The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






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. In Kosmic Consciousness, Wilber stated that he considers himself a storyteller and a mapmaker; his stories address universal questions and his maps integrate various perspectives of the cosmos.

Although he is considered a founder of the Transpersonal school of psychology, he has since disassociated himself from it. In 1998 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.

In the 4 January 1997 issue of the German newspaper Die Welt, a reviewer called Wilber "the foremost thinker in the field of the evolution of consciousness."



The Neo-Perennial Philosophy

One of Wilber's major theoretical accomplishments has been to create what he calls the Neo-Perennial Philosophy by integrating Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy with an account of cosmic evolution that is in many respects similar to Aurobindo's. That is, he believes that nondual reality itself is innately subject to development over time. Wilber's voluminous writings are ultimately attempts to describe how this ineffable nonduality, or Spirit, undergoes change.

Some, such as the Croatian esoteric philosopher Arvan Harvat, have alleged 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 might be 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

Wilber is a holist—he believes that 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. Although you are made of parts (your nervous system, your skeletal system, etc.), you are also a part of your society, your nation-state, your planet. Everything from quarks to galaxies to theories to poems to mice to human beings are holons.

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


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.


Quadrant (UL)




e.g., Freud

Quadrant (UR)




e.g., B.F. Skinner

Quadrant (LL)




e.g., Gadamer

Quadrant (LR)




e.g., Marxism

Each holon has an interior perspective (an inside) and an exterior perspective (an outside). It also has an individual perspective and a collective (or plural) perspective. If you map these into quadrants, you have four quadrants, or 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 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. Marxist economic theory examines the external behavior of a society (lower-right).

Thus 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 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, aesthetic, spiritual, kinesthetic , affective, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, karmic, etc. One can be highly developed cognitively (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 equivalent.

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 patriarchal) 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[2], the levels should appear as concentric circles, with higher levels transcending but also including lower ones.

The simplest categorization that Wilber uses contains four levels:

  • Body (or gross realm; Buddhist Nirmanakaya)
  • Mind (or subtle realm; Buddhist Sambhogakaya)
  • Soul (or causal realm; Buddhist Jnanadharmakaya stage of the Dharmakaya)
  • Spirit (or non-duality; Buddhist Svabhavikakaya stage of the Dharmakaya)

Another scheme describes the ethical developmental line:

  • Egocentric (similar to Carol Gilligan's 'Selfish' stage)
  • Ethnocentric or Sociocentric (Gilligan's 'Care' stage)
  • World-centric (Gilligan's 'Universal Care' stage)
  • Being-centric (Gilligan's 'Integrated' stage)

Within each broad stage, there are sub-levels (for example, these are along the cognitive developmental line):

  • Gross realm
    • Instinctual
    • Tribal (Piaget's Sensorimotor stage)
    • Egoic (Piaget's Pre-operational)
    • Mythic (or Mythic-Membership morality) (Piaget's Concrete Operational)
    • Rational (Piaget's Formal Operational)
    • Pluralistic (early vision-logic)
  • Subtle realm
    • Integral (middle vision-logic)
    • Holistic (late vision-logic)
    • Psychic (from Grk. psyche, "soul")
  • Causal realm (that which causes, or gives rise to, manifest existence)
  • Nondual

Another broad organization of the levels contains three categories:

  • pre-personal (subconscious motivations)
  • personal (conscious mental processes)
  • trans-personal (integrative and mystical structures)

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, 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 stuctures—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.

As Wilber remarks 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 attained only 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 experience an advanced mystical state.


These are valid distinctions that are not covered under Wilber’s other categorizations. Masculine/feminine, the nine 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

Wilber's version of the Two Truths doctrine maintains that whatever does not exist in deep dreamless sleep, doesn't exist absolutely. Therefore, all of the above categorizations—quadrants, lines, levels, states, and types—are relative. None of them are absolute. Ultimately and absolutely, only nondual awareness, "the simple feeling of being," exists. Wilber follows Aurobindo (and Hegel) in calling this nonduality "Spirit". It is conceptually identical to Plotinus' One, to Schelling's Absolute, and to the Hindu Brahman.

The Pre/Trans Fallacy

The Pre/Trans Fallacy is one of Wilber's more famous ideas. Its basic tenet is that because the early, pre-rational stages of consciousness and the latter, transrational stages of consciousness are both non-rational, they can easily be confused with each other. In perhaps the most well-known example of the fallacy, Freud considered mystical realizations to be regressions to infantile oceanic states. Carl Jung committed the opposite mistake by considering pre-rational myths to reflect divine realizations. Likewise, many consider pre-rational states like tribalism or mythic religion to be post-rational. Thus the two-fold nature of the fallacy: one can reduce trans-rational spritual realization to pre-rational regression, or one can elevate pre-rational states to the trans-rational domain.

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

Wilber on science

In his book The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, Wilber characterizes the current state of the "hard" sciences as "narrow science." He claims that the natural sciences currently only allow evidence from the lowest realm of consciousness, the sensorimotor (the five senses and their extensions).

What he calls "broad science" would include evidence from the other realms of consciousness, from logic, mathematics, the symbolic, and hermeneutic realms. 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. His example is using EKG machines and other technologies to confirm the experiences of meditators and other spiritual practitioners. This would be an example of what Wilber calls "integral science".


Wilber's conception of the Perennial Philosophy is influenced by the post-metaphysical, nondual mysticism of Advaita Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, Nagarjuna, Plotinus, 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 has stated on several occasions his dedication to the American-born guru Adi Da (also known as Da Free John) and his belief in Adi Da's ultimate realization. In 1980, Wilber wrote:

"I am simply offering to you my own considered opinion: Da Free John's teaching is, I believe, unsurpassed by that of any other spiritual Hero, of any period, of any place, of any time, of any persuasion."

Of Adi Da's 1985 book, The Dawn Horse Testament, Wilber writes:

"This is not merely my personal opinion; this is a perfectly obvious fact, available to anyone of intelligence, sensitivity, and integrity: THE DAWN HORSE TESTAMENT is the most ecstatic, most profound, most complete, most radical, and most comprehensive single spiritual text ever to be penned and confessed by the Human Transcendental Spirit. That seems an objective fact; here is my own personal and humbler opinion. I am honored (even awed) to be allowed in its Presence, to listen to and Hear the Potent Message of the Heart-Master Da."[3]

In a July, 1998 open letter, he wrote:

"Do I believe that Master Adi Da is the greatest Realizer of all time? I certainly believe He is the greatest living Realizer. Anything beyond that is sheer speculation."

Wilber adds:

"I affirm my own love and devotion to the living Sat-Guru [Adi Da]".

In a letter the following month, Wilber argues that, due to accusations of cult-like behavior surrounding Adi Da, he

"can no longer—and [does] no longer—recommend Da’s community for the typical spiritual aspirant".

However, in the July, 1998 letter, he states:

"... for those students who are ready, and who fully understand the gravity of the decision, I speak of Master Da as the Sat-Guru, and recommend that they pursue that Way to the extent that they are capable: student, disciple, devotee. And I have always said—and still say publicly—that not a single person can afford not to be at least a student of the Written Teaching."[4]

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's Influence

Wilber has a growing influence among scholars, business and organizational theorists, political analysts, and community change agents; and especially among religious scholars actively applying his insights into reframing conventional theology.

His works have also been read by several musicians, including Stuart Davis, Ed Kowalczyk, and Billy Corgan.

According to the Shambhala Sun [5], Charles Taylor —"probably the world's most respected and admired living philosopher"—wrote:

"I have tremendously appreciated Wilber's work. He has managed to integrate so many things, and to keep his horizons open, where most of our culture keeps closing them down. It is magnificent work."

Wilber's 2004 collaborative commentary on The Ultimate Matrix Collection DVD with Princeton professor Cornel West represents the most undeniable and enthusiastic acceptance of Wilber's importance by an academic (if eccentric) philosopher.

The slowness of other academic philosophers to warm to Wilber's work is undoubtedly due to its mystical nature. Much of modern philosophy remains focused within the analytical/rational wave of Wilber's spectrum of consciousness model, which is therefore not attuned with the higher trans-rational waves (i.e. vision-logic and higher) of consciousness. However, Wilber's attention to what he regards as '8 Indigenous Perspectives' necessary for a more comprehensive understanding of reality offers significant support for integrating philosophical traditions of phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism, behaviourism/empiricism, systems theory and cultural anthropology.

Wilber's Five Phases

Wilber himself identifies five phases [6] 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", to 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", to The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, vol. VIII, p. 49

Related Articles


Works By Wilber

  • The Spectrum of Consciousness, 1977
  • No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth, 1979
  • The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development, 1980
  • Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, 1981
  • The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes: Exploring the Leading Edge of Science (editor), 1982
  • A Sociable God: A Brief Introduction to a Transcendental Sociology, 1983
  • Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm, 1984
  • Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists (editor), 1984
  • Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development (co-authors: Jack Engler, Daniel Brown), 1986
  • Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation (co-authors: Dick Anthony, Bruce Ecker), 1987
  • Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life of Treya Killam Wilber, 1991
  • Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, 1995
  • A Brief History of Everything, 1996
  • The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad, 1997
  • The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader, 1998
  • The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, 1998
  • One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, 1999
  • Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, 2000
  • A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality, 2000
  • Speaking of Everything (2 hour audio interview recording), 2001
  • Boomeritis: A Novel That Will Set You Free, 2002
  • Kosmic Consciousness (12 hour audio interview recording), 2003
  • With Cornell West, commentary on The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions on The Ultimate Matrix Collection, 2004
  • The Simple Feeling of Being: Visionary, Spiritual, and Poetic Writings, 2005

Books About Wilber

  • Donald Jay Rothberg and Sean Kelly, Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations With Leading Transpersonal Thinkers, 1998
  • Joseph Vrinte, Perennial Quest for a Psychology with a Soul: An inquiry into the relevance of Sri Aurobindo's metaphysical yoga psychology in the context of Ken Wilber's integral psychology, 2002
  • Frank Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought As Passion, 2003
  • Brad Reynolds, Embracing Reality: The Integral Vision of Ken Wilber: A Historical Survey and Chapter-By-Chapter Review of Wilber's Major Works, 2004

External links

Primary Sources and "Authorized" Websites

Sites of Friends and Fans of Wilber


  • "The Atman Fiasco", a scathing critique by Arvan Harvat of one of Wilber's early books, The Atman Project.
  • The Reading Room A collection of dozens of essays, many critical, responding to the work of Ken Wilber.


Last updated: 05-13-2005 14:57:56
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04