What is Integral Philosophy?
Here's the Grossly Oversimplified Version, FWIW
(Photo: grandfailure via BigStock.com)
I have opinions. You have opinions. We all have opinions.
And some of us have opinions about opinions.
Some of our philosophical opinions therefore become philosophical opinions about other philosophical opinions. (We also have spiritual realizations about other spiritual realizations at a full spectrum of consciousness, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Not all of us are aware of these distinctions, but some of us who are aware of them describe ourselves as “Integralists”. I am writing this newsletter for everyone, but especially for the Integralists, whether or not they recognize themselves in this fashion today.
Integralists are people who have opinions about opinions and philosophies about philosophies. In other words, we are capable of “going meta” when we think, and therefore we encounter cognitive capacities and intellectual features that other people do not so often reach.
When this happens over a long period of time, we become rangers of the further reaches of mind. Our intelligence gets up-leveled in several interesting ways. For example, we may see patterns that connect some of our opinions in the past to some of our opinions in the present, seen in comparison to similar patterns in others, and thereby give us insight into “development”.
By “development”, I mean the process of growth or evolution from one stage/wave of being to another along one or more modes/lines of intelligence (e.g., increasing in cognitive development from preoperational to concrete operational in the mode of cognition, or rising from conventional to postconventional in the mode of moral development).
Integralists have opinions about opinions, but not in the crude sense that we judge other people’s opinions. Rather, we are capable of mentally “stepping back” from our own opinions and those of others and taking a view that synthesizes a new opinion based only partly on what has come before. Put somewhat more precisely, we grow our cognitive line by expanding the dynamism with which we take perspectives on perspectives, and thus experience increasingly subtle states of consciousness.
You may think that everybody does that, and you would have a good point. Many people can objectively see their own points-of-view and those of others at least occasionally. But arguably not everyone does it as reliably, rigorously, and creatively as the well-practiced Integralist.
The Integral Superpower
Basically, thinking “meta” (and “meta” about “meta”) is the Integralist’s superpower.
If you think that’s overblown, perhaps you haven’t been reading many amazing Integralists working today (Ken Wilber, Steve McIntosh, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, Jeff Salzman, Diane Musho Hamilton, Sally Kempton, Joran Oppelt, Robert Kegan, Terri O’Fallon, Zak Stein, Corey DeVos, John Dupuy, Layman Pascal, and many more) or the stunning philosophers in the Integral philosophical heritage (Clare Graves, Jean Gebser, Tielhard de Chardin, Sri Aurobindo, G.W.F. Hegel, Plotinus, Nagarjuna, Yang Hsiüng, and others).
Although thinking “integrally” really is a sort of superpower, Integralists aren’t born that way. We evolve into it. Everyone’s path is unique, but not entirely unique. Everyone’s path starts from many diverse influences, but it eventually coheres around shared threads. Sometimes the path is blocked by difficult personal or cultural traumas, and skillful maneuvers are necessary for healing and navigating around.
The rough outline of an Integralist’s path can be told with several different storylines. Some say they arrived as an Integralist only at the later stages of satisfying a hierarchy of needs (Maslow) from physiological to safety to belongingness to self-esteem to self-actualization to self-transcendence. Others say they arrived as an Integralist only in the later stages of understanding a series of progressive worldviews (Gebser) from the archaic to magic to mythical to rational to integral. And some say they only found their "Integral religion" in the last stage of a faith-based sojourn (Fowler) from intuitive-reflective to mythic-literal to synthetic-conventional to individuative-reflective.
Look upon any major line of development, be it moral, cognitive, aesthetic, values, ego-maturity, self-identity, or spiritual. When you read the descriptions of the upper levels of any of these modes, you can begin to see patterns that seem to connect them. When you do this (and writings related to Integral Practice can help to prepare you for this work), you may start to see that they are apparently pointing to overlapping endpoints, a sort of cloud of knowing and unknowing or a vast Spirit or Emptiness which pervades and stands in ethical relationship to all things in all worlds.
(When I first saw this for myself, MIND BLOWN.)
The Blessing and Curse of Integralism
The superpower of meta-cognition is a blessing and a curse.
The blessing is that you can see a sort of organic and evolving unity underlying a lot of things. You may even get glimpses of the mystical connections between all things and all beliefs in all persons and all cultures throughout all of history. With such awesome potential calling to you, YOU, the Integralist, might be able to exercise nearly Solomonic judgment and obtain well-balanced knowledge in all manner of things.
The curse is that seeing isn’t enough. You can possess all manner of meta-frameworks and developmental scholarship, but never achieve wisdom. Some people are even hobbled by the attempt, like the god Icarus with waxen wings who flew too close to the sun. I call this a curse because somehow it seems worse to me to get lost in the wilderness while holding a pretty detailed and accurate map, as opposed to getting lost without having one at all.
The proper way to approach the task of becoming an Integralist is to take things one step at a time. Start with a few books, and then stop for a while. Do inner work that’s balanced in many different simultaneous aspects (e.g., weight training, T’ai Chi, psychotherapy, Vipassana, journaling, and “Big Mind”-style voice dialog). Use your integrally-informed bodymind to build a healthier physique, stronger relationships, more satisfying sexuality, more appropriate careers, and rid yourself of addictions. Don’t become obsessed with mental maps or go chasing “peak experiences” to the point of losing ground in any area of your life. Make new friends who consider themselves Integralists, even if your best option is social media.
Almost every Integralist I know is passionately devoted to making themselves and the world “the best they can be” and realizing their unique self-awareness and enlightenment in service to the world. And they’re still deeply humble people who know they will be working out their “kinks” and “flaws” until the day they die. Isn’t that awesome?
Once you’ve been practicing as a novice Integralist for a few years and joined some discussion and practice groups, you’re well on the way to discovering your own inner Integral superhero. I think you might learn that what you’ve been striving for all along is not development, but wholeness-in-partiality.
Wholeness-in-partiality can be found at any stage of development, and is as full as Wholeness ever is, to anyone at all. The partiality changes in development, like a bitty acorn shooting up to a massive oak tree, but once you find the Whole at any moment in the process you can let go of the endless striving to be more and to do more.
That’s why I differ a bit with some other Integralists who talk mostly about “evolution” (getting more complex) and “growing up” (maturing). Yes, that’s important. But we are also “involving” (getting simpler) and “deepening” (getting more well-grounded in nature and our embodiment), and attending to the subtle relationship between evolution and involution.
Integralism is a Thing.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Integralism before, but I assure you that I’m not joking. It’s real, by this or another name, and you can find thousands of smart and interesting people attempting to work out our lives with an “integrally-informed” or “metamodern” or “evolutionary” philosophy. Just don’t call Integralism a religion or assume that we all love New Age spirituality.
And please don’t confuse our Integralism with Roman Catholic conservativism or 19th- and 20th-century fascist movements.
The Integralists also known as Evolutionaries have schools in California, deep roots in Colorado, meetups in New York City, and international conferences in Budapest and Bogotá. We wear labels like Metamodernist or don’t even bother labeling ourselves, and that’s great. (Integralists tend to view labels of self-identity pretty lightly, like apparel to don or toss off according to the situation.)
Minor distinctions are important to some people. Some of us hate to use “Integralism”, the noun, and insist on only using the adjective, “Integral”. Personally, I prefer to think of “Integralism” as a “philosophy of life” and “Integral” as a norm or quality within that worldview.
In this modern world, it’s a minor miracle that you can “step back from” the culture wars, the religious wars, the political wars, and the academic wars. You can also “up-level” the cultural intelligence you bring to almost any topic, all without too many years of study and effort. But study everything hard and learn all you need, it does take time and patience.
Congratulations, if you think you might want to become an Integralist (and if you’re thinking “meta” about that view), then you’re on the right path for doing so.
I’m glad you found me. Don’t think of me as a teacher or guide to YOUR path, I’m just a person working on MY path, and I don’t know what is right for you. Also, let me add for the record: I speak only for myself, not for any other individuals or groups. Not every Integralist agrees with me about everything, certainly not.
This newsletter, like my spiritual autobiography from more than 15 years ago, is about my journey of being an Integralist.
I will be back, hope to see you again.