In the Integral theory of Ken Wilber, AQAL stands for "All quadrants, all levels", and equally connotes "all lines, all states, all types". An account or theory is said to be AQAL, and thus integral (inclusive or comprehensive), if it accounts for or makes reference to all four quadrants and four major levels in Wilber's ontological scheme, described below.
The AQAL framework
Each holon, or unit of reality that is both a whole and a part of a larger whole, has an interior and an exterior. It also exists as an individual and (assuming more than one of these entities exists) as a collective. Observing the holon from the outside constitutes an exterior perspective on that holon. Observing it from the inside is the interior perspective, and so forth. If you map these four perspectives into quadrants, you have four quadrants, or dimensions (these are unrelated to the three spatial dimensions).
To give an example of how this works, consider four schools of social science. Freudian psychoanalysis, which [interprets people's interior experiences, is an account of the interior individual (or, in the diagram, the upper-left) quadrant. B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, which limits itself to the observation of the behavior of organisms, is an exterior individual (upper-right) account. Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics interprets the collective consciousness of a society, and is thus an interior plural (lower-left) perspective. Marxist economic theory examines the external behavior of a society (lower-right).
Thus all four pursuits – psychoanalysis, behaviorism, philosophical hermeneutics and Marxism – offer complementary, rather than contradictory, perspectives. It is possible for all to be correct and necessary for a complete account of human existence. Wilber has integrated these four areas of knowledge through an acknowledgement of the four fundamental dimensions of existence. Further, these four perspectives are equally valid at all levels of existence.
Lines, streams, or intelligences
According to Wilber, all holons have multiple lines of development, or intelligences—in fact, over two dozen have been observed. They include cognitive, ethical, aesthetic, spiritual, kinesthetic, affective, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, karmic, etc. One can be highly developed cognitively (cerebrally smart) without being highly morally developed (as in the case of Nazi doctors). However, Wilber acknowledges, you cannot be highly morally developed without the pre-requisite cognitive development. So not all of the developmental lines are ontologically equivalent.
Levels or stages
The concept of levels follows closely on the concept of lines of development. The more highly developed you are in a particular line, the higher level you are at in that line. Wilber's conception of the level is clearly based on several theories of developmental psychology, including: Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Kohlberg's stages of moral development, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Erikson's stages of psychosocial development, and Jane Loevinger's stages of ego development.
The simplest categorization that Wilber uses contains four levels:
- Body (or gross realm; Buddhist Nirmanakaya)
- Mind (or subtle realm; Buddhist Sambhogakaya)
- Soul (or causal realm; Buddhist Jnanadharmakaya stage of the Dharmakaya)
- Spirit (or nondual; Buddhist Svabhavikakaya stage of the Dharmakaya)
Another scheme describes the ethical developmental line:
- Egocentric (similar to Carol Gilligan's 'Selfish' stage)
- Ethnocentric or Sociocentric (Gilligan's 'Care' stage)
- Worldcentric (Gilligan's 'Universal Care' stage)
- Being-centric (Gilligan's 'Integrated' stage)
Within each broad stage, there are sub-levels. Spiral Dynamics is one theory that elaborates on these sub-levels.
Another broad organization of the levels contains three categories:
- pre-personal (subconscious motivations)
- personal (conscious mental processes)
- transpersonal (integrative and mystical structures)
This organization reveals more of Wilber's synthesizing activity. Freudian drives, Jungian archetypes, and myth are pre-personal structures. Empirical and rational processes are at the personal level. Transpersonal entities include, for example, Aurobindo's Overmind, Emerson's Oversoul, Plato's Forms, Plotinus' nous, and the Hindu Atman, or world-soul.
The exceptional feature of Wilber's approach is that, under this methodology, all of these mental structures — subconscious, rational, mystical—are considered complementary and legitimate, rather than competing in a zero-sum conceptual space. And that is perhaps Wilber's greatest accomplishment — the opening up of a space wherein more ideas, theories, beliefs, and stories can be considered true, responsible, and acceptable.
Many criticize the strict hierarchical nature of Wilber's conception of the level. But consider, for example, the hierarchical nature of matter itself. Sub-atomic particles are composed of quarks. Atoms are made of sub-atomic particles. Molecules are made of atoms. Cell organelles are made of molecules, etc. This is similar to how Wilber conceives of levels. One must attain the lower levels before the higher levels because the higher levels are constituted by the lower level components. Thus, when represented graphically, the levels should appear as concentric circles, with higher levels transcending but also including lower ones. Wilber also attacks the equating of hierarchy with patriarchy using a similar line of argument.
As Wilber remarks in the CD interview Speaking of Everything: "This can all be done deductively". In other words: 'I could be wrong about the precise characteristics of some or all of the stages or levels. But nonetheless, it's clear that psychological and cultural development follows a pattern, and that pattern is always from more partial to more whole.'
A state is basically a level that is attained only temporarily. Once you have unlimited access to a state of consciousness, then it is a permanent structure, or a developmental level.
States of consciousness include: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep, and nondual. (In the mystical traditions of which Wilber is a part, these four states correspond to four realms: gross, subtle, causal, and nondual.) Thus it is theoretically possible for someone at a low cognitive level to experience an advanced mystical state.
These are valid distinctions that are not covered under Wilber’s other categorizations. Masculine/feminine, the nine Enneagram categories, and Jung's archetypes and typologies, among innumerable others, are all valid types in Wilber's schema. Wilber makes types part of his model in order to point out that these distinctions are different from, and in addition to the already mentioned distinctions: quadrants, lines, levels and states.
Theory of truth
Wilber observes that there are multiple aspects to existence, and that each has its own truth-standard, or test for validity, as follows:
|Individual|| Standard: Truthfulness
(sincerity, integrity, trustworthiness)
| Standard: Truth|
(correspondence, representation, propositional)
|Collective|| Standard: Justness
(cultural fit, rightness, mutual understanding)
| Standard: Functional fit|
(systems theory web, structural-functionalism, social systems mesh)
- Exterior individual - "We check to see if the proposition corresponds with or fits the facts, if the map accurately reflects the real [exterior] territory... if we cannot disprove it we may assume it is accurate enough. But the essential idea is that... my statement somehow refers to an objective state of affairs, and it fairly accurately somehow corresponds with those objects or processes or affairs. [...] All of which is fair enough and important enough, and I in no way deny the general importance of empirical representation. It's just not the whole story..."
- Interior individual - if we look at the actual interior of an individual [entity], then we have an entirely different type of validity claim. The question here is not, is it raining outside? The question here is, When I tell you it is raining outside, am I telling you the truth or am I lying? You see, here it is not so much a question of whether the map matches the objective territory, but whether the mapmaker can be trusted.... you can always check and see if it's raining... Interior events are located in states of consciousness, not in objective states of affairs, and so you can't empirically nail them down with simple consensus location. I might lie to you. I might lie to myself. I might misrepresent and not know it."
- Interior collective - "The subjective world is situated in an intersubjective space, a cultural space... without this cultural background... I wouldn't have the tools to interpret my own thoughts to myself. So here the validity claim is not so much objective propositional truth, or subjective truthfulness, but intersubjective fit. This cultural background provides the common context against which my own interior thoughts and beliefs will have some sort of meaning, and so the validity criteria here involves the "cultural fit" [of a statement] within this background... What is so remarkable about common understanding is not that I can take a simple word like "dog" and point to a real dog and say "I mean that." What is so remarkable is that you know what I mean by that. [So it is] a matter of how we arrange collectively, our ethics, morals, laws, culture, group or collective identities, background contexts..."
- Exterior collective - "The main validity claim is functional fit, how entities fit together in a system... So in systems theory you will find nothing about ethical standards, values, morals, mutual understanding, truthfulness, sincerity, depth, integrity, aesthetics... It describes the system in purely objective exterior terms, from without. It doesn't want to know how collective values are intersubjectively shared in mutual understanding. Rather, it looks at how their objective correlates functionally fit in the overall system."
"All four of these are valid forms of knowledge, because they are grounded in the realities of the nature of every holon. And therefore all four of these truth claims can be confirmed or rejected by a community of the adequate [those competent in that knowledge]. They each have a different validity claim which carefully guides us, through checks and balances, on our knowledge quest. They are all falsifiable within their own domains, which means false claims can be dislodged by further evidence...."
Recent work: eight indigenous perspectives
In Wilber's recent work (after 2004), he sometimes refers to "eight indigenous perspectives", rather than the four quadrants outlined above. One can offer separate interior and exterior accounts of, for example, the interior individual dimension. He offers Buddhist accounts of meditative states as an example of the former, and Spiral Dynamics (a theory of human development) as an example of the latter. These interior and exterior accounts apply to all four quadrants, resulting in eight indigenous perspectives.
- Table and quotations from: Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, 2nd edition, ISBN 1-57062-740-1 p. 96–109
- AQAL Spiral Theory, AQAL theory mapped into a spiral