Integral World Forum

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 18 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is


Six Criticisms of Wilber's Integral Theory

Jeff Meyerhoff

Minority Positions, Not Orienting Generalizations

The Paranoid view is an almost point by point description of Wilber's view of developmental psychology and science in general.

The validity of Wilber's system is based on the idea that he has culled the orienting generalizations from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and mysticism. The criterion of an orienting generalization is that experts in a particular field assume its truth or rely on it and don't debate it. The fact of agreement is essential. Wilber refers to these orienting generalizations as “already-agreed-upon” knowledge. But, short of some facts and laws in the natural sciences, all knowledge can be debated, even the concept of knowledge.

Some examples:

* Social evolution, for which Habermas is used as an exemplar in SES, is a (small) minority position in the field (see Philosophy of Development by van Haaften et al).

* The late Sheldon White, a Harvard psychologist, studied developmental psychologists and his research suggested an interesting dichotomy in the field. He found that developmental psychologists divide into two groups over the question of “what they are all doing together?”[1] He names the two views they hold the “Bewildered” and the “Paranoid.” His description of the two views is quite startling and informative.

The Bewildered see the field in this way:

  1. Developmental psychology is not seriously unified. It is a political convention, not a field. Many people do research with children under the tent of developmental psychology, studying everything from evoked potentials to single-parent families from a great range of basic and applied viewpoints. In the journals and conventions shared by developmental psychologists, people give one another miscellaneous political and intellectual support, but it is a mistake to think of all this heterogeneous activity as in any serious way constituting a common intellectual discipline.
  2. Developmental psychologists work with the trappings of scientific analysis, but in truth they are working with feeble or empty stuff. You can't really do science unless you explore the effects of some independent variables. The independent variable of the developmental psychologist, age, is empty. Developmental psychologists endlessly document age effects through their longitudinal designs and cross-sectional designs, but any high school senior can tell you that age doesn't cause anything. Age is a dimension in which things happen—biological variables, environmental variables. Those are the causes. When you say that such-and -such happened with age, you say almost nothing.
  3. Developmental psychologists find with monotonous regularity that children get better at everything with age. Sometimes they seem to find cases in which children's performance worsens with age, but then they explore those cases and—aha!—what the older children do really is better after all. Developmental findings are largely nonnutritious and boring.[2]

The Paranoid view is an almost point by point description of Wilber's view of developmental psychology and science in general. Even the meaning White intends by the designation “Paranoid” applies to Wilber for, as he says, he uses “Paranoid not in the sense of everyone-is-out-to-get-me but rather in the sense of I-am-the-King-of-the-world.”[3]

White describes the Paranoid position thusly:

  1. Developmental psychology is only superficially the study of children. Really, you are studying many things that go beyond childhood but whose nature is clarified by the patterning of age changes in children's behavior.
  2. The proper and only way to approach behavior is through the study of development.
  3. Time series phenomena in evolution, organizational change, history, geology, cultural practices, the history of science, etc. show interesting and useful communalities. At the same time, psychopathology, neuropathology, social dissolution, and other forms of human disorder may be usefully interpreted as reversions in universal human organicist patterns of growth.
  4. The study of developmental psychology yields values. It takes you from is to ought.[4]

The glibness in White's summaries may be mistaken for a lack of seriousness and validity, but he cites the five studies he did which provided the evidence for his formulations. White also notes that the Paranoid view, which describes Wilber's, is the “minority” view in the field.[5]

* Wilber's understanding of nature is based on what he calls the “new sciences of complexity”, but the new sciences of complexity are not the orienting generalizations of the natural sciences. W. Mitchell Waldrop, who holds a doctorate in particle physics, wrote a popular account of complexity and begins his book by saying that "This is a book about the science of complexity-a subject that's still so new and so wide-ranging that nobody knows quite how to define it, or even where its boundaries lie."

Throughout Bald Ambition I show the vigorous scholarly contentiousness surrounding Wilber's supposed “already-agreed-upon” knowledge.

Perspectival, Not Aperspectival

The overall structure of Wilber's recounting of the history of everything comes from a particular perspective.

The overall structure of Wilber's recounting of the history of everything comes from a particular perspective and is not aperspectival as he contends. The story he tells is determined by his values. This can be demonstrated in several ways. One of the most vivid is by using Hayden White's typology of history writing. White argues that any story of the past must, to be a story and not a chronicle or list of events, have a moral. No moral, no story. Different underlying moral visions unconsciously determine the different modes of emplotment and modes of argumentation that historians use when they tell the story of the past. The modes of emplotment are Romance, Comedy, Tragedy and Satire. Wilber's mode of emplotment is Comedy. Comedy, according to White,

suggest[s] the possibility of at least partial liberation from the condition of the Fall and provisional release from the divided state in which men find themselves in this world. . . . In Comedy, hope is held out for the temporary triumph of man over his world by the prospect of occasional reconciliations of the forces at play in the social and natural worlds. . . .The reconciliations which occur at the end of Comedy are reconciliations of men with men, of men with their world and their society; the condition of society is represented as being purer, saner, and healthier as a result of the conflict among seemingly inalterably opposed elements in the world; these elements are revealed to be, in the long run, harmonizable with one another, unified, at one with themselves and the others.[6]

poetic structure

Source: Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.
[Grey areas relate to Ken Wilber's position]

For Wilber, a non-dual society is far off in the future. Unlike the Romantic Marxist vision, we will not be enjoying a classless, communist utopia anytime soon. For now, we can hope that the “divided state in which men find themselves in this world” and “the conflict among seemingly opposed elements”—the dualities—will result in “reconciliations”—new integrations—in which the “seemingly inalterably opposed elements” of science and spirit, the big three, etc. will be transcended and included and “revealed to be in the long run, harmonizable with one another, unified, at one with themselves and the others” in a centauric evolutionary embrace.

The four modes of argumentation that White describes are Formist, Organicist, Mechanistic, and Contextualist. Wilber uses the Organicist mode which White describes this way:

Organicist world hypotheses and their corresponding theories of truth and argument are relatively more 'integrative' and hence more reductive in their operations. The Organicist attempts to depict the particulars discerned in the historical field as components of synthetic processes. At the heart of the Organicist strategy is a metaphysical commitment to the paradigm of the microcosmic-macrocosmic relationship; and the Organicist historian will tend to be governed by the desire to see individual entities as components of processes which aggregate into wholes that are greater than, or qualitatively different from, the sum of their parts. . . . historians working in this mode will be more interested in characterizing the integrative process than in depicting its individual elements. This is what gives to the historical arguments cast in this mode their 'abstract' quality. Moreover, history written in this mode tends to be oriented toward the determination of the end or goal toward which all the processes found in the historical field are presumed to be tending.[7]

Despite being published several years before Wilber ever published a book, White's description uncannily describes Wilber's perspective on the Kosmos's story.

Selectivity of Sources, Not Selected Sources

It's a curious pre-Enlightenment way of validating statements by reference to authority.

Wilber acknowledges, in the preface to the second edition of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, that he somewhat misleadingly used individual exemplars as stand-ins for the intellectual positions he was describing – like having Emerson stand for nature mysticism or Piaget for developmental psychology. But why did he choose as exemplars people like A.O. Lovejoy, whose work is 70 years old, or Plotinus's spiritual disciple W.R. Inge, whose work is over 75 years old, or T.R.V. Murti's 50 year old work on Nagarjuna or Charles Taylor who, while a great contemporary scholar, is a theist?

Wilber frequently quotes a famous name in a particular field, like Jacques Derrida (philosophy), Paul Tillich (Christian history) or Jeffrey Alexander (sociology), in order to validate his assertions. But what we need to know, if we are to evaluate the validity of his purported orienting generalizations, is whether the ideas Wilber's asserting are the consensus in the field, not whether a famous name in the field appears to believe them. It's a curious pre-Enlightenment way of validating statements by reference to authority and is contrary to Wilber's post-Enlightenment desire to rely on science as the arbiter of truth.

Regarding moral development, Wilber says that “Kohlberg was able to suggest a six-stage scheme of moral development, a scheme that research so far has found to be largely invariant and universal.”[8] Yet the four scholars, sympathetic to Kohlberg, who collaborated on a “Neo-Kohlbergian Approach” do so to counter the “numerous suggestions in the academic literature that Kohlberg's approach to morality was so fundamentally wrong-headed and flawed that researchers in morality are better off starting anew.”[9] While they disagree with this assessment they note that “some critics regard his work as outmoded, beyond repair, and too faulty for anybody to take seriously.”[10] After acknowledging the problems with Kohlberg's stage-staircase model and his interview techniques, they state, directly countering Wilber's contention above, that

Kohlberg eliminated Stage 6 from his scoring system for lack of finding empirical cases of Stage 6 thinking. Furthermore, there is little evidence for Stage 5 scoring in Kohlbergian studies from around the world (Snarey, 1985). Gibbs (1979)—a co-developer of the scoring system—even proposed that true Piagetian stages of moral judgment stop with Stage 4. The lack of empirical data for Stages 5 and 6—post conventional thinking—is a serious problem for Kohlberg's enterprise, because he defined the stages from the perspective of the higher stages. The seriousness of this problem is underscored by the fact that virtually every critic in the book Lawrence Kohlberg: Consensus and Controversy (Modgil & Modgil, 1986) find the absence of Stages 5 and 6 to be a fatal flaw.[11]

Wilber does cite legitimate sources to validate his belief in Kohlberg's model, but he neglects to inform his readers of other sources that validate the opposite view, leaving the reader with the impression that his view is the consensus in the field.

In addition to a biased selectivity of the sources chosen, there is a biased selectivity in the parts of the chosen sources used. Wilber appropriates the terms waves (levels) and streams (lines) from Howard Gardner and his colleagues and quotes Gardner et al to validate his claims in Integral Psychology. But going back to the original source by Gardner et al we find many parts that don't agree with Wilber's views. Gardner et al refer to their developmental model as an “idealization”; in the collection in which it appears it is grouped as a non-hierarchical model; to attain the creativity of a post-conventional stage, a shift back to the pre-conventional stage is said to be necessary; the editors note “significant differences” between Gardner's model and Piaget and Kohlberg; and there is a wide ranging elasticity to the developmental waves described which turns them into streams.

Other sources which Wilber uses to validate his contentions become problematic when examined. In a recent restatement of his psychological model[12] he defends the idea that there are universal levels of consciousness by quoting John Berry et al, who co-authored the book Cross-cultural Psychology. Wilber introduces the quote with the phrase “summarizing the existing research” and then quotes Berry et al agreeing with his view that cultural differences in development are under-girded by universal or basic structures of consciousness. It appears to be a strong confirmation of Wilber's view. But, when we go back to the book from which it was taken, we learn that Berry et al are using one particular framework which “derives from earlier models proposed by Berry, where it was called an 'ecocultural model.'”[13] They distinguish this approach which they label universalist from two others current in cross-cultural studies called the relativist and the absolutist. The relativist denies cross-cultural universals and the absolutist denies much of a role to culture. “The universalist position adopts the working assumption that basic psychological processes are likely to be common features of human life everywhere, but that their manifestations are likely to be influenced by culture.”[14] What Wilber cites as a summary of the existing research is actually one perspective within an ongoing debate.

Wilber gives the impression that there is broad agreement on the reality of cross-cultural levels of development, but we learn in his source for this contention, Cross-cultural Psychology, that “the status of the concept of development is a much debated theoretical issue.”[15]

Instead of the image of Wilber being confronted with a vast array of knowledge and fitting it together like a jigsaw puzzle, a more plausible explanation is that he already had a progressive, developmental, dialectical story of the Kosmos in mind and found, not the orienting generalizations of the sciences, but cherry-picked scholars who appear to validate the view he wants to be true. This is why in my chapter on the psychological analysis of Wilber's beliefs I show how the character of his Kosmos is related to the character of his psyche and personal history. In fundamental ways his integral synthesis is a projection.

Mystical Disagreement, Not Mystical Unity

While the stages may describe Wilber's and others' personal mystical progress, they don't necessarily describe everybody's.

A part of the perennial philosophy that Wilber still adheres to is that there is a sameness of insight at the core of all the major mystical traditions. How do we determine whether there is a common core? We don't just take our own experience of mystical insight, read about other traditions and say “they seem similar to me”. At the very least there are essential problems in reading works not in their original language. We look, as we do with other disciplines, to those in and out of academia who know the issue. We can find a Robert Forman, who says there is an essential pure consciousness experience that is at the essence of all mystical traditions. We can also find a Steven Katz and others who argue otherwise. A new book by Paul Marshall, Mystical Encounters with the Natural World, is a survey of the many different ways of understanding mysticism: psychoanalytic, neuroscientific, constructive, deconstructive, perennial, idealist.

Regarding those outside academia, Steven Katz reports that, the great Indian sage, “Shankara does not shrink from entering into heated polemics with his Buddhist opponents about the meaning of the ultimate experience, understood by him in a non-personal monistic way, or again with his more theistically-minded Hindu colleagues—and of saying that they are wrong! They do not understand! They do not have the ultimate experience!—only he and his students find the ultimate experience because only they are properly equipped to find it.”[16] The frequent disagreements between, and splitting of, mystical traditions demonstrates the lack of agreement among mystical practitioners across traditions. Andrew Cohen, Wilber's spiritual ally, wrote a book (An Unconditional Relationship to Life) that records his encounters with, and repeated criticisms of, other mystics.

Wilber adopted the four stages of mysticism in the late seventies. And while the stages may describe Wilber's and others' personal mystical progress, they don't necessarily describe everybody's. The great contentiousness in the area of mystical studies, contrasted with Wilber's confident assertion that it's been demonstrated that there is a common core to all the major mystical traditions, is another example of Wilber's meeting the needs of his theory at the expense of the actual state of knowledge in the field.

Holarchic Controversy, Not Holarchic Consistency

Wilber, nor his followers, has ever dealt with the detailed and extensive critique of his understanding of holons, the 20 tenets and the four quadrants.

Wilber, nor his followers, has ever dealt with the detailed and extensive critique of his understanding of holons, the 20 tenets and the four quadrants by Andrew Smith, Mark Edwards, Gerry Goddard and others. These critiques cut to the heart of the entire holarchical understanding. Here are two examples from Andrew Smith:

Individual vs. social holons – a very fundamental problem with the Wilber model … is that it conflates individual and social holons with individual and social aspects of holons.  Sometimes Wilber uses the individual/social distinction in one sense, sometimes in the other.  As I point out in my most recent article, Wilber's Eight-fold Way, I'm not the only one to notice this.  Gerry Goddard was at least close to seeing the problem several years ago, and Mark Edwards is acutely aware of it now.  Bluntly put, there isn't room in the four quadrants for both senses.  If the lower quadrants are to represent societies, then they can't represent social aspects of individual holons.  Once one sees this problem, it is so obvious….
I point out there that the tenet is based on the premise that higher forms of life always evolved after lower ones, and thus inevitably depended on them in the sense that Wilber uses.  But it's not true that higher always evolved after lower.  Sometimes higher and lower co-evolved; in fact, that is the normal way evolution works within levels.  Thus neurons did not evolve as freely-moving cells, which then associated into brains.  The evolution of cells into neurons, and tissues into brains, went hand-in-hand.  Thus neither can exist without the other, a symmetric relationship.  Wilber understands this in the case of humans and societies, thus going so far as to define (or to imply a definition of) humans as different according to the society they live in.  He just doesn't see that the same thing occurs on other levels.[17]

Wilber's most dedicated and knowledgeable commentators continue to be ignored. And while ignoring his best commentators and critics, Wilber continues to reformulate his holon concept and the four quadrants, and heralds his changes as an improvement, without acknowledging what was wrong with previous formulations. As Andrew Smith has observed:

In his recent post in the Reading Room "A Suggestion for Reading the Criticisms of My Work", Wilber—quoting a phone interview he provides as an example of direct dialogue with him--suggests he might finally have noticed this conflationary position. As before, he describes quadrants as “dimensions” that all (sentient) holons have, but he also implies (without saying so in so many words) that particular holons can't be assigned to particular quadrants. If he has finally noticed the problem and is attempting to correct it, this constitutes a quite significant, and as far as I can tell, completely unacknowledged, departure from his earlier view, expressed in SES, for example. It now appears that his four-quadrant model is not a map of all forms of existence, but rather a way of looking at each individual holon. In fact, he seems to have adopted Mark Edwards' view of the four-quadrants as a “lens”, for he adds to the description of quadrants as 'dimensions” the term 'perspectives”, just as Edwards suggested in a series of recent articles.[18]

Everyone is Right, Except the Critics

Correcting what you think is a misrepresentation of your intellectual position is a routine part of what intellectual debates are about.

One can read Sex, Ecology, Spirituality as Wilber's bid for academic respectability. Yet in that book, and in other ways, Wilber violates the norms of intellectual debate. In SES he mostly caricatures his opponents' positions and often never quotes them. For example, Wilber repeatedly disproves the philosophical position of relativism by pointing out that relativists contradict themselves by making absolute statements like: “Nothing is absolute”. Yet the philosopher Michael Krausz has edited two well-regarded texts on relativism and published, with Rom Harre, Varieties of Relativism.[19] Harre and Krausz survey the whole philosophical debate between absolutism and relativism and state that, “In no case do we think that we have found arguments of overwhelming strength on either side of the debate. Perhaps there is no final resolution in rational terms of this great schism in people's attitudes to existence, knowledge, meaning and values.”[20] Yet Wilber resolves the “great schism” in one simple stroke. In contrast to Wilber's easy dismissal of relativism, Krausz and Harre write that the

diversity [of relativisms] will serve both to cure anyone of the idea that relativism can be defended or attacked briefly and easily, or on one basis alone, and to define the complex challenge to provide an adequate exegesis and commentary on the gamut of philosophical considerations that have or could be adduced in defence of or attack upon this or that variety of relativism.[21]

Their book is a condensed catalogue of the wide variety of relativisms and their intricate arguments with a wide variety of opposing absolutisms. Wilber writes as if there were no scholarly debate on the subject.

Wilber and his followers have never responded to the most incisive criticisms of his theory found at Instead of correcting what he says are misrepresentations of his theory, he withdraws from debate and claims that for someone to truly understand his theory they must have personal contact with him and have his validation of their interpretation. When compared to the norm in contemporary intellectual debate this is preposterous. Someone like Jurgen Habermas—one of Wilber's heroes—routinely debates, publicly and in writing, those with radically different views than his. The standard way of dealing with someone who misrepresents your position is to correct them or have one's supporters do it. Correcting what you think is a misrepresentation of your intellectual position is a routine part of what intellectual debates are about. It isn't a matter of calling the theorist up, getting the final word on what he or she means and then accepting it. Again, like his pre-Enlightenment way of arguing from authority, Wilber sets himself up as an integral pontiff who has to give his imprimatur before anyone can say they are accurately representing his views. It's a transparent defense against damaging criticism.

Strong criticism is avoided in other ways. Mark Edwards has written an exhaustive, two part, 50+ page essay on states of consciousness which tries to clarify the issue and makes cogent criticisms of Wilber's formulation of states. Wilber's response to Edwards' commentary was staged in a way reminiscent of the charade of a US presidential debate. During a so-called “circle of critics” on the Integral Naked website, a student was given the thankless task of asking a question based on Edwards' extensive work. According to Edwards, who has maintained a noble composure in the face of Wilber's repeated slights,

The student courageously tried to summarise 50 pages of reasonably tight argument in a few words. Ken has no idea if the question is an accurate summary…. There's no debate, no probing of Ken's response, no true discussion or dialogue, no “circle of critics”, not even some poor Joe playing devil's advocate—it's just Ken giving a 20 minute monologue response to his student's précis of the thoughts of some absent “straw man.[22]

This kind of behavior cuts off the exchange of ideas that is necessary for a field to flourish.


[1] Lerner, Richard M., ed., Developmental Psychology: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives, (Hillsdale, N.J. : L. Erlbaum Associates, 1983), p. 235.

[2] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, pp. 235-236.

[3] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, p. 236.

[4] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, pp. 236-237.

[5] Lerner, Developmental Psychology, p. 235.

[6] White, Metahistory, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990), p. 9.

[7] White, Metahistory, pp. 15-16.

[8] Wilber, Integral Psychology, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), p.81. Wilber adds in a footnote (p.234 n.12) that “Kohlberg's stage six is an ideal limit, and not an actual stage.”

[9] Rest, James, et al, Postconventional Moral Thinking, (Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1999), p. 1.

[10] Rest, Postconventional Moral Thinking, p. vii.

[11] Rest, Postconventional Moral Thinking, p. 22.

[12] Wilber, “Waves, Streams, States, and Self,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 7, No. 11-12, November-December 2000.

[13] Berry, John W., et al, Cross-Cultural Psychology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.11.

[14] Berry, Cross-Cultural Psychology, p. 258.

[15] Berry, Cross-Cultural Psychology, p. 236.

[16] Katz, Steven T., “Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,” in Katz, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p.45.

[17] Smith, Andrew P., personal communication, May 2003.

[18] Smith, Andrew P., “Contextualizing Ken,” at

[19] Harre, Rom and Krausz, Michael, Varieties of Relativism, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

[20] Harre and Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p. 33.

[21] Harre and Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p. 23.

[22] Edwards, Mark, “Some Thoughts on the States Thing,” at

* Thanks to Frank Visser who made a number of helpful additions to the piece.

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2006