Sex, Ecology, Spirituality—Concepts of Hierarchy, Heterarchy, Holarchy

This is the second post which summarizes the ideas presented in the first chapter “The Web of Life” of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, the philosophical work by Ken Wilber that inspired Lana Wachowski, the co-director with her brother Andy of such films as The Matrix Trilogy, V for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas. I read an article in the New York Review of Books that reminded me that Lana Wachowski has been influenced by the philosopher Ken Wilber. Ken Wilber stands in relationship to Lana Wachowski as her philosophical muse in the same way that Joseph Campbell was to George Lucas, who based Star Wars on the “monomyth” described in The Hero of A Thousand Faces. I was inspired by this connection as mentioned in the NY Review of Books to start reading the book, and decided to take some notes of some key passages as I go through it.

1. Summary of the The Web of Life and the Great Chain of Being

Before I summarize the three concepts mentioned in the title of the post, let me situate how they fit into the narrative of the chapter. As mentioned in the last post, the first half of the chapter describes the modern ecological meme of the “Web of Life”, and how it is related to its philosophical forerunner in the Middle Ages called the Great Chain of Being.

The intellectual history of this relationship shows three main overall stages, the medieval or pre-modern synthesis of the Great Chain of Being, the break-up of that synthesis with the rise of modern science, and the new synthesis that emerged during the latter part of the 20th century under the general meme of The Web of Life.

2. The Concept of Hierarchy falls on Politically Correct times

Many of the systems theorists that were responsible to contributing to the “new synthesis” mentioned above (where physical systems or the physiosphere also participates in “evolution” along with living systems or the biosphere) use the concept of hierarchy.

To illustrate their use of this concept, let me give an example from the “old synthesis”, the Great Chain of Being.

If you will notice the concentric circles, it’s not really a Chain of Being, as it is a Nest of Being. That is because the properties that are in the physiosphere are also in the biosphere, but the biosphere has emergent properties such as reproduction that are not in the physiosphere. This was recognized by Aristotle by his concepts of

  • plants possessing a “vegetative soul”, which meant they were capable of reproduction and growth,
  • animals possessing a vegetative soul plus a “sensitive soul” which meant they were also capable of mobility and sensation, and
  • humans possessing a vegetative soul, a sensitive soul, and a “rational soul” which meant they were also capable of thought and behavior

However, hierarchy became what I can refer to as “politically incorrect” in some academic circles because it seemed to imply the “higher” level did not transcend the “lower” level, but rather it somehow oppressed it. To give an example from literature, Harold Bloom, the celebrated literary critic and author of The Western Canon, said that many literary academics decried the very idea of their being a list of the “best books of Western Literature” because they implied that it was a tool of social and economic oppression, having been written by DWEMs (Dead White European Males) who were among the class of people that have historically carried out this oppression. He referred to this school of thought as part of the politically correct movement he calls “The School of Resentment”.

3. Heterarchy—an alternative to Hierarchy

The champions of The School of Resentment posit an egalitarian or “equalitarian” view where at best, more women and minority writers are included in The Western Canon, or better, if the Western Canon were gotten rid of altogether. Lewis Carroll satirized this egalitarian view with his character of the Dodo who declared after announcing a competition: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

The philosophical problem according to Ken Wilber is that there is a difference between a natural hierarchy, where the higher levels occur naturally because of the evolution of emergent properties, and the pathological case of a “dominator hierarchy”, where the higher level tries to oppress the lower level. By trying to get rid of all hierarchies, the normal or healthy ones as well as the unhealthy or pathological ones, the egalitarians are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Their alternative is that of heterarchy, which is governance by the group, with essentially no leaders.

Ken Wilber says that a group that consists of parts, but no whole that encompasses them, is really what he calls a “heap”, because there is really no connection between the parts. Indeed, according to the documentary the Century of the Self by Adam Curtis, the communes of the 1960s that tried to live a strictly egalitarian lifestyle with no leaders all fell apart within a few years after their founding.

4. Hierarchy = Holarchy

Since each circle in the Great Chain of Being (except the physiosphere) has a circle or part within it, each can be considered a whole. But each can also be considered parts of larger wholes. This nested series of circles where each circle is both a part and a whole is an example of what Arthur Koesler termed a holon. In reality, the hierarchy that is healthy is actually a holarchy, a term that Ken Wilber coins.

If the parts overcome and destroy the whole, then this is a pathology of heterarchy. If the whole overcomes and destroys the parts within it, then this is a pathology of hierarchy. But a truly well-functioning system will allow for the growth of both the parts and the whole.

The Great Chain of Being and the Web of Life are two philosophical memes which represent a holarchy, and I believe that’s why he presented them in this first chapter before he presented the details of his theory of holons, which is presented in the next chapter.


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