A Brief History of Everything

20th Anniversary Edition

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Ken Wilber
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , May
     2017.
     376 pages.
     $19.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781611804522.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ken Wilber is known for developing the “Integral Theory”(IT), a philosophical scheme claiming to be thedefinitive meta-theory that could explain the composition and developmental processes of virtually everything. A Brief History of Everything (BHE, now in its 20th anniversary edition) is where Wilber explains the most important elements of the IT.

BHE has three parts. Part 1 (“Spirit-in-Action”) presents some fundamental components of the IT. First, reality is composed of “holons.” A holon is an entity that is a whole in itself while, at the same time, it is a part of another bigger whole; hence, holon = a-whole-and-a-part. Wilber offers twenty tenets that explain the nature, workings, and purposes of holons as they go through the process of evolution (chapter 1). 

Reality is, therefore, characterized by a process of evolution in which each holon preserves its own identity (agency) while being in harmony with others (communion), all the while developing into something bigger (transcendence) and eventually going out of existence (dissolution). When a holon transcends itself and develops into something bigger, it does not discard its smaller form but includes that in the now more developed form into which it has evolved. In short, a holon evolves through the principle “transcend and include.” The whole cosmos is thus holarchical in that it is composed of interconnected holons in continual evolution (chapter 2).

The IT, then, is a critical examination of a holon: its inside and outside, both in individual and collective forms, and how these various aspects change as they evolve. Expressed spatially, reality is composed of four quadrants. The upper quadrants—the “I” quadrant (upper left) and the “It” quadrant (upper right)—represent the interior and exterior of holons. The lower quadrants are the “We” quadrant (lower left) and the “Its” (plural of “it”) quadrant (lower right). The two left quadrants represent the interior of holons while the two right ones represent their exterior. The two upper quadrants represent the individual holons while the two lower ones represent holons in their collective forms (chapter 5).

These four quadrants are important because they highlight the different kinds of truth known to humans (chapter 6). Left-hand truths are interpretive and subjective in character while right-hand truths are empirical. One can only have a more integral and holistic view of the range and diversity of different truth claims if one can see them in an “all-quadrants” view (93). The upper-right quadrant represents a kind of truth that the West has prioritized since the Enlightenment. However, there are other no less important validity claims, such as “truthfulness” or “subjective integrity in plumbing one’s deepest core” (98, upper left); “justness” or “truth among a certain group of people” (102, lower left); and finally “functional fit” which describes truth as it is found in a social system (104, lower right). Together these demonstrate how various things “fit together in the overall objective system” (105). 

Part 2 (“The Further Reaches of Spirit-in-Action”) focuses on the “I” or interior subjective quadrant. Wilber walks his readers through the different levels of development of the subjective interior. To explain this process more simply, I find it better to use what Wilber employs in some later writings, where he explains how humans (individually and collectively) go through a developmental process that starts with an egocentricworldview but, with the passage of infancy and childhood, grows to a more ethnocentricone. However, further growth into a more worldcentricworldview and, beyond that, even a more kosmocentricone should happen. At every stage, “developmental arrest” (134) can always occur. Wilber also differentiates between “states and stages (or levels)” (137). The former could be “peak experiences or altered states of consciousness,” such as an experience of enlightenment. These are more temporary and should ideally be incorporated into the more permanent nature of the developmental stages. 

In Part 3 (“Beyond Flatland”), Wilber first presents “The Great Chain (or holarchy) of Being” which asserts that reality is composed of matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit. In history, there have been “ascending” currents of thought which emphasize an upward movement from matter to spirit. There have also been “descending” ones that underline the opposite. The upward movement is transcendent while the downward one is immanent (227). In the West, the ascending philosophy became dominant “in the millennium between Augustine and Copernicus” (233). That dominant paradigm collapsed with the rise of modernity in which the ascending paradigm was marginalized and the descending paradigm (concretized in rational, scientific, and technological sub-paradigms) became virtually the only “real” way of looking at the world (chapter 15). Wilber names this “Flatland” because the height and depth of the great holarchy of being have been crudely reduced to a flat, reduced paradigm centering on material reality.

Summing up, in BHE, Wilber envisions what for him is an integral way of looking at everything. This takes the concrete form of the different dimensions of holons interconnected to each other and continually evolving in a great holarchy of being. The goal of the IT is presumably to encourage the development of holons into higher realms known by terms such as Spirit, God, or Emptiness. It will be the state where the lower levels (“Form”) are more fully integrated into what non-dual philosophies express as Emptiness (311). 

BHE is crucially important for the study of religion because it offers a view of a truly integral humankind and universe. Due to its very nature, religion is an enterprise that offers what is akin to “a theory of everything” in that it paints a “big picture,” one that seeks to make sense of practically every aspect of human and cosmic reality. BHE begs the question, “How truly integral is any given religious system?” and serves as a blueprint for religions to construct as integral and holistic a worldview as possible. 

BHE is arguably the best place to be introduced to Wilber’s thought and to start learning the IT.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Julius-Kei Kato is Associate Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at King's University College, London, Ontario.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ken Wilber is the author of over twenty books. He is the founder of Integral Institute, a think-tank for studying integral theory and practice, with outreach through local and online communities such as Integral Education Network, Integral Training, and Integral Spiritual Center.

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