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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
The Spearfish Position Paper
Daniel Gustav Anderson
I have claimed elsewhere (“Nonviolence”) that the time has come to consider what integral theory after the intervention of Ken Wilber looks like, or could and should look like. This paper outlines one way to move forward.
Disclosure: I distinguish carefully between the work and the methods of Ken Wilber inclusive of its reception in integral studies as historical artifacts as the particular object of consideration at present, and not the personality or the biological person named Ken Wilber, who is not under consideration here.
Selling people your ideas as though they are uniquely epoch-making hardly constitutes the basis of a reasonable, good-faith conversation or debate. All this is a dead end for integral theory.
Contrary to some appearances, the terms “integral studies,” “integral theory,” and Ken Wilber” are not synonymous or conterminous. They are not the same thing and should not be equated. They should be considered instead as distinct from one another, and their relationship should be examined. How are they different?
Integral studies and integral pedagogy existed practically, theoretically, and institutionally well before Ken Wilber took up the term “integral” to describe his own work, as in the pioneering labor of Haridas Chaudhuri at California Institute of Integral Studies. Whatever one's evaluation of it, one must recognize that Ervin Laszlo's work lies squarely in the field of integral studies, but it is not an extension of Wilber's in any obvious sense. Historically, these objects (Wilberism and integral theory) are distinct. More abstractly, I have proposed that oppositional means of making knowledge arise in relation to different forms of social formation since capital began taking over the world (“Such a Body”), which would mean that something like or analogous to integral praxis is also as old as capitalism, which is to say, as old as modernity (of which more in a moment).
Secondly, Wilber's project is not producing new concepts anymore or participating on equal terms in the integral conversation. In a representative instance, Tomislav Markus's incisive review of the book Integral Ecology, "Pitfalls of Wilberian Ecology", published at the Integral World website, shows how Wilber's metaphysical claims are repeated as a kind of catechism presented as science, instead of advancing a properly scientific method. Broadly, Integral Life is a means of selling integral products, commodities of conviction; not new concepts or new knowledge, but repackaged and recontextualized Wilber in the form of self-improvement products, for profit (Integral-brand coaching, Integral-brand spiritual practice, Integral-brand whatever-comes-next). Selling people your ideas as though they are uniquely epoch-making hardly constitutes the basis of a reasonable, good-faith conversation or debate. All this is a dead end for integral theory, profitable as it might (or might not?) be for Wilber and his circle. If knowledge-production is to be a form of service to a public or a world, it ought not to be singularly proprietary but instead a gift in an exchange, a free and open conversation among responsible persons.
Consequently, the presupposition that integral equals Wilber, that to do integral theory is to be a devotee of Ken Wilber, must be cut through and disposed of as so much spiritual materialism to make room for more productive work. Further, if my idea that oppositional means of knowledge, provisionally defined as forms of personal and cultural resistance to systematic injustice, unkindness, irresponsibility, and insanity in and out of one's mind-space constitute the historical birth of integral theory in a recognizable form has any merit (I admit it may or it may not), then it follows that one future for integral studies may lie in such critical practices. I make this claim with the qualification that not all oppositional practices and methods bear useful fruit; Stalinism, say, is a curse and not a blessing (and is not in my view oppositional at all, another debatable point); for this reason, analytic care and sober judgment are required in making positive claims about this or that method in any context. [Further, I will bracket the predictable counterargument that canonical integral writers such as Aurobindo, Gebser, Teilhard, or Wilber are not necessarily consistently or clearly oppositional in the sense I describe here, because this canon has yet to be justified except as a selection of writers Wilber and his followers tend to cite, that in itself surely an invitation to further inquiry.]
So: forget Spiral Dynamics, forget The Passion of the Western Mind, take a pass on The Integral Life Practice Starter Kit? Instead reach for Education for Critical Consciousness and The Arcades Project? Yes, but not exactly that.
2. What does it mean to be “After Wilber”?
No integral work is possible at present without engaging with Wilber's project or his legacy.
Ken Wilber has made a substantial, perhaps overpowering, contribution to integral theory. His project casts a long, broad shadow over the work any of us do; consequently, no integral work is possible at present without engaging with Wilber's project or his legacy. That the extent of this influence is unwarranted and the objective importance of Wilber's contribution often overestimated (see the hyperbolic promotional claims made on the back of any print edition of Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, presumably taken at face value by someone) is for practical purposes beside the point, although it is worth noting that Wilber is cited far more frequently in integral scholarship than his work in my opinion merits (a speculative bubble in Wilber Studies formed, which burst as it became obvious Wilber's significance is founded on speculation, taken on an imperialistic form of faith and not substance or practical science or simple reason).
My first point under this head, then, is that “after Wilber” does not mean “following Wilber.” It means a reflexive, critical, good-faith engagement with and evaluation of Wilber's legacy, taking stock of where the field stands vis a vis Wilber's project. It may well be this position paper is off the mark; I say let this be debated on the merits. Some of this work has been ongoing for some time now.
Nor does “after Wilber” mean rejecting Wilberism, or leaving it behind. This would be irresponsible, given the extent of the engagement (or investment) of integral studies with Wilberism. No: Wilber's positions should not be lionized or canonized or made to seem more important than they are, but neither should they be uncritically abandoned. A better approach would be to address Wilber's impact as one historical phenomenon like any other, an artifact: understanding its conditions of possibility, its development over time and in context, and its eventual decline. To be really appreciated in good faith, Wilberism must be understood in an integral way. Let that reckoning begin.
Approached differently, to cut through spiritual materialism is not to practice amnesia or evasion; it is to understand the pattern fully, to recognize it, and with a fine file scrape it away, leaving sawdust and greater rigor and nuance behind. This means that it would be more useful for academic conferences on integral theory and integral studies to take up precisely this kind of reflexive and critical analysis, rather than uncritically “applying AQAL” to this or that object, this or that discipline.
I will venture to claim at present that there are ways in which Wilber's project is obviously in need of correction, however. I submit one for consideration, and propose in advance some characteristics of practical knowledge-making that I think would be useful in future integral work.
3. Lacunae: The Case of Cultural Studies
These are mainstream Cultural Studies treatments that Wilber's work would have very much benefited from exposure to.
Wilber's often unfounded declarations against straw-man versions of the positions of others have introduced lacunae into the conversation among integralists that hinder development in the field, particularly with regard to the humanities (dismissed as mean and green), Cultural Studies, and Critical Theory, and unfortunately help to move integral studies to the political right past the point where any imperative to transformation seems plausible (recalling that conservatism is defined by its deference to tradition and imperative to maintain the status quo, the definitional opposite of a transformational regime). This problem arises even in unexpected places. For instance, Steven Nickeson's essay on the Integral World website "Integral Province: Sensualist move on…"celebrating sensualism in opposition to a kind of metaphysical constipation that characterizes contemporary integral culture (a claim I certainly agree with), unfortunately repeats a common misperception that must be put to rest:
Matthew Dallman, whose essays I generally appreciate, lacks the Wilberian sized fan base but wants to re-educate the masses back into an unconditioned veneration of the Canon of Western Humanities so as to liberate it from the Pomo running dogs of Euro-American Critical Theory and their stooges from Cultural Studies. This is a cabal that Wilber regularly excoriates but in Dallman's mind Wilber is one of the worst offenders—tense times.
Even as Nickeson is hardly a Wilberian, Wilber's unwarranted and counterproductive biases against Cultural Studies are reproduced here. There are several problems in this brief passage worth exploring. First, on the canon. Wilber's historiography and rhetorical strategy relies heavily on canon and canonicity (the "descenders," the "ascenders," and the rest are represented by figures in intellectual history such as Hegel and Schelling as though their mind-stuff is a plausible agent of historical change). So, when Dallman tries to "return" the focus back to the canon, a typical move for an American neoconservative (compare this to the polemics of Allan Bloom and the Chicago "great books" pedagogy, or the half-baked intellectual history that dominates Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality), Dallman in a certain sense is asking for Wilber to be more of an American neoconservative, which is to say, like Wilber himself. Second, the humanities as understood at present were hardly designed as conservative holders of a mystical canon of Great Meaning. For instance, English studies, as Raymond Williams (pioneer in Cultural Studies) has shown, arose precisely as a way to reach people who were excluded from the conservative educational programs of the day, working people and women; it was later absorbed into institutional education and made conservative of God-and-Nation values (think I.A. Richards, the great Hegelian who in my opinion exerted a great influence over early integralists James Cousins and Aurobindo Ghose). Let us not take these canons as given; let us instead look askance at them instead, and try to think critically about them as historical artifacts. What one may call "unconditioned veneration," I think is more plausibly regarded as uncritical idolatry.
Second, who are these "Pomo running dogs" Nickeson refers to, and what is their relationship to Cultural Studies? Here, Nickeson is simply repeating the rather childish mudslinging gestures against Cultural Studies and in a related way Gender Studies that Wilber puts forward in Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality and particularly memorably in the disastrous Boomeritis. By contrast, Cultural Studies, a young tradition of intellectual practice with its roots in the pioneering work of E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Stuart Hall, seems to me to be as integral a project as any other: further, I invite the reader to recall Antonio Gramsci's calls for integral history so seminal for Cultural Studies, for starters (I gloss some of this territory in “Nonviolence” and in a more detailed way in “This Body”). To give a better example, consider Peter Dews' careful work in Critical Theory in understanding the postmodern and the poststructural as a specific form of discourse (a contradictory one) in Logics of Disintegration. Look at Jameson's book Postmodernism, look at David Harvey's book The Condition of Postmodernity, look at Paul Smith's book Millennial Dreams. Read them carefully. These are mainstream Cultural Studies treatments that Wilber's work would have very much benefited from exposure to, in place of the flaky Jungian or Hegelian surveys of intellectual history that prevail in it and that of Wilber's followers. One can also see from these texts that Cultural Studies is hardly an unambiguously comfortable home for "pomo." On the contrary, Cultural Studies has instead been one of the few spaces in which a rigorous, historically-conscious, and in this sense integral critique of rhetorics of the "postmodern" have been possible. Further, it should be obvious (particularly following Dews) that "pomo" and "Critical Theory" are hardly subsumable under one another or fungible with each other, a distinction that bears emphasizing in the present context, insofar as the strength of Cultural Studies as a field of inquiry is in part a function of its engagement with Critical Theory.
Where the problematic of politics and history show some serious limitations in Wilberian theory (diagnosed in “Such a Body” and “Sweet Science” especially), Cultural Studies properly considered offers a broad and deep archive of material of real worth to integral studies, as well as an advance on an integral framework to begin such inquiry. Cultural Studies is not exhaustive and does not offer the Profound Final Paradigm (thankfully, Cultural Studies in the main has refrained from promising the Last Answer), but it is a useful corrective to certain lacunae in Wilberian work. Unfortunately, it is unavailable to integralists unless and until Wilber's bizarre fatwa against this oppositional form of knowledge-production is critically examined and cut through.
And for this reason, Wilberism's refusal to engage with Cultural Studies is one straightforward example of how integral theory following Wilber would benefit from a careful examination of its own premises and preconditions. Integralists may be missing something important, more than one something perhaps.
4. Moving forward: some characteristics of integral theory with a future
There are good-faith disagreements among friends. Real friends help each other disagree more competently, and see each other in themselves.
Integral theory should be critical. By this I mean it should be dialectical; it should be scientific and examined as such, rather than transmitted as a belief-structure or a cult object. Universal and essentializing claims should be eschewed in favor of properly warranted, demonstrated, and delineated ones. If one is inclined to speculate and explore ideas with a freer hand as I myself often do, or when one sees that evidence is lacking for an idea that may reward further investigation, such speculations and ideas should be marked for what they are: explorations, thought experiments, provisional claims, possibilities for future inquiry, or (to borrow from David Lane) an instance of unknowingness. In short, integral theory should be critically self-aware of how it makes knowledge, and how that knowledge functions politically and socially. The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School has much to offer in this regard, as does the pedagogy of Paulo Freire.
It should be compassionate. The purpose of integral work should be to alleviate the sufferings of the totality of others, to work for the objective well-being of all beings. This means each intervention or challenge must be made with an eye toward remedying a specific problem of opening a particular opportunity to be of use to others. Integral theory must be critical (that is, conscious of its own investments and the consequences of its methodology) in order to be compassionate in this sense. The point is not to make a trademarked product line for the purpose of accumulating private wealth from a pool of True Believers, nor is it to win an argument for the sake of winning. The point is not to attain any kind of advanced state of consciousness or enlightened condition. The point is to be useful; one model for this kind of compassionate action is that of upaya or skillful means as presented in the Lotus Sutra, a pinnacle of Mahayana Buddhist pedagogy.
It should be competent, increasingly competent, at doing critical and compassionate work. Failing that, it must avail itself of criticism and to continue developing and producing new concepts. Here, the function of conversation becomes significant: the model of the philosopher-sage repeating timeless-wisdom-units with his (always his) metaphorical sleeves rolled up to reveal his mighty writerly biceps should be replaced by a gathering of knowledgeable, committed friends in earnest debate, where the success of each participant is a success for the group since all had a hand in it and all learned from it (the vanguardist undertone here is intentional). There are good-faith disagreements among friends. Real friends help each other disagree more competently, and see each other in themselves. The process must be agonistic, not antagonistic (as it was in the preposterous “Earpy Episode”); a symposium, not a snake-oil revival.
It should be conscious, situationally aware of the social and political consequences and investments of the work at hand, and conscious of the work as a form of skillful means. This is a precondition of truly transformative practice. What change does one seek to make in the world, and how does one's work propose to make such a change? In this sense, future integral work must be purposive, that is, directed toward an intentional and explicit aim, in the absence of which one is left with rudderless and uncoordinated acts of kindness (which are nice but not always productive) or indiscriminate and unfocused acts of critique. If a “Leninist turn” toward critical consciousness in transformational practice is possible in integral theory, as I hint at with the references to Zizek in “Syntheses,” then this situational consciousness is a necessary precondition.
Apropos of skillful means, the last of Marx's “Theses on Feuerbach bears repeating, as it had marked an earlier transition from idealistic toward critical work:
“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern.”
In English, this reads:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
As theory is clarified, so must practice also be clarified and put into action.
Elements of this proposal were developed at my blog, For The Turnstiles, and are available for consideration there (for those who find the workshop bits as interesting as the finished work). See for-the-turnstiles.blogspot.com.
On the title: Spearfish is a handsome red stone town in the bosom of the Black Hills of South Dakota, U.S.A. The Spearfish Canyon is surely a sacred place. I include its name in the title of this position paper because the contents of my position were sharpened while I was at rest while exploring this place in the cold autumn of 2009, and because it sounds right in American English.