John Rowan: Levels of Consciousness (Walsby, Wilber, Beck & Cowan, etc)

Harold Walsby (1947) was a proponent of the idea that we all live on some level of consciousness, which he called an ideology. This idea of levels already existed, of course, in the ideas of Piaget (1977), Maslow (1987) and others. Walsby’s main contribution was to see these levels as essentially political. His other great contribution, not taken up or understood by any of the people who followed, such as Wilber (2000) or Beck & Cowan (1996), was to see that on a social scale, there could be an interaction between different levels which was profoundly limiting.

If, for instance, within a mass group there arises a comparatively strong, critical faction, (composed of a number of individuals whose ties with the group have weakened) which threatens the group with dissension and disruption, the mass suggestion will increase in strength, volume, intensity and violence, until the former condition of mass conformity is again restored. (Walsby 1947, p.86)

If this is true, what it means is that, far from it being the case that all can rise to the highest levels of consciousness, the proportions of people at the various levels will be fairly constant. This of course goes against the notions of equality and mass improvement which are so prevalent today. It is quite amusing, in fact, to see that even very sophisticated thinkers like Ken Wilber can believe in the raising of consciousness on a mass scale.

It is, of course, a real advance in thinking to appreciate the fact that people live on different levels of consciousness, and that individuals can migrate from one level to another. This is common to all the theories of levels which are known to me. Some of them are well researched, as for example in the work of Kohlberg (1981), Loevinger (1976) and Cook-Greuter (1994). But this argument is different. It works on the level of great units of population, rather than on the individual level which is so common elsewhere. In the terms made popular by Wilber (2006), it is about the lower right quadrant (society in general) rather than just the upper left quadrant, which is about individual consciousness.

How could we demonstrate the truth or otherwise of such an assertion? I really have no idea. Maybe someone out there has the answer?

John Rowan May 2011