The Generalists

Today is the age of the super-specialist. In a technical age, while we get technical wonders, we also get what comes with it: technicians. The age of the generalist is long gone, it seems. That time when people would dive headlong into an endeavor with the healthy attitude of the amateur – now that’s a bad word. Technicians know everything about a very small field, but have little in terms of an understanding of the bigger picture. In an age when problems cross boundaries – both national and mental – this puts us all in peril. But a few thinkers have retained this attitude, and form a small group of what I call generalists. Their work has incredible potential to bridge the expertise of the specialist with the perspective of the generalist.


Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel was a runaway international bestseller and cultural phenomenon. His thesis, that colonialism was the result of an admixture of factors, but was mainly geographical rather than a product of any racial superiority, was both politically correct and explanatorily powerful. It also withstood critiques (from specialists, or course) of geographic determinism among other things. It even had its beginning in the   deceptively complex question of a Papua New Guinean: “Why do white people have so much cargo?” (This referred to the sheer volume of stuff that the West was able to export, and came to be fetishised in “cargo cults” in New Guinea.)

If Guns, Germs and Steel had been Diamond’s one hit wonder, it could be considered a fluke, and he might not be thought of as a true generalist. But Diamond followed with generalist offerings such as Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and The World before Yesterday, which continued his synthesizing prowess. Diamond’s warnings are as relevant as any specialist’s about what needs to be done to avoid a civilizational collapse of our own.


Quinn’s Ishmael was a semi-underground cultural phenomenon. In its essence, it taught a generation of disillusioned seekers that the world isn’t here for us. This seems simple, but the amount of data that Quinn had to sift through in order to reach this conclusion was somewhat staggering.

Early in my own history of internalizing theories, I came across Quinn’s, and even attended retreats on his thought and its applications. The understanding came over me just as Quinn describes in his books – like a mosaic that slowly takes form and gains clarity. An understanding of ecology is here blended with history and social science in a way that only someone like Quinn could do – he was an editor of encyclopedias. Quinn’s generalist thought does for social organization what Diamond’s did for the history of colonization: it gave clarity to its past and the way forward.


The way forward was a central piece of a book it seems I grew up hearing about: Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. A review in 1987 said:

Its reconstruction of our past, present and future is based on neglected (and even suppressed) as well as long-established findings from a wide range of fields, and … this reconstruction differs greatly from traditional views.

The book offered the controversial (at the time) view that there was a “golden age” of gender equity, when gods and goddesses shared the pantheon. This view is firmly established in many fields of endeavor, has in a sense been popularized by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and took a very wide-arching view and a study of many fields to produce.


The founder of Integral theory, Ken Wilber created a map that integrates the major domains of reality: the physical (biology, physics), the social (sociology, anthropology, political science), and what could be called our interior (psychology, religion, philosophy), into a meta-system. And here is where it collides with one of the prevailing approaches of academia: postmodernism. Postmodernism is a view that allows for the simultaneous existence of multiple worldviews, even within an individual. It is suspicious of meta narratives, or grand narratives that claim to be independent of their cultural context.

Because Integral makes this claim to be cross-cultural, it violates postmodernism’s prime directive. And yet Integral sees postmodernism as a high level of consciousness development, and it is this development that makes up the next component of Integral theory.

Ken Wilber

As Wilber wrote of his theory in the Journal of Consciousness Studies:

An extensive data search among various types of developmental and evolutionary sequences yielded a `four quadrant’ model of consciousness and its development (the four quadrants being intentional, behavioural, cultural, and social). Each of these dimensions was found to unfold in a sequence of at least a dozen major stages or levels. Combining the four quadrants with the dozen or so major levels in each quadrant yields an integral theory of consciousness that is quite comprehensive in its nature and scope. This model is used to indicate how a general synthesis and integration of twelve of the most influential schools of consciousness studies can be effected, and to highlight some of the most significant areas of future research. The conclusion is that an `all-quadrant, all-level’ approach is the minimum degree of sophistication that we need into order to secure anything resembling a genuinely integral theory of consciousness.


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