Aware Living: How the Taxonomy of Human Elements (THEE) differs from Ken Wilber's "Integral Theory"

Warren Kinston 22. September 2012 18:00

Aware living is what humanity's future must be about. The alternative is to live like a robot, to operate under orders, to be a slave to an ideology.

aware living Ken Wilber's AQAL diagram

One the hardest things to be aware about are paradoxes. It can be tricky to be constructive when handling opposites that are simultaneously true. These show up in the Taxonomy as «dualities», and they rank with hierarchies as the most important primary structure within the THEE.  In starting to review these systematically, I ran into an issue that I want to share. 

It is about the difference between my experience-based approach and Ken Wilber's philosophical approach, called Integral Theory

Ken Wilber started writing about levels of consciousness, but soon added to this a quadrant structure based on two universal opposites (dualities): interior v exterior, and individual v collective. However, you should note that these are conceptual distinctions. In Wilber's own words, he is providing a theory of consciousness. It's such a big theory, and so unfalsifiable, that it is a philosophy.  It can be argued about—if you have that sort of ability.

By contrast, the taxonomy that I call THEE, is not a theory at all. Aware living relates to your own experiences—this includes your ideas but it has nothing to do with conceptual sophistication.  Aware living is about knowing what exists in our personal worlds when we are committed.  And you can be the arbiter of that because it is your personal world that is relevant.

As a concrete example, KW's quadrant structure (shown in the diagram) leads to a distinction between 'I', 'You' and 'It'.  Although it may seem the same, Wilber's 'I' and 'you' are not the same as the 'I' and 'you' that you see on this THEE-online website.  The difference is simple: Wilber is referring to 'I' as a concept and it includes himself and you and a lot of other 'I's—everyone who takes an interior first person perspective.  By contrast, when I use the word 'I', I am referring just to myself, to Warren Kinston, to the writer.  See the difference?  

Because Wilber uses concepts, you can never be sure if you are applying them as he wants you to: so you are one down.  Don't feel bad.  Integral theory is an academic product drawing on the work of scientists and philosophers whose writings are way beyond most of us. 

Because in constructing the taxonomy I am referring to your experience, you are the sole judge as to whether I have described it correctly or not: you are one up.  THEE is a practical exercise, using illustrations and avoiding appeals to eminent authorities.  Everyone has the capacity to make judgements about taxonomic elements and use them for personal benefit: that is how this website can expand your awareness.

As it happens, I tried to work out concepts that relate to what I have discovered.  But I found it generally unhelpful.  For example the concepts that I developed for structural hierarchies are far less satisfactory as guides to further discovery, than internal projections and correspondences discovered within the taxonomy.

When Wilber describes his system, he writes:

"Everything that all the various cultures have to tell us about human potential—about spiritual growth, psychological growth, social growth ... [can be reduced to] ... 5 elements.  We call them quadrants, levels, lines, states and types.  As you will see, all of these elements are, right now, available in your own awareness."

If I described THEE similarly, then I would write:

"Everything than any person in any society has ever done or ever will do as part of being human comes down to 7 essential elements. ,These are willingness, purpose, communication, experience, change, inquiry and action.  Anyone can immediately start reflecting on this assertion for themselves."

Same or different?  

Wilber has produced a metaphysical system of concepts, and he includes all of the physical world too. THEE is a taxonomy of observables that are only found within psychosocial reality. It does not attempt to specify or explain material realities. I freely admit that I lack any theoretical understanding of what has been discovered within the Taxonomy. As with Mendeleev, there is a need for a psychosocial Bohr to emerge and explain it all. 

THEE does have its own terminology-jargon that is used to develop the taxonomy maps.  This includes: hierarchies, dualities, trees, quadrants, spirals.  Some similarity to Integral Theory is noticeable, but this is probably based on the systemic thinking present in both cases.

Back to dualities: I commonly came across the polar opposites interior v exterior.  However, in general those terms are simply too conceptual to be used.  As an example, in the identity development systems, odd-numbered systems have diffuse and unlimited self-boundaries, while the even-numbered systems have precise and delimited self-boundaries.  It looks as if this oscillating duality would conceptually fit KW's interior v exterior (with even levels = interior, and odd levels = exterior).  But how much less informative that would be when you are thinking about your 'self' and your interaction with others. 

In purpose, I defined the dynamic duality in setting purposes as emotional v logical.  In discussion with a colleague, I came to see that this was not fully satisfactory.  It is possibly more accurate to define this duality as: personal v social, but I am not sure. This is very close to KW's individual v collective. From my perspective, the best terms may yet await discovery and there is no reason why you cannot use terms you prefer. My only concern is that you should personally grasp the unavoidable dilemma when setting purposes. Your understanding is all that counts: not mine.

Given the prevalence of dualities within THEE—well over a hundred have been described—reducing them to just two types would impede understanding the variety of our willed experiences. Once the picture is complete enough and sufficiently validated, then we can let the conceptualizers loose on it all.

What do you make of these issues? Can you suggest any other published framework or comprehensive system that THEE should be compared with?



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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