Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Ken Wilber
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Ken Wilber

Kenneth Earl Wilber Jr. (born January 31, 1949, Oklahoma City, USA) is an American philosopher. His work focuses mainly on uniting science and religion with the experiences of meditators and mystics. Although he is considered a founder of the transpersonal school of psychology, he has since disassociated himself from it.

In 2000 Wilber founded the Integral Institute, a think-tank for studying issues of science and society in an integral way. He has been a pioneer in the development of Integral psychology and Integral politics.


Table of contents
1 The Neo-perennial Philosophy
2 Holons and The Twenty Tenets
4 The Two Truths Doctrine
5 The Pre/Trans Fallacy
6 Influences
7 Wilber's Five Phases
8 Books By Wilber
9 Books About Wilber
10 Primary Sources and "Authorized" Websites
11 Sites of Friends and Fans of Wilber
12 Critiques
13 Interviews

The Neo-perennial Philosophy

Wilber's major theoretical accomplishment has been to create what he calls the Neo-perennial Philosophy by integrating Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy with a theory of spiritual evolution. Wilber's writings are ultimately attempts to describe how spirit, or ineffable nondual awareness, changes through time.

Some (namely, the Croatian esoteric philosopher Arvan Harvat) have noted that attempting to integrate a thoroughly nondual approach like Zen with an evolutionary view is ultimately impossible: if your model includes everything, how can it change? Wilber's response is that his theory is actually a 'rational reconstruction of a trans-rational state of consciousness'. In effect, Wilber concedes the ultimate futility—from a rational perspective—of his quest. His writings point beyond the rational to the mystical.

Holons and The Twenty Tenets

According to Wilber, reality does not consist merely of matter, or energy, or ideas, or processes. Instead, it consists of holons. A holon is a whole/part—it is a whole that is at the same time a part of a larger whole. Thus you are made of parts, like your heart, your brain, etc. Yet you are also a part of your society. Everything from quarks to galaxies to theories to poems to mice to a human being is a holon.

In his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evoution, Wilber outlines approximately twenty tenets [1] that characterize all holons. These tenets form the basis of Wilber's nondual model of consciousness.


AQAL (pronounced aqual) is the core of Wilber's work. AQAL stands for All Quadrants All Levels, but equally connotes All Lines, All States and All Types. Wilber's thesis is that, in order to give an inclusive, balanced and fair account—that is, an integral account—of anything, the account must be AQAL. Thus we must explain what Wilber means by Quadrants, Levels, Lines, States and Types.


Each holon has an interior perspective (an inside) and an exterior perspective (an outside). It also has a individual perspective and a collective (or plural) perspective. If you map these into quadrants, you have four quadrants, or dimensions: the interior individual, the exterior individual, the interior plural, and the exterior plural. Wilber sometimes calls these quadrants, referring to the chart [1], respectively, as upper-left (or UL), upper-right (UR), lower left (LL), and lower right (LR).

To give an example of how this works, consider four schools of social science. Freudian psychoanalysis, which interprets people's interior experinces, is an account of the interior individual dimension or quadrant. B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, which limits itself to the observation of the behavior of organisms, is an exterior individual account. Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics interprets the collective consciousness of a society, and is thus an interior plural perspective. Economic theory examines the external behavior of a society.

Thus all four pursuits—psychoanalysis, behaviorism, philosophical hermeneutics and economics—offer complimentary, rather than contradictory, perspectives. It is possible for all to be correct, and necessary for a complete account of human society. Wilber has integrated these four areas of knowledge through an acknowledgment of the four fundamental dimensions of existence.

Lines, streams, or intelligences

Are you more highly developed in certain areas than in others? According to Wilber, all holons have multiple lines of development, or intelligences—in fact, over two dozen have been observed. They include cognitive, ethical, spiritual, kinesthetic, affective, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, karmic, etc. One can be highly cognitively developed (cerebrally smart) without being highly morally developed (as in the case of Nazi doctors). However, he acknowledges, you cannot be highly morally developed without the pre-requisite cognitive development. So not all of the developmental lines are ontologically equal.

Levels or stages

The concept of levels follows closely on the concept of lines of development. The more highly developed you are in a particular line, the higher level you are at in that line.

Many criticize the strict hierarchical (or patriarchical) 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.

The simplest categorization that Wilber uses contains four levels:

Another scheme describes the ethical developmental line:

Within each broad stage, there are sub-levels (for example, these are along the cognitive developmental line): Another broad organization of the levels contains three categories:

This organization reveals more of Wilber's synthesizing talent. Freudian drives, Jungian archetypes, and myth are pre-personal structures. Empirical and rational processes are personal levels. Transpersonal entities include, for example, Aurobindo's Overmind, Emerson's Oversoul, and Plotinus' nous. The unique advantage of Wilber's approach is that, under this methodology, all of these mental stuctures—subconscious, rational, mystical—are considered complimentary and equally 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.

Wilber makes a very powerful remark in the CD interview Speaking of Everything: "This can all be done deductively." In other words: 'Maybe I'm 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.'


A state is basically a level that is only attained temporarily. Once you have unlimited access to a state of consciousness, then it is a permanent structure, or a developmental level.

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: gross, subtle, causal, and nondual.) Thus it is theoretically possible for someone at a low cognitive level—a newborn, for instance—to attain an advanced mystical state.


These are valid distinctions that are not covered under Wilber’s other categorizations. Masculine/feminine, the eight Enneagram categories, and Jung's archetypes and typologies, among innumerable others, are all valid types in Wilber's schema. Wilber makes types part of his model in order to point out that these distinctions are different from, and in addition to the already mentioned distictions: quadrants, lines, levels and states.

The Two Truths Doctrine

The Two Truths doctrine maintains that whatever does not exist in deep, dreamless sleep, doesn't exist absolutely. Therefore, all of the above categorizations are relative. None of them are absolute. Ultimately and absolutely, only nondual awareness exists. Wilber follows Aurobindo (and Hegel) in calling this nonduality "spirit". It is conceptually identical to Plotinus' One, and Schelling's Absolute.

Another way that Wilber puts this is that nonduality is both the highest rung in the ladder of the development of consciousness, and the wood from which the ladder is made.

The Pre/Trans Fallacy

Wilber has given a name, the Pre/trans fallacy, to a common misinterpretation of both his theory and of psychological development. Basically, the pre/trans fallacy is mistaking regression for growth. Wilber's writings depict how individuals (and societies) develop beyond the mature ego to a more holistic stage. Philosophical Romantics tend to interpret this as a return to an earlier, primordial stage. But that is not what Wilber calls growth—that's regression. Later, transpersonal stages are more encompassing—they include more perspectives. Earlier, pre-personal stages do not—they are more infantile, and ego-based.

Interestingly, Wilber characterizes his early work as falling victim to the pre/trans fallacy (see Wilber's Five Stages).


Wilber's conception of the Perennial Philosophy is influenced by the post-metaphysical, non-dual mysticism of Advaita Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, Nagarjuna, Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and Ramana Maharshi.

Wilber's conception of spiritual evolution or psychological development is typified by Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, the Great chain of being, German idealism and by developmental psychologies like those of Jean Piaget, Abraham Maslow, Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, Howard Gardner, Clare W. Graves, Robert Kegan and Spiral Dynamics.

Wilber's other major influences include: Tibetan Buddhism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Erich Jantsch. He is conversant with the philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Jürgen Habermas.

Wilber has in turn influenced scores of new age and religious writers. His works have also been read by several musicians, including Stuart Davis, Ed Kowalczyk, and Billy Corgan.

Although few academics are currently aware of Wilber's writings, Charles Taylor, one of the most important contemporary North American philosophers, has acknowledged Wilber's importance. (In Sex Ecology Spirituality, Wilber had frequently cited Taylor's work.) The slowness of academic philosophers to warm to Wilber's work is undoubtedly due to its mystical nature, and to Wilber's association with the New Age movement.

Wilber's Five Phases

Wilber himself identifies five phases [1] in the evolution of his ideas. According to Wilber, subsequent phases do not negate earlier phases, but transcend and include earlier phases, incorporating them into a deeper and more integrated whole.


"In other words, all of my books are lies. They are simply maps of a territory, shadows of a reality, gray symbols dragging their bellies across the dead page, suffocated signs full of muffled sound and faded glory, signifying absolutely nothing. And it is the nothing, the Mystery, the Emptiness alone that needs to be realized: not known but felt, not thought but breathed, not an object but an atmosphere, not a lesson but a life."
―"Foreword", in Frank Visser's Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, 2000

"I have one major rule: everybody is right. More specifically, everybody—including me—has some important pieces of the truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace."
―"Introduction", Collected Works of Ken Wilber, vol. VIII, p. 49

= Bibliography =

Books By Wilber

Books About Wilber

=External links=

Primary Sources and "Authorized" Websites

Sites of Friends and Fans of Wilber