Philosophers have long sought to understand how we make sense of the world. Each have brought forth their own ‘maps’ or ‘lenses’ of how they comprehend reality. Some focus their analysis on the individual while others seek to dissect the patterns of the collective (e.g., society and culture).
As social animals, humans are always embedded in larger structures. We interact with others and the natural world in a myriad of different systems. Therefore, any theory which exclusively focuses on either the individual or collective is missing out on a key aspect of the human experience.
The philosopher Ken Wilber aimed to weave together the different aspects of reality to attain a degree of harmony and balance between the interior and exterior world. He proposes that there are four different quadrants which explain our relationship to different aspects of reality. Of note, Wilber isn’t stating that one quadrant or perspective is superior to another. Rather, each viewpoint is a piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the dynamics of the greater whole.
The Four Quadrants of Integral Theory
|Interior Individual (“I”)|
|Exterior Individual (“It”)|
|Interior Collective (“We”)|
|Exterior Collective (“Its”)|
Human systems/the environment
1.Interior Individual: Firstly, there is the subjective experience of the individual – our ‘inner world.’ This category aims to understand what it is like to be ‘you.’ Theorists in this quadrant include Sigmund Freud and the Buddha who sought to explore and alter our inner awareness through methods such as psychoanalysis and meditation.
2. Exterior Individual: Individuals can also be viewed from a scientific lens. The “I” of the Interior Individual becomes an “It” when viewed though a detached, objective and third-person view. Like a doctor examining their patient, our biology, body and brain can be rigorously examined to better understand the forces impacting human health and behaviour.
Wilber applies the same framework to the collective.
3.Interior Collective: The Interior Collective refers to the shared values and norms shared by group and by society at large. This web of tightly knit beliefs shared by a group of people is ultimately what makes up culture.
4. Exterior Collective: The last quadrant looks at social systems and the environment from an impartial perspective. For instance, disciplines such as economics try to understand what forces that shape the allocation of scarce resources amongst individuals, businesses or governments.
Wilber’s integral framework aims to puncture dualistic thinking. That is, it offers us an alternative way forward beyond what initially seems separate – body and mind, individual and the collective, humans and the environment etc.
In his book a Theory of Everything, Wilber uses applies his integral framework to several real-world issues.
Let’s look at one example he provides in medicine and human health to assess the value of his model.
The medical field primarily focuses on treating illness through a host of physical interventions, namely through surgery, drugs and medication (exterior individual). However, there is an increased awareness on the role that interior mental states, emotions and attitudes play in affecting one’s physical health. The mind and body are inherently linked. For instance, studies have demonstrated that stress can increase the risk of several medical ailments including heart disease, diabetes and asthma (interior individual).
On a collective level, cultural norms and values influence how we perceive and treat a particular condition. Recently, societal views on mental health care are gradually shifting, reducing the stigma that such conditions used to carry. Society is becoming more accepting of those with mental health issues and supportive for those individuals who wish to seek treatment (interior collective).
Lastly, the exterior material, social and economic conditions one lives in has a significant impact on one’s health. That is, our income and financial security affect our ability seek the appropriate treatment for our medical conditions. Those living in poverty not only lack access to adequate healthcare but live in conditions which heighten the risk of adverse health conditions (exterior collective).
Wilber’s integral model helps us avoid the pitfalls of overly simplistic thinking and stereotypes that we often attribute to societal problems. The four-quadrant approach enables us to think deeper of how issues are deeply interconnected at the individual and collective level. Each quadrant offers a partial but complementary way of understanding the world.
Further, this way of thinking can get society beyond the ‘us vs. them’ mentality which has become so corrosive in our public discourse. Instead of being antagonistic to those we disagree with, we can begin to empathize with others or at least attempt to understand their point of view.
Holistic thinking requires us to broaden our horizons embracing a multitude of different perspectives so we can begin to live in harmony with others, and the natural world.
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.Albert Einstein
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This post was originally posted on my personal blog: A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life – In Search of Inner Freedom