“An integral approach is based on one basic idea: no human mind can be 100% wrong. Or, we might say, nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time.​ And that means, when it comes to deciding which approaches, methodologies, epistemologies, or ways of knowing are “correct,” the answer can only be, “All of them.” That is, all of the numerous practices or paradigms of human inquiry — including physics, chemistry, hermeneutics, collaborative inquiry, meditation, neuroscience, vision quest, phenomenology, structuralism, subtle energy research, systems theory, shamanic voyaging, chaos theory, developmental psychology—all of those modes of inquiry have an important piece of the overall puzzle of a total existence that includes, among other many things, health and illness, doctors and patients, sickness and healing.” (Ken Wilber)

Part 1: Introduction to the Introduction

When I started (and later on stopped) studying sociology I always had this idea in my mind that there should be some way of bringing all the knowledge we humans gather together in a coherent way. Not just in the way of interdisciplinary studies but on a much larger scale. Something like a Wikipedia for science and philosophy with a stronger focus on the hierachical structure and interconnectedness of the topics. Problem is: How to get it structured? I was hoping for some kind of algorithm to do the work for me, but that just shows you how little I know of programming. So that was that.

Years later I realized that what I was basically looking for was some kind of all encompassing meta-theory and that it already exists (sic!), mostly thanks to one excessivily smart, handsome and very bald man called “Ken Wilber”, who spends a big chunk of his lifetime developing and writing about his theory. At some point I got the opportunity to give a presentation on the subject at my university and these pages are an extended and updated version of what i prepared back then. Ever since I learned about Integral Theory it helped to shape and structure my thinking and in turn reduces the chances of me being overwhelmed when I am faced with topics that are new too me or that I don’t know much about – because Integral Theory gives you a system to know “where to put things” And that is, seriously, damn useful. What I am trying to do here is to give an overview about the ideas that is condensed enough to be accesible without being too time- and brain power consuming, while being in-depth enough to still be of practical value. 

Well then, lets start with the one quote that got me hooked instantly:


It is flat-out strange that something – that anything – is happening at all. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird. ​

To Schelling’s burning question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” there have always been two general answers. The first might be called the philosophy of “oops.” The universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it’s all ultimately accidental or random, it just is, it just happens – oops! The philosophy of oops, no matter how sophisticated and adult it may on occasion appear – its modern names and numbers are legion, from positivism to scientific materialism, from linguistic analysis to historical materialism, from naturalism to empiricism – always comes down to the same basic answer, namely, “Don’t ask.” ​

The question itself (Why is anything at all happening? Why am I here?) – the question itself is said to be confused, pathological, nonsensible, or infantile. To stop asking such silly or confused questions is, they all maintain, the mark of maturity, the sign of growing up in this cosmos. ​

I don’t think so. I think the “answer” these “modern and mature” disciplines give – namely, oops! (and therefore, “Don’t ask!”) – is about as infantile a response as the human condition could possibly offer. ​


The other broad answer that has been tendered is that something else is going on: behind the happenstance drama is a deeper or higher or wider pattern, or order, or intelligence. There are, of course, many varieties of this “Deeper Order”: the Tao, God, Geist, Maat, Archetypal Forms, Reason, Li, Mahamaya, Braham, Rigpa. And although these different varieties of the Deeper Order certainly disagree with each other at many points, they all agree on this: the universe is not what it appears. Something else is going on, something quite other than oops…. ​(Wilber – A short history of everything)

Part 2: Holonic Tenets

The idea of the holonic structure of the universe lies on the basis of Wilbers Theory and due to its heavily abstract nature it might be, depending on your personality structure, the most interesting or the most bare-bone dry part of. The term “holon” was originally coined 1967 by Arthur Koestler in his book “The ghost in the machine” and is used by Wilber in his own way. He describes round about 20 Tenets – meaning the most basic or abstract statements that can be said about the nature of being. The first and most central among them are:

1. Reality as a whole is not composed of things, or processes, but of holons.

Reality is not merely composed of atoms or processes, but of “wholes” which are at the same time “parts” of other “wholes” aka whole/parts, or holons. Atoms are parts of molecules, which are part of cells, which are themselves part of organisms and so on. There is nothing that is not a holon, all the way up in complexity and all the way down (Turtles all the way up, turtles all the way down). Looking at things at this abstract level of analysis safes us from reductionism on either the atomistic or wholistic, as well as the materialist of idealistic end. Reality isn’t just composed of atoms (or whatever smaller unit we may find) in the same way everything isn’t “just one” as New Age Philosophy likes to believe and it’s also not just composed of thoughts, symbols or ideas: It’s composed of whole/parts of other whole/parts of other whole/parts of other whole/parts, of other whole/parts…

2. Holons display four fundamental capacities:


a. self-preservation (agency)

b. self-adaption (communion)

c. self-transcendence

d. self-dissolution

a. Every Holon on every level of complexity shows some capacity to maintain its own structure, to preserve its individuality and autonomy. This might be a hydrogen molecule continuing to be a hydrogen molecule unless there are forces at play that outrule his “ability” for self-preservation (of course the hydrogen molecule doesn’t have forms of intentionality at hand), or in the more complex form of living organisms like a cell, where the capacity for autopoesis (self-renewal) emerged. In short: The wholeness paspect of a holon is displayed in its pattern-preservation.

b. The opposed tendency to self-preservation or agency is the one of self-adaption which could also be termed as communion: The ability of a Holon (whole/part) to react and adapt to its surrounding holons all while mainting its own structure/pattern. Any imbalance in these two tendencies can lead to pathology or the destruction of the holon. Whether it is pathological agency (alienation and repression) or pathological communion (fusion and indissociation)

c. Holons can fuse with other holons and become “more whole” than they were before, think of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms which, under the right circumstances, form something new: water. This is something else than simpel communion: A new quality came into being that wasn’t there before.

d. Holons are built up in a vertical hierachy of complexity (think of quarks – atoms – molecules – cells – organs – animal) and can become unglued or dissolved along the line they were built up – only in reverse. These four qualities (or capacities) can be pictured along the lines of two horizontal opposites (agency and communion) and two vertical opposites (self-transcendence and self-dissolution)Holons Emerge: The emerging Holon has a novel quality: It brings something into existence that can’t be reduced to the parts it is made of. Examples of emergent phenomena are endless and just a google search away, one of the simplest being the watch you might or might not wear around your wrist. If you take it apart, carefully, piece by piece and then lay the things out in front of you all the parts are still there. But the thing that told you what time it is, obviously, isn’t.

3. Holons emerge.

Meaning that the quality that a new emerging Holon manifests can not be reduced to it’s sub-Holons. For example the mysterious phenomena of life which is an interplay and physics and chemestry. Or on a little more profane level a watch, a piece of tiny metal pieces, that when arranged correctly, suddenly manage to tell you what time it is.

3. Holons emerge holarchically.

Every increasingly complex Holon (read: whole/part) contains all of its predecessors but not vice verca. That constitutes an asymmetry in form of increasing complexity, leading unavoidably, to a nested hierachy (here called: holarchy). 

5. Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessor.

When a new Holon emerges it preserves the previous whole/parts into its own emergent quality, it “transends and includes” its predecessors. “All of the lower is in the higher, but not all of the higher is in the lower”. The basic structures of the pre-holons are incorporated into the new, more complex one, while its exclusivity structure, its partialness collapses into a deeper agency.

8. Each successive level of evolution produces GREATER depth and LESS span.

The greater the depth of a holon the less there is of it, since its existence depends upon its sup-holons. From Quarks to Atoms to Molecules – Cells and so on. The number of molecules in the universe will always be less than the number of atoms etc. So we have two distinct scales: 

A vertical scale of deep vs shallow and

A horizontal scale of wide vs narrow


Part 3: All Quadrants, All Lines, All Levels, All States, All Types

The AQAL-Model is probably the most widespread part of Wilbers work an it is very useful to get a low resolution overview of what is going on in the world, but also applicable to be used as basic terretory map – outlining the hidden structures of reality to orient yourself on, while digging deeper into the higher resolution picture of things. Personally i find the knowledge of AQAL to be increasingly useful over the years because it helps me categorizing things and knowledge that i encounter much more easily without being overwhelmed. The AQAL-Model contains five categories: Quadrants, Lines, Levels, States and Types.

3.1: All Quadrants

Every existing holon, no matter its complexity, has at least four distinct dimensions – the four Quadrants. These consist of the Individual-Interior (I-I; Upper Left) the Individual-Exterior (I-E; Upper Right), the Collective-Interior (C-I; Lower Left) and the Collective-Exterior (C-E; Lower Right). The Quadrants can also be interpreted as perspectives through which we can analyse a given Holon. For further simplification they can be grouped together into the Left-Hand Path and the Right-Hand Path. The Right-Hand Path being home to everything that can be seen “out there”, studied empirically (exterior, objective) and described through “it” language. The Left half ist realm of the subjective, that which cannot be seen directly through the eye. It is the realm of depth that has to be interpreted. In Wilbers words: The Right-Hand path always asks, “What does it do?” or “How does it work?” The Left-Hand path aksks, “What does it mean?”

Any theory or system that favors one quadrant over the others, or even denies their existence, is guilty of reductionism. Whether it may be consciously or unconsciously. In the modern world we mainly see different forms of Right-Hand reductionism, which Wilber calls “Flatland”: the collapse of the interior quadrants into the exterior quadrants. A classic example for this is the reduction of inner-psychich processes (consciousness, Upper-Left) to nothing but signals happening in the Upper-Right Quadrant. The discovery of the correlations between these two quadrants led to the believe that phenomena in the Upper-Left can be suffieciently explained and measured by looking at correlating neuronal or behavioral processes in the Upper-Right, thereby reducing everything novel about the noosphere back into the realm of the bios- and phyosphere. All four quadrants are always correlating and happening at the same time. 

The figure on the left shows an overview of the different sciences and their representatives categorized over the four quadrants as given by Wilber. The fields of the individual interior in the Upper-Left with different big names ranging from psychologists to spiritual teachers. The Upper-Right which inhabits modern empirical science ranging from physics to behaviorism. The collective interior in the Lower-Left as studied by Sociology, Anthropology and religious studies by the likes of Max Weber and Jean Gebser. And the collective exterior in the Lower-Right Quadrant, dimension of the Systemstheory, Ecology, Politics and Economics with famous representatives as Marx and Derrida.

From a perspective of- and using the language of Integral-Theory behaviorist-types like Skinner could be critized as being gross reductionist, only taking into account one quadrant (the Upper-Right), while mainly ignoring anything else. A similiar critic can be coined for Marx, who collapsed the interior to the exterior by reducing human history to a fight of classes for power, and psychological and cultural phenomena to playthings of economics.


A critical note: While low-resolution overviews like this are certainly useful and have their place, they are also simplifications, leaving out more than they incorporate and can invite a form of reductionism. This is the big paradox of Integral-Theory: In its attempt to give an as encompassing (read: integral) map of the world as currently possible, trying to serve justice to the immense complexity of the universe, it has to break down (reduce the complexity) of its topics to some extend in order to fit them together in a coherent manner.

3.2: All Lines

Evolution according to Wilber develops on certain lines over the four quadrants, where increasing complexity always happens over all quadrants at the same time. The development of more complex structures in the UR like neuronal organism gave rise sensation in the UL. The development of the limbic system in higher animals led to the phenomena of emotion in the UL correlating with completely new and emerging phenomena in the collective quadrants. The main focus of Wilbers works is on the development of what he calls the “self-system” along the lines of the Upper-Left Quadrant. These developmental lines encompass morality, affect, self-identity, worldview, kinesthatic ability among others. These stages tend to develop holarchical through distinct stages, with each new emerging stage incorporating what was there before. 

3.2: All Stages

Alle Entwicklungstheoretiker haben praktisch ohne Ausnahme eine stufenartige oder sogar leiterartige Liste, eine Holarchie von Wachstum und Entwicklung: Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Heinz Werner, Jean Piaget, R. Peck, Jürgen Habermas, Robert Selman, Erik Erikson, J.M. Baldwin, Silvano Areti, ja sogar die kontemplativen Traditionen von Plotin über Padmasambhava zu Chih-I und Fa-Tsang. Sie haben eine solche leiterartige Holarchie, weil sie sich aus ihren Daten ergibt. Diese Stufen sind das Ergebnis empirischer, phänomenologischer und interpretativer Befunde und großer Mengen von Forschungsdaten. Diese Leute erfinden ja so etwas nicht weil sie Leitern mögen. Diese Holarchien haben jedoch eine wichtige Eigenschaft. Selbst in den strengeren Versionen wie zum Beispiel bei Kohlberg stammen etwa fünfzig Prozent der Reaktionen des Selbst auf jeder beliebigen Entwicklungsstufe von der betreffenden Ebene, fünfundzwanzig Prozent von einer darüberliegenden und fünfundzwanzig Prozent von einer darunterliegenden Ebene. Kein Selbst befindet sich jemals einfach „auf“ einer Stufe. Darüber hinaus gibt es die verschiedensten Regressionen, Spiralbewegungen, zeitweilige Sprünge nach vorn, Gipfelerfahrungen und so weiter. (Kurze Geschichte des Kosmos, S. 196)