Integral Theory, MHC, and Metamodernism …how they all fit together


MHC level (the hardware)

So along comes this guy at Harvard named Michael Commons, and he creates this theory of complexity called “The Model of Hierarchical Complexity” (MHC). MHC says that there is a universal progression of complexity, or how we see and interact with the world, that ranges from rocks and trees (low complexity), to animals, to humans. And we can test an organism to determine its level of complexity from 0 to 15. (1)

MHC is a theory of development, which means organisms start at zero and increase in complexity during development, finally peaking during adulthood. The level at which an organism peaks is its hardwired MHC limit. Once it has reached this limit, it sees the world at the maximum amount of complexity that it ever will. (2)

An organism’s hardwired MHC level is the basis for all of the stage theory we will talk about next.  You can think of this MHC level as an organism’s “hardware” capability, like whether its brain is like an Apple II, or a 1995 Dell Computer, or a brand new laptop from 2019.

At this point, I’m going to toss aside trees, and dogs, and monkeys, and focus on humans.

Symbol stages (the software)

This “computer” that you have in your brain has to run some software. We’ll call this software “symbol stages”.

Symbol stages, like language, are created by society. There was a time when we didn’t have the english language, and then people came together and created it and now i’m writing this post in english.

Every MHC level, from 0 to 15, has a corresponding symbol stage. This symbol stage is a bunch of symbols and assumptions about the world that describe the world as seen at that level of complexity. It does not tell us what to do, what is right or wrong, or how the world works, it is just the tools we have available to investigate and see the world.

Lets take an example. Suppose we are designing a language. The first thing you need are nouns. So you create a bunch of words to represent things: “tree”, “rock”, “human”, etc. A language with only nouns is a very low complexity language.

But let’s go up one level of complexity and say that those nouns have properties and can do things. Rocks are “hard” or “gray”, or can “crack” or “roll”. We have discovered adjectives and verbs. The world now looks completely different because when we look at a rock, it isn’t the same rock as all of the others, it has different properties and it performs actions.

Going up another level of complexity, we realize that nouns can do things to other things. Rocks can interact with other objects. But you can’t have interaction without differentiation and action, which we established at the previous level. We have now discovered direct and indirect objects. Again, the world looks completely different than at the previous level of complexity. We now have a bunch of different kinds of rocks interacting with each other.

This process can keep going forever. We keep creating higher complexity code, resulting in seeing the world in new and increasingly complex ways.

Someone has to write the symbols in each symbol stage. The symbols are created (really, discovered) by people who are one or more MHC level higher than the symbol stage itself, in the same way that you have to understand what a “rock” is before you can understand what a “gray rock” is.

And this introduces an important idea: the process by which new symbol stages are created uses the principle of “transcend and include“. Each new symbol stage takes the previous symbol stage and adds new things to it to make it more complex. You can’t skip a symbol stage. If you don’t understand words, a class on how to write sentences will be useless.

Once a symbol stage has been created, it is available for anyone to use, but it can only be fully understood by someone at or above its level.

So what happens when we have a human running on a symbol stage that is of a lower complexity than that floating around in the world? Here we introduce two concepts: downward assimilation and scaffolding.

To return to the computer metaphor, people with slow computers run a simpler version of code that can run on their “hardware”. Just like an Apple II can’t run the new Mac operating system, an MHC level 8 human can’t run a symbol stage 9, or 10, and so on.

Downward assimilation that means that, because of our ability to share a common language, you can take a word, symbol, sentence or even an attitude that originated at a higher order of complexity, and still use it. Your use of that symbol will then inevitably follow the logic of your own stage, but it might still bring some meaning with it and you can perhaps partake in conversations that would otherwise lie beyond your own stage of complexity. The complex symbol is assimilated “downwards”…

In societies like Sweden, it is popular, especially among the younger citizens, to speak about things like “norms”, “structures”, and “identity”. However, only a minority tend to be able to actually understand these concepts… Instead, people will recast these concepts at [lower stages]. Norms are taken to mean “social rules that create inequalities” and are always seen as bad. “Structures” become a kind of evil spirits that can be exercised by the sufficiently faithful followers of the left, often with linear interpretations of “feminism” as a good essence that you can apply to anything in order to purify it from evil…

And “identity” comes to mean self-confidence, rather than the interactive construction of a “self”.

The Listening Society, page 206

The second concept, scaffolding, brings some hope to this misery. It is possible, namely, through the means of language and communicative actions, to support someone’s cognitive stage upwards-not just one, but two stages.… Through language and interaction you create a “scaffold” that helps the other person to partake in behaviors that would otherwise be beyond his or her cognitive stage.

The Listening Society, page 207

As an example of this downward assimilation process, imagine you are training a dog to fetch a bone. Dogs are complex enough to be running a symbol stage that recognizes words. If you say “bone”, a dog knows what that is.

But let’s suppose you want to teach a dog to “fetch the bone”. Dogs aren’t complex enough thinkers (generally) to deconstruct a sentence into a noun and a verb. So what a dog trainer has to do is simply associate a “word” with an action.

What the dog ends up doing is learning (in a Pavlovian way), that when he hears the word “Fetchthebone”, it means go get the bone. Word -> action. You have scaffolded a more complex idea such that a dog can operate in a world of nouns and verbs while not really knowing the concept of a verb and a noun.

If you were to say “Throwthebone” instead of “Fetchthebone”, the dog would have no idea what to do, because he is not capable of separating the word “throw” from “bone” and concluding that you want him to “throw” the “bone”. “Throwthebone” is a meaningless word.

The bulk of humans on Earth, in the year 2019, are running code between stages 10 and 13, with those below 13 using downward assimilation to try to understand that greater complexity they otherwise do not see.

This means that, in a civilization that is global and has many, many millions of people inventing behaviors and concepts above [their level], there will simply be so many higher stage actions and concepts around, which can be taught and performed with help, or simply misunderstood.

The Listening Society, page 196

Here are brief descriptions of each of the important symbol stages (paraphrased from the book The Listening Society):

Symbol stage 10

About 30% of the adult population in the US.

People at stage 10 can think in abstractions: not just chairs and tables, but furniture, or “all movable objects in your home”. They can understand abstract ideas like love, justice, animosity, etc.

If you talk politics with a stage 10, they are likely to not be able to see tradeoffs. When confronted with a counter argument, they will simply insist upon having both things. For example, when discussing the minimum wage with a stage 10 you might find that they insist upon paying high wages and also not having anyone lose any jobs. Paying a living wage is good; giving people jobs is good. So they want both things. The idea that you can’t have high pay and also employ everyone doesn’t make sense.

In short, things are “Black and White”.

Symbol stage 11 – Formal

40% of adult humans.

At this stage, people can invent relationships between abstract variables…things like coordinating prices with demand, understanding investment with risks and rewards, and managing relationships via fair rules.

This is the “if this, then that” stage that deals with difficulties with rules.

Those at stage 11 have difficulty thinking about systematic issues like ecology, economy, and social psychology.

If you talk politics with a stage 11, they will tend to stick with certain principles and ideologies: that things go wrong when the government gets involved or that most social change comes through struggle.

Symbol stage 12 – Systematic

20% of the adult population.

Stage 12 thinkers can coordinate several formal rules and understand how they form a larger system. Beyond just thinking in simple rules, they can understand that sometimes the rules give us a counterintuitive result, for example, that free trade might not be beneficial in certain circumstances.

But they are stuck within a system. If they tend to think like an engineer, they see everything as an engineering problem; if they are a sociologist they tend to see everything as a social problem, etc.

When speaking to a Stage 12, they will tend to have less rigid opinions but more rigid arguments. Ask them questions about their opinions: If there are a few rules of thumb and clear conclusions, but much weighing of different factors, they might be stage 12.

Symbol stage 13 – Metasystematic

2% of the adult population.

Stage 13 thinkers can understand how different systems interact with each other and that finding the optimal solution requires aligning all of the different systems. For example, when looking at the economy, they understand that it’s not just supply and demand, but distribution, legal frameworks, social behavior, geography, and demography.

When discussing politics with the stage 13, it may look as though they have no principles, no general way of approaching a problem, and are careful not to suggest that a solution is easy or obvious.

Value Systems

So, we have a person, who is operating at a level of complexity, loaded with a symbol stage. When we let that person loose in society, they interact with other people. And as it happens, when a bunch of people at a certain MHC level get together they tend to create “value systems”.

These value systems are what Integral Theory refers to as “stages”, and what Metamodernism refers to as “meta-memes”.

The key unifying principle is that MHC symbol stages determine how you analyse and understand the world as an individual. What emerges collectively is a bundle of assumptions about how the world works.
what is good or bad and who gets to say, what is important or not important, how do we structure society, and what is the meaning of life. Each Integral stage attempts to give all-encompassing answers to all of these important questions.

Just like symbol stages, these value systems are created (discovered) by society. At the beginning of time, we didn’t have any, and over the tens of thousands of years of human history we have created several major value systems as we get more and more people at a higher MHC level. A value system simply doesn’t exist until society gets large and complex enough, with a critical mass of people running a symbol stage sufficient to collectively create this value system.

“There is something real in the logic of how each [value system] is constructed, and this realness forces the direction of human history. It does not force specific events upon the world, of course, but it does compel society to develop in some directions rather than others…We are speaking of the evolutionary development of memes (nonbiological cultural patterns that spread through communication)-where some memes can only show up in more complex societies. It simply never happened in a tribe of 150 people on a remote island that someone developed modern physics and a poststructuralist critique of literature.”

The Listening Society, page 213

A quick list of these value systems are below (I have written in detail about these Integral value systems in a previous post):

  • Archaic (MHC 7 complexity), Integral “Archaic” or “Beige”
  • Animistic (MHC 8), Integral “Tribal” or “Purple”
  • Faustian (MHC 9), Integral “Warrior” or “Red”
  • Post-Faustian (MHC 10), Integral “Premodern”, “Traditional”, or “Blue”
  • Modern (MHC 11 complexity), Integral “Modern” or “Orange”
  • Postmodern (MHC 12 complexity), Integral “Postmodern” or “Green”
  • Metamodern (MHC 13 complexity), Integral “Integral” or “Yellow”

Combining MHC symbol stages with Integral value systems

So now we have three concepts: MHC hardware level, symbol stages, and value systems. How do these interact with each other?

MHC hardware level is simply a limiting factor. If you aren’t MHC level 10, you can’t run a Post-Faustian symbol stage; you have to run a simplified version of it. Again, if you can only understand words, then you will attempt to understand sentences as really long words.

But then we have these value systems floating around in the world.

What integral gets right about these value systems is that the creation of the value systems operate on the transcend and include principle. You can’t create postmodernism without an existing modernism, because postmodernism is a response to the excesses of modernism. This principle applies to all of them.

What integral gets wrong is that people don’t have to go through every stage in order to arrive at their final one. They will, however, tend to do that, because humans tend to start at a very low symbol stage and load increasingly complex symbol stages as they develop. A human seeing the world through the symbol stage 9 will tend to gravitate toward a value system that reflects that level of complexity. A simpler value system will seem incomplete, and a more complex value system will seem incomprehensible. But it is not uncommon to find people embracing value systems at a higher or lower complexity.

Thinkers of each stage have [a] kind of complexity bias. Complexity bias means that we intuitively prefer forms of reasoning that correspond to our own stage of complexity. Explanations of lower complexity seem crude and simplistic to us, whereas higher stage explanations seem vague or counterintuitive

The Listening Society, page 194

Integral says that one has to go through all of the value systems in order, but using the principle of downward assimilation, I argue that anyone can run any value system that exists in the world; they will just see it at varying levels of complexity.

As an example, someone running symbol stage 10 will tend to view the world in a black-and-white way. There is good and bad, right and wrong. They are not capable of seeing the shades of gray and nuance in the world. This person would be naturally attracted to the premodern or blue value system, because it is the value system you get when you see the world as black-and-white.

However, maybe this person was raised in a family where both parents were postmodern green and they were never exposed to any other value system. In such case, they would run the postmodern/green value system throughout their entire lives, but they would see this value system at various levels of complexity. At symbol stage 10, they would see the values of green (environmentalism, social justice, equality) in a black and white way (as a religion). At symbol stage 11, they would see the same green values but in a more nuanced way, perhaps making rational and scientific arguments. It’s not until they download symbol stage 12 that they will fully comprehend the green idea of “there is no truth”, for example, and really understand the critique of science that postmodernism offers.

In summary

People are limited by a hardware MHC capability, attempt to “load” the most advanced symbol stage that they can run, and prefer value systems that align to their symbol stage complexity. Where there is a mismatch where their symbol stage is at a lower complexity than their value system, they downward assimilate the value system, reducing it to slogans or rules to follow.

The integralists are wrong to suggest that people must pass through each value system in order; that idea only applies the first time when the value system is created. After that, the value system is available for anyone to use.


  1. 15 isn’t the last level, it’s just the last one we’re aware of
  2. There is some discussion and controversy about whether and how much an MHC level can be increased after it has peaked. I’m not going to cover this now.

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About the author

Jeremy Tunnell
By Jeremy Tunnell


I am a startup founder, investor, mentor, and zouk dancer.
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