Ken Wilber’s AQAL Map and Korzybski’s General Semantics

by Rolf Sattler

One of Korzybski’s best known slogans is “the map is not the territory,” and, more specifically, “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness” (Korzybski 1958, p. 58). Ken Wilber agrees and therefore has often stressed that his AQAL map is just a map and not the territory to which it refers: “AQAL or IOS [Integral Operating System] itself is just a map, nothing more. It is not the territory” (Wilber 2007, p. 213). However, Ken Wilber insists that AQAL, his integral map, “is the most complete and accurate map we have at this time” (ibid., p. 18). But as I have pointed out in my essay on Ken Wilber's AQAL Dogma, other maps have been proposed that at least in some respects appear to surpass the AQAL map. For example, Thomas J. McFarlane’s (2004) Mathematical Mandala (the Integral Sphere) and the Dynamic Mandala I proposed in my book, although less worked out in detail, appear more comprehensive than Wilber’s AQAL map. With regard to human development, the ADAPT model by Hugh and Amalia Kaye Martin (2010) appears more encompassing than Wilber’s AQAL map.

Another slogan by Korzybski that, although less well known, appears even more fundamental: “Whatever you might say the object “is”, well it is not” (Korzybski 2010, p. 19), or simply: Whatever you say it is, it isn’t. The non-identity between what we say it is and what it actually is has been well demonstrated by Korzybski through his
Structural Differential: anything we can say about an object (or the whole Kosmos) can depict only a relatively small number of characteristics of that object and therefore remains less comprehensive than the object or reality itself (see, for example, Stockdale 1999-2013).

It seems that in many ways Ken Wilber also recognizes this non-identity between what we say about an object (which may be the whole Kosmos) and the object itself, which means that what we say an object "is,” it isn't. However, he does not seem to apply this recognition to the interpretation of the fundamental structure of his AQAL map. This structure, he insists, is a
hierarchy (holarchy), “what we also called a nested hierarchy or actualization hierarchy, which is why holarchies are the backbone of holism” (Wilber 2001, p. 40). And this structure, according to Ken Wilber, is that of the whole Kosmos: “The Kosmos is a series of nests within nests within nests indefinitely” (ibid., p.40).

To repeat: it seems that with regard to the interpretation of the basic hierarchical (holarchical) structure of his AQAL map, Ken Wilber does not apply Korzybski’s general semantics. For if whatever you say it is, it isn’t, then saying that the Kosmos
is hierarchical (holarchical) means that it isn’t. This conclusion appears fundamentally important because if we cannot say that the Kosmos is hierarchical (holarchical), then we can only say that the Kosmos can be seen as hierarchical (holarchical). Consequently, hierarchy (holarchy) becomes a view, a perspective of the Kosmos. And if it is only a view, a perspective, then it does not necessarily exclude other views such as undivided wholeness, Yin/Yang, continuum and network views for which we can also provide evidence (see my essay on Ken Wilber's AQAL Dogma). This entails a switch from “dogmatism” to “tolerance”. Needless to say, Ken Wilber has held “tolerant” views in other ways but not with regard to the most basic structure of the Kosmos, which he claims is holarchical.

Accepting other views besides the hierarchical (holarchical) one would have two major consequences: First, it would lead to a rather fundamental modification of Ken Wilber’s AQAL map (see “Beyond Wilber’s AQAL Map” and “Removing Limitations in Wilber’s AQAL Map” in
Summary and Conclusions in my ebook Wilber’s AQAL Map and Beyond). Second, it could lead to the recognition that instead of looking for the best map (which Ken Wilber claims is his AQAL map), it might be more appropriate to accept different and perhaps even contradictory maps as complementary to each other because they present different perspectives on the Kosmos. This implies the recognition of the general principle of complementarity and its underlying logic, which is a both-and logic that is a healing logic in contrast to the common either-or logic that often leads to conflict or even war (see my essay on Healing Thinking through Both/and Logic, Buddhist and Jain Logic).

It is interesting that in his more recent writings Ken Wilber embraces an Integral Perspectivism, which means that "in the manifest world there are no perceptions, only perspectives" (Wilber 2006, p. 255). However, it seems that he does not apply this perspectivism to what he considers the basic hierarchical (holarchical) structure of the Kosmos, including human existence. It seems that he presupposes this hierarchical (holarchical) structure to determine the altitude (level) of phenomena. This indicates that he does not recognize the basic hierarchy (holarchy) as a perspective, and as a consequence no room is left for other basic non-hierarchical perspectives on manifest reality (Sattler 2008, 2009).


Korzybski, A. 1958. Science and Sanity. 4th edition. The International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company (CD-ROM edition:

Korzybski, A. 2010.
Selections from Science and Sanity. Fort Worth, Texas: The New Non-Aristotelian Library.

Martin, H. and A.K. 2010. How ADAPT improves on Wilber.

McFarlane, T. J. 2004. The Integral Sphere.

Sattler, R. 2008. Wilber’s AQAL Map and Beyond. Summary and Conclusions.

Sattler, R. 2009. Ken Wilber, Holarchy, and Beyond

Sattler, R. Healing Thinking through Both/And Logic, Yin-Yang, Buddhist Logic, and Jain Logic.

Sattler, R. 2013. Ken Wilber’s AQAL Dogma.

Wilber, K. 2001. A Theory of Everything. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber. 2006.
Integral Spirituality. Boston & London: Integral Books.

Wilber, K. 2007.
The Integral Vision. Boston & London: Shambhala.


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