Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.
"Not so fast, cowboy"
A Plea for Some Dispassion
Ken Wilber's blog "rants" against his critics have resulted in a host of divergent emotions, both on the positive and the negative side of the spectrum. In Games Pandits Play I gave my first response, rejecting this highly charged approach categorically, delineating some legitimate questions and clarifying my motives for hosting Integral World. Now that the fireworks seem to be over, it's time to look back and take stock.
Impersonating as Wyatt Earp, Wilber, according to some, has shot himself in the foot. I would just say: "Not so fast, cowboy". The passionate philosopher seems to have been consumed by his passion. Perhaps it is time now to try a more dispassionate approach.
The blog postings were followed by an admonition to do shadow work, for which three papers by Wilber were provided. If these have the effect to moderate and normalize the highly charged atmosphere, I would be all for it. But if statements such as "critics are petty fucks" are not only allowed, but even sanctioned, and held up as exemplary, nothing of real value will be accomplished.
We have seen many displays of self-disclosure over the past few days. Extremely positive ones towards Wilber as well as extremely negative ones towards those critical of his system. Both of these are shot through with shadow elements, I won't argue with that.
In my opinion, all this talk about shadow boxing or shadow hugging avoids the real issues. Is criticism mostly generated by shadow processes in the critic? Or is criticism increasingly becoming the biggest challenge to a system that is quickly becoming a life style product?
Conflict resolution theory as applied in the Netherlands by Daniel Ofman uses the concept of opposing qualities, to clarify conflict situations between persons and groups. In a four quadrant model (unrelated to Wilber's AQAL), two basic mental qualities (called "core qualities") are juxtaposed. These are each others "challenges". Both qualities have their extreme, exagerated or "mean" versions. The "mean" version of one's basic quality is called one's "pitfall". The "mean" version of one's challenge (the quality one is lacking) is called one's "allergy". As below:
For example: being eloquent is a quality, being a good listener as well. Both qualities have their mean versions. The pitfall for eloquence is becoming too talkative; the pitfall for being a listener is never speaking up at all:
Now this is where it gets interesting: people tend to be allergic to the extreme version of their opposite qualities. They tend to form caricatures about these allergies.
Eloquent people are allergic to those who never raise their voice; but quiet people hate those who are too talkative. If allergies escalate, conflicts are born. These conflicts are solved only when both qualities are affirmed, and pitfalls are avoided.
Wilber's great quality is to give wide generalizations, inspired visions, broad sketches of a theory. This has a pitfall: empty slogans, airy abstractions, and a tendency to repeat arguments. Its challenge would be: detailed criticism, specialized studies, gathering informed opinions. In turn, this quality has an extreme as well: nitpicking, endless processing, never ending debates.
And that, obviously, is Wilber's allergy.
Personally I am more at home in the area of detailed studies, and have therefore always been impressed by the opposite quality which Wilber embodied for me: grand vistas of interdisciplinary studies. So, I might very well represent his shadow -- and vice versa.
Allergies are in evidence when Wilber sees all criticism as nitpicking, and I perceive all of Wilber's recent statements as ungrounded, especially when burdened by jargon, or slang of the "so fucking cool" variety. The trick, again, is to affirm both the value of generalizations AND of detailed studies that may or may not, validate the integral model. The art is to avoid pitfalls in both areas.
Shadow theory often states that we hate in others what we hate in ourselves. This leads to accusing critics of the same deficiencies they point out in Wilber. Core quality theory says the opposite: we hate in others (the extreme version of) what we lack in ourselves.
As an aside, given Wilber's allergy for boomeritis or the Mean Green Meme, this would suggest that the green meme itself is weak in his meme make up. Wilber's claim that "The only thing green can do is ask for dialogue" is such a caricature...
In my opinion, this dynamic is present in the current conflict as well. There's an objective tension between generalized overviews and detailed studies.
This tension is sometimes recognized in integral literature as the tension between the integral model on the one hand, and specialized theories on the other hand, that more often then not refuse to be fitted into the larger integral framework. This is of course a rather flattering and partisan definition! What if specialized studies contradict the integral framework, or theories derived from it?
The Wilber blog postings had surprisingly little substance, when it comes to refuting specific criticism. Mild comments on his style of writing, or on writing habits that may or may not be symptomatic of unconscious material (aggression, sloppyness, simplification), were met with hysterical denial. Obviously, in this climate, nothing of real value can be established.
Let's take therefore one relevant topic as a case study. In my first response, I mentioned the topic of evolutionary theory as one example that deserves to be discussed extensively, since it has bearing on the relationship of integral philosoph to science.
In a phone call Wilber recently had with students of his Integral Institute, he went quickly over Meyerhoff's main points of criticism. (With a typical tone of indignation, preaching to the converted, and attempting to score quick points : "we include all criticism, what we don't include is hatchet jobs -- hahaha").
Leaving Meyerhoff aside for the moment, however, most of this phone call was spent on the important topic of evolution. Wilber tried to argue that his view of evolution was in accordance with, or even supported by, mainstream evolutionary biologists, such as Ernst Mayr and Richard Lewontin. The audience did not have anything critical to add to this monologue, so the case appeared to be closed.
Within days, Jim Chamberlain posted his comments in the Ken Wilber Forum of Integral World after listening to the taped phone call, arguing, among other things, that mainstream evolutionary biologists did not support Wilber's notion of evolution, and that this notion itself was ambiguous when it comes to the issue of telos.
So, there we are again, back to the old routine.
As long as criticism is "dealt with" behind closed doors, with an attitude of "let's get it over with and move on", in a defensive-aggressive spirit, nothing of real value in the sense of truth-finding can be achieved. Why not face these questions head on? "Face everything" -- isn't that the slogan these days in integral circles?
Relevant questions come to mind:
Ken Wilber is a self-announced Story Teller -- he will filter facts and theories to fit his Story. As Meyerhoff has demonstrated, stories contain values, and hide biases -- are these present in Wilber's model as well?
Given the scope and breadth of Wilber's theories, what could be more relevant then asking these questions? What could be more helpful then trying to validate them? Or falsify them? Or refute them?
Meyerhoff et al. are as much a hook for (negative) projections as Wilber is, that much has become clear, given the strongly emotional negative responses about his work I have read on kenwilber.com. (People are not informed, they are affected by his writings -- a sure sign of shadow elements, as Wilber has explained so well in his early works).
Come on people. The work of independently validating Wilber's proposals hasn't even started.
 For more on Ken Wilber's take on evolution, check out:
June 25, 2006.