Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Is Wilber Corrupting Spiral Dynamics?

Ken Wilber is without a doubt one of the most important thinkers on the planet. On top of that, he has done a lot to bring attention to Beck & Cowan's Spiral Dynamics model, one of the most comprehensive models available for understanding human beings.

However, I have been growing increasingly frustrated with the way Wilber has been using Spiral terminology in ways inappropriate to the model. The biggest issue so far had been his use of "second tier" and "third tier." In Wilber's scheme, which is presented in Boomeritis, second tier is reduced to the Yellow and Turquoise vMemes. Wilber then proposes a third tier that would begin with Coral (the next identified emergent vMeme).

In Clare Graves's original model, the second tier would have been a recapitulation of the first tier, but at a higher level. This means that the second tier would have six vMemes just like the first tier, with each one being a higher-order version of its first-tier version. (Example: Yellow is the second-tier, higher-order version of Beige, and Turquoise is the second-tier, higher-order version of Purple.)

The real problem with Wilber's version is that he has a much wider audience than either Beck or Cowan, so his version gets all the attention. This is further exasperated by Andrew Cohen's adoption of the Wilber scheme in What Is Enlightenment?

The newest frustration comes from Wilber's new Integral Spirituality project (there used to be a PDF by Wilber explaining his new system, but it has been taken down in the last couple of days). In this new approach, he has attached colors to the developmental levels -- much like Spiral Dynamics -- but the colors move upward parallel with the chakras (also, the visible light spectrum). Parts of Wilber's color system match the Spiral, but most have been changed, which is bound to create a huge amount of confusion.

Wilber clearly has seen the popularity and ease-of-use of color coding, but his new system loses some of the subtlety of SD, especially the warm color/cool color alternation, which maps the shift from self/outer focus to group/inner focus and back again.

I like Wilber's new system, and I see the value in what he is doing, but I dislike the impact this will have on Spiral Dynamics. It feels like a betrayal. But then, Wilber has always viewed SD as a simple values line system, not as a whole and complete system.

I'd love to hear any thoughts SD or SDi followers have on this topic.


Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not much of an SD or SDi follower. On the way to work today, however, I was listening to an integralnaked presentation by Don Beck, that capitulated - in about 30 minutes - the SDi view. Two things - this is from memory of the audio, while walking, so take that as a caveat.

a. Beck also clearly differentiated yellow and turquoise from the earlier levels. The reason briefly stated is because the yellow/turquoise (similar, but internal and external focus) they have found (through research?) that the level of decision making is so much higher that the person operating here can "surf" the lower levels, to attend to any incomplete or imbalances in the lower level.

In this view, it wasn't a "recapitulation", but a leap in functioning. Although I'm not sure that recapitulation and "leap in functioning" can't co-exist.

Thanks for your site by the way. Some great thoughts and analysis you are bringing.

william harryman said...


Thanks for reading and commenting. My point on 2nd tier (maybe not made clearly enough) was that Graves's model has six vMemes in the 2nd tier, but that Wilber has reduced 2nd tier to two vMemes (Yellow & Turquoise). Wilber then begins 3rd tier with Coral, which should be the third vMeme in second tier, experienced as a higher-order version of Red.

Second tier is fundamentally different than first tier (absence of egoic limitations on taking other viewpoints, among other things), but each of the first-tier vMemes appear as higher-order versions of themselves in second tier. To illustrate: in Graves/SD lingo, Biege is A-N, Yellow is A'-N', with the "prime" indicating that it is of a different order.

I'm not saying Wilber is wrong with his new system, only lamenting the negative impact it will have on SD and SDi.


Anonymous said...

Ah - got it. Thanks for the clarification. As I say, I'm not a big SD guy.

It's an amazing story though - like with Wilber's work, I wish there were more research, kept in publicly accessible databases, that helps one to determine whether the story is just that - a wonderful descriptive story, or whether there are correlations with the world.

If you need the Integral Spirituality document, I can get it to you, if you don't have it.

william harryman said...


I agree to a point. I think part of the problem for SD purists (especially Cowan) is that Wilber IS trying to reach a wider audience, and therefore "dumbing down" the theory to a point.


Sean said...


I was also confused and frustrated by Wilber's latest color scheme, as illustrated in the latest 'What is Enlightenment.' However, after thinking about, it seems like he might be doing the Spiral Dynamics crowd a favor. By creating his own color system, he can be free to tweak it as he pleases, making parallels to other scales of development as he sees fit. So SD will be able to develop on its own direction, without Wilber's guiding (or currupting) hand.

After the confusion is over, and Wilber stops referring to Spiral Dynamics so often, I think both perspectives will be better off.

On a more personal note, my heart sank when I saw Wilber's third tier. I was just beginning to get a handle on second tier, and now he throws and entire extra tier on the map. It guess it really is turtles all the way up.

william harryman said...


I think you may be right -- at least I hope so. I really admire Wilber, but having gone through the certification with Don Beck in SDi, I feel Wilber has cherry-picked from SDi to support his own integral vision.

Wilber has always talked about the upper levels, what he now calls third tier. If you haven't already, check out Integral Pyschology, my favorite Wilber book.


Mahipal said...

Its intresting what is happening with the re-coloring of the levels etc. IMO, its is being watered down and being consumed within the so called integral framework (which is associated with WIlber).
What I fear is that SD will end up becoming just a way to see values within the integral framework as opposed to a way of "interacting with different habitats/environments" while maintaining your own center. Its only when one is able to oscillate between the center of self (no matter what color you are supposed to be) and the environment where you are operating, can you get a clear perspective on the problems/challenges of being effective. This I am afriad will be lost if SD becomes just a way to pegion hole people in colors (which is what dumming down ususlly does). It makes people feel they understand without putting in the effort to know what this is useful for...