Both The Atman Project (1980) and Up From Eden (1981) represented a major new phase in Ken’s work—the shift to Wilber-2, marked by a transition away from the retro-romantic idealization of the past and toward a new evolutionary view of increasing goodness and wholeness. Ken describes this period as one of the most difficult theoretical transitions he has ever made in his entire career, not only because it initially seemed to flip some of his earlier work on its head, but also because it cut against the prevailing view of human history people had at the time. This view was shared not only by the religious, but also by academics and anthropologists who would often glorify primitive cultures and portray them as idealized “noble savages” who eschewed warfare and lived in perfect balance with nature. In other words, that we are born in an enlightened state, then lose that state somewhere along the way, and then have to work to get back to our original state of enlightened purity.
But when Ken began taking a closer look at the anthropological data, he knew something was wrong with this reading of history. Looking at both cultural and individual development, it became clear that we do not begin our lives in some integrated state, only to lose that integration as we grow. Rather, Ken saw that we begin our development in a state of pre-differentiated fusion or absorption with the environment, unable to distinguish where we end and where the rest of the world begins. We then begin to differentiate ourselves from our surroundings, dropping boundaries between self and other, inside and outside, mind and body, and so on.
This stage of differentiation was typically seen as the cause of all our sin and suffering—we ate the apple from the Tree of knowledge, learned to discern good from evil, and promptly got ourselves banned from a mythic Paradise. But according to this new evolutionary view, eating the apple was not a step down; it was a step up from Eden—a transition from the pre-differentiated fusion of the animal mind to the differentiated self-awareness, self-reflection, and capacity for choice that defines the human spirit, and only then to a state of genuine integration with the world and with nature—a true Enlightenment.
As Herman Hesse once wrote, “The way to innocence, to the uncreated and to God leads on, not back to the wolf or to the child, but ever further into sin, ever deeper into human life.” The goal of enlightenment is not to regress or go backward in order to return to some primordial lost paradise, as the retro-romantics believed. Rather, we must continue forward through separation and discernment and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous manifestation before we can ever achieve a state of seamless integration with all things.
The Pre/Trans Fallacy
Equipped with this new evolutionary understanding, Ken noticed a core confusion that made it very difficult to discern between the lower stages and the higher stages. Trans-rational mystical experiences were often being dismissed as pre-rational fantasy, postmodern values were being erroneously projected onto pre-modern cultures, and pre-modern impulsiveness and hedonism were being celebrated by the postmodern counterculture. Rather than viewing psychology as a developmental process running from pre-rational to rational to trans-rational (or pre-differentiated fusion to differentiation to post-differentiated integration), a person was seen as being either rational or not—resulting in the trans-rational baby getting thrown out with the pre-rational bathwater.
This misconception between “pre-” and “trans-” became known as the pre/trans fallacy, one of Ken’s most popular and profound theoretical contributions, and one that continues to help us make sense of many of the central conflicts and confusions running through Western psychology and academia.
The pre/trans fallacy actually formed one of the major fault lines between two of modern psychology’s greatest founders, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, both of whom stood on opposite sides of this fallacy—Freud would reduce spiritual states to a resurrection of infantile feelings, while Jung would elevate pre-rational mythology to trans-rational glory. The pre/trans fallacy allows us to put the pieces together into a more comprehensive whole, to liberate and integrate the genuine insight offered by these two pioneers, and to detangle their brilliance from the misunderstandings that were so rampant before this developmental view finally emerged.
This reconciliation of seemingly irreconcilable or incompatible ideas is perhaps the defining characteristic of Ken’s entire career and philosophy: finding the patterns that connect, uniting seemingly disparate theories, transcending and including the greatest minds of history into a single integrated model of life, the universe, and everything—a model that would continue to become more inclusive, more comprehensive, and more elegant with each and every step.
From the Ken Wilber Biography Series
Written by Corey deVos
About Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.