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The four quadrants

In 1995 Ken Wilber set out for the first time his basic four-quadrant diagram. (1)  'Each quadrant represents a broad category of knowledge and a basic dimension of the world as we perceive it.' (2)

The quadrants did not simply arise from philosophical contemplation. Wilber had indeed closeted himself away for many years to absorb the knowledge and perspectives of a huge array of thinkers: scientific theorists, Eastern and Western philosophers, religious scholars, feminists - anyone whose work contributed to human knowledge. However, he also tried to categorise these perspectives by stacking the various works into piles on the floor according to their approach. After much sorting and resorting this yielded four piles which 'were divided along two axes: inner and outer, singular and plural.' (3)

Another way to think about the division into four quadrants is that the individual and collective axis is about what is personal to an individual and what is shared with others. When it comes to the inner/outer axis this is about what can be easily seen (exterior) and what's hidden from view (interior). For example, we can see an individual's behaviour and body (in minute details given the right procedures and impements) but there is no technology to see a person's innermost thoughts and feelings. Likewise rules and procedures are clearly visible (lower right) but what is going on between people emotionally or the impact of culture (lower left) is not immediately apparent and requires elucidation and interpretation.

This division into these categories reflects everyday experience:  all languages have a distinction between the subjective (I) the intersubjective (we) and the objective (it). The only complicating factor here is that Wilber has divided the objective into the singluar and the collective (ie groups of objects such as systems) - it and its. 

As related pages in this section show this simple model has huge potential to help us understand problems of reductionism and fragmentation and to overcome them as well. It is an inclusive way of thinking which honours all perspectives.


1. Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology and Consciousness, Shambhala, Boston, 1995.

2. Allan Combs, Consciousness Explained Better, Paragon House, USA, 2009, p. 17.

3. As above, p. 17.

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