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The Value of Theoretical Models & Conceptual Maps

Submitted by on May 24, 2009 – 1:21 pm 112 views No Comment

What is the true benefit and practical application of uber theories like Integral and Spiral Dynamics?

I’ve been thinking about this topic recently, and there were a few Twitter conversations (tweets) yesterday that prompted me too dig deeper:

@ericschiller: How useful are models like spiral dynamics at helping us grow? Or do they just show us the path, but not the steps?

@ericblue: @ericschiller I’ve thought about that quite a bit. the models are helpful in ‘showing the path’, or giving you a flashlight in the cave.

@ericblue: @ericschiller I’ve been thinking of ways to balance theoretical (top-heavy conceptual models) w/ pragmatic use. How can you apply in life.

@NeillGibson: @ericschiller @ericblue interesting link on spiral dynamics = Rich Carlson’s critique of Integral Theory http://bit.ly/25Syv

@ericblue: @NeillGibson @ericschiller Good critique of SD, Integral & theories in general @ http://tinyurl.com/puser8 (was my 1st intro to Integral)

One very interesting point that came from my last link (Tim Boucher‘s critique of Ken wilber back in 2005) was the following:

Who needs theories, anyways?

“My first and probably biggest question about this book and Wilber’s work in general is: Why on earth do we need a Theory of Everything? Life already gives us the everything, so what’s the use in having a theory about everything? Doesn’t the extra layer of theory add also a layer of distance, a separation between us and the everything? Do I need a theory about how locomotion works into the grand scheme of the universe in order to run across a field in spring-time with a dog? Do I need to know the biological mechanisms that control love, sex and attraction to be totally captivated by the sleeping face of the woman I’m in love with? I guess I’m beginning to feel less and less interested in theory for it’s own sake. I find myself drawn increasingly to the approach that fields like Neuro-Linguistic Programming take; they say, “we don’t have a theory” and instead just focus on what works and what doesn’t.”

This is a very good point.

Personally speaking, I’m a huge fan of both Integral and Spiral Dynamics.  I’m drawn to ‘theory of everything’ models for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, I like the complexity (the intellectual challange) and the simplicity (how does everything work together) at the same time.  One challenge though with all these models is that they, of course, don’t truely represent reality as it is.  You know, the age old cliche of ‘the map is not the territory’.

I feel in many ways, after much reading and research, that I’m cognitively starting to ‘get it’.  And, while I’m really starting to grok some of these models I’m recognizing (as much as I can) where I’m at on the developmental path (stages, lines, spiral, etc.).  Like many predominantly left-brained (I don’t always like that term, but let’s just say analytical) people that are drawn to ‘conceptual cartography’ I’ve observed that my cognitive/intellectual line of development might be slighly ahead of other areas.

So, these theories seem to work great for enhancing cognitive lines, but what about emotional, spiritual, moral and others?  As much as I love theories, and I am predominantly an idealist, I also have a very down to earth side.  I’ve recognized that in order to be truely integral you need to balance theory with some sort of practice and application.  It seems that pragmatism and practicality are the answer.  I think there is something to be said about Praxis: the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted or practiced.  As William James said, “What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”.

What does this mean about theories?  You could argue that they might be a ‘cognitive burden’, are intellectually top-heavy, a barrier to entry, and a labeling mechanism.  Should they be tossed aside?  While looking for some answers to this question, I stumbled across a passage in ‘Integral Spirituality‘ by Ken Wilber pg. 38:

“…. you can sit on your meditation mat for decades, and you will NEVER see anything resembling the stages of Spiral Dynamics.  And you can study Spiral Dynamics till the cows come home, and you will NEVER have a satori.  And the integral point is, if you don’t include both, you will likely never understand human beings or their relation to Reality, divine or otherwise.”

I think this explanation is practical and makes a lot of sense.  All of these complex maps and conceptual models serve a very important purpose.  Not only do they help point out where YOU are at on a developmental path (raising consciousness and pushing towards integration), they can also help you understand and effectively adopt the perspective of OTHERS (enabling empathy and compassion).  After all, how can you take somebody else’s point of view without fully considering their life situation, values,  wants/needs/desires, belief system, and stage of development?

For good introductions/summaries of both Integral Philosophy & Spiral Dynamics check out:

Integral Vision Mind Maps

Spiral Dynamics Mind Map


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