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Postmodern Psychology and What Comes Next

This article is about postmodern psychology and how to see it in individuals. What is a postmodern individual? What is the psychology of postmodernism? What are the practical markers for identifying it?

We look at how to identify the postmodern mind in ourselves and others and distinguish it from the level of human consciousness that comes after it, which Ken Wilber, Jean Gebser, and others call Integral.

Postmodernism is very active in the developed countries, especially in younger generations, so being able to identify its characteristics is empowering and practical. While Integral is still up-and-coming stage, it’s slowly coming online as the limits of postmodern psychology and thinking become apparent.

Postmodern Psychology and Why We Confuse It With Integral

These two major stages of development – postmodernism and Integral – are right next to one another in the human developmental hierarchy. They may seem similar on the surface, but they’re radically different. Let’s see why.

One key confusion I see is in the language, the catchphrases, of postmodernism and Integral: “holistic”, “integrated”, “conscious”, “cosmic”. People in postconventional stages of development are well versed in these terms. But Postmodern and Integral individuals use and interpret these terms differently. Bear this in mind.

What does a postmodern individual mean by “holistic”, for example? Well, when we’re at the Postmodern stage of development, we’re attuned to the limitations of science and materialism. We’re open to many other forms of truth: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Materialistic, rational explanations of life don’t hit the spot any more.

With this expanded perspective, we see any truth that doesn’t rely on science to be beyond it, to transcend it. We deem it “holistic” it doesn’t fall into the limitations of science and rationality. “Holism” often means “not science”, “not rational”, “not modern”, “not conventional”. It’s not truly whole or inclusive.

Absolutely not. We could well do with professors and scientists developing a postmodern psychology to loosen the shackles of modern science. But the tendency to reject conventional truth becomes a sticking point.

Integral is when we really start becoming holistic. Researchers say that at this stage we view ourselves as participants in multiple interconnecting systems. We see the interdependence of human beings and our environment and the systems we rely on. Integral holism also means including all levels of human consciousness, which postmodern psychology fails to do.

There’s less preference between conventional and postconventional truth. Both are important, and we include both. We also strive to include internal, external, individual and group factors rather than focusing on one or some of them. This is much more whole than postmodern holism!

So there are radical, fundamental differences just in how these two levels approach holism, and this is true for all of the terms I mentioned above. Now let’s drill down and look at more differences between these two stages.

Postmodern Psychology: The Emergence of Postmodernism

Spiral Dynamics pays great attention to the life conditions behind each of the levels of human psychology. In short, it says that each level appears at different times, in different places and in different social circumstances. Let’s use this idea – it’s crucial in this discussion.

Postmodern and Integral have come online at different times in a historical sense. Most thinkers consider the sixties to be the moment when postmodernism spread enough to have a significant impact on the world. This was a time of huge social change, with ground-breaking shifts in attitudes towards race, gender and diversity. That decade also saw the blossoming of the Hippie movement, which tried to tear down the American establishment.

These movements all rubbed up against modern, democratic, free-market society and forced change. This is crucial – for postmodernism to emerge there needs to be modernity. That’s true for societies, and for you as an individual.

Postmodernism emerges once we’ve reached some level of material comfort, maxed out our achievement drives, established our identity, explored our autonomy and scaled the contours of mainstream culture. When the limits of these become clear to us, we can begin to move beyond them.

Integral, on the other hadn, is yet to have its heyday. But many claim that the fragmentation and division of the current culture wars will provide the springboard needed to usher in the Integral age. Wilber notes the “tipping-point” phenomenon: once 10% of a culture reaches a level of development, its values infiltrate the culture, causing seismic change. He claims that the percentage of people at this stage is nearing 10%, and once it reaches that figure, the collective Integral fruit will become ripe.

Integral begins to emerge for us as individuals if and when we become aware of the limits of postmodern. Once we’ve been saturated in our postmodern psychology – relativistic, sensitive, multicultural, postmodern, postconventional and post-rational – for a while, we start sensing that there’s more. We see the biases and contradictions in our thinking and the dysfunctions they cause.

So the actual life conditions underpinning these stages are rather different. And identifying what the salient life conditions are – in yourself, in others, in groups – is a great way to differentiate postmodernism from Integral.

Postmodern Psychology and Perspective-Taking

This is perhaps the defining difference between postmodern psychology and Integral psychology. Postmodernists preach tolerance, acceptance, and love and peace, but they tend to be unable to tolerate those who think differently. They’re prone to fits of rage and anger when faced with a human being who is less than tolerant to all, less than loving. They truly can’t fathom why this happens – all you need is love, right? This can be quite depressing: “where did humanity go wrong? When did we lose our love and togetherness?”

On the other hand, seeing the chaos of the world and the need for reintegration, Integralists take multiple perspectives on reality. They can emphasise with the people that postmodernists loathe.

We may have wildly different life conditions from other people. We may have radically different views from them. But we make a genuine attempt to understand them. There’s less condemnation. That doesn’t mean Integralists are perfectly non-judgemental, open and empathetic. Humans, especially highly developed ones, are an amalgamation of several stages of development, and earlier stages remain accessible to us. But the underlying psychological structure is built on tolerance, multiperspectivalness, and embrace.

So, when a postmodernist uses the word “integral”, they probably mean “half-integral”. Let’s include, include and include some more, but exclude people and views that are non-inclusive because they’re misguided, evil or wrong.

Integral Sees Evolution

This difference is closely related to the previous one. Part of postmodern psychology is the idea that its the best and that everyone needs to adopt it. We create utopian scenarios in our mind of peaceful humanity (see John Lennon’s Imagine for a prime example), then condemn those who don’t have such a utopian view, and lament the state of the world.

A great contribution of postmodernism is the ability to grasp the limitations of the modern worldview and modern life. But we take our criticism too far and strive to tear down the modern world instead of understanding and integrating it.

Integral allows us to see, for the first time in our developmental journey, the existence and validity of other stages. The developmental spiral of others is plain to see – warts and all. And when looking at collective issues, we see the different stages of development fighting and frolicking, doing their best to find solutions they’ll never find. We see the ‘layer cake’ of society – a blender of different levels of development. There’s a sense that all need to be both managed adequately and given their day in the sun, lest we want to see humanity fall over the edge of a cliff.

This spills over into our personal life. We actively try to bring back parts of ourselves we’ve left behind – making shadow work important. We look to see what the most appropriate behaviour is in every situation we find ourselves in – do I need to conform here or go it alone? Do I need to be self-assertive and forceful or soft and empathetic? We seek to build an integrated personality, not just a ‘nice’ personality. More on this in future posts!

Postmodern is Collective-Oriented

A theme that runs through many theories of human development is the individualist-collectivist property: stages of development alternate between collective-oriented (AKA other-oriented) and individual-oriented (AKA me-oriented). The collective-oriented stages tend to rely on the right side of the brain, sacrifice their individual identity for others and adjust themselves to the world.

On the other hand, the me-oriented stages tend to rely on the left side of the brain, look to impose themselves on the world and attempt to adjust the world to their desires. This, of course, happens at ever-increasing levels of love and complexity.

So, while the modern stage is individual-oriented, postmodern, the preceding stage, is collective-oriented, and the following stage, Integral, swings back to individual-oriented.

Remember, postmodernists perceive the world to be a shared habitat for all humanity. We seek to join together with other human beings, dissolve artificial boundaries, and provide everyone with the sense of togetherness they lack. We look to form egalitarian, multicultural groups with like-minded peers. We value warm, friendly interaction, group experiences, sharing, even hugging. Our identity can be threatened by not being accepted or liked by the people we value. This is collective orientation.

On the other hand, Integral is an individual-centred stage. The person experiences their feminine side in the postmodern stage of development and comes out with an urge to express themselves and reimpose their identity. It’s likely we reintegrate old, disowned personality traits. This gives us many more degrees of behaviour freedom than we had at postmodern, where we tried to be warm and friendly 24/7.

Clare Graves beautifully described this Integral individualism: “Express self but not at the expense of others.” We’re more interested in our own goals, desires and viewpoints than those of others, but we have high-quality desires. For example, if we start a business, it’s one that brings us satisfaction, material abundance and an opportunity to express our skills as well as being useful to others, rather than exploiting them. We ourselves come first, but we take others into account too.