The Absurdity of Abstract Theories

I recently came across a “theory” (and I use that term loosely) called Spiral Dynamics. Strangely enough, it was included in a discussion about The Cloud of Unknowing, which is a book about contemplation.


I wound up following several links about this developmental explanation of systems, businesses and even the personal self. Let’s just say, it made me dizzy. People dedicated much of their life’s work to this model, but I didn’t find it offering anything innovative.


One critic wrote that it was a rip-off of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Another expose points out that it gives the illusion that people can become “superior beings” if they buy into this business model. A third critic panned the theory because it “contradicts physics and biology, and the proponents try to give the impression of it being science-based, and do not accept the scientific method.”





Given my academic background, I found the theory rather useless, particularly since it led to more confusion than illumination. What is interesting is that although it is a macro theory, it’s used to explain individual life stages. You really can’t employ a macro theory to individuals without empirical evidence. This is why I was surprised to see it referred to in a discussion about The Cloud of Unknowing.


We might describe eras in terms of this stage or that, but we fail to realize that these eras are not linear, but circular. It also assumes that all societies are operating at the same level. They are not.


Some societies and nations are just barely getting by without adequate food or water. To talk to them about the need for self-actualization would be ridiculous. Give them food and water.


Spiral Dynamics has also been applied at the business level, suggesting that as a business grows, it evolves into a self-actualized organization that serves its employees. Hmm. So where is Blockbuster Video on that spectrum?


When a theory tries to explain everything, it honestly explains nothing. Unfortunately, we seem to like touting abstract ideas and phrases without fully understanding how they can be applied to practical situations. They might make us sound intellectual, which might cause a dull mind to buy into what we’re selling. Then again, maybe that’s the point.


In sum, before we begin dropping names and theories, perhaps we might look a little more closely at them. Are they really applicable to everyone’s lives, or do they only speak to a specific few?


And ultimately, do they help us understand one another and ourselves?

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