INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber



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Scott ParkerScott F. Parker is a writer and editor whose books include Coffee - Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate and Running After Prefontaine: A Memoir. He has contributed chapters to Ultimate Lost and Philosophy, Football and Philosophy, Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, Golf and Philosophy, and iPod and Philosophy. He is a regular contributor to Rain Taxi Review of Books. His writing has also appeared in Philosophy Now, Sport Literate, Fiction Writers Review, Epiphany, The Ink-Filled Page, and Oregon Humanities. In 2010 he published the print edition of Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything. For more information, visit http://scottfparker.blogspot.com.
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Ken Wilber and
Intellectual Humility

Narcissism, Insularity, and Tragedy

Scott F. Parker

A few pages into the introduction to Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) lies the most important sentence in all of Ken Wilber's writing:

"I will be telling the story as if it were simply the case (because telling it that way makes for much better reading), but not a sentence that follows is not open to confirmation or rejection by a community of the adequate." (p. ix-x)

This little-noted and seemingly minor hedge distinguishes the kind of humility that is the necessary complement to a project as ambitious as Wilber's, and it marks the last time such humility has been meaningfully present in Wilber's work, much to its detriment.

Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber

Let's give Wilber the benefit of the doubt that he was sincere in this sentence, that he did see himself as proposing a worldview in order to find out if he had any traction with readers. Why, then, tell the story "as if it were simply the case"? The claim that it makes for better reading is specious. It does so only for those readers who are eager to be converted to something. For those who wish to think carefully and advance cautiously, it makes for decidedly worse (in the sense of being at least potentially—intentionally or not—deceitful) prose.

Arguing forcefully for one's position is one thing. Declaring that one's position is so and thereby dodging one's responsibility to demonstrate it is another. The former is philosophy; the latter, a swindle. The introduction's caveat, subsumed as it is by hundreds of pages of Wilber's authoritative tone, is drastically insufficient to the task of keeping an entire book (not to mention Wilber's subsequent output) in a conditional state.

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

It is hard to read Sex, Ecology, Spirituality and not come away thinking that it intends to mislead the reader to exactly the conclusion that "open to confirmation or rejection" purports to disavow. And no one has been more misled by this slipperiness than Wilber himself, who seems to have forgotten that he is telling a story that is either useful or not useful and allowed himself to believe that his work accurately describes the way the world really is.

This bearing fails for one of three reasons, depending which kind of thinker you are. It fails for one kind of thinker who believes that philosophy's job is not to determine how the world really is. It fails for another kind who thinks that describing the world as it is is a worthwhile goal but that the hubris of thinking one finally has it is ultimately destructive. And it fails for a third kind who does the dirty work of exploiting the fissures in Wilber's system.

The only person who can remain a Wilberite is the one thinks

  1. philosophy's job is to figure out the way things really are;
  2. it is possible to finish this job; and
  3. Wilber has done so.

Wilber and his followers are clever enough not to cop to 2) and 3), but his rhetoric and their devotion tell another story. The method of coordinating everyone else into slots in his own system puts Wilber necessarily above other thinkers, and because future thinkers will find their own positions in his matrix Wilber and his followers think he has preempted 3) as well as 2).

But intellectual humility is not a matter of coming across as self-deprecating to your reader. It is a matter of acknowledging that one's positions are always provisional. The Wilber of Integral Institute, Wyatt Earp, and the relatively sporadic publications of recent years has abandoned even the pretension that his worldview might not be the way things really are.

This story, as I'm telling it, is meant to be a sad one. Wilber didn't start out trying to deceive anyone, and he's not trying to deceive anyone now. He was at one time—and exactly insofar as he proposed his writing as one way of looking at things—a creative and visionary thinker. At some point, though, to keep going, a con artist must buy his own con. And this works best when he is oblivious to the fact that he is a con. A move made possible in Wilber's case by insularity of his thinking and sycophantry that surround him. Wilber's case is a dire warning against taking oneself too seriously and allowing others to do the same.

This has produced the intended effect of leaving him with the audience he wants: the one that recognizes him as a genius.

The challenge I'm raising here is not to the particulars of Wilber's views (that's a different conversation); the challenge I'm raising is to Wilber's assumed authority. Because he publishes remotely from the valid criticisms his work regularly receives, he has been allowed to double down on the unforgivable habit of declaring rather than arguing. This has produced the intended effect of leaving him with the audience he wants: the one that recognizes him as a genius. But it is nevertheless a deeply flawed rhetorical approach because what it earns him in disciples it costs him in terms of having an actual affect on the world. (This is assuming that Wilber never reaches a critical mass of followers such that he would be able to have meaningful influence without having to engage outsiders on their terms.)

Because he declines to enter into the ongoing conversations of philosophy as philosophers are having them, he ensures that his ideas are non-translatable outside his circle of followers. He keeps himself out of any community that is not established in his image and then uses this as evidence that the other communities are hopelessly confused. This further earns him the devotion of his followers at the expense of being able to talk to anyone else.

Which brings us back to the "community of the adequate" that should be counted on to confirm or reject the story. For Wilber there is no such community because there is no adequate critic if we understand "adequate" here to mean an equal. As has long been documented on Integral World, critics are dismissed, ridiculed, and mocked, but never engaged. Narcissism of this order leads to anyone who does not belong to the faithful being instructed to "suck my dick," which is only a way station on the road to real tragedy.

Again, I do think this is a sad story. Wilber is (or, I would submit, was) a visionary. He offered a new and highly original way of thinking about the world. The problem is that he ceased to think of himself as a storyteller and began to think of himself as someone with an inside track on the way things are. And this was indulged because Wilber did not belong to a community that could have held him in check; instead, he was surrounded by followers, who were in no position to do anything but defer.

It is long past time Wilber headed his own warning of the hypothetical status of his worldview. Assuming that he will not as he has not, it is all the more important that we do. Or, better still—I'm afraid it has come to this—that we start spending our time talking about other books.[1]

Notes

[1] At the top of the Wikipedia page on Wilber's magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality one can read the following "Notability" warning posted by one of the editors of Wikipedia—strangely illustrative of Wilber's position in the wider intellectual world[FV]:

The topic of this article may not meet Wikipedia's notability guideline for books. Please help to establish notability by citing reliable secondary sources that are independent of the topic and provide significant coverage of it beyond its mere trivial mention. If notability cannot be established, the article is likely to be merged, redirected, or deleted.
Find sources: "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality" – news · newspapers · books · scholar · JSTOR · free images (August 2016)

Following up on these links, and contradicting this somewhat, we find that Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995) has been mentioned in the following sources:

  • On the web (excluding Wikipedia itself): About 28.700 results
  • In news articles: About 41 results (one in New York Times and one in Forbes)
  • Mentioned in trade books: About 7.340 results
  • Mentioned in scholarly sources: About 1,800 results
  • JSTOR: 0 Search Results

Wikipedia explains what it understands as the criteria for notability—Wilber fans might point to #3 and #5 as grounds for Wilber's relevance—but that, of course, is for history to decide:

  1. The book has been the subject[1] of two or more non-trivial[2] published works appearing in sources that are independent of the book itself.[3] This includes published works in all forms, such as newspaper articles, other books, television documentaries, bestseller lists,[4] and reviews. This excludes media re-prints of press releases, flap copy, or other publications where the author, its publisher, agent, or other self-interested parties advertise or speak about the book.[5]
  2. The book has won a major literary award.
  3. The book has been considered by reliable sources to have made a significant contribution to a notable or significant motion picture, or other art form, or event or political or religious movement.
  4. The book is, or has been, the subject of instruction at two or more schools,[6] colleges, universities or post-graduate programs in any particular country.[7]
  5. The book's author is so historically significant that any of the author's written works may be considered notable. This does not simply mean that the book's author is notable by Wikipedia's standards; rather, the book's author is of exceptional significance and the author's life and body of written work would be a common subject of academic study.




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