Saturday, March 3, 2012

No, it's not "in" a quadrant

I'd like to debunk a simple mistake that some early enthusiasts of Integral Theory tend to make: the idea that we can sort actual things in the quadrants. It's not what Integral Theory says, even if Wilber himself can often make this linguistic shortcut.

The mistake is to consider the quadrants as reified categories within which one can sort things:

  • ideas are in the Upper-Left quadrant (UL), 
  • my body goes into the Upper-Right (UR), 
  • our culture in the Lower-Left (LL), and 
  • our political system is Lower-Right stuff (LR). 

This simplification is useful at first to explain the quadrants, but really it's more complex. For Integral Theory, quadrants are dimensions of holons, and every holon has four - except for groups, which have only two. So it doesn't mean anything to say that an entire object "is in one quadrant." Saying that is a reification of our own perspective on that object. It is reducing the object to only one of its dimensions, and reifying this dimension as if it was a thing in itself.

Take the mind, for instance. It's okay to say that the mind is "in" the UL quadrant, as long as we know that "the mind" is a mental construct that we humans created to refer to something mysterious that we experience. Defining the mind as a UL object only shows that we are looking at "it" from the UL lens.
It's a UL perspective on a mysterious object, which naturally reveals (or enacts) its UL dimension. Looked at it from a UR perspective, we see its UR dimension, which we happen to call brain. And this thing in the middle is, in many ways, a mystery.

As we use these conceptual tools, let's never forget that our constructs are useful distinctions to think about things, they are not the actual things1. The world really is mysterious.


1. Actually, it's even more complex than that. According to Integral Theory, actual things are not simple objects existing independently of us engaging them. For more of that, see Wilber's Integral Spirituality (2007), especially appendix III on "The Myth of the Given", or for an even more advanced inquiry, see An Ontology of Climate Change: Integral Pluralism and the Enactment of Multiple Objects (2011), by Sean Esbj√∂rn-Hargens.