Date: Sun, 31 Jan 1999


From: Thomas Jordan <>

Subject: [theory, looong] Vision-logic


I'll try to write down what is buzzing in my mind on the topic of vision-logic. It is quite undigested, but if I offer it up in a still rather confused form, maybe you can help me point out just where the confusion is worst. I may sometimes sound as if I am very sure I know what I'm talking about. It is not so, I know I'm threading on treacherous ground, because it is terrain that is only vaguely familiar for me.

What does Ken Wilber write about vision-logic? I couldn't find any section where he is very detailed about what he really includes in the concept. In several books he uses almost identical formulations, and I don't know how many times he has used the same citation from Aurobindo. Anyway, he seems to have shifted the emphasis between 1978, when he wrote The Atman Project, and later books. In the Atman Project (ch 7), Wilber doesn't use the word "vision-logic", but talks quite extensively about "high fantasy" or "vision-image." He talks about it as integration of the primary and the secondary processes (non-verbal imagination and verbal thinking). The authors he cites are a different set in relation to authors cited in later works.

After Atman Project, Wilber seems to have oriented the concept "vision-logic" away from imagination and towards the perspectives developed in cognitive-developmental literature. This literature talks about postformal development in terms of dialectical and systematic reasoning (formal operations=rational thinking; postformal operations=beyond rational thinking). In Eye of Spirit (p. 346, note 23) he writes: "Francis Richards and Michael Commons (1990) have given perhaps the most thorough articulation of this general postformal stage. They see vision-logic as consisting of four substages (systematic, metasystematic, paradigmatic, cross-paradigmatic); I highly recommend their work."

Now, I am familiar with this model (besides, Wilber is sloppy with his references), and I can assure you that the flavour of it is quite radically different from the flavour of the "high fantasy" in the Atman Project. Commons and Richards discuss the development of thinking abilities in terms of ability to handle increasingly complex mental representations. They focus on competence in resolving difficult mental tasks. The model is strictly hierarchical, with a stringent analysis on the type of logic involved. They have developed tests for scoring the level of reasoning for different subjects, these tests look like advanced versions of normal intelligence tests (IQ tests). I'm quite sure at least some of Buddha, Shankara, Lao Tse, Jesus and the others in the gang would fail miserably in those tests. So, now we have two different aspects of vision-logic: one related to integration of thinking and imagination, the other related to increasingly advanced development of rational thinking.

Enter Kaisa Puhakka. How is she talking about vision-logic? I warmly recommend you to read her brilliant chapter in "Ken Wilber in Dialogue", for various reasons. I can't make a summary that captures the subtlety of her play with the topic, but I want to point to her very different emphasis. I can't explain this in clear formulations, so it has to remain obscure for those of you who either don't have the book-learning, or recognize what she is talking about from your own direct experience. Puhakka talks about the gradual shift of emphasis from "thinking" to "seeing" in higher levels of consciousness development. "Seeing" I understand as related to witnessing. The point here is neither development of sophisticated intuitive imagination, nor devilish skills in complex rational reasoning. She is talking about the winding up, or dissolution, of the embeddedness in the subject-object relationship (obscure, eh?). We poor unenlightened usually stand in one corner, and in the other corner is everything that we become aware of: objects in the external world, emotions, thoughts, etc. The transition to "seeing" entails a freeing from being imprisoned in a subject that stands in a certain qualified relationship to all the objects of awareness. When this happens the contents of awareness are free. You can apprehend them without putting labels on them, without immediately having opinions about them, without directly having dedicated feelings in relation to them. It is a form of awareness in which "light touch" is a key quality. Puhakka doesn't equal her "seeing" with vision-logic, but says that "seeing" starts at this stage, and gets more and more clear in each successive transpersonal stage. However, the point here is that Puhakka's emphasis is different from the two aspects of vision-logic mentioned above.

Now I'll try to get some structure out of this.

I suggest that there are three different components to vision-logic. These components are not independent of each other, but neither do they necessarily hold hands in the great walk up the great mountain. Maybe there are even different mountains. I'd characterize the three dimensions in this way:

This dimension focus on reasoning competence. The basic question is how complex mental representations a person can handle. The ghost of Piaget is eerily present in this dimension. Children start understanding that objects have durable characteristics, but can keep only single categories in the mind. Later they learn to construct mental representations of relationships, so they can see how different objects interact with each other. Adults may develop systematic reasoning, ability to mentally represent a complex set of rules (=systems) that regulate the way objects interact with each other. A few can even learn to mentally hold different systems, compare their different principles, and see how each system represent a specific perspective. The perspectives can then be compared with each other (metasystematical reasoning). Wilber says (see citation above) that the systematical, metasystematical, paradigmatic and cross-paradigmatic levels all are sub-stages of vision-logic. Metasystematical reasoning allows freeing from being helplessly embedded in one particular perspective. You can then tolerate and learn from paradoxes and logically incompatible notions. The most used example is the nature of light as being simultaneously particles and waves. Now, the basic ability for metasystematical reasoning doesn't mean its full potential is used. It must be applied to different domains.

— If metasystematical reasoning is applied to your own interior, it opens the door for an organic integration of mind and body, of thinking and feeling. For example, if your rational mind tells you that you ought not to be jealous, and your emotions are screaming bloody murder, you can accept the validity of both systems, and find a balance which accommodates both fairness and feeling. Wilber talks about the centaur in terms of applying metasystematical reasoning abilities to the interior. There are a lot of people who can reason metasystematically, but don't use this skill on their own interior. Very smart, but not integrated.

— If metasystematical reasoning is applied to interpersonal relationships, you develop the ability to understand another person's frame, feelings, concerns, outlook, values on his/her own terms. If we take a look at the list interactions over the last few years, I think we can conclude that most of us have still not exhausted the potential here. It is easy to check if one has this ability. Just summarize what you think another person thinks and feels, and then ask them if they find your description accurate.

— If metasystematical reasoning is applied to cultural contexts you develop awareness of how the culture conditions values, behavioural conventions, communication styles, expectations of appropriate expression of emotions, etc. Most valuable: you start to see how your own worldview bears the marks of the culture you grew up in (see Wilber's discussion of the birth of the membership self in "Up from Eden").

— If metasystematical reasoning is applied to your own interpretive system, you soon realize that you really don't know very much. The natural consequence of this is that you start looking for the limitations of your own frame: your mind becomes reframing. You actively seek out new information, and test how this new information necessitates accommodation of your assumptions, strategies, goals, concerns (Torbert has written very clearly about this. His key concept is "action inquiry", which I find ought to be a key concept of vision-logic as well).

Higher cognitive development usually makes increasing use of non-conceptual symbols. Parables, images, metaphors are found to be far more useful for capturing very subtle and abstract notions than plump concepts. Wilber talks in Atman Project about the pre/trans distinction in dealing with imagination and its products. I see no need to develop this theme more here, I have nothing interesting to say.

This is what Puhakka focusses on (see above). Notice that even though Puhakka's description may sound like she is talking about direct intuitive apprehension, she is actually after something different. The point is not non-conceptual apprehension, but release from the subject-object deadlock.


Now, I think it is obvious that these three aspects of vision-logic do not necessarily walk in step. I believe the disidentification with the subject-object relationship that Puhakka talks about can be realized without having walked all the way through the sequence of systematical - metasystematical - paradigmatic - crossparadigmatic reasoning. Puhakka also presents it as two different modes: "thinking" and "seeing". "Thinking" may evolve separately from "seeing" and vice versa (OK, not from infant level, perhaps :-)). An interesting question is how much cognitive development is necessary for start developing "seeing". And what kind of person results when the cognitive development is below metasystematical, but when "seeing" is highly realized (I'm starting to repeat myself, I think. Tell me if I'm annoying). Actually I'm not sure it is useful to include Puhakka's dimension in the characterization of vision-logic. It may be better thought of as the start of transpersonal cognition, a separate strand from development of thinking.

An additional comment: there is nothing very mysterious about vision-logic. Don't expect it to be a way of direct and magical access to absolute truth. If you believe you can understand how the world works without collecting information about economics, politics, social conditions, cultures, etc., you are simply indulging in wishful thinking and grandiosity.

A final comment. Why do I actually invest so much energy in this? I have thought about this, and I think the reason is that I perceive that a lot of people in the spiritual scene focus only on spiritual realization, and think that all the rest will follow. I'm sure that a well-balanced development requires that sincere attention is devoted to the issues specified under point 1 above. Just because you can feel you're one with the cosmos, there is no guarantee you will get as a bonus the abilities associated with applying metasystematical reasoning to various domains. And I believe those abilities are essential.



PUHAKKA, KAISA (1998) 'Contemplating everything: Wilber's evolutionary theory in dialectical perspective,' in D. Rothberg & S. Kelly (eds.): Ken Wilber in Dialogue, Quest Books.