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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Daniel Gustav AndersonDaniel Gustav Anderson is presently a graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. His interests include critical theory, ecology, and European and South Asian traditions of dialectical thinking. He is the author of "Of Syntheses and Surprises: Toward a Critical Integral Theory", "Such a Body We Must Create: New Theses on Integral Micropolitics" and "Sweet Science:” A Proposal for Integral Macropolitics", which have been published in Integral Review.

Problems and Opportunities in Integral Cultural Criticism

Departing from Spheres of Awareness

Daniel Gustav Anderson

Lough, James and Patricia Herron, eds. Spheres of Awareness: A Wilberian Integral Approach to Literature, Philosophy, Psychology, and Art. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2009. Print.

Spheres of Awareness

Lough and Herron's volume takes up an issue that is of central importance to integral thinking: the cultural and the literary. It is an uneven effort. The problems in Spheres of Awareness, however, indicate potential directions for productive work in the future. How so?

Spheres of Awareness proposes a Wilberian approach to cultural phenomena, emphasizing literature and philosophy. But the volume's editors never touch the question of why this is warranted. Why Ken Wilber, why literature? It is true, as the editors suggest in the introduction, that Ken Wilber values literary and philosophic objects and discourses, and that this may matter to some readers because Wilber values Depth in opposition to the presumed but not demonstrated surface-only or “external” emphasis of contemporary discourse in the humanities. To the editors' mind, then, Wilber's values are superior to those of the straw-man versions of critical theorists they construct. This does not adequately address the issue of whether or not Wilber's approach is warranted, and if so, how.

Nor does it touch the question of how or in what way such a consideration of literature and philosophy specifically is warranted. Why literature? What can literature and philosophy, and the act of critical reading, teach us about ourselves and our situation among others? To be clear, my own conviction is that literature and philosophy are of primary importance; this is why literary and philosophical examples penetrate my own thinking to such an extent. These are vital, breathing archives, with real power to change minds and lives. Unfortunately, the Spheres of Awareness volume does not provide a systematic framework for understanding the role of such literature for integral practice, or even mapping out just what a literary object is today.

This means that the overall project is rudderless from its first principles, even though many of the essays offer useful insights. As an integral whole the book is without a center of gravity, without a trajectory. Several problems follow from this. I will touch on three of them briefly.

  • One: the straw-man treatment of critical theory I alluded to above leads the editors and authors to ignore forms of scholarship, forms of engaged critique that do, in fact, value “depth,” transformation, consciousness, and subjective experience. These would include the dialectic of consciousness and conditions in the Birmingham tradition of Cultural Studies, the critical utopianism of the Frankfurt School and associated thinkers (e.g. Ernst Bloch), and the “organic intellectual” of Gramscian practice, among others. One might except Linda E. Olds' essay in Spheres of Awareness, on Carl Jung, from this criticism if one is willing to regard Jung as a critical thinker.
  • Two: There is no systematic attempt here to account for the limitations of and problems in Wilberian theory from its premises, such as those presented in the work of Jeff Meyerhoff, Frank Visser, David Lane and (less significantly) the present author. Such an account would have made the work critical. Such an account would have made a rigorous attempt to work through those problems possible, and would consequently have represented a valuable advance in our understanding. It should be noted that Brian Hines' probing and well-presented essay on Wilber's use of Plotinus is an instance where Spheres of Awareness moves in this direction, to the credit of the whole. In passing here, I find it curious that a volume on Wilber and literature would have so little to say about Wilber's literary practice overall. One wonders how would a Wilberian cultural critic account for a text with literary pretension such as Boomeritis.
  • Three: Perhaps because it is unclear to the editors what problem the project attempts to address, it is difficult to identify the conceptual threads that should hold the essays in this volume together. This is an especially important consideration for a project in integral studies, where wholes and relations among parts and different scales count for something. Yes, all of the essays have something to say about Ken Wilber, and about literature, but what if the project had offered an integral (integrated and systematic!) approach to a specified problem?

I am laying these problems out for two fundamental reasons. First, because this material matters, and not only for its own sake. It is not enough to merely assume that culture matters. It is necessary to account for this assumption in order to make a premise of it. One way to do it: Cultural objects bring the facts of personal and social being to consciousness with great power and pleasure, and the best of them go further and propose ways and means toward transforming both personal and social being. From this premise, it becomes obvious why cultural matters are of primary importance to any integral project, and why attempts to come to grips with them should be taken very seriously.

For these reasons, Spheres of Awareness can offer a springboard into future work insofar as the problems I describe above are taken up and worked through dialectically in new work. Second, this volume's lacunae are worth airing they may be representative of work of this kind. What does Spheres of Awareness tell us about the state of Wilberian literary criticism as a whole? That such criticism has yet to identify its object, its methods, or its rationale in a concrete and systematic way. There is much work left to do and has been since Mary Ellen Pitts first proposed a Wilberian hermeneutics (1990). Thanks to this more recent volume, the tasks that remain are much easier to delineate. This means it will be possible in the future to think in this space and produce work that is more rigorous and more integral than that which is worked out on Wilberian lines.

Spheres of Awareness, then, is to be appreciated as an opening to a conversation that must continue, in a way that is dialectical and not adversarial. I have included below an extensive bibliography that will be of use to scholars who would like to take up the challenge this text offers. This bibliography emphasizes the spaces in between those mapped out in the Lough & Herron text with an eye toward the problems identified above (beyond those texts readily available at IntegralWorld).


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