Integral Ecology Reading Group Week #2
by Adam Robbert
Comments on Chapter 2, “It’s All About Perspectives: The AQAL Model”
By Sam Mickey
Chapter 2 gets us further into the AQAL model: the all-quadrant, all-level framework that we started exploring last week. The AQAL model was developed by Wilber in the 1990s, and E-H&Z follow Wilber very closely, maybe even too closely (perhaps “slavishly,” following Adrian’s comment last week). Before elaborating on the specifics of the AQAL framework (pronounced ah-qwul), E-H&Z discuss the “perspectivalism” that is “[c]entral to this framework” (48).
Perspectivalism involves post-disciplinarity. E-H&Z mention that, while their aim to “organize and integrate many different perspectives” shares some commonalities with interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, the Integral approach is actually “postdisciplinary” insofar as it can be used in contexts that are disciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary (47). Post-disciplinary is synonymous with meta-disciplinary, as they mention in a footnote (557n5). Are they drawing too precise of distinctions here with this proliferation of prefixes? Or maybe not precise enough? That is a question I have for Integral Theory in general. I appreciate all of the distinctions, but I feel like they always slip into too much precision (e.g., distinguishing between inter-, meta-, multi-, post-, and meta-) and not enough precision (giving short shrift to Romanticism and postmodernism). Reading Integral Theory, I’m often reminded of Aristotle (Ethics, 1094b) saying that an educated person is one who adheres to the clarity of what they study, treating objects of study with the precision those objects call for, not less precision, and not more.
After proposing post-disciplinarity, E-H&Z describe two aspects of perspectivalism, ontological and epistemological. First, an ontological claim (“sentient beings are capable of taking a perspective, or opening a clearing that allows phenomena to present and reveal themselves”) (48). The phrase “opening a clearing” sounds suspiciously Heideggerian to me (especially knowing that Zimmerman is a Heidegger scholar). In any case, this claim implies that perspective (like interiority) isn’t exclusively human. Rather, the world is made of perspectives. This concept of perspective is supposed to clarify the subject-object dualism of modernity. There are no subjects opposed to objects (49). Every being (or “holon”) is a situated perspective encountering other beings (i.e., other situated perspectives). This leads to the second aspect of perspectivalism, an epistemological claim (“all knowing is perspectival”) (48-49). We are told not to “confuse the map with the territory” but, instead, to recognize how “the map is a performance of the territory,” such that all knowledges (all maps) are situated in the concrete limits of perspectives (50, 55). Against postmodern relativism (a straw man, to be sure), perspectivalism asserts that the partial truths of perspectives can be arranged according to nested hierarchies (holarchy) in which truths transcend and include any less comprehensive truths (63f).
After explaining their perspectivalism, they introduce the five basic elements of the AQAL model: Quadrants, Levels, Lines, States, and Types. Every perspective can be mapped in terms of those five elements. Consider whether some of these elements might be more relevant than others (for instance, some of us find it useful to use quadrants but not levels).
We’ve already heard about the quadrants: subjective (“I”), intersubjective (“we”), objective (“it”), and interobjective (“its”). These are roughly equivalent to fine arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences, respectively (62), and each of those is associated with two methodologies, such that Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP) includes 8 methodological families (we’ll hear more on IMP later) (65). For the sake of user-friendliness, the last two quadrants are sometimes combined, forming the “big three” of I (1st-person), We (2nd-person), and It/s (3rd-person) (56). The Big Three resemble Felix Guattari’s 3 ecologies (mental, social, and environmental), although this connection is only mentioned later in the book (598n3).
Quadrants are different from quadrivia, with the former designating the four dimensions of things (ontology) and the latter designating four ways of seeing things (epistemology/methodology). We can analyze the four quadrants of a thing, and we can do so from four different quadrivia. We can take a 1st-, 2nd-, or 3rd-person perspective on an I, We, or It/s. This gets complicated, involving an “integral math” where taking a 1st-person perspective on a 1st person reality is notated as 1-p x 1p (557n9). It’s relatively confusing, and the role of hyphens in this math only makes it more complicated. Does AQAL run the risk of being too simplistic and/or too complicated to be put to effective use in addressing ecological theory and practice?
We’ve heard about the levels (or “waves of development”) already, and we’ll go into more detail about them in chapter 4. Lines of development are different than levels/waves. Lines include multiple capacities, each of which can develop into new levels/waves. With lines of “cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and moral capacities,” the lines follow closely Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (54). I can move from an egocentric to sociocentric level of psychological development in my cognitive capacity, while still being egocentric in my moral capacity.
States are temporary perspectives, which stand in contrast to stabilized stages of development. For instance, I can experience a temporary state of highly developed moral capacities, yet fall back into my normal moral capacities the next day, as when people are exceptionally compassionate toward one another for brief periods during holidays or following natural disasters. Finally, there are the styles or types that arise in different perspectives (different types of government, personality types, blood types, etc.).
So, that’s the framework in a nutshell. The authors try to apply the framework in an analysis of social autopoiesis (drawing on Niklas Luhmann, who draws on Jakob von Uexkull’s umwelt theory) (67-74), including some interesting examples of communication regarding water pollution (71f) and global climate change (73).
The authors keep reminding us not to take their framework too literally and not to mistake the map for the territory. They reassure us that the flat representation of the AQAL model is “not a Cartesian grid” but is more of a “Buddhist mandala,” which is full of multidimensionality and depth that are only discerned in light of meditative engagements (59). I appreciate their Buddhist orientation and their compassion for all sentient beings, but the AQAL framework is still proposed as a theoretical framework and not just as a mandala. The specificity of ecological phenomena can be obfuscated not only by the framework’s overgeneralizations and misappropriations, but also by any reliance upon a model or framework at all. In other words, a possible concern here is that Integral Theory uses AQAL in a way that privileges system over method (or assimilates method into system).
I first learned about Wilber and Integral Theory in 2005, and I’m still not sure how helpful the AQAL framework really is (surely, it’s different for different perspectives). Sometimes it seems that the framework is more trouble than it’s worth, as in cases of “integral math,” spellings of NATURE/Nature/nature, or the easily confusing distinction made on page 70 between a member and a part of a system or the distinction between inside-outside and internal-external. When the framework appears helpful, I wonder whether it is because of the framework itself or the concepts that the framework is (mis)appropriating. For instance, “enactment” seems helpful, but one does not need AQAL to adhere to the principle of enactment (66). Perhaps the proof is in the pudding, such that the value of the AQAL model is only evident if we see it in action. That will have to wait for later chapters, as we finish eating our meat before having that pudding.