Integral Basics, Part 2: Multiple Perspectives

There’s a famous Indian parable about a group of blind men trying to make sense of an elephant. To one, touching the trunk, it’s a snake. To another, touching the ear, it’s a fan. To another, holding the leg, it’s a tree. To still another, grasping the tail, it’s a rope. And to the last man, feeling the smooth sharp tusk, it’s a spear. The moral of the story, of course, is that Reality is a vast thing, and so what we know of it is going to be partial, and based entirely on our perspective. Only by combining what we learn from examining something from as many perspectives as possible, can we come to some approximation of what it really is.

This insight — the importance of perspective-taking — is the first basic tenet of Integral thought. In the framework developed by Ken Wilber, which I’ll be using to guide this series, perspective-taking is formalized as Quadrants. Our understanding of the world, according to Wilber, is based on the interaction of two sets of variables: First, there is our inner experience of something and the outer expression of it. For example, our experience of meditation might be one of ‘calm and relaxation’, while it might be expressed as ‘sitting in lotus position,’ ‘slowed breathing’ or ‘reduced blood pressure.’ And second, we engage the world both as individuals and in community. So, Buddhist and Christian monks might share similar experiences in meditation, but they will interpret them differently because of the different beliefs of their traditions. If we were to plot these two variables in chart, they would create four quadrants:

  1. The individual experience (psychology, spirituality);
  2. The collective experience (culture, religion);
  3. The individual manifestation (action, science); and
  4. The collective manifestation (social and religious systems and structures).


Let’s look at the example of community recycling to see how this works out. The Integral framework claims that any successful recycling program would need to address all four of these areas: 1. What the person experiences when recycling; 2. broader cultural values influencing the choice to recycle; 3. what the recycling program requires people to do; and 4. how it connects to broader systems, such as economics or public works programs. If any one of these is not taken into account, the program is likely to fail. So, for example, I once lived in a city where the recycling program depended on people manually sorting their recyclables at centralized depots where there were often long lines. It was an efficient program in terms of municipal resources, but it created a frustrating experience for residents and involved a lot of individual effort. Most certainly, these weaknesses in the first and third quadrants undermined the program’s impact. An interaction I once had with an older relative shows the second and fourth quadrants at work: He told me objected to recycling on principle because it harmed the mining and manufacturing sectors. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I was able to see how it would make sense from his perspective: He had seen his region’s once thriving manufacturing sector — and the bank accounts of many in his community — hollowed out by the industrial decline of the early 1990s. Clearly, for any recycling program to get support from this relative, it would need convincing messaging to address his cultural (second quadrant) beliefs about its potential impact on his community, and on economics (fourth quadrant) more generally.

While Wilber’s four quadrants offer a helpful paradigm, other Integral thinkers have adopted other sets of perspectives that end up in the same place. For example, the two exterior quadrants are sometimes conflated to create three-perspective systems that parallel other historical threefold schemes, like first-person, second-person, and third-person, or the beautiful, the good, and the true. Whatever particular schema one prefers, the goal of an Integral framework is to make sure one is able to see what each of the perspectives is offering and bring the best of all of them together to create a fuller understanding of the phenomenon as a whole. As Wilber summarizes the issue, “If you leave out science, or leave out art, or leave out morals, something is going to be missing, something will get broken. Self and culture and nature are liberated together or not at all” (Integral Spirituality, 20).

If we think about this further, these multiple perspectives are inherently about relationships, and this puts us squarely in the realm of philosophy, spirituality, and religion. The first quadrant of individual experience is about one’s subjective experience of the Self and of God. The second quadrant of culture is about what our particular community values as important, and how we relate to those shared understandings. The third quadrant is about how we relate to our environment, the realities of ‘what is’. And the fourth quadrant is about how we relate to how that environment is shaped by systems and structures. Of course, where there is relationship, there is the possibility for relationship to be broken — what we might think of as ‘sin’ — and restored — what we might think of as ‘redemption.’ In this way, a multi-perspectival approach can give us a more comprehensive understanding of our faith and its scope.

This is relevant because individual Christians have a tendency to narrow in on one aspect of faith at the expense of the others. It’s common, for example, to find Christians who only care about spiritual experience; for them the sum total of their faith is their life of prayer and worship. Others might define their faith on questions of truth and error; for them to be Christian means to believe the correct things about God and the world. Still others see Christianity as primarily a cultural heritage, more or less synonymous with ‘Western civilization.’ And others, increasingly today, see Christianity as a platform for combating social and political injustice. An Integral, multi-perspectival approach recognizes that while all of these perspectives have important things to offer, they also miss out on a lot, and even slide into error if they become one-sided and are not integrated with the others.

More than simply being a diagnostic tool that reveals why divisions within Christianity — and society as a whole — exist, the quadrants of the Integral framework can also provide a path for creating effective change in ourselves and our communities, by challenging us to step outside of our predispositions and habitual responses and look at questions in different ways. They help us to look at how different issues might impact us both individually (the Christian) and as communities (the Church), and they help us to connect the dots between what we believe and experience, and how we live that out — for “faith without works is dead,” and “a tree shall be judged by its fruit.”

So, with all this in mind, this component of an Integral framework directs Christian thought towards a greater awareness of different perspectives. This multi-perspectival orientation makes up one half of what I have elsewhere referred to as the Integral value of holistic life. The next post will take up the piece of the framework that provides other half of this value: lines of development.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Which quadrant(s) do you tend to gravitate to most naturally? Which do you tend not to think about?
  2. What are some practical ways you can engage with each quadrant?
  3. Do any of the other possible sets of perspectives (1st, 2nd and 3rd person; the good, true, and beautiful, etc.) resonate with you? Why? or Why not?

Please see the Annotated Bibliography on Integral Thought for sources, works cited, and further reading.

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