What is Genuinely Integral?

Posted on 4 November 2006

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The contemporary “integral movement” has spawned everything from “integral energy” to “integral naked”. It seems that “integral this” or “integral that” is all the fad, replacing “quantum” as the buzzword of choice. But what do we really mean when we say something is “integral”? The word “integral” originally comes from the Latin, and literally means “intact” or “untouched”. In other words, to be integral is to be unbroken and whole. Similarly, a number that has not been fractured (into a “fraction”) is called a whole number, an “integer”.

Something genuinely integral is primarily a unified whole, and only secondarily composed of parts. A whole is not a mere collection of connected parts, but a unity that can (if we choose) be viewed as having certain distinguishable aspects. A true integration, then, is not the result of merely collecting, categorizing, and correlating different parts. It is a vision that sees deeper than the divisions to a prior purity of wholeness.

The history of physics contains some valuable examples of true integration. Einstein’s unification of matter and energy is an excellent example. According to Einstein’s theory, matter and energy are not distinct substances that are converted into each other, but are different manifestations of a single matter-energy essence. Only with this deeper integral vision is there a real understanding of why or how matter and energy are related or appear to transform into each other: they are actually two aspects of the same thing.

A similar example of integration can be seen in Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. Originally, electricity and magnetism were seen as two distinct force of nature. There were some known correlations between them, and it was acknowledged that both forces needed to be included in a complete picture, but that was not a true integration. The two forces were still viewed as fundamentally distinct. Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, however, changed everything. He provided a genuine integration in which these two forces were recognized as different aspects of a single unified force of electromagnetism. The dichotomy between electric force and magnetic force was recognized to be false, an artifact of our superficial understanding. With the deeper understanding provided by Maxwell’s theory, we can still distinguish electric and magnetic aspects of the electromagnetic force, but we see them as aspects of one force, not as two forces that are being correlated.

An understanding that merely includes different parts of reality, combining and correlating them, is just a first step toward integration. A genuinely integral vision goes deeper, to transcend the very distinction between the parts, to reveal a unity that is truly integral and whole.

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Posted in: Philosophy, Science