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Second Response
to Allan Combs

Ken Wilber

Recently Ken Wilber posted some parts of the end notes of his yet to be published Integral Psychology concerning the work of Allan Combs on this website, under the title Response to Allan Combs. Combs is author of The Radiance of Being (1995), a book about consciousness and the evolutionary theories of Gebser, Wilber, Aurobindo and others. Combs responded to this posting with his Open Reply to Ken Wilber. Now Wilber aswers this reply with the following remarks. "My only major complaint about Combs' response is that he assures his readers that he easily understands my model, but then demonstrates quite clearly that he does not. And not just in little details, but in the major thrust of much of my recent theorizing." (FV)

When I recently read The Radiance of Being, I emailed Allan Combs about how much I enjoyed it. (Combs laments the fact that I didn't respond to the book in manuscript form, but this is not often possible for me.) I told Allan, quite honestly, that it was a wonderful book, and how great it was to have a fresh voice in the transpersonal field. I also told him that if there was anything I could to do help the book or any of his projects, please don't hesitate to contact me. Combs responded, "What a kind and thoughtful letter. I do indeed feel the warmth of it, and also hope we can stay in a dialogue of friendship. Just catching up on some quick business tonight, so will get back to you again. Warmest—Allan."

The reason I had sent Allan that email, and a few others equally genial, was, as I indicated in one of them, I didn't want our theoretical differences to obscure the many points of agreement and common conclusions that we shared. I also wanted to lend him any support that I could, and I told him this. Despite the unpleasant tone in Allan's response, I find much of his alternative model fresh and inviting, and there is certainly plenty of room for alternative models in this field. The fact that I vigorously defend my own does not, as Allan supposes, mean that I despise others.

My only major complaint about Combs' response is that he assures his readers that he easily understands my model, but then demonstrates quite clearly that he does not. And not just in little details, but in the major thrust of much of my recent theorizing. It's very simple to demonstrate this, so I will be brief.

In his book, The Radiance of Being (which I recommend as a wonderful approach to the evolution of consciousness), and in certain writings posted on the Web, one of the major criticisms Combs has had of my work is that it does not take into account the difference between states, structures, and planes. Combs is very emphatic about this inadequacy in my model. And he does so while presenting himself as an authority on my work ("Wilber's own ideas are not really very complex or difficult to understand…"). In these critiques, Combs rarely quotes me directly when he is criticizing my position; he always gives his interpretation of what I say, and his interpretation is often palpably incorrect.

Thus, Combs assures his readers that my model does not possess (or it confuses) states, structures, and planes, and this is one of his major criticisms. But, as I pointed out in a series of endnotes in the forthcoming Integral Psychology (posted on this site), my model most definitely possesses those three variables, and it has since 1983. Major use is made of those variables in several books and numerous articles, variables which Combs has authoritatively assured his readers do not exist.

Allan's second major criticism was that, since I do not differentiate states, structures, and planes, I therefore confuse Gebser's structures with Vedanta planes (or states). Again this is a major mistake. The Vedanta planes are levels of reality/consciousness (as explained in the endnotes), and Gebser's structures are transitional structures associated with lower to intermediate levels of consciousness. Combs completely ignores this distinction, and then attacks me for not making it.

Combs' last major criticism in Radiance was that because I don't differentiate states and structures, all my model has is "a one-dimensional evolutionary map of human experience"—whereas, as clearly documented in the endnotes, my model is actually "three-dimensional" as Allan generally uses that term—namely, it recognizes states, structures, and realms (so that in my model, e.g., a person at virtually any stage/structure of growth can have an altered state or peak experience of a transpersonal realm: thus, three-dimensional).

When Allan recently read these endnotes (posted on this site), he apparently realized that he had badly misrepresented my work in terms of its very central features, and thus in his response he ignores that issue. I repeat what I said in the endnotes: I do not in any way believe Combs borrowed this "three-dimensional" model from me. In fact, I find much of his version of this model to be fresh, novel, and stimulating. Even though we still have fundamental differences as to the nature of each of those variables, I have learned much from Combs' presentation, and it has helped me to clarify my own thoughts.

But Combs seems to imply that I am accusing him of plagiarism. On the contrary, I believe, rather, that Combs did not read the many works in which I outlined my own version of structures, states, and realms/planes. I have no problem with Allan not reading those works. I am dismayed that he presents himself as something of an authority on my work, and tells his readers exactly what I am saying, when clearly he is ill-informed on these major and central issues.

Accordingly, Combs in his response backtracks and changes course abruptly. He now claims that "contrary to Ken Wilber's remarks in his forthcoming Integral Psychology, the essential difference between his approach…and mine is that his emphasizes structure while mine emphasizes process. In line with this, his is based on abstract mappings while mine is based on immediate subjective experience." Again, he doesn't quote me directly, he gives his interpretation. So let's quote me directly, from a work Allan references in Radiance: "Thus, for example, when I use formop [a formal operational structure], I mean not only that structure described in an exterior fashion, but also, and especially, the interior lived experience and actual awareness that occurs within that structure, which is why it is listed on the Upper Left quadrant"—the Upper Left quadrant being (as readers of my work know) the home of lived experience, first person phenomenal accounts, immediate awareness, direct experience, and so on—all the rich "interior weather" that Allan so wonderfully describes.

Again, it is not that I mind Allan presenting these ideas; it is that he seems to find it necessary to subtract them from me before he does so. Both Allan and I start with this incredibly rich interior weather, and we both seek to formulate maps and models that are useful in furthering an understanding of that space. Allan has drawn principally (but not exclusively) on physical complexity theory. I have presented an "all-level, all-quadrant" model that situates complexity theory as adequate only for the Lower Right quadrant, and supplements that with many other disciplines drawn from the other quadrants, such as hermeneutics, neostructuralism, phenomenology, meditative disciplines, and so on. (Combs also finds value in many of these approaches, which is why I feel we share much common ground.) In both Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and "An Integral Theory of Consciousness," I point to The Embodied Mind, by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, as a prime example of the type of methodology I have in mind for the study of this interior weather, and it includes, among other things, the direct and immediate phenomenological apprehension of the living flow of experience. That is what my model is ultimately based on, not a bunch of abstract maps and structures, as Combs assures us.

When it comes to the models and maps that both Combs and I use, I am puzzled as to why Combs makes such a sharp distinction between "structures" and "process," because in the literature, structures are almost always described as "recurring patterns of dynamical processes" (the "structure" part refers to the pattern that the processes display, following their autopoietic regime, codon, agency, attractor, etc.). That is how I define structure (or holon), and in fact, that is how Combs also defines it in his response ("process structures" which are of the "same general type as states" which are "resilient patterns"). Thus, when Combs uses "structures," they are nice and resilient and patterned, and when I use them, they are some sort of ghastly beasts meant to crush lived experience. In other words, this issue—which Combs now claims is the major and real difference between us—seems to be something of a red herring.

Combs says that "Wilber… makes a distinction between enduring structures and transitional structures," and then he ridicules the distinction at length (actually, it was pretty funny). But this is simply the important distinction between developmental levels and developmental lines, a distinction which all major developmental theories recognize as crucial, and a distinction largely missing in Combs' model, which is one of its major liabilities, I believe. (In fact, this is the distinction that Combs ignores in Radiance and ridicules now.) But as for my own wretchedness, "It gets worse. Carol Gilligan, for example, has written at length against Lawrence Kohlberg and the whole hierarchical notion in general, yet Wilber heaps the two together for good measure. One wonders if he has even read all these people."

Here Combs simply repeats the common misinterpretation of Gilligan's work; namely, that since males often make hierarchical judgments, and females relational ones, then females are not involved in any sort of hierarchical development, which is why, according to Combs, Gilligan has "has written at length…against the whole hierarchical tradition in general." But that is not Gilligan's view. As she explains it, and as it is summarized by Charles Alexander and Susanne Langer in Higher Stages of Human Development (to which Gilligan contributed a summary of her view), Gilligan believes in hierarchical stages for both men and women, but with each tending to emphasize a different aspect of those stages (justice/rights versus care/relationship), although both of those orientations can be largely integrated in a further hierarchical development (she was critical of Kohlberg, not for his stage conception, but for focusing on justice to the exclusion of care). Thus, under the question "Position on Hierarchical Stage Issue," the authors (and Gilligan) list her position for both childhood and adulthood as follows: "Childhood: Hierarchical. Adulthood: Hierarchical."

Thus, to say that Gilligan "has written at length…against the whole hierarchical tradition in general" is a gross distortion of her work, quite similar to the types of distortions Combs presents of my work.

(Very similar, in fact. That I present a linear or "one-dimensional" stage model is the most common criticism I get, even though that model—phase-2—was abandoned in 1983, to make room for phase-3 and phase-4 models, which emphasize waves, streams, states, and self. But the popular notion of a linear ladder—like the common misconception of Gilligan's view as "anti-hierarchical"—is what Combs often implies my view is, before he triumphantly beats the crap out of it.)

In the endnotes [of Integral Psychology], I suggested what I believe are errors in Combs' treatment of Vedanta and Mahayana given in Radiance. Combs maintains that his friend Georg Feuerstein (whose name Combs misspells) agrees with Combs' interpretation, or at any rate did not challenge it, because Feuerstein read the manuscript and gave the book a sympathetic nod, which is true. But this doesn't mean Georg agrees with such errors as equating the vijnanamayakosha with "the subtle body" (which is the sukshma-sharira). When Feuerstein examined these sections more carefully, he released the following for publication: "I endorse books when I am in basic resonance with their message and would like to offer my friendly support, but I don't always give detailed feedback to the author, because there is only so much time I can devote to reviewing other's work. Thus I may disagree with particulars, but won't necessarily make a point of saying so, unless the disagreement is so vital that it would compromise my own work."

The last major point Combs brings up in his response—apart from some wonderfully riotous cheap shots and polemical bickering, which I loved (just like I get a kick out of Heron's and Helminiak's no-punches-pulled rhetoric—why is this field so wary of a little mixing it up?)—regards Jean Gebser's integral structure. "Wilber and I have a fundamental difference here, perhaps the only one I feel strongly about. His whole model for personal and social evolution depends on a series of stages that start out as Gebserian structures of consciousness, and somehow end up as the traditional subtle vehicles of Vedanta." (Actually, in my "whole model" there are the temporary states, the levels of consciousness, and the various developmental lines that move through those levels. Combs is here completely confusing them, and thus once again claims that I don't differentiate them. What Combs is doing, I believe, is using the phase-2 model presented in Up from Eden, as most of his attacks do. I accept those attacks, belatedly, as accurate criticisms of a view I held 15 years ago.)

But the point about Gebser. Combs is right that Gebser's structures are not the same as Vedanta sheaths. I have agreed with that, as I said, for 15 years (see Integral Psychology for a complete overview and summary of the relation of Gebser and Vedanta). Combs assures his readers that "Wilber's confusion comes in large part from a failure to fully appreciate the nature of integral consciousness." Combs believes that there are no structures (or permanent levels of consciousness) beyond the integral structure. "Indeed, the integral structure of consciousness is the essence of spirituality."

In my own writing (e.g. SES), I have maintained that Gebser's integral structure exists basically at the level of vision-logic, and that beyond the integral there are the psychic, subtle, causal, and nondual realms of reality, each of which can be accessed not just in temporary states of consciousness (which is Allan's view), but also as permanent structures of adaptation (if development continues into those higher realms; if so, then those realms are accessed in higher stages of consciousness, not just in passing states of consciousness: states into traits).

Allan's friend Georg Feuerstein, as is well known, is probably Gebser's foremost American interpreter (see his superb Structures of Consciousness). What, then, does Feuerstein say about my interpretation of Gebser? "Among those who can be said to have understand Gebser's model is Ken Wilber" (all quotes in this section are from G. Feuerstein, "Jean Gebser's Structures of Consciousness and Ken Wilber's Spectrum Model," Kindred Visions, Crittenden et al (eds), forthcoming, Shambhala Publications). "In fact, Wilber has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the integral consciousness by placing it within a more comprehensive developmental framework. I am referring to Wilber's formulation of stages beyond the integral consciousness: the psychic, causal, and nondual." (Georg is treating the psychic and subtle as one, as I often do.)

Thus, as for stages/structures beyond Gebser's integral consciousness: "Without being able to give detailed reasons for my stance, I must side with Wilber on this point. I think there is sufficient evidence to usefully group a wide range of what would be considered spiritual experiences into three main categories: those that are basically psychic (I propose psychosomatic), causal (I propose psychospiritual), and nondual (I propose spiritual)." Moreover, Georg maintains, as do I, that these higher stages can be a permanent realization, not just a passing state. Thus Feuerstein supports a much more full-spectrum view than Gebser, in my opinion (while still being enormously appreciative of Gebser's extraordinary contributions, as am I).

Feuerstein also immediately picks up the relevance of a four-quadrant analysis of Gebser's integral structure: "Wilber has contributed to our understanding of the integral consciousness in another way: in the form of his four-quadrant framework…. Wilber thus brings additional criteria into play, which can help us apply Gebser's version of the integral consciousness to specific situations." That is the type of mutual enrichment that these various ideas can lend to each other, it seems to me. Gebser has had a great impact on me, and I was glad to introduce Gebser's work to a large audience in Up from Eden. (Allan tells me that he, too, first encountered Gebser in Up from Eden.)

Of course, Combs objects that Gebser's structures are different from the psychic, subtle, or causal ("it's oranges and apples"), because the former are structures and the latter are states (and/or planes); and here we agree, but with a respectful difference. As I indicated, I believe they can be accessed in both temporary states and permanent adaptations (as fully explained in Integral Psychology and hinted at in the endnotes posted on this site). But I agree totally with Allan that states and structures are "oranges and apples," and I have agreed with that position for a decade and a half. But it really does not help matters to maintain that this difference of opinion comes down to the fact that I am confused about the real meaning of Gebser's integral structure.

(Incidentally, the way that Allan describes the integral structure is often similar to the way I describe the nondual. The disagreement involves instead the status of possible levels in between them—such as subtle and causal. I believe the world's traditions offer enough similarities to answer this question, as does prolonged, personal meditative practice: the subtle, causal, and nondual can be achieved as permanent realizations pervading all moments of waking consciousness—indeed, pervading even dream and sleep—see One Taste.)

Combs maintains that I misunderstand the nature of the integral structure because "at root is Wilber's complete failure to appreciate the postmodern experience." I'm not sure we can call my failure complete. Surely I have room to fail even further.

But just as surely I've said a few things here and there that might indicate I have a vague inkling about something called postmodernity. Yes? No?

I do believe that Allan's model suffers from the liabilities that I outlined in the endnotes to Integral Psychology. And, as the above makes clear, he is not very good at interpreting even the major themes of my work beyond the Up-from-Eden period, so again, his remarks about my "easy to understand" work should be taken with much caution. When he confidently concludes that "we do understand your model, we just disagree," we have seen how pale the first part of that assurance is.
Still, that doesn't mean I don't appreciate much of Allan's model and the invigorating freshness he has brought to the field. He has, among other things, especially taken Tart's systems approach to consciousness and updated it with chaos and complexity theory; he has brought new insights into consciousness and mind, consciousness and brain, and the nature of evolution itself; given an overview of consciousness evolution; and offered a viable "three-dimensional" model of consciousness (which he is articulating with Antony Arcari).

My main complaint is not anything Allan says about his own work, which is a viable and stimulating model, but the lopsided or outmoded things he says about mine. Subtract those, and I have very modest criticisms. (I'm not even that critical of his use of "structures" and "states," because I agree with Allan that they seem to interpenetrate each other like a Moebious strip or Klein bottle, something to which our respective writings have alerted each other. As I said, much common ground….)

For that reason, as I expressed in email to Allan, and because of the fact that we do share much common ground, I hope that we can be mutually supportive of the general field and of each other in our future relations. In the meantime, I can genuinely recommend Allan's work to my readers as containing many superb insights and ideas on the nature of consciousness, evolution, and this extraordinary world of interior weather that we call ourselves.


(For those who are interested, Integral Psychology will be published as part of Volume 4 of the Collected Works, which will be out this October from Shambhala. One of the reasons I did this book is to offer a simple, concise, up-to-date statement of my psychological model so that critics can all get on the same page with me. Many of the criticisms of my work are actually referring to outmoded phases or models, as we have seen here, and thus, with Integral Psychology, the critics can at least focus on my present views, which I believe will help diminish the number of times I have to point out that a criticism is either not accurate or not current. I sympathize with critics; after all, there are 18 books and hundreds of articles stretching over three decades, and it is very difficult for a critic to be a competent scholar of my work. Those who are—and they are numerous, including Roger Walsh, Mike Murphy, Frances Vaughan, Kaisa Puhakka, Georg Feuerstein, Tony Schwartz, Don Beck, Donald Rothberg, Marci Walters, Jack Crittenden, Brad Reynolds, Frank Visser, Kendra Crossen-Burroughs, Michael Zimmerman, Maureen Silos, Thomas Jordan, David Lane, Sara Bates, Connie Hilliard, T George Harris, Bert Parlee, etc.—often offer profound criticisms that I have, in virtually all cases, incorporated into my work and adjusted accordingly. But for other critics, who haven't the time or inclination to become competent in this model, I hope that Integral Psychology will at least get us all on the same page, so the critical exchanges can proceed on a more accurate and/or current platform. And then, I am sure, I will be able to completely fail their expectations!)

© Ken Wilber, 9 May, 1999


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