Ken Wilber Fundamentals: The Four Quadrants For Newbies

Integral Theory, Awakening, and Society || Ken Wilber
Integral Theory, Awakening, and Society || Ken Wilber

The Four Quadrants are another pillar of Integral Theory and the AQAL model, the brainchildren of Ken Wilber.

They are another tool that help us take into account as many perspectives of reality as possible, just like Ken Wilber’s stages, lines, states and types.

In short, each quadrant represents a fundamental, irreducible dimension of life. What’s more, the Four Quadrants aren’t disjointed and unilateral. This means all four always act together in concert. So any truly comprehensive approach should take into account factors from all Four Quadrants, as a minimum.

Their inclusive power is revealed when we apply them to areas of human life and disciplines. And we’ll do so later in this article.

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We have A LOT to cover, so let’s get down to matters, starting with a broad exploration of Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants.

What are Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants?

If you’ve never studied this concept, it may seem theoretical, dry or downright useless. If that’s the case, stick with me. I hope to convince you that Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants are absolutely fundamental. We swim in them!

Whenever I speak about you, for example, I’m always speaking about one or more of your own Four Quadrants.

Now, the most basic component of the theory is the Four Quadrants themselves. Each represents a fundamental, irreducible dimension of life.

They’re called Individual Interior, Individual Exterior, Collective Interior, and Collective Exterior.

A little warning. These labels do reflect what Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants contain, but they are just labels. I’ve often found them confusing rather than helpful.

It also implies that Individual and Collective aspects are fundamental, as are Interior and Exterior. Each is fundamental and cannot be replaced or colonised by the others.

Don’t worry about what they each mean for now. We’ll get to that! For now, know that each quadrant contains unique information, methodologies and perspectives that are inaccessible via the other quadrants. Together they include everything that exists, and that is their power.

And as we’ll see, they all impact one another and correlate.

If you’re a philosophy buff, it’ll inspire you to know that Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants are based on Plato’s Goodness, Truth and Beauty. These are Pluto’s three measures of validity.

The Interior Individual quadrant accounts for Beauty: what’s attractive to one person. Goodness, meaning standards that we share with others, is covered by the Interior Collective quadrant.

And the two Exterior quadrants encapsulate Truth: observations and conclusions that are objectively reasonable.

Check out my video introducing Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory

Let’s now look at Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants in detail and cover specific examples.

Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory: The Left-Hand Quadrants

The two interior quadrants (on the left-hand side of the diagram) are intangible. So you can’t put a figure on them, grasp them with your hands or measure them. But they’re most definitely here. They’re simply fundamental to human life!

One way to view the left-hand quadrants is that they are the interior aspect of all physical phenomena. For example, the physical brain is an exterior, right-hand phenomenon that you can touch, dissect, measure and analyse.

But the actual experiences associated with brain activity are interior, subjective and beyond the realm of measurement.

The Upper-Left Quadrant

The Upper-Left (UL) quadrant is called the Individual-Interior quadrant. It’s also known as the “I” quadrant and uses “I language”, as Ken Wilber would say.

This includes all subjective experience. For humans, this means emotions, thoughts, body sensations, meditative states, dream states, and so on. It’s everything that makes up the subjective life of an individual human.

Scan your subjective experience now. What does your body feel like? What sounds and images are appearing in your mind? Are you experiencing emotions? What do you desire? What are your highest dreams? And what about your fears? Welcome to the UL quadrant.

And as we’ll soon discuss, the states, stages, lines and types we access in any particular moment will determine our UL experience. For example, each altitude of consciousness has signature characteristics in every quadrant, including the UL.

And according to Ken Wilber, the UL is available to all beings going all the way from atoms, molecules, cells, simple organisms, reptiles, mammals, to human beings. It’s the unique world that each of us experience.

Now let’s look at Ken Wilber’s Lower-Left quadrant: the interior of collectives, rather than individuals.

The Lower-Left Quadrant

The Lower Left is also known as the “We” quadrant.

I struggled to understand this quadrant for quite some time. So let me spare you any potential pain and confusion by asking you a really simple question. What makes a country a country?

Okay, that’s not so simple.

You may point to the geography of a country, its location on the map, the materials it produces, its currency, its economy, and so on. And you’d be right. While those are important factors, none of them belong to Ken Wilber’s Lower-Left (LL) quadrant.

The LL aspects of a country are the invisible glue that binds its citizens together. So think culture, semantics, friendship, worldviews, kinship and shared meaning. These are intangible, and they apply to many people at once – collectives.

But don’t think only countries have an LL component. No – even as individuals we have LL aspects. What about your family, spouse, colleagues? There are Lower-Left dynamics in these relationships.

Some disciplines that typically deal with the Lower Left are sociology, ethics, morals, cultural studies and linguistics.

Let’s slide to the Right.

Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory: The Right-Hand Quadrants

While Ken Wilber’s left-hand, interior quadrants represent immaterial reality, the right-hand quadrants represent exterior, physical phenomena. This occurs in both individual forms (Upper Right) and collective forms (Upper Left).

They account for all the phenomena we can touch, put our finger on and measure – the tangible aspects of reality. Major sciences usually analyse the world from these quadrants.

What’s more, all phenomena either have exterior dimensions or can be looked at from an exterior perspective.

The Upper-Right Quadrant

Ken Wilber’s Upper-Right quadrant is the exterior of the individual.

When describing what Ken Wilber’s UL quadrant was, I used the example of subjective experiences that have associated brain activity. But what about the actual physical form of the brain? Which quadrant is this in?

That’s in the UR. It’s on the right-hand or exterior side because I can touch a brain, measure its activity, dissect it, and so on.

And more generally, Ken Wilber’s Upper Right includes atoms, molecules, cells, neural circuits and brain systems. So your own UR includes everything we can say about you by looking and making observations, from the micro to the macro. Think your body and all its parts and your behaviour.

Medicine and science tend to deal with the Upper-Right aspects of phenomena. Medicine often analyses body chemistry, organs, neurology and so on.

There’s almost an obsession with the measurable, tangible, concrete aspects of the world: “If it can’t be measured, it’s not real.”

Much more on that in coming articles. For now, we’re heading south east.

The Lower-Right Quadrant

Ken Wilber’s final quadrant is the Lower-Right or Collective-Exterior quadrant.

This accounts for all the material and institutional aspects of the collective. It’s the physical environment that we swim in.

So this means geopolitics, communication, production and social systems. It includes anything in the PESTLE acronym (Political, Environmental, Social, Technological, Legal, Economic).

It also stretches out to nature, the environment and to galaxies and the cosmos. All of these are interobjective realities.

Theories studying this quadrant includes systems theory.

Evolution In Four Quadrants

A fundamental feature of the Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants is that they’re each hierarchically ordered. So they aren’t swimming pools or soups of many different phenomena. Rather, they are spectra.

And these spectra, according to Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, are all in constant evolution – joint evolution. Evolution in one causes evolution in the others. And this has been happening since the beginning of time.

Let’s look at just a few examples. In terms of the Upper-Left, there is a plethora of evidence for the fundamental altitudes of development in various lines or areas of development.

These areas include spirituality, morals, worldviews, emotional intelligence, cognitive intelligence, and more. That’s an example of the hierarchy underlying the Individual-Interior quadrant.

In Ken Wilber’s Lower-Right quadrant, human technology has experienced distinct phases. Sociologists agree that technological growth is hierarchical: later inventions can only come around after earlier ones. This has led us from fires and spears all the way up to computers, the internet, cars, nanotech, and so on.

Similar evolution is visible in the others, and there is change happening in all Four Quadrants right now.

Four-Quadrant Evolution In Real Time

Let’s take veganism for example. You can attribute the drivers behind veganism to factors in all of Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants. These all influence each other.

In the Lower-Left, morals and a deeper felt identification with animals. We have Upper-Left loving thoughts, desires and intentions, and an Upper-Right realisation of the complexity of the animal brain and nervous system. We’re also realising the startling Lower-Right environmental damage the meat and dairy industries perpetuate.

These factors are all crucial and they all co-create, reinforce and intersect one another. Their continued advance will contribute to more conscious food choices.

Beyond that, there is Upper-Left evolution in the enormous wave of psychological understanding that has taken place in the last century. This includes typologies, the shadow, stages of development, self help, and so on. This is all facilitated by tech advances, changes in cultural beliefs and morals, and modern ideology.

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Let’s now look at applications of Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants.

The Power of The Four Quadrants: In Human Disciplines

The first area where Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants show their power is in human disciplines.

A slew of disciplines – politics, science, medicine, psychology, social science and psychiatry, to name a few – use fragmented approaches. The Four Quadrants could play a key role in the creation of holistic approaches in these disciplines. In fact, they already are to a limited extent.

To illustrate, let’s look at some examples. I’ll begin with one that’s close to my heart.

The Four Quadrants In Psychology

I’m fascinated by human psychology. I’ve spent many hours studying it in my own time and applying the insights, approaches and exercises I’ve found.

But one thing has always baffled me: each school of psychology seems to have the profound belief that it alone has the keys to the human being. I have a book called The Psychology Book that’s filled with dozens of psychology theories. And they all fight with each other!

This used to cause me some consternation. They couldn’t all be wrong, I thought. And if they were all claiming to be right, perhaps they all had their own piece of the truth, painstakingly uncovered through the methodology and experimentation particular to that school.

Yet I’d never come across any approach that had attempted to bring them all together in a more holistic view. Not artificially equate and conflate them, but give me an insight as to how they could all be simultaneously true in their own way.

The concept of The Four Quadrants has been key for me and has enabled me to see how those many psychological theories were all true in their own way. This same insight extends to all other disciplines.

And this isn’t just for armchair philosophy. No – the actual solutions we provide to psychological problems are usually fragmented, biased and broken. The Four Quadrants can help break this cycle.

The Four Quadrants In Depression

Let’s discuss a disease that affects millions of people – depression.

There are health professionals believe that depression is nothing more than a low level of serotonin in the brain. They’ll acknowledge the numerous effects of depression, but in the end, it’s a disease of the brain. Increase the serotonin level, and the depression is cured.

The Four Quadrants say this approach only tells one quarter of the story. The idea that depression is merely a low level of serotonin in the brain is to focus on one quadrant of depression – and a very small slice of it, at that. To really explore the possible causes of this disease, The Four Quadrants suggest we consider at least three other groups of factors: individual, sociocultural and environmental.

Causes of Depression In UL and UR

The person’s interior state (Upper-Right quadrant), such as their thoughts, emotions, trauma, values, goals, self-esteem, and so on, could easily be causing their depression.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a highly effective therapy that helps combat depressive psychological patterns in this quadrant.

Psychoanalysis also falls into the Upper-Left quadrant. A key component of its traditional form is dream analysis. Freud discovered that dreams aren’t random – they possess meaning. By skillfully interpreting them, we can better understand ourselves. And our dreams can point the way to the cause of our depression.

Or perhaps our depression is a sign that we need to psychologically grow – a point made by M. Scott Peck.

Since mentally healthy human beings must grow, and since giving up or loss of the old self is an integral part of the process of mental and spiritual growth, depression is a normal and basically healthy phenomenon.

M. Scott Peck

Causes Of Depression In lL And lR

Then there are social and cultural factors (Lower-Left quadrant – LL) that affect the person. Perhaps they don’t have any meaningful relationships in their life. Perhaps they feel estranged and distant from others. Maybe they’re deeply mourning after losing a loved one. And that’s not to mention Lower-Right (LR) factors like the political and economic situation of the country where they live.

Those are just a small sample of the other potential causes of depression in the individual. And while all of them are accompanied by low serotonin levels, they are certainly not problems with the brain itself. The low serotonin level is simply the biological marker for these other issues.

What I love about the example of depression is that it helps us see that these quadrant battles are happening in real time. They affect people and have real consequences for our wellbeing, politics, science, and more.

Integral theory points us to the most inclusive approach possible, no matter the field of application.

Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants and Quadrant Bias

Now let’s look at what Ken Wilber calls quadrant bias. Sadly, this bias is ubiquitous in human affairs.

In a broad sense, quadrant bias is when we favour information from one quadrant over the others. This can go all the way to absolutism, where we only acknowledge the reality of one or two of the Four Quadrants.

Almost every human discipline focuses on one quadrant alone and fights against others. As we’ll see, science and psychology are two prime examples. Theories focusing on one quadrant often dismiss the others.

But this isn’t a problem in human knowledge alone: we as individuals are quadrant biased. We often favour one or two quadrants over the others. In fact, each altitude of development in Integral Theory has characteristic attitudes towards each of Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrants – meaning quintessential quadrant biases!

Once you’re attuned to quadrant bias, it’s likely you’ll no longer get caught in its seductive grip. Your blinders will fall away, and you’ll see truth in places you’d never imagined possible.

There are four basic kinds of quadrant bias.

Four Types of Quadrant Bias

It’s a little tricky to give examples of these four biases – much of this is to do with context. But, in no particular order, here are some general conclusions:

  1. Upper-Left Bias: UL bias is when we’re seduced by our own feelings and intuitions. We turn off our receptors to reason and information. The self-help siren song that goes a little something like: “You’re creating everything in your life”, “Take 100% responsibility for everything,” is a example of UL bias. More on this to come.
  2. Upper-Right Bias. This is one of the most common biases you’ll find. When you hear: “What does the science say?” (i.e. “if it hasn’t been proven scientifically, it’s hogwash,”) you’re likely hearing UR bias. This is an over-reliance or obsession with empirical tools that rely on analysis and measurement. One example of this is the claim that differences in race are nothing more than differences in biological features, like skin pigment.
  3. Lower-Left Bias. An example of LL bias is when we morally disapprove of something, like homosexuality, and ignore factors that validate it.
  4. Lower-Right Bias. LR bias is when we get lost in general, objective conclusions about society, politics, government, the economy, and so on. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Look out for quadrant bias – it’s everywhere!

Quadrant Bias In Practice

Quadrant Bias In Science

Let’s look at the UR quadrant bias that abounds in science in more depth.

An extreme example of this bias is scientism. Here’s one definition of scientism.

Roughly, scientism is the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality.

www.crossway.org

Scientism is also evident in the belief that “nothing exists that can’t be touched or measured”.

This scientific bias throws out the Left-hand, interior quadrants and only takes the Right-hand, exterior quadrants seriously. Thus, hopes, dreams and profound insight are no more than firing brain synapses. Ethics and morals are subjective and wishy-washy. Human beings are no more than accidents of entropy spinning around on a rock in a sea of nothingness.

The deeper cause of this bias is that objective, empirical methods only allow access to the Right-hand quadrants: the exterior, the measurable, the tangible.

In its noble crusade against traditional religious dogma – I’m serious: it has been a noble pursuit – science has wound up reducing life to the empirical and the objective. It has relegated meaning, purpose and belief to the basement, and concluding that only the areas of life that science itself can access are worthwhile.

Quadrant Bias In Personal Development

Many personal development mantras are fundamentally Upper-Left biased. Think Law of Attraction, “take 100% responsibility”, “listen to your heart”, “do what feels right”, and so on.

Perhaps the daddy of all is the idea that life is conspiring in our favour, that the universe is listening to our deepest desires, and that it’s just waiting to deliver what we want to us. You want to be a millionaire? Just ask the universe, and it’ll bring it to your door. Yes, people do actually believe that.

Of course, the idea of instant riches is much sexier than the reality of becoming a millionaire. For most, it entails years and years of hard work, creativity and perserverance.

I’m all for personal empowerment. I believe that having a fundamental trust in life is crucial for happiness, and I can see the power of these ideas when practiced with realism.

But as an overall philosophy for how life works, they are pitiful. Not to mention that they verge on narcissism – an over-emphasis on the Upper-Left quadrant. And a very small section of the UL, at that.

Combine narcissism with our tendency towards instant gratification, and you have a sexy, but lethal mix.

The Wise Approach To Personal Development

And even if we do live our passion, listen to our heart, and live by the beat of our own drum, we’re still always doing it within the context of the other three quadrants. We’re always relying on other people and on systems to help us live our deepest desires. We’re always doing it in the context of a society and culture. Our nature is unavoidably biological and physiological too.

What the “listen to yourself” slogan also misses is that our psychology has many levels. Our Upper-Left quadrant has many levels, as do the other quadrants. And if we want to lead a fulfilling life, we ought not to make the voices from those lower levels the drivers behind our decisions. Honour them and satisfy the basic needs of our lower levels? Yes. Hand them the controls? No.

It’s much better to aim for the highest levels. If at any given moment, you just “do what feels good” and “trust your instincts”, you could quite easily fall into unhealthy, self-sabotaging behaviour.

We should instead ask: “what are my deepest, heartfelt desires, and how will enacting those create a better world for myself and all?”

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