Frank Visser founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997 (back then under the name of "The World of Ken Wilber"). He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: "Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion" (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website. He currently is Service Desk Manager at the Dutch divison of the global online marketing agency LBi.
The upcoming 1st Biennial Integral Theory Conference at John F. Kennedy University this coming August, naturally makes one wonder about Ken Wilber's relationship to the world of academia. To my mind, several factors hinder the general acceptance of Wilber's ideas in the academic world. Let's take them one by one, using material published earlier on this website.
One of the phrases en vogue of late to define his contribution to science was to call him "the most translated academic author in the United States". Until recently, this phrase could be found on the Wilber biography page on Integral World, until I rephrased it as "the most translated writer on consciousness studies", which is probably more accurate, as one of the visitors of Integral World suggested.
When it comes to "integral theory"what is meant here is, of course, "Wilberian theory"the first thing to ask is: does such a thing exist at all? In Wilber's work we find opinions, views, hunches, claims, statements, hypotheses, theories, meta-theories, visionary poetry, mystical exhortations.... Where shall we begin with the process of sober validation?
For instance, how does "integral theory" relate to the scientific categories of hypothesis, model, theory, law and paradigm? How do Wilber's "three types of science" mesh with the generally accepted "scientific method"?
When, in fact, does something qualify as a theory in the first place? Only when it has become "well established".
According to the National Academy of Sciences:
Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature that is supported by many facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena.
And exactly that is still a matter of debate when it comes to integral theory. One of the Integral Theory Conference theme's is "Does Wilber = Integral?". I don't mind limiting integral theory to Wilber's versions of itnot at all, if only to retain focus. What I do mind is that Wilber's phrasing and presentation of his theories is often far from scientific, in so many ways.
"An Unknown Celebrity"
Wouter J. Hanegraaff, author of the well-known New Age Religion and Western Culture, once wrote in a review of my book on Wilber, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, which has been posted on Integral World:
Ken Wilber is an unknown celebrity (...) In university circles, interest in Wilber is practically nil [this was written in 2002]: few psychologists of religion or religious studies scholars know his name, let alone that they have read his work. The reason for this is not hard to find: Wilber approaches the psychology of religion and the analysis of religion and culture from a decidedly "spiritual" perspective, based on specific mystical beliefs; and his books are not published by prestigious University Presses but by theosophical or otherwise esoterically-oriented publishing houses. For an author with academic ambitions this is fatal. Wilber is seen by psychologists and religious studies scholars as a New Age author, from whom of course one cannot expect any serious contribution to scholarly debate. (emphasis added)
However, this impression is not wholly justfied, Hanegraaff continues:
While such a reaction is understandable enough, there are in fact arguments in favor of Visser's statement that Wilber writes "academic" books. If one takes the trouble to study his oeuvre, one discovers a highly intelligent and critical thinker, whose work is rooted in a thorough familiarity with the professional literature of the psychology and sociology of religion, and who decidedly intends to contribute to the academic debate. The problem is that all this is done on the basis of mystical-spiritual axioms, the truth of which, for Wilber, is beyond any doubt. Can an "integral" psychology of religion, and an analysis of religion and culture in all their dimensions, be based upon religious axioms without losing its scientific credibility?
One might also add: the problem is that Ken Wilberwhatever his conscious intentions may beactually never enters any academic debate.
Of course, Wilber's books are sometimes packed with endnotes and references, most notably his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1996), which contained about 250 pages of notes and references following a main text of slightly over 500 pages.
In "Boldness Revisited" I once commented that Wilber is more of a generalist who really should talk to specialists, which made him reply that "this critic has apparently never read the end notes of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality" -- implying that the fact of having many end notes in a book guarantees their truth value.
In the academic world, referencing one's claims with logic and evidence is just taken for granted.
My point was and is that Ken Wilber can write whatever he wants about postmodernism, perennialism or any other subject under the sun, without ever running a chance to be corrected by specialists at all.
As Jonathan Coope, a Wilber critic who's just finished his PhD, humorously commented:
But no matter how many footnotes Wilber freights his texts with, and no matter how factually accurate they may be, it would 'prove' nothing to us about the quality of his vision. The libraries of our academies creak with worthy tomes that are brim-full with footnotes of the most scholarly kind and yet which leave us 'none the wiser'.
Being an academic means much more then commenting on, criticizing or even attacking the published works of one's colleaguesit means even more, actively welcoming this type of feedback on one's own writings, and at the very least informing the interested lay reader of its existence.
However, when it comes to responding to criticism, especially as published on Integral World, Wilber's track record leaves much to be desired.
"A Specific Type of Integrity"
Geoffrey Falk, an acerbic and "strong negative" Wilber critic who has written a book-length critique of Wilber, has approvingly and instructively quoted Richard Feynman, during the heyday of the Wilberian Evolution debate, of which I will for now spare you the messy details, on another issue related to Wilber's scientific credibility.
Feyman, physicist and Nobel prize winner, once famously speeched on the phenomenon of "cargo cult science""work that has the semblance of being scientific, but is missing 'a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty.'" (See: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!)
Feynman described this integrity as a prime requirement for science:
[T]here is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school--we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it.
Now pay attention, for this is crucial:
If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.
There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another....
We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science. (emphasis added)
So different from the rhetoric of "the evidence is overwhelming", which Wilber so frequently deploys.
And since Ken Wilber is so much into popularizationm these days, this further comment from Feynman is good to take note of as well:
I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you're not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We'll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen. (emphasis added)
This is a quality that I have found consistently to be lacking in Wilber's writings, increasingly so in his more recent ones. Wilber's current prose has the quality of a sales manager, who tries to sell his theories/products to as many students and lay people as possible, abundantly praising the benefits of his model, but rarely if every going into the thorny matter of its validity.
Not to mention, facing the all-important question: what possible criticism could be levelled against it? And second best: what criticism has already been levelled against it?
"Better Get Used to It"
Some years ago, Wilber critic Andy Smith, in his essay "Contextualizing Ken", a review of Jeff Meyerhoff's Bald Ambition, published on Integral World, has written perceptively on Wilber's problematic relationship to the world of academia:
Ken Wilber, therefore, writes on a sort of honor system. It's largely up to him to get his facts straight, his ideas coherent, his citations accurate, because no one really holds his feet to the fire. Other, more conventional scholars are of course free to criticize his work, but relatively few seem to do so.
Why they don't is a very interesting question.
One reason, most likely, is Wilber's emphasis on higher states of consciousness, which relatively few mainstream scholars have probably experienced and take seriously.
A second reason may be that many of these scholars, expressing a mixture of justifiable suspicion and deep-rooted prejudice, simply don't trust authors who sidestep the academic review process and take their case directly to the public.
Ken himself, however, seems to think a large part of the problem is that he's not well enough known. One of the major purposes (if not the only purpose) of the Integral Institute he recently founded is to promote his work in ivory towers, and he points proudly to graduate programs in a few North American and European universities that now make use of his books.
But given the substantial distribution of these books--they are found in college town bookstores all over the country, if not the developed world--Wilber is kidding himself if he thinks his ideas need more publicity, that the problem is simply that most scholars are not aware of them. If Al Gore has read Ken Wilber, and Oprah Winfrey has had him on her show, it's safe to say that most university philosophers have heard of him. And they have pretty much made up their minds where they stand.
So Wilber is no secret waiting to be discovered by mainstream scholars. On the other hand, if his efforts through II actually do succeed in making some headway in academia, he might come to regret it. The surest sign that scholars are paying attention to your ideas is that they give them the one thing Wilber has a history of avoiding, denying and ignoring: criticism....
If he really wants to be discussed widely in universities, he needs to learn that "you just don't understand my ideas" is not an adequate response to critics. (emphasis added)
As readers of this site will know by now, Ken Wilber has never responded to Jeff Meyerhoff's extensive criticism, other than by emotional outbursts and occasional sound bites, disqualifying Meyerhoff as a "bad critic" in the strongest possible terms.
I consider this one of the tragedies in my involvement with Wilber's work.
A sober debate about the matters raised by Meyerhoff, Harris, Edwards, Smith and many others, would have been an enrichment to the field of integral philosophy, and would have increased Wilber's credibility as a philosopher. Lack of time is no excuse. If there's time to socialize with celebrities...
For as Andy Smith concludes his thoughtful review:
Even those who disagree profoundly with Meyerhoff's analysis of Wilber should recognize that he provides valuable insight into how much of academia at this point probably regards Ken. What Meyerhoff says--and yes, how he says it--is very representative of the kind of discourse that actually takes place among academics today.
Wilber and his supporters in the Integral Institute may not like it, but if they are really serious about getting beyond what is looking more and more like a cult surrounding Wilber, they better get used to it. (emphasis added)
Good Response, Non-Response, Bad Response
A decade ago, in January 1997, a three-day "Wilber Conference" was held at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. It was decidedly critical, though respectful in tone towards Wilber. Being the sequel to a three volume series of ReVision Journalironically a magazine once co-founded by Wilber himselfwhich was devoted to Wilber's work, transpersonal colleagues discussed and debated Wilber's main ideas and Wilber replied. The proceedings were edited and expanded by Donald Rothberg and Sean Kelly in the excellent Ken Wilber in Dialogue (Quest Books).
One of the main points of criticism raised during this conference, was an ethical one: how a "spiritual dialogue" should be carried out. By respectfully exchanging views, or by sharply denouncing the views of one's opponent (this was in response to the rather polemic nature of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality). Nobody at that time could foresee that this particular dismissive aspect of Wilber's personality would run completely out of hand during the Wyatt Earp Episode of June 2006.
That traumatic episode was felt by many to be a grave mistake on the part of Wilber when it comes to respondingor not-respondingto criticism. Many also voiced as their opinion that Wilber, instead of rationalizing his acting-out towards me and Integral World as some kind of spiritual litmus test, should have apologized for this.
As Jeff Arnold, a concerned former Wilber-fan wrote:
I no longer think that we can resolve this situation by forgetting all about it and putting it behind us. By the look of things at Integral World as well as kenwilber.com lines have been drawn and the divides have opened up.
In my opinion the burden of reconciliation lies squarely with Ken Wilber (...). I hope he can rise to the occasion and help to re-integrate the integral community.
Or, to paraphrase the famous scene in the movie "What About Bob?" with Bill Murray as incurable patient and Richard Dreyfuss as narcissistic psychiatrist on the brink of fame who tries to get rid of him, but continuously and spectacularly fails:
Audience: "What about Frank?"
Wilber: "What about him?"
Audience: "You have to apologize to Frank!"
Wilber: "Uhmm. Well... Okay... I... apologize to Frank..."
Anyway, Ken Wilber, true to his own principles, did not participate in this conference. Soon after, he left the field of transpersonal psychology altogether, to start his own field of integral psychology, in which he is basically free to do and say whatever he likes, not bothered by any critical colleagues. And he even started his own university, Integral University, which has now linked up with some "real world" universities, such as JFK.
One really hopes that the upcoming Integral Theory Conference mentioned above provides an opportunity to take the Wilber debate to the next level. However, looking over the programme, one gets the feeling that a kind of Wilber celebration is staged, where application is mistaken for validation. Critical contributions are few and far between. A community of the like-minded can very easily become an impediment for an objective assessment of any theory. Integral theory is no exception.
Incidentally, largely in response to the Ken Wilber in Dialogue book, Wilber planned to do a volume with essays by well-known authors in the field of consciousness studies and spirituality, tentatively called Kindred Visions, for which I was contracted by Shambhala as one of its editors. Scheduled to appear around 2002, it has not yet seen the light of day.
On Staying Sober
What exactly bothers me in all this was brought home to me when I read a text from Wilber that had so far escaped my attention. In 2005, in a new foreword to a reprint of A Sociable God, originally published in 1983, Wilber wrote as the opening lines:
A Sociable God is still one of my favorite books. It's central points, I am happy to report, are as valid today as they were when the book was first published. In fact, I am even happier to report, I believe it's essential message is even more important, more valid then ever.
This rather self-hypnotic statement is followed by a 82 (!) page exposition of his current view of religion and spirituality. Where the original edition of A Sociable God at least contained some references to other scientists in the field (especially, Dick Anthony, a sociologist of religion close to Wilber), this new text has none of this. As if in the past quarter of a century nothing of real value has been accomplished in this field of science that merits any mention, not even in passing.
In this foreword, called "Methodological Outlaw", Wilber tells us he has consciously stayed out of academia, because of its methodological narrowness and the fruitless competition between the various schools:
I was a methodological outlaw in the very inclusiveness of the methodology itself [i.e. integral methodological pluralism]. My approach was outlawed in both cultural and countercultural academies, not because it was partial, but because it was radically holistic. I included those things that shouldn't be included, I embraced those methodologies that were pox-ridden for the orthodox, I loved those injunctions despised by those in power, I reached out to those experiences in the margin and beyond. In including all sides of the argument, I was disowned by all sides.
This self-styled heroism betrays a kind of disconnectedness from the field of science. Independence is fine, but when does it become "fatal"? Wilber further ignores the fact that in academia, ultimately it is sound argumentation and public debate that counts.
In my opinion, to open up Wilber's views to the academic world, this self-referential discourse has to be abandoned. This pathos of "we are at the forefront of a new type of science"so understandable for people who are new to this type of literatureis actually a hindrance.
As the (anonymous) writer of "The Wilber Effect" wrote:
The process of science and philosophy requires a state of mind that is alert and interested but not in this state of intoxicated, enthralled fascination.
One reason why the language of academia is so calm and mannered is to ensure that people stay awake and lucid and AVOID the kind of verbal intoxication that is incompatible with creating science and philosophy.
I could not agree more. Consider this, then, to be my contribution to the Integral Theory Conference. Admittedly more a meditation on process then on content, but then again, we have to start somewhere when the validation of integral theory is to be set on the future agenda..
- Mark Forman & Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, The Academic Emergence of Integral Theory
- Frank Visser, Rebuilding Integral Bridges