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

Wouter HanegraaffThis review of the original Dutch edition of my book Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion by Prof. Wouter Hanegraaff originally appeared in the Dutch magazine Hervormd Nederland (nr. 1/2, 12 januari 2002, p. 28-30) and was posted in the Dutch Section of this website. Wouter Hanegraaff is professor in the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of New Age Religion and Western Culture (Brill 1996; SUNY Press paperback edition 1998).

Hervormd Nederland, nr. 1/2, 12 januari 2002, p. 28-30.

“Everybody is right”

Frank Visser's Analysis of Ken Wilber

Wouter J. Hanegraaff

Ken Wilber is an unknown celebrity. This American autodidact, born in 1949, has currently published nineteen books on psychology and spirituality, which have been translated into more than twenty languages. At his 50th birthday, a beginning was made with the publication of The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, which now comprise eight voluminous tomes. Wilber's biographer and exegete Frank Visser comments that this makes him “the most translated American author of academic works”.

Nevertheless, Visser's study, written in Dutch, is internationally the first integral analysis of Wilber and his oeuvre, and was published by a non-academic publishing house [the US edition, however, was published by SUNY Press, FV]. In university circles, interest in Wilber is practically nil: 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.

While such a reaction is understandable enough, there are in fact arguments in favour 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?

Wilber's first manuscript, The Spectrum of Consciousness, was rejected by a large number of publishers; but when finally a Theosophical publishing house decided to publish it, it was an immediate success. Wilber's basic thesis was that human consciousness could be described as a spectrum consisting of a large number of layers, which corresponded with a spectrum of psychological schools and methodologies. Far from being mutually exclusive, these psychologies were seen as complementary: psychoanalysis is concerned with one layer of consciousness, behaviorism with another, and so on. And what is more, according to Wilber these layers of consciousness and their respective psychologies are ordered hierarchically: with regard to the “highest” stages of the development of consciousness, Western approaches are insufficient and we have to rely on methodologies that have been developed in Eastern traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism en Taoism. In short, Western psychology finds its culmination in Oriental mysticism.

However, having published The Spectrum of Consciousness, Wilber eventually concluded that something was “terribly wrong” with his theory. In his [third] book, The Atman Project, he transformed his rather static scheme into a dynamic model of the development of consciousness, and introduced a distinction between “prepersonal” and “transpersonal” states of consciousness that would become essential to his later work. He argued that psychologically regressive states are frequently confused with mystical consciousness, and admitted that in his first book, he had himself fallen into that trap. The mystic experiences “unity” (with God) because he has transcended his fragmented personal consciousness: his consciousness has become “trans”personal. The newborn baby, in contrast, may experience “unity” (with the mother) as well, but has not even reached personal consciousness yet: its consciousness is “pre”personal. According to Wilber, many manifestations of New Age, but also the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung, for example, are based on a “pre/trans confusion”: what is promoted as ultimate mysticism is in reality infantile regression.

As could be expected, such convictions have not always been well received by Wilber's “spiritual” audience, and this has made him a controversial figure even in New Age circles. What is more, in his later works he increasingly engaged in critical/rationalist polemics against the irrational and anti-intellectual tendencies in New Age circles, but without ever taking leave of his own mystical convictions. The intellectual stages of development through which Wilber has passed are described by himself as Wilber-1, Wilber-2, Wilber-3 and Wilber-4, and no doubt these will be followed by a Wilber-5 [a prophetic comment]. These developmental stages are characterized by an increasing emphasis on sociological and political perspectives, in which his enthusiasm for the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas should specifically be mentioned. Less explicit, but equally important, is Wilber's debt to German idealism. In his Up from Eden, he applied his model of the development of individual consciousness to the historical development of human consciousness as a whole, from prehistoric times up to the present; and although the name of Hegel is seldom mentioned, Wilber has acknowledged that “his [Hegel's] shadow falls on every page”.

In his eminently readable introduction to the life and work of Ken Wilber, Frank Visser relies not only on his published works, but on personal interviews as well. This is remarkable, because Wilber lives more or less like a hermit, and prefers to communicate with the outside world only through his books. Visser managed to become friends with Wilber and is therefore in a particularly good position both to describe and to critically evaluate the Wilber phenomenon. It seems to me he has succeeded very well in regard to the former, but more could have been expected from the latter, that is to say, the critical discussion.

In the final chapter of Visser's book Wilber is confronted, respectively, with modern cognitive science, orthodox academic psychology, the psychology of C.G. Jung, and the traditions of modern Theosophy and so-called “traditionalism” or perennialism. In fact, however, this chapter is not really a critical analysis of Wilber's ideas, but rather amounts to a demonstration of how the American succeeds in refuting all criticisms in a sovereign manner. In other words, Visser completely identifies with the perspective of his hero, so that his book culminates in an apology of Ken Wilber rather than a critical evaluation of his work.

Unfortunately Visser does not touch upon what is, at least in my opinion, the most fundamental problem with Wilber's approach. Wilber's system has a “totalitarian” character, in the sense that all existing psychological and religious perspectives are assigned their proper place within an all-encompassing metaphysical model. On page 270 Visser cites a long passage from volume VIII of the Collected Works, where Wilber states that he has only one rule: “Everybody is right”. With this he means that every perspective contains a certain, although limited, amount of truth: Wilber's goal is to demonstrate how all these limited truths mutually complement one another within one all-encompassing scheme. Thus Wilber can state that on his tomb stone, he would like to have the text “he was right, but one-sided”. This sounds sympathetic, and it must indeed be granted that Wilber's oeuvre is characterized by an ongoing process of critical self-reflection, in which earlier points of view are continually nuanced or revised.

Wilber does not speak with "the other", but only to him. "Everybody is right", for sure – but in the end it is Wilber who decides.

However, the biggest problem with Wilber's approach is that it leaves no possibility for a dialogue, based on equality, with those who have a different religious perspective. Wilber does not speak with “the other”, but only to him. “Everybody is right”, for sure – but in the end it is Wilber who decides to what extent one is right, and to what extent one is in error. All psychological and spiritual perspectives developed in the history of humanity are neatly assigned their proper place somewhere within a comprehensive hierarchy, but Wilber's own perspective is located at the very top of the pyramid or even beyond, and it is from that supreme position that the rules of the game are established. In my opinion, Frank Visser therefore errs in stating that Wilber cannot be accused of Western ethnocentrism. Visser in fact immediately refutes his own claim by adding that Wilber's framework “has room for the idiosyncracies of cultures and people, but only within the overarching context of a universal view of consciousness and its development” (p. 283). But what is it that gives Wilber the right to dismiss the idiosyncratic perspectives of those other cultures as mere “peculiarities”, which can be generously tolerated on the condition that they will be so kind as to conform themselves to Wilber's “universal” and therefore evidently superior point of view? The answer is clear: Wilber believes he has that right because his own perspective just happens to be the most correct and complete one of all.

Wilber should better start looking for another text for his tombstone. In a prepublication of his novel Boomeritis[1] (on the pathologies of his own baby-boomer generation), it is telling with how much venom he rallies, in an otherwise fascinating and sometimes impressive chapter about the attack on the World Trade Center, against the cultural relativism of postmodernists and deconstructivists: he even goes as far as to hold them morally responsible for the catastrophe. My criticism of Wilber's approach, as formulated above, concerns a point which is conveniently but significantly left out of his anti-postmodernist polemic: the fact that he never really seems to talk with “the other”, but always about him. It is significant that the above-mentioned chapter consists of a group discussion among people who, from the outset, already agree with the foundations of Wilber's perspective, and then proceed to evaluate and classify the perspectives of all other parties according to his hierarchy of levels of development.

A certain lack of critical distance notwithstanding, Frank Visser's book can be warmly recommended to all those who want to familiarize themselves with Wilber's intellectual world. One need not agree with blurbs on the back cover, according to which Wilber is “the long-sought Einstein of Consciousness research”, to recognize that this passionate thinker deserves to be taken more seriously than he has been so far. Wilber believes that religion can only be understood by taking a religious point of view onself, and that premise does make his theoretical edifice incompatible with the very foundations of critical academic research. But given the quality of that edifice, he deserves at least a place in the pantheon of famous 20th century psychologists and scholars of religion (one is reminded of Carl Gustav Jung, Rudolf Otto or Mircea Eliade) who shared that same opinion and are nevertheless still objects of intense discussion.


[1] K. Wilber, The Deconstruction of the World Trade Center: A Date That Will Live in a Sliding Chain of Signifiers,, November 2001.

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