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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Gregory Desilet is author of various writings on language and culture, such as Cult of the Kill: Traditional Metaphysics of Rhetoric, Truth, and Violence in a Postmodern World and Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence. See also: www.gregorydesilet.com, which hosts an eulogy for Derrida. In his Misunderstanding Derrida Desilet questions Ken Wilber's understanding of postmodernism.
Wilber's Unhappy Marriage of Sense and Soul
In a recent email exchange with Frank Visser, Frank had occasion to cite a passage from Ken Wilber's response to critics, commonly referred to as “the Wyatt Earp blog”. For some time Frank and others have wondered about the extent to which one of Wilber's claims in this blog can be taken seriously. Here is the claim:
Not only did I grok what the postmodernists were saying, I have given, in dozens of writings, what numerous experts and specialists in the field (including experts on Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, among others) have called some of the best, and in a few instances, THE best, treatment of these topics. As only one example, the chapter on postmodernism in The Marriage of Sense and Soul one reviewer called “the best short introduction to postmodernism available.”
I've written on aspects of Wilber's understanding of postmodernism previously on Integral World, but I had not closely examined the broader claims he makes in The Marriage of Sense and Soul. So I thought I would take another look, offer some reactions, and see how these reactions fare in the community of the Integral World website. I invite comments and responses and will do my best to respond.
To begin, I'll cite an important relevant passage from The Marriage of Sense and Soul.
Postmodern philosophy is a complex cluster of notions that are defined almost entirely by what its proponents reject. They reject foundationalism, essentialism, and transcendentalism. They reject rationality, truth as correspondence, and representational knowledge. They reject grand narratives, metanarratives, and big pictures of any variety. They reject realism, final vocabularies, and canonical description.
Incoherent as the postmodern theories often sound (and often are), most of these “rejections” stem from three assumptions:
1. Reality is not in all ways pregiven, but in some significant ways is a construction, an interpretation (this view is often called “constructivism”); the belief that reality is simply given, and not also partly constructed, is referred to as “the myth of the given.”
2. Meaning is context-dependent, and contexts are boundless (this is often called “contextualism”).
3. Cognition must therefore privilege no single perspective (this is called “integral-aperspectival”).
I believe all three of those postmodern assumptions are quite accurate (and need to be honored and incorporated in any integral view). Moreover, each tells us something very important with regard to any conceivable integration of science and religion, and thus they need to be studied with care. But each of those assumptions has also been blown radically out of proportion by the extremist wing of postmodernism, and the result is a totally deconstructed world that takes the deconstructionists with it. (p. 120-121)
Wilber is right to say postmodernism is a complex cluster of notions. And in order to assess the accuracy of his “grok” on postmodernism it is helpful to decide HOW to assess what is primarily meant by the term. One way to do this is to look at those who have been lumped into the postmodern category (usually by virtue of some relatively clear break with what is regarded as “modernism”) and see what primary views they have in common. This is the approach Wilber takes. A competing approach, and the one I recommend, is to look at those who have been lumped into the postmodern category and see which view presents the most thoroughly worked out, philosophically defensible, consistently coherent, and therefore paradigmatic case of postmodernism. The commonality approach facilitates the possibilities for presenting a straw man version of postmodernism that may be more easily critiqued and misconceived. The paradigmatic approach takes the more thoroughly argued version of a philosophical stance and uses that as the target for evaluation, assessment, and critique. This approach provides greater assurances for avoiding the worst pitfalls of poking and prodding at straw men.
My personal journeys into theorists who have been labeled postmodern have resulted in finding substantial flaws and limitations in Nietzsche, Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Lacan, Delueze, Kristeva, Cixous, de Man, Rorty, and others. The only theorist considered postmodern who has been consistently challenging and persuasive, in my opinion, is Derrida. This makes sense when considering he never liked being labeled as postmodern. From his point of view, most so-called postmodernists were getting “it” (the question of being and related philosophical issues) wrong.
I hope to demonstrate that Wilber has missed, by a considerable margin, the most potent thrust of postmodern philosophy.
Considering that Ken Wilber, in the passage cited above, uses deconstruction as a term almost interchangeable with postmodernism, examining his statements about postmodernism in relation to Derrida's deconstruction seems fair. If Derrida is to be considered a postmodern theorist as Wilber suggests and if Derrida is taken as the paradigmatic instance of postmodern theory, as I suggest, then the question emerges: to what extent does Wilber's characterization of postmodernism provided above apply to deconstruction? And, on this basis, to what extent does Wilber's assessment of the core views of postmodernism reflect the postmodern philosophical position at its best? In other words, to what extent does Wilber understand the depth of the postmodern challenge to modernity? In answering these questions, I hope to demonstrate that Wilber has missed, by a considerable margin, the most potent thrust of postmodern philosophy.
Of course, another way of going about this might be to assert that Derrida does not belong in the category of postmodernism and that his deconstructive philosophy should be evaluated by itself. In this case, what Wilber says about postmodernism in the passage cited above may be viewed by many as substantially correct. But then Wilber would have to be called out for his wrongful inclusion of Derrida among postmodernists.
In any case, Wilber is either substantially confused about Derrida or substantially confused about what constitute the more significant aspects of postmodernism. Personally, I like labeling Derrida as postmodern, since deconstruction has risen to such cultural prominence around the world as the exemplary instance of postmodernism. Consistent with this, I prefer to view the other theorists named above as postmodern false starts, precursors, and/or lesser imitators.
Granting me these distinctions and provisions, what, in my view, is Wilber missing with regard to his characterizations of postmodernism/ deconstruction? There are many places to start, but the passage that caught my attention first appears in the section titled “Depth Takes a Vacation” in The Marriage of Sense and Soul:
In fact, most postmodernists would go to extraordinary lengths to deny depth in general. It is as if, suffering under the onslaught of flatland aggression, postmodernism identified with the aggressor. Postmodernism came to embrace surfaces, champion surfaces, glorify surfaces, and surfaces alone. There are only sliding chains of signifiers; everything is a material text; there is nothing under the surface; there is only surface. (p. 134)
To suppose deconstruction, either implicitly or explicitly, reduces everything to sliding chains of signifiers is to misunderstand one of the most central and important aspects of deconstruction. To do so collapses the distinction between signifier and signified. Derrida has consistently maintained throughout his writings the problematic nature of the signifier/signified relationwhich includes his assertion that neither side of this pair can or ought to be diminished or reduced to the other.
The philosopher who more precisely fits Wilber's description here is Wittgenstein. More than any other language philosopher of the past, Wittgenstein has made the strongest case for reducing language-using to the operations of sliding signifiers. For an extensive argument concerning this claim, see my essay on Integral World titled “Derrida and Wilber at the Crossroads of Metaphysics” in the section titled “Derrida and Wittgenstein: The Limits of Language and Science.” Wilber may be right to claim some postmodern philosophers lean too far in the Wittgensteinian directionreducing meaning to games of sliding chains of signifiersbut Derrida most definitely cannot be included in this group. Instead, Derrida makes a most persuasive case for understanding the impossibility of reducing language-usingas well as all manner of symbol-usingto merely the play of signifiers.
As only one example of the signifier/signified codependency, were it the case that signifiers alone ruled, irony, sarcasm, and pretending would be impossible. In most cases, as Derrida illustrates, signifiers alone will not enable people to determine with certainty whether someone is serious or not in a given statement. One must make assumptions about intention, about what is being signified. Even the broadening of context to include non-linguistic factors cannot assure intended meaning. This is not to say broadening context is not helpful. But it is essential to understand that even the combination of signifiers AND context cannot guarantee the elimination of ambiguity and a measure of undecidability. What may be signified always transcends and eludes the operations and arrangements of signifiers, according to Derrida.
As Derrida also demonstrates, this semiotic undecidability is true of every symbolic action, not just instances of irony and sarcasm (which are exemplary but not exclusive instances). If Wilber understands this about language, he surely glosses over it in his writings and fails to highlight it as one of the most important aspects of the postmodern/ deconstructive view of semiotics. Furthermore, when Wilber discusses and extols his Kosmic addressing system (as explained in Integral Spirituality) as a means of insuring communication, he provides convincing evidence that he not only fails to see Derrida's point but instead advances a very different assessment of the possibilities of language and sign systems. He passes over Derrida's point as if it had never been made. In doing so, one has to wonder whether Wilber has read and understood the substance of deconstruction as it has been laid out in Derrida's works such as Limited Inc. (which includes Derrida's exchanges with John Searle). Although I could be mistaken, I do not recall seeing references to Limited Inc. in any of Wilber's writings that I have read. If my memory is accurate, this is a major exclusion because Limited Inc., along with Of Grammatology, is one of Derrida's most extensive works on language and language theory.
Having mentioned the subject of context, it should be noted that Wilber is right to list context as one of the primary themes of postmodernism. However, he seems to confuse the roles context plays respectively in modernism and postmodernism.
Modernism, via structuralism, places emphasis on context (primarily linguistic context) as playing a primary role in determining meaning. In postmodernism, context remains very significant but definitely falls short of the role given it in modernism. Wilber is right to say that in postmodernism context is considered to be “boundless,” but he seems not to realizebased on his claims for the Kosmic addressing system discussed in Integral Spiritualitythat this entails that meaning is, as a result, always and necessarily uncertain.
When context is understood to have no boundary, as in postmodernism, all natural limits are erased, and every bounded context becomes artificial. Whether implicit or made explicit, a circumscribed context is an artifice, a feature of the imagination and its willingness to believe context can somehow be corralled for specified purposes. Derrida acknowledges language-users always impose an imaginative boundary around context and he agrees this can be more and less artfully done, but he also adds that this imposition is a process of pretending. Language-users pretend they can define a context for purposes of argument, demonstration, and communication, but these contexts shade into fuzziness when pressed and examined closely.
For example, in this piece of writing I can (and will) define what I think ought to count as the primary meaning of the term “postmodern,” but for others (and even for me) this definition will have loopholes around and through which considerable misunderstanding can arise and evolve. So contextualizing my use of the term “postmodern” through definition and through use in explicit forums (like philosophical discussion) will aid in the sense-making process but will not seal the deal beyond the potential for misunderstandings. These misunderstandings can be as grave as seeming contradictions of what I intend. Derrida's analysis of Plato's use of the term pharmakon provides one example of this ever-present potential for alternate readings in the use of termseven when great pains are taken to be careful and precise in use.
Here readers may throw up their hands and exclaim, “What use is there, then, bothering to use language at all?” In response to such exasperation Derrida insists instability in the process of meaning creation is not the same as chaos. And he even goes further, insisting that this instability in meaning is necessary in order to give rise to the potential to create meaning at all. The repeatability of a limited number of signs in different contexts is what makes language possible but it is also what makes language unresolvable to pure transparency. The desire for pure transparency is also the desire for the death of language and communication. This is news for Wilber since, given his Kosmic addressing aspirations which provide assurances for communication, it is obviously something he does not understand about deconstruction as Derrida articulates it.
The main reason Wilber wants to establish a transparent system of meaning... arises from the desirethe perceived needto avoid relativism.
The main reason Wilber wants to establish a transparent system of meaning such as his proposed Kosmic addressing arises from the desirethe perceived needto avoid relativismespecially the radical relativism of one interpretation counting as just as good as any other. Wilber accepts a version of this relativism in the notion of “integral-aperspectival” in the sense this term notes that one perspective is not to be privileged over another. Multi-perspectivism replaces mono-perspectivism where perspectives are regarded as merely different and not canceling or competitive. This view is consistent with what Wilber regards as the most singularly defining aspect of postmodernism: “interpretation is itself an intrinsic feature of the Kosmos,” He goes on to add, “And since the depth of the Kosmos goes 'all the way down,' then, as Heidegger famously put it, 'Interpretation goes all the way down.'”
In Wilber's view, interpretation is a function of the interior AQALthe left side of the quadrants and it is admirable he wants to maintain this interior “depth” in his model. Similarly, Derrida wants to maintain this “depth” in the signifier/signified relation, though Wilber does not recognize this element of Derrida's thinking. Wilber finds Derrida reducing the AQAL quadrants to the right sidea world of “sliding chains of material ITs.” This reductionism results in a kind of chaos Wilber describes in this way:
Under the intense gravity of flatland, integral-aperspectival awareness became simply aperspectival madnessthe contradictory belief that no belief is better than any othera total paralysis of thought, will, and action in the face of a million perspectives all given exactly the same depth, namely, zero. (p. 136)
Postmodernism then, according to Wilber, errs on the same side of the quadrants as scientismit reduces everything to a world of material objects whereby the interior realm of subjects is swept away as ultimately illusory or irrelevant. But this was never the case with deconstruction. As I have argued thus far, deconstruction retains the interior depths of both signifieds and subjects. But more than this, deconstruction shows why the relation between the left and right quadrants, the relation between subject and object and between signified and signifier, CANNOT be brought together in the kind of integral marriage Wilber envisions. Were that integration to occur, the entire Kosmos, as we experience and understand it, would cease to exist (in Derrida's view).
For Derrida, there must always be division in presence, in the “now,” in consciousness, in self-consciousness, and in every possible manifestation of being within what is called “reality” or, to use Wilber's term, Kosmos. This division, this difference in the very core of being, is necessary for there to be any “event,” any happening, any motion or change.
Every relation between being and being and between beings and being is both bridgeable and unbridgeablebridgeable because beings interact and unbridgeable because being cannot ultimately be selfsame or indivisible. If being were to be in any significant sense one or indivisible, there would be no interaction, no development, no process, no evolution, and no world that could be experienced or known. But the “bridgeable” nature of being-in-relation-to-being is not and can never be a relation or experience of pure understanding or translation, of one being or substance into another WITHOUT LOSS. This system of relation or exchange constitutes an entropic economy in which every relation or translation results in some manner of irretrievable loss. This loss holds true for every material relation as well as every interpretation, translation, and symbolization. The core of meaning cannot be penetrated or grasped any more than the core of matter. At least this is what is suggested in Derrida's deconstructive metaphysics.
Nevertheless, Wilber does not acknowledge or confront this postmodern/ deconstructive metaphysics or credit it with certain aspirationsaspirations in many respects similar to those he appears to want to theorize and accommodate. But by failing to confront deconstruction at the level of its orientation to semiotics, context, and interpretation (translation) he also fails to see the metaphysical depth to which it plunges. This is nowhere more evident than in Wilber's belief in the specific KIND of marriage of sense and soul he advocates.
Wilber misses what can be conceived of as the most defining aspect of postmodernism: its particular structuring of oppositional relations.
Derrida, as the preeminent postmodern, also believes in a kind of marriage of sense and soul, but his marriage does not traffic in terminology of absolute enlightenment, transcendence, or oneness found in Wilber's writings. For Derrida, there is “fillment” but never “FULfillment”; there is quasi-transcendence but never transcendence. The two sides of Wilber's quadrant will, for Derrida, always and forever be two sides touching but never merging to form a transcendental union. Unlike for Wilber, for Derrida, there is no “transcend and include” because every move toward transcendence yields an irretrievable loss that is NOT included. And this loss in many cases may be of great significance, though it may not be understood to be so at the time of the loss. Yet this is nothing to bemoan because without this circumstance no move toward transcendence would even be possible.
This “circumstance” precluding the transcendence Wilber advocates raises a final point to be made about Wilber's inadequate “grok” of the postmodern/ deconstructive orientation. Wilber misses what can be conceived of as the most defining aspect of postmodernism: its particular structuring of oppositional relations.
The paradigmatic postmodern structure of opposition consists of a relation in which one side never occurs without the other and neither side can be reduced to the other. This entails a “system” which may be perceived or theorized as “one” system yet it is a system in which a type of dualism is irreducible. It is the “one” that is also always “two” (or at least “two”). And this complementary or correlative oppositional tension is what I regard as the most defining aspect of any view that could properly be labeled “postmodern.”
This metaphysical “circumstance” renders invalid what Wilber claims is valid in this passage from the Wyatt Earp blog:
It is a completely valid argument for a developmentalist to point out . . . cross-level or paradigm-clash intractability. There is nothing that turquoise or indigo can ever say to green that will make it happy. Thus, the idea that, for example, turquoise is supposed to enter a “dialogue” with green is nonsensical, and nothing in that dialogue will change green's mind fundamentally (unless green transforms to turquoise). Turquoise can see green and its facts, but green cannot see turquoise and its facts, and thus this cross-level altitude problem jams any real dialogue in that capacityand yet all that green does is scream for dialogue, dialogue, dialogue…. which in these cases are empty, empty, empty. (Wyatt Earp blog)
This kind of poor reasoning concerning “development” underlies much of Wilber's argument in the famous “Wyatt Earp blog.” And it is used to justify an arrogance Derrida would find appalling. Wilber can dismiss this “dialogue” (read: attempts at criticism of his work) as “empty” because those who are attempting to engage him are simply working from a lower level and therefore cannot see what he sees at his qualitatively different transcendent level. This is very convenient for dismissing one's foes or apparent foes. But it functions more as a poor excuse for ignoring and disenfranchising the other rather than a justification or argument to be taken seriously.
Viewed from a deconstructive slant, such engagements may lead to “marriage” only when each side assumes at the outset they do not fully understand the other side. This kind of dialogic assumption, this openness to the other lacking in Wilber's approach, makes possible the kind of engagement that could yield better understanding. This process, of course, presents no guarantees for achieving improved understanding or improved relationship because there can be no guarantees for creating nor conclusive tests for confirming the bridging of the mystery of the other. But lack of guarantees presents no reason for refusing dialogic engagement or dismissing others because they are judged to be operating from a “lower level” of development. This strikes me as a kind of “rankism” analogous in many ways to racism. (For an excellent deconstruction of rank, see Robert W. Fuller's Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank).
Derrida's account of “hospitality” (in one of his later works) rests on his deconstructive views and provides the rationale for maintaining, always, an open door to the other that would preclude the kind of encompassing and appropriative attitude toward critics Wilber adopts in the Wyatt Earp blog. I know from my own experience Derrida lived up to his expressed view of hospitality. When we met, even though he was busy and knew nothing about me or who I was, he made time to see me and could not have been more gracious in dialogue (even when I offered criticisms). My experiences of Derrida and of Wilber (especially as evident in the Wyatt Earp blog) confirm my belief that deep metaphysical assumptions have consequences down to the surface of everyday encounters. For this reason, in addition to others, Wilber's inadequate “grokking” of postmodernism has consequences worthy of note for integral theorists.
 “What We Are, That We See. Part I: Response to Some Recent Criticism in a Wild West Fashion ”, June 08, 2006, http://www.kenwilber.com/blog/show/46. [See also: The Wild West Wilber Report, http://www.integralworld.net/visser15.html, FV]
 Gregory Desilet, “Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism: Ken Wilber and “Post-Metaphysics” Integral Spirituality”, http://www.integralworld.net/desilet.html
 Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, New York: Random House, 1998.