Book Review: Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution: How the Integral Worldview is Transforming Politics, Culture and Spirituality

Matthew Kalman

Kalman’s Kosmos

Matthew KalmanIntegral Consciousness Book by McIntoshSteve McIntosh, Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution: How the Integral Worldview is Transforming Politics, Culture and Spirituality. St. Paul, MN, US A: Paragon House, 2007).

This is a book some of your integral friends will probably already be reading. It aims to be both fully ‘Integral’, yet not Wilber-centric—indeed it even offers a critique of certain aspects of Wilber’s model.

It begins with some detailed descriptions of the stages of the Spiral (renamed as Tribal, Warrior, Traditional, Modernist, Postmodern, and Integral), and with an explication of ‘dialectical development’. Pretty quickly it becomes very clear that Steve McIntosh— who was once closely involved in the Integral Institute—remains “unashamedly passionate” about Integral philosophy. For him, Integral philosophy can help us “duplicate Descartes’ philosophical achievement”, and bring about a “Second Enlightenment”.

Steve has many solutions, and looming particularly large is his plan—detailed at some length—for a world federation, guided by “the principles of Integral philosophy”. This holds out the promise of nothing less than “an end to war, disease and poverty” (visit his online petition here:

He has himself “been living in integral consciousness for over ten years now”. “I can testify that it is what it appears to be: a new, historically significant level of human civilisation,” he says. Visible changes that he reports—from his own life—include more complex experiential awareness, more compassion for others, more personal power, more strategic wisdom, and more energy for life.

Significant space in the book is devoted to the role of the “conceptual cathedral” of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, “the comprehensible elements of Deity”, as Steve rather wonderfully calls them. He explains how “the philosophy of beauty, truth and goodness can become an organising principle of the emerging spiritual culture of integral consciousness”.

Steve suggests that we can resolve the ‘culture war’ by raising consciousness—indeed “every problem in the world can be identified, at least partially, as a problem of consciousness”. He also knows “exactly how Islam needs to be strengthened” (though his answer, to me, looks pretty general rather than exact).

We integralists are “ambassadors for the future” standing for “the righteous values of the spiral as a whole”, with an integral philosophy that “makes vividly clear what the next steps for civilisation must be”. Indeed “Integral consciousness represents the future of cultural evolution”.

I must admit that I was rather relieved when this rhapsodic exegesis on all things Integral gave way, half way through the book, to engaging overviews of the foundational contributions of Hegel, Bergson, Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, Gebser, Habermas and Wilber (included illustrations of each of them).

Wilber may be an intellectual hero to Steve, but he doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to criticising elements of Wilber’s model. “Among Wilber’s weaknesses is the fact that he sometimes plays fast and loose with a lot of serious scholarship, using it in ways that the authors he cites would be unlikely to agree with,” says Steve. Wilber “does not adequately address the basics (such as causation or being) in the analytical and methodological way that the philosophical profession generally requires” (Though I doubt Steve’s any more likely to impress trained philosophers).

To be more specific, Steve argues that Wilber is, in reality, advocating a particular Buddhist/Hindu theology, resulting in what he terms “belief system imperialism”.

“It is often difficult to separate his philosophy from his religion”. Wilber advances “his personal belief system as though it were an empirical matter of fact, and he is an enthusiastic evangel of his Vedanta/Vajrayana religion.” Steve argues that it is vital to “separate these essentially theological assertions from the main body of integral philosophy”. “The mission of integral philosophy is too important to allow itself to be burdened by any specific or official version of spirituality”.

The Quadrants model also comes under fire—with Steve arguing that the Lower Right (systems) quadrant is a muddle, as it: “consists of a hierarchy of artefacts mixed together with the erroneous concept of social action systems”. “The elegant holonic symmetry of the quadrants begins to break down” once human-made artifacts emerge. In fact Ken stands accused of the gloriously-named new philosophical crime of “subtle expansionism” for his depiction of the lower right quadrant.

There are further serious charges: “Wilber’s quest for a trans-path cannot produce a credible empirical spirituality; it can only pretend to do so by effectively exalting and privileging one of the previously existing paths”. Wilber currently critiques ‘the Myth of the Given’—the metaphysical idea that there are pre-existing stages et al—but smuggles back in “the thoroughly metaphysical idea of ‘involutionary givens’”, says Steve.

The recent changes Wilber has made to his integral model encourage me to take more seriously Steve’s claims than I might have done in the past. Wilber, for instance, describes how his original spectrum model placed (Eastern) meditative stages—e.g. Psychic, Subtle, Causal, Nondual—on top of Western psychological stages. “Bam bam bam bam…East and West integrated!”, said Ken in Integral Spirituality. But there were immediate problems, he added. The attempted synthesis “sat stalled for about two decades” until recently when the Wilber-Combs Lattice was devised (in which Psychic, Subtle, Causal and Ultimate are no longer higher vertical structural stages available to a few but are horizontal states potentially available to anyone, at any structural level). Until we have seen strong evidence to support this new Wilber-Combs Lattice of states and stages, Steve’s argument that Wilber’s “trans-path cannot produce a credible empirical spirituality” at least merits consideration.

Wilber also now argues that there are no “no invariant structure-stages” in organisations, as “only individual holons go through mandatory stages”; replacing some of the individuals can change the collective stage (as in a poker game, which Wilber uses as an analogy). It would be fascinated to hear from people like Don Beck and Bill Torbert on this topic of stages within organisations.

I’ve personally never adequately followed the detailed to and fro that takes place in the integral milieu about the exact nature of quadrants (and holons), but am left only with a feeling that there’s at least a chance that Steve could turn out to be correct that “we can continue to use the quadrant model as long as we do not take it too literally”.

Attempting to grasp Steve’s book leaves me very aware that I don’t fully trust my (limited) knowledge of philosophy, or even of the Integral model. But nor do I feel I can entirely trust Steve’s own picture (he’s neither a Psychologist or trained philosopher, after all). It’s a picture that most outside of the circle of Integral believers might find to be rather too full of hype-filled grandiosity and idealistic speculation. Steve himself admits that his world government idea is going to be dismissed by many as a “leftwing peacenik fantasy” dreamt up by “woolly-minded one-worlders”.

If Integral philosophy really does have so many compelling answers and is so clear about what the next steps in society “must be”, knows “exactly” how Islam must be changed etc, then Joe Public might well wonder why there aren’t more in the way of solutions to show off after nearly a decade of the Integral Institute’s existence? (Indeed, seeking to explore the state of integral solutions and approaches is part of the reason I recently launched the website and blog).

I’m reminded of the cycle of books around Peter Senge’s laudable idea of the ‘Learning Organization’. First The Fifth Discipline catalysed a worldwide clamour to turn our dysfunctional and silo-ridden workplaces into learning organisations. Then two different workbooks appeared telling us how to do it. And once a lot of people had tried to implement the ideas, the more sober reflections of Senge et al’s The Dance of Change – The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organisations appeared. Here we learnt about the stalls, the failures, and a whole range of problems that emerge when organizational immune systems kick in against changes.

Steve’s book is very much at that first stage of optimistic fanfare—rather than being either a practical workbook or an investigation into obstacles to integral developments, that may emerge later.

Steve tells us that he wants “to ensure that the integral philosophy I’m describing remains in strict agreement with scientific and historical facts.” I also liked to read his promise to “review the evidence” for the Spiral—but wonder whether he’s too ‘close’ to integral to easily come up with all the objective criticisms that others might. It was, after all, in cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker’s book ‘The Blank Slate’, rather than anything integral, where I read that the research of “gender-feminist icon” Carol Gilligan (who is regularly cited in descriptions of the AQAL model by Wilber) was “not true” (references were given by Pinker).

Steve says that the Multiple Intelligences proponent Howard Gardner (who is used to support the Lines and Stages aspect of the AQAL model) is the second most respected living developmental psychologist. He never mentions that leading progressive psychometrician Robert Sternberg could find no studies validating Multiple Intelligences, and many other researchers appear rather scathing about its evidence base. Jean Piaget’s work on child development “has now been validated and revalidated by literally hundreds of scientific studies”, says Steve. A reference to some good meta-studies would have been useful here. I thought the reality to be that the legacy of Piaget is much more complicated and open to interpretation than this. A hint at such nuances would really help (e.g. Michael Barnes’ masterful Piagetian work Stages of Thought – The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science—which is reminiscent of Wilber’s Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution—manages to discuss critics of Piaget, like Shweder, in a useful way).

Spiritual experience is “usually a central feature” of integral people’s lives, is another of Steve’s multitude of assertions. I thought, however, that Spiral Dynamics—which is at the heart of this book—seemed to depict spirituality as something that is not at all to the fore at the integral/Yellow meme stage, but reappears later.

Another claim in the book is that those who haven’t been exposed to Integral philosophy won’t find “the idea of global governance” very interesting. Yet elsewhere Steve himself tells us that immediately after the Second World War there was the heyday of global governance campaigns with hundreds of thousands joining global governance organisations. How many of these people were interested in integral philosophy?

At one point Steve claims: “I’ve carefully read the developmental psychology literature”. This sounds like good news, as it could put the book’s arguments on a firm footing, but the book’s bibliography—of around 65 authors—hardly seems overloaded with developmental psychologists and kindred figures. Where are the major figures like Erikson, Perry, Kohlberg, Belenky, Baxter-Magolda, Commons, Cook-Greuter, Fischer, Gilligan, Pascual-Leone, Kitchener, Selman, Piaget, Basseches, Jaques, Sinnott, Armon, Josselson, Torbert, Laske et al?

Another claim in the book is that academic philosophy is subordinate to science; by contrast I had rather thought that philosophers had been rubbishing science for many decades (though perhaps this is only a minority sport). Integral will make common cause with postmodern politics, claims Steve—yet how much common ground could there be once you remove all the unhealthy ‘Boomeritis’ and ‘Mean Green Meme’ elements? (Oddly, the book predicts future ‘attacks’ against Integral philosophy once it “gains ground” – as if these attacks haven’t already been happening for years.)

With postmodern culture came the rediscovery of spirituality, especially Eastern, says Steve. I thought it was Theosophy that brought all this to the West, nothing to do with recent postmodernist developments.

Civil rights, anti-Vietnam, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Thoreau are all offered as examples of postmodern movements and leaders. Yet postmodernism tends to give rise to fragmented identity politics and particularism rather than mass movements—like feminism and civil rights—which feel rather modernist. The Dalai Lama’s views on nuclear weapons and homosexuality certainly don’t look postmodern.

Another typical statement by Steve is that “subsequent research and experience is continuing to validate and confirm” the work of Clare Graves (whose ideas led to Spiral Dynamics). What’s the source for this more recent research? And don’t I remember one or two past Integral Leadership Review interviewees having trouble finding the original research, let alone more recent confirmations of it? In Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs found enough “questions about its empirical basis and reservations about the way its stages are described” to opt to leave Spiral Dynamics out of their book.

Modernist consciousness is individualistically orientated, says Steve. But didn’t Lenin want to end Russia’s backwardness with a programme of modernisation and atheism, saying that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country”? That sounds pretty modernist to me, but the Bolsheviks were anything but individualist.

Older cultures don’t need to evolve but “have a right to be who they are”, argues Steve, though their children also have a—presumably conflicting?—right to education if they choose it. It would be good to hear a real world example of how progress towards educational choice for girls might occur in a patriarchal and traditionalist society. We also read that Robert Kegan has concluded, “the ‘worldview or values line’ appears to measure our overall state of existence.” Where did he say this? I can’t recollect where he writes about Graves or Spiral Dynamics.

Steve talks briefly about IQ, stating that “my IQ had increased in some very real ways” after attending Law School. I don’t even know if that’s possible and rather wish someone in the integral milieu would do justice to the thorny subject of IQ (and all its ‘nature vs nurture’ pitfalls) [See review of Menkes’ Executive Intelligence in this issue]. Though Wilber has written that the idea that the human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate of pure environmental causation) is untenable, I don’t think he anywhere actually talks about the impact of heredity on lines, levels and personality types? This would require reading proponents of the various positions—Jensen, Nisbett, Sternberg, Flynn, Murray, Gottfredson, Lynn, Kamin et al.

“Most people do not experience significant vertical movement along the spiral once they reach adulthood” is a further claim in the book. Predictably, I could do with hearing a bit more detail here—references to studies, etc. (If Steve’s read the literature on developmental psychology, as he says he has, then this should be easy). Didn’t the entire field of research into adult development emerge because Piaget’s depiction of growth stopping after adolesence was wrong? If vertical growth stops on reaching adulthood, what are these developmental researchers all studying?

Elsewhere, Steve says that “cooperation interacts with competition, and…both of these forms of relation are necessary for a healthy society”. Who could ever disagree with such a glib truism? In an Integral milieu that has been able to come up with rigorous books like Jack Crittenden’s Beyond Individualism: Reconstituting the Liberal Self I hope we can move towards more sophisticated—and impressive—arguments (and away from the glib and unevidenced). A final point, out of many more that could be made, is that it’s a bit odd to name Habermas “the de facto founder” of integral philosophy. What is the evidence that he’s even actually heard if it? (Shades of the Eddie Murphy/Steve Martin film Bowfinger about a filmmaker who can only get the big name actor into his low-budget film by covertly filming the unaware star).

However much I like parts of Steve’s book, I’m left feeling that Integral urgently needs to up its game. We ought to try lessening the chorus of hyperbole and more clearly distinguishing valid evidence from personal opinions and wishful thinking. Despite Steve’s complaint that Wilber plays “fast and loose with a lot of serious scholarship”, I see little sign yet in Steve’s own work of any needed sea-change that will take integral over the threshold to widespread—including academic—credibility.

Matthew Kalman MA, is a founder member of the Integral Institute, and launched the London Integral Circle in 2000. The group has hosted Integral Institute founder members including Susanne Cook-Greuter, Don Beck, John Rowan, and Rabbi Michael Lerner at events attracting up to 300 people. He has worked with Henley Management College to develop the first model of Integral Knowledge Management. Matthew works as a media professional and lives with his family in London, England.