Wilber, Ken

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Editors: David A. Leeming , Kathryn Madden , and Stanton Marlan
Date: 2010
Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion
Publisher: Springer
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Wilber, Ken

Leon Schlamm

Wilber’s Integral Psychology

Ken Wilber (1949) is the most influential writer in the field of transpersonal psychology (Wilber, 1977, 1980,1981a, b, 1983a, b, 1991, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999,2000a, b, 2002, 2006), having for more than two decades been widely acclaimed as its preeminent theoretician. Working self-consciously in the tradition of such systematic philosophers as Hegel, Schelling, and Habermas, he has presented his readers with a cartography of the spectrum of consciousness which, in spite of much elaboration on his original speculative model of the development of consciousness, has continued to be one of the defining features of his integral psychology Drawing upon an impressive variety of sources from the world’s mystical traditions (particularly Hindu and Buddhist contemplative traditions, as well as twentieth century Indian mystics such as Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo), developmental psychology (e.g., Alexander, Arieti, Broughton, Graves, Kegan, Kohlberg, Loevinger, Lowen, Piaget, Sullivan, Wade), psychoanalysis (principally Freud and Erikson), analytical psychology (Jung and Neumann), humanistic psychology and psychosynthesis (Maslow and Assagioli), the history of Western philosophy, anthropology (e.g., Beck, Gebser, Lenski), and physics (e.g., Bohm, Capra, Jeans, Pribram), Wilber has consistently argued that human consciousness possesses a hierarchical structure. There are many different psychological and spiritual levels of development, and each level both integrates the properties and achievements of the lower level and transcends its limitations. Identifying an underlying metaphysical pattern assisting integration of the natural and human sciences with the spiritual perspective of the perennial philosophy (e.g., Coomaraswamy, Guenon, Huston Smith), Page 963  |  Top of ArticleWilber introduces the concept of the holon which is simultaneously both a whole (in relation to the parts that are at developmentally lower levels) and a part (of a greater whole that is at a higher developmental level). According to Wilber, all human experience (individual and collective) is evolving through a hierarchically organised great chain of holons (or “Great Chain of Being”) toward the self-realisation of spirit in non-dual mystical experience, although evolutionary fixation can occur at any developmental level (Wilber, 1977, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000a, b, 2006; Cortright, 1997; Rothberg, 1998;De Quincey, 2000; Visser, 2003; Reynolds, 2006).

Wilber’s Cartography of the Spectrum of Consciousness

It is this vision of holarchical integration and the evolution of consciousness (including the correlation of ontogenetic with phylogenetic stages of development) which shapes Wilber’s assessment of the relationship between psychological and spiritual development. Wilber identifies many universal, deep structures (distinguished from surface structures) of consciousness which transcend all cultural conditioning: the prepersonal, prerational, preegoic (fulcrums 0–4: primary matrix[pleromatic, uroboric non-differentiation]; sensoriphysical[autistic, symbiotic, psychotic]; phantasmic-emotional[identification of the ego with the body, typhon, Freudian primary process, sexual energy, libido, prana magical world view, narcissistic-borderline]; representational mind[impulsive, self-protective, punishment/obedience, preconventional, mythical world view, psychoneuroses]; rule/role[concrete operational, conformist, conventional, approval of others, law and order, mythical world view,]), the personal, rational, egoic (fulcrums 5 and 6: formal reflexive[formal operational, individualistic, conscience, postconventional, identity neuroses]; centaur[ vision logic integration of mind and body and of conflicting points of view, planetary consciousness, gateway to transpersonal]), and the transpersonal (or spiritual), transrational, transegoic (fulcrums 7–9: psychic[nature mysticism, body-based spiritual practices as in shamanism and kundalini-yoga paranormal abilities]; subtle[deity or theistic mysticism, as in Christian mysticism, Sufism and Indian bhakti]; causal[formless mysticism celebrated by Hindu and Buddhist canonical literature]), beyond which lies the non-dual ground of all experience, of unmanifest formlessness and manifest form (often identified as level 10, and typically associated with the sunyavadin tradition of Mahayana Buddhism).

Moreover, he argues that, by integrating the materials of western depth-psychology and developmental psychology with those of the Hindu and Buddhist contemplative traditions, he can delineate the different developmental competences and pathologies of each level of the spectrum of consciousness. Wilber claims that competing schools of psychotherapy and spiritual emancipation (with their different treatment modalities) address different levels of the spectrum and different developmental problems. Since depth-psychology and developmental psychology address the prepersonal and the personal structures of consciousness and mystical traditions are concerned with the transpersonal levels, no school of psychotherapy or spiritual liberation is marginalised. Each is understood to convey partial and complementary truths about human consciousness (Wilber, 1977, 1980, 1981a, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000a, b, 2006; Cortright, 1997; De Quincey, 2000; Ferrer,2002; Visser, 2003; Reynolds, 2004, 2006).

The Role of the Ego in Transpersonal Development

It is Wilber’s claim, that all types of psychotherapeutic and spiritual practice can be graded by being integrally embraced within the holarchical spectrum of consciousness, which has provoked such intense controversy among transpersonal psychologists. The issue at the heart of this controversy is Wilber’s understanding of the role of the ego (the personal self) in transpersonal development. Wilber argues that the ego (fulcrum 5), with its capacity for detached witnessing of the conventional world, is not dissolved but preserved, and typically strengthened, by transpersonal structures. Although exclusive identification of consciousness with the ego is transcended (and thereby dissolved) during spiritual development, the ego, with its rational competences and its scientific worldview, is included within, and utilised by, all transpersonal levels of consciousness. This means, for Wilber, that the acquisition of the ego, as well as modern rationality and science, should not be viewed as an obstacle to spiritual development (the cause of alienation of consciousness from spirit), but rather as a very significant spiritual achievement, a necessary, evolutionary step toward spiritual maturity, a movement of spirit toward spirit. Accordingly, Wilber argues, the spiritual function of science and modern rationality is to strip us of our infantile and adolescent, prerational views of spirit, to dismantle the transitional, archaic, magical and mythic worldviews associated with the prerational or prepersonal fulcrums, in order to make room for the genuinely transrational insights of authentic mystical Page 964  |  Top of Articletraditions. Such a critique by modernity (and postmodernity, as in the vision logic of fulcrum 6) of premodernity enables us to realize that mysticism is evolutionary and progressive, not devolutionary and regressive, and thus lies in our collective future, not our collective past (Wilber, 1981b, 1983b, 1991, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000a, 2006; Washburn, 1988; Cortright, 1997; Grof, 1998; Kremer, 1998; Rothberg, 1998; Walsh, 1998; De Quincey, 2000; Visser, 2003; Reynolds, 2006).

Wilber’s Pre/Trans Fallacy

Moreover, it is this linear model of psychological and spiritual development and the pivotal role of the ego in spiritual transformation which leads Wilber to another defining feature of his integral psychology: his persistent disjunction of spiritual evolution from psychological regression. He criticises many contemporary writers who confuse or equate spiritual development with regression, by obscuring the differences between prepersonal and transpersonal states and stages of development. Because prepersonal and transpersonal states and stages appear to share certain characteristics (e.g., the quality of fusion or union and the lack of a primary focus on rationality), these writers confuse or equate them, and thereby commit what Wilber calls the pre/trans fallacy The pre/trans fallacy can assume two forms. The first (ptf-1) claims that transpersonal, mystical experiences are nothing but a regression to prepersonal, infantile states. It is Freud and his followers who are charged with ptf-1: the fallacy of reductionism. However, Wilber engages more passionately and persistently with ptf 2 than ptf 1: the fallacy of elevationism He argues that Jung and the Romantic movement (and more recently much of New Age and countercultural spirituality) are responsible for the elevation of prepersonal, infantile fusion states (in which a stable personal ego has not yet emerged) to the transegoic and transrational “glory” of mystical union (in which the personal ego has already been transcended). More specifically, Wilber charges Jung with several types of elevationism leading to the misidentification of psychological regression with spiritual evolution: (1) the confusion of primary matrix (fulcrum 0) with causal level, formless mysticism (fulcrum 9), (2) the confusion of magic (fulcrum 2) with psychic level, nature mysticism (fulcrum 7), (3) the confusion of mythic images (fulcrums 3 and 4) with subtle level archetypes (fulcrum 8). Wilber has repeatedly censured Jung for his failure to adopt a linear, evolutionary perspective which differentiates between the “ape side” and the “angel side” of human nature, the prepersonal and the transpersonal levels of the collective unconscious. For Wilber, this elevationism is particularly evinced by Jung’s assumption that archetypes are images of instincts, and by Jung’s failure to discriminate between experiences of pre-personal mythic images (which are more self-centric and narcissistic than egoic experiences) and those of transpersonally located archetypes. Wilber concludes that Jung’s archetypes are actually a pre/trans fallacy mixture of divine and primitive psychic contents, which “wobble between transrational glory and prerational chaos” (Wilber, 1983b,1991, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000a, 2002, 2006; Washburn, 1988, 1998; Grof, 1989, 1998; Odajnyk, 1993; Cortright, 1997; Visser, 2003; Reynolds, 2004, 2006).

Challenges to Wilber’s Integral Psychology

Many transpersonal psychologists have challenged the metaphysical, soteriological, and psychotherapeutic assumptions of Wilber’s integral psychology Wilber’s Neo-Peren-nialism, in particular his reification and elevation of deep structures of consciousness to transcendental status, has been questioned because it is not susceptible to empirical verification and falsification, but rather appears to depend on Wilber’s experience of meditation for its authority. The essentialism and subtle objectivism of Wilber’s metaphysical perspective, which perpetuates false dichotomies between universalism and postmodernism, imposes severe constraints on the variety of forms of spiritual evolution, leading to a misleading homogenization of religious traditions and an unjustifiable privileging of non-dualistic religious traditions. Wilber’s claim that progress through the transpersonal levels or fulcrums of consciousness is sequential and unalterable (from psychic to subtle to causal to non-dual) has been challenged, because it is supported neither by clinical materials nor by those of the world’s mystical traditions. In the spiritual domain a single invariant sequence of development does not appear to exist. Moreover, some transpersonal psychologists have insisted, contrary to Wilber, that regression can be a powerful tool for spiritual transformation; spiritual evolution typically does not follow a direct linear trajectory, but involves a combined regressive and progressive movement of consciousness. Because the therapeutic process addresses the prepersonal (including the biographical) and the transpersonal bands of the spectrum of consciousness simultaneously (rather than progressively), it is impossible to clearly delineate between psychotherapy and spiritual development (Washburn, 1988, 1998; Cortright, 1997; Grof, 1998; Heron, 1998; Kremer, 1998; McDonald-Smith and Rothberg, 1998; Rothberg, 1998; De Quincey, 2000; Ferrer, 2002).


Cortright, B. (1997). Psychotherapy and spirit: Theory and practice in transpersonal psychotherapy Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

De Quincey, C. (2000). The promise of integralism: A critical appreciation of Ken Wilber’s integral psychology. In J. Andresen & R. K. C. Forman (Eds.), Cognitive models and spiritual maps: Interdisciplinary explorations of religious experience (pp. 177–208). Bowling Green, OH: Imprint Academic.

Ferrer, J. N. (2002). Revisioning transpersonal theory: A participatory vision of human spirituality Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Grof, S. (1998). Ken Wilber’s spectrum psychology: Observations from clinical consciousness research. In D. Rothberg & S. Kelly (Eds.), Ken Wilber in dialogue: Conversations with leading transpersonal thinkers (pp. 85–116). Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Grof, S., & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual emergency: Understanding evolutionary crisis. In S. Grof& C. Grof(Eds.), Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis (pp. 1–26). Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Heron, J. (1998). Sacred science: Person-centred inquiry into the spiritual and the subtle Rosson-Wye, HR: PCCS Books.

Kremer, J. (1998). The shadow of evolutionary thinking. In D. Rothberg & S. Kelly (Eds.), Ken Wilber in dialogue: Conversations with leading transpersonal thinkers (pp. 237–258). Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

McDonald-Smith, M., & Rothberg, D. (1998). Bringing awareness back home: Toward an integrative spirituality. In D. Rothberg & S. Kelly (Eds.), Ken Wilber in dialogue: Conversations with leading transpersonal thinkers (pp. 165–178). Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Odajnyk, V. W. (1993). Gathering the light: A psychology of meditation Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Reynolds, B. (2004). Embracing reality: The integral vision of Ken Wilber New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Reynolds, B. (2006). Where’s Wilber at?: Ken Wilber’s integral vision in the new millenium St. Paul, MN: Omega Books/Paragon House.

Rothberg, D. (1998). Ken Wilber and the future of transpersonal inquiry: An introduction to the Conversation. In D. Rothberg & S. Kelly (Eds.), Ken Wilber in dialogue: Conversations with leading transpersonal thinkers (pp. 1–27). Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Visser, F. (2003). Ken Wilber: Thought as passion Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Walsh, R. (1998). Developmental and evolutionarysynthesis in the recent writings of Ken Wilber. In D. Rothberg & S. Kelly (Eds.), Ken Wilber in dialogue: Conversations with leading transpersonal thinkers (pp. 30–52). Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Washburn, M. (1988). The ego and the dynamic ground: A transpersonal theory of human development Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Washburn, M. (1998). The pre/trans fallacy reconsidered. In D. Rothberg & S. Kelly (Eds.), Ken Wilber in dialogue: Conversations with leading transpersonal thinkers (pp. 62–83). Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Wilber, K. (1977). Thespectrum of consciousness Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Wilber, K. (1980). The Atman project: A transpersonal view of human development Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Wilber, K. (1981a). No boundary: Eastern and Western approaches to personal growth Boulder, CO: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (1981b). Up from Eden: A transpersonal view of human evolution Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Wilber, K. (1983a). A sociable God: Toward a new understanding of religion Boulder, CO: New Science Library/Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (1983b). Eye to eye: The quest for the new paradigm Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Wilber, K. (1991). Grace and grit: Spirituality and healing in the life and death of Treya Killam Wilber Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, ecology, spirituality: The spirit of Evolution Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (1996). A briefhistory of everything Dublin, Ireland: Gill & Macmillan.

Wilber, K. (1997). The eye of spirit: An integral vision for a World gone slightly mad.Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (1998). The marriage of sense and soul: Integratingscience and religion.New York: Random House.

Wilber, K. (1999). One taste: The journals of Ken Wilber Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2000a). Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology,therapy.Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2000b). A theoryofeverything: An integral vision for business,politics, science, and spirituality Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2002). Boomeritis: A novel that will set you free Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2006). Integral spirituality: A startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world Boston, MA: Integral Books.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3042600539