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Integral Politics Comes of Age

Integral philosopher Steve McIntosh explains the revolutions in consciousness and culture that are shaping the geopolitical future of the planet and leading us toward an integral world federation.

by Carter Phipps


When I first learned about Descartes, at the tender age of eighteen, and was told that his famous statement of truth, revered for centuries in philosophical lore, was “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am,” I found myself surprisingly unimpressed. No doubt I was a touch arrogant or a little bit clueless, or both, but the notion that one’s capacity to think constituted evidence of one’s existence seemed to my youthful and unenlightened mind just a little too . . . well, obvious.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and my more mature self has come to appreciate the deeper meaning in those simple words and in philosophy in general. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that this scientifically informed technological society of wealth and freedom that we in the West take for granted today can be traced back to realizations embedded in Descartes’ radical declaration. In those formative days, when the foundations of our modern world were still being forged, Descartes’ words heralded the arrival of the rational, autonomous modern self and helped give human beings the capacity to see the world as they had never seen it before—objectively. Every scientist of the last four hundred years owes him at least a small debt.

Philosophy, as it turns out, is not just a clever way to test the patience of first-year college students with early morning lectures and parsings of logic that would challenge the endurance of Sisyphus. At its best, it is an exercise in laying the structural foundations of culture, and philosophers can be likened to a sort of advance team on the edges of the development of our society, setting up outposts on the borders of our collective consciousness. Do you want to know where human society is headed in the next one hundred years? Check out the leading edge of philosophical thought today.

That brings us to integral philosophy and Steve McIntosh, author of the just-released Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution. In a series of recorded conversations for WIE’s online multimedia service over the last year, I have had the good fortune to engage in a little philosophy myself, exploring the contours of an emerging worldview that has come to be called “integral.” My partner in this endeavor has been McIntosh, a forty-seven-year-old businessman from Boulder, Colorado, who is equal parts visionary CEO, inspired political scholar, and gifted philosopher. McIntosh has been following many of the insights of integral theory for decades, but it was not until a few years ago that he became aware of their significance as a new cultural movement. In a series of gatherings in the year 2000 with Spiral Dynamics cofounder Don Beck and the founders of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute, McIntosh began to recognize that the integral worldview was more than just a series of fascinating ideas or an interesting trend in culture. It was, he realized, a historically significant new stage of culture, or as he puts it, “a real, authentic social movement that transcended and included all the problems of the postmodern worldview and the countercultural scene. A new kind of cultural organism was beginning to emerge, one that had a life of its own, and I was beginning to see it with more clarity than ever.”

Inspired and invigorated, McIntosh set off to educate himself in this new worldview with all the passion of a man who has glimpsed the potential of a new future and has not a moment to waste. He dedicated himself to the study and practice of integral philosophy—reading, teaching, exploring, and writing about the implications of this new historical development. And the insights of integralism began to reshape his political sensibilities as well. Democracy, geopolitics, international law, global governance—all long-time personal passions—began to reconfigure themselves under the clarity and perspective of this new way of looking at the world.

My conversations with McIntosh have been stimulating on many levels as we’ve explored the ever-fascinating geography of the integral landscape. But I’ve been particularly struck by his perspective and insight when it comes to politics. With a background in law—he was once a young, upwardly mobile attorney in one of the biggest law firms in the world—and his long-time interest in the potential of global governance, McIntosh has a gift for bringing integral philosophy to bear on the political realities of our world in a way that is inspirational, provocative, and definitely ahead of its time. It wasn’t long before I began to think about bringing some of those insights to the print edition of What Is Enlightenment?

In order to better understand the perspective of integral politics, however, it is necessary to say a few words first about integral philosophy itself. As the name suggests, the integral movement is attempting to reverse the trend toward fragmentation and specialization that has gripped so many fields of knowledge in the last century and to pursue new, integrated, inclusive frameworks that can provide powerful insights into the evolution of consciousness and culture. In a sense, integral philosophy is not new but has been slowly emerging through the thoughts and words of a number of leading thinkers and researchers—individuals such as Georg Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, Henri Bergson, James Mark Baldwin, Sri Aurobindo, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jean Piaget, Abraham Maslow, J├╝rgen Habermas, and Clare Graves—over the last two centuries. And though it has yet to capture the attention of most professional academic philosophers, integral theory has continued to forge ahead through the insights and efforts of brilliant maverick thinkers, most notably theorist Ken Wilber. Indeed, it is Wilber who is the central organizing force of integralism today, and his work has helped cohere the many various streams of thought that help make up integral philosophy’s synthesis. As McIntosh writes in his new book, “Wilber’s 21st century integral synthesis . . . does for the internal universe what Descartes’ philosophy did for the external universe.”

To appreciate the unique perspective of integral philosophy, it is important to understand what is perhaps its most basic and revolutionary insight—that human consciousness and culture have evolved over time through a series of ascending stages or levels of consciousness. These stages are psychological and cultural levels of development; they are levels of consciousness that individuals pass through in their personal evolution and that societies pass through in their cultural evolution. As McIntosh explains, “The integral worldview recognizes that, in some sense, these levels of development in consciousness are correlated to stages of human history. What I mean is that the stages of psychological development that individuals go through as they mature are a rough approximation of the stages of history that human beings have passed through over the last fifty thousand years—and are still passing through.”

Now, it is not uncommon for sociologists or psychologists to come up with theories regarding the evolution of people and societies, and many of those theories may have stages. But what distinguishes integral philosophy’s adherence to this type of schema is the conviction that these levels are not just a good idea or an interesting proposal but that they are real “structures in consciousness,” actual “living systems of culture” that exist within the fabric of society and have empirical validity.

“Integral philosophy shows us that these internal structures of culture, these internal organisms, if you will, have an evolutionary reality, an ontological reality,” McIntosh explained to me in one of our phone conversations. “And it’s through this description that integral philosophy attains its power. These stages aren’t just created by the human mind. They are historically significant worldviews, self-organizing dynamic systems of values that have an existence that is independent of any particular person’s writing or thinking.”

The term often used to describe the location in consciousness of these stages is “intersubjective,” which literally means “between subjects.” In the same way that subjective consciousness describes that which exists inside or within the individual, intersubjective is a term that is used to describe that which exists inside or within culture. As McIntosh puts it, “These worldviews are structures of culture—not just of individuals. They actually exist, you could say, in the intersubjective.”

In our materialist society, where many people have a hard time acknowledging the legitimacy of subjective consciousness, much less the reality of this relatively new concept called intersubjective consciousness, such assertions require us to step out of our usual patterns of thinking. They ask us to embrace the possibility that there may be more going on beneath the surface of culture, in the subterranean corridors of our collective consciousness, than we previously realized. They ask us to entertain the notion that there may in fact be crucial patterns of order, created in the crucible of fifty thousand years of human evolution, that give shape and form to the complex and often chaotic nature of human life. Indeed, many theorists feel that these levels, when seen together as a hierarchical, interrelated evolutionary system, represent a sort of DNA-like structure in consciousness, quietly influencing the dynamics of culture, shaping our minds even as our minds, in turn, shape the structure itself. Even the form of this structure fits the analogy—a spiral-patterned helix that matches the distinctive shape of our physical DNA.

While thoughts about stages and structures within culture may be heretical in a postmodern society weaned on the notion that all values are created equal and that no culture is inherently more developed than any other, they are hardly without empirical support. Indeed, integral thinkers like to point to a long tradition of research in developmental psychology from Piaget to Maslow to Graves to Robert Kegan that gives tremendous empirical support to this kind of developmental map. Moreover, there is increasing evidence from sociology that also confirms the basic schema and lends particular credence to the existence of the last three significant stages—traditional, modern, and postmodern.

It is worth noting that these three—the three worldviews before integral—are not difficult to discern in American society; that is, if we remember that we are talking about general patterns in consciousness and culture, not rigid and exact definitions. In the United States, for example, we often hear talk about a traditional culture, or a section of the populace that is more religiously oriented and shares more conservative values. Then we can see that there is a more secular-oriented section of the populace, individuals whose values lean toward science and reason, individualism, pragmatism, and achievement. Those are expressions of what is often called modern consciousness, or the culture formed by modernity. And then we can see a more progressive part of the populace, sometimes called cultural creatives, comprising individuals whose values lean more toward liberal politics, environmental awareness, social change movements, and new forms of spirituality. We often associate that segment with the revolution of the sixties. Integral theory understands this grouping as representing postmodern consciousness. Even our political pundits refer to these cultural subgroups—but not as actual structures in consciousness, and certainly not as part of an ascending scale of cultural development.

While the stage-oriented view of cultural evolution is fundamental to integral philosophy, it is even more essential to integral politics, as knowledge of any given society’s general level (or levels) of development is a powerful aid in political analysis. Whether we’re talking about appealing to “family values” in local elections, dealing with foreign dictators, evaluating the rise of China, or reducing conflict in the Horn of Africa, the more deeply we understand how these largely unconscious structures are informing the values of any given society, the more we can respond in effective, targeted ways that have the greatest evolutionary influence. As McIntosh writes, “The integral worldview gives us an understanding of culture that allows us to begin to address the global cultural problems that are at the heart of pretty much every problem. What I mean is that every problem in the world has its solution at least partially in the raising of consciousness. And that’s what the integral worldview does more effectively than any other worldview before it—it can literally raise consciousness at every level.”

There is ultimately much, much more to the integral worldview than its unique understanding of the spiral-structured nature of human evolution. From Wilber’s breakthrough model of the four quadrants to radical new forms of evolutionary spirituality to original insights into psychological development to innovative perspectives on business and organizational management, integral ideas are destined to touch and influence all areas of life in the twenty-first century. Indeed, if McIntosh and his colleagues are correct, then our time in history is a unique one. It affords us the opportunity to shape not just the philosophy but the spirituality, politics, art, economics, and science of this emerging cultural worldview. For his part, McIntosh is forging ahead on many fronts, with a particular focus on international law and global governance. Last May I spoke to this unusual attorney turned businessman turned philosopher about integral politics and how it might transform the geopolitical dynamics of our global society.

–Carter Phipps


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This article is from
Ecology, Politics, and Consciousness


October–December 2007