Dąbrowski and Wilber.

Intersections Between Dąbrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration and Wilber's Spectral Model of Consciousness.

William Tillier

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Reference: Tillier, W. (1998). Intersections Between Dąbrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration and Wilber's Spectral Model of Consciousness. In C. Ackerman (Ed.), Texturizing and Contextualizing: Proceedings from the 3rd International Symposium [Biennial Conference] on Dąbrowski's Theory. (pp. 53-79). Unpublished Manuscript. (The Third Biennial Conference on Dąbrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration. July 10-12, 1998, Location: Kendall College, Evanston IL.) Note: The Wilber presentation given at the conference was jointly done by Jeff Wieckert and myself. I provided the paper presented here.


Ken Wilber's spectral model of consciousness describes a generic hierarchy of levels of human development. Dąbrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) also presents a hierarchical, multilevel model of development. Wilber's important contributions are strengthened by the application of several ideas developed in Dąbrowski's Theory. Dąbrowski describes developmental potentials and their role in development. Dąbrowski also examines the positive role of conflict and psychoneuroses, suggesting that the disintegration of many lower level structures is required for advanced development. Symptoms may signal a developmental process and if this is the case, they should be treated accordingly. Comparing these authors and amalgamating their strengths suggest a wide range of opportunities for advancement of theory and research in the area. This paper will discuss both theories, outline intersections and differences between them and conclude with suggestions for future work.

Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902 - 1980) developed a theory describing the hierarchical levels of Man's personality development. His Theory of Positive Disintegration is unusual in its focus on the role played by disintegration and psychoneurosis in development. Dąbrowski presents a model of advanced development based on a person's developmental potentials and on the replacement of lower, more reflexive structures by higher, more conscious, more autonomous volitional structures. His theory describes an initial integration followed by a process of disintegration leading to a second, higher level integration. Although few people achieve this level, exemplars of development are role models for its features.

Since 1977, Ken Wilber has been refining a model of Human psychological and spiritual growth. Wilber has proposed a spectrum of hierarchical (vertical) levels to describe the stages of man's psychological and spiritual growth. His approach bridges Eastern and Western philosophies and incorporates many historical works that describe Human development.

This paper will begin by presenting brief overviews of Dąbrowski's and Wilber's theories. The parallel consideration of these two approaches provides a more comprehensive description of the various levels of psychological growth and of the mechanisms that drive growth. Combing ideas from each approach creates many opportunities for further theory building. The intersections of Dąbrowski's and Wilber's approaches are described. We will focus on several specific issues and discuss some major differences between the two theories. Suggestions for future research are made.

Dąbrowski's Theory

Dąbrowski presents a theory of personality development observing that most people live their lives guided by their biological impulses (generally self-interest) and/or by uncritical adherence to social convention. He called these features the first and second factors. Dąbrowski also described a group of people who display an individualized developmental pathway. These people break away from an automatic, socialized view of life (what Dąbrowski described as "negative adjustment") to develop an individualized, conscious and critically evaluated value structure ("positive adjustment"). This hierarchy of values comes to act as a benchmark by which all things are seen and that directs behaviour. Advanced development is seen in people who possess strong developmental potential. Developmental potential represents a constellation of genetic features, expressed and mediated through environmental interaction, that consist of three major aspects: overexcitability (OE), specific abilities and talents, and a strong drive toward autonomous growth, a feature Dąbrowski called the third factor.

The most evident and perhaps most fundamental aspect of developmental potential is overexcitability (OE), a heightened physiological experience of sensory stimuli resulting from increased neuronal sensitivities. The greater the OE, the more intense the sensory experience of life, often to the point where "one sees reality in a different, stronger and more multisided manner" (Dąbrowski, 1964, p. 7). In short, the individual is more sensitive to the experiences of life. Dąbrowski presented five forms of OE: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional. These overexcitabilities, especially the latter three, often cause a person to experience day-to-day life intensely and to feel extremes of both the joys and sorrows of life profoundly. This mixed experience was reflected in Dąbrowski's calling OE "the tragic gift."

Although based in the nervous system, overexcitabilities are expressed psychologically through the development of structures that reflect the emerging self. The most important of these conceptualizations are dynamisms: biological or mental forces that control behaviour and its development. "Instincts, drives, and intellectual processes combined with emotions are dynamisms" (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 294). With advanced development, dynamisms increasingly reflect movement toward autonomy.

Dąbrowski's theory presents five levels as shown in Table 1 (below). (I don't have the time to format this table - I'll try to get a jpeg if people need to see it.E-mail me and let me know please. Thanks).

The first and fifth level are characterized by psychological integration, harmony and little inner conflict. The first level is called primitive or primary integration and consists of people who show either prominent First Factor ("heredity" / impulse) and/or Second Factor ("social environment"). Most people at Level I are basically integrated at theenvironmental or social level. Dąbrowski distinguished two subgroups within Level I, psychopaths and the "average person" and said they varied by degree, "the state of primary integration is a state contrary to mental health. A fairly high degree of primary integration is present in the average person; a very high degree of primary integration is present in the psychopath" (Dąbrowski, 1964, p. 121). Dąbrowski called Level I primitive or psychopathic. This description may reflect an earlier usage of the term psychopathic that referred to individuals who were genetically impeded in their developmental course. Most of society's members live on Level I (also see Dąbrowski, 1964, pp. 4-10).

Levels II, III and IV describe various levels and types of the process of disintegration. The character of Level II is reflected in its name: Unilevel Disintegration. The prominent feature of this level is an initial, brief, and often intense crisis or series of crises. Crises are spontaneous and only occur on one level (and often involve only one dimension). "Unilevel disintegration occurs during developmental crises such as puberty or menopause, in periods of difficulty in handling some stressful external event, or under psychological and psychopathological conditions such as nervousness and psychoneurosis. Unilevel disintegration consists of processes on a single structural and emotional level; there is a prevalence of automatic dynamisms with only slight self-consciousness and self-control" (Dąbrowski, 1964, p. 6). Conflicts on the same level (horizontal) produce ambitendencies and ambivalences: the person is pulled between different but equivalent choices (ambitendencies) and is not able decide what to do (ambivalence). Ultimately, the individual might be thrust into an existential crisis: their social rationales no longer account for their experiences and no alternate explanations exist. During this phase, existential despair is the predominant emotion. The resolution of this phase begins as individually chosen values are integrated into a "new" hierarchy of personal values. These new values often conflict with the person's previous social values. The "status quo" explanations for the "way things are," learned through education and by the social order often collapse under conscious, individual scrutiny. This causes more conflicts focused on the individual's analysis of their reactions to the world at large and on the behaviour of others. Common behaviours and the ethics of the prevailing social order are often seen as inadequate, wrong or hypocritical. "Positive maladjustment" prevails. For Dąbrowski, these crises represent strong potential for personal growth as mental health reflects more than social conformity, it involves a careful, personal examination of the world and of one's values leading to the development of an individual personality.

Level II is a transitional period. Dąbrowski said you either fall back, move ahead or end negatively, in suicide or psychoses. "Prolongation of unilevel disintegration often leads to reintegration on a lower level, to suicidal tendencies, or to psychosis" (Dąbrowski, 1964, p. 7).

The transition from level II to level III involves a fundamental shift that requires a phenomenal amount of energy. This period is the crossroads of development as from here, one must either progress or regress. The struggle between Dąbrowski's Factors reflects this transitional crisis: "Do I follow my instincts (First Factor), my teachings (Second Factor) or my heart (Third Factor)?" The developmental answer is to transform your lower instincts (automatic reactions like anger) into positive motivation, to resist rote, social answers and to listen to your own, inner sense of "what you ought to do."

Level III describes the vertical conflicts caused by the perception of higher versus lower choices in life (initially, this vertical view is involuntary, therefore Dąbrowski called it spontaneous multilevel disintegration). Dąbrowski called this vertical dimension multilevelness. Multilevelness is a gradual realization of the "possibility of the higher" (a phrase Dąbrowski used frequently) and of the subsequent contrasts between the higher and the lower in life. These vertical comparisons often illustrate the lower, actual behaviour of a person in contrast to higher, imagined ideals and alternate choices. When a person perceives the higher choice, this is obviously the path one ought to follow. Guided by the experience of emotional and imaginational OE, the person feels ever more of a sense of autonomy (third factor). When the person's actual behaviour falls short of the ideal, disharmony and a drive to review and reconstruct one's life often follow. Multilevelness thus represents a new and powerful type of conflict.

Vertical conflicts are critical in leading to autonomy and advanced personality growth. If the person is to achieve higher levels, the shift to multilevelness must occur. If a person does not have the developmental potential to move into a multilevel view, then they would fall back from the crises of Level II to reintegrate at Level I.

In the shift to multilevelness, the "horizontal" (unilevel), stimulus-response model of life is replaced by a vertical and hierarchical analysis. This vertical view becomes anchored by one's individual value structure and all events are seen in relation to personal ideals. These personal value ideals become the personality ideal: the kind of person one wants to be and how the person wants to live their life. As events in life are seen in relation to this multilevel, vertical view, it becomes impossible to support positions that favour the lower course when higher goals can be identified (or imagined).

In level IV, the individual takes full control of their development. The involuntary spontaneous development of level III is replaced by a deliberate, conscious and self-directed review of life from the multilevel perspective. This level marks the full emergence of "the third factor," described by Dąbrowski as an autonomous factor "of conscious choice (valuation) by which one affirms or rejects certain qualities in oneself and in one's environment" (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 306). The person consciously reviews their existing belief system and tries to replace their lower, automatic views and reactions with carefully thought-out, examined and chosen ideals. These "new" values will increasingly be reflected in the person's behaviour. Behaviour becomes less reactive, less automatic, and more deliberate as behavioural choices fall under the influence of the person's higher, chosen ideals.

Development often leads to conflict with, and rejection of the status quo of a lower society ("positive maladjustment"). In other words, to be maladjusted to a low level society is a positive feature. The rejection of social mores, now seen as lower and inferior, does not produce a selfish psychopath or an asocial hermit. Rather, one's social orientation comes to reflect a deep responsibility for others based on emotional and intellectual factors. At the highest levels, "individuals of this kind feel responsible for the realization of justice and for the protection of others against harm and injustice. Their feelings of responsibility extend almost to everything" (Dąbrowski, 1973, p. 97). This pro-social perspective results from seeing life in relation to one's hierarchy of values (the multilevel view) and the subsequent appreciation of the potential of how life could be, and ought to be, lived. "Pro-social" is not just support of the existing social order. As mentioned, if the social order is "lower" and you are adjusted to it, then you also reflect the lower ("negative adjustment" in Dąbrowski's terms, a Level I feature). In this context, pro-social involves a genuine cultivation of social interactions based on higher values. Your disagreements with the (lower level) world are expressed compassionately in doing what you can to help achieve the "ought." Given their authentic pro-social outlook, those individuals achieving higher development would work to raise the level of their society.

The fifth level displays an integrated and harmonious character, but one vastly different from that at the first level. At this highest level, one's behaviour is guided by conscious, carefully weighed decisions based upon an individualized and chosen hierarchy of personal values. Behaviour conforms to this inner standard of how life "ought" to be lived and thus, little inner conflict arises in one's life.

The Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) has an extremely broad scope and has implications for many areas. One central application applies to psychological and psychiatric diagnosis and treatment. Dąbrowski advocated a comprehensive, multilevel diagnosis of the person's situation, including their symptoms and their developmental potentials. If the disintegration appears to fit into a developmental context, then the person is educated in the theory and encouraged to take a developmental view of their situation and experiences. Rather than trying to eliminate symptoms, they are reframed to yield insight and understanding into life and the person's unique situation. Dąbrowski illustrated his theory in the autobiographies of, and biographies about, those who have experienced positive disintegration and he encouraged autobiography as a step in the process of autopsychotherapy. For Dąbrowski, the goal of therapy is to eliminate the therapist by providing a context within which a person could understand and help themselves. The gifted child, or the suicidal teen, or the troubled artist is the expert of the TPD and if they accept and understand the meaning of their feelings and crises, they can move ahead, not fall apart.

A second primary focus is on education, and in particular, on the experience of creative or gifted students. Dąbrowski hypothesized that these students will disproportionately show strong overexcitability and therefore will be prone to the disintegrative process.

In summary, Dąbrowski presents a theory of personality development describing how a small number of individuals will go through a process of disintegrations and subsequent reintegrations leading to the development of an autonomous personality. This process, which is far more complicated than suggested here, involves a fundamental tearing apart of the existing reality function to allow for construction of a reality function and "new coordinating elements" on a new (higher) level (see Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 224). In this way, a person can apply conscious self-development to fully realize or even transcend their genotype, overcome biological instinct and rote socialization, to consciously become the authentic human being they choose to be.

Wilber's Basic Thesis

Wilber approaches the study of life using a model that includes and integrates four basic strategies or levels of analysis. He calls this the four quadrant approach. Each major aspect is outlined below.
Upper right: individual exterior - observable behaviour (science)
Upper left: individual interior - intentional (phenomenology)
Lower left: collective interior - cultural aspects
Lower right: collective exterior - social aspects

Using the all-quadrant and all-level approach to analysis (the "multidimensional grid"), we consider data from each of the four aspects and consider how the aspects interact.

Wilber differentiates two parallel strands of evolution, the average mode of consciousness and the most advanced mode of consciousness. He suggests that our average level has reached about the half way point on the scale of possible levels (level 4) and that our current social systems reflect this level. From time to time, we will see a few individuals go on to reach higher and even the highest levels. From our study of these exemplars of development, people we usually call saints, sages and shamans, we can see the outline of the higher levels potentially available to us all. Wilber says that we can study the higher levels from the analysis of writings making up what Leibniz called the perennial philosophy. This body of work represents the wisdom and discoveries of developmental exemplars of Man's higher psychological and spiritual levels. This philosophy "forms the esoteric core of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism and Christian mysticism. As well as being embraced, in whole or in part by individual intellects ranging from Spinoza to Albert Einstein, Schopenhauer to Jung, William James to Plato" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, pp. 5-7). "The perennial philosophy describes the Ultimate as a seamless whole, an integral Oneness, that underlies but includes all multiplicity" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 7). This approach removes the previous division between Man and his God - some higher ‘other' beyond Man. This division was traditionally bridged by a pact or promise between a person and their God. Now, the Ultimate is ground, the condition of all things. The ground, from which all arises, gives light to the individual as the wave (individual) arises from the sea (ground). This ground is the Nature of all that is and thus the goal is not to find personal salvation, rather, it is to discover the wholeness of the Ultimate. In this discovery one finds him or herself whole as well.

Figure 2, on the next page, outlines Wilber's basic levels. In Wilber's philosophy, all levels exist in each of us as a vertical hierarchy of potentials called the ground unconscious. Through a process of involution, "each level, then, is created by a forgetting of its senior level" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 317). As the reality of each level is fundamentally spirit, this process represents the forgetting of spirit. Life is the effort to revive this spirit. The higher levels evolve or unfold from the enfolded (involved) cache of potentials. In enfolding, the higher levels have become unconscious in us as they are forgotten, obscured or hidden. The levels of development essentially reflect levels of increasing consciousness. With higher and higher levels of consciousness we can literally discover the higher levels within us. "To evolve is simply to re-member that which was dis-membered" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 321). Wilber suggests the higher levels are available to "every man and woman who cares to evolve and transform beyond the mental-egoic stage [our current average level]" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 339). Wilber says that Wholeness is contiguous with consciousness and that we can look at the history of Man as the unfolding of consciousness. We can thus read Man's history as the narrative of the development up to his present level of average consciousness - level four, the egoic. We can project the higher levels using the wisdom of the perennial philosophy. Table 2 (below) presents an overview of Wilber's levels. (I don't have the time to format this table - I'll try to get a jpeg if people need to see it.E-mail me and let me know please. Thanks).

Atman is the Hindu term for the basic nature of all souls and each of us has a deep intuition for his or her own Atman. Because we experience our self as separate and we feel our separate self apart from the other, we are afraid to transcend our self and return to an integration with the whole. The wave leaves the sea and becomes separated. To rediscover the whole, to return to the sea, is for the wave to die. Transcendence of the self is suicide, a death required to return to the whole. The urge to find our Atman is strong but it is drowned out by the urge to cling to our separate sense of the self. As Wilber says, "holding on to himself, he shuts out Atman; grasping only his own ego, he denies the rest of All" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 16). Feeling separate, man is confronted by his mortality. There are two courses: we can come to grips with our own death leading to consciousness - a path few achieve, or we can deny and repress our mortality (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 17). In not being able to come to grips with death, we cannot embrace our Atman (Whole) consciousness. This would entail the death of the separate self - the collapse of the wave back to the sea. Instead, we create a series of symbolic substitutions for death that give us temporary security. Ironically, these substitutions create a wedge that maintains the artificial boundary between the separate, distorted ego-self and the inherent but forgotten, unconscious Atman-self. We seek the Atman but in doing so, we create a series of conditions that prevent its discovery - a feature Wilber calls the "Atman project." The Atman project contains the desire to capture the Atman (a positive feature) but goes about it in ways that prevent its discovery.

Subjectively, Man feels "cosmocentric, independent, and immortal" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p.17). We build up a huge, but false, separate ego. Intrapsychic efforts to stave off death ultimately fail and the individual is forced to create external, objective defences. Culture reflects the world of objective substitutions for Atman - wants, desires, properties, possessions, goods and materials, fame, power, knowledge, etc. Cultural symbols are built to project immortality. Different cultures reflect different modes of self and in turn inculcate that level of self.

Only a few individuals can rise to the consciousness of "making friends with death" to achieve the Wholeness of Atman - a reflection of the highest levels of Man's possible growth. Wilber suggests "it will probably be thousands, maybe millions, of years before humankind as a whole evolves into consciousness" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 21).

Wilber continues to integrate and synthesize various approaches to understanding man and the world. His most recent effort is to attempt to integrate science and religion (Wilber, 1998). Rothberg and Kelly (1998) present a discussion of Wilber's work by his critics along with responses by Wilber.

Intersections: Dąbrowski and Wilber

Comparisons between Dąbrowski and Wilber are somewhat impaired by definitional issues. Several themes need to be better defined and explained before we can confidently compare the two. For example, Wilber's idea of transitions and the role of disintegration in moving ahead is not obvious. Despite these problems, we can readily see some major similarities and some major differences between the two approaches. Each author describes psychological growth as a generic sequence of evolutionary, developmental structures - stages or levels. Both authors appreciate that reality includes both horizontal and vertical aspects and to understand life fully, we must see and describe phenomena in both multidimensional and multilevel terms. Using vertical and horizontal approaches allows us to describe and understand both the span and the depth of life, leading to a comprehensive view of reality. Both authors see this as a critical step ahead in our analysis. Both authors conclude that most people today are unable to fully see the vertical richness of life and are limited, to a unilevel view in Dąbrowski's terms, or to the flatland perspective in Wilber's vocabulary. Both say that each higher level presents new, richer views of life and involves increasing degrees of consciousness. Each level is also associated with its own characteristic pathology and therefore different therapeutic approaches are suggested at different levels. Each theory describes a developmental force that propels (or pulls) development, toward Dąbrowski's personality ideal, or in the direction of Wilber's state of Atman. To continue, both authors say that advanced development is a rare phenomena, with less than 1 percent of people reaching the highest levels. Both describe a broad level of social function, occurring at the middle of Wilber's sequence, at the lowest level of Dąbrowski's model. In each case, the average level of social development is seen as the average of its member's developmental levels. Finally, each author describes the uneven pace of development. On different dimensions, a person may be on different levels. Thus, the overall level assignment is complicated and averages represent a compromise in describing a person's development. As we can see, there are many broad similarities that bridge the two theories.


Several major differences are seen between Dąbrowski and Wilber. One central difference involves the role of conflict, disintegration and psychopathology in development and more specifically, the role and placement of psychoneuroses in the developmental sequence. Traditional views, even within the transpersonal realm, generally see psychoneuroses as a blockage or a defect (for example, Maslow's approach). Wilber, using this more traditional approach, first sees psychoneuroses as an obstruction to development. Thus, at his third level, psychoneuroses are associated with the neurotic self structure and clearly interfere with development - psychoneuroses of level three can impede movement into level four. In Wilber's sequence, neurotic type symptoms can also occur at level five, where an apparently more advanced type of neurosis is associated with conflicts between the self as defined by the demands of social roles and the emerging identity of the self as an individual. This position is reminiscent of Dąbrowski's progression from Factor Two to Factor Three, from rote socialization to autonomy.

Wilber initially described neurotic symptoms as positive but in a very limited way: they are positive because they act as "signals," pointing the way to unconscious, unresolved problems in the shadow that can then be dealt with (Wilber, 1979, p. 99). Recently, Wilber appears to hint at a more positive role for symptoms when he suggests that "higher states and visions are sometimes intermixed with personal pathologies or neuroses, but the states themselves are not pathological in their essence; quite the contrary, researchers consistently refer to them as extraordinary states of well-being" (Wilber, 1997, p. 126).

Dąbrowski considers psychoneuroses a necessary mechanism of development. The disintegrative and motivational effects of psychoneuroses (dis-ease) are needed to move from socially defined role players (Dąbrowski's Level I, Wilber's level four) to autonomous, volitional individuals (Dąbrowski's Level V, level six in Wilber). In Dąbrowski's context, psychoneurotic symptoms are a positive, necessary feature because they are part of the very process of development. In another work, Wilber (1981/1996b, p. 61) suggests that there are two forms of anxiety related illness: one can be "traced to ‘mental illness,' pathological defence mechanisms," and second, "a basic, unavoidable, inescapable terror inherent in the separate-self sense." The latter idea of a normal existential anxiety occurring because of advancement along the developmental sequence hints at a normal role for severe anxiety - a view similar to Dąbrowski's.

In keeping with the multidimensional and multilevel approach, Dąbrowski's diagnosis of a person considers symptoms within the context of the person's developmental potentials. Interacting with an individual's developmental potential, crises, anxiety and psychoneuroses will eventually turn out to be positive or negative. Individuals who show signs of higher development and/or developmental potential, combined with symptoms of psychoneuroses (particularly anxiety and depression) need to be reviewed carefully. Symptoms seen as playing a developmental role are not palliated, the person is encouraged to see their experience as developmental and to "see where it takes them."

Developmental Potential

A second major difference between Wilber and Dąbrowski is Dąbrowski's idea of developmental potential. In describing the developmental sequence, Wilber makes scant mention of the individual sorts of variables that might interact with or influence development. Why does one person move through the levels and another does not? Wilber gives a partial answer in his model of development. The developmental tasks associated with the levels, their mastery (resolution), and their pathologies have been summarized by Wilber (Wilber, Engler and Brown, 1986). In overview, Wilber says that development requires high levels of energy (a point both authors stress). A person who invests heavily in repression at the second and third fulcrums (levels) diverts the energy required for higher development. However, this answer seems insufficient. For example, the developmental challenges probably faced at the transition between levels two and three or from three to four are quite different from those faced going from level four to five or from five to six. The individual variables that modulate, mitigate or maximize successful transcendence will likely be quite different at different levels. Those features that help the person become a "good citizen" (Wilber's level 4) may work against them becoming an individual personality (Wilber's level 6).

Dąbrowski said that significant developmental potential was required for advanced development to occur. One prominent aspect is an inherent tendency to show heightened responses to life's stimuli: overexcitability. Other developmental dynamisms are also critical. When all are present, overexcitability is expressed through various developmental dynamisms (like the third factor) that create the momentum needed for development. The status quo involves a strong inertia impeding development. As Wilber noted, if you try to rise above, your surrounding social influences literally "tend to pull you down" (Wilber, 1996d, p. 139). The average level tends to suppress individual development by raising lower levels and inhibiting higher ones from developing. Combined with the inner conflict and anxieties associated with growth, there are considerable rewards to stasis. To overcome these obstacles requires a strong developmental drive, developmental potential in Dąbrowski's theory. Unfortunately, Dąbrowski found that few people have these strong developmental factors. Many people are guided by their unthinking instincts or remain content to allow themselves to be externally defined by society passively. Wilber is far less detailed on the issue of individual potentials, he simply asserts that each person has the potential to move ahead "if they so choose to," and by implication if they can navigate the developmental challenges of each level successfully.

In summary, Dąbrowski says that many people fail to reach higher levels because they lack the genetic predispositions needed for advanced development. In contrast, Wilber suggests that it appears that the basic structures are within everyone and available to everyone. Wilber acknowledges that only a few people reach the highest levels and suggests that psychological defences often take energy away from the developmental tasks at hand and thus prevent higher development. Dąbrowski's ideas about an individual's developmental potential raise important questions about the interaction between individual characteristics and the developmental matrix (Wilber's basic structures). Are there important generic, individual developmental factors? What are they and how do they interact? These questions represent both opportunities for theory building and research to see exactly which features are germane to hindering or helping development. If these features are better understood, perhaps avenues for enhancement or education would be suggested. Dąbrowski's idea of developmental potential adds considerable depth to Wilber's approach and is a timely call to us to flesh out the individual features that work either to hinder or to advance development.

Dąbrowski emphasized that to move from one developmental level to the next, one has to break apart lower psychological structures and this involves considerable inner psychic conflict and stress. The structures of the lower level are integrated and have to be broken -- disintegrated in Dąbrowski's terms. This temporary loosening allows the person to become conscious of their potential to make volitional changes to these structures and to increase autonomy. In Dąbrowski's approach, lower, automatic human instincts need to be resisted and replaced by higher, conscious and volitional behaviour. Initially, instinct is overcome by socialization. As Wilber says, "our parents [help] us move from the first floor of consciousness to the fifth floor by imposing the special conditions of language and egoic self-control" (Wilber, 1983/1996c, p. 117). Socialization and self-control are externally imposed on us and we simply learn to control our impulses and to obey blindly. Imposed socialization, even when it is internalized, is fundamentally at odds with autonomy. Rote, automatic social behaviour must be overcome by an autonomous, consciously feeling, critically thinking and independently choosing individual. Wilber reflects this basic thinking in his descriptions of level six. This is the basis of Dąbrowski's third factor and secondary integration.

Dąbrowski felt that the unilevel view of life and the lower structures geared for automatic responding must be replaced (transformed) by higher, multilevel views and by volitional structures. Much of the disruption and inner conflict of growth results from the tearing apart of these lower structures. Wilber's position on the role of disintegration in growth is not clear. He says that as "we expand to a new and broader identity, we also break an old and narrow one" (Wilber, 1979, p. 131). Wilber later infers that when transcending a level, one breaks the relevant boundary, but keeps the basic character of the lower level (see Wilber, 1979, p. 123). Wilber infers that the bulk of the lower levels are permanent structures that will be incorporated into higher levels. Higher levels (more holistic patterns) "appear later in development because they have to await the emergence of the parts that they will then integrate or unify" (Wilber, 1997, p. 41). In apparent contradiction, Wilber (1983/1996c, p. 232) suggests that "transcendence demands the death of the present structure in the sense that the structure must be released or let-go of in order to make room for the higher unity of the next structure." He goes on to say, "one accepts the death and release of the lower stage" (Wilber, 1983/1996c, p. 232) and that "higher growth is bought only by ego-death" (Wilber, 1983/1996c, p. 236). Further, the self "must accept the ‘death,' negation, or release of the lower level -- it must dis-identify with or detach from an exclusive involvement with that level" (Wilber, 1983/1996c, p. 278). In another discussion, Wilber says "in order to reach that ultimate estate, it must first die to its present, limited, and mortal self-sense, at whatever level" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 324). In summary, Wilber suggests lower levels must die, the ego must die, that basic structures live on and are a critical part of higher levels and that we must dis-identify with lower structures.

Wilber also describes transition structures that are not included in higher levels, they are "negated, dissolved or replaced by subsequent development" (Wilber, Engler and Brown, 1986, p. 75). Wilber cites Kohlberg's moral stages as examples of phase-specific transition structures. The permanent, basic structures are left intact to be incorporated into the higher level. At least for the basic structures, higher transcends but also includes. Just which specific structures are thought of as basic (permanent) and which are considered transitional (temporary) needs to be better understood. We suggest that this topic needs to be reviewed and that the introduction of Dąbrowski's idea of positive disintegration is a timely stimulus for such a review. Mechanisms of disintegration and reintegration (replacement) need to be explored, especially for transitional structures that must be replaced for development to continue. The role of disintegration in development can then be better understood.

Two other theories sympathetic to a developmental (positive) views of crises are promoted by S. Grof and R. Assagioli (Assagioli, 1965/1971, 1973; Grof and Grof, 1989, 1990). In Grof's approach, spiritual crises can act as a stimulus to growth. In Assagioli's theory of psychosynthesis, crises are differentiated into personal crises aimed at personality growth and spiritual crises leading to spiritual development. In an approach similar to Dąbrowski's, Assagioli suggests the proper diagnosis of the crisis is important to know what approach to take.

Views of Socialization and Social Integration

Dąbrowski is perhaps unique in differentiating two levels of integration, a primitive one and a higher one. At times a person's outward behaviour may not distinguish which level is represented, the motives of the behaviour are critical in understanding which developmental level is represented. For example, is the person behaving socially out of blind conformity (Level I) or out of a personally chosen value structure (Level V)? Commonly, other theories take social behaviour at face value and do not differentiate between herd conformity versus individually embraced social values. In most developmental sequences (Wilber's included), individual development and social development are parallel and occur in basically a straight line. In Dąbrowski's model the sequence would be: primitive ego (instinct), primitive social (conformity), disintegration, autonomous self, chosen social values. In Dąbrowski's approach, people who function based upon ego impulses and those who live according to a rote social conformity both represent a primitive level of function because neither involves individual, autonomous decision making. "Mental life at its first, more primitive stage, is determined by and subordinated to biological forces and influences of the social environment" (Dąbrowski, 1970, p. 12). Both instinct and socialization are at Level I and both are surpassed in advanced development. At advanced levels, social behaviour is based on conscious choices not conformity.

Socialization and social conformity do not appear as major developmental issues in Wilber's model. At the lowest levels, individuals display a primitive ego and a primitive social structure. Later, the ego is differentiated into the "real person" and social forms become more complex. Wilber describes the "real person" as having achieved a mature, responsible and stable ego (Wilber, 1981/1996b p. 345). The real person can own property, can "author [his or her] actions," and exist in a "system of exchanges of mutual recognition and esteem with other actors/ authors/ persons" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 289). Wilber endorses Whyte's view that the process of moving into level four "may be regarded as the development of individual personality (Wilber 1981/1996b, p. 205). He then clearly states that at this level the individual fights to protect the ego at all costs and this blocks higher development: to advance, both ego and personality have to be given up (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 301). This contrasts with Dąbrowski's view that an individual personality ideal is the core of the highest developmental level. Dąbrowski withholds the term "personality" to apply to those reaching an autonomous value orientation - the level of secondary integration. Personality only emerges at Dąbrowski's highest levels when individual values ("what ought to be") find their voice and replace the "what is" of life. The focus of personality is a "self-aware, self-chosen, self-affirmed, and self-determined unity of essential individual psychic qualities" (Dąbrowski, 1972, p. 301).

In Wilber's view, our current average social level, level four, reflects the real person stage, however, many people still exist at lower levels. Wilber says that our current goal should be to try to have everyone achieve the real person level, what he calls the "edge of history" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 349). Wilber is not optimistic changes will be rapid, saying that the movement to level five, psychic intuition, will take "at least another century" or more (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 345). Reflecting Wilber's idea that you have to have a strong self before you can transcend it, we need to first achieve universal reason (level 4), then move to the next level characterized by being "beyond reason."

It is not immediately clear how to interpret Wilber's level four, the real person, in comparison to Dąbrowski. On first glance, it may be linked to Dąbrowski's level I (his view of the "average," socialized person). On what basis does Wilber's real person act and decide? Dąbrowski's differentiation of motives appears helpful: one can act on one's primitive ego instincts, one can act in accord with social conventions and expectations or ideally, one can act as the result of a clear and conscious choice of personal values. Wilber says "decisions had now increasingly to be made in accordance with forms internal to himself. Thus, man became self-conscious. The individual became aware of his own thought" (Wilber, 1981/1996b, p. 205). This certainly suggests autonomy, making a case for a comparison to Dąbrowski higher levels.

A graphic of the two approaches helps to see the differences in the sequence of development (below).

primitive ego --> Level I Factor 1
socialization --> Level I Factor 2
disintegration --> Levels II, III, IV Factor 2-3
autonomy --> Level V, Factor 3

primitive social groups --> Level 1/2
membership --> Level 3
ego --> Level 4
psychic --> Level 5
spirit Levels 6,7,8.

Spiritual Development

Spiritual development is discussed in more detail in Wilber and his higher stages are focused on Spiritual development. Dąbrowski's level V did not specifically address Spiritual dimensions. In this sense, Wilber's model could be said to go several levels further in the description of advanced development.


Wilber's theory is an example of essentialism, a branch of philosophy that most would describe as metaphysics. Wilber would argue the point saying that several lines of evidence points to this approach as an objective (but little appreciated) description of reality. Wilber suggests that all of the levels of development are infolded (through involution) into the individual at birth (at conception?). Thus, all of the possible levels are in each person waiting to evolve as the person grows. Wilber does not explain any mechanism for this infolding. As for evidence, he cites two major lines of thought. One, the perennial philosophy is extremely consistent in its descriptions of this involution / evolution process and its stages. This weight of agreement points to an objectification of the Great Chain of Being. Second, the process of evolution is open to individual discovery by the injunctive process - if you want to discover this, do this. Thus, individual experience gives the person the data. Comparison with others through a hermeneutic dialogue provides a consensus that again, Wilber sees as an objective description. Interestingly, Dąbrowski used very similar logic in his justification of the objectivity of the hierarchy of values in his theory. Again, for Dąbrowski (and Maslow), that higher values show significant convergence is evidence of their objective description of authentic, higher Human development. The major difference here is that Dąbrowski saw development as a function of genetics. His theory falls under the tradition of biologicalism. Human traits are a function of man's biology. Developmental potentials to advance to the highest levels are a reflection of an individual's genetics. Potentials can be understood in this context. Likewise, pathology and psychopathy can be understood as reflections of man's lower biological instincts. In Dąbrowski's model, advanced development is using higher functions (intelligence and imagination), guided by empathy and emotion to transcend and extinguish lower instincts. Lower "energies" are transformed into the service of higher goals. Bailey (1987) is a similar theory in the biological tradition. It provides a fascinating comparison to Dąbrowski's work.

The Classical Sequence

The classic sequence of development has been extensively described. In the philosophical tradition, Plato and Aristotle described a hierarchy of levels of functions. The Great chain and the perennial philosophy Wilber describe outlines the basic sequence. Wilber himself uses this approach in his description of the levels of development. In the neuropsychological tradition, Pierre Janet and Hughlings Jackson described functional levels in the brain that reflect levels of human development. Jackson had a strong influence on our thinking (and was a key foundation of Dąbrowski's approach). More recently, Paul MacLean has described this approach in his model of the triune brain. He suggests three basic brain divisions, a reptile, a mammalian and a primate level. These three levels work together in the modern human brain. In the biological tradition, the classical sequence is described by people like Spencer, Darwin, Wilson, Mayr and Bailey. These descriptions suggest that higher levels are newer and control lower, older levels. Higher levels are more volitional and less automatic (less reflexive). Human development is seen as the height of all development, involving thinking, language, Spirituality, consciousness and reason. It is reason and cognition that really separate us from our animal lineage and allows us to assume our place at the top of the hierarchy of life. Culture and socialization depend on the cognitive functions being able to control the lower impulses of the lower brains centres that still function within us. Man can overcome his animal nature by thought (the domesticated human as Bailey calls him). In this classical description, emotion is a middle brain function at the mammalian level and is implied in many of man's miseries. Clearly, emotion interferes with reason and behaviour and is to be controlled and overcome. Pure reason totally eclipses emotion. Nervous overexcitability also would reflect a lower level and would be overcome by cognition in the traditional model. Dąbrowski diverted from this by making emotion the single most critical element in advanced development. Man must use cognition with the guidance of emotion to direct him to higher levels. As Bailey (1987) points out, cognition is often used as a tool of the lower impulses and emotions. Dąbrowski saw this but what is more important, he saw that emotion was also the basis of empathy and that cognition had to be directed toward higher ends by empathy. Thus Dąbrowski used and endorses many ideas of the traditional developmental sequence but alters the priorities given to some of its links. At the level of secondary integration, lower impulses and lower emotions (like aggression) are transcended and their energy transformed into positive behaviour and creativity. Higher emotion, especially emotions for others (like love) and empathy are a critical part of our sense of what is right and wrong, of what is higher and lower. Emotions work with cognition and imagination (Dąbrowski's big three), to allow the construction of the hierarchy of values, the very core of the autonomous personality.

Subject Object

Both authors describe the basic levels of SO in similar terms. At the lowest levels, man is basically subject. Other, in fact, the world at large, is a reflection of the self. At the next level, the other is seen and acknowledged as a social role. "You have your job and I have mine." Social interactions are based upon these roles and are characterised by social exchanges. Higher levels of SO involve the appreciation of the other as an autonomous individual and the self as a subject to others. In this recognition, the S can learn to "put himself into the others' shoes and to feel what she feels." The self can also project to see the S as others would see him or her - to see the self as O. This is a very critical feature for the individual as it is the basis of emotional empathy. This is also Dąbrowski's highest description of SO. Wilber goes on to describe at least two higher forms. Next, is a level of SO that blurs their basic properties but both S and O can still be decerned. At the highest levels, S and O disappear into a timeless and spaceless void of ALL. S and O melt into one in a sate of absoluteness.

Stage theory

Both authors can be vague and both use the terms levels and stages interchangeably. Wilber presents his work as a stage theory (Wilber, Engler and Brown, 1986, pp. 4-12). Academically, this puts several restrictions onto Wilber's model. For example, stage theory suggests that one has to start at stage one, that no stages can be skipped, that you can't regress backwards, etc. Dąbrowski is less restrictive and suggests that each of these stage rules may be violated in his model of development.


Wilber and Dąbrowski each describe the experience of looking at life vertically, from a multilevel perspective. As Wilber points out, the view from higher rungs of the ladder is not simply different, the reality of a person's experience of the world changes at higher levels. Vertical comparisons result in conflict over what a person ought to do: when the idea of the higher is grasped, lower level behaviour becomes untenable. These types of conflicts compel an individual to break out of their flatland perceptions and rote choices in favour of higher, more advanced alternatives. Developmental levels show a general sequence or spectrum, arranged vertically (in Dąbrowski's five levels and in Wilber's nine stage holoarchy). Each theory describes how individuals move ahead through the sequence and outlines the potential pathologies that can occur. Dąbrowski presents the idea of individual developmental factors and their role in advanced development. Overexcitability is the most important of these developmental potentials for Dąbrowski. Wilber's theory is strengthened significantly by the addition of this idea. In addition, Dąbrowski presents the idea that growth may require a degree of psychic disintegration and that often, psychoneurotic symptoms may signal a developmental process. The positive role of mental conflict in development is a critical area for further study.

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