4/1 – Reflections on the Complexity of Integral Theorizing: Towards an Agenda for Self-reflection

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

In August of 2013 I had the pleasure of attending the Integral Theory conference in the Bay Area. I was delighted to see the spirit of openness, inquiry, curiosity, as well as the warmth and collegiality of the event. I confess that I am generally not much of a conference goer. As we all know, academic conferences can be deadly dull and are often rather closed to diverse perspectives. The focus can be hyper-specialized and hyper-disciplinary, drilling deeper and deeper into minutiae. Big questions are usually left out, if only because they simply can’t be addressed through the lens of a single discipline. Definitely not the case here.

The Integral scholars I met at the conference were very open and eager to enrich the theory base of Integral Theory. They were keen to discuss varied perspectives, eager to make new connections and reflect on the foundations of Integral Theory. It’s no secret that the dangers facing Integral Theory have been those typical of any emerging intellectual movement (think Jung and Jungians): isolation and marginalization from the mainstream, a tendency towards groupthink, dogmatism, and cults of personality. This new spirit of openness and dialogue was a welcome development.

With this new openness in the community, I want to encourage the move to greater self-reflectiveness, as well as address some of the larger concerns that may get in the way of developing Integral Theories that can make a real impact in the mainstream. I feel there are some questions that need to be addressed, particularly with regard to what I’ve seen of the community’s approach to systems and complexity theories. I will outline a few of my questions and concerns here, and make a call for critical self-reflection and self-study. I believe that taking these questions and concerns seriously, and addressing them in an open-minded, respectful, self-critical way would be a great contribution to Integral Theory.

Let me begin with the specter of Victorian Evolutionism. Integral theory is developmental and hierarchical. I think we all know that developmental “evolutionary” hierarchical approaches were thoroughly rejected in the social sciences in the 20th century, particularly in anthropology, and for very good reasons. Developmental, hierarchical approaches were a central tenet of Victorian evolutionism, and central to colonial ideology. The idea was that Europeans and later Northern-European Americans constituted the pinnacle of evolution (in the US until the 1920s Southern and Eastern Europeans were not included in the “white” category), and therefore sat at the top of the hierarchy. This privileged position allowed them to pass judgment on all those below them. The hierarchy was race-based and racist, and differentiated between the “evolution” of various races. Blacks were, of course, the most “primitive” race and at the bottom of the hierarchy. They were the most distant from the pinnacle of evolution—white males—and it doesn’t require a highly developed imagination or much of a sense of history to get what the implications are and were.

Over a hundred years have gone by, and anthropology has gone to great lengths to rid itself of this racist nonsense. It has even gone a little too far, according to some. But we have to say that the effort was needed, and it’s admirable that a deep-seated way of thinking was tackled head-on and roundly defeated.

It is therefore disturbing to find that in some of the developmental schemes, we find an overview of the various stages or memes where the lowest run of the ladder includes street people, schizophrenics, and African Bushmen. This categorization can still be found on some popular websites and in summaries of the various memes. How exactly these exemplars are connected is not entirely clear. I understand that, to paraphrase the Monty Python song, every little meme is sacred, every little meme is good, but I suspect most of us can’t help thinking that this is not the most desirable real estate in consciousness.

It is likewise not uncommon in Integral Theory to find nations and movements and thinkers categorized by their developmental stage or meme. Given the difficult and tragic history of classification and generalization, what needs to be addressed in great depth is how this is done. If we’re not careful, Integral Theory will fall into the trap of Victorian Evolutionism. While under the impression that we’re making sophisticated Second Tier assessments leading us into the bright evolutionary future, we may be going back to precisely the racist ideology anthropologists fought so hard to eradicate. My impression is that there has not been nearly enough discussion of this danger, and that indeed there seems to be little awareness of, or sensitivity towards this racist, colonial history. This issue cannot be dismissed with a few sentences about how that was then and this is now, and how, after all, we are so much more together and enlightened than our predecessors. Let’s not do a spiritual bypass here. This is an issue that should be carefully unpacked, and we should be very careful with our use of these categories.

A key challenge of Integral Theory, it seems to me, is what it actually means to be an Integral Theorist. How does an Integral Theorist work with ideas? How is her or his approach different from a non-Integral theorist? How do we address the self-inquiry that should be part of every inquiry? I believe there should be something distinctly different about how an Integral Theorist engages with the world. Self-reflection is essential, of course, and so is self-criticism. One of the historical criticisms of hierarchical theories of development is that the person developing or using the hierarchy almost inevitably finds himself at the top of said hierarchy. Whoops! There’s a not-so-subtle tendency to feel like a master of the universe when the whole map of creation from soup to nuts appears to be laid out before you. It becomes tempting to play a game of “Where (below me) do you belong on the evolutionary ladder?” This can lead to hubris and arrogance, and provides an excellent opportunity for self-reflection and addressing shadow issues.

The late Adi Da Samraj proposed Seven Stages of Life, a developmental model of illumination that is said to have influenced some Integral Theorists. It should come as no surprise that Adi Da himself was at the top, the sole inhabitant and representative of the Seventh Stage. Apparently towards the end of his life claimed he was the only human being who has ever attained or ever will attain that stage. The danger is ever-present, it seems. Self-confidence and some “attitude” are fine, but there’s a thin, thin line into megalomania, and it’s been crossed more often than we might care to admit.

The fact that this tendency for hierarchical models to be hijacked by the ego is a historical phenomenon means it is essential to learn from history. In the excitement of embarking on an evolutionary journey, it’s easy to lose sight of concrete historical phenomena and tragedies, and to dismiss other perspectives as regressive. It’s necessary to counteract the potential for spiritual hubris and arrogance with some real humility. Humility is not a term I have seen used with great frequency in the Integral community. Perhaps this is because of a subtle “Integral Macho” overlay intended to counteract the alleged passive aggressive wimpiness of the so-called “Mean Green Meme,” the alleged tendency among “progressives,” “liberal,” and “New Agers” to deny power and self-assertion in favor of “flatland” egalitarianism, endless leaderless debate, over-inclusiveness, political correctness, and a whole host of more allegedly “feminine” “virtues.” Fortunately, I sense Integral Macho is on it way out, and there seems to be an emerging appreciation for existential complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity.

Humility, in the sense I’m using it, means a willingness to remain alert to the possibility of learning, to assume we don’t have the “full picture,” that we are not unquestionably correct, and that we can remain open to possibility and growth. It means realizing the map is not the territory, not even a little. So there’s no “but I’m sure this map is pretty much it/as close as dammit/I’d bet my bottom dollar,” etc. It means, above all, relinquishing the authoritarian assumption of absolute certainty that is so often found in certain kinds of gurus and “true believers,” and recognizing both the dangers of “certainty” and the reality of creativity. The works of the philosopher Richard Bernstein, with his discussion of fallibilism—a kind of thought that eschews the quest for certainty—and Edgar Morin, with his Complex Thought, are two sources for rich, creative, and in my view essential, alternatives. As Bernstein writes in his excellent The Abuse of Evil: Politics and Religion after 9/11: “There is no incompatibility between being decisive and recognizing the fallibility and limitations of our choices and decisions. On the contrary, this is what is required for responsible action.”

The term hierarchy is often associated exclusively with domination by some groups over others. Ken Wilber has made a determined effort to show how the concept of hierarchy can be used in multiple ways and can’t be rejected outright. Hierarchical approaches in evolutionary theory are not about domination, for instance, nor are the hierarchical models of nested systems in systems theory. Having said that, it’s not clear that there’s sufficient awareness in the Integral community of the reasons behind the often-virulent response to hierarchical approaches. The history of political and power hierarchies, of hierarchies of domination, is a gruesome one. When trying to re-introduce hierarchy in the discourse we need a particular sensitivity to who and what it might trigger, as well as a thorough understanding of the actual dangers of hierarchy and hierarchical thinking. When new hierarchical approaches seem to recapitulate precisely the same deeply problematic issues of earlier approaches, it’s clear read flags will go up.

The role of systems and complexity thinking in Integral Theory is still not particularly well articulated, in my mind. Systems theory is inevitably situated in the bottom right hand quadrant. In other words, “social systems” rather than culture, systems “management,” all very it-like in nature, and, of course, very 3rd person.

So let’s take a look at this, and let’s start with reality. The term holon has become very popular in Integral Theory, to the point that reality itself is now considered not a process or a thing, but holons. I remember buying Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine in a bookstore on Baker Street in London when I was a teenager, mostly because it was the title of an album by the Police. I’ve been a big fan of Koestler’s work ever since, even though it turns out he was not a particularly nice man. He covered many topics that are still of great interest to me from evolution to systems theory to creativity. I would be hesitant though to say that reality is holons, no matter how much I admire Koestler, let alone that reality is nothing but holons. More interesting, perhaps, is this. If reality is viewed as being composed of holons, and a holon is a concept that originated in and “belongs” in systems theory (something about which Koestler was extremely clear), then holons and hence systems approaches cannot be left languishing in the bottom right hand corner. Holons are everywhere, and at least this bit of systems theory is, shall we say, all over the map. In other words, thoughts and ideas and all that good noospheric stuff are made up of holons too.

The Integral criticism of systems and complexity approaches has been that it’s all about mapping the external world. Without doubt, this is something a lot of systems theorists seem to have taken great pleasure in. I’ve written entries on systems theory for encyclopedias and handbooks, and there’s definitely a lot of that about when you review the literature. It’s also the case that it’s the systemic Wild West out there, with about as many definitions and approaches to systems theory and complexity as there are practitioners. There’s one approach to systems and complexity theories that is not so much about mapping the external world but about how we organize our thinking, drawing on the Second Cybernetics of Heinz Von Foerster and constructivist epistemology. Edgar Morin is a representative of this approach. It’s an entirely different ballgame, and not one that can be enclosed in the bottom right hand quadrant.

If we then go look at the various scholarly discussions of postformal thinking, we find that the language of systems theory is used frequently. Interestingly, postformal thinking has been irrigated by two streams, as it were—the dialectical stream, which started out in the pioneering work of Klaus Riegl, Basseches, and the more contextual stream, with Arlin, Commons, Koplowski, Kegan, and others. If I were to summarize the two cornerstones of Morin’s complex thought, I’d say context and dialogic (Morin’s variation on the dialectic—there’s not always a synthesis, but there is interaction between the two terms). There’s obviously much to be explored here.

To summarize, therefore, Integral Theorists would do well to take a closer look at systems/complexity thinkers who have recognized the Second Cybernetics, or the shift from observed systems to observing systems in various ways. I’m thinking of Edgar Morin, Gregory Bateson, Jean-Louis LeMoigne, Mary Catherine Bateson, Sergio Manghi, Ernst Von Glasersfeld, Umberta Telfener, Heinz Von Foerster, Joanna Macy, Mauro Ceruti, Linda Olds, Donata Fabbri, and Niklas Luhmann among others. In other words, this means a profound integration of the inquirer in the inquiry, and an ongoing process of self-reflection and self-inquiry. Powerful ideas require the ability to engage in serious self-examination. Tracing the historical roots and context of the ideas, as well as our own personal investment in the ideas, and the power they confer, becomes essential. There’s a wealth of epistemological material there that can deeply enrich Integral Theory, as well as a more, dare I say it, complex presentation of systems and complexity theories, particularly in their variants that do not belong in the bottom right hand corner (and, to be clear, some if not most, definitely do).

Speaking of quadrants, I think it’s useful to remember that there are other related quadrant models out there, such as Burrell and Morgan’s sociological paradigms (Objective—Subjective Regulation—Change) and Hollis’s work on the philosophy of social science (Individualism—Holism Understanding—Explanation) come to mind. It’s not inopportune to ask ourselves, how are these different and might they not shed light on the world in an equally interesting way? Where does Integral Theory situate itself in terms of the larger questions of the philosophy of social science?

More importantly, perhaps, a final challenge I want to mention is the relationship between the various four sections of the quadrants. It’s one thing to say that we need to address all four, it’s less clear, from what I have seen in Integral Theory, if there is a useful way of thinking about these connections—the larger pattern that connects. It’s not enough to just have these various elements in four quadrants. In practice, we find they often originate in very different, at times strongly antagonistic disciplines and camps, and say they have to be addressed in order not to produce some parochial, partial work. What are the criteria for working with them? For representing them in such a way that their originators and members can actually recognize themselves? Not, in other words, in a way that fits rather conveniently in a specific quadrant? What are the ways we can not only bring them together but also use them to enrich our work? The left and right hand have been waging a historical war in academia, and are unlikely to be open to shotgun weddings. At the same time, once again we find that systems theory’s original mission was to develop a transdisciplinary set of concepts and language to work with this enormous diversity. While this mission has not been entirely successful, it’s still very active, and the relationship to the Integral community is a close one.

I have outlined a few of the questions about Integral Theory that I find interesting, particularly given the transdisciplinary focus of this column. There is much still to explore in Integral Theory, and exciting times lie ahead. The initial impetus has been provided by the work of pioneering scholars who have revived, updated, and complexified the tradition. After the enlightenment, the laundry. But what enlightening laundry!

 About the Author

Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future, complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.


  1. Jack Austin on April 2, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    As a student of Spiral Dynamics after Beck, so Integral, it is very eye opening to me to see the progress of Integral Theory. I have been somewhat aware of this work as a result of attending trainings by Dr. Beck, however not nearly so much as I am curious to become after this article. Dr. Montouri clearly brings up some of the most important challenges of oversimplification and generalization as relates to the vMeme discussions. Maps are useful as starting and reference points, yet must be compared carefully with the territory to verify accuracy.

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