The Variety of Integral Ecologies - Sean Kelly, Adam Robbert & Sam Mickey


Neelesh and I have decided to change the order in which we read and review the ITC papers.  In order to highlight the juiciest ones, and hopefully to encourage more engagement with them, we are focusing for now on the papers that received awards -- starting with the bottom of the list and working our way up.


So, the "first" on our list is a topic that should be of interest to members of this forum, given our recent year-plus focus on Speculative Realism, OOO, and Complex thought:  The Variety of Integral Ecologies: Kosmopolitan Complexity and the ....

I haven't finished reading it yet, so I won't post a response yet, but I wanted to start a place-holder and invite others to read and respond, too.

Here's the abstract:

This presentation explores the diverse variety of integral ecologies, showing how integral ecologies support efforts to articulate more meaningful accounts of the world and to create a better tomorrow for all beings in the emerging Earth community. Following an overview of the historical and theoretical background of integral ecologies, the presenters bring multiple integral approaches to ecology into dialogue, including the “ecologized thinking” of Edgar Morin’s Complex Thought, the “cosmopolitics” developed by Isabelle Stengers and extended by Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, and the New Realisms, including critical realism and the speculative realist movement of object-oriented ontology.

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If I get a chance later I'll mention some points where I think Wilber and Morin are both mistaken (and superficial) about the actual nature of the disjunction/duality that arose in the 17th century and still patterns our ecological situation in late modernity. I think the spirit/matter and inner/outer split is a red herring used by the ideology of modernism to preserve itself even under the conditions of pluralistic and integrative critiques.

LP:  I think that the suppression of certain lower order phenomenon through the activity of emergence higher holons is misunderstood as a potential loss while an honoring of the qualitative difference and distinction produced by non-repressive suppression can quite validly be seen as gain. Also it seems that yes/no is built into the AQAL model by virtue of the lines connecting-separating the domains. And I am concerned that "whole is in the part is in the whole" Escher-ish, yin-yang sensibilities run the risk of producing holographic models that insufficiently developmental.

The fact that some elements of junior holons are suppressed by senior holons is hardly a significant basis for asserting that the idealistic MORE of the higher level is also LESS. The progress described by the emergence is that of an increase of qualitative freedom which naturally occurs by constraint of less quantitative freedoms. The variable which is MORE is a particular stylistic coherence which non-repressively constrains junior elements into to evoke the the new symphony. The failure to distinguish between quantity and quality in this matter leads to an unnecessary ambiguity about progress -- which subsequently feeds into a mildly pedantic anti-idealism. Wholes are only quantitatively exceeded by the parts.


Yes, I think you make a good point that holographic models, or at least certain simplistic ones, run the risk of undermining a developmental orientation…or resulting in rather anemic versions of such. 

I’d like to hear more about why you argue that wholes are only quantitatively exceeded by the parts.  Are you thinking here primarily in terms of the level of qualitative freedom a higher emergent whole has over its parts?  I think Morin’s emphasis, in making such an assertion, is focused more on the fact that emergent wholes are selective in the potentials of their parts that they actualize, leaving other potentials still ‘withdrawn’ – an untapped excess (beyond the level of the actual) which serves both as grounds for change and growth within an organism, and/but which may also work at cross-purposes to the aims of the organism.

(Concerning my previous post, in which I was responding to your bulleted points: did you edit in the paragraph at the top of your post, or did I just miss it?  Because it goes a long way to answering the questions I posed in my last post, and I'm afraid I just had missed it...)

Here is a fuller presentation of Kelly's/Morin's perspective (quoting from this paper):

  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts (a principle which is widely acknowledged and intuitively recognized at all macroscopic levels), since a macro-unity arises at the level of the whole, along with emergent phenomena, Le., new qualities or properties.
  • The whole is less than the sum of the parts, since some of the qualities or properties of the parts are inhibited or suppressed altogether under the influence of the constraints resulting from the organization of the whole.
  • The whole is greater than the whole, since the whole as a whole affects the parts retroactively, while the parts in turn retroactively affect the whole (in other words, the whole is more than a global entity-it has a dynamic organization).
  • The parts are at once less and greater than the parts. The most remarkable emergent phenomena within a highly complex system, such as human society, occur not only at the level of the whole (society), but also at the level of the individuals (even especially at that level-witness the fact that self-consciousness only emerges in individuals). In this sense:
  • The parts are sometimes greater than the whole. As Stafford Beer (1960, p. 16) has noted: "[T]he most profitable control system for the parts does not exclude the bankruptcy of the whole." "Progress" does not necessarily consist in the construction of larger and larger wholes; on the contrary, it may lie in the freedom and independence of small components. The richness of the universe is not found in its dissipative totality, but in the small reflexive entities-the deviant and peripheral units - which have self-assembled within it, as Gunther (1962) and Spencer Brown (1972) have observed. This idea is echoed in Pascal's dictum: "But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this" (Pascal, 1966 [1662], p. 95, Brunschvicg ed., #347).
  • The whole is less than the whole. Within every whole there are penumbras and mutual incomprehensions - indeed schisms and rifts between the repressed and the expressed, the submerged and the emergent, the generative and the phenomenal. There are black holes at the heart of every biological totality, especially every anthropo-social totality. The isolated individual is not the only one who has no knowledge or awareness of the social totality, this social totality is also ignorant and unconscious of the dreams, aspirations, thoughts, loves, and hates of the individuals; and the billions of cells constituting these individuals are themselves ignorant of these same dreams, aspirations, thoughts, loves, hates, and so on. If one places this conception of black holes, penumbras, schisms, and mutual incomprehensions at the very heart of the system paradigm, then this paradigm opens out spontaneously onto the modern theories of the individual unconscious (Freud) and the social unconscious (Marx).
  • The whole is insufficient, which follows from the preceding.
  • The whole contains uncertainty. We shall see below that one cannot with any certainty isolate or circumscribe a single system from among the systems of systems of systems with which it is interlocked and in which it is nested. This uncertainty is also due to the fact that, in the living world, we have to do with poly totalities whose every term can be conceived of both as part and as whole. Thus, with regard to Homo, which of the following is the system: the society, the species, or the individual?
  • The whole contains conflict. I have already tried to show (Morin, 1977, pp. llS-l22,217-224) that every system contains forces that are antagonistic to its own perpetuation. These antagonisms are either virtualized/neutralized, constantly controlled/repressed (through regulation and negative feedback), or made use of and incorporated. In stars, the conjunction of contrary processes-one tending toward implosion, the other toward explosion-creates a spontaneous self-organizing, auto-regulation. Living organization can only be understood as a function of a continual process of disorganization which degrades molecules and cells uninterruptedly as they are being reproduced. At the level of human societies, Montesquieu's idea that social conflicts caused the decline of the Roman Empire, but also its grandeur, must be under stood systemically-as well as, of course, Marx's idea linking the class structure of society with class conflict.

If we become focused upon the number of potential sub-complexes which can be tapped, minimized or reinterpreted with the emergence of each new holon then we become amenable to phraseology which treats the increased comprehensiveness of the new whole as quantitatively ambiguous relative to the various potentially active subsets of that set. But we would be less likely to view this as ambiguous if our eye was attending to the specified element of "altitude" which should characterize each new holon.
I would argue that it is at least slightly disingenuous to treat this a justification for statements like "the whole is also less than the sum of the parts" and that the true motive to arriving at such statements is to dally with the quasi-Taoist sensation of reciprocal neutralization of simultaneous domains. This sneaky move seems characteristic of Kelly-Morin who also exaggerates the relevance of recursion -- a process by which co-incidence can be temporarily evaded by oscillating our attention between domains.
Each new holon (a wholeness-plurality) makes some of its structural ancestors into contemporary generators of its own style and scope. We don't even need to invoke "retroactive" here because this is not fundamentally very different from the fact that my shoes get used to my walking style and feedback my chiropractic situation which determines how I scrape my heels on the sidewalk. 
There is no assumption in tetra-enactive holarchy that "larger and large wholes" are the necessary or even likely form of progress. The qualitative altitude arises from the orchestration of energies is the benchmark of progress. As Nietzsche might observe -- the poet and saint express the will-to-power on a higher gradient than the political thug or predatory carnivore. Progress is presumed to be an intensification of embodied coherent simplexity. So if we assume that progress means "more people" quantitatively then greater societies are both more and less, etc. But that is a weird assumption. Naturally progress means a "more intelligent" society of some kind. This increase is absolutely co-active with the behaviour of relatively autonomous components joined in a new style, mood and mission which occupies part of their potential.
So I think it can be misleading to suggest that parts of the potentials which could be enacted in other ways count as a viable "more" in comparison to the leading edge holon which is possible to the given situation.
AQAL holarchy does not place "the group" above the individuals and therefore does not need to secure the dignity of the individual experiences from the imagined larger containment. Is the whole insufficient? Well, it evolving, open-ended, etc. It is again almost pejorative to reference this as insufficiency. It betrays an unjustified anti-idealistic bias.
And the existence of (a) alternative motives, divergent impulses and interpretations among subcomponents,  and (b) apoptotic "self-destruction" impulses ready to make their move if the balance of health fails, must be understood as the operational state of the whole-plurality (holon). No one thinks that "having a body" means cancerous mutations are impossible. But health involves the active anti-cancering of the body. And maturational phases will certainly take advantage of other potentials which currently exist through the system. But the health-epiphanies of the current organism are a qualitative excess over the health-epiphanies the components in any combination that is not the next greater holon. Those other possibilities are more likely to be evoked as an excess if we wish, unnecessarily perhaps, to preserve them from forgetfulness or to treat all health-possibilities as roughly equivalent and therefore amenable to a simple quantitative reckoning. 

I share your concern that emphasis on both "more" and "less" at once could lead to a kind of static, symmetric reciprocity -- but I don't think these points lead inevitably in this direction (such that they should not be made).

LP:  So I think it can be misleading to suggest that parts of the potentials which could be enacted in other ways count as a viable "more" in comparison to the leading edge holon which is possible to the given situation.

Is this what Morin (via Kelly) is saying?  I hear him (admittedly influenced by my readings of Bhaskar and others) as saying that, while the actual (not possible) whole is qualitatively more than the sum of its parts (because it embodies emergent traits not found in any of their parts but only in their coordinated relation), the actual (not possible) whole is also less than the sum of its parts because the relations which constitute the whole only actualize some of the potential of any of the parts.  There is a withdrawn dimension, an ontic excess, which must be posited in relation to both each of the parts, and the whole itself, which is not part of the parts' or whole's actualization at any point.

LP: It is again almost pejorative to reference this as insufficiency. It betrays an unjustified anti-idealistic bias.

I'd like to hear more about why you see this as implying an anti-idealistic bias.  Because I believe a common justification for such a claim is that it allows for the ontic conditions of becoming, growth, and change: a self-sufficient whole (actual occasion) would have no reason to change.  Perhaps we could say the healthy whole is "almost sufficient."

Certainly. I haven't indicated that any of these points lead inevitably in this direction. I have been suggesting that one mode of phrasing leans one way and another mode leans the other way. But I do think we need to look beyond our personal tendency to affirm themes and complexity (e.g. What is Morin-Kelly really saying?) and ask additional questions about the mood, the functionality, the associated sets of implied experiences, etc.

So my remarks above are not particularly interested in "is or is not" but rather -- why say it in this particular way?

OF COURSE it is true that an actual whole only actualizes some of the potentials of the parts. But why try to phrase this as "both more and less". Why select that fact as if it were the reciprocal and balance for the increase provided by the whole? And why act as if "holon" and "whole" were synonyms when they clearly are not?

These sorts of questions touch on something other than the rather obvious notion that additional dimensions of potential activity lie dormant within the assembly. What prompts us to want to specify that as a "withdrawn excess"?

As you rightly guess, I am much happier with a statement that healthy holon is "almost sufficient". The implication of anti-idealistic bias (which we should be sensitized toward if only because it is soooooooo easy to claim idealistic bias) comes in the form of the impulse to conceptually oppose heterarchy to holarchy. It is, as I have been suggesting, just as simple and natural to assert that these points about the additional potentials, and the interaction between higher and lower holons, are simply clarification of the organizing model. But that is not the route which is being emphasized here. Instead, while the possibility of coherence is mentioned, emphasis falls upon the simple facticity of potential divergences. One gets an almost political sense of concern which leads the theorist to be reticent about any hegemonic assertions or normative proposals. Such concern is not unjustified... but it is also selected. There is a level of expressed comfort in being wary about idealistic attempts and no converse worry about being too anti-idealistic. A temperamental preferencing is being communicated.

Also, to sway back into Integral Ecology. I am thinking of Guattari's little volume "The Three Ecologies" and the potential of a text called "The 112 Ecologies".

This would convert my Integral Tarot proposal into a specific ecological mapping. It would mean that each of the main developmental stage pairs (i.e. cognitive levels subdivided by attitude/ethics such that the first level has one pair, the second level has two pairs, the third has three pairs, etc.) in all four quadrants, including healthier and pathological variants, would constitute a perspectival ecology.

Presumably each of these 112 situations has its own appropriate necessity and style of improvement.

I actually find it rather difficult to read Morin -- I find myself feeling bored after awhile.  A lot of his arguments strike me as obvious or at least, at this point, overly predictable and familiar.  (Homeland Earth is a short book but I couldn't finish it for this reason).  I do not see him as confusing or conflating "whole" and "holon," nor as being strongly anti-developmental, but I get your point that there is a languaging issue which seems to lead, or can lead, towards a preferencing of heterarchy over holarchy.  In this latter regard, I appreciate Morin's work primarily for the counter-balance it provides to much popular Integral discourse, which (in my opinion) may tend in the opposite direction to over-value holarchy and fetishize development (with often a somewhat simplistic framing of the patterns of transcendence and inclusion).  I can appreciate Morin's work more as an Integralist-reading-Morin (where it serves as a sort of supportive accompaniment, a series of accents and flourishes, that enrich the primarily "Integral" melody I am enjoying) than I appreciate Morin's work by itself (since by itself it doesn't seem to have the scope or depth of Integral thought, though admittedly I am making this comment based on a rather limited reading of his work thus far).

Regarding your last post, you maybe should check out Esbjorn-Hargens' work on the various "ecological selves" (which might find some complement in your Integral Tarot types).  The blog I linked presents a little snapshot of some of these selves; as I recall, he actually expands them quite a bit in his dissertation, by bringing in other AQAL elements as well.

I like Morin a lot. I do feel like he reaches a kind of stagnant point where he could go forward both in mood and structure but prefers to hang back in a critical Taoist mode as an ecological advocate who indulges himself in the ease of his own ability to alternate and balance conceptual opposites.

Like you I do not see (or Kelly-him) as being strongly anti-developmental. What I see is a subtle skewing. I see that sometimes HOLON is distinguished from WHOLE and sometimes it isn't... and this is usually a segue into affirming the creative residue of pluralities and components that might get left out of potentially totalizing models. While that is clearly a valid concern I also feel a sort of eagerness to make this move. There is a kind of zeal for being a counter-balancer which necessitates the belief that people are likely to be overvaluers of holarchy and fetishizers of development. And this particular tone strikes me as limiting Morin's obvious integralism from becoming the sort of "general cathedral" I have hinted at. That means, as you say, that his primary use is as a vitalizing addition to a generic integralesque theory.

If he is singing a complementary song we need to first check it to see if something is there we have to include (or specify as already included). And then we have to position him to get the maximum impact from his song. How do we mention him in the program guide for tonight's performance such that when he comes on stage the audience checks the guide, nods approvingly and feels: "Yes, exactly."

I am, I guess, half taking issue with the concluding three sentences of that ethically laudable and conceptually progressive concluding paragraph of the first essay in this article. 

No one approach to integral ecology is sufficient for this task. A diversity of integral ecologies is called for. The contributions to this volume are committed to the development of such integral ecological diversity.

My immediate -- and who knows why! -- response is to suffer this as a curiously partial or preliminary position. And no doubt that is precisely what the authors intended. My rebukes are no doubt likely to be taken as praise. Nonetheless I will suggest that we are held back to some unknown degree by the feeling that we must cautiously hold the diversity of integral ecology in a diverse manner.

An integral ecology does not make any sense unless it incorporates and exceeds a pluralistic ecology (both in terms of the plurality of ecological networks & the plurality of perspectives upon ecology). But our goal must be to stabilize, integrate and functionally (not ontologically!) unify multiplistic ecology into a coherent force that has the following two real powers:

1. It can be deployed and profitably embraced at different developmental levels and different domains of experience.

2. It receives its competitors, rivals and cautionary alternatives as proofs of its validity. Either in terms of demonstrating that they are already included or by absorbing and including them.

Does "no one approach is sufficient" simply work to keep our options open? Or does it also relinquish our duty to build these approaches into AN approach which keeps their insights in play? I instinctively suspect that both are true. And therefore I worry (sic) that a pluralistic holding of integral ecologies is a stumbling block toward generating a dynamic integral holding of trans-pluralistic ecologies.

I recall your half taking issue with my similar holding of a diversity of integrative approaches in Sophia Speaks -- for although I pointed the way towards coordinated interface and circulation and possible integration of these multiple approaches with my concept of onto-choreography and my table of the Six Views, I stopped short of offering a final integration of said approaches.  I imagine, basing this on my own sense of things in writing my paper, that part of the "stopping short" of positing "an" integral ecology that subsumes all others may stem just from the practical recognition that it is highly unlikely that one's model will ever be the be-all and end-all of models -- it will not do everything equally well, or cover everything equally well, or serve to displace all other competitors, even while it actively attempts to confirm its validity in the manners you suggest (showing how other views are already included, or by actively absorbing them) -- and therefore it is wise to presuppose irreducible diversity (excesses which escape the inclusivistic drive) and to concentrate instead (or at least concurrently) on the development of functional means of interface, engagement, skillful combat, mutually affirming co-ordination, etc, with these other approaches.  Because a system which functions by affirming itself through showing how other views are already present within it, or by actively absorbing those views that are not, does this in ways that are inescapably unique: and thus in the act of integration and unification, it contributes more diversity into the world.  (Hinduism often employs these inclusivist strategies, at once becoming more inclusive, encompassing, and universal, and more distinct, variegated, and singular.  It absorbs the Christ and various Gospel principles into itself, after its own unique fashion, but without actually absorbing Christianity itself, or escaping the need to find ways to live alongside, negotiate, and cooperate with Christians).

So, I guess you could say I'm half taking issue with your half taking issue.  But on the other hand, I affirm and want to reinforce your call not to be shy or half-assed in our attempts to build beautiful cathedrals of vision and practice (whether in the fields of ecology, religion, or elsewhere).  We should not let the realization that our vision will not likely (and should not be expected to) displace all others discourage us from striving to make our vision as full and rich and integrated as possible. 

Sean's meta-Integral approach attempts this, I think -- or at least begins to point in this direction, i.e. the functional integration of the admittedly plural field of integrative theories.  Here are some graphics from his recent ITC presentation:

It is definitely a recurring theme. And just as definitely there is an essential role to be played by those who "stop short" of subsuming. Yet -- as Gurdjieff might say -- it is precisely where the developing octave pauses or deviates that it requires the introduction of an additional "shock" in order to complete its transition to the next harmonic level.

One of the main problems, as you say, is entirely practical. Not only would it be unlikely that one's proposal will be an adequate uber-model... but it also sounds exhausting to try to attempt an uber-model. This is only one of many pragmatic reasons to push the general AQAL model as far as it can go in terms of assimilating its complementary variants.

Hinduism, idealized, IS a great example. It simultaneously offers a pluralistic and absorbent system AND a well-structured imperialistic ethos organized around the Trimurti, the chakras, etc. But we need to affirm and work on both sides of this in order to ensure that we are advancing into coherent, useful, post-pluralist territory. All the great and thriving civilizations in history were notorious absorbers -- but their energy was galvanized only when some artistry and some voluntary embrace were mobilized to create the semblance of a universal system.

In experimenting and feeling around for the pathway which optimizes both divergence and convergence we should be asking ourselves some questions about "meta-integral" approaches. We should how much of this is pragmatic? How much reflects our particular contribution versus our reluctance? How much is strategic and how much is simply a limited supply of energy? Do we need meta-integral space in order to convince people, or to convince ourselves, that we are not being duped into a entropic box? Or are we wasting time and slowing the process by not simply assuming that "integral" means "meta-integral"?

And we are doing all these things and more. So we can ask: When and why and how are we doing each of them?

Sean's diagrams are great and useful.

In "Key Unit Theories" I think he loses something significant in falling back on three nodes rather than four (a la AQAL). Even Wilber is notoriously vulnerable to "big three" simplifications which minimize and often miscommunicate the wisdom of ideological critique, computer programming, habit, protocols, syntax, etc.

His "Metadisciplinary Framework" diagram is just swell. How to put that kind of an approach to work when, say, examining a paper like the integral ecology/s article upon which this thread is based? We have to make sure that the D level is diverse enough (which means placing a high premium on outliers and iconoclasts who take a charged position relative to other theorists). Looking at C and B we have to situate them properly to make sure that maximum diversity of insights is secured in a way that also permits maximum convergence into A. All of that together is the appropriate mode of engagement to any particular paper, proposal or discipline...

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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