- All content in quotation marks is from the author unless otherwise stated.
- Emphasis has been added in bold for readability/skimmability.
20 Tenets of Integral Theory: An Intro to the Philosophical Principles of Ken Wilber
About the 20 Tenets of Integral Theory
“The twenty tenets are simply some of the tendencies of evolutionary systems wherever we find them; they are ‘Kosmic patterns‘ … Evolution, or Spirit-in-action, has certain features in common wherever it appears. These common features I have summarized as the twenty tenets. These are the patterns of manifestation.”
Important Note: Ken Wilber says, “There is nothing sacrosanct about the number ‘twenty.’ Some of these are simple definitions, others are real tendencies.”
· “Tenet 2 actually has four.”
· “Tenet 12 has five (that’s nineteen).”
· “There are three additions (twenty-two); but at least two tenets are simple definitions (e.g., seven, nine), which gives around twenty. But the interested reader can probably find more to add (or subtract).”
1. Reality as a whole is not composed of things or processes, but of holons (wholes that are parts of other wholes).
“Arthur Koestler coined the term ‘holon’ to refer to an entity that is itself a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole. And if you start to look closely at the things and processes that actually exist, it soon becomes obvious that they are not merely wholes, they are also parts of something else. They are whole/parts, they are holons.”
- “For instance, a whole atom is part of a whole molecule, and the whole molecule is part of a whole cell, and the whole cell is part of a whole organism, and so on. Each of these entities is neither a whole nor a part, but a whole/part, a holon. And the point is, everything is basically a holon of some sort or another.”
- “The first tenet says that reality is composed neither of things nor processes, neither wholes nor parts, but whole/parts, or holons—all the way up, all the way down.”
- “Every holon, besides being an expression of the absolute, is also a relative whole/part. It has its own relative wholeness, and its own relative partness.”
- “There is no whole that isn’t also simultaneously a part of some other whole, indefinitely, unendingly. Time goes on, and today’s wholes are tomorrow’s parts.”
- “At no point do we have the whole, because there is no whole, there are only whole/parts forever.”
2. Holons display four fundamental capacities.
“Because all holons are whole/parts, they are subjected to various ‘pulls’ in their own existence. The pull to be a whole, the pull to be a part, the pull up, the pull down: self-preservation (agency), self-adaptation (communion), self-transcendence (eros), and self-dissolution (thanatos).”
Agency & communion (“horizontal” capacities):
- Agency: “Because every holon is a whole/part, it has two ‘tendencies’ or two ‘drives,’ we might say—it has to maintain both its wholeness and its partness. On the one hand, it has to maintain its own wholeness, its own identity, its own autonomy, its own agency. If it fails to maintain and preserve its own agency, or its own identity, then it simply ceases to exist. So one of the characteristics of a holon, in any domain, is its agency, its capacity to maintain its own wholeness in the face of environmental pressures which would otherwise obliterate it. This is true for atoms, cells, organisms, ideas.”
- Communion: “But a holon is not only a whole that has to preserve its agency, it is also a part of some other system, some other wholeness. And so, in addition to having to maintain its own autonomy as a whole, it simultaneously has to fit in as a part of something else. Its own existence depends upon its capacity to fit into its environment, and this is true from atoms to molecules to animals to humans. So every holon has not only its own agency as a whole, it also has to fit with its communions as part of other wholes. If it fails at either—if it fails at agency or communion—it is simply erased. It ceases to be.”
Self-transcendence & self-dissolution (“vertical” capacities):
- Self-Dissolution: “If a holon fails to maintain its agency and its communions, then it can break down completely. When it does break down, it decomposes into its subholons: cells decompose into molecules, which break down into atoms, which can be ‘smashed’ infinitely under intense pressure. The fascinating thing about holon decomposition is that holons tend to dissolve in the reverse direction that they were built up. And this decomposition is ‘self-dissolution,’ or simply decomposing into subholons, which themselves can decompose into their subholons, and so on.”
- Self-Transcendence: “But look at the reverse process, which is the most extraordinary: the building-up process, the process of new holons emerging. How did inert molecules come together to form living cells in the first place? … Evolution is a wildly self-transcending process: it has the utterly amazing capacity to go beyond what went before. So evolution is in part a process of transcendence, which incorporates what went before and then adds incredibly novel components. The drive to self-transcendence thus appears to be built into the very fabric of the Kosmos itself.”
3. Holons emerge.
“The wholeness of the holon is not found in any of its parts, and that puts an end to a certain reductionistic frenzy that has plagued Western science virtually from its inception. Particularly with the systems sciences, the vivid realization has dawned: we live in a universe of creative emergence.”
- “As ‘ultimate categories’—which means concepts that we need in order to think about anything else at all—Whitehead listed only three: creativity, one, many. (Since every holon is actually a one/many, those categories really come down to: creativity, holons.)”
- “New holons creatively emerge. Creativity, holons—those are some of the most basic categories that we need to think of before we can think about anything else at all!”
- “Out of Emptiness, holons creatively emerge.”
4. Holons emerge holarchically.
“Holarchy is Arthur Koestler’s term for natural hierarchy … A natural hierarchy is simply an order of increasing wholeness, such as: particles to atoms to cells to organisms, or letters to words to sentences to paragraphs. The whole of one level becomes a part of the whole of the next. In other words, natural hierarchies are composed of holons. And thus, said Koestler, ‘hierarchy’ should really be called ‘holarchy.’ He’s absolutely right. Virtually all growth processes, from matter to life to mind, occur via natural holarchies, or orders of increasing holism and wholeness—wholes that become parts of new wholes—and that’s natural hierarchy or holarchy.”
- “The only way you get a holism is via a holarchy. When holists say ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ that means the whole is at a higher or deeper level of organization than the parts alone—and that’s a hierarchy, a holarchy. Separate molecules are drawn together into a single cell only by properties that supersede the molecules alone—the cell is holarchically arranged. And without holarchy, you simply have heaps, not wholes. You are a heapist, not a holist.”
- “All evolutionary and developmental patterns proceed by holarchization, by a process of increasing orders of wholeness and inclusion, which is a type of ranking by holistic capacity. This is why the basic principle of holism is holarchy: the higher or deeper dimension provides a principle, or a ‘glue,’ or a pattern, that unites and links otherwise separate and conflicting and isolated parts into a coherent unity, a space in which separate parts can recognize a common wholeness and thus escape the fate of being merely a part, merely a fragment.”
- “The perennial philosophy maintains that reality is a Great Holarchy of being and consciousness, reaching from matter to life to mind to Spirit. Each dimension transcends and includes its junior dimension in a nested holarchy, often represented by concentric circles or spheres.”
- “The traditional Great Holarchy of Being, matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, with each level transcending and including its predecessors. Moving upward from the center (matter, the most fundamental) is the process of evolution (Reflux or Ascent, driven by Eros), and moving downward from spirit (the most significant) is involution (Efflux or Descent, driven by Agape). Each higher level is an emergent, marked by properties not found in its predecessors. Spirit is both the highest level (which transcends all, includes all), and the equally present Ground of each level (represented by the paper).”
- “Spirit is both the highest ‘level’ in the holarchy, but it’s also the paper on which the entire holarchy is written. It’s the highest rung in the ladder, but it’s also the wood out of which the entire ladder is made. It is both the Goal and the Ground of the entire sequence.”
5. Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessor(s).
“The point is that since all holons are whole/parts, the wholeness transcends but the parts are included.”
- “The cell transcends—or goes beyond—its molecular components, but also includes them. Molecules transcend and include atoms, which transcend and include particles.”
- “A molecule transcends and includes atoms. Transcends, in that it has certain emergent or novel or creative properties that are not merely the sum of its components. This is the whole point of systems theory and holism in general, that new levels of organization come into being, and these new levels cannot be reduced in all ways to their junior dimensions—they transcend them. But they also include them, because the junior holons are nonetheless components of the new holon. So, transcends and includes.”
- “In this transcendence, heaps are converted into wholes; in the inclusion, the parts are equally embraced and cherished, linked in a commonality and a shared space that relieves each of the burden of being a fragment.”
- “Spirit transcends all, so it includes all. It is utterly beyond this world, but utterly embraces every single holon in this world. It permeates all of manifestation but is not merely manifestation. It is ever-present at every level or dimension, but is not merely a particular level or dimension. Transcends all, includes all, as the groundless Ground or Emptiness of all manifestation.”
6. The lower sets the possibilities of the higher; the higher sets the probabilities of the lower.
7. The number of levels that a holarchy comprises determines whether it is ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’; and the number of holons on any given level we shall call its ‘span.’
Span = The number of holons on any given level is referred to as its span.
Depth = The number of levels in any holarchy is referred to as its depth (the greater the depth of a holon, the greater its degree of consciousness).
More about Depth:
- “The basic drive of evolution is to increase depth. This is the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos—to go beyond what went before, and yet include what went before, and thus increase its own depth.”
- “There is a spectrum of depth, a spectrum of consciousness. And evolution unfolds that spectrum. Consciousness unfolds more and more, realizes itself more and more, comes into manifestation more and more. Spirit, consciousness, depth—so many words for the same thing.”
- “Consciousness and depth are synonymous. All holons have some degree of depth, however minor, because there is no bottom. And with evolution, depth becomes greater and greater—consciousness becomes greater and greater.”
- “Consciousness is simply what depth looks like from the inside, from within. So yes, depth is everywhere, consciousness is everywhere, Spirit is everywhere. And as depth increases, consciousness increasingly awakens, Spirit increasingly unfolds. To say that evolution produces greater depth is simply to say that it unfolds greater consciousness.”
- “Depth increases from subconscious to self-conscious to superconscious, on the way to its own shocking recognition, utterly one with the radiant All, and we awaken as that oneness.”
8. Each successive level of evolution produces greater depth and less span.
“There are fewer organisms than cells; there are fewer cells than molecules; there are fewer molecules than atoms; there are fewer atoms than quarks. Each has a greater depth, but less span. The reason, of course, is that because the higher transcends and includes the lower, there will always be less of the higher and more of the lower, and there are no exceptions.”
Greater Depth, Less Span:
- “The Basic Moral Intuition is ‘protect and promote the greatest depth for the greatest span.'”
- “What confuses people is that evolution actually produces greater depth and less span on succeeding levels. And people tend to confuse collective bigness or size or span with depth, and so they get the order of significance totally backward.”
- “The greater depth always has less span than its predecessor. The individual holon has more and more depth, but the collective gets smaller and smaller. And since many people think bigger is better, they tend to confuse the direction of significance, they invert the order of being.”
- “The ultimate depth is an ultimate oneness with the All, with the Kosmos. But this realization is not given equally to all beings, even though all beings are equally manifestations of Spirit. This realization is the result of a developmental and evolutionary process of growth and transcendence.”
- “The web-of-life theorists usually focus on the equality of being and miss the holarchy of realization. They think that because an ant and an ape are both perfect manifestations of the Divine—which they are—then there is no difference in depth between them, which is reductionistic in the most painful fashion.”
9. Destroy any holon, and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it.
“Now if, in a type of thought experiment, you ‘destroy’ any particular type of holon, then all of the higher holons will also be destroyed, but none of the lower holons will be destroyed. And this simple thought experiment can help you spot what is higher, and what is lower, in any sequence … It works by virtue of the simple way that wholes depend upon parts, but not vice versa. And ‘not vice versa,’ as we were saying, is holarchy, or an order of increasing wholeness.”
- “All holons have equal Ground value. That is, all holons, from atoms to apes, are perfect manifestations of Emptiness or Spirit, with no higher or lower, better or worse.”
- “As a whole, every holon has intrinsic value, or the value of its own particular wholeness, its own particular depth. And therefore the greater the wholeness—or the greater the depth—then the greater the intrinsic value. Intrinsic value means it has value in itself. Its very depth is valuable, because that depth enfolds aspects of the Kosmos into its own being. The more of the Kosmos that is enfolded into its own being—that is, the greater its depth—then the greater its intrinsic value.”
- “An ape contains cells and molecules and atoms, embraces them all in its own internal makeup—greater depth, greater wholeness, greater intrinsic value. So even though an ape and an atom are both perfect expressions of Spirit (they both have equal Ground value), the ape has more depth, more wholeness, and therefore more intrinsic value.”
- “Every holon is not only a whole, it is also a part. And as a part, it has value for others—it is part of a whole upon which other holons depend for their existence. So as a part, each holon has extrinsic value, instrumental value, value for other holons. The more it is a part, the more extrinsic value it has. An atom has more extrinsic value than an ape—destroy all apes, and not too much of the universe is affected; destroy all atoms, and everything but subatomic particles is destroyed—the atom has enormous extrinsic value, instrumental value, for other holons, because it is an instrumental part of so many other wholes.”
- “Each holon is also a part of some other whole(s), and as a part, it has responsibilities to the maintenance of that whole. Responsibilities are simply a description of the conditions that any holon must meet in order to be a part of the whole … Responsibilities express the conditions for the extrinsic value of a holon to exist, the conditions necessary to sustain its partness, sustain its communion, sustain its span.”
10. Holarchies co-evolve.
11. The micro is in relational exchange with the macro at all levels of its depth.
12. Evolution has directionality.
a. increasing complexity
b. increasing differentiation/integration
c. increasing organization/structuration
d. increasing relative autonomy
e. increasing telos
- “We can summarize all this very simply: because evolution goes beyond what went before, but because it must embrace what went before, then its very nature is to transcend and include, and thus it has an inherent directionality, a secret impulse, toward increasing depth, increasing intrinsic value, increasing consciousness.”
- “There is a formative drive, a telos, to the Kosmos. It has a direction. It is going somewhere. Its ground is Emptiness; its drive is the organization of Form into increasingly coherent holons. Spirit, creativity, holons.”
- “Over the long haul, evolution has a broad telos, a broad direction, which is particularly obvious with increasing differentiation—an atom to an amoeba to an ape!”
- “As a whole, a holon has rights which express its relative autonomy. These rights are simply a description of the conditions that are necessary to sustain its wholeness … Rights express the conditions for the intrinsic value of a holon to exist, the conditions necessary to sustain its wholeness, sustain its agency, sustain its depth.”
- “Because the universe has direction, we ourselves have direction. There is meaning in the movement, intrinsic value in the embrace.”
· Every holon issues an IOU to the Kosmos.
· All IOUs are redeemed in Emptiness.
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