Ken Wilber’s model of the Four Quadrants is the centrepiece of the Integral philosophy and it is one of the most useful tools you’ll ever come across for conceptualising the different dimensions of the human experience and the different domains of knowledge.
With relevance to what we’ve been exploring about recently on the channel it’s a way of understanding the voice of Jordan Peterson in contrast to that of Michel Foucault and the social justice movement. It’s also a good way of situating a lot of the material we have looked at in the past such as the faultline between materialist atheists and traditional Buddhists .We’ll see where Jung and Freud’s work fits in, where Nietzsche is operating from and where schools like Semiotics, Empiricism and Phenomenology fit on the map.
In Wilber’s work, this four quadrants model is a map of the entirety of reality. It’s the central point of his attempt to integrate all human knowledge and experience together so that we find ourselves in a unified holistic Kosmos again rather than having to choose which school of thought we align with.
It’s a really interesting theory that maps everything from the internal experience of bacteria to the Gaia hypothesis, the Big Bang, language and power dynamics. There’s a lot of moving parts and some parts of it that I’m not 100% sold on but in this article we’re going to focus in on the human element and look at why this model is such a useful way to frame the domains of human existence and knowledge.
If this tickles your mind and you want to dive deeper I’d highly recommend Wilber’s book A Theory of Everything and if you really want to dive deeper then I would HIGHLY recommend his book Sex Ecology, Spirituality.
Two Axes; Four Quadrants
With that out of the way, let’s talk about this four-quadrant map. So the first thing to note is that these quadrants are mapped out over two axes. The x-axis separates the individual quadrants on top from the collective quadrants on the bottom while the y-axis separates the internal quadrants on the left hand side from the external quadrants on the right hand side.
That leaves us with four different quadrants. The first quadrant Q1 in the upper left is the quadrant of the internal and individual. The second quadrant Q2 in the upper right is the space of the external and individual. The bottom-left quadrant Q3 is the internal and collective and finally the bottom right Q4 is the external and collective.
Another way of talking about them is as the I, the It, the We and the Its.
Now that we have them divided up let’s explore what each of these quadrants actually contain.
The Four Quadrants
Q1 – The Internal and Individual
In the first quadrant we have the internal individual aspect of our lives. Here you’ll find our thoughts, our feelings, our moods as well as our logic. All the wonderful things that happen in your little noggin happen right up here in Q1. So think of the work of Freud who was focused on the individual’s internal life or of the Stoics or Buddhists who are focussed on our relationship to our internal world. The purest example of Q1 though is surely Husserl’s phenomenology which seeks to understand human experience without any reference to anything outside of the mind. It’s about pure personal experience.
So think of the work of Freud who was focused on the individual’s internal life or of the Stoics or Buddhists who are focussed on our relationship to our internal world. The purest example of Q1 though is surely Husserl’s phenomenology which seeks to understand human experience without any reference to anything outside of the mind. It’s about pure personal experience.
Q2 – The External and Individual
Everything that happens in this first quadrant has a correlate in Q2 — the quadrant of the external individual dimension of our being. Whenever you have one of your hairbrained thoughts it doesn’t happen in some disentangled mental sphere. If we shove you in an fMRI machine having juiced you with dye we’ll be able to see your brain light up when you have this thought. And when we call it a stupid thought we’ll see your amygdala light up in defensive anger but then as you tell yourself you’re better than that and you remember to breathe we’ll see your pre-frontal cortex light up as it tries to get your little tantrum under control.
Of course it’s not just about the brain — the release of hormones, the depth or shallowness of your breathing, your heart rate all of these things mirror the psychological experience you are having. Everything that happens internally happens externally. Every thought has a physical side and a mental side. Same goes for your emotions.
This is Q1 and Q2 then. This is the nature of your individual mind-body system. But the individual element is only one half of the human experience. None of this makes sense without understanding what grounds it and contextualises it. And for this we need to look at Q3 and Q4 — the collective sides of the human experience.
Q3 is the most intangible of the quadrants. The internal and individual is easy to grasp because it’s the thoughts and ideas you’re having in your own head. Q3 is a little trickier to point out at first. But it’s everywhere. As ever Nietzsche hits the nail on the head. In the third aphorism of Beyond Good and Evil he writes that:
“most of the conscious thinking of a philosopher is secretly guided and forced into certain channels by his instincts. Behind all logic and its seeming sovereignty of movement, too, there stand valuations or, more clearly, physiological demands for the preservation of a certain type of life.”
Q3 is the internal ocean that we swim in. This is the quadrant of language, culture, value systems and worldviews.
The personal Q1 experience is completely shaped by the Q3 ocean.
In the article on Saussure’s Semiotics we talked about the difference between langue and parole which you can think of in terms of a game of chess so you have the langue of chess which is the hidden rules of the game and then you have the parole which is the million and one individual games of chess that happen within the context of that set of rules.
Language has a similar hidden structure that gives meaning to every instance of speech and writing. Linguists have unearthed the structure of language — nouns, tenses, articles. But this structure pre-existed the archaeological work of the linguist.
The same goes for culture and for value systems. They are intangibles that we don’t directly touch but which shape our experience of the world. They are the riverbanks that unbeknownst to the river are guiding and steering its course. And this is a good analogy because the billion drops of water in the river shape the riverbank which in turn redirects the river. There is an active relationship between the bank which steers the river and the movement of the water through this guided path changing the path.
To give a concrete example you can think of the experience of hunger. The Q1/Q2 experience of hunger is very different for a hunter-gatherer and a Western middle-class individual. There’s a similar physiological experience but the meaning that this experience is given and the actions it inspires are completely different and that is because of the different Q3 oceans that these individuals are swimming in.
The hunter-gatherer will reach for the bow and arrow where the Westerner grabs their wallet or phone. The individual experience is in some senses very similar: I am hungry I want to not be hungry I am going to go make myself not hungry. But the reality couldn’t be more different. One thinks about going out to hunt; the other thinks about going to the shop or opening an app on their phone. This reaction to the personal experience of hunger is shaped by the cultural Q3 backdrop. As Wittgenstein once wrote: the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
Q4 is the outside of this collective experience. It is the empirical side of the collective equation. In Q3 we have the internal experience of collectivity: there’s language and culture, there’s our values and worldviews. And just as the individual thoughts, feelings and ideas have their empirical correlates in the brain and body, so these components of the internal collectivity have their own empirical correlates.
In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Wilber summarises the contents of Q4 as follows:
“this quadrant includes the exterior of any of the social aspects of human interaction, including forces of production and techno-economic modes (bow and arrow, horticultural tools, agrarian implements, industrial machinery, computers, and so on), architectural structures, transportation systems, physical infrastructure, even written (material) forms of books, legal codes, linguistic structures, verbal signifiers, and so forth.”
One great way of explaining the difference between the Q3 culture and the Q4 society is Wilber’s example of going to a foreign country. So let’s say you go to a country where you don’t speak the language and that is completely different to your culture. When you first arrive you are in the Q4 society but you are not in the Q3 culture. You can observe the architecture, the population density, the relative wealth and poverty, the demographics. You can see what technologies they have and how their society is structured. This is all Q4 — you are surrounded by this Q4 society.
But until you learn the language and talk to the people you don’t have access to the Q3 culture. You don’t know what the worldview of the people is, you don’t know what they value or why they do what they do. You don’t know the power structures. You are seeing the outside of their collectivity. You are seeing the Q4 but you haven’t looked into the inside of the collectivity. You haven’t seen into their collective value system. Without language and interaction this isn’t possible.
These are the four quadrants then of the human experience. We exist in four domains all at once: it’s not just our personal thoughts but our physical bodies that are the outside of these thoughts and feelings, there’s the collective value system that contextualises and makes parts of this individual experience more salient than others and finally there’s the outside of that collectivity: everything from the architecture of your local shop to the supply chain of trucks that keep it stocked and all the technologies that make this supply chain work and that construct this architecture. Our lives at any moment can be viewed from these four angles which give very different insights.
The Intellectual Side
Raw version of thumb So now that we have briefly sketched out these four dimensions of the human experience let’s play around with it as an intellectual map.
Okay so as we already in Q1 we have thinkers like Freud, the Stoics and the spiritual thinkers like Buddha, Jesus, Jed McKenna, Anthony de Mello. All these thinkers are focussed on the internal individual dimension of existence.
Moving over to Q2 we’ll find thinkers like John Locke or B.F. Skinner. This is the realm of the hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology. It’s the quadrant of empiricism and of studying individual things through observation and measurement. You isolate the individual being to be studied and you experiment to understand its qualities and nature.
Coming down to Q3 we find Nietzsche’s work on the revaluation of all values, on the Dionysian vs the Apollonian and on the distinction between master and slave morality. We have Kuhn’s work on Paradigms as being the grounding culture that a science exists in at any moment in time. We have the Structuralists and their search for the underlying structures of human life. We have Foucault’s work on power and Saussure’s work on Semiotics. We also have Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market.
Finally in Q4 we have the study of the external collective. Down here we have fields like ecology and chaos theory, we have Marx’s economic theories and statistical studies of human societies. James Damore’s memo that got him fired from Google was a Q4 statistical analysis of gender differences; Jordan Peterson has published a lot of papers on the Q4 findings of the OCEAN personality model and how for example it is more common for people with high politeness to be right-leaning while those with higher compassion are more likely to be left-leaning. This is also where a lot of Stephen Pinker’s work with the better angels of our nature is focussing. There’s the philosophy of Utilitarianism, Auguste Comte’s theories of social evolution and the science of climate change. All of these theories and systems are directed at studying the outsides of our collective experience.
4Q and the Cultural Landscape
The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David (via Wikimedia: Public Domain)
The four quadrants model is also great way of understanding the different arguments that are going on in the culture at any one point in time.
Our recent exploration of Jordan Peterson and the social justice movement can be understood as a conflict between Peterson’s Q1 vision of personal responsibility and creating change in the individual realm coming into conflict with the social justice movement’s belief that change lies in the collective sphere by tackling oppression, bigotry and bias in the culture. Peterson says be the change you wish to see in the world while the social justice movement says let’s make the world fair for everyone. They both want to make the world a better place but get frustrated with each other over how to do that.
When you look at Richard Dawkins’s attacks on religion as a delusion or a virus, you are seeing a Q2 conflict with Q1. Dawkins is a rationalist materialist. Matter is the fundamental thing, the externals are the fundamental thing. This religious stuff doesn’t fit the mould of empirical science and so it belongs in the trash heap.
We can see how each quadrant can reduce the world to their little section of reality. It’s not just the materialists saying that matter is all there is and reducing all internal phenomena to firings in the brain. There’s plenty of spiritual folk that say that mind is all that there is, there’s the claim associated with Derrida that everything is interpretation or the idea associated with Foucault that power is all there is. All of these are distinct forms of reductionism coming from the different corners of the map. Everyone has their way of seeing things and they have to explain why that way is the most important way.
The four quadrants model allows us to take a step back and to give a more balanced appraisal of the situation. It gives us a way of looking at each silo with a little more distance. Like any model it is imperfect but it’s extremely useful as a way of defusing intellectual conflicts and unpacking what is actually going on.