An Integral Approach

26 Oct 2018 · 6 min read


Merging Arrows
image credit: iStock/lvcandy

Integral Basics

At its most basic, taking an integral approach simply means that people can see things from different perspectives, and that often no one way of seeing something is the “right” or only way.

As just one example, if we look at the issue of laws concerning guns, it’s easy to find at least two different viewpoints:

  • We can view the issue from the perspective of a possible infringement of civil liberties;
  • We can look at it from the viewpoint of minimizing harm to innocent people.

To take an integral approach is to admit that neither of these perspectives is right or wrong, but that instead they are different, but both valid, ways of looking at the same situation.

This sort of approach doesn’t prevent us from making decisions or taking action, but it can result in longer periods of uncertainty, less confidence in decisions, and a more difficult decision-making process. On the other side of the equation, though, an integral approach can result in more effective decisions, and in an easier path to improving those decisions when new evidence is brought to light.

Here’s the way Jason Fried put it, when summarizing advice received from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos:

He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary.

What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.

Advanced Integral: Inner vs. Outer, Individual vs. Group

Going beyond the basics, we will often find it helpful to consider different categories of perspectives that have been devised by big-picture philosophers and historians such as Ken Wilber and Yuval Noah Harari.

For our purposes in this section today, let’s consider three such categories, using terminology from Harari.

  • An objective perspective views phenomena from an exterior vantage point, without consideration for inner feelings or thoughts. For example, an objective summary of the Great Migration northward of African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century might use a chart showing how many people moved during which decade, and how many moved to each major city.

  • A subjective perspective considers only the feelings and thoughts of a single individual. So a diary of one participant in the Great Migration might reveal the innermost thoughts and feelings of that one person.

  • An inter-subjective perspective arises from communications linking and expressing the subjective thoughts and feelings shared by a group of individuals. So articles from the black press of the day might offer such an inter-subjective perspective on the Great Migration.

And, of course, a work of art such as The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence can help us understand all three types of perspectives.

For current examples, think about Amazon’s recent decision to raise the minimum wage for its employees to $15/hour, or the issue of homelessness in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. A moment’s thought should convince you that it would be hard to form a complete picture of either situation without considering subjective, objective and inter-subjective perspectives.

(For a deeper dive on these perspectives, see “The Four Quadrants of Human Knowledge.”)

Advanced Integral: Stages of Development

Big thinkers such as Wilber, Harari, Clare Graves, Don Beck and Chris Cowan have one more integral tool to add to our thinking toolbox, and that’s the notion that we can perceive a situation through the lenses of various stages of development. We might characterize these stages or levels in the following way.

  1. Archaic/Instinctual: Focused on immediate survival needs; behavior based on inborn instincts and reflexes.
  2. Magical/animistic: Seeing various objects and aspects of the world as separate entities, each with their own independent natures, but without any deep or accurate understanding.
  3. Tribal/Power Gods: Assertion of self for dominance and power, organization into tribes, tribal structures based on power hierarchies: might makes right.
  4. Traditional/Mythic Order: organization around shared laws and principles that have been handed down from elders; belief in the law and in an authoritarian hierarchy from which the law is passed down.
  5. Modern/Rational: Beliefs derived and enhanced through application of the scientific method, through shared, accumulated and jointly tested knowledge.
  6. Postmodern/Pluralistic: Egalitarian, relativistic, situational; accepting of fluid affiliations; consensus-based decision-making; conscious and active acceptance of varying ethnic backgrounds and traditions.

In order to understand what to make of these different levels of development, it’s important to keep the following points in mind.

  • We can apply these levels both to the development of individuals, as well as to the development of our societies.

  • Each level can also be thought of differently depending on whether we are taking a subjective, objective or inter-subjective viewpoint. As one example, the way it feels to belong to a tribe is something different from the organizational techniques used by a tribe in order to achieve its shared goals.

  • Although we can think of this succession of levels as a sort of developmental ladder on which we climb, it would be a mistake to think that the achievement of a new (“higher”) rung implies the abandonment or obsolescence of prior (“lower”) levels. In truth, each new level just adds some new tools to our toolbox, but they don’t prevent the continued operation of the other (“lower”) levels. It’s probably best to think of all these levels functioning in parallel, both within our individual selves, and within our societies.

(For a deeper dive on these perspectives, see “Developmental Levels,” and “Developmental Levels as Evolving Social Structures.”)

Summary and Sample Application

In politics, the left generally lays claim to levels 5 and 6, while those on the right operate more intensively at levels 3 and 4. It’s also generally true that liberals tend to focus more explicitly on subjective experiences (hence their reputations as “bleeding hearts”) while conservatives tend to emphasize objective perceptions, often taking the exterior view, and showing a reluctance to discuss inner states.

On the other hand, in recent years conservatives have arguably become more adept at using all of these perspectives and levels to motivate voters, while liberals have often remained stubbornly stuck in their traditional comfort zones. This tends to be why those on the right tend to think of liberals as displaying excessive political correctness, since they seem reluctant to ever admit the existence or relevance of “lower” developmental levels. It’s probably worth noting that any politician is likely to be more successful if he or she is attuned to the multiple perspectives at work in their electorate.

Successful modern businesses generally make use of all of these different perspectives in order to survive and prosper in the marketplace.

We human beings are marvelously complex beings, and are constantly doing things that surprise, delight, and sometimes terrify, the rest of us. Taking an integral perspective, though, can help us all better understand ourselves and others around us.

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