The Integral Ecology reading group moves here this week, picking up the baton from Adam and Sam at Knowledge Ecology. (And see Michael’s summary at Archive Fire.)

This week we’re focusing on chapters 3 (“A Developing Kosmos”) and 4 (“Developing Interiors”). Following a short summative preamble, this post examines Chapter 3. Its follow-up will examine Chapter 4.



One of the places the reading group has been gravitating toward is a recognition of the tremendous — and perhaps overreaching — ambition of the project that Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman (henceforth “E/Z”) have taken on.

There are few environmental theorists who come close to the knowledge of the fields in question that E & Z have between them (which makes reading their footnotes a real pleasure), so if anyone should take on such a task, they are probably as well qualified as anyone else.

The overarching framework of AQAL is a powerful tool for making sense of different kinds of approaches to knowledge. By positing interiority to everything that has exteriority — everything that is observable and measurable — and by differentiating between individual and collective perspectives of things (or of “holons,” in IT parlance), AQAL can counter the shortcomings of other approaches by highlighting what is missing from them.

Thus, an account that focuses only on observable individual things is atomistic. An account that focuses on observable relations between things is holistic. An account that focuses on the collective (social) constructs is relativistic. An account that focuses only on individual experiences is solipsistic. But an account that wants to make sense of the whole must acknowledge all of these pieces: individual experience, shared experience, individual behavior, systemic relational behavior — and development and change at all these levels.

The downside to creating such a comprehensive map, however, is that the details tend to get very blurred and the examples can sometimes be less than convincing. Sam puts it well in the following observation (citing Adam):

I like your image of AQAL as “an OS that takes up so much space on a computer that it can’t actually perform any of the functions it is designed to run.” As you might know, Integral theorists do indeed describe their system as an Integral Operating System, which is sold as a kit that includes a booklet, DVD, CDs, and a fold-out AQAL chart. The basic outline of the system makes it look easy to operationalize, but when you get into the details of actually running it, it is full of excessive classifications (argumentum verbosium fallacy?) that slow your computer too much to perform. This stands in contrast to the streamlined OS of Latour’s actor-network theory, which runs as fast as a cheetah.

My own hunch is that any framework that attempts to account for complexity in everything at once — social-structural, cultural, material, ecological, psychological, phenomenological, intersubjective, and so on — will run into this problem of unwieldiness, and that its usefulness will depend entirely upon what one wants to do with it.

It seems to me that Integralists would like the AQAL framework to act as a kind of coordinating system — a Ma Bell, or central nervous system, of knowledge — that would organize and make sense of everything else that there is. It’s difficult to use such a central coordinating hub to get anything done — for instance, to build a road or a vehicle to get us from point A to point B — but as a road map, it could help to organize relations between and among miscellaneous theoretical approaches (vehicles), and this alone could be very helpful. The question, I suppose, is whether the system of rules it proposes instituting — traffic lights, speed laws and the policing of violators, signs or billboards posted along the sides of the highway, and so on — will be accepted by other drivers or not.

As such a mapping system, AQAL does err — and I’m in agreement with Sam and Adam on this — on the side of classification at the expense of description or empirical application. But given the empirical applicability of the various perspectives IE is attempting to coordinate, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. IE may simply be meant for something different: it’s not a methodology but a meta-methodology.

With that in mind, let’s examine Chapters 3 and 4.


Chapter 3: A Developing Kosmos

Where chapter 2 made the case for the “AQ” of the AQAL model — the importance of recognizing both exteriority and interiority, and the individual and collective forms of both (“I,” “you/we,” “it,” “its”) — chapters 2 and 4 make the case, respectively, for the “AL” part of it — i.e., for development — in its exterior (right-hand quadrants) and interior (left-hand quadrants) aspects. While development of some kind shouldn’t be a difficult case to make (despite what some might consider an “anti-developmental zeitgeist”), making the case for a general and singular model of co-evolving (or “tetra-evolving”) developmental systems is.

As with the previous chapters, these two are somewhat uneven. Chapter 3 includes a potted history of ideas of evolutionary development, and of the apparent triumph (in terms of popularity) of materialism over idealism, which allows E/Z to get in a few quick critical digs at Marx and at the “biocentric egalitarianism” of deep ecology.

They follow this with an articulation of the three spheres — physiosphere, biosphere, and noosphere — which, to my mind, leaves some definitional issues unclear. By physiosphere, they write, “we mean the physical-material circumstances that existed prior to the emergence of the biosphere” — which suggests that it no longer exists, though this is clearly not what they mean. Biosphere needs little clarification, while the noosphere consists of “neurological systems capable [of] sustaining mental imagery” (elsewhere they use the term “generating” mental imagery).

What’s most valuable in this conception, I think, is the recognition that “higher” systems emerge out of “lower” ones — the biosphere (life) out of the physiosphere (matter-energy), and the noosphere out of the biosphere — not replacing them, but organizing them into more complex relational forms. This allows E/Z to make the useful point that the biosphere is not holarchically above human culture, since the latter is a much later development, while the biosphere has been around at least since the emergence of prokaryotic cells.

There’s an inconsistency in the definitions, however, in that E/Z typically speak of the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere as if they are singular, each one emergent above the previous. (This is pushing ahead a little into Chapter 4.) Humans, they write, are “members of the biosphere,” though they are not constituent “parts” of it, since they also transcend it in their noospheric aspect(s). E/Z suggest that a horse is noospheric because its neocortex “makes image generation possible” (p. 119). Human noospheric development, they write, “is such that it allows phenomena to appear (including conceptions of Earth) that other beings at other levels of complexity within Nature cannot conceive of.”

The problem, however, is that image generation itself — as in a horse’s or a human’s capacity to imagine and recall things — is not enough for there to be a single shared image-space between that horse and all the other horses, humans, and other animals that share the capacity for mental representation. E/Z write of “the horse’s noosphere,” which suggests that either the noosphere belongs to a horse or to all horses.

I would argue, however, that the concept of physical, biological, and noetic spheres is a reification — an instance of what Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” — and that it is more useful to speak of physical, biotic, and noetic capacities. Physis, biosis, and noesis are not truly spheres at least until they have become unified into a single (interactive, relational, and/or communicative) system. But this unification goes against the grain of modernity’s differentiation of communicative systems (art, science, politics, etc.) — a historical development that the authors, following Habermas, Luhmann, and Wilber, celebrate. Thus the implication in E/Z’s and Wilber’s historical narrative is that spheres are becoming more differentiated, not more unified.

The remainder of chapter 3 discusses notions of hierarchy and holarchy, defines Wilber’s concept of the holon, differentiates between individual and social holons, expands upon the necessity to think carefully about values in any discussion of parts and wholes, compares divergent schools of scientific ecology (notably population ecology, with its atomistic, individualist focus, and ecosystem ecology, with its holistic focus), and engages in a sustained polemic with deceased ecologist Stan Rowe.

As critics have pointed out, the definition of holons — emergent developmental entities that are made up of smaller holons and in turn make up larger holons — can only be imprecise. Wilber provides twenty or so “tenets” intended to do that (it’s really more like 12, with a series of sub-tenets), but then specifies that social holons don’t follow all these tenets. It doesn’t help to clarify things knowing that all holons have their own individual and social quadrants. So one might wonder: where does the social quadrant of an individual holon end and the individual quadrant of a social holon begin?

But the basic point — which I take to be that holons are emergent or developmentally processual entities (neither objects nor processes but something in between) and that they co-emerge and co-evolve with their social environments — is, I think, a very useful one. I find it helpful, for instance, to be reminded that size isn’t an indicator of holarchic level. Atoms evolve alongside galaxies (their social environments); cells alongside biospheres (i.e. those prokaryotes); organisms alongside ecosystems; and social and linguistic animals alongside social/linguistic systems.

E/Z’s discussion of values is especially interesting, at least in its application to environmental ethics. Wilber (and E/Z) distinguishes between three kinds of value: ground value, extrinsic value, and intrinsic value. In terms of ground value, a rock, a tree, and a human are equally valuable because each is equally a manifestation of Spirit, which “is the ultimate source of all phenomena and ultimate attractor to cosmic development” (p. 104). (Materialists of course won’t be happy with that formulation.) In their extrinsic value, biospheric holons are more “primary,” and therefore valuable, because they are more “fundamental.” They have greater “span” but lesser “depth” than noospheric holons. In intrinsic value, however, it is the latter, with greater “depth” and therefore “significance,” that are primary. That “depth” is a result of their more layered developmental complexity. This is what makes a human life more valuable than that of a mushroom. But this is only one kind of value, and E/Z offer no formula for resolving tensions between the three forms.

On to Chapter 4 . . .





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