Ken Wilber

From Academic Kids

Template:Integral theoryKenneth 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 [1] ( 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."




Ken Wilber was born on January 31, 1949 in Oklahoma City, OK. His father was in the Air Force and Oklahoma was just a temporary sojourn in a journey through Bermuda, El Paso, TX, Idaho, and Great Falls, MT where he began high school. For his senior year they moved to Lincoln, NE where he was valedictorian of his high school class. He remembers the frequent moves as traumatic, though he was successful in athletics and was several times elected student body or class president. "People think I am anti-social, but that is quite wrong. When at twenty-three I engaged my adult interests of writing and meditation, it was hard for me to stop being with people and spend my life in a corner." (p. 19, Visser)

In 1968 he enrolled as a pre-med student at Duke University, but almost immediately experienced a crisis of disillusionment with what science had to offer. It was not the psychedelics then in vogue which inspired him. It was Eastern literature, particularly the Tao Te Ching, which catalyzed his conversion. Academically he lost that first year, but returned to Nebraska, enrolled in the University, and completed a bachelor's degree with double majors in chemistry and biology. This he managed to do while spending much of his time pursuing Eastern philosophy and Western psychology. He won a scholarship to do graduate study in biochemistry, but by this time he was thoroughly ensnared by the philosophical and contemplative life, and soon dropped out.

While tutoring he met Amy Wagner in 1972. They decided to live together and married a year later. The relationship was committed to shared responsibilities, and Wilber did odd jobs such as dishwashing for the next nine years to contribute his share to their support. The menial work provided balance while he continued to write. He never relished writing, but thought of himself more as a thinker. To hone his writing skills he copied all the books of Alan Watts verbatim, in longhand. His method for the next ten years was to study for ten months or so, conceive a book in its entirety, then to write obsessively to complete it in two or three months.

Early career

In 1973 he completed the manuscript for his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, the first fruit of his quest to integrate thought from disparate fields. After rejections by more than twenty publishers it was finally accepted by Quest Books, a theosophical organization in 1977. It was well received, with Wilber being compared to such luminaries as William James, Freud, and even Einstein. The success brought opportunities for many lectures and workshops, which he gave up after a year to provide more time for his writing. He also helped to launch the journal ReVision in 1978. No Boundary was a popularized summary of The Spectrum of Consciousness published in 1979. It was followed by the sociological works The Atman Project (1980) and Up from Eden (1981). The editorial demands of the journal on his time increased, and in 1981 he agreed to an amicable divorce from Amy and moved to Cambridge, MA to work on ReVision projects.

In 1983 he moved to Marin County, CA, where he met and soon married Terry (Treya) Killam. At the same time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. From the fall of 1984 until 1987 Wilber gave up most of his writing to focus on caring for her. During this stressful time their relationship was tested when he temporarily ceased meditation and turned to alcohol. During their brief stay in a home they had built at Incline Village (Lake Tahoe, NV), Wilber contracted a chronic illness in 1985 which he still struggles with today. In 1987 they moved to Boulder, CO to be near the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist University founded by Chogyam Trungpa. Here they found the peace they had been seeking, even though Treya died in January, 1989. Their joint experience was recorded in the book Grace and Grit (1991).

Recent works

He worked for a time on a textbook of integral psychology (eventually published in 1999 as part of volume IV of his Collected Works), but left it to focus on the three year project Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES), (1995), the massive first volume of a proposed Kosmos Trilogy. During that period of isolation he experienced an extended, eleven day mystical enlightenment. A Brief History of Everything (1996) was the non-footnoted, popularized summary of SES in the form of an imagined, extended interview. Eye of the Spirit (1997) was a compilation of articles he had written for ReVision on the relationship between science and religion. A shorter revised edition was published by Random House in 1998 as The Marriage of Sense and Soul. In 1997 he met Marci Walters, a young student at the Naropa Institute. They lived together for five years, getting married in June 2001, but then separating in 2002. Wilber considers that time as the most productive thus far of his career, but had felt from the beginning of their relationship that Marci would eventually move on to raise a family.

Throughout 1997 he had kept journals of his personal experiences, which were published in 1999 as One Taste, his term for cosmic, or unitary consciousness. Over the next two years his publisher Shambhala Publications, took the unusual step of releasing eight re-edited volumes of his Collected Works. The year 1999 was particularly productive as he finished his Integral Psychology and wrote A Theory of Everything (2000) which attempts to bridge business, politics, science and spirituality in a short introduction to his thought that also integrates Spiral Dynamics. In 1999 he also wrote the first draft of Boomeritis (2002), a novel that exposes the egotism of his generation.

Since 1987, Wilber has lived in Boulder, CO, where he is working on his Kosmos trilogy and supervising the work of the Integral Institute.


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 Sri Aurobindo's. Like Aurobindo, he believes that reality is ultimately nondual, rather than primarily physical or mental. He also believes that this reality evolves — that it 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 grasshoppers to mice to human beings are holons.

In his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Wilber outlines approximately twenty tenets [2] ( 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 believes that these are the irreducible categories of manifest existence. In order for an account to be balanced and fair (or "integral") it must make reference to each of these different dimensions.

The two truths doctrine

Wilber accepts Ramana Maharshi's version of the two truths doctrine. It maintains that whatever does not exist in deep dreamless sleep, doesn't exist absolutely. Therefore, all of Wilber's holonic categories—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 spiritual 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 phases).

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 from logic, mathematics, and from the symbolic, hermeneutical, and other realms of consciousness. 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 test the experiences of meditators and other spiritual practitioners. This would be an example of what Wilber calls "integral science".

According to Wilber's theory, narrow science trumps narrow religion, but broad science trumps narrow science. That is, the natural sciences provide a more inclusive and accurate account of reality than any of the particular exoteric religious traditions. But an integral approach that evaluates both religious claims and scientific claims based on intersubjective evaluation is preferable to narrow science.

For example, Wilber rejects creationism as the claims of narrow religion disingenuously disguised as science. However, he also doesn't subscribe to the philosophically naturalistic evolutionary theory of, for example, Stephen J. Gould. Instead, on Wilber's account, entities simply tend to evolve and self-organize. Although Wilber sees natural selection as a valid (if limited) scientific theory, he sees Darwin as having had a largely negative net intellectual influence — due to the success of Darwinian theory, the holistic, ontologically evolutionary views of German Idealism were effectively replaced with physicalism among the intellectual lite.

Recently, Wilber has been using the term "tetra-evolution" to refer to the four-dimensional development of entities. This refers to the four quadrants of integral theory (interior individual, exterior individual, interior plural, and exterior plural), which Wilber believes co-evolve.

Influences on Wilber

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. He has been a dedicated practitioner of meditation since his college years.

Wilber's conception of evolution or psychological development is typified by Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, the Great chain of being, German idealism, Erich Jantsch, 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. He also considered existential psychiatrist Rollo May a personal friend.

Wilber 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. Wilber's is also influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is conversant with the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Jrgen 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 of Live, and Billy Corgan.

Charles Taylor —"probably the world's most respected and admired living philosopher" according to Wilber's publisher Shambhala [3] (, —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 a top academic philosopher.

The reluctance of other academic philosophers to warm to Wilber's work is undoubtedly due to its embrace of mysticism. Much of modern philosophy remains focused within the analytical/rational wave of Wilber's spectrum of consciousness model, and is therefore not attuned to the transrational waves (i.e. vision-logic and higher) of consciousness. 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 [4] ( 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, 2003
"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


Note: an ISBN is a book serial number which identifies not the title, but a specific edition of a book. Wikipedia links the number to a page which allows you to locate it among a large selection of libraries or booksellers.

Works by Wilber

  • The Spectrum of Consciousness, 1977, anniv. ed. 1993: ISBN 0835606953
  • No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth, 1979, reprint ed. 2001: ISBN 1570627436
  • The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development, 1980, 2nd ed. ISBN 0835607305
  • Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, 1981, new ed. 1996: ISBN 0835607313
  • The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes: Exploring the Leading Edge of Science (editor), 1982, ISBN 0394712374
  • A Sociable God: A Brief Introduction to a Transcendental Sociology, 1983, new ed. 2005 subtitled Toward a New Understanding of Religion, ISBN 1590302249
  • Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm, 1984, 3rd rev. ed. 2001: ISBN 157062741X
  • Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists (editor), 1984, rev. ed. 2001: ISBN 1570627681
  • Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development (co-authors: Jack Engler, Daniel Brown), 1986, ISBN 0394742028
  • Spiritual Choices: The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation (co-authors: Dick Anthony, Bruce Ecker), 1987, ISBN 0913729191
  • Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life of Treya Killam Wilber, 1991, 2nd ed. 2001: ISBN 1570627428
  • Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, 1st ed. 1995, 2nd rev. ed. 2001: ISBN 1570627444
  • A Brief History of Everything, 1st ed. 1996, 2nd ed. 2001: ISBN 1570627401
  • The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad, 1997, 3rd ed. 2001: ISBN 1570628718
  • The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader, 1998, ISBN 1570623791
  • The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, 1998, reprint ed. 1999: ISBN 0767903439
  • One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, 1999, rev. ed. 2000: ISBN 1570625476
  • Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy, 2000, ISBN 1570625549
  • A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality, 2000, paperback ed.: ISBN 1570628556
  • The Mission of Art, (coauthor Alex Grey), 2001, ISBN 157062545X
  • Speaking of Everything (2 hour audio interview on CD), 2001, ASIN B00005UWIL
  • Boomeritis: A Novel That Will Set You Free, 2002, paperback ed. 2003: ISBN 1590300084
  • Competitive Business, Caring Business: An Integral Business Perspective for the 21st Century, (coauthor Daryl S. Paulson), 2002, ISBN 1931044392
  • Kosmic Consciousness (12 hour audio interview on ten CDs), 2003, ISBN 1591791243
  • 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, 2004, ISBN 159030151X
  • The Integral Operating System, (a 40 page primer on AQAL with 2 audio CDs) October 2005, ISBN 1591793475

Books about Wilber

  • Donald Jay Rothberg and Sean Kelly, Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations With Leading Transpersonal Thinkers, 1998, ISBN 0835607666
  • 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, SUNY Press, 2003, ISBN 0-7914-5816-4, (first published in Dutch as Ken Wilber: Denken als passie, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2001)
  • Brad Reynolds, Embracing Reality: The Integral Vision of Ken Wilber: A Historical Survey and Chapter-By-Chapter Review of Wilber's Major Works, 2004, ISBN 1585423173
  • Lew Howard, Introducing Ken Wilber, May 2005, ISBN 1420829866

External links


Primary Sources and "Authorized" Websites

Sites of friends and fans of Wilber


  • ( contains a directory of essays by M. Alan Kazlev, Arvan Harvat and others on Wilber and Aurobindo.
  • The Reading Room ( A collection of dozens of essays, many critical, responding to the work of Ken Wilber.


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