Andrew Cohen, as well as the teaching and works of Adi Da, which Wilber has on several occasions singled out for the highest praise (while expressing reservations about Adi Da as a teacher), are also strong influences. These influences have led Wilber to assert that those desiring enlightenment should seek out "the outlaws, the living terrors, the Rude Boys and Nasty Girls of God realization" and that "Every deeply enlightened teacher I have known has been a Rude Boy or Nasty Girl". Wilber's conception of spiritual evolution and psychological development draws on Aurobindo, Adi Da, Andrew Cohen, Jean Gebser, the great chain of being, German idealism, Erich Jantsch, Jean Piaget, Abraham Maslow, Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, James Mark Baldwin, Jürgen Habermas, Howard Gardner, Clare W. Graves, Robert Kegan and Spiral Dynamics.
William Irwin Thompson, who shares Wilber's admiration for Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, and Eastern philosophy, has harshly criticized Wilber's theoretical approach and scholarly achievements. In his 1996 book Coming into Being: Texts and Artifacts in the Evolution of Consciousness, Thompson characterized Wilber's approach as "compulsive mappings and textbook categorizations" and as excessively objectifying and "masculinist".
Christian de Quincey considers Wilber's integral theory to be an intellectual edifice that denigrates emotion. This statement (made in 2000 in "The Promise of Integralism: A Critical Appreciation of Ken Wilber's Integral Psychology" in the Journal of Consciousness Studies) and others in the same essay led to a bitter exchange of replies and counter-replies between Wilber and de Quincey, which can be found on de Quincey's and the Shambhala websites.
Steve McIntosh praises Wilber's work but also argues that Wilber fails to distinguish philosophy from his own Vedantic and Buddhist religion , that his theory of lines of development misrepresents Howard Gardner's position and, in any case, doesn't take into account Daniel Goleman's distinction between rational and emotional intelligence, and that his AQAL system does not take into account the fact that beginning at the human level (complex neocortex) there has been no change in the biological structure of the brain, this role being taken instead by human-made artifacts .
Christopher Bache is complimentary of some aspects of Wilber's work, but calls Wilber's writing style glib and superior. He also says that Wilber tends to overlook the more complicated aspects of spiritual purification and past-life interpretation..