A Critical Look at Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrant Model

Thomas J. McFarlane
December 7, 2000
Published in Sangha: The Newsletter of the Franklin Merrell-Wolff Fellowship, January 2001
The web address of this article is
Copyright 2000 Thomas J. McFarlane.
Addendum 1, June 2004
Addendum 2, November 2006
Addendum 3, August 2007

Ken Wilber is regarded by some as one of the most influential contemporary thinkers in transpersonal psychology and spirituality. His ambitious program to develop a systematic integration of all knowledge is described in various books such as his A Brief History of Everything (1996), A Theory of Everything (2000), and The Marriage of Sense and Soul (1998). The centerpiece of Wilber’s grand synthesis is his four quadrant model (often denoted "AQAL", an acronym for "all quadrants, all levels"), which he presents as an integration of the perennial philosophy’s great chain of being with the modern differentiation of the cultural value spheres. In this paper I would like to point out a critical problem with Wilber’s AQAL model as it is presented in the above works, and propose a remedy.

A central teaching of the perennial philosophy is that reality is a great chain of being, extending from the most real, true, and perfect transcendental Being at the top, down through the subtler levels of being, to the least real, most transitory and imperfect gross levels of being at the bottom. (For an excellent modern presentation of the great chain of being, see Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth.) Following the hermetic maxim “as above, so below,” this hierarchy of objective being in the outer macrocosm is reflected in the inner microcosm as a hierarchy of subjective knowing within each individual. Thus, corresponding to the transcendent, subtle, and gross levels of being (ontology) are the transcendent, subtle, and gross modes of knowing (epistemology). For example, we know transcendent being with the soul, we know subtle being with the mind, and we know the gross levels of being with the body. (In Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s terminology, these epistemological levels correspond to introception, conception, and perception. See his Transformations in Consciousness, pp. 133-140.) The great chain of being can thus be roughly represented by the following diagram:


Subjective Knowing
Objective Being

The Four Quadrant model is Wilber’s proposed framework to integrate the great chain of being with the four modern value spheres. Following Weber and Habermas, Wilber observes that a fundamental distinguishing feature of our modern period is the differentiation of the cultural value spheres: the realms of the individual (“I”), culture (“WE”), nature (“IT”) and society (“THEY”). Or, equivalently, the domains of psychology/art, religion/morality, natural science, and social science. Wilber represents these modern differentiations in terms of four quadrants, as follows:


Interior Exterior
Individual “I” Psychology/Art “IT” Natural Science
Collective “WE” Religion/Morality “THEY” Social/System Science

The essence of Wilber’s grand synthesis is, in his own words, “to integrate the Great Chain with the differentiations of modernity. ...This means that each of the levels in the traditional Great Chain needs to be carefully differentiated in the light of modernity” (The Marriage of Sense and Soul, p. 14). A consistent and faithful implementation of this idea should preserve and integrate all levels of knowing and being in the great chain within all the four quadrants. Let us first consider what this integration should look like in the upper two (“I” and “IT”) quadrants. One would naturally expect these two quadrants to look much like the knowing and being columns of the traditional great chain of being, with each quadrant having a hierarchy of transcendent, subtle, and gross levels of the great chain:


Interior “I” Exterior “IT”

Surprisingly, however, this is not what Wilber’s upper two quadrants look like. Although the hierarchy in the “I” quadrant of his model includes all the levels of knowing in the great chain, the hierarchy in the “IT” quadrant of Wilber’s model is not the traditional hierarchy of being at all. Instead, Wilber’s hierarchy of being is a hierarchy limited to the level of matter (from elementary particles to molecules, to cells, and up through to biological organisms, the human brain, and its physical functions):


Interior “I” Exterior “IT”
Complex Brain Function
Brain, Neocortex
Matter, Cells, Organisms

Thus, the transcendent and subtle levels of objective being are not included in Wilber’s individual exterior (“IT”) quadrant. An analogous omission is made in Wilber’s hierarchy for the exterior collective (“THEY”) quadrant. All the levels in this quadrant are also just material levels of collective complexity (from primitive collections of atoms in the form of galaxies, to collections of atoms and molecules in the form of planets, up through collections of organisms into ecosystems, and collections of human organisms into societies). Thus, in both exterior quadrants, the hierarchy includes only the gross level of matter, and omits the subtle and transcendent levels of objective being.

In contrast to Wilber’s scheme, all the wisdom traditions recognize all the ontological levels of being that correspond to all the levels of knowing. As Plotinus writes in his Enneads, “Knowing demands the organ fitted to the object.” For example, the subtle realities of angels, archetypes, celestial hierarchies, archetypal deities, and so on, are all the objects of subtle mental knowing, just as the gross realities of the physical plane are objects of gross perceptual knowing. Thus, the levels of being in the true great chain of being include not just the gross, physical levels of matter and their increasingly complex degrees of organization, but also the subtle and transcendental levels of being. For example, the true ontological correlate of Atman (the highest level of knowing) is Brahman (the highest level of being) and not the functioning of a complex configuration of matter within the lowest level, as Wilber’s model has it.

The fact that Wilber’s four-quadrant model excludes the deeper subtle or transcendent levels of ontological reality is a very serious defect: Two quadrants of his four quadrant model omit the most significant levels of the great chain of being, and the model is not therefore a faithful integration of the great chain with the four modern value spheres, as he claims. Moreover, because these deeper levels of reality are excluded, his model purges nature and the cosmos of intrinsic depth and meaning. As Wilber himself writes, “Although consciousness and value and meaning are intrinsic to the depth of the Kosmos, they cannot be found in the cosmos. That is, they inhere in the Left Hand dimensions of the Kosmos, not in the Right Hand surfaces” (A Brief History of Everything, p. 245). This assertion is based on the assumption (contradicting the great chain of knowing/being) that the mind and soul can not take exteriors as their objects, that exteriors can only be known through bodily sensations alone. Of course, if we artificially restrict our knowledge of being to perception alone, we will only see the perceptual surfaces of objects. We are then blind to seeing any depth in the cosmos and we reduce the meaning of "exterior" to the physical alone, as Wilber has done.

Wilber’s assumption that we know being only through perception is inconsistent not only with the great chain of being, but also with experience. For example, with subtle conceptual thought, we can see beyond the perceptual surfaces of exterior objects and know their deeper subtle nature (as mathematics allows insight into subtle physical laws of the exterior world). Similarly, through the operation of spiritual insight, we can see beyond the perceptual surfaces and beyond the subtle depths of exterior objects and know their deepest true nature (e.g, as a Buddhist contemplative insight can discover the ultimate empty nature of objects in the exterior world).

Also, because Wilber’s model excludes ontological depth from the exterior world, it provides no way to comprehend how modern physics could converge with mystical views of the world. This convergence, however, is completely comprehensible if Wilber’s model is corrected to properly include deep exteriors, for when the physicist’s ascent up the exterior levels of being becomes sufficiently subtle, it inevitably meets the mystical insight into the same subtle exteriors (albeit with differences in formulation and expression). This convergence is consistent with Wolff’s statement that “once it is realized that [the physicist] is unfolding the laws governing the obverse of the Real, his knowledge can be employed as a Way to Recognition of that Reality. I can now see how our present physical science is unfolding a peculiarly beautiful Path to Yoga” (Experience and Philosophy, p. 137).

It is worthwhile in conclusion to briefly note that any model will necessarily have its limitations. But what is most disturbing about the four quadrant model (AQAL) is that Wilber presents it as “A Theory of Everything” and an integral model for the “whole Kosmos”. In fact, the four quadrant model is not integral since it excludes very significant dimensions of reality. The effect is that a partial vision is presented as being a complete vision of the whole. Fortunately, it is not difficult to correct this defect of Wilber’s model. One need only restore the subtle and transcendent exterior levels of being to their rightful place in the right-hand quadrants (i.e., as shown in the "Faithful Integration" table above).

In addition to correcting Wilber’s model to make it more integral, one can go further and substantially extend it. Recently I have developed a spherical model that transcends and includes Wilber’s planar 2-D model. Although a detailed description of this spherical model is beyond the scope of this paper, a few words can be said about it here. In this new model, a corrected version of Wilber’s four quadrant (AQAL) model naturally emerges as a projection of the sphere onto the 2-D plane. This symbolic “shift in the base of reference” (cf. Transformations in Consciousness, pp. 280-282) from the plane to the sphere reveals, through the symmetry of the sphere, the ultimate identity of subject and object, of emptiness and form, and of all levels of being in the great chain. In addition, the sphere provides a perspective from which transformations between the quadrants and levels can be coherently understood. An especially intriguing consequence of this spherical model is a metaphysical interpretation of the mathematical identity e=–1 as representing the activation of the introceptive faculty, i.e., “the turning of the Light of consciousness upon itself and moving toward its source” (Transformations in Consciousness, p. 144).

Addendum 1

June 2004

Wilber's Excerpt C: The Ways We are Are in This Together presents some new developments in his ideas that may address some of the issues discussed in this paper.

In most of his prior work, Wilber does not distinguish interior/exterior from inner/outer, and often describes the interior as inner and exterior as outer. For example, in Excerpt C he writes that his four quadrants

represent the inside and outside of the singular and the plural: hence, the four quadrants (subjective or "I," objective or "it," intersubjective or "we," and interobjective or "its").
Thus Wilber uses 'inside' here as a synonym with 'interior' and 'outside' as a synonym with 'exterior'. In recent work, however, he distinguishes the two. Even in this writing, however, he is not consistent with his terminology and this leads to considerable confusion. Only just a few paragraphs after the above passage, for example, Wilber distinguishes inner from interior and outer from exterior when he begins to talk about
what an "I" looks like from the inside and from the outside; what a "we" looks like from the inside and from the outside; and so on with an "it" and an "its.
Thus, Wilber now treats inside/outside as a distinction orthogonal to interior/exterior, producing what he calls "8 primal or indigenous perspectives that all holons have available to them." If this provides Wilber's model with a way to include the subtle and transcendent levels of being that were left out of his original AQAL map, some of the problems noted above could be resolved. However, the AQAL map, if it is to be a genuinely integral map, still requires revision to faithfully represent the subtle and transcendent levels of being.

Addendum 2

November 2006

Why does Wilber exlude the subtle and transcendent levels of reality from his model? Presumably, because these levels of reality are "metaphysical". In On the Nature of a Post-Metaphysical Spirituality, Wilber says:

I reject entirely the notions of levels of reality as separate ontological existents... . Rather, any levels of reality must be conceived in a post-Kantian, post-metaphysical sense, as being inseparable from the consciousness that perceives them. This consciousness is investigated, not by metaphysical speculation, but by empirical and phenomenological research.
A consistent post-metaphysical approach, however, applies equally to all levels of reality, all ontological existents, including the physical. Thus, there is no valid justification for including the physical level in the four-quadrant map while excluding the other levels. To be consistent, all levels of the great chain must be included or all excluded. The sword of Kantian criticism cuts through all ontological levels, including the physical. The remedy, again, is simple: include all levels in the four-quadrant map (with appropriate post-Kantian disclaimers).

Addendum 3

August 2007

In Wilber's An Integral Theory of Subtle Energies (Excerpt G, Part 2, dated 2003), he has adapted the AQAL model to account for subtle energies. He explains:

Common to many traditions is the idea that, in addition to a spectrum of consciousness, there is a spectrum of energy. One such spectrum runs from gross physical energy, to etheric energy, to astral energy, to psychic energy, to causal energy. ...these 5 levels of energy are essentially correlated with the 5 levels of consciousness.

The following diagram accompanies the text:

Although this extension of the AQAL model takes one step in the right direction, it does not go far enough or address the fundamental issue. Specifically, instead of reducing exteriors to their manifestations within the gross physical level, the exteriors are now reduced to their manifestations within a subtle physical level. In either case, however, the exteriors are still reduced to manifestations having spatial extent within physical space and time. As Wilber explains:

As indicated, these etheric energy fields are said to surround the physical energy fields in a holonic fashion (i.e., as spheres of increasing expanse). ...In the exterior domains, which are marked by their extension in spacetime, you can actually see many of these holarchies: in the UR, cells physically envelop molecules, which physically envelop atoms. Likewise, in the UR, the psychic energy field surrounds and envelops (transcends and includes) the astral field, which surrounds and envelops the etheric, which surrounds and envelops the physical....

In this adaptation of AQAL, exteriors are still reduced to forms of manifestation that are conditioned by the structures of physical space and time (which are properties characteristic of the physical level). Thus, even with this adaptation of AQAL to include subtle energies, the UR quadrant is still physically reductionistic, and does not represent expressions of exteriors within levels that transcend the physical categories of space and time.

This reduction of exteriors to their physical manifestations (whether as matter or subtle energy) ignores the fact that the higher forms of exteriors can be known by higher states of consciousness. Consciousness is not limited to knowing exteriors in just their physical level expressions within space and time. These higher levels of the exteriors are not accounted for in the AQAL diagram, except insofar as they are expressed within the space-time/physical level (leaving out a lot).

Significantly, in Excerpt G, Part 3, Wilber recognizes that exteriors are more than mere physical-level manifestations when he hypothesizes that:

The higher forms of consciousness and energy (i.e., higher than the gross-family realm) are not tied to complexifications of gross form ontologically but rather as vehicles of the expression of subtler forms and energies in that gross realm itself. In other words, it is not that higher consciousness and energies are bound to the complexities of gross form out of ontological necessity, but that they need a correspondingly complex form of gross matter in order to express or manifest themselves in and through the material realm.
To his credit, here Wilber acknowledges the existence of higher forms of exteriors. Exteriors are not, in themselves, identical with their material expression. Yet, only the physical expressions of these higher forms of exteriors are represented in the AQAL diagram. This excludes a tremendous amount of the Kosmos from the AQAL model.

What is missing from the UR quadrant of the AQAL model is the representation of subtle and causal exteriors in their own terms that properly transcend (and include) the physical level. In a truly integral AQAL model, the higher levels of UR should be represented without being reduced to just their expression on the physical level (whether material or subtle-energetic). It is one thing to study and consider how the exteriors are expressed within the physical level; it is quite another thing to (mis)represent the exteriors as if their existence and expression was limited to the physical level alone. A truly integral model needs to faithfully represent these higher levels of exteriors without reducing them to their signatures within the physical plane. Exteriors are so much more than that.

In a generalized AQAL diagram, the higher levels of exteriors would be faithfully represented, and not reduced to their expressions within the physical level (or any other single level). Of course, if we choose, we can view the exteriors using sensory-physical modes of consciousness alone; then one obtains a projection of the exteriors as they are expressed within the physical plane, as shown in the original AQAL diagram. This projection of the exteriors into the physical plane, however, filters out all the expressions of the exteriors in higher levels, which can not be known using sensory-physical modes of consciousness. These levels can be known, however, using higher modes of consciousness. A causal level consciousness, for example, will directly reveal a spectrum of expressions of exteriors within the causal level, just as a sensory-physical consciousness reveals a spectrum of expressions of exteriors within the physical level. The UR quadrant, therefore, should be generalized by freeing it from implicit limitation to the projections of exteriors into the physical plane. Exteriors would then be represented at each level in more authentic terms.