I asked Dąbrowski what I should read to give me insight into the foundation of his theory, and he replied, “Plato.” Simply put, Plato described two basic realms of reality differentiated by the accuracy, complexity and richness of what is perceived. The lower realm represents the sensible world, and the higher, the intelligible realm of the eternal Forms. These two qualitatively different views of reality are analogous to Dąbrowski’s outline of personality development. Dąbrowski described five levels spanning two fundamental views of reality: the unilevel and multilevel. Levels I and II pertain to unilevel experience while levels III to V represent the multilevel. In this instalment we will review the basis of this hierarchy of development.
At Plato’s lowest levels (Plato described four levels in total) we have the perception of the visible world as it appears—images of things we see and imagine. Images are mere reflections or “shadows” of reality, just as a painting is an imitation of some object. As the original objects are generally unavailable to us, we rely on images and reproductions of the original—the painting—to inform our opinions. Our perception of these images is fraught with inaccuracies but comes to inform our beliefs.
Plato’s highest levels describe the intelligible world, the realm of knowledge and the world of eternal forms. We can know the truth about things (objects) through thinking and understanding—through reason and debate. However, to really know a truth, one needs to discover it for oneself and to understand why it is true. In this way, the philosopher, mathematician and scientist can use thought to learn about reality.
Plato did not believe that humans could perfectly capture the highest level of reality where pure metaphysical forms exist apart from us as the nonmaterial essence of reality. For example, in its pure form, the Pythagorean theorem describes the relationship between the sides of a right triangle and exists theoretically as a perfect representation of a triangle. However, in the real world, one can never capture the perfection of a form. No matter how meticulously one draws the triangle in accordance with the theorem, this representation will always be slightly imperfect and flawed compared with its idealized metaphysical form. Likewise, a tree in the forest will never match the perfection of the ideal tree in its metaphysical form. In addition, our representations will always be relative because each of us will draw a slightly different triangle or has a slightly different perception of the tree in the forest. (For discussions of the above issues, see Pappas (2020) and Price (2019).)
As we will see, Dąbrowski’s descriptions of unilevel and multilevel reality mirror Plato’s presentation of the two realms of reality.
An early example of psychological levels of reality was presented by Pierre Janet. At the lowest level are “useless muscular movements,” followed by our emotions at the next level (see van der Hart & Friedman, 1989). At the third level are functions of imagination, including abstract reasoning, fantasy and daydreaming. At the second level we have habitual activities—such as riding a bike. At the highest level, Janet described what he called the reality function. The reality function “plays a synthesizing part in adapting the individual to reality” and creating a healthy relationship to the environment (Dąbrowski, 1964, p. 104). Dąbrowski (who attended lectures by Janet) considered but rejected Janet’s view of the reality function, saying that one’s reality function fundamentally changes as one develops from the unilevel to multilevel perception of reality.
Finally, Dąbrowski was heavily influenced by the evolutionary and hierarchical theory of the nervous system presented by John Hughlings-Jackson. In Hughlings-Jackson’s model, higher (and evolutionarily newer) structures in the brain inhibit and control lower structures. Higher structures are more complex, more volitional, and more plastic but are less organized and more vulnerable than lower levels. Lower levels are very well organized, more automatic, simpler and relatively invulnerable. Hughlings-Jackson believed that disorders of the higher levels (like psychoneuroses) lead to a disinhibition of the lower levels and represent an involution of function. Dąbrowski disagreed, saying that a loosening of the organization of the higher levels creates an opportunity for the individual to volitionally direct a reorganization, a rebuilding and a re-creation of a new and higher level of psychological functioning. Dąbrowski interpreted the occasional and partial disintegration of the higher levels of psychological function, and the psychoneuroses that result, as necessary for growth.
Dąbrowski’s Unilevel Experience of Reality
Dąbrowski described two fundamental and qualitatively different experiences of reality: the unilevel and the multilevel. In the hierarchy of levels, primary integration is the first level, representing the average person living everyday life. As mentioned at the beginning, this level represents the unilevel experience of life. Dąbrowski uses the term unilevel to capture the idea that life here is lived on one basic level and experienced horizontally: There is no sense of the vertical higher versus lower. In Dąbrowski’s theory, individuals at the unilevel do not possess strong developmental potential and their psychological functions are shaped and influenced by their genetics and social environment (respectively, factors one and two—terms I describe in a previous newsletter article). Individuals are driven by ego and by social goals. Values are extrinsic and are simply incorporated from one’s social environment.
Dąbrowski’s general description of unilevel reality is not unique. Several other authors have described relationships to reality similar to Dąbrowski’s unilevel state. For example, in moral development this represents Lawrence Kohlberg’s first and second levels: preconventional and conventional. Preconventional includes stage one: Behave to avoid punishment. It also includes stage two: If I behave, “What’s in it for me?” The conventional level contains the third stage: The good-boy/good-girl orientation, driven by the need for social approval and rewards obtained by being “nice.” Stage four involves robotically obeying authority and laws.
Reflecting a malaise of the West, Ken Wilber describes “flatland” where people (flatlanders) have a shallow and flat relationship to the material world, without any depth (although, these relationships can be complex). Here is Wilber’s (2001) analysis:
Instead of an infinite above, the West pitched its attention to an infinite ahead. The vertical dimension of depth/height was ditched in favor of a horizontal expansion, an emphasis not on depth but on span – and the standard God of the modern Western world was set. (p. 562)
For Wilber, and reflecting Dąbrowski’s unilevelness, flatland is the gross relationship to reality governed by our senses and played out through our everyday behavior and social actions (see also Slaughter, 1998).
The second level described by Dąbrowski is unilevel disintegration: the disintegration of our primary integration into a series of competing horizontal choices, representing the same equivalent values and existing on the same level. With nothing to differentiate these alternatives, the individual experiences horizontal conflicts—should I turn left or right? The individual is often in crisis and chaos, feeling ambivalent. It makes no difference if I turn left or right, and feeling ambitendencies—one minute I think I should turn left, the next minute I think I should turn right. This level of disintegration is often associated with high levels of stress and the feeling that one is trapped: No matter what one does there is no solution—real solutions require movement up to higher levels—from is to ought.
Dąbrowski describes this disintegration as a brief transitional period because the loss of one’s normal social supports is felt intensely. One often feels the need to flee back to the safety of integration or one feels like one is losing one’s mind. Suicide is a high risk during this experience. “Prolonged states of unilevel disintegration end either in a reintegration at the former primitive level or in suicidal tendencies, or in a psychosis” (Dąbrowski, 1970, p. 135).
In summary, in his theory of positive disintegration, Dąbrowski placed the average individual within unilevel reality. With unexceptional levels of developmental potential, the average person may occasionally slip into unilevel disintegration but, generally, reintegrates back to the safety of primary integration. Those with strong positive developmental potential will generally push forward through unilevel disintegration into the experience of multilevel reality. This qualitative leap from unilevel to multilevel reality represents the pathway to advanced personality development.
With this introduction as a foundation, in the next column we will explore Dąbrowski’s higher levels, representing the possibilities of multilevel reality.
Dąbrowski, K. (with Kawczak, A., & Piechowski, M. M.). (1970). Mental growth through positive disintegration. Gryf Publications.
Heim, G., & Bühler, K.-E. (2006). Psychological trauma and fixed ideas in Pierre Janet’s conception of dissociative disorders. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 60(2), 111–129. Doi: 10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2006.60.2.111
Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory Into Practice, 16(2), 53–59. Doi: 10.1080/00405847709542675
Pappas, N. (2020). Plato’s aesthetics. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Price, C. (2019, June 19). Plato, opinions and the statues of Daedalus. OpenLearn – Open University.
Slaughter, R. A. (1998). Transcending flatland: Implications of Ken Wilber’s meta-narrative for futures studies. Futures, 30(6), 519–533. Doi: 10.1016/S0016-3287(98)00056-1
Taylor, J. (Ed.). (1958). Selected writings of John Hughlings Jackson (2 vols.). Basic.
Van der Hart, O., & Friedman, B. (1989). A reader’s guide to Pierre Janet on dissociation: A neglected intellectual heritage. Dissociation: Progress in the Dissociative Disorders, 2(1), 3–16.
Wilber, K. (2001). Sex, ecology, spirituality: The spirit of evolution (2nd rev. ed.). Shambhala.