Friday, February 05, 2010

Thoughts on a Post-Wilberian Integral Theory - Part 1 - Wilber's Integral Theory Is Less than Integral

I could be wrong, but it is my sense that Ken Wilber's integral theory is no longer evolving and has become institutionalized through the Integral Institute. That's too bad, in my opinion, because his version of integral theory, again in my opinion, has yet to become fully integral.

Let me qualify that a bit - I think integral theory is highly useful, but I feel that there are some blind spots due to it being the model of a single man. I think there are some areas we need to add to the AQAL model, things that have been excluded or ignored.

We should take a few steps backward before I offer a few thoughts on where integral theory should be moving in the future. Consider this part one of at least two parts. I'm not sure how coherent this is going to be, since I am going to make up as I go along, based on an intuition more than any logical argument.

[Please note as well that more than likely many of the contributors at Frank Visser's Integral World have probably already made some or all of these points, so please excuse my repetition.]

Thoughts on a Post-Wilberian Integral Theory - Part 1
Wilber's Integral Theory Is Less than Integral

If you look back through the development of Wilber's integral theory, it becomes clear - as one would expect with any theory developed by an individual - that Wilber has some biases that influenced what was included in his model. This is to be expected - everyone has biases both conscious and unconscious based on the interaction between their genetic-neurological foundations and the cultural experience that has shaped their perspective. Wilber may claim to be aperspectival in his views, but he does seem to have a distinct perspective, and one with biases. By the way, the word aperspectival comes from Jean Gebser, and this is how it is defined in that model:
the word "aperspectival" conveys our attempt to deal with wholeness. It is a definition which differentiates a perception of reality that is neither perspectivally restricted to only one sector nor merely unperspectivally evocative of a vague sense of reality.
Anyway, I contend that Wilber has some biases, both intellectual and political that have shaped his version of integral theory and left it less than integral.

For example, Piaget's cognitive developmental model is privileged over other possible approaches in the foundation of basic Wilber's model (which combines Piaget's cognitive stages with Jean Gebser's worldviews and Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga).

The Problems with Piaget's Structural Stages as a Foundation for Integral Development

In reading Wilber one would never guess that Jean Piaget's model has been challenged effectively in a variety of ways, including his reliance on logic as separate from language. His version of structuralism, in the words of Jerome Bruner, was destroyed by the very sensibility it made possible.
It is not unfair to say that he falls with structuralism-despite the powerful influence his structuralist views have had on our conception ofthe child's mind. and, indeed, ofmind in general. But again, structuralism brought about the sensibility that destroyed it. In linguistics, where it was born, it had an astonishingly illuminating effect-as in Saussure's insistence upon the semiotic interdependence of all elements of language within the system of language as a whole. But transposed to the human condition in the broad, it had glaring deficiencies, deficiencies that could not be suspected until the very idea of structure was applied. There was no place for use and intention, only for an analysis of the products of mind taken in the abstract. So there was no place for human dilemmas, for tragic plights, for local knowledge encapsulated in bias. Piaget's very program) his "genetic epistemology," was insufficiently human: to trace the history of mathematics and science in the growth of the child's mind. (Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, p. 147)
Poststructuralism gets some play in the integral model, but only as part of the relativism of the pre-integral "green" stage. On the other hand, it is poststructuralism that reveals the weaknesses of the structural model.
In direct contrast to the structuralist claim of an independent signifier superior to the signified, post-structuralism generally views the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.[1]
What poststructuralism suggests (and other models do as well), is that meaning at any stage - including the four stages of Piaget's model - is inter-subjective rather than intra-subjective. Meaning at all stages (including infancy and early childhood - see Gopnik below) is constructed by the individual interacting with the people and objects in its environment. In essence, as I argue below, self is constructed not only by the emergence of pre-programmed stages (as Wilber argues) but by the fusion between the individual organism and the culture.

An alternate learning model to Piaget's - that accepts and builds on Piaget, but adds culture to the mix - was offered by Lev Vygotsky. Here is a summary of his criticisms of Piaget (as well as areas of commonality):
Vygotsky specified many of Piaget's contributions to support his contention that Piaget revolutionized the study of children's thought and language. Piaget's studies gave detailed pictures of children's thinking. Piaget asserted that development occurs in distinct, measurable, and observable stages. He focused on what children have, not what they lack. Piaget found that the difference between adults' and children's thinking is qualitative, not quantitative.

Vygotsky examined Piaget's emphasis on the effects of egocentrism. According to Vygotsky's interpretation of Piaget, egocentric speech reflects that the child is in the preoperational developmental stage. Children develop egocentric speech and then social speech. He observed that logic appears late in the developmental cycle. This led Piaget to conclude that egocentric thought is the genetic connection between inner speech and the logic stage. Piaget theorized that egocentrism decreases at school age because it does not fulfill a function. Egocentric speech has no future. It diminishes with the disappearance of egocentrism.

Vygotsky pointed out what he thought were Piaget's erroneous theoretical and methodological assumptions. Piaget combined psychology and philosophy even though he tried to avoid theorizing. He overlooked the role of the child's activity with relation to thought processes. Observing merely the individual is not thorough enough to understand children's development. Piaget's theory assumes that development is unidirectional with all children reaching each stage at approximately at the same age. By examining the world and society, much more data are gathered. According to Vygotsky, Piaget did not succeed in keeping his works within the bounds of factual science.

Vygotsky thought that many of Piaget's theories lacked the necessary scientific facts. Furthermore, Piaget's analysis of facts was influenced by his theory, Vygotsky contended. This caused Piaget to relate egocentrism to all other traits, without objectively analyzing the facts. Specifically, Vygotsky disagreed with Piaget's inference that egocentric thought is impervious to experience. Vygotsky also disagreed with Piaget's assumption that development could not be impeded or accelerated through instruction.

Vygotsky was also critical of Piaget's assumption that developmental growth was independent of experience and based on a universal characteristic. Vygotsky asserted that development is complex and is effected by social and cultural contexts. Biological and cultural development are interrelated and do not develop in isolation. Vygotsky believed that intellectual development was continually evolving without an end point.

Another conflict between Vygotsky and Piaget was the latter's explanation of development as the notion that concepts should not be taught until children are in the appropriate developmental stage. This conflicts with Vygotsky's zone of proximal development (ZPD) and developmental theories. Vygotsky noted that instruction that is oriented toward development is ineffective concerning the child's overall development.
In Piaget's model, children are essentially passive in their development, with structures of development emerging at the appointed time. But this is far out of line with what we currently know about how children actively construct their world. Again, Bruner on Piaget:
Even from within the Piagetian fold, the research of Kohlberg, Colby, and others points to the raggedness and irregularity of the so-called stages of moral development. Particularity, localness, context, historical opportunity, all play so large a role that it is embarrassing to have them outside Piaget's system rather than within. But they cannot fit within. Any more than "local expertise" with no overspill into "general intelligence" can be fitted into the Piagetian system of the stages of intellectual development. (Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, p. 147)
What is also missing is an accurate assessment of the skills very young children possess.

We know much more about early development now that when Piaget was writing, so it is not fair to expect him to have known these things. But we have known them in the time Wilber has been writing.

The most current developmental research builds on work Jerome Bruner did in the 1960s. Alison Gopnik and her associates (Gopnik et al, 2004) have shown that children begin constructing causal maps of the world at a very young age, counter to what Piaget thought.
Traditionally, psychologists thought there was little causal knowledge in childhood—in particular, Piaget (1929, 1930) argued that preschoolers were precausal. In the past 2 decades, however, there has been an explosion of research on causal knowledge in young children. By the age of 5, children understand some of the basic causal principles of everyday physics (Bullock, Gelman, & Baillargeon, 1982; Leslie & Keeble, 1987; Oakes & Cohen, 1990; Spelke, Breinlinger, Macomber, & Jacobson, 1992), biology (Gelman & Wellman, 1991; Inagaki & Hatano, 1993; Kalish, 1996), and psychology (Flavell, Green, & Flavell, 1995; Gopnik & Wellman, 1994; Perner, 1991). Children as young as 2 years old can make causal predictions, provide causal explanations, and understand counterfactual causal claims (Harris, German, & Mills, 1996; Hickling & Wellman, 2001; Sobel & Gopnik, 2003; Wellman, Hickling, & Schult, 1997). Moreover, children’s causal knowledge changes over time (see, e.g., Bartsch & Wellman, 1995; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997) and changes in light of new evidence (Slaughter & Gopnik, 1996; Slaughter, Jaakkola, & Carey, 1999). This suggests that children are actually learning about the causal structure of the world.

Much of this work has taken place in the context of the theory theory: the idea that children have intuitive theories of the world, analogous to scientific theories, and that these theories change in ways that are similar to scientific theory change (Carey, 1985; Gopnik, 1988; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997; Keil, 1989; Perner, 1991; Wellman, 1990). Causal knowledge plays a central role in theories both in science (Cartwright, 1989; Salmon, 1984) and in everyday life (Gopnik & Wellman, 1994; Gopnik & Glymour, 2002).
Further, Vygotsky has argued, convincingly, that language is a key element in development, and also that intelligence is merely a tool for integrating cultural information, which is how he defined learning. Here is Jerome Bruner summarizing Vygotsky's overall project:
For him, the mind grows neither naturally nor unassisted. It is determined neither by its history nor by the logical constraints of its present operations. Intelligence, for him, is readiness to use culturally transmitted knowledge and procedures as prostheses of mind. But much depends upon the availability and the distribution of those prosthetic devices within a culture. (Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, p. 141)
One wonders why Vygotsky gets no mention in Wilber's Integral Psychology (2000)?
I have a theory.

Politics in Integral Theory

Vygotsky was a Marxist and his politics are a foundational part of his theory of knowledge and learning. He was poststructuralist before structuralism had run its course. But if you look closely at Wilber's integral theory, Wilber - like Don Beck in his Spiral Dynamics model (1996) - often sides with the neo-conservative leaders and views, especially George W. Bush and Tony Blair (see "Integral Ideology: An Ideological Genealogy of Integral Theory and Practice" by Richard Carlson, posted at Integral World). Michael Bauwens (of the outstanding P2P blog and wiki) has also been a critic of the conservative nature of Wilber and Beck.
What is the crucial problem of society today? Does the destruction of the ecosphere, does the increasing inequality between and within nations, does the turbulence of the international order derive: 1) from the unrestrained neoliberal order which creates a world market without a global regulatory framework; 2) from a group of extremist postmodern academics on U.S. campuses. Incredibly, Don Beck and Ken Wilber choose the second option, and are echoing in their writing almost word for word the interpretations of American neoconservatives, down to their hatred of political correctness and their justifications of an 'enligthened' American empire. Don Beck justifies Putin, thinks of Bush as a 'great leader'; while Ken Wilber hails Tony Blair as the ultimate representative of integral leadership, associating himself (and hailing) with the worst contemporary spiritual abusers: first Da Free John, now Andrew Cohen. Now, there is nothing wrong by itself in being a neoconservative (that is, until you go about invading other countries on false pretenses), but it becomes manipulative when you start cloaking that particular political vision under a false scientific cloak, feeling yourself a superior being in 'consciousness'. Doesn't sound much different from the scientific justifications of a Leninist vanguard party, and we all know where that led us. An interesting study done by the group of Chris Cowan and his partner, actually shows an interesting finding. The group of people who most strongly react against 'green' and its values, and are most likely to devise a concept like the Mean Green Meme, are not yellow second tiers thinkers, as is often implied by Wilber and Beck, but in fact people who identify with blue and orange values. This finding is entirely consistent with the neoconservative (blue-orange) ideology, and therefore, not surprising at all. (see this article)
If Bauwens and Carlson are correct - and I believe they are (although Wilber has become less willing to propose any clear political answers of late, see Integral "Third-Way" Politics, 2008) - it is no wonder that a politically conservative Wilber did not include an avowed Marxist like Vygitsky in his theory (bias is often unconscious, so this is not surprising).

Yet this is not a small oversight - Vygotsky is a major figure in the history of developmental psychology.

Other Developmental Models

With the emergence of constructivist psychology, and with it a recognition of the centrality of narrative and culture in the creation of a self, much of Vygotsky's previously dismissed work is being reevaluated.

For example, one of Vygotsky's intellectual heirs is the Russian-American psychologist, and founder of Head Start, Urie Bronfenbrenner. Brofenbrenner was one of the leading figures in the field of developmental psychology. His major contribution was his Ecological Systems Theory.

This is a summary of Ecological Systems Theory from Wikipedia:

Ecological Systems Theory, also called Development in Context or Human Ecology theory, specifies four types of nested environmental systems, with bi-directional influences within and between the systems.

The four systems:

  • Microsystem: Immediate environments (family, school, peer group, neighborhood, and childcare environments)
  • Mesosystem: A system comprising connections between immediate environments (i.e., a child’s home and school)
  • Exosystem: External environmental settings which only indirectly affect development (such as parent's workplace)
  • Macrosystem: The larger cultural context (Eastern vs. Western culture, national economy, political culture, subculture)

Later, a fifth system was added:

  • Chronosystem: The patterning of environmental events and transitions over the course of life.

The person's own biology may be considered part of the microsystem; thus the theory has recently sometimes been called "Bio-Ecological Systems Theory."

Per this theoretical construction, each system contains roles, norms and rules which may shape psychological development. For example, an inner-city family faces many challenges which an affluent family in a gated community does not, and vice versa. The inner-city family is more likely to experience environmental hardships, such as teratogens and crime. On the other hand the sheltered family is more likely to lack the nurturing support of extended family.[1]

Since its publication in 1979, Bronfenbrenner's major statement of this theory, The Ecology of Human Development [2] has had widespread influence on the way psychologists and others approach the study of human beings and their environments. As a result of his groundbreaking work in "human ecology", these environments — from the family to economic and political structures — have come to be viewed as part of the life course from childhood through adulthood.

Bronfenbrenner has identified Soviet developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky and German-born psychologist Kurt Lewin as important influences on his theory.

Bronfenbrenner's work provides one of the foundational elements of the Ecological counseling Perspective, as espoused by Bob Conyne, Ellen Cook, and the University of Cincinnati Counseling Program.
If you look at integral theory and its maps, you might assume that integral theory is as inclusive as Brofenbrenner's model, and it does pay lip service to many of these ideas.

However, the emphasis in Wilber's integral psychology is nearly always on intrapersonal experience and rarely on inter-personal experience such as Ecological Systems Theory contends, or as the newer Cultural Psychology (see Ciaran Benson's The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, morality and art in human worlds for one of the best introductions to the model).

In integral theory, mind and culture influence each other, but in cultural psychology (CP) culture and mind are inseparable - there is no mind without culture and no culture without minds. In the CP model, mind and self are the result of the interaction between genetic and neurological elements and the social-culture as a whole, including also environment, and is located in time and space.
I want to suggest that self is a locative system with both evolutionary and cultural antecedents.

We cannot imagine being nowhere. We can visualise ourselves being lost, but that is to be somewhere unfamiliar to us, possibly without the means of getting back to a place we know. Where and when, place and time, are the conditions of existence. Being nowhere is quite simply a contradiction in terms. Without being placed or located I would not be, and where I find myself implaced influences not just the fact of my being but also its nature. Where, when and who are mutually constitutive. Lives, selves, identities are threaded across times and places. Who you are is a function of where you are, of where you have been and of where you hope to arrive. There cannot be a ‘here’ without a ‘you’ or an ‘I’ or a ‘now’. Self, acts of self-location and locations are inextricably linked and mutually constructive.

‘Self’ functions primarily as a locative system, a means of reference and orientation in worlds of space–time (perceptual worlds) and in worlds of meaning and place–time (cultural worlds). This understanding of self as an ongoing, living process of constant auto-referred locating recognises the centrality both of the body and of social relations. The antecedents of bodily location are well understood in evolutionary terms, whereas those of personal location among other persons are best understood culturally. (Ciaran, p. 3-4)
This is a very different view of the self than one finds in Wilber's Integral Psychology, which seems largely due to his reliance on Piaget and his structuralist system. Many of the other developmental stage models he incorporates are all based to a large degree on Piaget, including Kohlberg and Gilligan (moral stages), Loevinger and Cook-Greuter (ego development), Fowler (stages of faith), J├╝rgen Habermas (his reworking of historical materialism), and so on.

But if Piaget was wrong about a lot of things (and Vygotsky's zone of proximal development is one clear example where Piaget clearly underestimated child learning in that he relied on looking at a child on its own, not with a teacher/mentor as is most often the case), and if his stages do not hold up under the latest research by Gopnik and others, then much of Wilber's model is also in question.

This is a good stopping point for now. I want to look at Wilber's model of spirituality in the next post, which is distinctly intrapersonal and intrapsychic, and not at all interpersonal or interpsychic. I will likely also look at some different conceptions of how the "self" develops that Wilber's model does not include.

Beck, D & Cowan, C. (1996) Spiral Dynamics New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Benson, C. (2001) The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, morality and art in human worlds. Routledge: New York.

Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gopnik, A, Glymour, C, Sobel, D, Schulz, L & Kushnir, T. (2004) A Theory of Causal Learning in Children: Causal Maps and Bayes Nets. Psychological Review. Vol. 111, No. 1, 3–32; DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.111.1.3.

Wilber, K. (2000) Integral Psychology. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.


Dudley Lynch said...

Yale U. psychology professor Bruce E. Wexler often cites Vygotsky's research (and acknowledges his political context) in his outstanding book, "Brain and Culture".

Dudley Lynch

Karl Higley said...

There's also an orange/green issue between Piaget and Vygotsky et al.

Piaget looked at the "properties" of children as if they were independent of the environment and developed in a linear sequence through relatively well-defined stage/categories. These are the classic intellectual approaches of the orange meme -- which makes it no surprise that he sees formal rationality as the pinnacle of cognitive development.

Vygotsky, on the other hand, put contextual thinking to work, which is reflected in ZPD, the importance of experience, and the emphasis on society and culture.

I suspect this has a lot to do with why Wilber emphasizes Piaget and downplays Vygotsky. If you look closely, nearly all of the structures of Wilber's integral come straight out of the rational orange playbook.

Compare and contrast with systems thinker ala Brofenbrenner, Peter Senge, Donella Meadows, or Margaret Wheatley and the difference comes into pretty sharp focus: the cognitive structures they use are different than the ones Wilber uses, and quite clearly more complex, and (as Wilber would say) "more adequate."

If one wanted to build a more integral Integral Theory, incorporating insights from Vygotsky and Brofenbrenner would be one heck of a place to start. Mark Edwards wrote an interesting article examining some potential applications of Vygotsky's ideas in integral theory.