An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded 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.


Talking Back To Wilber

A Call for Validation

Frank Visser

A couple of years ago Wilber asked me to be the DA (Devil's Advocate) of the newly formed Integral Institute, for the European region (for which Brian van der Horst would function as Central Facilitator). The assignment was, among other things, to flag whenever the Integral Institute was “less then integral”. Also, for the projected Kindred Visions book, Wilber asked me, as one of its editors, to collect all online criticism of his work.

I have taken up that role, perhaps too seriously for his tastes, since then, and have collected over 150 essays on integral philosophy in the Reading Room of These come from all over the world, but mostly from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Many of these, but not all of them, have been critical of Wilber's version of integralism, or aspects thereof. Let me explain a bit how I see the value of these writings. Perhaps many of you have wondered why the author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion has been giving Wilber such a hard time.

First off, the Reading Room provides space for reflection on all things integral in a non-promotional and non-commercial setting – a conditio sine qua non for objectivity.

As is well known, Wilber hasn't paid much attention to these essays, except for some minor cases a few years back, when he posted brief replies to the authors (the reply to John Heron being the exception to that exception, where the response was lengthy). He even asked me to post a "note of warning” to readers of these essays, stating that whenever they criticized his views, across the board they were unreliable. (A statement that was – of course I would say – contested by some of the main contributors to the Reading Room).

What do these critical essays essentially have in common? It can be brought down to this sentence:

Things are not as simple, sturdy, straightforward, or sweeping as Wilber suggests.

To paraphrase John Kerry in the last U.S. election campaign, they give this message to Wilber: “You can be brilliant and wrong”.

To Wilber believers, even to suggest this is offensive. To Wilber students with a more scientific/philosophic bent, this would be a legitimate and even very obvious way to assess the validity of his teachings.

To elaborate, these essays usually are a call for validation ('what's the proof for this statement?'), clarification ('what is meant by this terminology?') and qualification ('does this statement hold true in all cases?'), and they often present alternatives that try to correct these perceived shortcomings. IMO, this should all be standard practice for a school of thought that claims to be scientifically and/or philosophically sound.

Let's face it: Wilber has said tons of things on tons of theories (or theorists). Confronted with this enormous output, we can take one of two roads. One — the religious approach — is, take everything he has said and written on his word, apply these insights if they make sense, and move on. The other — the scientific stance — is: take his statements as a lead for further reflection and research, and start the toilsome business of double checking his sources, validating his statements, or challenging them in the sense of coming up with counter-examples, pointing out inconsistencies, or adding more precision then can be found in Wilber's (often popularized) publications.

Actually, this is a win-win strategy. If Wilber is validated, good for him. If not, good for truth. Wasn't that after all what we were looking for, when we started reading Wilber?

I hold the second road for more interesting, since the first is taken by thousands and thousands of Wilber readers already — to whom I count myself, believe it or not, too. This poses a danger for integral communities, when the validation step is deemed unnecessary given Wilber's erudition and fluent writing skills. For why bother about postmodernism, perennialism, feminism, relativism, or any other —ism, if Wilber has told us what and how to think about these fields? This inevitably strengthens the conditioning and cultic tendencies latent in all spiritual communities, including the integral ones – When such a group starts his own Integral University, chances are high that it will become a religious school where integral concepts are taught to its students (after which they receive certifications), instead of a true university, where theories and beliefs are validated regardless of ones own private convictions. Where criticsism is invited and welcomed.

For that reason a while back I posted this quote from Spiritual Choices at the top of the Reading Room page:

"Does the group allow free and rational inquiry into its teachings? Or does it discourage or even prevent critical analysis of its own tenets? Does it allow or encourage comparison and assessment of its methods and teachings with those of other paths, not as propaganda but as free inquiry? A transrational group will usually insist on this; a pre-rational group will avoid it." (Spiritual Choices, 1987, p. 248).

Does the Integral Institute allow free and rational inquiry into its teachings? Does it encourage comparison and assessment of its methods and teachings? Are critics invited to speak with equal passion as Wilber uses when expounding his views? I don't think so, or not enough – at least not publicly. The standard reply that Wilber is in constant contact with his critics, through private phonecalls and conversations with (anonymous) members of the Integral Institute, is a bit odd. Science is a public affair. As Daniel Dannett once wrote: "Science is about making mistakes in public". I couldn't agree more. It is not about celebrating your own ideas within your own organization.

How often don't we see that critics are considered “attackers” that integral has to be “defended” from? Are we getting anywhere without debate? When are critics and specialists really invited to the table? How often does it not happen that critics are discredited, or, for whatever reason disqualified to comment on Wilber's works? (“Misrepresentation” being the most common complaint. Being “green”, mean or not, ending as second best. To which now has been added: "altitudinally" impaired ;-)

To come to my point, what has been especially interesting for me over the years is to spot cases where groups who have been criticized by Wilber actually start talking back. Surprisingly, this hasn't happened that much (so whenever it happens, it caught my attention). Where are the Jungians, the feminists, the relativists, scholars of mysticism, the ecologists, scholars of Aurobindo, Habermas etc., the chaos theorists, etc., to respond to whatever Wilber has written about them in his many works? What about cognitive science, Artificial Intelligence, evolutionary biology?

It isn't enough to tell these fields: “We have a quadrant reserved for you, and whatever you come up with, we will generously include in that quadrant.” What if these fields come up with conclusions that contradict the AQAL framework? What if the research done in these fields has proven to be fruitful, even if limited? What does AQAL theory have to offer to these fields in terms of research programmes? Does AQAL theory have its own research programme or is it more an exercise in classification (first into quadrants, then into memes, and now into primordial perspectives)?

And most important of all – does anybody care at all in the academic world?

Jeff Meyerhoff's "Bald Ambition", serialized on this website, is in my opinion a good example of a sustained effort to reflect on core integral concepts from a particular perspective, postmodernist in this case. I have seen all defense mechanisms in action in responses to this work: ignoring, ridiculing, dismissing, discrediting. Fact is, finally somebody takes the trouble to start the enormously difficult task of independently validating the integral project. You can agree with Meyerhoff or disagree, but the effort itself is timely, relevant and useful. In fact, there should be dozens of this type of studies done, in all of the fields mentioned above.

The integral field could use some dialectic – to put it mildly. Over the past ten years, Integral World (formerly known as the World of Ken Wilber website, which started in 1997) has tried to include as many different voices as possible.* I am looking forward to a future with many integral journals and conferences, where integral concepts are openly discussed – both as to their strenghts but even more so as to their weaknesses, both online and in the offline world. That's the only way it can mature beyond the limitations it currently has. Without it, integral might very well end up as an ideology.

*See also: A Spectrum of Critics

May 2006.

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